I started writing this when Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a self-induced drug overdose early in 2014 – I couldn’t get past the first few sentences and set it aside. A tragic event that made me angry but it wasn’t because I was overwrought by emotion, the words just did not flow. A few months later Robin Williams committed suicide. Two uber-talented artists moved to escape reality.
These deaths were set against the backdrop of what I saw as a larger phenomenon – whether it was something as existential as denying the science of humanity’s impact on the measured increase in the earth’s temperature or the rise of “reality” television (in truth “hyper-reality” television) – facts no longer mattered. And some of the legitimate media – institutions that in years past would act as a check on propaganda – had become active players in the Matrix and taken the proverbial blue pill. Apparently, there are always two sides to a story even if one side is sheer nonsense. Rumors about the private lives of public figures are just as important as news about natural and manmade disasters. And of course, all news is now “Breaking”.
So I wondered when did this War On Reality start?
My family emigrated to the United States in 1978 from Iran as the majority of my disaffected countrymen were being seduced by the promise of a better life at the hands of a savior crowned with a holy garb, consolidated all those opposed to a faulty dictator through smuggled cassette taped pronouncements – copied and played in homes throughout the land in the dead of night – descended down the stairs of an airplane returning from exile, passed out his second favorite book – a self-authored treatise on sexual relations and toilet room etiquette – and shook the most unstable region of the world beyond even a middle-eastern’s wildest imaginings, promising the cheering masses great things: “ . . . gasoline will be free, electricity will be free, . . .”, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
A short time after we settled in America, must have been in a summer, I started to watch Phil Donahue’s daytime show. It probably came on after “As The World Turns”, which my mom watched – okay, I guess I must have watched it too as I quickly developed a crush on Marisa Tomei. I was pretty young then but it was clear that Donahue’s programs were about important things. Later Oprah Winfrey began to rival Donahue and then Geraldo Rivera joined the group – right after his Al Capone reveal revealed nothing. Rivera’s topics began to get more bizarre and Winfrey followed him for a brief time before deciding that was not the legacy to which she aspired. The line of decorum was crossed however and others crossed it more – Morton Downey Jr. late at night and Jerry Springer during the day. More outlandish “talk shows” followed – nothing was sacred any longer and the notion of “hyper-reality” as “reality” was born.
In the 1980’s MTV came out of nowhere to permanently attach a series of moving images to songs – a new art form at its best but the end of imagining that Chicago’s “Hard Habit To Break” evoked a special different memory for each person. My father called it the “channel of the insane”. MTV then branched out with its “Real World” – perhaps the beginning of “reality” television as we know it.
The ’80’s also saw CNN become a house-hold name. It bought out the upstart rival Satellite News Channel (SNC) – the latter’s motto was “Give Us 18 Minutes And We’ll Give You The World”. SNC was no more but their slogan stuck and we began to see world events as they happened.
The 1990’s ushered in the age of the internet and, as Thomas Friedman has written, the earth became “flat” – even poor and developing countries now had access to the same information and news as everyone else. The “third” world could see excesses in the “first” world – actors and actress who champion humanitarian causes dressed in extravagant clothes and jeweled with diamonds borrowed for the occasion on the red carpet at the Oscar’s – the “Breaking” news on the internet being who dressed best and who dressed worst.
The 2000’s, a slew of “reality” television shows and “reality” television stars: one of my friends made me watch “The Shah’s of Sunset” a while ago – an excruciatingly painful experience. More 24-hour, and unabashedly dogmatic, news networks. And we should not forget the Stephen Colbert-coined ethos: “Truthiness”.
The 2010’s, the beginnings of the usually qualified as “unscientific” online polls, talent contests where viewers can “vote” as many times as possible, the growing legalization of the recreational – and near-hallucinogenic – marijuana, the rising tide of opioid addiction and the start of the proliferation of fake news.
Then the perfect storm of 2016 and, perhaps, a second seduction . . .
Of course I’ve traced the history of the last near 40 years through my biased eyes of pop culture but WHAT’S HAPPENING TO MY AMERICA?
George Carlin, the comedian/social critic, predicted the end of America some years ago and said that he was now happy being a spectator just watching the “show”. One of his main theses was the lack of critical thinking – the ability to judge and synthesize facts. We are inundated with a plethora of information without trying to make sense out of any of it – my father thought of it as an extension of the “all you can eat” buffet: one is often left with a bloated feeling without remembering any specific food or whether any particular food was actually any good. And more importantly, we’ve become numb to actual tragedies – our preconceived images of hooded, masked and veiled middle-easterners is shattered by scenes of beautiful Arab children bloodied by bombs crying helplessly for someone to act. We watch for only a moment and with our microwaved attention span exhausted, we flip the channel or click our way to something more “real”.
And the “fourth state”, on which we have come to depend for curating all information – the media – is a “failed state” on a grand scale. Millionaire pundits sit around overly designed tables and discuss politics as if any topic had an impact on their personal lives and only perpetuate the heated rhetoric of the politicians. Jon Stewart says the media is biased towards ratings which means that the chase is after reactions rather than substance. They have surrendered any resemblance of editorial control to the dishing out the day’s flavor.
I read ”ripped” and “slammed” in the headlines on legitimate media websites so often that it has made me wonder if there is a short list of words handed out to first year journalism students as essential along with who, what, when, where and how. And the first page of some news sites are now littered with ambiguous tag lines aiming to entice the reader to click: “Something Happened To A Really Famous Person” – more clicks, more ad revenue.
The recent “round tables” after the elections are mainly dedicated to what one party did wrong and how it will have to change to win again. Basically the same discussions after the previous election – and there, the losing party’s elected leader did none of the things that everyone thought he should do and won the next election anyway. Very little reasoned dialogue on how to solve everyday problems and almost no interest in giving the proper background to the topic at hand, for example discussing Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Paper No. 68.
My father first came to the United States in the early 1950’s as a young civil engineer on an Iranian government sponsored tour to see and learn. He saw the good and the bad; he saw great works of engineering, he saw segregation, he saw potential, he saw the American dream – he wanted to return and make a life here.
I’ve been to Washington D.C. on a few occasions and have written about it with similar words: the last time I was there I walked around the National Mall with some friends – it’s a grand space though one still feels “held” by the flanking public buildings. Night was falling as we made our way to the Vietnam War Memorial – a solemn, quite mood about the space, brought on by a most powerful work of art and architecture. Then a few more paces to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to join what I am sure is a normal scene – the gathering crowd of people from all walks of life at the feet of the nation’s wise Grandfather. I get a chill when I think of that night, when I think of where America started and what it can be: yes, we began with one original sin and then another, but in order to “form a more perfect union”, we beckon the world to give us “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free . . .”.
A few years ago at my niece and my brother-in-law’s graduation at the University of Texas – hers a bachelors’a and his a PhD – Robert Gates, former CIA Director, former Defense Secretary and former President of the Texas A&M University (yes, I and a noticeable number of other folks in the audience “WHOOP”ed audibly), delivered the commencement speech. The crux of his words were that society needed “sacrifice” and “comprise” in order to advance.
Some will always be consumed by the abuse of substances to cope with reality or to search for another better reality. And some will always be lured by salacious gossip, backbiting and ad hominem attacks that distract focus from the real issues that face us. My wish is that we move beyond partisanship and by “we” I mean “We the People” – extremist politicians won’t do it, the media won’t do it, only ordinary folks working to build their communities understand that solving basic problems like access to food, shelter, healthcare, education and work should have no fealty to any particular ideology.
Gather the facts, think critically, act.