Book Review: The Trouble with Reality by Brooke Gladstone

It will be easy for Trumpists and conservatives to ignore Brooke Gladstone’s new book. Not only is she a member of the mainstream media, she’s spent the last 30 years working for two bastions of biased liberal media, WNYC and NPR. They’ll justify their dismissal of the book with fleeting perusals, its reviews or perhaps the subtitle. And even if they took the time to read it, they’ll dislike it because it invokes writers such as Hannah Arendt and discussions of demagogues, totalitarianism and authoritarianism. Yet such a lapse is indicative of what she believes is happening today.

The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time is a succinct consideration of an era in which reality is the core of an “epic existential battle.” In assessing why this battle exists, Gladstone doesn’t lay blame entirely at the feet of Trump and his supporters (although they are assigned plenty). She builds her analysis using diverse sources, including Arendt, philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, journalist Walter Lippmann, Thomas Jefferson, Philip K. Dick, Oliver Swift and 17th century poet John Milton. She believes human nature helped create our confused reality.

We mistakenly believe facts are reality, she says. Even when two people are presented with the same facts, though, they filter, arrange, prioritize and view them through their own values and traditions. Ultimately, reality “is not necessarily the world we would like it to be, … it is simply the kind of world we expect it to be.” Yet another part of the problem is that just as we sift facts, other elements of our political system affect what we sift.

As part of career spent covering the media, Gladstone has spent nearly 20 years co-hosting On The Media for years, a weekly radio program billed as examining how the “shapes our world view.” In the last election, the media fell victim to what she calls Trump’s “canny use of the demagogue’s playbook.” Using a number of Trump’s campaign statements and an analyzing his use of Twitter to “embed his realities,” The Trouble with Reality suggests the media’s approach to an unprecedented campaign style made things worse. Gladstone argues that the Trump campaign’s methods left the media “darting this way and that after shiny objects, too frantic to cull the crucial from the trivial, never pausing for the big picture that, in any case, they would not have recognized.”

Yet The Trouble with Reality may reinforce the growing lack of trust in the mainstream media. Gladstone correctly notes, for example, that “reporters should have laughed less and reported more” during the campaign. Perhaps more concerning is the suggestion that Trump’s hostility toward the press has created an animus that will create a new golden age of journalism. Trump’s election, Gladstone says, has “blocked the appearance of objectivity at all costs” and turned Washington reporters into war reporters. Yet one of Trump’s core arguments against the press is that it lacks objectivity. (Actually canceling press briefings would be a miscalculation as it would not only heighten the animus, but give “war reporters” more time to work on their marksmanship.) Perhaps it is just her phrasing that causes concern. It’s crucial the media change its conspicuous tendency to accept statements at face value and fail to fact check. Yet any hint that the press is discarding objectivity has significant ramifications for media credibility.

Of course, Gladstone also sees Trump as a significant source of “our reality trouble.” She seeks to explain what allowed Trump to so resonate with voters during the campaign. At the same time, the book regularly quotes and applies guidelines used to assess totalitarianism and demagoguery, suggesting Trump is both. As for what helps create reality for Trump supporters, she says he struck a “classic authoritarian deal” with them.

You can bask in my favor and recognition, in the promises I make and the license I bestow, and all I ask in return is that you believe whatever I say, whenever I say it. Even if it is false.

This certainly evinces a basis for people accepting the “fake news” and “alternative facts” motifs apparent since Trump’s inauguration. It also helps explain why she suggests that the path toward repairing reality isn’t agreeing on what it is.

Given that we each view identical facts from different perspectives, it is difficult, if not impossible, to agree on the truth, on reality. While Gladstone suggests that activism is a route for those so inclined, she believes gathering more facts from people and places with which we are unfamiliar is important. Even if those facts don’t change our minds, it may allow us to comprehend how or what another person accepts as reality. Whether she’s right or not, the suggestion is certainly better than viciously berating and maligning each other, whether publicly or online.

The laws of human nature do not provide for the triumph of reason.

Brooke Gladstone, The Trouble with Reality

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