Several recent events and experiences have left me wondering if the defining characteristic of our times is its loose grip on reality.
There was the much ballyhooed “balloon boy” incident. It turns out that the parents of the boy were doing their version of an audition for “reality TV.” The Heenes had appeared on the reality TV show “Wife Swap” a couple of times and were looking to break back into the action. One conclusion to draw from this is that reality TV has very little to do with reality. Its contrived situations are anything but real. “Pseudo-real” might be the best term for the genre, though such a term would qualify as the mother of all oxymorons.
Of course, difficulty in determining what’s real is not particularly new. When Dan Brown’s previous bestseller The Da Vinci Code was all the rage, people in my line of work found ourselves being asked questions on the order of, “Well, what about it? Did Jesus marry Mary Magdalene, have a family and live in Paris?” Quite a remarkable number of people, or so it seemed to me, had concluded that Brown was revealing hitherto repressed truth. I responded to such questions by saying, “I believe this is a work of fiction. Fiction, got it?”
The realm we are in here is that of "truthiness," which was the 2005 Word of the Year according to the American Dialect Society. The New York Times identified truthiness as one of the nine words that defines the spirit of our age. Truthiness, whose currency has also been aided by late-night comedian Stephen Colbert, seems to mean believing something to be true because you wish it to be true or think it might be, corroborating facts (what are those? do we care?) be damned.
George Will once commented in his typically acerbic way, “It is axiomatic that everyone is entitled to one’s own opinion, but not one’s own facts.” Nevertheless, people do seem increasingly to believe that they are fully entitled to their own version of reality. Or to the reality they create.
Barbara Ehrenreich was in Seattle recently promoting her new book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Ehrenreich’s book points to yet another way in which reality is up for grabs these days, as well as the consequences of this line of thinking. She got going on this project as a result of her own experience with breast cancer in 2000. Ehrenreich was bowled over by the requirement of positive thinking in the world of breast cancer patients and treatment. This ideology holds that you will get well if you think, really think and truly believe, that you will get well. Moreover, if you don’t get well, it is your own fault for harboring negative thoughts or insufficient positive energy.
In some respects, Ehrenreich’s book is an update of a classic text, the Bible’s Book of Job. In that extended exploration of suffering and its meaning, Job’s erstwhile “friends” urge him to fess up. Somehow, in some way, the friends are sure that Job has brought it all on himself. Make a clean breast of it, they urge poor Job, and you’ll feel better fast. Job steadfastly refuses. He clings to the assertion of his innocence. In the end, God sides with Job and against those who presume themselves to be on God’s side. God vindicates Job and judges his friends clueless for insisting on their own (self-serving) version of reality.
Ehrenreich’s analysis in Bright-Sided extends far beyond the pink-ribboned cult of breast cancer survivors to take in religion, politics, and economics. She notes the way the ideology of positive thinking seduced many into taking mortgages well beyond their means, as well as keeping financial institutions believing their own rhetoric even though it bore less and less resemblance to reality. From this perspective the Great Recession was a reality-bites moment, a bursting not just of the housing bubble, but of the bubble of a broad-based and willful self-deception.
Some theologians have long argued that optimism is really the official religion of America. President Obama’s favorite theologian and philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr, urged mid-20th century Americans always to hold hope in tension with sober realism. But even then the popular vote went with another preacher, Norman Vincent Peale, the author and promoter of The Power of Positive Thinking.
So is the current difficulty in facing up to reality simply more of the same, or are we into qualitatively new territory? In some measure our current capacity for self-deception is nothing new and is as old as the human story itself. And yet what does seem somehow new or different is the insidiousness and totality of hype in all aspects of our culture, as well as the decline of something that might be called mental rigor.
Ours is the age of hypermedia and information overload, when attention spans are short and engagement remains at the surface. With changes in the media and journalism, the forces of the fact-checkers have been depleted while the armies of marketers, spinners, and hustlers grow apace. But in the end it may be as simple, and as complex, as a decline in seriousness, in careful and critical thinking.
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