Sunday, April 22, 2012

Down the Rabbit Hole: Life in the Society of the Spectacle

My favorite line from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is delivered by the Red Queen during Alice’s trial. When the Queen prepares to deliver the sentence, Alice objects the court has not yet issued any verdict. “Sentence first, verdict afterwards!” the Queen responds. Such is the nature of the backward courtroom procedures in Wonderland. It is an incongruous world of baffling logic made up of people who are, in the words of the Cheshire Cat, “all mad.”  

Americans currently find themselves living in their own version of Wonderland. We live, not in an age of information and enlightenment, but ignorance. We amuse ourselves with the cheap, vapid commercial entertainment that dominates our airwaves. A majority of citizens are either incapable, or uninterested in reading a book or newspaper, so they remain ignorant of news, politics, science and facts.

We ignore, at our own peril, the ever-worsening impacts of global-warming, the steady erosion of our civil liberties, and the impending collapse of our economy. We are losing the war in Afghanistan—a conflict, not of necessity, but choice—though you are unlikely to hear that from the talking heads on Meet the Press. Then again, given that 88 percent of college students cannot locate Afghanistan on the map according to a 2006 Geographic Literacy Study, such debates of “victory,” versus “failure” are irrelevant.

We are the modern day Nero. We fiddle as our country—indeed, as the world—burns around us.

Perhaps worst of all, we cannot separate fact from fiction. We confuse politicians’ personality characteristics and how they make us feel with the actual policies they support. Liberal voters labor under the delusion, despite all factual evidence to the contrary, President Barack Obama is one of them—that he supports progressive goals. Conservatives who dislike Obama, conversely, foolishly believe Mitt Romney’s corporatist agenda would be substantially different. Both candidates are marketed and sold to voters no differently than any other brand-name product like a Ford truck, or an Apple computer. In fact, Obama’s 2008 campaign won Advertising Age magazine’s “Advertiser of the Year,” award.

Joe McGinniss’s The Selling of the President, an account of Richard Nixon’s 1972 presidential election, remains the definitive account of the modern day marriage of advertising and politics. “It is not surprising…that politicians and advertising men should have discovered one another,” McGinniss writes. “And once they recognized that the citizen did not so much vote for a candidate as make a psychological purchase of him, not surprising that they began to work together.”

McGinniss tagged along with Nixon’s “mad men” campaign team, all of whom had previously worked on marketing plans for Coca-Cola, Nike, Ford and other brand-name companies. He notes how the advent of television has irrevocably altered the way politicians are “sold” to the public. He writes:

The TV candidate…is measured not against his predecessors—not against a standard of performance established by two centuries of democracy—but against Mike Douglas. How well does he handle himself? Does he mumble, does he twitch, does he make me laugh? Do I feel warm inside? Style becomes substance. The medium is the massage and the masseur gets the votes.

Television has thus distorted our concept of reality. Americans have abandoned traditional understanding of science, history and literature for pseudo-science, popular conspiracy theories and trash novels. A majority of Americans do not believe in human-induced climate change, despite the staggering amount of scientific evidence confirming the phenomenon. This winter was the warmest ever recorded, yet conservatives continue to dismiss the threat of climate change.

An equally striking amount of the public does not believe in evolution. In place of science, Americans have embraced religion, mysticism, pop-psychology and the paranormal. In her 2008 book, The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby notes the disturbing rise in Americans’ belief in the supernatural. She cites statistics finding, “More than half of American adults believe in ghosts, one third believe in astrology, three quarters believe in angels, and four fifths believe in miracles.”        

No wonder China, India and much of Central America are outpacing the U.S. economy. How can we hope to compete in the science and engineering fields when our citizens, not only lack the most basic understanding of science, but have become outright hostile to the discipline?

In Plato’s The Republic, Socrates uses the “Parable of the Cave” as a metaphor for the goal of education. Socrates tells of an underground society in which men are prisoners, forced to watch shadows projected onto the wall by an unseen fire manipulated by their captors. The prisoners have lived in the cave their entire lives. All the knowledge of their world comes from watching the shadows on the wall.

One day, a prisoner is released and brought above ground. Though the bright sun initially blinds the man, he soon adjusts, and his discovery of the real world outside the cave becomes a spiritual and intellectual epiphany for him. Now free from the darkness, he realizes he can never return to the cave. And, Socrates muses, if he ever were to, the other prisoners would surely greet the man’s tales of the real world with dismissive scorn, thinking him crazy.

“Men would say of him,” Socrates says, “...that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if anyone tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.”

We are all prisoners in Plato’s cave, now. The shadows we watch are those of our TV, computer and cellphone screens—the reality shows, social-networking sites, Internet games and celebrity news stories. Like those in the cave, we cannot separate reality from illusion. And there will be no "Supermensch," no Neo, if you will, to save us. As in Plato’s parable, only education, only true enlightenment of our current political, economic, cultural and environmental situations will lead us to salvation.

Alice eventually escapes from Wonderland by waking up. Americans would do well to follow her example, though I fear time is running out.

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