‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ And ‘Nanette’ Brim With Heart And Humanity

I don’t know about you, but I find American life these days positively exhausting. Everything is always trying to wind you up, from political tweets and cable news to sports debate shows, thrill-ride movies and Internet headlines that will say anything to make you click on a link. Small wonder that many people are looking for things that don’t do that, but that offer what we might call counterprogramming to our whole troll-infested culture.

Audiences have found that in what may be the summer’s most surprising and beloved hits – “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” Morgan Neville’s moving documentary about Fred Rogers, the creator and star of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and “Nanette,” starring the Australian comic Hannah Gadsby, which has been called transformative by viewers, critics and her fellow comedians.

.. Born into money, ordained as a Christian minister, registered as a lifelong Republican, Rogers turned out to be a gentle radical whose mission was to embody and promote humane values.  As Neville shows, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was inspired by Rogers’ dismay at the existing television shows for children, which he thought degrading, fatuous, thoughtlessly violent and designed to transform kids into consumers.

.. Then, she shifts gears, and we discover a value she shares with Fred Rogers, a refusal to play along with the rules of the medium of which they are a part. Just as he thought ordinary TV demeaned children, Gadsby explains why she can no longer do stand-up. She argues that stand-up works by ratcheting up tension with psychologically fraught material then releasing it with a punchline. And the demands of this process, tension and release, keep you from saying anything that doesn’t fit into that pattern.

.. neither Gadsby nor Rogers are scolds who hate art, which is, after all, a way of expressing feelings and truths that can’t be fully expressed any other way. In fact, both are consciously artful in what they do. But they also suggest that too much commercial entertainment is dehumanizing because it’s all about prompting an instantly pleasurable reaction. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” and “Nanette” do precisely the opposite. They’re humanizing.

 

The Bannon Fallacy

First of all, people who create mottos about how they don’t care what people think tend to be precisely the sort of people who care what other people think.

Another dead giveaway: When you repeatedly invite reporters from places such as Vanity Fair to follow you around and record your Stakhanovite disregard for the opinions of others.

Similarly, people who famously call back every reporter seeking a quote are the kind of people who love being buttered up by journalists.

.. Likewise, people who hungrily cooperate with authors looking to turn them into political celebrities are really into the idea of being political celebrities.

Staffers who take credit for their bosses’ political victories, on the record, tend not to be aloof islands of self-confidence either. People desperate to let you know that their philosophical lodestars are obscure mystics and cranks — he studied Evola and Guénon! — tend to be compensating for something.

.. If Bannon truly didn’t care about the “Opposition Party,” his term for the mainstream media, he wouldn’t have lost his job in the White House, the favor of the Mercers, and what was left of his reputation. But he just couldn’t resist talking to reporters and claiming credit for the accomplishments of others.

.. Bannon is a common character in Washington: a megalomaniac who made the mistake of believing his own bullshit.

Bannon believed he was the intellectual leader of a real grassroots movement, and all that was needed to midwife it into reality was to Astroturf as much rage and unthinking paranoia as the Mercer family’s money could buy.

.. Bannon’s self-proclaimed Leninism was mostly the kind of b.s. one spouts to rally the twentysomethings in their cubicles to churn out more ethically bankrupt clickbait fodder.

.. Lenin was a real radical who wanted to tear everything down. But his motto wasn’t “Honey badger don’t give a sh*t” — it was “The worse the better.” Both men share a theory that by exacerbating social tensions — heightening the contradictions in Marxobabble — they would emerge victorious. The biggest difference between the two men is that Lenin knew what he was doing.

.. There is a Nietzschean quality to both Bannon and the host organism he fed off. Rhetorically, Trump extols strength and power and denigrates rules and norms. But Trump’s Nietzscheanism is almost entirely in service to his own glory. He simply wants praise for its own sake. Bannon’s fetishization of strength and power and his denigration of rules and norms stems from a potted theory about how to burn it all down so he can rule the ashes.

.. He marveled at the performance art of Milo not because of any intellectual merit, but because it was transgressive, which is its own reward to the radical mind.

.. People spend too much time trying to figure out if Bannon is a bigot. Who cares? Isn’t it even more damning that he was perfectly comfortable to enlist bigots to his cause simply to leach off their passion and intensity?

.. Because Bannon consistently confuses means and ends, he was fine with forming an alliance of convenience with the alt-right when he thought it could help him.

.. Bannon likes to talk a big game about the importance of ideas, but his idea of how politics works is entirely anti-intellectual, and that’s what spelled his doom.

.. He talks a lot about the Trump agenda, and yet he’s made it his project to destroy any politician Trump actually needs if they dare stray from public sycophancy to Trump or fealty to Bannon’s dog’s-breakfast ideology.

.. He goes around the country stumping for crackpots and bigots, claiming to be the Joan of Arc of Trumpism, boasting incessantly of his courage and loyalty to Trump as evidenced by his willingness to stick with Trump during “Billy Bush Weekend.”

.. There’s just one problem: Bannon can’t stick to it. He just can’t help but boast to liberal reporters about how great and brilliant he is. He can’t resist talking smack about his rivals and denigrating the reality-show nationalist that plucked him out of relative obscurity, because despite all the impressive verbiage, Bannon can’t help but make himself the story.

Anatomy of a Moral Panic

On September 18, the British Channel 4 ran a news segment with the headline, ‘Potentially deadly bomb ingredients are ‘frequently bought together’ on Amazon.’

.. The real story in this mess is not the threat that algorithms pose to Amazon shoppers, but the threat that algorithms pose to journalism. By forcing reporters to optimize every story for clicks, not giving them time to check or contextualize their reporting, and requiring them to race to publish follow-on articles on every topic, the clickbait economics of online media encourage carelessness and drama. This is particularly true for technical topics outside the reporter’s area of expertise.

And reporters have no choice but to chase clicks. Because Google and Facebook have a duopoly on online advertising, the only measure of success in publishing is whether a story goes viral on social media. Authors are evaluated by how individual stories perform online, and face constant pressure to make them more arresting. Highly technical pieces are farmed out to junior freelancers working under strict time limits. Corrections, if they happen at all, are inserted quietly through ‘ninja edits’ after the fact.

 

There is no real penalty for making mistakes, but there is enormous pressure to frame stories in whatever way maximizes page views. Once those stories get picked up by rival news outlets, they become ineradicable. The sheer weight of copycat coverage creates the impression of legitimacy. As the old adage has it, a lie can get halfway around the world while the truth is pulling its boots on.

Earlier this year, when the Guardian published an equally ignorant (and far more harmful) scare piece about a popular secure messenger app, it took a group of security experts six months of cajoling and pressure to shame the site into amending its coverage. And the Guardian is a prestige publication, with an independent public editor. Not every story can get such editorial scrutiny on appeal, or attract the sympathetic attention of Teen Vogue.

The very machine learning systems that Channel 4’s article purports to expose are eroding online journalism’s ability to do its job.

Moral panics like this one are not just harmful to musket owners and model rocket builders. They distract and discredit journalists, making it harder to perform the essential function of serving as a check on the powerful.

The real story of machine learning is not how it promotes home bomb-making, but that it’s being deployed at scale with minimal ethical oversight, in the service of a business model that relies entirely on psychological manipulation and mass surveillance. The capacity to manipulate people at scale is being sold to the highest bidder, and has infected every aspect of civic life, including democratic elections and journalism.

Together with climate change, this algorithmic takeover of the public sphere is the biggest news story of the early 21st century.