Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Unreality-based Community

I recently read The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time (Workman, 2017), by Brooke Gladstone, the co-host of an NPR program called On the Media.  The portentous title fooled me, to my discredit, but once I read a few pages of this short book I realized it was symptomatic of the present state of American political discourse.  Also of every past state of American political discourse.  Gladstone drops a lot of impressive names (Thomas Szasz in the book's epigraph, Philip K. Dick, Arthur Schopenhauer, Walter Lippmann, Hannah Arendt, and -- course -- George Orwell) and indulges in professionally overwrought rhetoric ("moral panic" in the title; Dick was "America's most determined architect and annihilator of reality", [3]) that she seems not to understand very well.  (She uses the term "moral panic" exactly once, near the end of the book, without context or evident meaning.)  So, for example, she quotes a 1978 speech by Dick:
"... because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups ..."
And, he might have added, by science-fiction writers turned gurus. "Today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured"?  When didn't we live in such a society?  Besides, "spurious realities" is at best an oxymoron: if it's spurious, then it's not reality.  This is a hustler playing a shell game.
"Very sophisticated people are using very sophisticated electric mechanisms.  I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power.  They have a lot of it.  And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind.  I ought to know. ... It is my job to create universes. ... And I have to build them in such a way that they do not fall apart two days later.

"... And in there somewhere is the other topic, the definition of the authentic human.  Because the bombardment of pseudo-realities begins to produce inauthentic humans very quickly -- as fake as the data pressing at them from all sides.  Fake realities will create fake humans. ... It's just a very large version of Disneyland [3-4]."
Dick claimed that his novels and stories "asked the question 'What is reality?'" All he could come up with was "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."  But, Gladstone says, "he knew we urgently needed a better answer", though I don't see what's wrong with that one.  Dick confused the issue by equivocating between the "reality" that "doesn't go away" and the "spurious realities" that he and other "very sophisticated people" invented; but since human beings only have direct access to the inventions, we do have a problem.

Gladstone then declares:
What Dick saw forty years ago many of us see now, at least of those whose reality embodies liberal values [4].
Later in her book, Gladstone gestures at conspiracy theories, citing research which found that "conservatives [were] more likely than liberals to believe conspiracy theories, especially apocalyptic ones" (31).  It says something that she begins her book by declaring allegiance to an apocalyptic conspiracy theory.

She then unreels a breezy survey of the failings of the media, as if she weren't part of the media herself, and starts explaining how The Demagogue Trump did his wicked work.
Which explains why so many of the rest of us [that is, Not-Trump-Supporters] are still reeling.  We also knew the system was rigged.  But once the bad behavior was exposed, the guilty were supposed to pay the consequences, at least in the court of public opinion.  That Trump's misconduct actually would help vault him to the White House was inconceivable [40; link added by me]
And no, she doesn't seem to recognize the irony in her use of that word.  I admit when she invokes the fantasy that "the guilty were supposed to pay the consequences," it's as a "stereotype" that "those whose reality embodies liberal values" clung to in the face of disconfirming evidence, though I don't think she wants to recognize that American political, business and media elites almost never do pay the consequences.  And then she says that Trump's "system clearly was unmoored to facts" (44)..

Even as an anti-Trump jeremiad, The Trouble with Reality is a failure.  Gladstone skims over the weighty history and political theory she discusses, getting them wrong most of the time.  She misses the import of much of it, for example:
"Oddly enough, the only person likely to be an ideal victim of complete manipulation is the President of the United States," said Arendt.

"Because of the immensity of his job, he must surround himself with advisers ... who exercise their power chiefly by filtering the information that reaches the President and by interpreting the outside world for him" [61].
Gladstone applies this to Trump, which is fair, though I wonder if (say) President Obama spent as much time actually watching Fox News, CNN, and other media as Trump seems to.  It also appears that he watches them as most people do, inattentively, only perking up when a buzzword gets his attention, and he doesn't bother to make sure that what he thinks he heard was what was said.  It's not as if he was any better-informed before he went into politics.  He also, as we've seen repeatedly, bullies and fires his advisors when they don't tell him what he wants to hear.  But the point is that Arendt was not talking about Trump; she was talking about all US Presidents.  The quotation appears to come from a 1978 interview with Arendt published in the New York Review of Books, so she most likely had Richard Nixon chiefly in mind.  Barack Obama also entered a bubble when he moved into the White House.  Remember when he jumped to the conclusion that the Supreme Court had overturned the Affordable Care Act, because CNN (and other media) mistakenly said so?

All of Gladstone's polemic is directed at Trump and his reality-challenged base, but her book is clearly written for a liberal-Democrat, NPR and PBS-supporting readership.  Few of them need to be told that Trump is a very bad man, the worst, a big-league demagogue who will destroy democracy if he isn't stopped, who became President because his conspiracy-theory-loving base were (willingly, don't let them off the hook) fooled by his propaganda.  Gladstone's intended readers are in no danger of being fooled by him.  But she betrays no awareness that her discussion of American politics also applies to the Democratic leadership; even when she cites a nineteenth-century critic of the press like James Fenimore Cooper, she does so because of his "eerie prescience" (39), not because his complaints show that the abuses he identified go back to (or even before) the beginning of the Republic.  In short, Gladstone is preaching to the choir, flattering and stroking their fears and prejudices, while believing that she's taking a courageous stand for Truth, Justice, and the American way.

Imagine -- well, you probably don't have to imagine -- that some Fox News personality wrote a book about the peril demagoguery poses to America, citing the same authorities Gladstone does, warning his or her readers not to be fooled by Barack Obama's or Hillary Clinton's manipulations, propaganda, and doggone-it undermining of reality.  Some, even most of their criticisms of the Adversary might well be justified, though that's purely optional.  But like Gladstone, they would never think of turning their analytical gaze on their own side.