Monday, December 26, 2011

Create your own reality, or the upside of delusion

Cahrles Blow cites some statistics in the NYT pointing to increased social acceptance of income inequality in the United States. Here are the basics:

- the percentage of Americans who said their country is divided into "haves" and "have-nots" had been climbing slowly since the early 1990s
- according to a recent survey, that proportion has now shown a marked decline
- currently, nearly 1 in 2 Americans are classified as poor or low income
- 6 in 10 count themselves among the "haves" in society
- a third see themselves as "have-nots"
- another poll found out that most Americans think "the fact that some people in the U.S. are rich and others are poor does not represent a problem but is an acceptable part of our economic system"

Strangely, the views captured by these polls do not quite reflect the much trumpeted opinions of the "99 percent." Blow’s article carries the title "Inconvenient Income Inequality." The numbers he cites, though, demonstrate that rising inequality is not really seen as inconvenient by most Americans, including some who are on its receiving end. Blow claims such a blatant denial of the threat rising inequality poses to the American social fabric is just that - denial, in the psychiatric sense. He wonders if this is yet "another case where the facts of an existential threat lose traction among a weary American public as deniers attempt to reduce them to partisan opinions." As it turns out, this is a rhetorical question. He concludes that the apparent acceptance of excessive inequality is "the new American delusion."

I think Blow should take a few deep breaths, and mull a bit one sentence in the Heffernan piece I mentioned previously ("Internet Geeks and Freaks"). As she makes clear there, the self-expression spurred by the social media serves the useful social purpose of "desecrating ... the divisions between city and country, man and woman, black and white, fantasy and reality, entertainment and news." The loss of the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality is precisely what Blow calls delusion. In an extreme form, it is a major symptom of schizophrenia. But in its more moderate form it can apparently do much good.

Hannah Arendt once argued that the best subject of a totalitarian regime was not someone who was a convinced communist or Nazi, but one who had lost the ability to distinguish between fabrication and reality. These worries go all the way back at least to Plato who warned that we may find ourselves in a situation leading us to confuse appearances - the proverbial dancing shadows on the cave wall - with reality. As it turns out, such confusion has a valuable upside - it can help erase age-old cultural boundaries, increase toleration, and curtail all sorts of discrimination. Except for the reduced opportunities and life expectancy faced by the poor or near-poor, but hey - why fall into the Republicans’ trap and revive the class war mongering which buried the old left?