So much about American life seems crazy right now, the gun fetish, the QAnon conspiracies, the rabid left and right, the science deniers. It seems like many people in this country have simply gone mad as an air of unreality has taken hold. What the hell is going on?
Well, the notion of what constitutes reality has always been up for grabs. Human beings are storytellers, and that makes for story-believers. From rumors, gossip, and tales told by the water cooler to scientific studies, professionally conducted polls and the “facts” on Wikipedia, what we believe has as much to do with how we feel as what we know, and when it comes to the competition between feeling and knowing, feeling wins most of the time.
In this way, reality bends and twists to fit our emotional tastes, which swing from paranoid/schizoid to comfortably secure, if a bit depressed. American entertainment tells us all we need to know about how we feel. The zombie-mutant-superhero trend sits at one end of the spectrum while the nostalgic-angst-ridden-loner is at the other. So too mirrors our political reality, which swings from crazy-ass hysterical over-the-top mob violence to totally checked-out, new-age passivity. More than ever, our whole situation feels like a game.
We love games. From the first fun of “peek-a-boo, ring-around-the-rosy,” and “duck-duck-goose” we move on to bigger games like “protect-the-border, I’m the boss,” and “imminent nuclear threat.” Games are all about bluff, posture, misdirection, bait n’ switch, and gotcha. In short, they’re all confidence games, which is to say, seducing the participation and trust of others and getting them to play the game your way. In politics, the biggest game of all is “Our team makes the rules.”
Few, if any, games are collaborative, which is to say competitive games with winners and losers dominate. American democracy is now a huge game, with hyperbolic television personalities enthusiastically celebrating winners. Lately, however, losers are claiming to be winners, are denouncing the judges and referees as corrupt, and are calling the whole game rigged. This has upended the confidence game by promoting electoral democracy itself as a con game.
“America is not a democracy,” say gamers, “America is a republic.” This is called trying to change the rules when you don’t like the outcome, a negative attitude we used to call being a sore loser. In the past, referees would toss a sore loser off the field, but unfortunately, the Supreme Court referees in charge of America’s political games are turning a blind eye to insurrection and deceit. The sore losers are winning by making up stories, turning the game itself into a casualty.
To paraphrase Ben Franklin, America’s democracy game stinks, but it’s better than any alternative. The question today is not whether or not democracy will survive but will sanity. When as a culture we can’t agree on any story, or when a yarn, even the most far-fetched and paranoid is considered legitimate, the game turns to chaos. When disinformation is taken for knowledge, the entire fabric of reality begins to unravel like a knitted sweater. As Friedrich Nietzsche presciently observed. “Our knowledge will take its revenge on us, just as ignorance exacted its revenge during the Middle Ages.” Just so.