The Trou­ble With Re­al­ity: A Ru­mi­na­tion on Moral Panic in Our Time by Brooke Glad­stone

by Brooke Glad­stone, Work­man Pub­lish­ing, 92 pages

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Bill Kohlhaase not

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.

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