Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Rival Realities

A few years ago, I was browsing the shelves of an airport bookstore and saw a book on World War II. Being a history buff and an especial aficionado of that particular war (like most red-blooded males in the West), I went in for a closer look. It honored the victors of a little-known battle in Italy, I think. The subject matter seemed pedestrian.

Knowing nothing about the events covered therein, I silently questioned the heroic nature of the battle and the victors, as I often do when presented with mainstream histories. But, for whatever reason, this specific reaction sent me down a rabbit-hole. It suddenly felt as if I was living in a parallel universe, an alternate timeline in which the American Empire is righteous, economic growth can go on forever and playing by the rules guarantees success.

Of course, these are fundamental tenets of our society. It’s only my rejection of them that plunges me into a fog of cognitive dissonance, rendering my world unreal. I suppose my mind is trying to protect my ideals from the constant attack they experience just by living in the US. Rather than abandon my principles (or the US), my brain has chosen to invalidate the world, thus disarming any outside challenge to my belief system.

Ironically, the sense of unreality increased my interest in the book. Now I thought of it as the history of a fictional universe, like The Silmarillion is to Middle-Earth. I’m not sure why that made it more appealing. Perhaps I was relieved not to have to worry about the author getting the facts right. Fictional histories can never be wrong; at worst, they can only be poorly written. And people usually don't die over fictional histories, while (purportedly) true histories kill people every day.

For better and worse, developing alternate histories happens to be one of the few growth industries left. The social isolation encouraged by Capitalism and abetted by fossil-fueled technologies has fractured our former consensus into a seemingly endless variety of narratives. This process has also been fed by the yawning gulf between the mainstream narrative and reality. As the Official Story loses credibility, we manufacture our own version of events to fill in the gaps.

How could we not? We need stories that make sense of the world so we know how to live, and the Establishment’s stories have clearly led us down the primrose path. My generation has been especially deceived. We keep hearing that the best way to pay off your student debt is by going to graduate school and taking on more student debt.  Unfortunately, even if you’re lucky enough to find a job that requires an advanced degree, you aren’t likely to make enough money to pay off your loans and achieve financial security at the same time.

There’s nothing wrong with manufacturing your own reality if you live in a vacuum. The problem comes when people with incompatible world-views have to deal with each other. George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin demonstrated the danger of these encounters, a danger exacerbated by our fetishization of guns. A 15-year-old boy lost his life because he did not fit in another person’s idea of a safe neighborhood. Relatively speaking, this is a minor example. The misconceptions guiding US foreign policy have killed millions.

But even as we step over the mountains of corpses created by our actions, we will continue to proclaim (usually with growing stridency) our righteousness. It’s a testament to the power of ideology. Though the heavens may fall, we will cling to our beliefs, especially if they’re what brought the heavens down. We become emotionally invested in our dogma, to the point that we will deny ourselves happiness, health and even life itself rather than renounce our philosophy.

But why? Why would we kill ourselves instead of admitting the error of our ways? It seems a high price to pay for pride.

The answer is that, in a very real sense, our principles are the underpinnings of our world. Without them, the heavens would certainly fall, along with the earth and everything in it. Of course, this destruction only occurs in the mind of the believer. But the mind is all we have to construct our world, so for the believer this personal intellectual apocalypse is a legitimate threat.

The believer cannot return to the mainstream, because it has become saturated with absurd propaganda that strains credulity. Adopting another alternate narrative is possible, but extremely difficult. As well as requiring the believer to abandon her quasi-religious faith, it demands that she give up her place in a peer group that has supplied her with a sense of belonging and purpose, two of the biggest spiritual voids in present-day “post-industrial” society.

But, if she wants to avoid oblivion, the believer must leave behind the security of a like-minded community and strike out on her own, braving the uncertainty and the loneliness of the unknown. This is a road that few choose to tread, and even fewer find enlightenment at the end of it. Most are forced off the path by its grueling nature and return to their erroneous beliefs or turn to a new creed with a similarly soothing (and fallacious) message.

I believe I’ve chosen the Road to Enlightenment and have paid severely for it. My mind is continually buffeted by the prevailing wisdom of the mainstream and the countervailing theories of competing alternatives. It would be a lot easier if I could accept the Official Story and the comfort and security of a middle-class American lifestyle that go with it. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), my conscience won’t allow me.

Believe me; I’ve tried to drink the Kool-Aid, but I couldn’t swallow it anymore. I kept going back to the corporate well long after I’d accepted that I would be just another cog in the Machinery of Death. But, no matter how much I repressed my revulsion at the side effects (or direct effects) of my jobs, my body would keep rejecting that path.

This is the fate of many of us on the Left. We’ve rejected the mainstream narrative, thereby ostracizing ourselves from the mainstream society. We see the world through different eyes and cannot relate to many of our countrymen and -women. We’re alienated from our nation as “disloyal” subjects. Our estrangement usually takes the form of anger, desperation and despair, further isolating us. (Most people don’t relish approaching strangers in any of these states of mind.)

The Establishment forces us to go it alone or band together to preserve our ideals. But this doesn’t mean political opponents must always be at each other’s throats. That belief is the result of propaganda meant to keep us separate and paranoid and easy to manipulate against each other.  I must admit that I’ve played into the hands of the Powers That Be by buying into that lie. It seems like, when I adopted them, my radical politics came equipped with insecurity and an us-against-the-world mentality.

We need to stop playing this Power Elite-sponsored game of “Whose Reality Is It, Anyway?” and realize that a lot of people out there may not share our beliefs, but we still share a country and a world. Many of them even share our hope for a better world. Instead of defining ourselves by our differences, we need to look for common ground. That’s where we’ll find the solutions to our problems.


Anonymous said...

Archdruid led me here.
1) The longest journey we can undertake is the one from our head to our heart.
2) The biggest illusion is that we're separate.
3) Just because you're aware of the painful nature of existence, doesn't mean your existence must be painful.
4) How big is your garden at your parent's house?

Mickey Foley said...

You make some very good points. I'm ashamed to admit that I have no garden. I volunteered at an organic "micro-farm" for food shelves last summer and hope to do more work of the same kind this year.