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Brooke Gladstone talks the press, the president and reality at the Newseum

Posted: June 4, 2017 | Tags: presidency


Photo by Janice Yi

Brooke Gladstone of WNYC speaks about her new book and post-election reflections.

Since Nov. 9, Brooke Gladstone has been asking “now what?” 

As co-host of “On the Media,” a weekly radio program and podcast from WNYC, Gladstone began her first post-election episode with an attempt at answering that question: 

“What happened last night made me think about what we’ve been doing the last couple of years — especially the last year — and what we ought to consider doing in the future … I think that our main role is to make what seems to be invisible to us — and everyone we know — visible.”

It was this same endeavor — to understand and convey — that led Gladstone to write her latest book, “The Trouble With Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time,” an 87-page manifesto that seeks to deconstruct the severe post-election consternation that many Americans felt — and, indeed, still feel. Gladstone begins: “Perhaps you picked up this book because an icy hand grips your viscera; sometimes squeezing, sometimes easing, always present.”

Gladstone , speaking at the Newseum on Saturday as part of its “The President and the Press” series, said her book might help to ease this pressure. But, she said, it will never ebb completely.

Or as George Packer of the New Yorker said of the book: “Brooke Gladstone has whipped up a short, stiff drink of truth. You’ll feel better for taking it.”

During her talk, Gladstone said that her job felt more urgent after the election. 

“I thought, before the election, ‘You know, I’m going to take a year off and write that book about Neanderthals I’ve been dying to write,” she said. But after the election, she looked at her young “On the Media” staff and decided, “I just couldn’t go — not now, not now.” 

And so, since then, on her radio show and, particularly, in the book, that question of “now what?” has led her and her audience back in time, to the origins of American democracy and into the annals of neurology, biology, philosophy and sociology. In her speaking and writing, as on the radio, Gladstone is erudite, without being pretentious. Among many others, her book quotes John Milton and John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and William James, Hannah Arendt and Walter Lippmann, and it cites several scientific studies. 

One of the most striking of these studies, and the one that undergirds the conceit of Gladstone’s book,  is one by Emory University professor Drew Westen, who used fMRI brain scans to monitor voters’ reactions when they are confronted with a political candidate’s clear and obvious lie. He found that voters easily dealt with the lies of candidates from opposing parties.

But when faced with a lie from a candidate of their own party, voters’ brains jumped into a state of conflict as they tried to reason with this blow to their reality. Then, when they came to the conclusion that their candidate was still right, they received a dose of dopamine, the same reaction that comes after taking a drug like cocaine. 

Or as Gladstone put it at the Newseum: “You’re basically wired to reward yourself for lying to yourself. That is what we are up against, each of us.”

And this instinct, Gladstone says, forms and distorts everyone’s reality,  everyone’s “bubble.” For Gladstone, the idea of bubbles isn’t inherently negative. Bubbles serve as frames that help us interpret an extremely complex world. But when our bubbles become so different, our realities so polarized, that’s when we, as a society, are in trouble. 

So, she says, we must build better bubbles.

“That is the essence of the book,” Gladstone said. “That the bubbles were the problem, but the bubbles are something you’re going to have to live with. You can’t make them go away. You simply can’t.”

So, now what? 

Gladstone, in her talk and in her book, doesn’t really offer one solution. Instead, she tells us where to begin: “If we really look, we might actually see that other reality reflected in that person’s eyes, and therein lies the beginning of the end of our reality problem.”

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