More than anything, the pathology of today is widespread belief & hope in illusions and apathy to truth. This type of thinking is documented throughout history to follow the abundance and comfort that came from a moral awakening, and it is known to precede tragedy and pain within the human race. As to the illusions themselves, Christopher Hedges (a leftist that I have great respect for) does an excellent job explaining how our society stores all of its hopes and dreams in that which is illusory, hedonistic, and present:
The United States, locked in the kind of twilight disconnect that grips dying empires, is a country entranced by illusions. It spends its emotional and intellectual energy on the trivial and the absurd. It is captivated by the hollow stagecraft of celebrity culture as the walls crumble. This celebrity culture giddily licenses a dark voyeurism into other people’s humiliation, pain, weakness and betrayal. Day after day, one lurid saga after another, whether it is Michael Jackson, Britney Spears or John Edwards, enthralls the country … despite bank collapses, wars, mounting poverty or the criminality of its financial class.
The virtues that sustain a nation-state and build community, from honesty to self-sacrifice to transparency to sharing, are ridiculed each night on television as rubes stupid enough to cling to this antiquated behavior are voted off reality shows. Fellow competitors for prize money and a chance for fleeting fame, cheered on by millions of viewers, elect to “disappear” the unwanted. In the final credits of the reality show America’s Next Top Model, a picture of the woman expelled during the episode vanishes from the group portrait on the screen. Those cast aside become, at least to the television audience, nonpersons. Celebrities that can no longer generate publicity, good or bad, vanish. Life, these shows persistently teach, is a brutal world of unadulterated competition and a constant quest for notoriety and attention.
Our culture of flagrant self-exaltation, hardwired in the American character, permits the humiliation of all those who oppose us. We believe, after all, that because we have the capacity to wage war we have a right to wage war. Those who lose deserve to be erased. Those who fail, those who are deemed ugly, ignorant or poor, should be belittled and mocked. Human beings are used and discarded like Styrofoam boxes that held junk food. And the numbers of superfluous human beings are swelling the unemployment offices, the prisons and the soup kitchens.
It is the cult of self that is killing the United States. This cult has within it the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation; a penchant for lying, deception and manipulation; and the incapacity for remorse or guilt. Michael Jackson, from his phony marriages to the portraits of himself dressed as royalty to his insatiable hunger for new toys to his questionable relationships with young boys, had all these qualities. And this is also the ethic promoted by corporations. It is the ethic of unfettered capitalism. [Note: Hedges is not, admittedly, an economic expert. The ‘capitalism’ he is talking about here is not likely the usual definition of free markets, but rather the corporatist capitalism that Marx often talked about. In truth, we live in a Keynesian system in which our only prerogative is growth – making consumption, consumption, consumption the most important value of our economic system. But I digress…] It is the misguided belief that personal style and personal advancement, mistaken for individualism, are the same as democratic equality. It is the nationwide celebration of image over substance, of illusion over truth. And it is why investment bankers blink in confusion when questioned about the morality of the billions in profits they made by selling worthless toxic assets to investors.
We have a right, in the cult of the self, to get whatever we desire. We can do anything, even belittle and destroy those around us, including our friends, to make money, to be happy and to become famous. Once fame and wealth are achieved, they become their own justification, their own morality. How one gets there is irrelevant. It is this perverted ethic that gave us investment houses like Goldman Sachs … that willfully trashed the global economy and stole money from tens of millions of small shareholders who had bought stock in these corporations for retirement or college. The heads of these corporations, like the winners on a reality television program who lied and manipulated others to succeed, walked away with hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses and compensation. The ethic of Wall Street is the ethic of celebrity. It is fused into one bizarre, perverted belief system and it has banished the possibility of the country returning to a reality-based world or avoiding internal collapse. A society that cannot distinguish reality from illusion dies.
. . .
America is sinking under trillions in debt it can never repay and stays afloat by frantically selling about $2 billion in Treasury bonds a day to the Chinese. It saw 2.8 million people lose their homes in 2009 to foreclosure or bank repossessions – nearly 8,000 people a day – and stands idle as they are joined by another 2.4 million people this year. It refuses to prosecute the Bush administration for obvious war crimes, including the use of torture, and sees no reason to dismantle Bush’s secrecy laws or restore habeas corpus. Its infrastructure is crumbling. Deficits are pushing individual states to bankruptcy and forcing the closure of everything from schools to parks. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have squandered trillions of dollars, appear endless. There are 50 million Americans in real poverty and tens of millions of Americans in a category called “near poverty.” One in eight Americans – and one in four children – depend on food stamps to eat. And yet, in the midst of it all, we continue to be a country consumed by happy talk and happy thoughts. We continue to embrace the illusion of inevitable progress, personal success and rising prosperity. Reality is not considered an impediment to desire.
When a culture lives within an illusion it perpetuates a state of permanent infantilism or childishness. As the gap widens between the illusion and reality, as we suddenly grasp that it is our home being foreclosed or our job that is not coming back, we react like children. We scream and yell for a savior, someone who promises us revenge, moral renewal and new glory. It is not a new story. A furious and sustained backlash by a betrayed and angry populace, one unprepared intellectually, emotionally and psychologically for collapse, will sweep aside the Democrats and most of the Republicans and will usher America into a new dark age. It was the economic collapse in Yugoslavia that gave us Slobodan Milosevic. It was the Weimar Republic that vomited up Adolf Hitler. And it was the breakdown in Tsarist Russia that opened the door for Lenin and the Bolsheviks. A cabal of proto-fascist misfits, from Christian demagogues to loudmouth talk show hosts, whom we naïvely dismiss as buffoons, will find a following with promises of revenge and moral renewal. And as in all totalitarian societies, those who do not pay fealty to the illusions imposed by the state become the outcasts, the persecuted.
The decline of American empire began long ago before the current economic meltdown or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It began before the first Gulf War or Ronald Reagan. It began when we shifted, in the words of Harvard historian Charles Maier, from an “empire of production” to an “empire of consumption.” By the end of the Vietnam War, when the costs of the war ate away at Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and domestic oil production began its steady, inexorable decline, we saw our country transformed from one that primarily produced to one that primarily consumed. We started borrowing to maintain a level of consumption as well as an empire we could no longer afford. We began to use force, especially in the Middle East, to feed our insatiable thirst for cheap oil. We substituted the illusion of growth and prosperity for real growth and prosperity. The bill is now due. America’s most dangerous enemies are not Islamic radicals but those who sold us the perverted ideology of free-market capitalism and globalization. They have dynamited the very foundations of our society. In the 17th century these speculators would have been hung. Today they run the government and consume billions in taxpayer subsidies.
As the pressure mounts, as the despair and desperation reach into larger and larger segments of the populace, the mechanisms of corporate and government control are being bolstered to prevent civil unrest and instability. The emergence of the corporate state always means the emergence of the security state. This is why the Bush White House pushed through the Patriot Act (and its renewal), the suspension of habeas corpus, the practice of “extraordinary rendition,” warrantless wiretapping on American citizens and the refusal to ensure free and fair elections with verifiable ballot-counting. The motive behind these measures is not to fight terrorism or to bolster national security. It is to seize and maintain internal control. It is about controlling us.
And yet, even in the face of catastrophe, mass culture continues to assure us that if we close our eyes, if we visualize what we want, if we have faith in ourselves, if we tell God that we believe in miracles, if we tap into our inner strength, if we grasp that we are truly exceptional, if we focus on happiness, our lives will be harmonious and complete. This cultural retreat into illusion, whether peddled by positive psychologists, by Hollywood or by Christian preachers, is magical thinking. It turns worthless mortgages and debt into wealth. It turns the destruction of our manufacturing base into an opportunity for growth. It turns alienation and anxiety into a cheerful conformity. It turns a nation that wages illegal wars and administers offshore penal colonies where it openly practices torture into the greatest democracy on earth. And it keeps us from fighting back.
Resistance movements will have to look now at the long night of slavery, the decades of oppression in the Soviet Union and the curse of fascism for models. The goal will no longer be the possibility of reforming the system but of protecting truth, civility and culture from mass contamination. It will require the kind of schizophrenic lifestyle that characterizes all totalitarian societies. Our private and public demeanors will often have to stand in stark contrast. Acts of defiance will often be subtle and nuanced. They will be carried out not for short term gain but the assertion of our integrity. Rebellion will have an ultimate if not easily definable purpose. The more we retreat from the culture at large the more room we will have to carve out lives of meaning, the more we will be able to wall off the flood of illusions disseminated by mass culture and the more we will retain sanity in an insane world. The goal will become the ability to endure.
Hedges, formidable on his own with his ability to cut right to the point, would be truly fearsome if he learned economics. His critiques of the right are completely correct, but it is his dissection of the left and failure to purchase the ideology wholesale that sets him apart from 99.999% of leftist journalists today – journalists who would live and die for Barack Obama, the corporate sellout warmonger who is a failure by all reasonable standards.
I would like to add an excerpt from another column, one of the better blog posts I have read in a very long time. Where would people get their views and cheap taglines if there was no media playing them over and over in their heads? What would people’s solutions be if those solutions were not given to their brains by “experts”? Most of all, would people be more consistent in their thinking if they did not let an ideological body create the hierarchy of values that they must retain, lest they be cast out of the movement? Enjoy:
“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away,” Philip K. Dick said, when asked to define what reality is. Dick was a Science Fiction writer and that seems appropriate enough we are living in a Science Fiction world where there is no reality anymore, because the real goes away, but the unreal does not.
. . .
The fake is being overlaid on the real, like men fighting on top of a board with a movie of a train passing by in the background to give the impression that they are fighting on top of it. Such cheap trickery defines our media environment where reporters barge into events and badger the participants into playing along with their movie. Or they just play the clip of actual events and frame them so that everyone hears their version of what is going on . . . There’s the latest media narrative and we know it’s real, because we can see Tampa in the background as some blow-dried buffoon does breathing exercises before commencing to tell us that the Republican Party, which supports things that would have made Ike and Ron have coronaries, has gone so far to the right that it might as well be a Godzilla of reactionary running dog capitalism.
This is our shoddy virtual reality with a CNN or MSNBC logo planted on top. There is you still sitting on your same old couch, watching Chris Matthews yelling himself hoarse about racism, because racism is our virtual reality. It is the world that we are supposed to live in and Chris’ job, for which he receives some 5 million a year, is to convince us that we are living in it.
“Racism,” Chris yells at the screen, like the idiot shaman of some stone age tribe, and those dull-witted enough to believe him nod knowingly, because it makes them feel as if they know something. And in a world where nothing is real, knowing something makes them feel a little less confused. They don’t understand why the prices are suddenly so high and the bank won’t give them a loan– but they can understand that Republicans are bad people and somehow responsible for it.
Some 70 percent of Barack Obama’s Twitter followers may be fake, but why quibble at such numbers. The people who decided to make Obama popular did so through constant repetition that translated into the peer pressure of the trend. Obama became a trending topic and everyone followed along because in an unreal world, you follow the unreal leader.
Obama is fake, his popularity is fake, but it’s also real, because fake is now the ultimate reality. The purveyors of fakeness have demonstrated their ability to transform the unreal into the real through manufactured consensus. By insisting that something unpopular was popular often enough, they made it popular. And by insisting that something popular is really unpopular, they did the opposite.
The Solomon Asch study showed that people will change their correct answers to conform with the wrong answers that are being given by others. The false consensus has operated on that same paradigm, convincing people of two lies. The first lie is that the wrong answer is the right answer. And the second lie that everyone else has already agreed that the wrong answer is correct.
Doing all that is impossible unless people lose touch with the real. The wraparound nature of the media has made it so that the unreal never goes away. The unreal is so pervasive because it has so many outlets and we are all wired into one or more of them. If the unreal doesn’t get into your head one way, it will do it another way. The viral virus adapts because its designers are intelligent. And most of all they are persistent. They aren’t just malicious or in it for the money, though both those things are also true, they believe. They are missionaries and their goal is to convert you into fodder for their malicious money machine.
Reality hasn’t gone away, but we have gone away from it. Enough of us have gone down into the dream, grasped a thread of the story and allowed it to sweep us away. Given a choice between the red pill and the blue pill, they have unconsciously chosen the blue pill without ever being aware that they had a choice. And they are cushioned in this virtual world by a government that promises to take care of them and their children and their children’s children until the end of time.
It’s a lie, but knowing a lie for what it is requires either being able to do the math or have the common sense to know it for what it is. And common sense is derived from rough and tumble contact with reality. And reality has gotten harder to find these days. It requires unplugging all the belief channels, stepping out into the fresh air and trying to see what still remains when all the things that the belief trends told you to believe in have gone away.
There is a very specific category of people who are uncomfortable with the way things are and for the most people these are the people who have ongoing forcible contact with realities that don’t go away when the talking head begins jabbering, the memes begin spewing and the trending topics trend. These are the people who work for a living outside the bubble, who know that external safety nets are unreliable and that they are always on the edge of something… even if they don’t always know what.
. . .
In a world where the fake seems real, the real seems fake. Obama seems more real than Romney and Ryan because he has mastered the art of the unreal. Television reality is not the same thing as reality, but it can seem more real, that is until you see how fake television makeup appears in real life. But there is no more real life in that sense. Not anymore.
Television is no longer a thing into which people step into and then step out of again. It no longer has that sense of being a passing moment where an appearance is insubstantial because it is temporary. Now television is permanent. It doesn’t turn off late at night, the eagle doesn’t fly above a painted backdrop while the anthem plays. It is everywhere because video is everywhere. Everything is being captured on video through the eyes of surveillance cameras, teenagers pointing cell phones at each other and men sitting in their room and declaiming at a webcam. The real and the fake have merged to spawn something that is real enough to be properly fake and fake enough to pass for real. It is a collective creative act, our final artform whose title is simply, “Life”, as envisioned by those who no longer know what life is.
Obama feels real because he has that same unreal quality, that sense of always being onstage, of an actor who is never out of character because he is always performing. It is an artificial reality that seems super-real, because like video it has that intensity and immediacy that exists to satiate the attention deficit disorder with a surfeit of stimulation. It seems real, only because we no longer know what real is.
When a disaster happens, people reach for an instant baseline of comparison in a movie. Real tragedy seems unreal because it seems cinematic. The story of Obama is equally cinematic, it real because it is like a movie. Except it isn’t a movie, and yet it is, because we experience it in two ways, through the real connection with the economic consequences of his policies, and through the unreal display of his teleprompter fed blatherings, the easy grin that he practices in a mirror and the eyes that never quite look at anything because they are their own reflection.
Obama is a real disaster that seems cinematic. We have all seen this movie, but we have seen two versions of the movie. In one version, a bad unfit man climbs to power and ruthlessly abuses power to achieve his ends. In the other version, a good saintly man is elected and fights desperately to keep the bad men from abusing power. Which of those movies you think that you are watching depends on a variety of factors. But the problem is that reality isn’t a movie. And it doesn’t go away when you change the channel.
When all the bubbles of rhetoric pop, there are still the hard unpleasant realities to deal with. Bailouts and money pits can only bury them for so long. Governments sending money to banks and swapping worthless commodities that only exist in the theory of a theory only work for as long as people believe in them.
Even an unreal economy reported on by an unreal media cheering on an unreal leader can only run for so long until reality punches through the illusion, the curtain falls, the magicians scramble off the stage with rabbits and doves tucked into their pants, and everyone wakes up to realize that the dream is over and we realize that we are entering a world where the stories no longer matter and history is about to begin.