“The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time”
Author: Brooke Gladstone
Publisher: Workman Publishing
Brooke Gladstone, as National Public Radio listeners know, is the co-host, with Bob Garfield, of “On the Media.”
On that show, the hosts give some news, but more often, talk with journalists and others who discuss how the news is gathered, sorted, delivered. What methods are changing? Is the media doing its best? What aspects of media need improving? What sources are trustworthy?
This is never as easy as it looks. Even when all the “facts” are true, we each arrange them in our minds to make “reality.” Reality, like beauty, is somewhat subjective, and personal, and always has been.
But there are limits.
In her powerful little pamphlet, Gladstone begins by quoting the master alternate-reality maker, science fiction writer Philip K. Dick: “spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups” and “Fake realities will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake realities and then sell them to other humans, turning them, eventually, into forgeries of themselves…it is just a very large version of Disneyland.”
We each generate our own reality, Gladstone says, and in doing so depend too heavily on the shorthand of stereotypes. We take in one detail about a person or a group and think we know them. We accept alternate interpretations of events only with great reluctance, and slowly.
Discussing our present day “media diet,” Gladstone refers to Neil Postman’s discussion of the dystopias “1984” and “Brave New World.”
We had feared Orwell was correct: fascism would ban books, conceal the truth, inflict pain on dissenters. It turns out, perhaps, Huxley in “Brave New World” was more correct. We are struggling in a flood of information, seduced and sedated, truth drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
Distressingly, Gladstone insists that despite the assurances of Thomas Jefferson and John Milton, in an open society, where truth and falsehood are both produced freely, truth will not necessarily win out. We mostly welcome information we agree with and reject information we don’t like.
Much of the above has been the case for decades, but the present moment is a particularly dangerous one, Gladstone argues. Her book turns specifically to a discussion of President Donald Trump.
His campaign rhetoric, she asserts, “pumped out endless streams of comedy and melodrama, apocalypse and deliverance, bitterness and bullxxxx.”
Media, and newspapers in particular, had been hurting financially and the Trump campaign was a bonanza: interview candidate Trump, don’t take him seriously, sell papers, get more advertising. Thus media, without meaning to, gave Donald Trump free publicity that probably helped him get elected.
Now, Gladstone argues, using the four criteria set out originally by none other than James Fenimore Cooper in his nonfiction book “The American Democrat,” we have elected a demagogue: the demagogue will “pose as a mirror for the masses; ignite waves of intense emotion; use that emotion for political gain; and break the rules that govern us.”
Gladstone takes up each element and concludes it is so.
Perhaps even more disturbing is her discussion of the psychology of partisanship. We easily believe utterances by those we support, and when a lie by one we admire is uncovered, we do not roar in horror; we pretend we were always in on the joke, never really believed it. Polls we don’t like are “fake polls.”
In the public sphere, however, lies and epithets, repeated often enough, tend to stick and become “truth.” Call someone “Crooked Hillary,” or “Little Marco,” she says, or denounce an institution relentlessly as “The failing New York Times” and, “like musical earworms, they carve pathways in the brain. They take up residence, breed associations, breed doubt.”
How to counter this assault on reality?
Surprisingly, in countering the demagogue, humor does not work. Gladstone quotes “On the Media” guest Michael Signer: “When you lampoon him, or when you satirize him, or when you call him a clown or a carnival barker, none of that matters because they’re showmen, and they …connect with people in a way that ordinary mortals do not…. “
There is no easy solution to our “rage, bafflement and despair.” First, Gladstone suggests, recognize the problem. Then, take “the considerable trouble and time required to venture forth, to protest, to doubt, to listen, to change others, or to be changed.”
With mild optimism, Gladstone says, “Facts are real and will reassert themselves eventually.”
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.