Friday, May 18, 2018

Book Report: Bad Stories

7. Steve Almond, Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country (2018) (5/18/18)

It took me a little while to read this not-very-long book, not so much because I wanted to savor every word, but because every chapter made me (a) angry and (b) really, really sad. I don't want to be in despair over what's going on in this country—and it's hard for me not to . . . but thankfully, smart, critical, unabashedly progressive and hopeful (if not necessarily optimistic) writers like journalist and social commentator Steve Almond (he's perhaps best known for co-hosting the podcast Dear Sugars with Cheryl Strayed) help keep me from slipping over the brink.

Bad Stories is an examination of our 45th president as a symptom of the recent election and our current state of seeming impasse (if not destruction). In these sixteen-plus-one chapters, Almond struggles "to see Trumpism . . . as an opportunity to reckon with the bad stories at the heart of our great democratic experiment, and to recognize that often, embedded within these bad stories, are beautiful ideals and even correctives that might help us to contain the rage that has clouded our thoughts."

Almond begins by invoking the notion expressed by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind that humanity's dominance on this planet "stems from our unique cognitive ability to believe in the imagined, to tell stories that extend our bonds beyond clan loyalties. Our larger systems of cooperation, whether spiritual, political, legal, or financial, require faith in a beautiful fiction known as the common good, the sort of mutual trust expressed in any trade agreement or currency." But what, Almond asks, if the stories we tell ourselves are bad—perhaps merely frivolous, or worse, fraudulent, whether by negligence or design, "intended to sow discord, to blunt our moral imaginations, to warp our fears into loathing and our mercy into vengeance?"

Almond takes on various American myths/exaggerations/falsehoods in somewhat rambling discourses, supported by "statistical data, personal anecdote, cultural criticism, literary analysis, and when called for, outright intellectual theft." For example, Bad Story #1, "Watergate Was about a Corrupt President," wasn't just about that: it was even more so about our nation's shared idealism—which today seems increasingly fragile, even evanescent. To explore this idea, Almond cites Moby Dick and mad captain Ahab; conversations Almond has had with his own young children; Kurt Vonnegut and W. E. B. Du Bois; and slavery.

Other "bad stories" explore journalism and the Fairness Doctrine, feminism, sports culture, the Internet, television comedians, talk radio, immigration, Putin, and more. The central chapters refer to Neil Postman's influential 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business—no less relevant, and perhaps more so, today than thirty years ago—and Melville's Moby Dick remains a thread throughout the chapters, and the idea that "the great peril of our age is not that we have turned into a nation of Ahabs, but of Ishmaels, passive observers too willing to embrace feuds that nourish our rancor and starve our common sense."

It's an interesting, wide-ranging read—though of course I'm in sympathy with Almond's progressive political views. Not all are. On FB, Steve posted links to a couple of places online where the opposing view is presented: first, in a caller's response to an otherwise solidly sympathetic interview with KQED's Michael Krasny ("Wow," Steve comments on FB. "Here's what happens when a Trump voter calls in to a radio show to complain that he feels 'condescended to.' Listen as I struggle to deal w/ Toxic White Entitlement Syndrome. [Spoiler alert: I kind of lose my shit...])" and then in a YouTube "podcast" called Left-Right Radio with conservative ("Trump Troll") host Chuck Morse (which for some reason starts in the middle, when Steve is again losing his shit—you can easily rewind to the beginning, though, if you're interested).

The one aspect of the book that I found unfortunate is the lack of source citations. In a work like this, so reliant on statistics, quotations, and facts—and not just opinions—knowing where the ingredients come from only makes the arguments more convincing. Assuming they come from credible sources. I'm sure Steve is able to provide that information, and I suspect his publisher nixed the idea. It's too bad. In a work like this, all the authority the author can muster is for the better, in my view.

The back cover of the book quotes Trump from his book How to Get Rich: "I don't mind bad stories, I can handle a bad story better than anybody, as long as it's true." Ayup. Nuff said.

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