The Trouble With Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time by Brooke Gladstone
by Brooke Gladstone, Workman Publishing, 92 pages
Really, Brooke Gladstone? Will your little book, as you suggest on its first page, help us deal with the current collapse of reality and reduce what USA
Today called, on June 30, angst and rising anxiety among Americans? You describe what we’re feeling as “that terrible pressure” that comes from the fact that “reality itself is engaged in an epic existential battle.” You describe that pressure as an “intimate violation” and a “forced entry,” “an icy hand [that] grips your viscera; sometimes squeezing, sometimes easing, always present.” You’re not making us feel better with this kind of talk. You say our unease will ebb after we read The Trouble With Reality ,a book that dares to use the word “rumination” in its subtitle. I’ve finished it and am still waiting for the tide to change. The book is like a recreational drug. It offers distraction and entertainment — about an hour’s worth — from the existential crisis you describe in such stomach-turning terms. Then it’s back to abnormal.
Gladstone, co-host of New York City public-radio station WNYC’s On the Media, has given herself an impossible task. She admits “that terrible pressure” will never go completely away. She starts her discussion by discarding prevailing notions of reality. Reality, she writes, exists beyond our perceptions. Think of a dog’s nose and a rabbit’s ears; they sense worlds we can’t imagine. If reality is only what can be seen, felt, smelled, or tasted, she asks, are electrons or the phantom arms of amputees not part of reality? And just because a majority of people believe this or that to be true doesn’t make it so. Her point is that truth itself can’t be trusted, let alone understood by polling. Facts are not the solid building blocks of reality. They are more liquid and constantly being filtered through our minds. That filtering, Gladstone declares, makes reality personal.
How do we cope with lies? Politicians, advertisers, and public-relations hacks have conditioned us to lies. A lifetime’s exposure to denials, sales pitches, and other truth-twisters has led us to believe that falsehoods are the norm. Today, no fact goes unchallenged. Richard Pryor’s twist on the old Marx Brothers line — “Who you gonna believe? Me or your lying eyes?” — captures this chronic sense of doubt. Truth is a perpetual question mark and, as Gladstone declares, “more slippery than a pocketful of pudding.” Even if we’ve never experienced a pocketful of pudding, we don’t doubt it’s a slippery thing. In other words, we don’t have to know something to know if it’s true. Truth can be defined by what it is not. So is knowing what’s true the same pocketful of pudding?
Gladstone draws from experts in manufactured reality, including paranoia-haunted futurist Philip K. Dick, and, surprisingly, James Fenimore Cooper, who saw the press as “the great agent of mischief.” Journalist and social critic Walter Lippmann’s insights into the lie of stereotypes offer a measure of sad sanity. George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, those great seers of social control — and isn’t that the point of all this lying? — are paraphrased in the words of critic Neil Postman (author of Amusing
Ourselves to Death), who contrasts their dystopian philosophies. In Orwell’s vision, Postman notes, “we are crushed by a merciless oppression imposed by others, whereas in Huxley’s vision, we are seduced, sedated, and satiated. We enslave ourselves.” Gladstone calls out John Milton and Thomas Jefferson, among others, who she sees as declaring that the truth will eventually triumph. “Oh, come on,” she writes.
It doesn’t take Gladstone long to introduce our current president, and it comes in a chapter devoted to how we learn what’s going on “out there,” whether the source is the press, social media, or casual conversation. Her mention of the “Trump fog machine” squarely places the blame of this reality obscuring on Trump and his administration. Her discussion of Hannah Arendt’s study of Nazis and Soviets, The Origins of Totalitarianism, suggest its consequences. The chapter “Lying Is the Point” says the point is to obscure the truth and confuse those who seek to hold it.
This studied and smoothly written little book offers little solace. If anything, our tide of angst at its conclusion is higher than when we first waded into its pages. Gladstone leaves us with disturbing points. Democracy can only exist behind a shared reality, she suggests. As that reality is shattered, so is democracy. Then there’s a John Adams quote, from a letter to Virginia politician John Taylor: “Remember Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes exhausts and murders itself.” Isn’t that exactly what we’re all afraid of? As a remedy to moral panic, Gladstone prescribes meaningful action, like calling your members of Congress. We did that. It didn’t work.