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What is Reality Anyway?
My wife tells me that I should just stop listening to the all news, everywhere -- particularly about Iraq -- because of my habit of protesting minor factual idiocies with enormous tirades. But I just can't quit it. Whenever elemental truth mixes with falsehoods, I am compelled to obsessively separate truth from everything else. I perform this ritual religiously and robotically, and as privately as possible.So, when on local radio I heard the liberal commentator, confused as ever about what she should say about Iraq, blurt out to her guest interviewee "...the so-called war-on-terror. Er....I should say the war-on-terror," I went nuts.
These pop culture inculcated, NPR radio-heads continually emphasize likability and reasonableness over truth. So much so that this one at least can't figure out whether or not the war-on-terror is actually real or not. Though they have probably heard about Chomsky and "framing" dozens of times, perhaps even talked over cocktails about the zealot professor himself, they still haven't yet figured out how to apply his basic teaching to the horrible events in the Middle East we're all watching, and our military is fighting its way through. So if G.W. Bush stands up in his polka-dotted underwear in the midst of swarms of complicated international tensions, and declaims that what we've got here is a simple little ol' 'war-on-terror,'well then, by golly, according to my local NPR radio host, a 'war on terror' is what we've got. (Learned people who speak Arabic, have lived in the Middle East, and have enormous earned wisdom, put on your dunce caps and repent of your stupidity in imagining that anything but a 'war on terror' could exist.)
And if some enterprising person should blurt out a rejoinder "well, what we've really got here is a bunch of desperate, literalist, Islamic zealots acting out the ancient mythology of redemptive, religious violence in response to current socio-economic conditions" all he gets is a blank look, along with a not to subtle "go back to your ivy league tower" comment. In fact, the enterprising analyst is articulate, complex and correct and Bush is inarticulate, simplistic and wrong, but when the score is tallied, Bush and his 'war-on-terror' win, and the articulate, professor-type dude looses. The question we must ask is 'why?'
Bush and his minions win, because however confused they may be about complex, international reality and however inactive they may be on national concerns, they are brilliant about the reptilian part of the human brain which controls the limbic, primal response of the human creature. Post-9/11 they saw a way to manipulate the pre-lingual survival urges of the population. By tapping this reservoir of psychological survivalism, they thus engaged the nation in an unwinnable war against the fundamentalist, Muslim myth of violence-based redemption. Our enemies rejoiced, seeing us swallow the bait.
We could spend the next 50 years in Iraq and still not win, because defeat of the myth is impossible. What more proof do Islamic zealots-in-training need in order to step up to their sacred martyrdom duty but to look at the fact of the entire U.S. Armed Forces, at the astounding cost of hundreds of billions of dollars, camped permanently in Iraq behind 15 foot thick blast walls, setting up a government whose main purpose will be to extract oil on terms favorable to the U.S. and its allies? This will produce violent actors forever. And note, these folks are best understood not as 'terrorists' but as 'violent actors, ' since they see themselves as playing the protagonists' roles in a mythic "war against the infidels." So, the administration, mired in its infantile grandiosity of heroic conquests, cannot imagine, much less envision the horrible price to be paid in the future for their abandonment of it in pursuit of mythic phantasms and ego-clutching glory.
Defeat of the Islamic myth can only be accomplished by creation of a more compelling myth. And this is where liberals have gone astray -- because they have not offered, at a high enough decibel level, a more compelling myth, such as "sustainable simplicity," and have instead focused purely on tactical "we're losing in Iraq" complaints. This invites avalanches of spurious "what we should have done" explanations, when in fact, the main problem is that the basic cold-worldview of this administration is toxic and outmoded, and should be discarded.
And for all this administration's tactical adherence to Christianity at critical strategic moments, they really don't believe in the essentials of the Christian message, which advises that trust be placed not in hoarding of energy supplies, but in God. They really aren't worried at all about what the Bible says about what will befall the man who builds bigger and bigger barns in which to store his grain, but who late one night finds suddenly that his soul is required of him by the divine Presence, and he can't seem to find it. In their myth, reality is horsepower, house square footage and anything supersized. But in God's reality - at least the Christian form of it -- the Bible teaches that on the day of the wedding feast the powerful and mighty are busy making money and so skip the party while the impoverished are invited in.
You don't have to be a Christian to realize the power of this message, and why disenfranchised people all around the world resist injustice with a megaphone in one hand and a Bible in the other. This message was leveraged by the American Civil Rights movement, but then strangely set aside by those who inherited it. Some have tried to recreate it anew. But in an increasingly pluralistic world, this has diminishing returns.
The way forward is via a mythology based in a trans-religious ethic. It might go something like this: The fact that human beings are alive on this planet is extremely important. We are in the middle of a cosmic, evolutionary experiment whose end is unclear. As all races, cultures and nations of the planet lurch forward into an unknown future, continuity of existence requires that we reduce our ecological footprint in order to maintain the robustness of the global ecosystem that we all inhabit. This myth is large enough to encompass all religions (or none at all), all cultures, all peoples.
Not doing this, and essentially consuming the planet's resources and destroying the earth, through military or industrial means, is not unlike betting all of another man's money on a losing poker hand, and then inviting him to play out the turn of the final card, when he has no options left. In the end, it's just selfish, this not being a moral condemnation but simply a neutral term which describes a man's obsession with his 'self' to the exclusion of other realities. We would say that such a man lives in a very small reality.
So the task is to enlarge everyone's reality, while at the same time recognizing that the administration and popular media are constantly reducing, restricting and contriving reality.
What is reality anyway? It's like that guy who recently had extremely drug-resistant tuberculosis: so bad that his personal movements from Europe to eventual quarantine in the U.S. were tracked and analyzed endlessly in the press. Ooops. He doesn't have the really bad form. Ooops, there aren't any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Ooops, Jesus didn't really drive a black SUV (except on Southpark.) Hey, is all the oil gone? How'd that happen? Hey, the bees are all dead, how are we going to pollinate blossom's on our food supply? Oops, it's 135 degrees in Arizona this week. Hey, New York's under water. Hey, all our kids have asthma. Hey, under a microscope male human sperm look like their drugged.
Reality is paying attention to what is really going on, and planning for what we want to have happen in the future. One train is headed to oblivion. It is going to take some of us with it. There is another train in the station, destination unknown, but more promising. (At least there's a guy inside strumming a guitar.) Some people are going to get on this train to see where it goes. Some thieves are going to get on the train too. Others are going to play it safe and get on no train until the destination becomes more clear.
It's like the Lotto. You can't win if you don't play.
Kip Leitner lives in Philadelphia, PA. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org