Let’s begin with beer. Every day I drive past a billboard for Coors Light with the slogan, “Coors rocks Harrisburg.” Now, does anybody actually believe that Coors does in fact “rock Harrisburg”? No. Does the Coors corporation itself believe it? No. Does anyone believe that Coors believes it? No. It is a lie, everyone knows it is a lie, and no one cares. Everyone automatically writes it off as an ad slogan, an image campaign.
The next sign advertises Miller Beer with the phrase, “Fresh beer tastes better.” Does anyone actually think Miller is any fresher than Budweiser, Coors, or Pabst? No. Does anyone at Miller Brewing think that? No. It is another obvious and unremarkable lie, beneath the threshold of most people’s awareness. But it contributes to a feeling of living in a phony world where words don’t matter and nothing is real.
Continuing on my way, I drive past the Colonial Park Mall, a generic, boxy edifice amid a vast expanse of concrete. There is no park here, nor is there actually any connection with anything “Colonial”, a word chosen to evoke an image of simple times, kind folk, and quality craftsmanship. The mall is home to a food court called “Café in the Park”, evoking (who knows?) a Parisian café with outdoor tables under the shade of the trees. Basically, the entire name is an obvious lie. No café, no park, nothing Colonial. And this lie is completely unremarkable.
Increasingly, words don’t mean anything anymore. In politics, campaigning candidates can get away with saying words that flatly contradict their actions and policies, and no one seems to object or even care. It is not the routine dissembling of political figures that is striking, but rather our near-complete indifference to it. We are as well almost completely inured to the vacuity of advertising copy, the words of which increasingly mean nothing at all to the reader. Does anyone really believe that GE “brings good things to life?” That a housing development, “Walnut Crossing”, actually has any walnut trees or crossings? From brand names to PR slogans to political code-words, the language of the media that inundates modern life consists almost wholly of subtle lies, misdirection, and manipulation.
We live in a ubiquitous matrix of lies, a culture of mendacity so pervasive that it is nearly invisible. Because we are lied to all the time, in ways so routine they are beneath conscious notice, even the most direct lies are losing their power to shock us.
The most shocking thing about the lies of the Bush administration is that those lies are not actually shocking to most people. Why do we as a society seemingly accept our leaders’ gross dishonesty as a matter of course? Why does the repeated exposure of their lies seem to arouse barely a ripple of indignation among the general public? Where is the protest, the outrage, the sense of betrayal?
The answer to these questions lies deeper than the machinations of one or another faction of the power elite. It lies deeper than the subversion and control of the media. Our society’s apathy arises from a subtle and profound disempowerment: the depotentiation of the language itself, along with all other forms of symbolic culture. Words are losing their power to create and to transform. The result is a tyranny that can never be overthrown, but will only proceed toward totality until it collapses under the weight of the multiple crises it inevitably generates.
As we acclimate to a ubiquitous matrix of lies, words mean less and less to us, and we don’t believe anything any more. As well we shouldn’t! We are facing a crisis of language that underlies and mirrors all the other converging crises of the modern age. Just as a growing profusion of material and social technology has failed to bring about the promised Utopia of leisure, health, and justice, so also has the profusion of words and media failed to bring about better communication. Instead, the opposite has happened.
We are faced with a paradox. On the one hand, in a technological society, words are themselves actions. The entire modern world is built on language, on symbol. Any endeavor requiring the coordination of human activity beyond a very small scale requires language. You cannot build a microchip, run an airport or a government, wage a war, organize a peace movement, or build a wind turbine without a vast apparatus of codified instruction books, technical manuals, educational curricula, time schedules, planning documents, memos, instructions, measurements, and data. If the President decides to bomb Iran, do you know how he will do it? With words. He literally has the power to speak a war into being. Like the Old Testament Jehovah, we create the world with our words. Neither the President nor Congress really ever does anything but talk (and write). Unless you work with your hands as a carpenter or garbage collector, you are probably the same.
What are we to do, then, when words, our primary creative tool in the modern world, have become impotent? Surely radical activists and writers must ask this of themselves, as they shout the truth from the rooftops, loud and clear, to so little effect (yes there are some small victories, but the inferno rages on). We feel the urge to stop talking and get out there and DO something. But to do is to speak.
The exception is activists who, impatient with all the talk, go out there and do good work on a local, individual basis. They help prisoners or poor children or the sick or some other victim of the world-devouring machine. They teach teens how to become conscientious objectors. They offer legal aid or friendship to people on death row. They go into the inner city and plant gardens. They staff soup kitchens. They lie down in front of tractors. They spike trees. They blow the whistle on an injustice. They become healers. On an individual level, they make a huge difference in many people’s lives, and their own lives are spiritually rewarding and emotionally fulfilling. On the societal level or the civilizational level, however, they do little to stem the tide, because on that level the main impact of such operations lies, ironically enough, in their symbolic power, which has quickly diminished (in the public consciousness) to the status of clichés, gimmicks, or stunts.
The crisis of our civilization comes down to a crisis of language, in which words have seemingly lost their ability to create and can now only destroy. We have all the technology and all the knowledge we need to live in beautiful harmony with each other and the planet. What is needed are different collective choices. Choices arise from perceptions, perceptions arise from interpretations or stories, and stories are build of words. Today, words have lost their power and our society’s stories have seemingly taken on a life of their own, propelling us toward an end that no sane person would choose and that we seem helpless to resist. And helpless we are, when all we have are impotent words.
It is as if, in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the boy has cried, “The emperor is completely naked” and everyone hears him but no one pays him heed. The parade marches on, an increasingly contrived and ruinous spectacle that no one, not even its leaders, truly believes in. What are we as writers, then, to do? Shall we stop writing? No. But let us not labor under any illusions. The truth has been exposed again and again, but to what effect? What have forty years of correct analysis of the environmental and political state of the world brought us? The reason that the entire staff of your favorite left-wing website is not in a concentration camp is that it is not necessary. Words themselves have been robbed of their power. Thoreau said, “It takes two to speak the truth: one to speak and another to hear.” Who hears now but the already-converted?
A picture is worth a thousand words — perhaps the image can rescue us from the crisis of language. Unfortunately, it cannot. The same air of unreality has come to infect the realm of images as has debilitated the power of words. In an age of virtual reality, immersive video games, online interactive worlds like “Second Life”, computer 3D animation, and routine graphic depictions of violence on screen, images of real atrocities are losing their power to shock. For the viewer, there is little observable difference between images of real violence and its onscreen simulation both are just a set of pixels and neither impacts the viewer’s off-screen reality in any tangible way. It’s all happening in TVland. Perhaps this explains the absence of any national sense of shame or soul-searching in the wake of Abu Ghraib. For many, it was just another bunch of images, just as 600,000 Iraqis dead is another string of digits.
Like words, images have become divorced from the objects they are supposed to represent, until the very word “image” itself has taken on connotations of inauthenticity: a corporate image, a politician’s image. In a world of lies and images, nothing is real. Immersed in such a world, is the political apathy of the American public so difficult to understand?
The danger when we operate wholly in a world of representations and images is that we begin to mistake that world for reality, and to believe that by manipulating symbols we can automatically change the reality they represent. We lose touch with the reality behind the symbols. Grisly death becomes collateral damage. Torture becomes enhanced interrogation. A bill to relax pollution controls becomes the Clear Skies Act. Defeat in Iraq becomes victory. War becomes peace. Hate becomes love. Freedom becomes slavery.
The Orwellian ambition to render language incapable of even expressing the concept “freedom” has nearly been fulfilled. Not by eliminating the word, but by converting it into a mere image, an empty shell, a brand. How can the voices of protest be effective when everyone discounts all speech as image, spin, and hype? Whatever you say, it is in the end just words.
Take heart: the evisceration of the language that makes our tyranny impregnable also ensures its eventual demise. The words, numbers, and images over which it exercises complete control are less and less congruent to reality. Such is the folly of the infamous “Brand America” campaign, designed to burnish America’s “image” abroad. The image has become more important than the reality. Bombs blow up innocent civilians to send a “message” to the “terrorists”. No matter that this message exists only in the fantasies of our leaders. They are, like those they rule, immersed in an increasingly impotent world of symbol and cannot understand why the world does not conform to their manipulation of its representation, the pieces on their global chess board.
However we play with the statistics to cover up the converging crises of our time, the crises continue to intensify. We can euphemize the autism crisis away, the obesity epidemic, the soil crisis, the water crisis, the energy crisis. We can dumb down standardized exams to cover up the accelerating implosion of the educational system. We can redefine people in and out of poverty and manipulate economic statistics. We can declare — simply declare — that the forests are not in precipitous decline. For a while we can hide the gathering collapse of environment and polity, economy and ecology, but eventually reality will break through.
As we rebuild from the wreckage that will follow, let us remember the lesson we have learned. The power of word, like all magical powers, will turn against us, wither, and die if not renewed by frequent re-connection to its source. Abstracted too many levels from its subject, language and reason itself maroons us in a factitious fantasy world, an unconscious story that turns us into its victims. Those of us dedicated to creating a more beautiful world must not lose ourselves in abstraction. Let us not imagine that we are more intelligent than the Neocons in their think tanks or the liberal professors in their universities. They are just as clever as anyone else at manipulating logic. All they say follows logically from their premises. It is the premises that are at fault, and these cannot be reasoned out. Remember that the Neocons too believe they are creating a better world. Only arrogance would say that we, being smarter than they are, can do better. Indeed, it is arrogance that defines them, and the opposite of arrogance is humility, and to be humble is to constantly open to new truth from the outside, from the real world and not one’s interpretation of it.
That is the only thing that can keep us honest. Horror results when we get lost in a world of axioms and ideals. Many before us on left and right have reasoned atrocity out to a nicety. We stay honest by grounding ourselves again and again in the reality outside representation. When environmentalists focus on cost-benefit analyses and “political reality” rather than physical places, trees, ponds, and animals, they end up making all the sickening compromises of the Beltway. Liberal economists with the best of intentions cheer when a poor country raises its GDP, unaware of the unraveling of culture and community that fuels the money economy. But visit a real third-world community and the vacuity of free-trade logic is obvious. Visit a real “mountaintop removal” operation and you know that there is no compromise that is not betrayal.
See the devastation of a bullet wound or a bomb strike, lives strewn across the street, and the logic of national interest seems monstrous.Increasingly isolated in a virtual world, the mass of people fear authenticity even as they crave it. Except in the young, the fear usually prevails over the craving until something happens to make life fall apart. Following the pattern experienced by Cindy Sheehan, the fundamental corruption of first one, then all of our civilization’s major institutions becomes transparent. In my various areas of activism I have seen this many times. Someone discovers that the pharmaceutical industry, or the music industry, or the oil industry, or organized religion, or Big Science, or the food industry is shockingly corrupt, but still believes in the basic soundness of the system as a whole. Eventually, in a natural process of radicalization, they discover that the rot is endemic to all of these and more. As activists for the truth, we are midwives to this process.
As the crises of our age converge and infiltrate the fortresses we have erected to preserve the virtual world of euphemism and pretense, the world is falling apart for more and more people at once. The truth is closing in. Let us speak it loud and clear, so that when they emerge into the stark glare of our true condition, someone is there to say, “Welcome to the real world.”
Charles Eisenstein, May 7, 2007