Friday, May 11, 2007

Who Owns Reality?

(The following was written for a Vanity Fair essay contest. It lost--apparently for not being young enough, hip enough, or, I don't know, reflexively anti-American enough)

America has had a slippery relationship with reality for as long has there has been an America. The continent was a metaphor for the European mind from the very first—a blank slate, a virgin territory, a new world. For a people biblically trained to view their relationship to the natural world as one of dominion, this newly discovered place, untrammeled by the footsteps of their ancestors, was too enticing not to touch, to trammel, to dominate. After all, the world they had inherited was an old one, with patterns of human behavior so deeply rooted that behaving in a different way or building a different world must have seemed contrary to nature itself. For those who were already resisting the old patterns and trying to create new ones, the prospect of virgin territory must have offered the only real chance of success they could imagine. Those willing to imagine—and to stake their life on that vision—came here. They still come.

From day one, then, “the Americans” has been a long-term selective breeding program. The people who make their lives here are defined not only by what they come searching for, but also by what they endure in order to get it. The crossing is not for everyone; the land is not for everyone; and those who survive pass on some gene for unsettled-ness to their children.

Empires create their own reality through force, but America was an empire of ideas long before the nation had any force. It is easy to be cynical about the expressions of freedom set down in the Declaration of Independence—easy to snicker about how limited an audience our founders imagined for their rights. But ideas create their own realities, far beyond the intentions of the people who express them. Even if we view our nation’s founders with as jaundiced an eye as possible, as ruthless, privileged, elitist, sexist, racist, capitalist land-grabbers, the ideas they sent out into the world took hold, and people acted upon them.

Once “all men are created equal” has been said, it cannot be unsaid. It becomes more than a thought; it becomes a Standard. And it has been our standard for more than 200 years—the standard by which we have measured ourselves. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether Jefferson and company intended their words to apply to African Americans, women, homosexuals, Jews, Catholics, or the poor. History has taken them at their word, not their intention, and the nation has—slowly—tried to make that word Real. Let us acknowledge that much, at least: it was manifestly untrue in the world they inherited; they tried to make it true (for themselves) in the world they bequeathed to us; and we, through our actions, add or subtract to their legacy.

Were the promises of endless frontier and personal liberty sometimes a sham, or at least an exaggeration? Certainly, But it doesn’t matter; the people who believed bet their lives on those ideas, set out into the unknown, and made those ideas into reality. Did they destroy a reality that already existed in order to accomplish their ends? They absolutely did—often brutally. The land may not have been empty and waiting for them, but they certainly did their best to empty it. They shaped the reality to fit their vision.

This is the harsh, unsentimental truth: there has never been a blank slate from which to work. Not since Eden. You may be able, by sheer power of will, or will to power, to make the world new—but you can do so only by devastating the old world that was there before you.

Do we have the right to do that? Earlier generations viewed this kind of “creative destruction” as acceptable because we were Us and they were Them. We were white, or Christian, or civilized, and that made the violence, while perhaps regrettable, entirely justified. More recent generations have viewed the destruction as appalling, because all cultures have merit and value, and we are no greater than any They simply because we are We.

But perhaps the question of morality clouds the issue. It is, after all, subjective. There is no objective moral standard that exists apart and outside of us. You can say, if you like, that there is something like “God’s law” that supersedes our own—but unfortunately, on this particular planet, we have a lot of “God’s laws,” and they don’t always agree with each other. Winning does, sometimes horribly, confer morality upon the winner—at least until the winner loses and people see his actions through a different moral lens. The power of goodness needs power in order to triumph. It cannot triumph through goodness alone. Do we really imagine that there was nothing forceful standing behind the words and the ideas of people like Gandhi or King? Do we think that they succeeded simply because they were right, or moral, or good? Power does not acquiesce to goodness; it acquiesces to power.

So what is real, and where is power, in this America we have inherited? To many people, it feels as though reality has been hijacked. We look upon a world we did not create and have no power to change. It seems as though, to quote Yeats at his bleakest, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

And yet, isn’t there a touch of self-pity in this thought? If we truly feel that we are being out-gunned and out-played by the “worst,” is that their fault, or ours? If we feel that we, or at least our ideas, are the best—or even just better—then shouldn’t we be willing to bet our lives on them? Shouldn’t we have just a little bit of that passionate intensity about our own ideas, rather than sitting at home, lamenting the fact that no one is listening? After all, what good is an idea that no one is willing to force into reality? Who needs it? It is barely even an idea. It is, at most, a daydream.

We scoff at those who claim to create their own reality—as though their statement reveals a brutishness about them, an uncivilized, ignorant, loutish strain. We pretend that there is a separate, purely objective, Platonic reality just waiting out there for those who are enlightened enough to see it. But there is not. While we sit at home, lamenting, reality is being made by those willing to make it. And sooner or later, it will be forced upon us.

People in other ages have always known this. People in other countries know this. You can be ripped from your safe, suburban home and tortured in a bleak, dark room. You can, so easily, in so many places on this earth. Even here, even now. Do not tell me, then, that reality has not changed for that person, or that it is objective, or Platonic, or separate from human experience. When you are in that new, horrible room, that room is reality, and your old room no longer exists.

The glory and the horror of America has always been its willingness—its need—to destroy-so-as-to-create, whether the thing on the chopping block has been personal history, political structures, or culture. The cycle of destruction and creation is in our nation’s DNA—it is inextricable. You are not going to get rid of that—certainly not by wishing. But what we choose to destroy and create can change—and the way we go about destroying and creating can change. When one frontier closes, we choose another. We are not fated to walk blindly down one path.

So if you are dissatisfied with what you see around you, put out a better idea. Risk your life, or at least your reputation, on the idea you would like to see made real. If you are not full of passionate intensity yourself, then stand with someone who is. If you can’t do even that much—if you merely sit in the safety of your room, thinking that everyone is a fool—then I’m sorry, but you are not “the best.” Yeats was wrong. By definition, the best cannot lack all conviction. Without conviction, the best ideas are just talk.

Reality is ours to shape. If you cannot define it in any way that is deeper than a video game, or more meaningful than the stimulation of your nervous system, that is certainly your right. If entertainment is the whole of the reality you want to build for yourself, then good luck and godspeed. Just don’t complain when your neighbor has a slightly more ambitious vision in mind, and the determination to pursue it to its end. Because he will pursue it, and you won’t like it, and it will be too late.

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