The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time (Workman, 2017) is by Brooke Gladstone, co-host of a syndicated radio program, “On the Media,” that I occasionally hear on my NPR station. The book is small, 91 pages with sources, published as a chapbook-sized paperback. It overlaps Kakutani’s book in some of its themes and its occasional references to science fiction – which, of course, is frequently concerned with the nature of reality.


Asking the existential question, what is reality?, she quotes PKD: “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” P3. Note that PKD quote goes on, about he creates fake realities for a living, and about how society today creates fake realities and fake people.

Fake reality begins in the head. It is your umwelt, what the individual perceives, a small subset of the world, the bigger reality of which is called the ungebung, p6.

We necessarily live in a world guided by stereotypes, including the one about progress; an attack on them shakes the foundations of our world. William James describes how accommodating a new idea is done as minimally as possible. How the brain reacts. Le Guin quote: learn which questions are unanswerable, and don’t answer them. Defer judgment.

P19, Neil Postman’s book, and his contrast of Orwell and Huxley [also cited by Kakutani]. Orwell seemed spot on; but Huxley seems to have prevailed. Milton thought truth would prevail; thus Jefferson and the 1st amendment, the idea that the press could provide enough information; but later James Fenimore Cooper found the press to be about making mischief.

There are four criteria for a demagogue: they pose as a mirror for the masses; they ignite waves of emotion; they use that for political gain; they break the rules that govern us. P27. Trump wrote as much in The Art of the Deal. Trump didn’t seem to qualify, until he ran for president, mirroring the masses and breaking the rules.

Was his rise a conspiracy, by the Russians? While conservatives are usually more inclined toward conspiracy theories, liberals seem more inclined to believe the Russia story. Trump presented that mirror, to make America great again, rousing emotion, and demonizing various groups. He flouted the law, and common values. Those values included the idea that most citizens participate; that those who are indifferent don’t matter, the lumpen.

Trump’s values are that nonwhite and non-Christians are the chief threats to law and order. [Despite the evidence that majority of attacks in the past couple decades in the US are by far-right white men.] And so he struck a bargain to his supporters: he would lead them, and they would believe whatever he would say.

P47, Lying is the point. The barrage of lies; both Trump and Putin. Steven Bannon understood. Without a consensus about facts, politics is a raw power struggle between the weak and the strong. Thus Trump discounts all facts, the investigations, the media. The war on media, the ‘enemy of the people’. Negative news is fake news. His epithets against his rivals.

–So, how is reality recovered? P60. Self-deception will undermine him. The press erred in not taking him seriously. The old scripts for political news, e.g. that in return for quotes the press would omit certain juicy facts, vanished. But the press is recovering. George Lakoff describes the taxonomy of Trump Tweets: preemptive framing; diversion; trial balloon; deflection. The solution is not to dwell on them.

And so what do we do. Protests are good, but don’t answer the question.

Author indulges in a long description of Gulliver and his interactions with the Laputans and the Houyhnhnms.

Author claims that her facts reflect the world as it is; Trump’s do not; and author cannot conceive of his world. But we admit that our facts are incomplete. We only know our own facts. Facts are real and will reassert themselves eventually. The real world will catch up with us. Even if we cannot see that real world.

And so we might try to see the reality in that other person’s eyes. And that begins the end of our reality problem.


Thus ends my summary; the book gets a little vague at the end. I would characterize it as: recognize that none of us knows all the facts, and so we can’t apprehend complete reality; but that there is a reality out there, which will catch up with us, especially those whose ‘facts’ belie reality.

And I reflect that there is apparently *always* a portion of the public inclined to follow demagogues, the portion given to group/cult thinking, a portion that always exists within the range of human personality types and moral tendencies. I read recently how even when Joseph McCarthy was defeated and humiliated, some 30% of the public still supported him. And some will always support Trump. This aligns with the famous quote, “you can fool some of the people all of the time…” But perhaps it’s simply not about alliance to reality; it’s human nature to function within a bubble, to align with one’s group or community, which as long as it survives, is indifferent to reality. Until it bites back and kills them.

Again, politics is mostly about struggles between rival groups, and rarely is about response to reality.

And the swings between which faction is in charge from year to year may be due to random circumstances. It’s likely never, as winners like to claim, because the populace has endorsed the winner’s agenda.

Still, there is an arc to history, — evidently. The evidence is there.

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