Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Twisted Reality

I remember an interview I heard during the most recent presidential campaign. The furor over Barack Obama's pastor Jeremiah Wright had brought to the fore the popular conspiracy theory circulating in some cultures that the CIA had created AIDS as a weapon to reduce the black population. The interviewer had contacted a black congressman to discuss the situation in general and this belief in particular.

The interviewer was incredulous that anyone could give credence to such an outrageous idea, but the congressman assured him that many blacks subscribed to that belief. The interviewer asked flat out if he, the congressman, believed that the CIA had created AIDS. The congressman deflected the question with the assurance that it was widely and sincerely believed by a good number of blacks and others. This exchange went futilely back and forth several times as the interviewer pressed his guest as to whether he believed the theory, and the guest kept referring to the quantity of people who sincerely did.

Pondering this later, I realized that I was hearing a textbook collision between the classical mindset and the postmodern outlook. To the classically trained host, the important thing was the objective reality: did the CIA actually create the AIDS virus and conspire to disseminate it among the black community? If that was believed (or not), that belief or unbelief could be addressed with facts, documents, and other objective measures to establish what, if anything, had happened. The host was focusing on what actually happened – the belief about it could (and should) be brought into line with that history through exposure and evaluation of the facts.

But his guest was working from a postmodern frame of reference. To him, facts and objective reality were, if not irrelevant, than a distant second. The critical thing was how many people believed the story, how firmly they believed it, and what that belief would motivate them to. Since what people believe governs where they direct their wills, the nature and magnitude of belief is of pivotal importance to those seeking power in the political arena. If enough wills can be aligned, that can translate into political clout, and that's what matters. Issues such as truth – in this sense the question of whether the CIA actually did create and disseminate AIDS – are unimportant in comparison to the acquisition and manipulation of political power. This explains why the congressman kept dismissing almost flippantly the hosts persistent questions about whether he believed the CIA/AIDS conspiracy theory. To him, it didn't matter whether it was true or not. The important thing was how many people believed it, and what action that belief would translate into.

To me, it seems that the election of Barack Obama is the ultimate expression of this postmodern thinking – at least so far. On an objective level, this is someone who has no public executive experience at all, whose only political experience was as a state senator, and who didn't even complete his first term as junior United States Senator before beginning his presidential campaign. The question of whether he was qualified for the Presidency of the United States would seem to answer itself. But that didn't matter to the media who obediently presented the polished image he wanted them to, and it made no difference to the adoring crowds who melted before his public persona. What mattered to them was what they believed about him. He was the embodiment of hope, the reassurance that “Yes, we can!” effect change of some sort. The nature of that change, and what costs might be associated with it, were questions left unasked. They had to do with objective reality, and that was secondary, if not irrelevant. The important thing was that his supporters believed in him, and believed in him firmly! They projected their beliefs onto him, and then voted for the reality they believed they saw. This also explained the gushing, over-the-top response to his election and inauguration, even from parties for whom the language of jaded cynicism had become a native tongue. They were adoring a nonexistent being. There was no such man – he was the creation of their collective imaginations.

I think this is why the facade is cracking so badly so quickly within his first couple of weeks in office. As President of a country which has pretty much exhausted its international credit, is generally seen on the global stage as a political and military power in decline, and whose banking and finance system is showing itself to be a house of cards, Obama is going to have to deal with many unpleasant objective realities. No amount of firm belief by any number of people is going to deflect them. It's already becoming clear that his thin experience isn't equal to the task. The question that remains is what will happen when someone who rode to power on a wave of collective belief discovers that the force which put him into office can't help him deal with the problems that face him there? And what will his followers do when their vision of him begins slipping in light of his responses to the realities he must face?

History bears witness to how those kind of disillusionments turn out. It isn't pretty. I only hope our political and social system will be able to bear the strain.

1 comment:

Lauren said...

This is a terrific observation.