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Surreality: Against Inner Exile

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The east is awash in Irene and earthquakes, and commentators everywhere are noticing how utterly shook up the world order also seems to be. Here's Tom Friedman in the New York Times:

[T]he European Union is cracking up. The Arab world is cracking up. China's growth model is under pressure and America's credit-driven capitalist model has suffered a warning heart attack and needs a total rethink. Recasting any one of these alone would be huge. Doing all four at once -- when the world has never been more interconnected -- is mind-boggling.

You think?

A friend who practices an out-there mystical path once told me that I was dropped into this life after living out several lifetimes in a far-off galaxy, happily at home in a civilization that had conquered greed, baseless hatred, indifference, all of the myriad evils that beset our own places and times. She told me that this explained my characteristic mindset: utter amazement at our failure to embrace the simple and obvious principles that would guide a just and loving social order.

My East Coast friends think I'm pretty woo-woo, my West Coast friends find me excessively rational--and I have to admit, probably both are correct. A flock of pigs would have to fly by, oinking, "Believe, believe, believe!" for me to take my mystical friend's diagnosis as literal and accurate. But the underlying truth it illuminated--my lifelong membership in the cohort of the perpetually amazed--was undeniable. Wherever I came from, I frequently feel like a visitor to a funhouse world, where everything is slightly askew, where the true picture is obscured by smoke and mirrors.

The complexities of our social arrangements--the degree to which even our national cover-stories now need their own cover-stories to mask the shards of broken truth forever poking through the cracks in received reality--inspire awe, right before they inspire the urge to run screaming from the planet. Life is never simple, of course, but right now, its off-the-charts complications are positively Gordian.

As in Alexander's time, though, a sword is still a sword (even when it's a metaphor). I have seen nothing in a by-now longish life to contradict my first impression, that if we only cultivated the empathy and imagination needed to enact The Golden Rule, the DNA of all moral and ethical systems, everything would be a whole lot better.

I found myself wondering this weekend how many people share this sense of dislocation, this perception of a general condition of surreality, in which ordinary customs and habits seem somehow off. The mood is captured in a million sci-fi stories and every episode of shows like "The Twilight Zone." Nothing is precisely what it seems; everyone wears a mask, even when it is a mask of one's own face; every action rings slightly false.

Substantial parts of the critique of surreality are shared by left and right, Tea Party devotees and progressive activists alike. We see the vast gap between the actual impacts of significant acts (the debt ceiling deal, for instance) and the spin they are given by those who promote them. We know that someone is deluded and someone is lying and someone is out for himself at the expense of others. We just disagree on who is pulling the strings.

The Tea Party folks have been sipping a heady brew of anti-government animus cooked up by hugely wealthy interests for whom any public regulation, any public responsibility, is a nuisance impeding their entitlement to unlimited profits. Politicians are falling all over themselves to gain cred in the Tea Party street: the morphing of Rick Perry is a particularly interesting case in point. The underlying and wildly delusional idea is that the wisdom of the marketplace, unfettered by government, will restore us to an Edenic state of financial nature, perfectly balanced. Its promoters are entirely unwilling to acknowledge the epidemic of scapegoating unleashed in the nasty, brutish climate their accusations have fed, with people of color and working-class people of all colors the chief targets.

Progressives place the blame on entrenched economic power and privilege. We see who benefits and who suffers: the continuous polarization of wealth and concomitant power in this country points us to private-sector villains, those whose appetite for self-enrichment seems boundless. We prefer to place our faith in the public sector, with its check-and-balance ideals, where one citizen/one vote could still turn the tide. We seem not to want to notice how unwilling or unable--or both--the guardians of the public sector now are when it comes to placing checks on abuse of power.

In a way, each side is half-right. In an ideal society, government protects the weak from the depredations of the powerful. But in our actually existing USA, public policies are so often crafted by--in effect, wholly owned subsidiaries of--corporations, such that government, for all its necessity and centrality to civil society, ends up reproducing the defects of the private sector. More and more, the public interest takes second place, with private interests steering the ship of state. It's one thing to place faith in the ideal of the public interest, and quite another to trust the actual existing government.

Just so, in an ideal society, forces of supply and demand balance each other, generating prosperity. Markets are unsurpassed at seeding and harvesting innovation, at connecting people to ideas, commodities, and opportunities. But in our actually existing USA, the mechanism is badly distorted by special deals, often lubricated with campaign cash. Industries lobby successfully for self-serving legislation, and the whole planet pays. Whom shall we blame? Those who create and enact strategies to subsidize big oil (for example) from public coffers? Or the elected officials who do their bidding? There's enough blame to go around.

I dislike the Tea Party for the racism, class privilege, and indifference that infuse its actions, and for its extreme susceptibility to scapegoating, even when that strategy is driven by real villains bent on misdirecting attention from their own culpability. I dislike the too-frequent progressive willingness to downplay flawed public goods--crappy education, bad environmental stewardship, belligerent foreign policy, financial favoritism and all the rest--in favor of talking up the ideal of a public sector. While I still have the capacity to think for myself, I reserve the right to perceive contradictions and nuances that ideologues prefer to overlook.

In a climate of surreality--pick almost any "Twilight Zone" episode if you want an illustration--the plot often turns on the possibility of a reality-check. Either the protagonist's unease is palliated by those creating the false reality, and all doubt dissolves into the masquerade; or the protagonist awakens from the trance of credulity and exposes the whole sham.

What makes the difference is discernment. When everyone is telling us to believe the cover-stories, the desire for truth must be powerful enough to persuade us to peel back the masks and peer underneath. It takes courage to question our own assumptions. It takes will to keep our awareness open, to notice what is rather than accepting the cover-story. I like to quote Gandhi that "a correct diagnosis is three-fourths the remedy." We can't make a correct diagnosis by ceding our powers of perception and analysis to ideologues, left or right.

If your awareness feels a little foggy, I recommend a bracing pair of recent homilies from very different sources. A few days ago, Princeton philosophy professor Cornel West published a New York Times op-ed reminding us, on the occasion of the dedication of Dr. Martin Luther King's memorial, how far we have strayed from his commitment to truth and justice. And Carl Gibson, a 24 year-old activist from Lexington, KY, published a concise and direct account of the surreality of current economic politics on Reader Supported News.

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Arlene Goldbard is a writer, speaker, social activist, and consultant who works for justice, compassion and honor in every sphere, from the interpersonal to the transnational. She is known for her provocative, independent voice and her ability to (more...)
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