Our Apparent Need for Synthetic Reality

Most people simply outgrow science fiction. It’s a genre for adolescent boys – all clever what-if set-up and gee-whiz action about what would happen if all this imaginary stuff weren’t imaginary. You get a lot of time-travel and alternative universes. And it grows tiresome. If you’re fourteen it really makes you think, and few years later you realize you were thinking about pure nonsense. And those who don’t outgrow it find themselves in odd costumes at a Star Trek convention at the Burbank Holiday Inn. Those of us who now and then find ourselves watching a few minutes of an old Star Trek episode derive a different sort of pleasure from Kirk and Spock. This is High Camp – second-rate actors chewing the scenery and declaiming, with great seriousness, mind-numbingly obvious platitudes about truth and justice and reality – with cheesy sets and bad lighting. It’s a hoot – for maybe ten minutes.

Actually there’s a deconstructionist send-up of that whole business, the movie Galaxy Quest – Alan Rickman as the Spock character is devastating. But that’s rare. People took the Star War movies seriously – there was all the talk about Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth as it applied to Luke and the Princess and the cute robots and whatnot. That was a stretch. And there was the Matrix trilogy – humans don’t realize that what they think is reality is really a virtual world created by a large corporation or some such thing. Yeah, yeah – reality isn’t what you think. We’re all being manipulated and have no free will. Only the heroic see the truth. Those films are unwatchable. Or they are if you’re no longer fourteen and decided some time ago that thinking about all this what-if stuff was kind of pointless.

As for who writes this stuff, Los Angeles never knew what to make of its local master of the genre, Ray Bradbury. You don’t find him at UCLA or USC seminars with the big guns of politics and policy, or philosophy and psychology or history. His is the what-if world, not the real world. He’s just a pleasant old fellow who pops up at local book fairs. And there’s L. Ron Hubbard – the science fiction writer who stuck around too long in the what-if world and gave us Scientology. You see, in the primordial past, Thetans brought the material universe into being largely for their own pleasure, and there’s been nothing but trouble since. And of course the universe has no independent reality – it derives its apparent reality from the fact that most Thetans agree it exists. You have to deal with that. And your next door neighbor flew to the moon on a unicorn last night.

But people do believe in such stuff – every other building here in Hollywood is a Scientology building. But that’s okay – they spent a fortune restoring some real gems from the twenties and thirties. Preserving architectural history is a good thing. The blue one is way cool. But still… Thetans?

That said, there are still a lot of Scientologists – Tom Cruise and John Travolta and Greta Van Sustren – Oliver Stone quit, as did Charles Manson. The what-if world has its appeal. Many prefer that world, which might be called the world of synthetic reality.

And the odd thing is that you can see that in politics. David Sirota – considering Pastor Jones, the man who planned to burn all those Korans on 9/11 and then didn’t – says the whole nation is really into synthetic reality:

This hateful act, we were told, would have inflamed anti-Americanism in the Islamic world, potentially provoking a terrorist backlash. So grave was this supposed threat that the major media devoted 24-7 coverage to the controversy; President Obama publicly appealed to the pastor to abstain from creating “a recruitment bonanza for al-Qaida,” and Defense Secretary Robert Gates personally intervened — as if it were a Defcon-1-worthy emergency.

As pseudo-events go, this was a landmark – not for Jones’ abhorrent prejudice (unfortunately, we’ve seen this kind of detestable bigotry before) but for the outsized reaction to one obscure gadfly desperately seeking celebrity. Indeed, the national pandemonium was an emergent symptom of a destructive aneurysm deep within the American cortex – one that has profoundly altered our psychology. Whereas pseudo-events were once seen as cheap attempts to manipulate the public’s perception of significance, the public – in the form of the media, the government and the rapt audience – took part in this pseudo-event, thus manufacturing significance from scratch.

Sirota argues that the real issue here is our complicity “both in making this extremist an international star and in subsequently encouraging more such pseudo-events.” The whole thing showed us little about Jones. It showed us a whole lot about us:

Consider, for instance, that in the very week the American media, political establishment and electorate fretted over the possibility of Jones enraging the Muslim world, the same media, political establishment and electorate paid no attention to a Guardian of London report finding that “Twelve American soldiers face charges over a secret ‘kill team’ that allegedly blew up and shot Afghan civilians at random and collected their fingers as trophies.” We ignored this, as if the tasteless theater of a single iconoclast in Gainesville is somehow more troubling to Muslims than allegations that their innocent brethren are being hunted for sport in their homeland.

Similarly, as the president took to national television to worry about Jones posing a clear and present danger to national security, he didn’t mention – nor did almost anyone else – that America’s continued military occupation of two Islamic countries might endanger national security in a much bigger way.

And, of course, as pundits and their couch-potato sycophants lit up cable TV and talk radio with arguments about Jones potentially inciting a terrorist blowback against U.S. troops, few bothered noting that the killing of between 600,000 and 1 million Iraqi civilians in our war has probably done far more to prompt such a blowback.

We prefer the what-if world to the real one:

No, we are too mesmerized by the synthetic novelty – too entranced, in this case, by the handlebar mustache and the camera-friendly promise of book burning. We don’t think to ask uncomfortable questions nor do we strive for enlightened perspective. We instead tell ourselves that by joining the cartoonish pseudo-events, we will magically defuse pressing crises – even as our participation in those pseudo-events allows those crises to fester.

That may be a simple plaintive cry for a little perspective here, or he may be saying that we’ve stuck around too long in the what-if world, and that’s always dangerous. And he didn’t even attend the Values Voter Summit in Washington on Friday, September 17 – but Evan McMorris-Santoro certainly did:

There was no moment more anticipated on the first day of the Values Voter Summit here in Washington today than Christine O’Donnell’s time at the podium. By agreeing to appear as a last-minute addition to the VVS schedule, Delaware’s upset Republican nominee for Senate was able to upstage such GOP notables as Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, who spoke earlier this morning.

It was amazing – see the slideshow, Morals, Morals, Morals! Conservatives Gather For Values Voter Summit – and McMorris-Santoro offers a narrative account:

When it finally came time for O’Donnell to take the stage in the mid-afternoon, the plucky ultra-right winger didn’t disappoint. From death panels to tea party shout-outs, the speech had (basically) it all.

Here’s a pretty good example of how it all went down:

“The ruling class elites may try but they will never have the last word on liberty,” O’Donnell said. “There’s something about our national DNA that insists on shouting at those who would be our masters, ‘You’re not the boss of me!'”

It seems that was aimed at the Republican Party establishment. The Tea Party folks would no longer be used to win elections for old farts and then be told to sit down and be quiet. Those days were over. And there was more:

O’Donnell said that Thomas Jefferson may have written something similar in the Declaration of Independence, though she admitted he maybe did it “a little more eloquently.”

O’Donnell is a strange character in the conservative revolution. Committed now to all the tea party’s central fiscal ideology – in her speech, she slammed the idea of letting the Bush tax cuts on the rich expire as well as the idea of extending unemployment benefits – O’Donnell started as a voice on the “values” side of the conservative fence. Her speech, like so many others today, sought to meld together the fiscal and the moral conservative aims into a Republican electoral alloy.

But that wasn’t easy. She’s a one-trick pony:

O’Donnell is at her best when talking about values. It was clear that morals are in her wheelhouse, even if they aren’t the focus of her current Senate campaign. When describing politicians and bureaucrats, O’Donnell showed the values cred that made her a mainstay of cable TV for all those years. She was clearly in her element.

“They’ll buy your teenage daughter an abortion,” she said. “But they won’t let her buy a sugary soda in a school’s vending machine.”

And, as McMorris-Santoro also reports, there were the rest of the speeches:

There were attacks on health care, spending and taxes, too, but this is the VVS after all, so the fear of ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the specter of government funding for abortion took center stage in a way not seen at most high-profile Republican events this year.

“Washington is assaulting America’s values,” Mitt Romney told the crowd packed into the ballroom here at the Omni Shoreham hotel. “Values like the sanctity of life and the preservation of marriage.”

And this:

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), as bright a star as ever shown in the conservative constellation this year, took to the stage to slam spending and “Obamacare,” but also took time to lead the attendees through a reading of the Declaration of Independence, which she suggested highlighted Thomas Jefferson’s intention to keep abortion illegal forever.

And then she screamed out Soylent Green is People! Not really – that’s a different science fiction movie – not that it mattered:

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) – introduced to the audience as “the man who stopped global warming” (but not, you know, in the good way) – spoke at length about all the “problems that will happen” if “you let open gay activity in the military.” He called on attendees to jam Senate switchboards to shutdown the Defense Appropriations bill vote this week. He’s mad as hell about the end of DADT, and from the applause it seems like the crowd was mostly with him.

Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), the man who’d love to get the attention Bachmann gets from these folks and is doing his best to make that happen, warned the crowd about government support for Planned Parenthood. “To the people who say they want to cut spending,” he exclaimed, “I say, OK – let’s start with federal funding for abortions here at home.”

The crowd seemed to like that, too.

It was a big day for synthetic reality. And in Politico there was this

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) compared the president to a child in a toy store Friday.

Speaking to the Value Voters Summit in Washington, Bachmann asserted that Obama – a former constitutional law lecturer – thinks the key rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence are negatives.

“That kind of thinking, to me, is infantilism,” she said.

Ah – there actually is nothing in the Declaration of Independence about what you cannot do – not a word. Only simple-minded children think that. The law, in general, never tells you what you cannot do.

That’s odd, but Fox News’ legal expert, Andrew Napolitano, did call Bachmann “a well-known expert on the Constitution.” Go figure. Obama is Harvard Law. She was a member of the final graduating class of Oral Roberts’ law school, and was part of a group of faculty, staff, and students who moved the law school to what is now Regent University – founded by Pat Robertson in 1978 as the Christian Broadcasting Network University. And Napolitano has been a judge and taught constitutional law at Seaton Hall. Choose you alternative universe.

Well, in Delaware there is congressional candidate Glen Urquhart who believes the notion of separation of church and state was crafted, not by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, but by Adolf Hitler. He recently told voters, “The next time your liberal friends talk about the separation of church and state, ask them why they’re Nazis.” He did say that. There are lots of alternative universes.

And for Delaware’s O’Donnell, there’s also this:

“The small elite don’t get us,” O’Donnell said. “They call us wacky, they call us wing nuts. We call us – we the people.”

She said conservative activists were too often derided by political opponents as just “an aging crowd of former Reagan staffers and home schoolers.”

And she cut against the grain of the message that adorns Sen. Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund website. “We’re not taking our country back,” O’Donnell said. “We are our country.”

On the left, Digby says not exactly – “And no, they have not always been in charge. Indeed, they have rarely been in charge, thank goodness.”

And Digby recommends Michael Tomasky and his discussion about the two hundred thirty years of American tea bagging:

The historically situated question is this: is the Tea Party movement a flash in the pan, or is it a historic fulfillment of an urge that has been building for 230 years and is on the cusp, with the help of Rupert Murdoch’s “news” channel, of becoming a permanent fixture in American politics?

If most of those eight candidates lose on 2 November, the more establishment Republicans will attempt to rein in the movement. Whether they can do so is another question. Meanwhile the Democrats now have an opportunity, in a year that has largely been bereft of them, to make the Beltway politics chatter focus on the other side’s problems, rather than their own. Democrats have a tendency to play by the old rules. One old rule of politics is that when the other side is shooting itself in the foot, do nothing – just stand back and watch.

But we are in a new media and political environment. In fact it’s not even new anymore. It’s been around for 15 years, but still Democrats think the old rules apply. One old rule is, don’t respond to nutty allegations because you only give them oxygen. Well, Democrats have spent two years not responding as “birthers” spin their conspiracies about Obama, and the result is that between 20% and 25% of American adults doubt that the president is a genuine American.

So I propose a new rule: when the other side is shooting itself in the foot, stand close by and keep handing out bullets. Democratic strategists should be thinking of fresh ways to demonstrate to the American people that these Tea Partiers are not the sons and daughters of John Adams but people who stand almost entirely outside the country’s best mainstream traditions.


I know it’s terribly shrill but the fact is that in this fractured culture of ours, counting on people to “see through” these tea partiers is far too faith based. There is no guarantee that they will – and the consequences of them not doing so are quite grave.

Listening to Christine O’Donnell speak at the Values Voter Summit today is very, very creepy. She managed to lay every bad thing in the country from the economic slump to male pattern baldness on “Keynesian fantasies” (which she seems to think are what we liberals have when we pleasure ourselves against God’s will.) This from a creationist who believes condoms don’t prevent AIDS. You can’t just let this stuff hang out there.

Well, Christine O’Donnell, appearing on Fox News in early 2008, during the primaries, explained who she really hoped the Democrats would nominate – “I would prefer Barack Obama because he is so liberal! He is anti-American … He did not vote for English as the official language.” It’s so very simple in the what-if world of synthetic reality.

On the other hand, Steven Taylor argues here that the Tea Party zealots are over-hyped:

I will readily allow that the Tea Party movement has been of some significance to this point in time and will continue to have salience going into 2010 (and perhaps 2012), but to claim that it has “fundamentally altered American politics” is utter nonsense, insofar as to date all that it has done is affect a handful of GOP nomination processes to date. This is interesting, to be sure. It may also mean various behavioral changes by the GOP in the short-to-medium term, but it is a far cry from a fundamental alteration of much of anything.

Can we expect behavioral changes? At American Scene, Noah Millman thinks not – as that crowd is rather useless:

I have no love for the Tea Party – or for populism generally. I think populism is actually impossible. Elites make the decisions, and politics is a game of capture-the-electorate. But the Tea Party is a fact, and ignoring or decrying facts doesn’t help anybody. There are moments when the electorate loses confidence in the elites, and too many times recently the GOP has responded to this fact by either trying to order their base around (saying: vote for this guy because he’s electable, and we don’t want to blow this chance) or pandering to the basest instincts of the base (by fawning over radio talk show hosts, elevating symbolic culture-war issues to litmus test status, and so forth, all to try to prove that they’re really “one” with the people). Or, often enough, both simultaneously. And I don’t see how either of these strategies can possibly win back the people’s confidence.

Confidence can only be regained by showing actual leadership – saying to people: this is what’s really important, and this is what we’re going to do that the other guys can’t or won’t. There are Republicans who are doing that – Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie are two examples I cite – but not enough and precious few on the national level.

Is someone suggesting actual leadership? It seems so. But that’s kind of a real world thing, isn’t it? Where’s the fun in that? What if reality isn’t what you think and we’re all being manipulated and have no free will and only the heroic see the truth? That was the word at the Star Trek convention at the Burbank Holliday Inn, or the Values Voter Summit in Washington – take your pick. But most people simply outgrow science fiction.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Our Apparent Need for Synthetic Reality

  1. Hugh O'Mara says:

    Wonderful to read this! I myself have a project called The Conquest Of Reality which is about this. For me nature is reality. Instead of adapting to nature, it has been the human impulse to make nature adapt to us. Most people now live in an urban environment which is by its nature artificial. Then there is the Internet whose reality is virtual. This has had a huge impact on our psyche.

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