Current Events

This is likely to be very dangerous territory, as how one looks at current events inevitably exposes all manner of beliefs and biases. In the past I did not read so much about current events, other than in newspapers and magazines. But the 21st century has had such an extraordinary beginning that I have inevitably added books about it to my piles of things to read. I’ll comment here on what I find interesting, and why.

Jonathan Allen & Amie Parnes. Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign. New York: Crown, 2017.

51r6wzhocql._sx332_bo1204203200_This is an early, but likely far from the last, attempt at trying to explain what happened in the 2016 election. The authors of this volume covered Hillary Clinton’s campaign throughout the primaries and the ensuing general election. They describe in great detail what they perceived to be the many dysfunctional problems with the Clinton campaign organization — the disagreements among key figures, the incomplete communication and awareness, and the difficulties of combating Bernie Sanders in the primaries and Donald Trump in the general election. Both turned out to be formidable opponents, and the Clinton campaign never figured out how to reach the sectors of the population that both Sanders and Trump appealed to. Ironically, these were sectors that Clinton played to very effectively in her attempt earlier to run against Barrack Obama in 2008. Both Sanders and Trump had simple messages, while Hillary’s was much more complex, sophisticated, and nuanced, but difficult to convey to voters. And of course, many voters had great distrust of Hillary based on her past actions. And of course the campaign was plagued by the ongoing suspicions about her use of a private e-mail server while she was Secretary of State, including the very negative behavior of FBI Director Comey, the emerging Russian influence on the campaign, and her health issues that played into the accusation that she did not have the stamina to be President. While she clearly won all three of the televised debates with Trump, this was not sufficient to overcome the many problems that, as the authors claimed, doomed her campaign. This is an especially negative account of the 2016 election, and we’ll see how it plays out as more analyses are published. But it is a detailed accounting of many things that went wrong.

Cailin O’Connor & James Owen Weatherall. The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018.

41p5ic8m-yl._sx322_bo1204203200_While the present age is definitely not the first time that “fake news” has circulated, as the authors point out with an amusing initial story about xxxx, it has gained considerable prominence in our current era of undisciplined social media and other sketchy information sources. It certainly plagued the 2016 election and the subsequent Trump administration. But was the authors show, there is a long history of such matters, and they develop some interesting conceptual tools for understanding how it can happen. Their first three chapters focus mostly on examples from science, including the ozone hole that led to the banishment of fluorocarbons, the linking of tobacco to lung cancer, and global warming. In all of these cases, there were active campaigns to denigrate the mostly sound scientific findings. These various stories are described in detail, and their conceptual schemas brought to bear in trying to understand them. The fourth and final chapter focuses on the “fake news” phenomena of the very recent past, again using their conceptual tools to try to make sense of how these things can happen. Overall, it’s a compelling analysis, and they make an effort to make it widely understandable, even if their style is closer to academic than mainstream media. But it’s well worth the read.