I miss Reality.
And I’m old enough to remember when there really was such a thing.
The way Reality worked was dictated by the laws governing the physical world. Those laws identified objective truths: the demonstrable, repeatable, sometimes measurable underpinning of Reality as we once knew it. This Reality was discovered and tracked through the collection of perceivable evidence that existed independent of the intentions we brought to it. Reality was coupled with the obligation to investigate and confirm our opinions according to a mutually accepted standard of proof. If you said red and blue make green, you had to mix the two and see what happened before it could be accepted as truth. Delineating Reality was a process of interaction and debate. Seeking truths about Reality was considered one of the higher human activities. And once Reality was identified, humans learned from it and adapted themselves accordingly, completing an organic cycle.
Now, however, we refuse to even admit Reality exists.
Or at least that’s what my friend Leroy maintained when I stopped by to chat the other afternoon. Leroy is a Vietnam veteran and runs a rehab clinic. He keeps the television in his office tuned to the cable news channels every minute he’s there.
“I don’t believe politics these days,” Leroy barked before I had said more than hello. “This is the worst it’s ever been. Even Nixon admitted he had to meet a standard of truth while he was steadily trying to subvert it. But these guys today… They just say whatever they want to say, whether it’s real or not and don’t think twice about it. And then they repeat what they said over and over and over and use the fact that it has been repeated so many times as proof that what they’ve claimed is true. It’s shameless: The planet is gasping but they insist it’s fine and don’t care what the evidence is. The war’s working because it’s supposed to, never mind what things look like on the ground.
“And any difference with this approach is treated like more ideology. ‘Obama’s a Muslim and if you don’t think so, that’s just your opinion.’ They don’t get it. Everything is not opinion. There are things that are true and things that aren’t. But if you don’t accept that there is a true and a false, then you don’t have to examine, question, or listen to anyone else, all you have to do is shout louder. It’s the same bullshit dynamic I see in my clients every day, except my clients’ vehicle for fooling themselves is booze and dope rather than Fox News and CNN. The process, however, is damn near identical.”
Once Leroy got that off his chest, he walked me through a short list of the techniques that have displaced the Reality on which we were raised.
The first and most widely used is Avoidance. Potentially troublesome subjects are maneuvered around, blocked out, or dismissed as impolite. This is the proverbial gorilla in the corner of the room, or the King’s new clothes. The premise to this approach is that if we don’t notice Reality then somehow it isn’t there. Leroy noted that a lot of families cope with their drunk relatives that way. Likewise, racism was approached with Avoidance for much of our history, insuring that hate operated unremarked upon and hence unchecked. Using Avoidance, we attempt to negotiate the troublesome parts of our circumstance by closing our eyes.
According to Leroy, the second line of defense is Denial. Once an uncomfortable reality is forced upon us, it can be finessed away by simply declaring it doesn’t exist. Denial is one of the recognized stages of grief, in which people refuse to admit, often quite hysterically, that their loved ones are gone. Climate change is shaping up to be the prime political example of Denial. The implications of the altered chemistry of our atmosphere are so unsettling that we cannot bring ourselves to admit it is true, no matter how much evidence to the contrary accumulates. We protect ourselves from inner turmoil by refusing to accept bad news as real and using that refusal to guide the course of events.
When Reality pushes past Denial, the next response is Spin. Spin takes unwelcome input and frames and molds its appearance to what the spinner wishes it to be. The effect is to generate illusions and transform Reality into what we want it to be by convincing each other that it can’t be what it seems and must be something else. “Collateral damage” and “light at the end of the tunnel” were Spin classics. We’ve all witnessed the process whenever wars, elections, or Wall Street are discussed in public by those in power or seeking it.
The final technique Leroy identified was Projection. While Spin is essentially a counterpunch, Projection is an offensive weapon, avoiding the uncomfortable truth by spreading an alternative version of Reality to displace or obscure the real one. This new “truth” is generated inside ourselves and overlaid on communal perceptions, often aggressively promoting an agenda. Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, the Invisible Hand of the Market, and the Domino Theory were all projections that experienced great success before finally coming apart. Projection lets us at least temporarily transform anything into what we expect it to be and get others to do likewise.
I had to go once Leroy’s list was finished and he walked me to the door.
“Don’t forget,” he admonished, “someone pays a heavy price when Reality finally catches up. We learned that the hard way back in the paddies. My Battalion commander insisted Charlie couldn’t be nearby, even though we’d seen tracks. So he sent us right into the worst ambush ever. The patrol carried eleven grunts home in bags after that one and I lost my foot. Denying Reality is not a game.”
Leroy couldn’t quite let go of that thought, limped out to the curb, and yelled after me as I headed up the street.
“Tell America to Get Real,” Leroy shouted, “our lives depend on it.