Of Dissidents and Dissonance


Like a full-scale papier-mache model of the Earth, the truth is so enormous that it is hard to even comprehend. And once you figure it out, the question becomes where to put it? Because it won’t fit on the shelf in the living room. I refer of course to the true reason why Americans are not more concerned at the patent absence of ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ in Iraq. I spent, I confess, several weeks waiting for the thunderous uproar that would inevitably follow the equally inevitable discovery that Iraq had no biological agents, no foul chemicals, no missiles capable of circling the papier-mache globe and blowing up Daytona Beach, Florida (or similar). The discovery has been made. You want mustard gas in Iraq, you’d better start eating pastrami. Yet the American public doesn’t care. There will be no consequences to the Bush Administration for the naked, baseless savagery it perpetrated upon Iraq’s people. Why not? The answer hit me like a full-scale papier-mache model of the Earth: Americans aren’t upset about the Big Lie because they never believed it in the first place. They just didn’t want to know.

Wow, that’s such a cynical idea it makes your skin all crinkly. Can it be that the average American so very much doesn’t give a shit what its government does? Can it possibly have gotten this bad? We were until recently known as a generous and friendly people, if loud. Are we in fact the heartless maggots that such a concept would require? It boggles the mind. Where is the public outcry? Why isn’t everybody in America going apeshit as the Bush Administration slips into the same “what, me worry?” mode they employed after the failure to snare Osama bin Laden? (Osama, as you probably don’t remember was Saddam Hussein’s tennis partner. And we remember Saddam Hussein, right?) Why, he asks, restating the question yet again because he can’t believe it’s even necessary to ask, why is the American public not in an uproar at the administration’s slow admission that they lied about the justification for this assault on another nation? The answer, sad to say, is cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is when you find out the woman you just took back to your hotel is really a man_and you didn’t get the corporate discount on the room. Another example of cognitive dissonance is when an entire nation, with world peace in the balance, throws its support behind a bunch of guys who turn out to be lying. In other words, cognitive dissonance is the agony of learning something new that contradicts what you already know. But that’s not all: cognitive dissonance is also when you learn something new that contradicts what you already know, so you discount the entire subject as unimportant. “Yeah, he cheats on me when he travels,” she pules. “Who cares, as long as I get the frequent flier miles?” America is suffering from a bad case of cognitive dissonance, and it explains a lot- unfortunately, not to Americans.

We are a country in denial of certain ugly facts. For example: we are an empire, and we’re in it for the money. Our leaders lie just as much as the rest of us do, and often about much more important subjects. American Democracy does not equal American Capitalism. We’re not really free, and we’re not really brave- no more than anybody else, at least. We’re just the same turbulent mess of conflicting agendas that everybody else is_the only real difference is American government was originally designed to overcome these very agendas. But that government has fundamentally changed in our lifetimes, which makes our actions very important for future generations at a time when we’re worried more about the next fortnight than the next generation. Help, help, the dissonance is killing me.

America is a nation divided: on one side, there are those who take the “my country, right or wrong” approach. On the other side (the outside) are the Americans who believe that something has gone horribly, horribly wrong. Adherents to this outsider’s viewpoint don’t have cognitive dissonance, because they have adjusted their concept of reality to reflect the evidence of reality with which they are confronted. They’re just depressed and afraid. The Powers That Be call this mindset “moral relativism”, which is another way of saying “who are you going to believe- me, or your own eyes?” The correct answer, for all you relativists out there, is A) God said it, I believe it, that settles it. This is the absolutist position, not only with respect to religion but also nationalism, brand loyalty, and musical tastes: hence the expression “alls I need is Jesus, Jersey, Jack and a Jukebox.” The problem with the absolutist approach to American affairs is that it does not allow for human nature- quite aside from being impossible, stupid, backwards, and rotten.

Human nature is the key here. In a perfect society, governed by the rules of law and behavior currently honored and avoided by most Americans, our leaders would be honest, straightforward, and diligent. They would care nothing for their own pelf (another word for wealth, Scrabble fans; see also “scratch”, “wampum”, and “mammon”) and little for the ephemeral attractions of power and privilege. This is preposterous, of course. Anybody running for anything is in it for something, and anybody who’s made it to the post of Chief Executive of this great nation is in it for as much as he can get. That’s just how it works. It’s human nature, and I don’t fault anyone for it. Neither did the Founding Fathers (now Foundling Fathers, sorry guys) who established a series of checks and balances to ensure that human weakness didn’t get in the way of human affairs. We’ve done away with said checks and balances, mostly, and so the brilliant system of setting three separate branches of narrow self-interested shysters against each other, thus to ensure the common good will be served in the resulting scrum, has broken down. It’s pretty much the same shysters on two of the teams, and the third team refuses to play. Human nature is running rampant. How does this cause cognitive dissonance? Because people don’t want to believe it, at any cost. They are desperate to believe it’s all going to work out fine.

We Americans are brought up with the idea that America is a better place, a nobler and more enlightened nation that sprang up because people here were determined they would be freer, and equaler, and everyone would have the opportunity to pursue a better life unfettered by systemic oppression. This is a ridiculous fantasy, like selfless politicians. If you believe it, you might as well believe in a rabbi that did miracles, got executed for it, and came back as an immortal superhero. Oh, wait. What I’m trying to say is that there is a myth -and it’s always been a myth- about Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness at work here, and it’s one most Americans aspire to fulfill. I’m not just being cynical. Well, yes I am, but not as cynical as you think, thou apostatic baboon. Because it’s the American belief in an American Way that has made us (within living memory) not quite as bad as a lot of other countries, and way better than a goodish number- in fact, pretty much as good as it gets, unless you want to live among auks and penguins and have your own country on an Antarctic island somewhere. This idealism is cherished with fervid fervor by many Americans. Unfortunately it’s antithetical to such companion American notions as Corporate Personhood and the Military Industrial Complex, so things are getting kind of dissonant in the pinched patriotic craniums of so many of our brothers, sisters, and similar. We’ve turned into a collective special-interest bad guy: who can handle that kind of a downer?

America invaded another nation, unscrewed its head and took a giant dump down its neck–unprovoked. Confronted with the singularly un-American nature of this exploit, our leaders responded by claiming we had to do it– because this enemy nation was aiming a vast artillery of deadly weapons designed especially to kill blonde people at us. I don’t think all that many people really believed it, not really really. But they went along with it, because to confront the real reasons for such aimless aggression would be too horrible for their fragile worldviews and patriotic self-images to bear. When the ‘WMD’ bit turned out not to be true, the rationale switched to exporting American Democracy by force. Which is an oxymoron, a common symptom of cognitive dissonance. You cannot force someone to be free, any more than you can teach them a lesson by killing them (note to self). I don’t think many Americans cared at that point; Bush said it, I believe it, that settles it. Easier to just agree than actually question the whole mess. Bush and his buddies were counting on this. Long before the American people had any idea why we were supposed to attack Iraq, it was clear to the cabal at the top that we would agree to the adventure under any damn pretext– because there were so many Americans deep in the throes of denial about what was happening already (the erosion of rights, theft of elections, evaporation of opportunity, and suchlike fiddle-faddle). Too bad it’s true.

The beauty part of cognitive dissonance is the worse it gets, the more people throw up [their hands] and say “who cares?” In this way such public works projects as genocide and empire-building can be accomplished, because people refuse to care. It’s too damn demanding, too scary, and too damaging to that ever-threatened bird called Self Esteem. But this is the time to take a good long look at your mindset, before things get so awful you find yourself goose-stepping down the Reichsparteitag rather than face the facts. Are you in a state of cognitive dissonance? Does the evidence of your senses not jibe with what you’ve been told is The Way Things Are? Do you find yourself redefining what is important to exclude what you don’t want to believe? Are you angry at people who demand you think about issues you consider closed? Do you often find yourself wondering why everybody but real Americans are wrong? Do you believe there is one set of rules for America and a different set of rules for the rest of the world, and that America should enforce both of them? Are you a red-faced witless baboon?

These are symptoms of cognitive dissonance, and while denial hurts less than facing the truth up to a point, it’s worth noting that while grappling with a changed world can be painful, succumbing to the urge to tell it to fuck off can be fatal. If not to you, then to other innocent people in that area outside America collectively called ‘the world’. Cognitive dissonance is unpleasant. Nobody likes it. It signals a period of painful transformation has arrived. But like a life-sized papier-mache model of the Earth, it’s something you just can’t ignore.

BEN TRIPP is a screenwriter and cartoonist. Ben also has a lot of outrageously priced crap for sale here. If his writing starts to grate on your nerves, buy some and maybe he’ll flee to Mexico. If all else fails, he can be reached at: credel@earthlink.net

Ben Tripp is America’s leading pseudo-intellectual. His most recent book is The Fifth House of the Heart.