The spades

Donald Trump

When you criticise a person, you naturally take into account their office and assess whether you know all that you need to to come to your conclusions.

For a long time, this ‘stop and assess’ step prevented mediapersons, who generally like to be careful, from calling Donald Trump an outright liar or an incompetent bozo.

‘Stop and assess’ meant that journalists would hold back from calling a spade a spade if the spade wielded great power and influence over society, mostly in an effort to give it more credit than it actually deserved.

Matters would have had to have reached some kind of point of inflection before it would become ‘okay’ to call the American president a fool.

This delay – an offset between the people thinking him a fool and the media thinking him a fool – could fuel media distrust by giving the impression that the media isn’t going as hard as it needs to against this man.

Jay Rosen has written and tweeted about this a lot.

The delay would also more directly affect newsroom decision-making if everyone present thought the president deserved more credit by virtue of being president, and that they might not be privy to all the information needed to make rational decisions.

Persisting with this idea could in the longer run result in journalists making excuses for the president and presidential behaviour.

When this happens, shit has hit the fan because these journalists will no longer be able to feel the pulse of the people, so to speak, and could miss more significant developments while following trivial ones.

Narendra Modi

A similar concern has plagued my impression of the team Narendra Modi leads in the name of the government.

His ministers, and he himself, have been saying pseudoscientific things, often substituting scientific knowledge with traditional beliefs that over-glorify the achievements of pre-Mughal India.

At the recently concluded science/media workshop at Matscience, Sowmiya Ashok of the Indian Express said that when ministers make such claims, they should specify their sources, and that these sources should be collected in one place and displayed for all to see.

This is a good idea – if we are assuming that the ministers actually believe what they are saying.

My reluctance here is not about calling a spade a spade but about calling a non-spade a non-spade.

(a) If the ministers actually believe what they are saying, they are misguided, and I have no compunctions about calling them misguided.

(b) However, what if the ministers don’t actually believe what they are saying but (i) are continuing to do so in an effort to misdirect the public and (ii) are participating in a strange FFA game where the person who makes the most casteist/classist statement promoting Hindutva superiority can draw the attention of the prime minister while feeding the supporters of his sponsor, the RSS, at the same time?

Both (a) and (b) are hypotheses that can explain the string of stupid statements by ministers and, on the downside, both (a) and (b) are yet to be falsifiable.

However, (b) has a slight edge in that it can be checked if ministers make pseudoscientific claims when there is also one other controversial issue in the media that they would like no one to focus on, a.k.a. misdirection.

Trump recently did this when he wanted the media to spend its time and energy looking up (nonexistent) discrimination against white farmers in South Africa and not focus on Michael Cohen’s volte-face against him.

(I acknowledge that (a) and (b) are not entirely mutually exclusive but they could be in terms of their underlying intentions.)

Towards supporting (b), I posit that ministers will not want to collate their sources and make it available at one location because it beats the purpose of (ii).

Yuval Noah Harari

Unlike with Modi and Trump, or perhaps more illustratively, where the ‘stop and assess’ step has been surmounted with great confidence has been in reviews of the books of Yuval Noah Harari.

Of course, Harari is no public leader like Modi or Trump, and the derision towards his books may have been incentivised by their corresponding valorisation by the Silicon Valley types.

Nonetheless it has been heartening to read laborious assessments online about Harari’s thematic reluctance to engage deeply with the subjects of his ‘analysis’.

The same is also true of the words of Steven Pinker, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Richard Dawkins, Eric Lander, Devdutt Pattanaik,

We journalists are comfortable calling these men out but give them more power and it is as if some quantum field is born that skews our bearings.

I was prompted to think of Harari, and others like him, because of this review in particular, which is of his latest book. Excerpt (edited to be brief):

So it continues, great swathes of padding followed by dinner-party observations of crushing banality. The chapters cover some big subjects – war, terrorism, nationalism, God – but since most average about fifteen pages, they fall almost comically short of providing the ‘dazzling’ insights promised on the book’s cover. One sentence literally reads, ‘Humans have bodies.’ Amazing. ‘European civilisation is anything Europeans make of it.’ Profound. Where terrorism is concerned, ‘we just cannot prepare for every eventuality’. Dazzling.

On and on it goes. ‘With a single exception, all flags are rectangular pieces of cloth.’ Well I never. ‘A robot army would probably have strangled the French Revolution in its cradle in 1789.’ There’s a good Doctor Who story in that. ‘If the USA had had killer robots in the Vietnam War, the My Lai massacre might have been prevented.’ Is this Yuval Noah Harari or Alan Partridge?

… In reality, Harari’s political observations are fantastically bland. He likes equality, he thinks we should be humble, he thinks we should reach across national boundaries, he thinks that sometimes democracy gets it wrong – oh, I can barely bring myself to write this stuff down. Does he really believe that President Erdoğan will be heartened to learn that we ought to try to ‘make the world a little bit better’? Can he really believe that all this is likely to bring a smile to Vladimir Putin’s face? The truth is that Harari’s book is far more likely to send him to sleep.