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The World Imagined by Benedict Anderson

“I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community. . . in the minds of each lives the image of their communion,”

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities.

 We live in the world…as it appears to us. We speak the truth…as we know it. But, as Benedict Anderson, who died a month ago, so clearly explained to us, we cohere as a political community through shared imaginings, our “communion.”

Now, much that was shared has fractured and dispersed into disconnected shards.

Oddly enough, we have always been able to live within such conditions regarding truth and reality, by which I mean communicate well enough to understand each other, fashion enough agreement to get things done, and rest a case upon a foundation we expect will be recognized and honored by others. We have been confident of the existence of others we do not know but can imagine them sharing the world within their imaginations as we ourselves do. The existence of an identifiable political community rests upon this.

It is amazing that we have been able to accomplish any of this at all because it is clear now that we can no longer do so.

We have gone from a wondrous accomplishment against all odds to wonder alone that suddenly we fail to do any of this, that we fail to communicate in our sea of niche interests and beliefs, that we fail to understand how our antagonists say and do what they say and do, that we fail to find links of mutual attachments to get anything done, and that we fail to recognize a common foundation upon which we can arbitrate and distinguish truth from falsehood, reality from illusion.

And so, we endlessly communicate within enclaves of the likeminded to ensure an understanding only possible because it excludes those who think differently.

We wind up with a politics that can build no bridge from how the world appears on one side and how it appears on the other, no bridge from one experiential construction of truth to another. Each of us now respects a court of judgment ruled by his or her own personal determination, facts admitted as evidence when they satisfy our personal rules of admittance. There is scant chance that this description of “the way we are now” finds a bridge to those experiencing the world quite differently, or a courtroom in which those alternatively opinionated acquiesce to my narrative.

We are now far from being on the same page, literally and imaginatively.

Every narrative is dispersed within online and offline universes, the online far exceeding the offline in its welcoming of every voice. Two universes of communication, including the democratization and liberating of every voice, has not, oddly again, fashioned continents or even islands of mutual understanding. Rather, what seems to be the case is that each of us can retreat to a cyber domain unassailable by any opposition because we simply choose not to surf into those domains of difference. We “freely” choose within the realms of choice we personally choose. Our so-called “freedom” then is caught in a vicious circle.

This introduction of two realms of consciousness seems to be if not the cause then the facilitating means by which we now seem no longer able to surmount the difficulties of recognizing truth independent of our opinions, of communicating across domains of isolating “friending,” and honoring a court of judgment other than our own. We are bombarded with opinions, comments, tweets, texts that succeed only in sliding everything into a muddle. We are clearly descending from commonly held notions of interpretation, understanding and judgment to a mosh pit of individual opinions based on personal interests. While the former went on in a recognized “public sphere” accountable to public scrutiny, the latter goes on in privatized spheres that exclude any notion of public accountability.

In the political arena, this means that appeals can be made to privately determined opinions that would have no chance of any serious recognition if a court of publically vetted arguments were yet in session. But it is not. It requires a treatise to detail when an agreement to recognize public/social determinations dissolved into the private/personal, or when any rendering of social solidarity fell into disrepute and became subject to widespread disdain, even by those in much need of such solidarity. What is clear is that this has occurred.

It is not surprising that we now have presidential candidates who flagrantly dismiss all the rules and procedures of proof and validation but appeal to appetites and affinities expressible and inexpressible, rooted as they are in a dark abyss from which civil society maintains its identity by distancing itself.

Protest against “political correctness” becomes attractive because it is a protest against “rules of engagement” that block open and flagrant appeals to the worst angels of our nature. Laws against “Hate Speech” are felt to be governmental bridles on First Amendment rights of free speech. Trump gains followers who viscerally respond to what can now be unleashed without objection. We wait in vain for Trump to be exposed in an “Emperor Has No Clothes” fashion because a corrective rod of shared reasoning no longer exists. Trump is not an anomaly; he is a by-product of a collapse of our imagined political community.

Trump is doing well as in the Republican primary because he has displayed the worst in our natures and gotten away with it because we are now without any appeal to a higher court than that of personal feelings. But he is not alone in playing on a field where reason is not an umpire and a shared imagination has been lost. Our politics now has only followed us to where we have already gone. Politics joins us in a plunge to a Reality TV level of sensationalism, seduction, pandering and vitriolic bombast, a tempest of blind and stubborn opinionating.

If a deconstruction of Trump were possible, mainstream media would not be conducting it because our level of personal interest lies well beneath the demands of such a critique. It is a profitless venture in a profit only culture. And though Trump may be unraveled in as many locations as he is been applauded, both constituencies are now dispersed like grains of sand in an endless swirl of communication, no rudder at hand. When he vanishes, it will not be so because of a commonly shared awakening but because a frantic attentiveness has moved on.

Ted Cruz’s campaign both takes advantage of the new, rudderless ferment of politics in the U.S. but refrains from Trump’s all-in triumphant style. Perhaps Cruz does so because no one can rival Trump here but more likely he does so because Americans, each immersed in his or her own bubble of truth and reality, retain memories of former aspirations regarding our Constitutional dedication to “promote the general Welfare” and our collective declaration of “one People” in the Declaration of Independence. In short, Americans are attached, on one level, to their sense of “exceptionalism” grounded in liberal democratic principles, and on another level to a growing contempt for any attempt by government to lay down foundational principles that presume to challenge individual autonomy.

Cruz is astutely betting that in a general election the country will step away from Trump’s call upon the worst devils of our nature and tie themselves to the long preserving hypocrisy of American exceptionalism and Christian evangelical purity. It is not hard to see that such evangelical purity, which Cruz, the surest Iago ever in American politics, masks and fronts the dark abyss of human nature that Trump evokes.

Whether politics in the future in the U.S. will cut itself off further from any restraints imposed empirically or rationally depends to a great extent on how much further Americans go into a cyber-womb of a personal politics of personal choice where the most incredible attachments can be made without objection and where one’s baser instincts and be given free reign without censure. If you follow the money, there is profit to be made in quenching solidarities formed through commonly shared reasoning. There is a greater chance of preserving the inequities of plutocracy by proliferating platforms of communication toward infinity and thus dispersing all communal efforts toward an empty, feckless destiny.

The political sphere is not the only place where we can observe what remains viable and arguable because we are without the means to bring anything to any commonly accepted closure.

President Obama’s failure to bring the 2007 “Great Recession” under immediate investigation and thus allowing it to remain “undecidable” may mark a 21st century example of our failure to engage in commonly accepted approaches to truth and reality.

What emerged from that failure to “close the deal” in a speedy Enlightenment fashion led to the confounding of reason itself: released from indictment, Wall Street turned the tables and accused the government of being behind all the looting and fraud they themselves had perpetrated. The matter, like human caused global warming, remains, in the American classroom, on the “undecidable” side.

An even more astounding contortion of reason was the preemptive attack on Iraq after 9/11, not only because the “evidence” was always bogus but also because no determinate evidence has yet been brought forth against the perpetrators of a war in which there were 25 times more Iraq noncombatants killed than U.S. soldiers were. That war has not yet been brought into the courtroom of reasonable investigation but remains in the American classroom as “undecided.” The failure to commonly grasp the stupidities of that exploit stage our current stupidities, namely pushing President Obama toward “ten thousand boots on the ground” in Syria.

Examples of our collapse into a willy-nilly state of indecisiveness on matters that previously could be laid to rest stare at us in the headlines every day, if of course we shared the headlines, if we were indeed all on the same page in regard to what’s going on.

Trump has brought eyeballs into the presidential campaign that would otherwise have wandered, cut free from any authority outside personal interest. The “Black Lives Matter” uprising has produced a niched reaction similar to interests in a vegan diet, LGBT identities, Bernie Sanders’s socialism, cronuts, Kombucha, High Intensity Interval Training, and the viral video, “Huge Bird Lands on Fan’s Head at Seattle Seahawks Game.”

If we are destined to ever return to the same page, we might still not be able to find our way to a common understanding and a common decision.

In a January 7th, 2016 New York Times piece: “Professor Who Cast Doubt on Mass Shootings Is Fired” we have an account of a fired professor who asserted that the Newtown massacre may have been carried out by `crisis actors’ employed by the Obama administration.” His ideas “fall into part of a larger movement of Internet conspiracy theorists who believe the spate of mass murders have simply been staged by the government.” The fired professor had demanded proof from the family of a 6-year old victim of the Sandy Hook shooting that their son ever lived. Florida Atlantic University fired the tenured professor not on grounds of failing to adhere to what the philosopher John Searle calls our “Western Tradition of Rationality and Realism” and bringing his conspiracy theories into the classroom. They fired him for failure to submit required paperwork.

And so, a citadel of rational discourse, a university, punts on bringing under sharp scrutiny the arguments and reasoning of one of its own professors, leaving what should patently be judged inane, a somehow seriously disputatious matter.

Perhaps millions drawn to the Huge Bird video are escaping so many serious matters that bombard us, or perhaps they are escaping the fact that we can no longer separate the serious from the trivial, the true and real from the spin and the hype. It may be more probable, however, that now left isolated within the vicious circle of our own choices, our imaginations have atrophied. It seems to be a sorry state of affairs that arises when we are no longer willing to recognize whatever differs from what we personally hold as true, whatever extends beyond our own imagination. Our destiny then apparently is to escape even more deeply into the passing amusements of viral videos. And further from the imagined political community that, as Bendedict Anderson reminded us, makes us a nation.

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Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Travels of a New Gulliver.

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