I had a long, hopefully convincing argument planned for today that attempted to outline an approach for what we can do to help rebuild the institution of journalism as a 4th Estate check on power and the powerful.
It was going to be well-articulated, thoroughly sourced. I was particularly pleased with an opening that drew a line from Karl Rove’s critique of the “reality-based community” in the run-up to the Iraq War to our current “fake news,” “post-truth” age.
There was much material to work from in Monday’s news, for example, a profile in the Washington Post of two young dudes who have made thousands inventing bullshit out of whole cloth and peddling it to “alt-right” readers via social media.
The New York Times presented a case study in how a guy with 40 Twitter followers triggered a viral – and utterly incorrect by his own ultimate admission – story about paid protesters descending on Austin, TX via chartered buses.
Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that Facebook has a fake news problem, but also wants to make sure Facebook hosts “accurate content” because they “do not want to be arbiters of truth ourselves.”
I had a dozen targets to swing at, the two doofuses squatting in the Airbnb, cranking out their mularky, the idiot in Austin who didn’t think that Austin might have plenty of protesters all by itself and not have to bus them in, the billionaire who first denied that fake news distributed via his platform might be having a deleterious effect and then doesn’t seem to believe such a thing as “truth” exists.
But then I read another article, this one about people in Milwaukee’s District 15, one of the poorest parts of the city, who didn’t vote. Cedric Fleming, a barber at Upper Cutz in the neighborhood summed up the mood, ““Milwaukee is tired. Both of them were terrible. They never do anything for us anyway.”
I went back to the article about the fake news entrepreneurs who peddle their bullshit at something called LibertyWriterNews.com. Both college grads in their mid-20’s, they “could only find unpaid internships and ended up working at a Mexican restaurant.”
They stumbled into the fake news industry and now make thousands a month while living in apparently purposeful squalor. But another passage suddenly stood out:
There are times when Wade wonders what it would be like to write an article he truly believes in. “In a perfect world,” he says, it would have nuance and balance and long paragraphs and take longer than 10 minutes to compose. It would make people think. But he never writes it, he says, because no one would click on it, so what would be the point?
I detected a theme in all of these stories: alienation.
I know, duh. I’ve read my Camus, my Sartre. Alienation is our default state. I believe in institutions because I see them as potential bulwarks against alienation. One of the reasons I burst into tears when the Cubs (an institution) won the World Series was because I was thinking of all the important people to me who were taking equal pleasure in the victory.
That moment briefly knitted us together and it was great.
The story of those fake news dudes is not so different from the men in the Milwaukee barber shop. They couldn’t find jobs after college and have done what they can to survive. They don’t seem to take any pleasure in the work, even though it’s lucrative. It is tempting to label this moral rot, but getting at the roots of the problem, who has betrayed whom?
I also realized that I know this alienation, or a version of it. For almost 20 years I’ve involved myself in something I believed to be important: higher education. I believe higher education is important because it is a route to fulfilling our most awesome American ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity. But I’ve seen our systems and institutions betray those ideals, and I let myself get used up in the process.
It’s hard to continue to believe in something that refuses to reward that belief.
Who am I to tell someone else that they need to believe? What evidence do I have that belief is warranted or worth it?
How to move forward, then? How to stave off the full effects of alienation? I don’t have a route for all of us to take together, but here’s what I’m resolving for myself: I’m going to work through things while being guided by two questions.
1. Is it true?
2. Does it matter?
For example, is it true that the Bush Administration in the guise of Karl Rove laid the foundation for a “post-truth” Trump presidency? Yes.
Does it matter? Not really. The argument is purely academic at this point and does nothing to resolve current tensions.
Another one: Is it true that Donald Trump, a man who has never apologized, is a hypocrite for demanding an apology because the cast of Hamilton was “rude” to VP-elect Mike Pence? Yes.
Does it matter? Not really.
And yet, when I first saw news of that Tweet, I felt that it mattered. I felt…outraged. If I hadn’t been alone, I might’ve shouted, “This is outrageous!” I enjoyed my froth. What an asshole! This guy who mocked a disabled reporter thinks someone else is rude!
Another: Is it true that even in the earliest days of his transition Donald Trump appears to be using the office of the presidency to enrich himself and his family? Yes.
And again, yes.
Does it matter? Bigly.
It matters because this is our country, our traditions this guy is now messing with. He’s at risk of breaking something we’re going to need long after he’s gone.
I realized I wasn’t outraged about this, though. I was angry.
There is a difference. Outrage is reflex, performative, surface level. That’s outrageous! Outrage often ends in exhaustion, as satisfaction will never come. The best you can do is beat your head against the wall, but that wall isn’t going to yield. Outrage is performed in the comments on this website daily. I am sometimes a participant in it.
Donald Trump is fueled by outrage because he is a performer. We’ve never seen him truly angry, though, not in public.
To be angry you have to care about something bigger than yourself, because anger comes from the core, and Donald Trump doesn’t appear to have one. My beef isn’t really with Trump himself who has no mandate and possesses no ideology against which to advocate.
I am angry at the conditions that allowed such a degenerate to take the helm of our country.
So maybe that’s my advice for all of us, don’t worry about outrage.
Instead, get angry, my friends.
 Karl Rove expressed to journalist Ron Suskind that there was a gap between those who live in the “reality-based community,” people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality” and the new reality of empire. Rove said, “That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." This is how we wound up invading Iraq under the pretense of disarming Saddam Hussein of his active program of weapons of mass destruction even though no such program existed.
 One doesn’t need a perfect world for this, just a good-enough world. I get to inhabit that world in this space because I have the opportunity to work for a publication that takes its responsibilities as an institution seriously.
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