by John Rember
And bending down beside the glowing bars
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
—Yeats, “When You are Old”
When was it that reality, after enduring decades of chronic abuse by Americans, turned away and hid its face among the stars?
It’s not like reality has ever been the foundation for the United States of America. The fine, idealistic, abstract language of the Declaration of Independence and the preamble to the American Constitution came out of a tradition of British utopian fiction.
The Puritans wrote of a Shining City on a Hill, even when there was no city and no hill. Thomas More gave the world the ideal state, Utopia, which like a lot of ideal states, depended on slaves to do its dirty work. British colonists in America wrote of, and on, the blank parchment of a rich, unclaimed continent, even when they knew it would take a couple of centuries of genocide to scrape that parchment clean. Jonathan Swift gave the world the airy, arrogant, disconnected country of the smarter-than-human Houyhnhnms.
The slaveholders and oligarchs who wrote the American founding documents were good writers, but they used their skills to write exceptionalist, democratic, rights-of-man fantasy. That fantasy was a deliberately constructed alternative to the official reality of their day—the British Empire, its monarch, its well-drilled military and its machine-like factory workers—and they more or less made their dreams come true, if only on pieces of paper.
Some Americans dabbled in non-fiction, even though their works are remembered as novels and poems and pastoral whimsy. Henry Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman—the authors of the 19th Century American Literature canon, or at least a good part of it—all witnessed a reality that had little in common with advertised notions of American politics, religion, and power.
Hawthorne’s god-fearing Christians looked for betrayal in the dark woods outside their villages, and when they found it they found missing parts of themselves. Melville’s Ahab obsessively stalked the white whale, determined to kill it even after he saw his own image reflected in the whale’s forehead. Thoreau and Whitman spent their literary careers throwing words at a great, wild, beyond-human-scale reality, and hoping some of those words would stick.
These writers saw a nation whose good intentions were undercut by unconscious self-destruction, a nation that was at war with itself, sometimes literally. The most important thing they saw was that the United States was a nation determined to destroy the incomprehensible beauty and variety of the continent it had claimed and conquered.
Numerous foreign visitors, notably de Tocqueville, commented on the American obsession with becoming rich. But those tourists saw only the love of money and not the horror that the love of money gave rise to: the commodification of every natural thing.
Commodify a forest of oak trees or a herd of buffalo or an African tribe, and you have moved that oak forest and buffalo herd and tribe into a vast system of ledger sheets and tax receipts and market futures. What remains of the real is a stump farm or piles of bloody hides or the graves of slaves.
You’ve also done collateral damage to yourself when you use your imagination in this way. When, for example, you identify the foul stench of a giant dairy operation as the smell of money, you’ve destroyed your ability to experience reality through your nose and probably your other four senses. You also may find that your ability to convert sensory data into dollars increases with the distance you live upwind from the dairy, as reality can still show up in a world where even an ideally sealed window now and then springs a real leak.
To the extent that you can buy reality off—that you can use your wealth to move tens of miles upwind of a dairy, for example—you can say reality is for people who lack money. The real function of wealth in America is to give us the time, resources, and space to either construct an unreal world or have one constructed for us. Unreal worlds, for most of us, turn out to be better places to spend our time.
For most of American history, American leaders, even if they couldn’t articulate this vision of things, understood what was at stake. They knew there was a real world that needed to be kept at bay, because it could be lethal on occasion. So while George Armstrong Custer was unable to stop believing in his press releases, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt were able to take action in the face of threats that would destroy the nation’s founding fantasies.
Lincoln, at least for a while, stopped the commodification of human beings, even if he did it in the name of an abstract Union. TR stopped, again for a while, the commodification of the remaining forests in the American West. FDR stopped the Nazis and the Japanese militarists, who were commodifying human beings in such brutal ways that it couldn’t be disguised as anything but murder. It took the incineration of whole civilian populations, but until the advent of flat-world globalization, FDR got the job done.
These three were great full-time presidents because they were at least part-time realists.
1948 was a high point of American realism. In that year, the famously realistic presidential advisor George F. Kennan pointed out that the American Empire had 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population, and that the country needed to devise a foreign policy that would forgo altruism. He said the United States of America should construct a network of alliances and understandings with the elites of lesser nations that would keep them elite while allowing America to maintain its percentage of the world’s wealth. Such alliances and understandings—the levers of empire—were necessary to counter the “envy and resentment” that our wealth would inspire in the poor people in the rest of the world.
Kennan suggested that we forego being a beacon of liberty and democracy and concentrate on using our military and economic might to keep ourselves rich.
Kennan’s ideas encouraged those in our government who saw popular governments in Iran, Guatemala, and Vietnam as threats to America and the corporations and open colonial markets it protected.
Kennan’s most powerful idea was the physical, political, and economic containment of the Soviet Union, and after 1950, China. He foresaw that communism wouldn’t survive its collision with human nature—that over generations, revolutionary fervor would fade, and those systems would fail due to the greed, laziness, corruption, and general incompetence of the people who ran them.
You can argue that Kennan’s brutal assessment of the Soviet system and its future prevented nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 60s. You can argue that any amount of realpolitik was worth that non-outcome, even if the policy of containment did give rise to the Shah of Iran, Henry Kissinger, Vietnam, the Cambodian genocide, various coups and proxy wars in Africa and Latin America, and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Kennan lived until 2005, a few years short of witnessing the failure of capitalism due to the greed, laziness, corruption, and general incompetence of the people who ran it.
A couple of years before Kennan’s death, another American presidential advisor, Karl Rove, told a reporter that America had become an empire, and that empires create their own reality. He meant, in effect, that there was no longer any need for the concept of a real world at the high levels of American government. Rove saw that as a good thing. It wasn’t a good thing.
Once an imperial reality is created, real reality becomes sedition. Dissent—even the dissent of believing what you see rather than what you’re told—is suppressed, ridiculed, ignored, or violently eliminated.
You don’t have to have an empire to have an imperial reality. The same thing can happen within nations, cities, corporations, institutions, families, and individual psyches. One powerful idea can become the organizing principle of a consciousness. When that happens there is no outside experience that cannot be shaped to fit, no bit of data that cannot find its supporting role.
If you believe that, say, human-eating reptilian aliens are running the world from inside amazingly lifelike latex human suits, you can find plenty of evidence, including missing-persons reports and vice-presidential heart transplants, to support that view. You can also find perfectly good evidence that you’re Jesus Christ or Napoleon or Joan of Arc. People have believed those things successfully, and for decades at a time, even when they weren’t Jesus or Napoleon or Joan of Arc.
Somewhere between Nixon’s Christmas bombing of Hanoi and the Alzheimer’s-tinged valedictory speeches of Ronald Reagan, somewhere between TV screens showing the helicopter evacuation of the Saigon embassy and newer, bigger, squarer, flatter screens showing the video-game destruction of Iraqi bridges in the first Gulf War, somewhere between the Bretton Woods economic summit and George H. W. Bush’s refusal to eat broccoli, America made a fatal-for-sanity choice, and succumbed to the reality it wanted to have rather than the reality it had. Surface came to be valued over depth, the conceptual over the perceptual.
In more familiar terms, Americans chose not to believe their lying eyes, especially when those lying eyes told them they had lost a war, had become a nation of obese slugs, and had hocked their grandchildren for oil. Getting ready for the final break, Americans had rejected Jimmy Carter, who told them their dependence on oil imports would by definition end their independence, and embraced Reagan, who told them that it was morning in America.
In retrospect, the decision by the collective psyche to elect Reagan looks pretty stupid, but only in the sense that someone is stupid who believes he’s Napoleon when he’s not Napoleon. Batshit crazy is a better description.
If there was one crystalline moment when reality well and truly abandoned the Empire, it came in the summer of 1990. That was when a working-class Idaho family received an out-of-court settlement from the Disney Corporation. The previous October, the family had been arrested — the whole family — in a gift shop at Disneyland. Their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter had been accused of shoplifting. Members of the family were taken to a back room of the shop until, a couple of hours later, it was discovered that the piggy bank the little girl was grasping in her stroller really had been paid for. Not only that, but the gift shop had overcharged the family $3 on their purchases. Given the circumstances, Disney had to be eager to settle out of court. It would be tough to find a jury unsympathetic to a two-and-a-half-year-old false arrest victim who had been overcharged for a piggy bank.
But the thrust of the lawsuit was not concerned with the arrest. When the family was taken to the back room, the couple’s older daughter, then four years old, observed a number of Disney characters — likely Mickey, Donald, and Goofy — walking down a back alley without their giant grinning heads on. Mickey, Donald, and Goofy were headless, and, no doubt, grinless. What had seemed like big friendly animals were really tired and sweaty human beings walking around inside amazingly lifelike cartoon suits.
Back home after their back-room ordeal, the family found itself in a world unblessed by illusion. The children began destroying their Disney toys by throwing them at their bedroom walls. Their parents tossed all Disney videos and other Disney-trademarked material in the trash. The formerly cheerful and enthusiastic four-year-old became withdrawn and refused to get out of bed or dress herself, and treatment by a psychiatrist became necessary.
Children pay attention to what’s going on around them. Much psychotherapy focuses on those years from one to four, where our minds are inscribed with simple axioms: people close to you can or cannot be trusted, your family is a place where you are safe or where you have to fight for your life, your perceptions are or aren’t able to apprehend reality.
It’s easy to understand how seeing a headless Goofy on the day your whole family got arrested for shoplifting could supply the wrong answers to these questions.
Had the case gone to trial, we might have heard a psychiatrist bear solemn witness to the awful damage reality can do to a child’s mind. One can imagine a diagnosis of trauma-induced retail phobia, a crippling condition rendering its victim an exile from those large regions of America covered by souvenir gift-shops, theme parks, and malls.
A fundamental dishonesty marks the discourse of Empire, especially when it comes to picking leaders. It is no accident that five of our last five presidents have come from families containing an alcoholic. The method many such families use to make it through their dark nights of the soul is denial, which is to say, for example, that any pile of elephant shit on the living room carpet is immediately identified as a footstool brought back from last year’s vacation to Kenya, even when there was no Kenya and no vacation.
To belabor the point:
Ronald Reagan’s father was an alternately violent and sentimental alcoholic.
George H.W. Bush’s father was an alcoholic.
Bill Clinton’s stepfather was a violent alcoholic.
George W. Bush was an alcoholic. (I can’t find much evidence that he was a violent alcoholic, but he was certainly a violent president of the United States.)
Barack Obama’s father was an alcoholic.
Something is happening here. It’s not clear, exactly, what it is, probably because the people who make it to the top of our political system and therefore shape our public discourse are adept at the magical thought and the happy lie. These start out as survival strategies and then become the prime methods of dealing with other people. Lying is indulged in even when it would be easier and less complicated to tell the truth. Magical thinking is preferred to seeing things as they are even when it comes in the form of nightmare.
But you can say one true thing: alcoholic families have been fine training grounds for our current crop of politicians. From the time they were small political children, these politicians knew better than to look inward—in that direction lay madness, pain, and failure.
They learned how to scapegoat. They craved the unconditional approval of others, probably because unconditional approval is nonexistent in alcoholic families. They became adept at papering over the cracks of broken relationships, and if they grew up emotionally disengaged, even in their most intimate relationships, it’s because emotional disengagement allowed them to survive in a house with an addict.
Give them a chance, and they’ll try to fix the world, even if they’re not competent to do so. The broken vase can be glued back together and put on a high shelf, even if it no longer holds water. The crumpled and torn photos can be hidden or burned, the smashed mirror above the mantel replaced with a pastoral painting, the police can be assured that everything is under control and nobody did anything wrong. An adult persona can be constructed in a household with an addicted parent, but that persona hides an abandoned and emotionally hungry child still waiting for a happy birthday party, a child whose reality has to be constructed out of lies and hope every day. Telling the truth means going back to being that abandoned child, and too often that child has starved to death or gone mad.
Subjecting a politician to psychoanalysis isn’t a job for the squeamish. Sometimes it’s only ashes, bones, shards, and tear-soaked, kapok-hemorrhaging, eyeless teddy bears under the carefully-crafted surface.
It’s depressing to work through the fierce denials, violent rages, and tears, and the realization that here’s a person all too representative of the crazed people who elected him. No wonder he’s inadequate to the tasks of setting our energy policies, maintaining our social safety nets, regulating our corporations, and ending our wars.
Perhaps Disneyland—where all the employees not in cartoon suits are required to smile and keep smiling, upon pain of dismissal—gives our culture’s malnourished inner children haven from a world where the leaders are addicts or the facilitators of addiction, if not to alcohol then to money or power or sex or antidepressants.
A carefully invented cartoon reality gives us respite from a world where the cartoon characters are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, where Tomorrowland is a place where the currency is worthless, the safety nets are torn and rotting, and poor old people steal cat food from employed people’s cats. It’s a place where the bad toys have all the batteries, where the rides are crawling commutes to and from mind-numbing jobs. Goofy’s big head is latex illusion, we know, but it is an illusion we accept with gratitude and relief.
Of course, that begs the question of what it’s like to be Goofy, to sweat all day inside of eighty pounds of Goofy suit, to wonder if your job has become your identity, to think that maybe after ten years or so of wandering around Disneyland and having your picture taken with three-year-olds, you’ll become Goofy, and you’ll forget where the exit from the Magic Kingdom is. You’ll forget you have a human family, and even when Mickey and Minnie and Donald crowd around and beg you to take your Goofy suit off, you won’t know what they’re talking about.
Anyone who has watched the debates during the presidential election season without realizing that the reptiles onstage are all sweating inside Goofy suits hasn’t been paying attention.
Philosophers of science insist that the scientific method is the best way of apprehending reality the human mind has ever devised. But there is a gap between data and hypothesis, evidenced when the same data spawns competing narratives about, say, climate change, species preservation, energy technology or heart disease.
Hard data can show that the temperature of Venus is too hot for life as we know it, and that ten years of having rib steak and ice cream for dinner will cause a rise in cardiovascular disease in a population of highly-stressed, subliminally hostile middle-class white males. It can show that DNA can be damaged by the ionizing radiation from a reactor meltdown, and that the cheaply tapped deposits of petroleum are gone. It can show that many large, slow, and tasty animals disappeared from Australia and North America about the same time human beings appeared on those continents.
But you can’t say with certainty that increased greenhouse gas emissions from industrial civilization will result in a Venus-style runaway greenhouse effect here on earth, because scientists who get their grants from oil companies will come up with equally certain counter-narratives. You can’t say for certain that hunters and gatherers increase the extinction rate with their hunting and gathering, lest you run into lawyers for Native American tribes whose creation narratives have those tribes living in harmony with charismatic megafauna. Unless you want an argument, you can’t say that industrial civilization will decline in proportion to available petroleum, or that nuclear power is lethal over generations, or that if they want to live longer, all highly stressed, subliminally hostile middle-class white males should become vegetarian Buddhists.
The scientific method might be the best method of apprehending reality the human mind has ever devised, but it’s uncertain that the human mind can apprehend the scientific method. Besides the disconnect between data and hypothesis, there are also disconnects between data and future data, between present causes and future effects. Certainty is always subject to further research. It’s a phenomenon that many scientists have used to prolong their careers well past the rancid stage.
Open-ended data collection means that every scientific study will miss crucial variables, every set of study parameters will argue against extrapolation, and that future studies need to be designed and conducted.
In a scientific arena of any size—and it’s hard to imagine a scientific arena so small that a half-dozen quark-sized angels can’t be comfortably clubbing each other to death in it—any hypothesis will generate skeptical opposition. There is always room for another interpretation of the data, or more data, or denial of data, or another grant application. A flurry of hypotheses from skeptics—who tend to profit from the status quo—will generate policy inertia.
A hypothesis: you can’t use the scientific method to think your way out of a self-constructed reality.
Some areas of policy inertia in the face of accelerating and lethal change:
–Nuclear wastes and accidents
–Oceanic dead zones and plastic-filled gyres
–Pesticides and herbicides
–Estrogen- and neurotransmitter-mimicking compounds in food
–Military/pharma/wildlife/geriatric industrial complexes
I could go on, but this list suggests why Disneyland — even if you’re working there as Goofy or Mickey or Donald — might be preferable to the here and now. Any of the available virtual realities — even the latest version of Grand Theft Auto — is preferable to growing up and facing the facts.
Happily for the Disney Corporation and for the American Empire, growing up has become optional, and plenty of people have decided not to. You can’t blame them. Growing up means looking at the hard data, constructing your own narrative from them, and leaving the secure future for the lethal present. As a scientist friend of mine says, “Those of us with children and grandchildren cannot go there.”
There is no divine or human rule that says the human mind should be any good at apprehending unreality, or even most of reality.
Scientific instruments have extended our senses across the universe and into invisible wavelengths and subatomic dimensions and black-hole singularities, and we’re asked to believe in those things. We can’t, not without a leap of faith comparable to the ones that let us believe in triune gods or spirits in trees.
Derivative finances have abstracted wealth and its twin, debt, beyond any human event horizon. Advertising images target the areas of our brain that don’t have language and we react only on the level of fight or flight, good or evil, ecstasy or horror.
The planet’s atmosphere has thickened and darkened even as the sunlight hitting its surface has become more UV intense, but it’s hard to see that, even on a clear day. The weather has detached from history, but we still check the weather reports and ignore their subtexts of disbelief. Medicine has allowed aging humans to emotionally disconnect from the inevitability of death, changing the direction and intensity of our philosophical gaze, and the landscape of our bodies beyond recognition.
Contrast this environment to the environment of a group of humans in northern Africa 65,000 years ago, who were equipped to apprehend their horizons, their climate, their bodies, and their economies. They knew how to hunt and how to gather, and if they were hard on their environment, it’s instructive to remember that they drove fewer animals to extinction in their millennia than the American Empire has in its decades.
The paleolithic environment, even when it hasn’t been physically destroyed, is nonetheless obscured by issues of who owns what, what animals to legally protect, what politician to vote for, what game to put on the Wii, what plane to get on to interview for what job. Only with great effort can you see through the trademarked hallucination, the groomed surface, the pixels and mechanical actuators and the ones and zeroes in a server somewhere — to a distant future world where crystals in windblown bedrock glint in undimmed starlight. That world is certain. Not much else is.
Yet uncertainty has a future. You cannot look at this world, even through hunter-gatherer eyes, and not come to the conclusions that industrial civilization is constructed of the too solid flesh of imagination, and that industrial-era humans are animal-imagination hybrids, the result of an unnatural selection taking place ever since humans started messing about with reality. The extent of that evolution can be seen, not just in the fantastical, anthropomorphized creatures running for president, but in the image of the human being that is reflected back from a blank computer screen.
Recent brain research has indicated that measurable physical changes result when people start spending five or six hours a day playing videogames or surfing the Internet. Parts of the brain shrink and other parts expand, and attention spans, relations with other people, need for stimulation, and language usage all change. It’s not hard to envision the computer screen as the narrow part of an hourglass, and as time passes, the reality of the Internet side of the screen sifts through to the brain of the computer user, creating a perfect replica of itself on the other side, in among the folds of the wetware.
So a symmetry emerges between realities, one that gives a bit of credence to those philosophers of idealism, who hold that all reality is the electrical charges that rocket from neuron to neuron in our skulls. That’s a dangerous position, one that supports magical thinking — if you believe, it will be so, in the Matrix — but consider that the process can go both ways, and what exists in the folds of the brain can, with enough thought and effort, be painstakingly created elsewhere. Something a lot like magical thinking has created the world of artifice and algorithms we live in, and there’s no going back to a world where imagination and its products don’t exist. Like it or not, we have to live in a world that imagination has created.
It doesn’t take a scientific study to know that humanity has fouled its nest by thinking the unthinkable into being.
But we still have a world to work with, however sullied, and for the moment let us imagine the one that would result if our hopes for posterity prevail: aside from a radically different climate and the occasional nuclear accident, gross national products will resume their rise, fueled by a boom in solar energy and green technology. There will be stunning advances in home entertainment systems, heroic medical achievements, ever more precise weapons — collateral damage and dissent may simultaneously become a thing of the past — and whole cities under glass, and franchise outlets for everything. Wilderness ecologies will be finally be assigned a cultural and economic value, as they will have to be painstakingly reconstructed inside ultraviolet- and acid rain-proof structures. Population growth will continue, helped along by advances in genetically-modified wheat and rice, macro-engineered algae farms, and new hive-like cities. Exponential efficiencies in resource and energy use and communication will put the lie to Jevons’ Paradox. Longevity drugs will allow Social Security recipients to get back to work as productive centenarians. A gentle inflation will erase all long-term debt.
Or not. Maybe we’ll end up turning the earth into George F. Kennan’s nightmare, a radioactive desert moonscape, one where starving humans are confined to caves and ruins and drink foul water and don’t look too closely at the meat they’re eating, and human knowledge and technology diminishes with each burned book and broken machine and dead battery.
Where can you go — even in your imagination — if you’ve got grandchildren in this world?
It’s a measure of human adaptability that should climate change and civilization’s collapse be spread over fifty or a hundred years, people will go about their daily routines without much awareness that their yesterdays were different than their todays. They may remember visiting the unshielded outside, but it won’t be home to them. Home will be the dark basement of an abandoned building when it isn’t a subway tunnel, but it will have its comforts. Lifespans will shorten and chromosomes will be ionized, but not so much that people won’t have the occasional normal child, and those children will have the occasional normal child.
Even were we to project the darkest trends forward to that day when the last band of humans is fighting the last band of cockroaches for the last cache of civil-defense crackers, I’d put my money on the humans. And I’d make a side bet that shortly thereafter, the cockroaches would be a domesticated food-source. And one last wager: I’d bet that the children of that last band, wandering with cockroach-breath through the dark underground corridors of a ruined city, will look up through holes in the concrete, see the too-bright glint of the morning sun, and will greet the new day with awe, and joy, and wonder at the miracle of their existence.
If you missed the live version, you can listen to the podcast of my 15 April 2012 radio interview on The Lifeboat Hour with Michael C. Ruppert
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