Nobody Knows Anything
The Democrats are poised to sweep the midterms. Tom Brady and Giselle Bundchen are on the outs. The feud between the princes has resulted in sobbing princesses and King Charles’ decision to banish Harry’s children from the Kingdom. And Trump and Putin are in big trouble now.
I know these things because they are nano-bites of information on my news feed.
I also know they have no meaning because I’ve spent a career inside crisis management “war rooms” where strategic decisions are being contemplated that do not remotely resemble attendant speculation in the media and online.
We all know that our culture has an addiction to its devices and that our lives are now spent online. What we don’t understand as well, however, is that our habits have to be fed and that it doesn’t matter if the stuff we’re getting is any good or if it’s junk. As long as we get the proverbial needle, it will keep us going until the next hit.
Anything that exists in digital form has the ring of truth, especially if it validates an existing wish or prejudice. The short-term fix is what matters and there are no consequences to those who peddle bad stuff. If self-styled “royal experts” are wrong, they will still be quoted going forward provided that they keep speculating about attractive women in tiaras clawing at each other.
Suppose Donald Trump simultaneously declares that he declassified the worthless Mar-a-Lago documents and that he also has executive privilege to keep these high-value papers. In that case, it’s no biggie because both things pass the only test that matters: getting picked up. Trump surely feels he has justification as the Russia-collusion narrative that consumed the media for two years turned out to be cotton candy. No one has crashed and burned for getting it wrong.
As I self-servingly tell all my friends, I gave the edge to Trump in 2016 when I ran into an acquaintance who worked for the Hillary Clinton campaign a week before the election. He thought I was nuts on the basis of the polls giving Clinton a landslide win. I admonished him to stop worshipping experts. “We’re experts,” I said, “And we both know that we’re just human beings with limited powers muddling our way in the dark like King Lear upon the heath.” I’m pretty sure I mentioned screenwriter William Goldman’s famous admonition about Hollywood that “Nobody knows anything.”
I also mentioned something that the heralded polls wouldn’t reveal: “Everything that you guys think about Trump is a negative is actually a positive.” We know what happened next.
“So-and-so Sparks Outrage,” the tweet or headline read. Maybe it was Bill Maher. Or perhaps Marjorie Taylor Greene was prattling on about Jewish lasers. It doesn’t matter because we don’t even know that outrage was sparked, just that somebody said somebody else was outraged. All I know is that I clicked on the link because there was a dark part of me that wanted to see what somebody was supposedly upset about because I must have some primal need to affirm that somebody somewhere was upset about something. Of course, there was no such proof of any distress, but I didn’t feel betrayed because I suppose I got what I wanted, which was the clicking experience. An Ivy League degree, and this is the kind of nimrod I’ve become.
A friend of mine was pleased with the trending wisdom that the Democrats would sweep the midterms. He believed it because not only did he read it, but his friends read it, too. “Are any of these friends Republicans?” I asked. “No,” he answered, adding, “Why, what are you hearing?”
I told him that one of the benefits of living in my peculiar galaxy is that I have to pay attention to the sublime, the ridiculous and everything in between because I am compensated in part on the basis of accurately handicapping events. I told him that I have indeed found that my more liberal friends are very motivated to vote in the midterms. Nevertheless, I added, so are my conservative friends. In other words, I have to see how the hurricane plays out. I need to see what else happens in October, and I’ll give my best guess then. In the meantime, I’m not prepared to predict that anybody will sweep anything because I know that whoever wrote a headline about a sweep wrote it solely to get clicks and will receive no sanction if and when they’re wrong.
We’ve heard for some time now that Putin’s getting desperate over the situation in Ukraine. I’m not so sure. When writing a book about the U.S.-Russia spy world, I learned that Russians don’t evaluate vulnerability as Americans do. Having worked in U.S. politics, I know that when American politicians get smacked around in the court of public opinion, they’re devastated. Americans cannot abide by being disliked.
On the other hand, a retired KGB agent sternly explained, “One thing we Russians know how to do is suffer.” I’m guessing Putin’s not on his deathbed. He’s not worried about Trevor Noah or votes in Terra Haute.
Announcement: I’ve decided to address my own addiction. Two weeks ago, I put my iPhone down in the evening, vowing only to pick it up twice an hour or if I got an urgent call. In one week, my usage was down about 30 percent. Last week, it was down about 15 percent from the week before.
I’m not big on experts, and I’m not big on predictions. The only thing I feel pretty sure about is that I have never believed lurid reports less than I do now. Believe me, if Giselle were really leaving Tom, she’d call me. I’m the one that got away, which is why I still keep my iPhone within reach.
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