Overall, this was a pretty tough book. We elected something worse than a buffoon. We voted to dissolve most of what is good about our country. We didn't vote to make America great but to make America into something other than a democratic republic. We succumbed to trickery and a demagogue playing to our worst instincts and we are all suffering for it now.
Kakutani is a tremendous writer. Her prose is beautiful. This felt a bit too much like a book report or graduate thesis. I would have preferred to have just heard more from her, but it's still good to be aware.
Oh, one other thing: this confirms my decision to leave social media. That's a lot of what got us into all this trouble.
A few salient passages:
The tendency of Americans to focus, myopically, on their self-pursuits--sometimes to the neglect of their civic responsibilities--is not exactly new. In Democracy in America, written more than a century and a half before people started using Facebook and Instagram to post selfies and the internet was sorting us into silos of like-minded souls, Alexis de Tocqueville noted Americans' tendency to withdraw into "small private societies, united together by similitude of conditions, habits, and customs," in order "to indulge themselves in the enjoyments of private life." He worried that this self-absorption would diminish a sense of duty to the larger community, opening way for a kind of soft depostism on the part of the nation's rules--power that does not tyrannize, but "compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people" to the point where they are "reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd." This was one possible cost of a materialistic society, he predicted, where people became so focused on procuring "the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives" that they neglect their responsibilities as citizens; it was difficult to conceive, he wrote, how such people who "have entirely given up the habit of self-government should succeed in making a proper choice of those by whom they are to be governed." (64-65, emphasis mine)
"With Google personalized for everyone," the internet activist Eli Pariser wrote in his book, The Filter Bubble, "the query 'stem cells' might produce diametrically opposed results for scientists who support stem cell research and activists who oppose it. 'Proof of climate change' might turn up different results for an environmental activist and an oil company executive. In polls, a huge majority of us assume search engines are unbiased. But that may be just because they're increasingly biased to share our own views. More and more, your computer monitor is a kind of one-way mirror, reflecting your own interests while algorithmic observers watch what you click." (116-117)
The nihilism in Washington is both an echo and a cause of more widespread feelings: a reflection of a growing loss of faith in institutions and a loss of respect for both the rule of law and everyday norms and traditions; a symptom of our loss of civility, our growing inability to have respectful debates with people who have opinions different from our own; and our growing unwillingness to give others the benefit of the doubt, room for an honest mistake, the courtesy of a hearing. (155)