Unplugging to Reality, Part I

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Councilor Harmann: Down here, sometimes I think about all those people still plugged into the Matrix and when I look at these machines I… I can’t help thinking that in a way… we are plugged into them.
Neo: But we control these machines; they don’t control us.
Councilor Harmann: Of course not. How could they? The idea is pure nonsense. But… it does make one wonder. . . [1]

The unsettling feeling about today’s economic and political world has gone beyond the familiar Orwellian sense of being denied the truth to become more like the confusion one gets from the “The Matrix” movies, in which all that appears real is actually a well-constructed fantasy world.  In “The Matrix,” humans never experience the true physical world in which they are held captive, but instead are kept unconsciously alive by vast underground machinery, unless and until they are “unplugged.”

There is an eerie similarity between the fantasy world of “The Matrix” and our understanding of the “outside” world, the world beyond our immediate experience.   Our beliefs about America and the economy are mental impressions we construct from second- and third-hand information.  When that information is manipulated or falsified, the “real” world — the world of objective, common ground — is obscured from us and we are left with a subjective description of the world that is unverifiable and inaccessible to rational argument.  It is a false “reality.”

Our powerful computers and internet access enable us to access and review much more information than could be gleaned in years past from the pages of books, magazines, newspapers and reports.  Information is now available to all of us.  Ignorance is now a choice, not an accident of birth, and learning, including an increasing sophistication in how to filter and judge information, is now an obligation we all have.  If we accept this responsibility, we can reject the false “reality” and discover truth.

Bad News Rising

The more we learn, the more it feels like being “unplugged” from the Matrix.  Beneath the distractions and optimistic-sounding economic analysis rolled out by mainstream media, we discover bad news for all Americans who are not millionaires.  The proof accumulates every day:  Jobs disappear and unemployment grows, incomes and home ownership decline, schools and government programs are shut down, and poverty rises.  With virtually one unified voice, the Republicans and their Tea Party cohorts who control Congress tell nonmillionaires that they have created a monstrous problem with profligate consumer spending; that federal deficits must be reduced by cutting government programs that benefit people and stimulate the economy, and eliminating public sector jobs.  Meanwhile, with no real concern for deficits and fiscal responsibility, they insist on continued boundless spending on the military, wars, and internal security from “terror,” while further reducing taxes on corporations and the wealthy and continuing massive corporate welfare programs such as oil and agriculture subsidies.

In the states, these parties slash budgets, eliminate jobs, and reduce taxes for millionaires and corporations.  They work to eliminate political opposition by busting unions and constructing more restrictive voter registration laws.  In Michigan, corporate interests are even being appointed to run local governments and “privatize” basic community functions, without the consent of the governed.  Preaching the malevolence of “big government,” they use State governments they control to wage war against women’s rights and basic human freedoms.

Such bad news is not reported by most of the mainstream media, whose wealthy owners strive to prevent people from learning about what is happening in America.  The public is placated with a constant stream of trivia and propaganda, and our moral sensibilities are deadened as things we should find alarming or morally reprehensible are marginalized.  When Osama bin Laden was found and killed, the mainstream media mainly fed us the reactions of right-wing politicians and former members of the Bush Administration, who argued that the Bush Administration’s police-state approach to security – the illegal use of torture and the suspension of personal rights – had been vindicated.  The illegality and immorality of torture was ignored, but anyone paying more than passing attention would have noticed CIA officials explaining that torture is ineffective and unreliable and that, regardless, no one was tortured for the information leading to bin Laden’s downfall.

The biggest disconnect is in our blunted sense of economic reality.  While income and wealth inequality grows, the media perpetuate the right-wing myth that prosperity will somehow return to lower-income groups if taxes on rich people’s incomes and government spending are reduced.  Emphasis is placed on low interest rates to stimulate private investment to rebound from the Great Recession.  The illogical and demonstrably false Reaganomics fantasies are treated as gospel.  When low interest rates are not enough to stop economic decline, people are told to blame the President for not doing enough (apparently of the government spending the right so vehemently condemns)  while the corporate and wealthy interests continue to insist on the same policies that created this mess in the first place.  Discussions of these matters are routinely detached from rational inquiry.

The Reality Vacuum

Unplugged, one of the first things we notice is that the media’s policy vacuum is filled with a constant background static noise of distraction and inanity.  Sarah Palin and Donald Trump get together over lunch for pizza:  What do we suppose Palin and Trump talked about?  Are they running for the presidency?  And so it goes, day in and day out.   While our insatiable thirst for celebrity gossip is slaked, there is rarely time for more than “bottom line” propaganda on policy issues.  We are denied the information needed for democracy to function properly.  Maybe it’s because enough people haven’t demanded more.  As Councilor Harmann remarked in the Matrix Reloaded, “That’s how it is with people:  Nobody cares how it works as long as it works.”  There is a tendency to believe the sound bites we are fed, even if “it” doesn’t even “work” at all.

However, maybe the owners of the mainstream media are running lies and really do not want an informed public. Progressive talk radio host Thom Hartmann argues that the media have not met their journalistic responsibilities:

“After Reagan blew up the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, two very interesting things happened.  The first was the rise of right-wing hate-speech talk radio, starting with Rush Limbaugh that very year.  The second, which really stepped up fast after President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which further deregulated the broadcast industry, was that the money-losing news divisions of the Big Three TV networks were taken over under the wings of their entertainment divisions – and wrung dry.  Foreign bureaus were closed. Reporters were fired.  Stories that promoted the wonders of advertisers or other companies (like movie production houses) owned by the same mega-corporations that owned the networks began to appear. And investigative journalism that cast a bright light on corporate malfeasance vanished.

“And because newscasts had ads, and those ads were sold based on viewership, the overall arc and content of the news began to be dictated by what the public wanted to know rather than what they needed to know to function in a democratic society.” [2]

Unplugged, we notice an alarming decline the American people’s interest in morality and common-ground reality.  This decline, and America’s overall decline into cultural stagnation and economic depression favors corporate interests, for they profit from it in record-setting amounts.  Democracy and freedom, American prosperity and the American middle class are all falling victim to unfettered capitalism and the corporate plutocracy, and the American people seem hopelessly powerless to prevent, or even recognize, these realities.   Former New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges offers this sobering description of America’s decline:

“The United States, locked in the kind of twilight disconnect that grips dying empires, is a country entranced by illusions. It spends its emotional and intellectual energy on the trivial and the absurd. It is captivated by the hollow stagecraft of celebrity culture as the walls crumble. This celebrity culture giddily licenses a dark voyeurism into other people’s humiliation, pain, weakness and betrayal. Day after day, one lurid saga after another, whether it is Michael Jackson, Britney Spears or John Edwards, enthralls the country . . .  despite bank collapses, wars, mounting poverty or the criminality of its financial class.

“The virtues that sustain a nation-state and build community, from honesty to self-sacrifice to transparency to sharing, are ridiculed each night on television as rubes stupid enough to cling to this antiquated behavior are voted off reality shows. Fellow competitors for prize money and a chance for fleeting fame, cheered on by millions of viewers, elect to ‘disappear’ the unwanted. *** Celebrities that can no longer generate publicity, good or bad, vanish. Life, these shows persistently teach, is a brutal world of unadulterated competition and a constant quest for notoriety and attention.

“Our culture of flagrant self-exaltation, hardwired in the American character, permits the humiliation of all those who oppose us. We believe, after all, that because we have the capacity to wage war we have a right to wage war. Those who lose deserve to be erased. Those who fail, those who are deemed ugly, ignorant or poor, should be belittled and mocked. Human beings are used and discarded like Styrofoam boxes that held junk food. And the numbers of superfluous human beings are swelling the unemployment offices, the prisons and the soup kitchens.” [3]

Today we are becoming accustomed to such callous emptiness, and only unplugged can we grasp the dangers to society of such intensely competitive and self-centered behavior.  We are occasionally reminded of acts of generosity and compassion.  The movie “I Am,” for example, which “started out asking what’s wrong with the world and ended up discovering what’s right with it,” confidently argues that mankind evolved with a fundamentally cooperative and spiritual nature.

There is, indeed, still much compassion and generosity in our lives and in our communities, but it’s not profitable.  The good times are gone now, and in the economic and social disintegration brought about by corporate control of governments, lives are being lost and communities are disappearing.  Unplugged, we learn that last year more than 20,000 Americans died because they couldn’t get the medical care they needed; we see unemployment and poverty increasing (more than fifty million Americans now live in poverty and nearly 20% are unemployed or seriously under-employed); [4] we find incomes and home ownership relentlessly falling, and education badly faltering; and we see ominous assaults on freedom, democracy, and the middle class.  Meanwhile, a manufactured and seriously overblown fear of minorities and “terrorism” fosters injustice and repression, while our cherished human and democratic rights are systematically assaulted.  How did this happen in “the land of the free and the home of the brave”?

According to Chris Hedges:  “It is the cult of self that is killing the United States. This cult has within it the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation; a penchant for lying, deception and manipulation; and the incapacity for remorse or guilt.  *** And this is also the ethic promoted by corporations. It is the ethic of unfettered capitalism.  It is the misguided belief that personal style and personal advancement, mistaken for individualism, are the same as democratic equality. It is the nationwide celebration of image over substance, of illusion over truth. And it is why investment bankers blink in confusion when questioned about the morality of the billions in profits they made by selling worthless toxic assets to investors.

“We have a right, in the cult of the self, to get whatever we desire. We can do anything, even belittle and destroy those around us, including our friends, to make money, to be happy and to become famous. Once fame and wealth are achieved, they become their own justification, their own morality.  How one gets there is irrelevant. It is this perverted ethic that gave us investment houses like Goldman Sachs … that willfully trashed the global economy and stole money from tens of millions of small shareholders who had bought stock in these corporations for retirement or college. The heads of these corporations, like the winners on a reality television program who lied and manipulated others to succeed, walked away with hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses and compensation. The ethic of Wall Street is the ethic of celebrity. It is fused into one bizarre, perverted belief system and it has banished the possibility of the country returning to a reality-based world or avoiding internal collapse. A society that cannot distinguish reality from illusion dies.” [5]

The corporation is the ultimate sociopath.  Despite what our sadly unconnected Supreme Court has held, a corporation is not a person.  It has no morals or compassion.  It has only a charter, and that charter demands growth and profit.  To paraphrase a “Terminator” line: “That’s what it does; that’s all it does!”  People are hired and paid to serve its singular, exclusive, and relentless goals.  No wonder the people who run these corporations, especially those that profit from provisioning and waging war, often come to embody and reflect the corporate socio-pathology that drives their careers and their lives.  No wonder they have come to demand increasing freedom from financial responsibility (taxation) at the expense of the lives, livelihoods, and health of the millions of people whose labors created the wealth they now hold.

If, as Hedges argues, the ego-driven “perverted ethic” that fuels our society is the same as this “ethic of unfettered capitalism,” under these perverse influences our sense of reality and the very fabric of our humane society are inevitably destroyed.  To comprehend the consequences of these perverse ethics and all the harm they have done requires unplugging from the corporate-driven social institutions we inhabit, and that is no easy task for many:

Morpheus: “The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters – the very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”  [6]

But not to save themselves.

JMH – 6/26/2011


[1] Dialogue from “The Matrix Reloaded.”

[2] Thom Hartmann, “Rebooting the American Dream,” Barnett-Koehler (2010), p. 68

[3] Chris Hedges, “American Psychosis: What happens to a society that cannot distinguish between reality and illusion?” Adbusters, June 17, 2010.  (This posting is digested from Hedges’ a lecture “Empire of Illusion,” recently taped at the New School, and based on his recent book of the same name.)

[4] Chris Hedges, the “Empire of Illusion” lecture, supra.

[5] Chris Hedges, “American Psychosis”, supra.   Original emphasis; Emphasis added.

[6] Dialogue from “The Matrix.”

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2 Responses to Unplugging to Reality, Part I

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