Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Real America

            Reality is a spurious concept at best.  At worst, it is an unattainable ideal, eternally unreachable.  Reality is what you make of it, and it is mired in the restrictive nature of perception.  Americans, like people the world over, cannot truly grasp reality, because there is nothing to grasp.  Reality is a fog that slips through fervent fingers.  Or perhaps there are too many realities to choose from and, in trying to grab for more than one, we come up empty-handed.  Either way, the result is the same: we end up holding desperately to whatever elusive strands of reality we can find and hope that this will anchor us. 
Reality is amorphous.  It is an ever-changing parlor trick.  We alter our individual realities with chemicals and belief systems, credos and affiliations.  We corrupt our already shaky concept of reality by trying to deny it, or more often, by our unflinching belief that our own reality is the true reality.  Perhaps the nature of reality is more questionable today as we redefine what being an American means in this new and smaller world.  We depend on illegal immigrants to support the American way of life, and then we have the nerve to resent them.  Thanks to the Internet, we cultivate “friendships” with people we have never shared a meal with and consider this normal.  We fight wars that are steeped in so many levels of surreality that we gradually begin to ignore the conflicting reports and the conflicted emotions they create.  It is interesting that we live in a culture so obsessed with “reality”, yet spend so much time trying to escape it.  This is because reality is the ‘busy work’ of life.  It is the Xeroxed homework assignment that insults our intelligence.  It is something we hide from, yet supposedly want.  It is easy to assume that reality has been weakened over time, but the fundamental fallacies of reality have been debated since the beginning of recorded history.  American reality today is what it always has been, an intricate arrangement of smoke and mirrors. 
As humans, we crave reassurance that our reality is unshakeable and find solace wherever we can.  One of the ways we do this is by deciding that there is something ‘real’…that beyond our changing ideals, there are certain undeniable truths.  This notion is patently false.  America is a country divided.  Imagine Bill Gates’ reality compared with that of a man who works at a car wash and struggles to pay the bills.  There is a vast disparity between the way individual Americans view their country, their culture, and even their history.  We speak of melting pots and rely on the myth of the American Dream, hoping that it will unite us, but it does nothing of the sort.  One of the many evils done by the American Dream is to convince the populace that, as Americans, we can be anything we want to be.  This is drilled into our heads from grade school on, yet it is an insidious exaggeration.  Very few people get to be what they want to be.  Most people end up settling, due to circumstance and behavioral modeling, for lives that closely resemble those of their parents.  The kind of outlandish success stories suggested by the American Dream are the exception, not the norm.  America is a country dependent upon the idea that there is no one American archetype, that all Americans are unique and that our differences bring us strength.  Every day we eat food that was harvested by people living within our borders, subject to our laws, helping to support our economy…yet they are not Americans in the eyes of the government.  The hypocrisy inherent in this is shameful.  When we expect reality to save us, we set ourselves up for a fall.  There is no unifying reality.  There was never supposed to be.  This is what freedom is all about.  We are free to be hypocrites.  We are free to deny what is right in front of us.  We are free to believe whatever we want to believe, and we are free to believe that what our fellow Americans believe is wrong.  We are free to decide what is real.  This is not an ideology that lends itself to one defining reality.  America, if it is to live up to its ideals, must embrace abstraction and accept that the exception often makes the rule.     
We cannot discuss reality without looking closely at technology and how it is used.  We watch scripted “reality” TV shows and play hyper-realistic video games.  We make instant connections with people all over the world.  We are able to track Lindsay Lohan’s bikini changes by the minute.  We have created a cult of celebrity that is far from being real, but that often passes for something close to it.  Is it so strange then that we are drawn to an environment, like the Internet, where we really can be what we want it to be?  Or something closer to it, at least.  Real life is chaotic.  It is tough to construct oneself on the fly.  Not so when you are designing a Facebook page.  Even a cursory perusal of the site illuminates the sad and ironic truth.  There are bartenders pretending to be architects.  Men pretending to be women.  Children pretending to be adults.  Granted, these are extreme examples; it is the less obvious fabrications which reveal the sadness that American ‘reality’ has become.  On the Internet we can portray ourselves as we wish to be rather than as we really are.  We can display only the most flattering pictures of ourselves.  We can carefully craft our words.  We can lie.  We can create a reality that is artificial.  Romeo and Juliet’s crowd had their masquerade balls.  We have chat rooms and dating sites.  And still, we are faced with the same questions.  Does this do something to diminish the ‘real’ reality?  Have we created a false world?  The answer, of course, is no.  There is no ‘real’ reality and our perceptions of the world have always been false.
We receive our view of what is ‘real’ through filters.  Some of these filters are self-imposed.  Others are imposed upon us.  It is ridiculous for us to assume that our government is operating in the same reality that we are.  They are carefully crafting the reality that future history books will attempt to capture.  America is not what it pretends to be.  Prisoners of war are tortured in secret prisons while we watch sitcoms and pretend that everything is going to be OK.  Politicians go on TV and tell blatant lies.  This is not merely liberal cynicism, nor should it come as any surprise.  Governments must lie.  Parents must lie to their children.  Spouses must lie to each other.  The cubicled number-crunchers must be led to the conclusion that their work is vital.  We must be convinced that, for humanitarian and benevolent reasons, we are occupying and destroying countries that showed no direct aggression toward us.  If we do not believe these things, then we must accept the fact that children in the middle east are dying for questionable reasons.  That the wars are failing.  That the world’s antipathy towards America grows daily.  The government must try to convince us that terrorism threatens the American way of life, just as terrorists must believe that America is the great oppressor.  Otherwise we are forced to acknowledge that the truth lies somewhere in between.  This informed skepticism may be the closest we can come to a true perception of reality, but it doesn’t make for a good night’s sleep.
            The appeal of reality lies in logic.  If the world is really as it appears, then we can assume a set of logical conclusions about it.  And yet the world is largely devoid of logic.  Why do we think it is acceptable to exploit illegal immigrants?  Why do we try to escape reality?  Why are we content to allow convention and rhetoric to override inquisitive common sense?  The smartest among us are those able to imagine what lies beyond reality.  This is how vaccines are discovered.  This is how great books are written.  This is how we move forward.  The mistake we make, it seems, is in assuming that reality is the divining rod we are supposed to follow.  The world is in chaos.  We are wallowing in a kind of freakish, self imposed oppression.  We try to climb the mountain of reality and we fail, when the mountain was never actually there at all.  Small talk is about as close as we come to reality.  It is a reflection of our collective banality and weakness.  A reliable stream of clichés and murmurs.  This is truth, and it is a lamentable truth indeed.  Are Americans flawed in their view of reality?  This is like asking a blind man if his shirt matches his suit.  Reality is a sham and, even at its most convincing, it is a boring one.

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