Our election is 13 days away. If you’re bothered by my political focus lately, please know I’ll be back to the usual soon. This election is proving to be a referendum on the central tenets of Mindreaders Dictionary. I can’t resist making the connections.
I watch this election from several perspectives. Among them:
Mine: What I want (this perspective comes easiest).
Theirs: What something like half the American voters seem to want (at least for strategic reasons it’s useful to track this, given the chance that They may win).
Ours: What people need today and in the future (that is, what people everywhere will end up wishing we did).
My perspective probably shades my interpretation of Theirs and Ours more than I know.
One thing about Our perspective, with its focus on long-term and wide-ranging consequences: It’s the one that depends most on reading reality right. The truth will out. As our economy is teaching us lately, being unrealistic generally has bad long-term consequences. Even the most unrealistic ideas can seem to work in the short run, but not in the long.
Back in 2002, journalist Ronald Suskind interviewed Bush’s chief propagandist, Karl Rove. Suskind writes:
“Rove said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community’, which he defined as people ‘who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality’. I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ Rove continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality–judiciously, as you will–we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup
Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup
Rove makes a fascinating point. In reality, perception is reality. According to Rove, the people who realize this are realists. Wasting time on judicious study of reality is just being unrealistic.
Confusing, isn’t it? Wouldn’t realists pay less attention to perception than to reality? Is it more realistic to be realistic or to be realistic about people’s lack of realism?
To clear up the confusion, just recognize two definitions of reality. “Reality” in quotation marks can be defined as anything that changes behavior. The time right now is 8:00 pm and I’ll have to leave to meet my family in a half hour. So “8:00″ is real in that it makes a difference to my behavior. The more something changes behavior the more real that something is. The concepts of democracy, happiness, poverty, fashion, communism, science–these are all real in this sense. So too are reincarnation, Hell, Santa Claus, and the Tooth Fairy. They too have changed a lot of behavior and are thus very “real” by this practical definition.
If you find it troubling to call the Tooth Fairy real, you are not alone. Like pretty much everyone except the severely psychotic, you demonstrate a commitment to a second definition of reality, a sense that perception isn’t everything–there’s a realer real than our impressions. As Aldous Huxley said, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
The long-term object of the game might be making “reality” match reality. And we make progress at this. Few people today think Zeus is real. We acknowledge that Zeus was “real,” but since he was more like the Tooth Fairy than he was like poverty, belief in him eventually waned.
Sometimes we collapse “reality” into reality. We assume that what we perceive must be what’s really out there. We believe it when we see it, as though the eyes never lie or as though the eyes are merely crystal-clear windows through which the nature of the world is projected directly into the mind (see Eliminate the Middle Man).
And sometimes we do the reverse, collapsing reality into “reality.” Take that runaway best-seller, “The Secret” (See Yearnocracies), or Lakewood Church, the largest U.S. church, both of which claim that what you perceive to be real (for example, that you’ll be successful) automatically becomes hard fact in the world (you will be successful).
In Suskind’s interview, Rove is making a case akin to “The Secret.” (That sly old New Ager–whoda thunk it?!) He believes perception makes the world. He isn’t just saying you can make people believe anything. He’s saying you can get them to act and to act in such large numbers (since we’re an empire) that they actually create the whole entire hard reality.
If the world were composed exclusively of people’s perceptions and actions, Rove might be right. Life would be like “The Matrix,” where all the world is a matter of perception and perception management.
What Rove conveniently fails to perceive are the large numbers of people whose perceptions he can’t shape, and–more important–the hard physical constraints on the role of human perception and action. No matter how many people you successfully convince to perceive and act otherwise, you can’t get blood from a stone or enough oil from offshore drilling to fuel us inexpensively for any length of time. (You can fuel some of the people some of the time. . . . )
I’ve long wondered what happens to people’s judgment in crises. Plenty of evidence indicates that when the going gets tough, crowds get selfish, fearful, angry, and devoted to tyrants. They invest in the “real” to escape the real.
But plenty of evidence also indicates that the higher the direct consequences of a decision the more sober and rational people get in making it (see Philosophizing). When it’s serious, the real becomes more compelling than the “real.” The market crash so far seems to be tipping people toward the real. Ideological oversimplifications are a luxury they feel they can’t afford. Rovian promotion of the “real” isn’t working like it used to. Of course it’s too early to tell for sure how we’re really going to tip.
From My perspective, I hope They’re coming around–because it will be better from Our perspective if they do. But meanwhile, I also view this election from a fourth perspective, that of the Cosmic Them:
I view it all as an alien would, looking in on the modest progress of this fledgling species, H. sapiens, an experiment in reality tracking and in fitting into an environment not merely by Darwinian evolution as all species do, or by feel the way animals do, but through symbol manipulation–in effect, using the extraordinary and unprecedented power of words to formulate and refine models of reality. It’s a species born yesterday, muddling through the lessons of history. Not evil, just naive. Short-sighted, but not by having lost some long-sightedness it once possessed. It didn’t fall from grace; it arose out of slime mold.
The species takes tests sometimes, like this election or the last one. It gets test results too, like Iraq and the market crash. The test results aren’t perfectly correlated with the answers. The species can’t tell for sure what caused what. Still, over time it is likely to discern useful patterns and make fewer mistakes.
From this perspective, the election is lined up just perfectly. John McCain and Sarah Palin have proven themselves capable of living by Rove’s strategic interpretation of “reality.” Mavericks though they may once have been, by now they have conformed to the strategy that has contributed to the Republican party’s dominance over the past few decades. All politicians have to manipulate perceptions, but until recently there has been sensitivity to questions of degree. Not with Rove, Bush, or Cheney, and apparently not with McCain or Palin either. Reality be damned. What counts is “reality.” They believe in saying whatever is necessary to change behavior to conform to what they would like it to be. And they lock in immunity for themselves by shaping perceptions so that people believe that they would never try to manipulate perceptions. Their MO is don’t talk straight, talk crooked, especially about how you’re talking straight.
We have that option pitted against the Democrats, who this time managed to send up some guys who indulge in just enough spin to survive, and do so largely in the service of paying due respect to the other definition of reality. Beyond America’s love affair with itself (“The greatest workforce in the world,” as McCain and Palin coo mawkishly), they argue, certain hard-and-fast limits still remain.
How will this fledgling reasoner species choose this time? Will it have learned from the past eight years that Rove’s treatment of reality ultimately is undermined by facts that “do not cease to exist because they are ignored”?
Nice to be tested from time to time. One way or another, reality will serve us up the grades we earn and the government we deserve.