Realrhetorik for chicken liberals: Michiko Kakutani and the politics of reality

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I don’t like reality TV. Compared with its more artful alternatives, reality TV gives me little to work with, little I can use to change myself or change the world. It is, in short, bad art. Sure: these views probably make me an elitist. Michiko Kakutani, a respected book critic for The New York Times, doesn’t like reality TV either, but her reasons have little to do with elitism. Unsurprisingly, they have to do with a book. Surprisingly, they lend indirect support to conservative arguments on progressive policy issues like abortion, stem-cell research, and gay marriage.

In a January 17, 2006, Times article entitled “Bending the Truth in a Million Little Ways,” Kakutani addresses the controversy surrounding author James Frey, who “wholly fabricated or widely embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms and status as an outlaw” in his best-selling, Oprah-endorsed memoir A Million Little Pieces. Kakutani sees Frey’s willingness to pass off fiction as reality representing “the logical if absurd culmination of several trends that have been percolating away for years”—trends that are, Kakutani tells us, largely the product of academics “questioning the very nature of reality.” Kakutani refers here to the rise, in the past fifty years or so, of various forms of deconstruction—ways of reading that, as theorist Ross Murfin puts it, “simply want to make [this] point: that texts can be used to support seemingly irreconcilable positions.”

This point bothers Kakutani a good deal. In her mind, the notion that there can be multiple, equally valid readings of a text leads naturally to the notion that there can be multiple, equally valid readings of “reality.” To illustrate her point, she ties deconstruction to reality TV. Kakutani doesn’t like reality TV because it isn’t real. Because reality TV, like all TV, is “staged or stage-managed”—and thus inherently a non-real representation—Kakutani sees it as a symptom of our “relativistic culture.” In calling itself “real,” reality TV works with countless other cultural solecisms—“virtual reality,” “creative nonfiction,” etc.—to distort reality.

Kakutani thinks Frey has done much the same thing. She’s peeved by Frey’s deviation from the events of his life because she sees this deviation as a “petty” manifestation of the “postmodernist” tendency to be “imaginative, inventive or creative, instead of accurate and knowledgeable.” She is not upset—or she is at least far less upset—however, that Frey violated the implicit contract a memoirist enters into with his readers to authentically portray the happenings of his life. This is an important distinction: one rendering has Frey betraying an abstract notion of “reality”; the other has him betraying the trust of tangible, thinking, feeling people. Kakutani seemingly cares more about the betrayal of the abstraction. It is true and it is a serious problem that Frey lied; but not because his actions offend some universal norm or contradict “reality.” It’s a problem because Frey, as a human being, shouldn’t want to mislead other human beings. We don’t need anything as grandiose as Kakutani’s lament over the death of the real to have a legitimate beef with Frey. Her lament is unnecessary rhetoric, and it borders on grandstanding.

It’s also dangerous to our ability to effectively address progressive policy issues. Sadly, Kakutani is not alone in anchoring discussions that should be focused on people with rhetorical abstractions like “reality.” Her rhetorical tactics here share much with those used by the religious right. Take the abortion and gay marriage debates—both of which the religious right fights by deploying abstractions that simplify and sanctify rather than interrogate or illuminate. The abortion debate and its recent, even more nuanced offshoot, the debate over stem-cell research, is about “life”; forget that no one can agree on when life begins—and thus on what “life” means. (The degree to which the conservative position on abortion is essentially abstract is reflected in a bumper sticker that is popular in my home state of Missouri; it reads, in its entirety, “VOTE LIFE GOD.” Is this a message from God? A threat? A word-association game?) The gay marriage debate, similarly, is about the “sanctity” of marriage. To speak about a thing’s “sanctity” implies that there’s some sort of consensus on what the thing is to begin with. But this debate is a product of that lack of consensus—defining marriage is the ball game—so what is “sanctified” here is not marriage, but the right’s discriminatory idea of marriage. “Sanctity” here is a rhetorical tool that allows the right to cast its particular conclusion—that marriage must be between a man and a woman—as a universal premise. The conservative stances in these debates don’t engage with complexity; they mask complexity with meaningless abstraction.

Just as Frey’s transgression is not against “reality,” abortion and gay marriage aren’t only about “life” or “sanctity.” They are to some extent, if only because those are the terms in which they’re talked about. But they’re also about women who fear losing the ability to support themselves in an effort to support unborn children; and about couples whose love for one another is great enough that they’re willing to weather ignorance and bigotry to have that love publicly recognized. Allowing these tangible, human problems to be relegated to abstract terms makes the fights of those women and those couples far more difficult. If we want to win these fights, we can and must do better than “reality” and its wily cousins.

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“Kakutani is a profoundly uninteresting critic,” says Ben Yagoda. “Her main weakness is her evaluation fixation…. [W]hether a work is good or bad is just one of the many things to be said about it, and usually far from the most important or compelling.”

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To be fair, Kakutani is not by any means in league with the right. Indeed, she ties Frey’s dirty doings to those of the Bush Administration, which, she says, uses “radically postmodern” “arguments to try to discredit the mainstream press and its watch-dog role”; she is consistently and virulently hostile toward conservative obfuscations. And she would almost surely disagree with my characterization of her rhetoric. After all, she’s not alone on the left in her commitment to the abstract. Many centrist liberals, especially in red and evangelical swing states, survive as liberals only by committing themselves to abstractions—“God,” “life,” “freedom,” etc.—that are usually, at least in the minds of cynical liberals, associated with the right; and on the far left, similar commitments are made to “social justice” and “human rights.” Indeed, most politicians must adopt such abstractions as watchwords simply to remain viable as politicians. Nonetheless, as a chief critic for the left-leaning Times and the critic who is perhaps most read by the average educated American, Kakutani is highly influential liberal voice; and, in fashioning herself defender of the embattled “real,” she styles herself a liberal Chicken Little—in a time when we can’t afford to have anyone running around squawking about the sky falling. Kakutani’s clucking tacitly lends authority to the squirmy, solid-sounding abstractions of the right.

Unlike Kakutani, I’ve never quite understood what “the very nature of reality” is, at least not well enough to talk about it in earnest. What is real to me are the emotions, ambitions, and conditions of life, all of which good fiction is expected to capture. Perhaps Frey’s book accomplishes this, perhaps it doesn’t; I don’t know, I haven’t read it. In either case, I think Kakutani is right to frame Frey’s fictional memoir as reality TV in print. But to spurn it for that reason is silly.

To borrow from The OC’s Seth Cohen (when asked about a reality TV version of The OC that takes place within the workd of The OC): I’d much rather watch “the angst of fictional characters” than watch “real people in contrived situations”—not because of any disjuncture between the “real” people and the “contrived” situations, but because reality TV’s situations tend to be poorly contrived. This means that reality TV is bad because I don’t like it, not because it erodes reality. It means that someone else can like reality TV and not be wrong. It means that there are more ways than one to read reality TV, and—because reality TV is real, right?—that there are more ways than one to read reality. To embrace this ambiguity and subscribe to a certain reading is to make a substantive, refutable claim and to take responsibility for that claim; it is to toss the rhetorical crutch of reality into the bushes. Whichever readings we choose, we must recognize that reality, in politics and elsewhere, often operates primarily as rhetoric, and that it is powerful as rhetoric precisely because it obscures the subjects it purports to clarify.

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This piece was initially published, in a slightly different form, in the September 2006 issue of The Stanford Progressive. After receiving some constructive criticism, I’m not sure Kakutani’s attack on Frey was the best choice for illustrating my point about reality operating primarily as rhetoric. But the point itself I unequivocally stand by.

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