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Requiem for Reality

Emerson said, “…wise men pierce this rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things.” It’s in his essay, “Nature,” and he was talking about the sacrifice of sacred truth to profane ambitions:

When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of ideas is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires, the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise,–and duplicity and falsehood take place of simplicity and truth, the power over nature as an interpreter of the will, is in a degree lost; new imagery ceases to be created, and old words are perverted to stand for things which are not; a paper currency is employed, when there is no bullion in the vaults. In due time, the fraud is manifest, and words lose all power to stimulate the understanding or the affections.

Oh how I wish America had listened. The reality of visible things is in retreat, and in its place we have Glenn Beck, Drudge et al, masters of the art of replacing simplicity and truth with duplicity and falsehood.

It’s no idle worry. When that infamous Bush aide scoffed at the idea of a “reality-based community,” he meant it. Nearly 20 percent of Americans believe President Obama is a Muslim, more, probably, than know what a Muslim is. For many, the villain is not unemployment. The villains are the unemployed. Bush didn’t wreck the economy, Obama did. Health insurance companies aren’t the problem, government is the problem.

Cry, baby, cry, for reality is in retreat, driven back by the power-mad and the impossibly irresponsible. Reality’s assailants do not realize that once they’ve virtualized the earth, they too will float free of its blue assurance, vulnerable to the next big illusion. Gravity needs mass, and right now American politics is massless.

The power to trump reality with unreality has long been fretted over, from Horkheimer and Adorno to Lippmann and Orwell. Jurgen Habermas’ doctoral thesis, “The Transformation of the Public Sphere,” was, in part, a meditation on the political consequences of  mass audiences separated from the truth of their lives by the real barbed wire (see image above).

In other words, we knew it was coming. For that matter, we knew it had happened before. And still, and still…

In a recent speech about the importance of truth to democracy, P.J. O’Rourke, no liberal ideologue, said:

Information is the essence of what might be called the “Attitude of Liberty” — the feeling of being free.

People must, of course, feel free of physical and economic oppression. But first they must feel free of ignorance…

…There’s power in the Attitude of Liberty — a sense that one has some knowledge, some understanding, and therefore some control, if only control over one’s own ideas.

The strength of America is not economic, military, or diplomatic. The strength of America is an idea — an idea of a place where people have information, understanding, and control over their lives.

Free of ignorance. But ignorance is precisely what is being promoted by many in the media. They undermine democracy to do little more than sucker us with a carnival barker’s cynical promise that there really is a living, two-headed child in their sideshow tents.

I still remember the time when, as a much-too-innocent cub reporter, a politician lied to me for the first time. He was chairman of a statehouse budget committee, and he lied about some cuts I knew had already been made. “You’re lying,” I said. He smiled. That’s it. He smiled.

But now it’s the lied-to media that’s smiling, lost, I fear, in the seductiveness of Unreality. A journalist subservient to facts is not nearly as celebrity-sexy as a reporter who makes up worlds, a reporter who is more important than truth.

Emerson got this at a time America was just beginning to come to grips with itself. Now we’ve lost our grip, and it may be too late to regain it.

A friend of mine asked me recently, “Can you imagine what they are going to say about us three generations down the road, when they’re all wearing gas masks?” In fact, I can imagine it, and it’s not pretty.

Another friend, Paul Begala, wrote a piece more than 10 years ago about the failures of our generation. I took him to task in print, pointing to some grand achievements and great artists. I’m afraid he was right and I was wrong. We are, collectively, failing, and not because the tasks are too difficult, but because we are too easily seduced.

We’re not the Me Generation. We’re the Knee Generation, and we’re willing to go down for anyone with a dollar and a holler.

I know I’m preaching to the converted here, to those who have remained upright and ready to fight for reality, beauty, truth, justice. But this Requiem for Reality is for everyone in the church.  Sleepers, sinners and saints alive, awake.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith