When a nation becomes unmoored from reality, it retreats into a world of magic. Facts are accepted or discarded according to the dictates of a preordained cosmology. The search for truth becomes irrelevant. Our national discourse is dominated by manufactured events, from celebrity gossip to staged showcasings of politicians to elaborate entertainment and athletic spectacles. All those are sold to us through the detailed personal narratives of those we watch. “The pseudo-events which flood our consciousness are neither true nor false in the old familiar senses,” Boorstin wrote. “The very same advances which have made them possible have also made the images—however planned, contrived, or distorted—more vivid, more attractive, more impressive, and more persuasive than reality itself.”
—Christopher Hedges, The Empire of Illusion
If Sarah Palin didn’t exist, our celebrity driven, infotainment industry would have invented her. She’s the perfect interviewer’s “get”— huge name recognition, attractive, perky, a fanatic fan base. And she tosses a mean word salad, making her eminently quotable and an endless font of comedy gold for entertainers and bloggers everywhere. (Mea culpa.)
The publication of her book Going Rogue has the mainstream media pursuing her with an intensity not seen since the last shiny object filled their lenses, the Balloon Boy family drama flimflam, to which the Palin Phenomenon (PP) bears an eerie resemblance. PP is reality tv at its finest, an early 21st century proof of concept for The Matrix, an artificial reality in which the virtual displaces the real.
But instead of a virtual reality constructed and managed by a suddenly self-aware intelligent computer network (the operative concept behind the The Terminator films as well), the operators of our contemporary virtual reality are media moguls like Rupert Murdoch.
Murdoch of Mordor spent half a billion dollars building his cable network before it generated its first dime of profit. In the process he succeeded in constructing his own artificial reality, proving Marshall Mcluhan’s dictum that the medium really is the message. In The Foxiverse, the bad guys are liberal, freedom-denying government regulators. The good guys and gals are heroines like Sarah Barracuda who promise to deliver us from fascist-commie-pinko-socialist plots to take away our liberties, like the right to bear arms at presidential speeches and to shout down whomever we damn well please while practicing town hall democracy.
What accounts for the Palin Phenomenon? For the answer we turn to Christopher Hedges‘ latest book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Though written during the Nov. ‘ 08 election and thus before Palin really hit her stride, I’m sure that if he were writing the book today, Palin would have merited more than the book’s two brief references. She is in every way the perfect embodiment of the nexus between politics, psychology, contemporary culture, and the cult of personality, set in a time of economic and existential anxiety.
The subject of Empire of Illusion is our contemporary “celebrity culture”, driven by a corporatist media that exploits the fascination the masses have with media stars, be they actors, musicians, politicians, talk show hosts, or professional wrestlers. In Chapter One, titled appropriately enough, The Illusion of Literacy, Hedges writes:
Celebrity culture has bequeathed us what Benjamin DeMott calls “junk politics.” Junk politics does not demand justice or the reparation of rights. It personalizes and moralizes issues rather than clarifying them. “It’s impatient with articulated conflict, enthusiastic about America’s optimism, and moral character, and heavily dependent on feel-your-pain language and gesture.” The result of junk politics is that nothing changes– “meaning zero interruption in the processes that strengthen existing, interlocking systems of socioeconomic advantage.” It redefines traditional values, tilting “courage toward braggadocio, sympathy towards mawkishness, humility towards self-disrespect, identification of ordinary citizens toward distrust of brains.”
President Obama is an obvious embodiment of this “distrust of brains”, especially among the creationist-believing Christian fundamentalists who form the core of the Palinistas; as are all other “liberal elites.” As for sympathy, the Teabaggers have gone way beyond mere mawkishness and have descended into sociopathy, as this clip from a recent health care town hall meeting in Chicago shows. Here a grieving woman, Midge Hough, is ridiculed for blaming the unnecessary death of her daughter-in-law on our failed health care system.
Hedges continues his citation of Mott:
Junk politics “miniaturizes large, complex problems at home while maximizing threats from the above. It’s also given to abrupt, unexplained reversals of its own public stances, often spectacularly bloating problems previous miniaturized. And finally it seeks at every turn to obliterate voters consciousness of socioeconomic and other differences in their midst.”
Exorbitant corporate CEO salaries and extravagant Wall Street bonuses are just the most obvious manifestations of our growing socioeconomic differences. CEO pay has exploded by orders of magnitude since the Reagan presidency of the ’80s, while the income of ordinary workers has remained flat. Previous to the last presidential election, however, such huge disparities had been held up as examples of the American Dream, a dream that made it possible for your average Joe Plumbers to become millionaires, if only the goddamn government would get out of the way.
Poor Sam Wurzelbacher, however, can’t seem to grasp the fact that 37% of the Democrats’ subsequent American Recovery Act of 2009 went almost entirely to personal income tax cuts, which he can use to help make his dream come true; while the kind of government deregulation he favors resulted in the collapse of the financial markets, which cut off funds to local banks that would have otherwise been available to make small business loans to aspiring entrepreneurs like himself.
But that’s what happens when you choose the blue pill over the red pill.
Since the election, the unconscious anger and resentment that these radical socioeconomic disparities naturally engender has been turned inside out and projected upon the Democratic Congress and the Obama Administration, which is faced with the near impossible task of rescuing a government that the Rethuglicans promised they would “drown in a bathtub.”
(I believe this sudden exteriorized and redirected anger, along with the loss of empathy evident in the health care debate seen above, is a direct consequence of entering what Jacques Ellul calls the “activation stage” of fear based propaganda; see this site for other references to Ellul.)
Cutting to the psychological chase, Hedges observes:
Politics has become a product of a diseased culture that seeks its purpose in celebrities who are, as Boorstin writes, “receptacles into which we pour own purposelessness. They are nothing but ourselves seen in a magnifying mirror.” Those captivated by the cult of celebrity do not examine voting records or compare verbal claims with written and published facts and reports. The reality of their worlds is whatever the latest cable news show, political leader, advertiser, or loan officer says is reality… They repeat thought-terminating cliches and slogans….
No better example of that than the interviews of various Palinistas at a recent book signing, posted by my compatriot Michael Hart here. God knows what kind of cognitive meltdown these individuals would have suffered had they been reminded that Palin, in her vice-presidential debate with Joe Biden, expressed support for the bank bailouts and stimulus plan initiated by her hero, George W. Bush.
As for the role of the MSM in maintaining our matrix of illusions:
Reporters, especially those on television, no longer ask whether the message is true but whether the pseudo-events worked or did not work as political theater. Pseudo-events are judged on how effectively we have been manipulated by illusion. Those events that appear real are relished and lauded. Those that fail to create a believable illusion are deemed failures. Truth is irrelevant. Those who succeed in politics, as in most of the culture, are those who create the most convincing fantasies.
As for the role that our own nervous systems play in maintaining this matrix of illusions, neurocognitve studies show that the brain uses the same neural circuitry to process external stimuli as it does hallucinations; indeed, without appropriate environmental clues, can’t distinguish one from the other, the reason why dreams seem so real. This naturally adds to the problem of distinguishing reality from pseudo-reality:
A public that can no longer distinguish between fact and fiction is left to interpret reality through illusion. Random facts or obscure bits of data and trivia are used either to bolster illusion and give it credibility; or discarded if they interfere with the message. The worse reality becomes—the more, for example, foreclosures and unemployment sky-rocket—the more people seek comfort in illusions. When opinion cannot be distinguished from facts, when there is no universal standard to determine truth in law, in science, in scholarship, or in reporting the events of the day, when the most valued skill is the ability to entertain, the world becomes a place where lies become true, where people can believe what they want to believe. This is the real danger of pseudo-events and why pseudo-events are more pernicious than stereotypes. They do not explain reality, as stereotypes attempt to do, but replace reality. Pseudo-events redefine reality by the parameters set by their creators. These creators, who make massive profits selling illusions, have a vested interest in maintaining the power structures they control.
The alternative reality that comprises The Matrix is likewise defined by the parameters set by its creators (sentient machines). They too have a vested interest in maintaining the power structures they control (including humans beings kept in nutrient vats where their life energies are used to fuel the power grid). The Matrix is thus an apt metaphor for how the Ruling Class uses an increasingly overworked and stressed out Working Class to maintain its profligate life style, using the glamor of celebrity culture like a stage magician uses suggestion and misdirection to keep his audience clueless but entertained, and willing to pay for more.
In another classic sci-fi movie, Total Recall, based on the novel by the incomparable Philip Dick, the protagonist (Arnold Schwarzenegger) wants to visit Mars but his covert operative wife (Sharon Stone) talks him out of it. So he goes to a virtual travel agency instead where the salesman tries to convince him that for just a few hundred credits more, he can get an unforgettable upgrade. The salesman puts his pitch in the form of a riddle: What is it about every other vacation you’ve ever taken that remains the same? Answer: You. Boring, old, purposeless you. But we can change that: we can implant a pseudo-identity of a heroic secret agent, complete with selected “memories” guaranteed to make your illusion even more real.
No doubt if such a service were available today, thousands of female Palinistas would eagerly assume the Sarah Baracuda avenging avatar identity, a pitbull with lipstick and a hockey stick that would lay waste to the emptiness in their lives. Male Palinistas just think she’s hot, a pistol packin’ mama that likes to hunt and fish, just like them.
In promising that this would be her Last Column About Sarah Palin—Ever Katha Pollit, writing in The Nation observes:
The one thing Palin seems to know how to do is use the media’s infatuation with celebrity, hotness and women’s bodies to aggrandize herself. As Bill O’Reilly told her, “You are the biggest threat because you are a star…. There aren’t any other Republicans who are media stars but you.” Except for her politics, she’s the living embodiment of the constantly updated Huffington Post cover page, in which Washington reporting and Jon and Kate and assorted pushers of quackery and psychobabble jostle against a constant stream of semi-naked photos of semi-celebs, whose breasts and cosmetic surgeries you are invited to rate. For her fans she may be a goddess of vitality and truth, but for everyone else she’s the first political female train wreck, the Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan of the Republican Party. We can’t stop looking. Maybe she’ll confuse Iran and Iraq again!
But there is an even bigger downside to the transformation of our news media into an 24/7 infotainment industry obsessed with celebrity and melodrama. As Juan Cole notes in his blog today:
The 4 largest newsgathering and distribution companies that supply the world with 90% of news do not cover 116 of them. These 116 countries or territories contain 4 billion people, over half the world.
63 of these media-ignored countries and territories are desperately poor…the ignoring of the 116 comes from the news corporations’ profit motive, which is increasingly driving them to ignore most real news in favor of infotainment. Desperately poor 4th world countries? Not entertaining.
But Sarah is. You betcha.
Success may generate courage and promote confidence, but wisdom comes only from the experiences of adjustment to the results of one’s failures. Men who prefer optimistic illusions to reality can never become wise. Only those who face facts and adjust them to ideals can achieve wisdom. Wisdom embraces both the fact and the ideal and therefore saves its devotees from both of those barren extremes of philosophy — the man whose idealism excludes facts and the materialist who is devoid of spiritual outlook. Those timid souls who can only keep up the struggle of life by the aid of continuous false illusions of success are doomed to suffer failure and experience defeat as they ultimately awaken from the dream world of their own imaginations.
—The Urantia Book