THE REAL WAR today is not one against terrorism – which not even federal agencies can uniformly define – but between myth and reality. While myth has been doing extremely well over the past two decades, reality has one ace in the hole: it doesn’t really care what people say about it.
Thus the stock market has shown itself deeply contemptuous of its boosters, the “war on terrorism” has increased the likelihood of further attacks, and the Department of Homeland Security has created vast new insecurities for those American citizens who still want to live in a democracy. In the capital city, the city council is considering a bill permitting big brother spy cameras all over town – in part because they will reduce the “fear” of crime. As Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center asked the council: “Let us imagine that crime has gone up after [the cameras are] installed but the public, perhaps aided by an effective public relations campaign, believes that the cameras have helped deter crime. How do we evaluate the system?”
In other words, does myth still trump reality?
It’s worth noting that on this date in 1980, Peter Sellers died at age 54. Sellers, in the person of Chance the gardener in “Being There,” left us with as a profound observation as we would hear in all the years that followed: “Life is a state of mind.”
Certainly, no other paradigm has so consistently and increasingly guided the American spirit. Say it loudly, often, and on the right channel, and it will be.
Like Chance, many now only to know the world through television. But, unlike Chance, many do not have the wisdom of their garden.
Nor do many these days – especially among the elites – have much contact with the sort of reality that demands competence you can’t talk your way out of – say the type found among farmers and those who earn their living on the sea. As Conrad noted, “Of all the living creatures upon land and sea, it is ships alone that cannot be taken in by barren pretenses, that will not put up with bad art from their masters.”
I have been blessed by acquaintance with both the land and the sea and these experiences have affected my outlook as much as any college course, book, or ideology. And even though a writer, I am deeply conscious of the limits of words compared, for example, with the ability to protect oneself, or to choose a wise course, nautically or politically.
I also have at least some second hand knowledge of living close to fear, for a part of my childhood was spent in the company of an English girl evacuated during the bombing of London. It hadn’t been easy for Ann to get to Washington in July of 1940. She wrote me 60 years later:
“I set sail in the Duchess of Atholl in convoy. There was a slight skirmish with a submarine. I remember feeling the ship shudder as depth charges were dropped but we were unscathed and pressed on, though I remember seeing icebergs and wondering. That was the time that my mother told me we might well be sunk. If I was dragged underwater, not to struggle. I would come to the surface naturally, then not to strike out to England or America but float on my back, as I had learned at school, until I was picked up.
“On August 30, 1940, the Volendam set off with a load of British children for America. It was sunk in the Irish sea. All were saved.
“On September 17, the City of Benares sailed with many of the Volendam survivors. It sank in mid-Atlantic and most of the children perished.”
No more British children were sent to America after that.
Ann, as always, was dry in wit, understated, resolute in determination, and unflappable in crisis. What struck me as I read her letter, was how much I had learned from her over the years about staying calm and realistic in bad times. More than once, after September 11, I wondered what Ann would do right now.
Today, I find myself in a town utterly possessed by crisis yet stunningly unable to shine reality upon it. Almost from the moment of the attacks of September 11, the news channels draped their screens with pseudo-patriotic propaganda and now the president can hardly be seen without some cynical semiotic pattern on the wall paper behind him, misinforming the public and deluding himself. To this day, we are not allowed – in any major public forum at least – to consider the present crisis as the religious struggle that it is or to raise the possibility that it is a rapacious foreign policy and not rampant civil liberties that has so put us at risk.
Similarly, the public words about the market that fall down upon us even faster than the market itself, are dripping in self-denial, empirically absurd clichés, and hope masquerading as fact. As has been pointed out, you would have done better investing in soft-drinks and getting just your deposit back than taking the same sum and buying some of the most touted stocks.
The participants in this magic show are not just the politicians. Our media increasingly covers perception rather than reality and our academics have helped convince us that common truth doesn’t exist anyway.
Further, a whole tribe of professors make their living arguing that their theories about the economy or geopolitics are objective, despite these paradigms being strikingly unsupported by fact and in the end having more in common with a creationist’s use of the Bible than with a scientist’s use of evidence.
In any case, it is certainly not a liberal-conservative divide. It is the myth of each that, absent the other, everything would be fine. In fact, both camps are engaged in manipulations of emotions, ideas, and facts.
And what happens when – as on September 11 or during the July crash – reality intrudes again? Even the Christian fundamentalists had enough sense to come up with an Apocalypse. The best the boomers can do is to nod their heads as the man on MSNBC says again, “buy and hold.”
Chance the gardener, forced outside his haven, ran into some young thugs. His reaction was to pull out a remote and change the channel.
We’ve tried that twice in the past year and it hasn’t worked any better than it did for Chance.
It may be time to get real.