Books and Confirmation Bias

I got an ad from Amazon for Jill Lepore's new audiobook, called Who Killed Truth? Like HCR's new upcoming volume, Democracy Awakening, I suspect this Lepore book is a lightly-edited collection of blog posts and short articles. There's nothing wrong with curating and revisiting a set of explorations of ideas that have stood the test of time, I guess. People still read George Orwell's essays that were based on things he saw happening around him in contemporary politics and culture. But is that what these books are going to be?

I mentioned the title to my wife Steph and her reaction was, "Who's gonna read that book? The people who hate Fox News." When I told Steph I was going to quote her, she said don't, because that had been a sort of automatic hot take rather than a fully-formed judgement. But I think it's a valid question. I have been critical of HCR and others for feeding the blue echo-chamber with daily summaries of news from the "Republicans Suck" food group (to paraphrase the "Useful Idiots" formula they attribute to Matt Taibbi's father). On one hand, it does make sense to build an audience by producing a consistent product that meets their expectations in some way. On the other, my gut tells me that pandering isn't the ideal way to do that, although it's certainly a popular technique in today's media.

Maybe Lepore and HCR don't feel like they are pandering, but rather that they are expressing their particular points of view which just happen to fall squarely into the middle of a current culture-war camp's POV because that group is following their lead. This is possible, but I question the circularity of this chicken/egg dichotomy. Seems a bit like the definition of a filter bubble and I think authors can be as easily caught in them as readers.

But that said, what then is the formula for developing and growing an audience more organically? I don't have as much of a problem, I have to admit, with journalists who have a predictable POV. But I DO tend to prefer reading people who can surprise me. Seymour Hersh, for example, has arguably uncovered issue after issue of US government error or malfeasance, ever since the Vietnam era. But although I look at him as a historical source and value his ongoing exposition of these themes, I don't rush to read every new article of his that drops. I don't seem to be seeking news or commentary that strokes my confirmation bias. I want to be somewhat surprised.

I'm also not a fan of one-sided accounts. While I tell myself that much of the time, the author of such an account probably feels they are setting the record straight by providing a counter-narrative to a dominant story which is so well-known as to not need repetition; the problem is, the dominant story that was obvious at the time may not be a decade later. So it seems like an author ought to try to be a bit explicit about situating the story or interpretation in a context.

A final sort-of pet peeve I have (I'm hoping these issues will be useful as hints to myself and others how to write well, and not just a series of complaints!) is the author who can't see their (I was tempted to use the pronoun “his” because in the past it has usually been a he -- but that may be changing) own cultural assumptions. This is a problem not only for historians but more generally for people critiquing culture. My book club is currently reading Simon Winchester's
Knowing What We Know, and I'm getting a bit of a whiff of this in the first hundred pages. He has been going on, for example, about how "western knowledge" has been superior to "eastern"; to such an extent that it has even been grudgingly embraced by people in places like India who objected to all the colonial baggage that came with it. Winchester seems completely (deliberately?) unaware of historical and ongoing economic imperialism (globalization) that is a factor in a nation such as India's choice to follow a high-technology path integrated in western-dominated markets and financial structures rather than adopting the small-producer self-sufficiency advocated by people such as Gandhi. The conclusion that "western knowledge" is objectively better based on such a shallow depiction of a single historical example...just bugs me.

I'll probably have more to say about Winchester. And probably Lepore's and even HCR's new books, since these narratives and perspectives are getting a lot of attention and being accepted uncritically by a lot of readers.