Maybe we really are living in the Matrix.
Day by day, even hour hour by, the headlines become more surreal and the actions of our leaders become more incomprehensible. Who could have imagined that all the conspiracy theories of extraterrestrial mind-control and computer-generated mass-delusion would start to seem like the most reasonable explanations for where we are and how we got here.
The most recent administration scandal over the United States Central Command (CentCom) deleting military intelligence brings to a crescendo the chorus of claims of the White House stifling inconvenient truths about the Islamic State to avoid dealing with the real threat of terrorism. Last year, the Pentagon’s inspector general began investigating after CentCom analysts protested that their findings had been manipulated to whitewash their conclusions. Now it appears that files and emails were not only misrepresented but actually erased.
As we pass the 30th anniversary of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, it’s beyond mind-boggling that the culture of denial has grown worse than ever. Back then, NASA administrators ignored warnings that O rings lose resilience at low temperatures and might fail on takeoff — which is exactly what happened.
But as irresponsible as it seems to disregard objections as insubstantial or unfounded, by what conceivable logic does one erase information because it supports an undesirable conclusion? Can we make pneumonia vanish from a patient’s lungs by shredding x-ray images? Can we make a brain tumor disappear by dragging the MRI results across the desktop and into the trash file?
Come to think of it, maybe this was the original strategy intended to make Obamacare viable: destroying evidence of disease would certainly keep medical costs to a minimum.
WE HAVE SEEN THE ENEMY…
It’s not just the government. As a society, we have become increasingly disinterested in a pesky little problem once known as reality. Perhaps this is the inevitable result of fantasy movies and fantasy football, of virtual images and virtual messaging, of games that have become more compelling than reality, and of reality that has become more mind-bending than science fiction. All this aided and abetted by the undo and reset buttons that instantaneously restore our make-believe worlds to perfection when things go wrong.
The rejection of reality cuts across every major issue of our times and infects every corner of political and social ideology. Climate change advocates and skeptics alike exaggerate their claims and malign objectors. Pro-choice zealots dismiss the horrors of late-term abortions, while pro-life zealots often refuse to even consider the complex issues of rape and incest, and sometimes even the life of the mother. Supply-side Republicans continue to trumpet the effectiveness of a trickle-down tax structure despite the widening gap between rich and poor, while tax-and-spend Democrats cry out for fairness despite empirical and historical evidence that everyone loses.
In our information age, we are less concerned with facts than ever. With a single click of the mouse, anyone can find legions of pundits asserting preconceived half-truths and countless articles defending outright falsehoods. We are all adrift on a sea of misinformation, carried along by the winds of self-validation. Had Samuel Coleridge imagined this, he might have written, experts, experts, everywhere, nor anyone to think.
Unsurprisingly, in the field of politics it’s even worse. The most brazenly untruthful political figure in the history of the country calls for her opponents to take a lie-detector test, and a master of reality-television who has reversed himself on almost every substantive issue is winning hearts (if not minds) by branding himself as the candidate who “tells it like it is.”
If Laurence Fishburne appeared to offer us a choice between the red pill and the blue pill, which would we choose? Have we so lost our interest in reality that we would happily opt for a world of illusion, or are we still capable of recognizing that a life of illusion is no life at all?
And again, it’s even worse in the world of politics, where neither red nor blue is likely to offer us any escape from our waking nightmare.
But we really don’t need a pill at all.
King Solomon said, “The wise man’s eyes are in his head.” Closer to the brain than to the heart. Looking outward, seeing inward.
What we really need to do is ask ourselves a few hard questions, then follow them up with a few honest answers.
We need to ask ourselves why we no longer value our word the way our parents and our grandparents did. We need to ask why they felt more connected to one another corresponding through written letters than we do through face time. We need to ask why they were willing to sacrifice for higher values when we have forgotten what higher values are.
First we have to be willing to ask ourselves these questions. Then we might be ready to face the universal truths that are self-evident from the answers: that trusting others and being trustworthy go hand in hand; that relationships are only worth as much as the effort that we put into maintaining them; that commitment to something greater than ourselves is the only thing that makes life worth living.
True, the world seems to be spinning toward its own destruction. But even if we can’t save the world, we can stand strong and not allow the world to pull us down with it. Keeping our word, showing respect to those we disagree with, offering a kind word to a stranger or a smile to a passerby — these few faint beatings of a butterfly’s wings might be enough to stir the winds of change, blowing away the clouds of chaos to let the light of reason shine once again.