Reality, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan/ Richard Rorty: "is anything people let you get away with."
In my last column I quoted a Newsweek reporter who had interviewed Iraqis before we attacked Iraq: "Now we know Saddam's aides weren't the only ones spinning the truth. It's hard to know what to believe anymore."
But we must believe something. And if we are to live in a world shared with others we must have some beliefs shared among our hearts and minds that make sense of that world, some basic coherent, synoptic, believable constructions of language that truthfully define and describe the parameters of the real world, and that limn the myths, idols, ideals and visions by which we manage our lives together: we need stories that reflect a common reality and our common dreams.
The late Czech poet Zbigniew Herbert describes the goddess Securitas, a late addition to the Roman pantheon responsible for protecting the Emperor: "The domain of Securitas is murky, determined by an unclear threat. Her inventiveness consists in devising ever-new dangers [and] drawing vital forces from our hopes and fears.... She does not promise other worlds, nor does she deceive us with notions of justice ... [only] puts us face to face with the cruel alternative: either security or freedom."If Securitas frowns, he observes, people despair: "Despite this -- or precisely because of this -- they serve her faithfully ... preferring inexorable necessity to deceptive, dangerous freedom."
In recent months, following an epiphany of Securitas staged by the White House, our beliefs/ stories about reality have become splintered, contested and unreliable: there are no widely accepted and coherent beliefs/stories about terrorism, about what we are doing in Iraq, what we should do next, or what our nation should be doing on the world stage, let alone any common account of reality -- in Iraq, in Washington, or on the planet.
Our President tells us that our Constitutional rights are deceptive, dangerous freedoms in the reality of war, and that Securitas demands that he protect us from such folly by spying on us. His government spends our money to buy laudatory narratives from syndicated columnists, and faux news stories from the media. It hammers home story after story about security -- fictions of fear about terrorists plotting nuclear bombs or infectious diseases on our city streets, about the noble shield of Homeland Security and the insecurity of Social Security, and about the dire threats of the worthless, lazy poor.
And we almost let him get away with it. He is still trying to make us believe we can't cope with the insecurity of freedom and the uncertainty of democracy, that we can't be trusted to believe in the right realities, and are incapable of dreaming the right dreams.
But things are changing. In local newspapers and Websites like CommonDreams.org, people are challenging the prefabricated realities and contrived dreams. Just the response to my last column has reminded me of the vast trove of wisdom, hope, good-will, imagination, logic, humor, insights and stories that Americans bring to forging authentic realities and shared dreams. One reader quoted Joseph Heller to remind us: "we have ... the freedom to say NO."
As we must. Herbert also notes the paradox of Securitas: a ruler protected by supernatural powers quickly becomes arrogant and overconfident, above criticism and above the law, thus reducing the security of his realm.
A President deluded by a God of Shock & Awe and a goddess of Security can't be allowed to determine the common reality of the world we live in. A Congress corrupted by money, power and privilege can't be trusted to write laws that reflect the our common dreams
We have to keep saying "no" to the calculated stories promoting artificial realities and autocratic dreams and encourage the proliferation of diverse accounts of the world and the richness of the dreams of common people.
People are already telling different stories, including one in which "Shock & Awe" bombings, use of white phosphorus weapons, revelations of torture and "extraordinary rendition" are highly choreographed production numbers -- deadly, of course, to anyone in the way -- to secure the power of the US President and the corporations who support him, to ensure our fear and compliance, to make us believe that the war on terrorism is the most important reality in the world, and most of all, to prevent us from telling our own stories and determining our own common realities and common dreams.
Securitas was a myth, but a potent political one. Coins with her image were minted by the Emperor Commodus (180 -192 CE) History tells us Commodus liked to dress up like Hercules, with lion skins and a club, and actually fought gladiators and lions in the amphitheater, where (for some reason) he always won. Accounts exist of his slaughter of hundreds of wild animals to cheers from the crowd; it was reported that he was less brutal in public than in private.
Commodus made himself a god and named everything he could after himself (as in "The Commodian Fortunate Senate") and after proclaiming his reign a "Golden Age" he refrained from persecuting Christians in order to keep that title unsullied by the blood of martyrs. Commodus' power was greatly circumscribed by his contempt for the Senate; he was strangled in his bath by an athlete named Narcissus.
In the end, people didn't let him get away with his reality.