“What is reality anyway? Nothing but a collective hunch.”
It’s all about images, hype and our salesman’s culture.
A week before the pictures of Abu Ghraib exploded, killing American credibility with the sudden wonder of a suicide bomb, I picked up a few gems in a talk by Howard Zinn: “Sometimes you know something vaguely, but it’s brought home to you powerfully.” And, “When you make a war against a tyrant, you kill the victims of the tyrant.” And, “If you have the right to overthrow or abolish the government, as our Declaration of Independence asserts you do, you have the right to disobey it.” And, finally, something like this: Our form of government can overcome any kind of opposition, except embarrassment.
I thought a long time about that last one. It was like coming out of Plato’s cave and seeing the sun for the first time. I thought about it again when the pictures gushed in the national psyche, opening a geyser wound that will not heal.
In a salesman’s culture, in a culture based on the pitch, the hype, the image, the sound bite, the celebrity spokesperson, “staying on message,” “talking points,” pundits, talking heads, revolving doors, mergers-it’s all about Hollywood and TV-land and this silly-putty world of cardboard food and tin-star heroes which we sustain like a dream because it is our inheritance, we have banished history, and the dream is all we know.
Plato’s allegory of the cave: A tribe born and raised in a cave, see shadows projected on a wall of the cave. Perhaps they are the reflections of themselves. Along the winding trails of the cave, there is enough water and they have scorpions and bugs and vermin to eat. They are satisfied and they love the play of shadows on the wall.
One day, a poet, an adventurer, a crazy person, is born, and as he grows up he questions, he wonders, but everyone says, leave it alone, don’t go there. But when he’s older, the challenger follows a chink of light to the mouth of the cave, pushes aside a boulder, squeezes through and beholds the sun and everything lit by the sun-valleys, fields, mountains, sky, water, birds, the world. After a dazzled day, he returns to the cave to tell the others. But they don’t want to hear. They kill him. They bury the bones deep.
We Americans have been like the people of the cave, isolating ourselves from the world, enjoying our projected images of ourselves, blind to the world’s beauty-and, increasingly, its pain and horrors.
They say 9/11 came as a wake-up call. Maybe it was the caller from beyond the cave, demanding we join the world, telling us what he’d seen. In bafflement we asked, “Why do they hate us?” Over and over, we watched the falling towers, again and again were reassured by fraudulent “leaders.” “Don’t worry,” the self-appointed ones said. “We know best. We’ll take care of things. Go back to doing what you were doing. Shop for scorpions. Watch television. Send your children to dumb and dumber movies. Sleep. Sleep with your eyes open.”
It’s true: one can sleep with the eyes open. Marshall McLuhan explained the phenomenon decades ago: a beam of light moves across the television screen, lighting dots here and there, making patterns. Our minds must join in the image-making, connecting the dots, discerning faces, etc. But the mind is in low gear. It’s all lower-function stuff, pleasantly addictive, getting the Alpha waves going. We’re taking it in, but not editing, not redacting.
You have to get outside to see how it’s working. On a dark night, you pass an apartment house and you see soft lights flashing inside the dark rooms. It’s all the televisions, and people sitting quietly, unthinkingly before them, connected to neighbors only with flashing lights.
Let’s update Plato’s allegory. Let’s say the people in the cave have been thinking about the poet’s world outside the cave. The poet is gone, but the tribal leaders convince the others that they need the resources outside. Further, they’ve convinced the cave-people that the Shadows are the Truth, and that they must bring the Truth to the outsiders, for the sake of the outsiders, so the Truth will triumph.
It all works for a while, but then something awful happens. Shakespeare says that all that a poet can do is hold the mirror up to Nature, and something like that happens, the mirror is held up to human nature and the people of the cave finally see what they are.
And they don’t like it. They’re embarrassed. They begin to question and challenge. They begin to doubt the Shadows.
And the people in the world don’t like it either. The people in the world stop buying the products of the Shadow people. They stop buying the scorpions and the vermin, and, especially, they stop buying the Shadows, the image, the hype, the pitch.
And the people of the Shadows awaken, finally, cast off the lies that have enchained them, the fantasies that have bound them.
They see that they are a naked human being on a leash surrounded by snarling dogs. They cry for help. And they hold out a helping hand.
GARY CORSERI can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org