Sunday, July 09, 2017

Reality through a mirror, darkly

Brooke Gladstone, co-host of the On the Media radio show and podcast, was just as gobsmacked as any of us by the Cheato's electoral victory in November. She wanted to delve into what made such a perverse result possible -- so she spent the first few months of 2017 writing a small book (or longish essay), The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time.

If you are an OTM listener (and you should be), you can almost hear Gladstone declaiming her disgust, her puzzlement (she's good at puzzlement) and her erudition in these slight pages. In this book she does not tackle the almost over-covered alienation of older, poor white America from our democracy; she was well versed in that horror story through a series on entrenched rural poverty she broadcast in the months before the election. Rather, she wants to know what it is about us as human animals in society that makes us marks for a demagogic con man. She essentially concludes, after a quick tour through the insights of such pop social science luminaries as George Layoff and Drew Westen, that just about all of us are natural suckers, at least some of the time.

Michael Signer, author of Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies wrote that true demagogues must meet four criteria ...: They must 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. Enter Donald Trump, gasbag billionaire, reality-TV hotshot, invincible ratings rocket. Stressed by shrunken audiences and revenue, the media are willing marks for a candidate their own pundits variously describe as a “carnival barker,” a “crackpot,” “the biggest goofball ever to enter the Oval Office Sweepstakes,” and a “tire fire in an expensive suit.”

... Trump’s mirror did not present a pretty picture, but to those who saw themselves reflected there, it offered the deep relief of validation. It was a mirror reflecting loss, righteous anger, and future redemption.

... Trump’s rhetoric underscored what his supporters already believed: that the politicians, professors, scientists, and coastal elites who wept great salt tears over immigrants and minorities didn’t care about, didn’t see, the coming catastrophe.

Trump saw....

Since Gladstone's beat is the media, she is hard on her own profession: economic incentives made (and make) Trump the most efficacious, profitable click bait to come along since the digital revolution; how could the media resist giving him a dominating podium from which to perform his lying show? Media have to make money, even if parts of these outlets also aspire to professional journalistic credibility.

Gladstone observes:

... The sheer abundance of lies demonstrates, again and again, that facts are disposable, confusing devices that do not serve you, that do not matter. ... This fantastical world of unkillable lies and impotent truths arose because much of the country had accepted Trump’s deal: Believe what he says, or don’t and assume with a wink and a nod that you are in on the joke.

... As of this writing, ... investigations may well prove the most effective weapon; but for Trump, who reflexively attacks any democratic institution that criticizes or constrains him, the leaks are more infuriating. They threaten his most crucial power source: public opinion. Lose that, and he deflates faster than a balloon in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

So he dominates the ether to ensure that thorny facts find no purchase there. And if he can neutralize one institution in particular, an institution that is not an institution, the rest of the resistance can probably be managed.

Clearly, the press is vulnerable. ...

Interestingly, to me, this essay is surprisingly hopeful that we needn't be mired in the current slough of deceit and despond forever.

American history is pocked with ferment, battles, and brawls over what is true. But at this moment, the nation seems to be waging civil war over reality itself. It is thrilling to watch, and tough to sit out, because the stakes are so high. But how will it end? [The German emigre philosopher of the 20th century Hannah] Arendt suggests that demagogues have a fatal vulnerability: “The deceivers started with self-deception.” ...

During the Bush II regime, our imperial dreamers insisted, when we act, we create our own reality ... They acted, they invaded Iraq because they wanted to, and reality has been biting us, and even more the peoples of the Greater Middle East, ever since. People eventually notice when they keep painfully stubbing their toes! But turning the ship of state is hard work as a president elected to do just that found out.

Gladstone wants us to avoid facile confidence that truth wins out. We all have to train ourselves to get better at discerning reality among emotional and intellectual prompts from both foes and friends.

Meaningful action is a time-tested treatment for moral panic. …But activism alone does not address the bigger issue, the focus of this tract. You cannot march to a long-term solution to your reality problem with a cadre of like-minded allies. That is a solitary journey, and it never ends. You have to travel out of your universe into the universe of others, and leave your old map at home. ...

... Personally, I wouldn’t blame you, whatever you choose to do or not do. It is possible that, after just a few bad years, all this horror, the terrible mystery of it, will slowly sink beneath our carefully curated horizons from whence it came. But we can’t simply retreat back into our own realities after what we’ve seen.

Though we are quite adept at not seeing, unseeing is an altogether different matter. We experienced reality crash. Now our reality is going to need some tweaking.

Facts are real and will reassert themselves eventually. In order to repair our reality, we need more of them, from people and places we do not see.

Gladstone's essay reminds me that I should do an update on my perennial subject: media consumption diet. Since the Trump election, like many others, I've become more willing to pay for online news sources, adding subscriptions to the Washington Post and the Guardian to my usual menu. Will this omnivorous media consumption endure? I don't know. For the moment, I can afford it. There's more to read than I choose to consume daily.

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