Cover Image: The Trouble with Reality

The Trouble with Reality

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Member Reviews

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 media 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," <em>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.
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I mean, I guess this is a worthwhile read? I think it's probably best given to, and read by, someone who is just sort of having a political awakening and trying to figure out what the hell is happening in America - maybe a 22 year old? - but, for me, it was more like a collection of well chosen quotes with some thoughts strung between them.  I like the sentiment but the execution leaves a lot to be desired.
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Did  not get to read before archived. Needed more time and would love to read in the future. May end up listening on audio. I think it would be fabulous as an audio book, but I wonder how much is new content.
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First off, I had a hard time with the electronic copy of this one - there were a lot of pagination/spacing issues. That's an occupational hazard on NetGalley (for reasons I cannot understand), but it does make a book harder to read/review - especially when it's not the most compelling book to begin with...  I was exceedingly curious to read this one - I, too, was confounded by the Trump election, and I, too, am increasingly convinced that the world's notion of "reality" is becoming unbelievably flexible and context- and opinion-dependent. This troubles and confuses me, but doesn't necessarily surprise me - too many bizarre, seemingly impossible, political and cultural things (of which Trump is the latest, but hardly the only, one) have become commonplace and unexceptional on too regular a basis to continue to generate surprise.  But what is still generated is confusion - I was looking forward to someone rational attempting to put parameters around this phenomenon of conflating opinion and reality, to shine light into the dark corners of the contemporary media machine's uncanny knack for telling us what is (and isn't) real. Unfortunately, Gladstone failed utterly to do either of those things for me...

The book is really more of an extended essay. That is fine; a lot of information can be revealed in a well-written essay. But this wasn't that either. What it mostly felt like was a collection of quotations, loosely looped together with some free-flowing thoughts...  Add in the difficulties I had with the formatting, and I found myself rather lost, rather fast. Needless to say, that only added to my confusion - rendering the whole experience of this one rather a bust for me...
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A wake up call to the dangers of taking the truth for granted and allowing lies to permeate society unchecked.  This is a book about taking action.
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In an era where many people across the nation are stricken with a mix of shock, anxiety and uncertainty Gladstone does a great service to them. In a short read that can be easily devoured in the course of a few hours, she helps explain what has happened, what is going on, and what can be done, and there is no doubt that she will surely provide a great deal of badly-needed comfort and reassurance to nearly all who pick up this work.
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3.5 Stars. Short, but thought-provoking.

The election of Donald J. Trump to the United States Presidency was earth-shattering for many, including myself. This wasn't the America they knew. How could this man who violated all of the "traditional norms of political and civil discourse" ascend to the highest office in the land? Nevertheless, there was another segment of the U.S. population whose worldview was validated. They endured eight years of President Barack Obama, rising health care costs, and disappearing jobs; now it's finally their turn. What's the story behind these two versions of America that seem to exist parallel to one another? How did we get to this point and is there a way to bridge the gap?

The Trouble With Reality is written by award-winning journalist Brooke Gladstone, a host of NPR's On the Media. She uses excerpts from the works of several writers and experts to bolster her points, including Walter Lippmann (Public Opinion), Jonathan Swift (Gulliver's Travels), Hannah Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism), George Lakoff, etc. I read this 96-page book in less than an hour, but there's a lot of information. It will probably resonate most with those who live in liberal echo chambers and were completely blindsided by the election of Donald Trump. However, it was still interesting to me as someone who lives in a conservative echo chamber. Despite living deep in Trump country, it's tough for me to see his appeal. There are very general things about his behavior that I find distasteful, regardless of his chosen party affiliation.

There was recently an article in the Washington Post about the Trumps outpacing the Obamas on travel and security spending, by an extremely large margin. A Trump supporter responded to the story: “I believe that the story exists. But the facts in it can’t possibly be right. That absolutely can’t be right. How did Trump spend $10 million in one month and Obama spent $11 million in a year? It defies logic.” The statement baffled me, because regardless of my personal opinions about either presidents' expenses, the monetary amounts listed on government documents aren't a matter of logic. It also stands to reason that the president with a wife who lives separately and adult children who have high-powered, executive careers would end up costing more. So what's the thought process here?

Gladstone shows how we all live in our own realities and why it's so hard for us to comprehend how other people see the world. She explains the way we construct stereotypes to navigate the world around us and the mental hoops we jump through to maintain our realities. Our brain even rewards us when we find ways to give our preferred politician a pass for something we would judge the opposing side for! We experience panic when our worldview is challenged and an incredible high when we find ways to confirm our reality. Whenever I feel like I'm having a knee-jerk reaction to an article, I mentally substitute the names (someone I like instead of someone I don't like or vice versa). It's truly amazing how quick the shift in thinking can be, even though I'm consciously aware of what I'm doing.

The next section explains Trump's appeal and why his behavior wasn't a dealbreaker for everyone. Gladstone shows how Trump is divergent from the types of politicians we've grown accustomed to. Do he and his team use tactics straight out the authoritarian playbook? One part that stuck with me, especially in the light of recent global turmoil and President Trump's comments about the judiciary: "The demagogue always puts the people before the constitution and the laws, in face of the obvious truth that the people have placed the constitution and the laws before themselves." President Trump is also unique in his candid tweeting. Along with cognitive linguist George Lakoff, Gladstone examines the different types of "Trump Tweets" and the reactions they are meant to elicit.

What was the media's role in Trump's rise to power? How should they adjust to this new type of leader? Satire doesn't work against populist figures like Donald Trump, so what does? It was fascinating reading this book after reading David A. Nichol's Ike and McCarthy, the story of President Eisenhower's quiet battle with the reactionary wing of his party and the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy. Eisenhower felt that the media was complicit in McCarthy's rise (see last quote at review link). When he was questioned directly about McCarthy, he insisted on discussing “principles, not personalities.” He saw McCarthy "as a symptom, not a cause" and knew that directly attacking the senator would turn him into “a hero and a martyr.” Eisenhower's method required patience but proved effective. It's a real-life example of how methods that feel the best, don't necessarily work the best. Lampooning someone tends to only appeal to those who agree, while mobilizing the opposition.

Honestly, I was feeling a little depressed by the end. Are we all doomed by our own psychology? About 3/4s in, the hope promised in the description appears. All hope is not lost! Gladstone provides a list of actions an average citizen can take. Protests probably aren't going to change President Donald Trump's views, but she describes how they are effective in other ways. One of my favorite tips was to "preserve your outrage for issues that reflect your values." Easier said than done, I know! Exposing hypocrisy is exhilarating, but you run the risk of betraying your own values. Most importantly, Gladstone urges us to exit our bubbles and try to see how other people view the world.

The election of Donald Trump divided the country into two camps: those who feel like their entire worldview was shattered and those who feel a great sense of relief. We're designed to maintain our own realities at all costs, but perhaps we can venture out every once and awhile and visit someone else's world. We might not change our minds, but perhaps we can understand each other. Gladstone reminds us that "you cannot march to a long-term resolution to your reality problem with a cadre of like-minded allies." This short book is a call to action for us all to remove our blinders, even though it's not easy. This book is not only important for understanding the 2016 U.S. election, but also for forging a path forward.
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This was an interesting book, but there isn't a lot there. It felt more like an extra long essay than a book that needs to be published on its own. It's hard to consider it to be worth much attention when it passes by so quickly and only offers an introduction to the concepts within.
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