“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the Unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”
—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
I want to talk about alternate realities. Not the multiverse kind or the virtual kind, but the kind that exist all around us. I watched Spotlight recently and none of us have been able to look away from that train-wreck of an election or this early administration, so hopefully enough of us have seen enough of all three of them to tie this post together.
We’re All in this Alone
Everybody, and I mean everybody, lives in their own reality. From the time you pop out of the womb, you begin aggregating a set of facts, or what seem to you to be facts, about the world around you. And that set of facts makes up your reality. The differences in our realities range from the sacred to the very mundane. Maybe I believe in God and you don’t, maybe you thought that dress was yellow and I thought it was blue. There may be some ultimate arbiter of what’s real—Plato’s realm of the forms or an Abrahamic God or a grand unifying theory of physics—but until one of those things speaks up, we’re each left with our own discrete perceptions of the world. When our differences are small, like that dress, they don’t impede our getting along. When they get bigger, they trip us up in proportion to the magnitude of the difference.
Almost nobody in the 15th century really thought the world was flat (and it may be a very long time since anybody’s actually thought that), but if we imagine, for the sake of argument, that Ferdinand and Isabella, the King and Queen of Spain in 1492, did think the Earth was flat, we can see how they and Christopher Columbus would have a difficult time plotting a new route to India.
Now, stay with me, but the purpose of standardized education, or one of its purposes, is to eliminate or reduce the problem of disparate realities. At my university, we have required classes in theology and philosophy and history in the first couple of years, so what when you get to upper-class seminars and somebody brings up Kant or Hegel or modern historical thought, everybody’s on the same page and you don’t have to argue those points out again.
This is one of the great advantages of conformist education that I didn’t bring up in the episode on Liberation Theology. If everybody’s taught the same thing, more or less, and that teaching reinforces that ‘this particular society’—be it capitalism or socialism or communism—‘is the best,’ then students can get right to work integrating into the society. They can get a job and start at it without having to hash out the philosophical bases of capitalism or having to debate the split of labor and capital at the firm. And if the system they’re in is working out alright, that’s a good thing.
The danger, or the problem, that’s apparent now is that we as a country have split into at least four and probably more distinct groups which subscribe to very different realities, and the differences between them make it difficult to tackle any problem we currently face. The great mass of the Democratic Party’s base follows the US’s official narrative most closely. What the government and the press tells you is true. The US messes up occasionally but is in general good. And if we could just get along with each other, things will keep improving the way they have for the last couple hundred years. Apologies for any offense now, but the great mass of the GOP’s base holds to a different view.
This group, largely thanks to the efforts of the Republican party itself, along with talk radio, Fox News, and the evangelical movement since Reagan’s day, is deeply skeptical of the government except in military matters and in foreign policy if the president is Republican. That last bit is exemplified by current efforts to resuscitate George W Bush despite the Iraq War being the most openly corrupt conflict we’ve ever prosecuted and the ongoing, vociferous attacks on Obama’s foreign policy even though it’s been well-thought out and even-handed almost to a fault. Likewise, this group has lost its faith in the ‘mainstream media,’ in the academy, and in science as an institution.
Crazier than Ever
This is huge. Bigger than you might think. Because if you need to convince someone of something and you can no longer use studies, books, peer-reviewed papers, articles from any of our most respected magazines and newspapers, or the documents of the US government, what reliable sources are left to you? If it’s a matter of well-established fact that, for example, Mexican immigrants and Syrian refugees commit less crimes than American citizens or that the only people benefiting economically from illegal immigration aren’t the immigrants themselves but the factory and business owners who make up the elite of the GOP, how can you prove that to anybody if what I’ve got in those links is by default bunk?
On the fringe right, those same characteristics are magnified. Even Fox has lost credit as a source, and their ‘paper of record’ is an internet-based galaxy of blogs and Twitter accounts. Breitbart, where our current Nazi-in-Chief Steve Bannon used to work; Drudge; InfoWars, whose founder Alex Jones is set to take on an advisory role with the president; all of whom treat ‘news’ as less a matter of fact and more a means to an end. This is the world in which Trump thrives, and it’s why it’s sometimes so hard to follow what he’s saying in speeches and debates. In this reality, global warming is not only an exaggeration by climatologists or a mistake, but a plot cooked up by the Bilderberg Group or the Council on Foreign Relations or the Jews. Obama was actively collaborating with ISIS, Hillary had a degenerative disease, the UN is preparing to take over the United States and 9/11 was not yet definitely but mostly likely made to happen by the US government.
Coming back to common education, another one of the benefits of sharing an informational bedrock is that when your and a friend’s realities start to diverge, you can go back to the beginning to find a way to make them merge again. If, for example, I have a friend who’s skeptical about global warming but not opposed to science, we can go way back, and because we both believe in the scientific method, analyze it from first principles. Agree that the greenhouse effect exists, since we see it at work on Venus. Then agree that parts per million of carbon in the air is increasing since we see it in the studies. Agree that ice-caps and glaciers everywhere are melting because we read about it in the New Yorker. And if none of those were happening, my friend could point to their absence and convince me that climate change isn’t real, because we agree on basic norms of what a fact is and how to find it out.
The problem now is not just that our realities have diverged, but we’ve lost, at least for this and the last and probably the next generation, any simple way to bring them back into line. To stick with climate change as an example, I have very intelligent friends who are convinced it’s not real or the world is actually cooling or that it’s a complicated hoax perpetrated, through some obscure mechanism, for the benefit of climate scientists or the UN. And without agreement that universities and government agencies (worldwide) and news organizations generally work in good faith towards the truth, there’s no way to convince them otherwise.
Now that’s an intractable problem. But with this podcast and this blog, I’m trying to chip away at a slightly different one. My group, the one with which I share my reality, is on the far left. But I don’t mean the far left of Soviet apologism or strong Castro supporters. I occupy a reality that’s a kind of mirror of the far right. My perceptions of the US government and western governments in general is almost as different from that of the mass of the Democratic party as is Trump’s.
The major difference is that I share an intellectual bedrock—what are facts and how do we arrive at them—with what’s still the majority, I hope, of the American people and of people worldwide. The bases of my reality and the sources for this show are what twenty or thirty years ago everyone agreed were a legitimate wellspring of fact. Newspapers, scholarly articles, first-hand accounts, reports from Americas Watch and Amnesty International and other NGOs, and documents from the US Government. More importantly on that last one, not reports or press releases but internal, classified and now declassified documents, memos, communiques.
Don’t Worry, It’ll Come Back Around
Which is where Spotlight comes in. For anybody who hasn’t seen it, it’s the story of the eponymous news team at the Boston Globe investigating and exposing widespread abuse of children by Catholic priests and efforts on the part of the Church hierarchy to cover it up. What becomes very clear to the characters in the third act is that none of this was particularly secret. Most of the Boston elite had some hand in the cover-up, and efforts to bring it to light on the part of victims and ex-priests were vigorously and sometimes brutally suppressed by that same elite, by the Church, and by their own paper, the Globe. Somebody, and in this case it’s the very sympathetic Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo, just had to decide that bringing it to light would do more good than harm.
To us watching, it seems like an obvious choice, and when through the first two acts of the movie their editor leans on them to leave it alone, he seems like a sneering apologist for pedophiles. But it’s not too hard to see it from his side. The Catholic Church was the social backbone of the city of Boston—what tied its poorest neighborhoods together, ran its schools, put a damper on crime, drummed up and administered its charities, and gave its citizens spiritual hope. It may have seemed to many of the folks who kept the scandals quiet an unsavory but obvious deal to make. Great good for comparatively little evil. And evil, what’s more, perpetrated against orphans, juvenile delinquents, kids that weren’t going to amount to anything anyway. And it’s not like they were killing them. Even if an individual member of that elite was starting to feel like it was the wrong choice, there were many otherwise good men who would lean on them, warn them away.
Which brings us, finally, back to this show again. Nothing I’m saying is groundbreaking. Noam Chomsky has been writing books about everything the US has done wrong, in almost as great a detail as my series on Guatemala, since the 1960s. Not most of the press but some small part of it was telling the whole truth during Guatemala and Iran and Nicaragua, Indonesia, Vietnam, you name it. The documents that prove it all aren’t hidden or even sealed like the papers in Spotlight. They’re out in the open, in the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and since the early 2000s, on the Internet, like the ones I pulled from the National Security Archives at George Washington University.
That they aren’t common knowledge comes down to that it’s much easier to go along and get along, to believe what you hear in school and from the White House Press Secretary. And if and when someone finds themselves in a position of power with an opportunity to change the narrative—stop the military aid we’re even now sending to Nicaragua, for instance, or trying to get the kind of stuff I’m talking about in the public school curriculum—there will always be a great number of otherwise good men leaning on that person to just leave it alone. Because it’s not like the Guatemalans or the Cambodians or the Congolese or the Iraqis or the Afghans were going to amount to anything anyway. Although I guess we can’t say, at least we’re not killing them.
So What’s the Point?
We’re heading into what will be the most difficult century for the human race since the plague wiped out a third of Europe. If you subscribe at all to our common foundation, to science and established sources of fact, you have to admit at least the possibility that climate change and all of its attendant complications are real. Sea level rise wiping out the coasts, extreme weather tearing up our cities, drought and resource scarcity and famine driving peoples from the belt of the world toward our developed enclaves in the north and south. Aside from climate change, we’re looking at dwindling supplies of petroleum, the depletion of mined fertilizers and with them our entire system of industrialized agriculture, and a unipolar world that despite our ongoing luck represents the least stable geopolitical situation in what might be centuries. We’re looking at a world that is more and not less nuclear armed without any Cold War framework to keep it in check. The increasing power of the Internet to unite both good and bad people and the disruption thereof to total our infrastructure and economies is as literally unprecedented as it gets. A further mechanization and automation of work that might leave 40% of the workforce unemployed and with no space for a traditional middle or even working class in our economy. Demographic forces that are going to turn Europe and Asia upside down.
These are big, serious problems, ones that for maybe the first time threaten not just the well-being of any one country or any one group of countries but the human race at large. And the larger the problem, the more we need commonly-held realities to come to fix them. Belief in compromise, for better or worse, believe in science as currently conceived, in tolerance and compassion not in personal but national senses. Compromise and agreement and brotherly love are the hippy dippy values of my cohort, and they don’t hold much currency in the world today, even on the far left. But unless we can agree to start trying to agree, unless we can agree to build some common basis for agreement, unless we can recover the common bedrock of reality that not so long ago we used to share, we are all or some great part of us literally going to die.
Are you on board with that? I guess it depends. Do we live in the same reality?
I imagine we don’t.
But maybe we could.