By Professor Lawrence Davidson
There is a postmodern position that states "reality is a social construct." In other words, individuals and groups have their own realities and, according to the postmodernists, one reality is as true as another. Certainly there is more than one way to interpret things. It is because individuals see the world differently and, at least in the American cultural milieu, have such trouble reconciling those views, that U.S. divorce rates run at about 50%. Then there is the inescapable fact that nation states and rival ethnic communities periodically slaughter each other in an effort to disprove the postmodernist assertion that all realities are equal. Thus we see the competition among groups to assert the reality of the powerful as triumphantly more real than all rivals.
It is hard to argue with the notion that there are many social, cultural and political "constructs," each a product of its place and time. However, the notion that all realities are equal can quickly take us into a kind of theater of the absurd. If you want to see what this looks like just take a close look at present day American politics.
Take the issue of climate change. John Shimkus is a Republican member of the House of Representatives from Illinois. He is presently campaigning for the chairmanship of the House Committee for Energy and Commerce. Last year, during a congressional hearing, he asserted that there is no need to be concerned about global warming because after the biblical flood God promised Noah that he would "never again…curse the ground because of man…" Shimkus sees this as "the infallible word of God, and that is the way it’s going to be for his creation." Well, this is an opinion for sure, but it is also John Shimkus’s "reality." As such is it the equal to the reality posited by the present scientific consultants of the Environmental Protection Agency? How about the world of John Barton, a House member from Texas who has it in his head that carbon dioxide emissions are not impacting the climate? If someday this gas does have an effect on the environment, Barton tells us not to worry. We will find a way to live with it. After all, according to Barton, man is able to adapt to just about any environment. Again, what is the worth of Barton’s "reality"? Is it equal to the one posited by those scientists keeping track of greenhouse gases? Finally, there is Darrell Issa, a Republican House member from California who soon will be the Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Issa’s obsession is climate data which, he is sure, has been manipulated by environmentalists seeking the ruin of capitalism. And, he is determined to use his committee’s subpoena power to foil this plot. Representative Issa has his own "reality." But, beyond his own head, just how real is it?
It is not only with issues such as climate change that American politicians are riding the wave of postmodernism. Foreign policy is also an arena of alternate realities. Texas Republican representative Louie Gohmert took the floor in the House of Representatives last month and stated the following, "I’ve been greatly concerned with the hypocrisy of this [Obama] administration telling Israel ‘just let Palestinians build illegal settlements and take over areas that are not theirs. Just let’em take over." Mr. Gohmert has his world, his "reality," but I think we can say definitively that it is less real to that of a new born Palestinian babe in Hebron.
Then there are all those U.S. politicians whose "reality" includes Iran’s drive for an atomic bomb, and the reality of all U.S. intelligence agency experts who say Iran is doing no such thing. Are they equal?
Americans are not the only ones subject to impaired or wholly false "realities." A recent report prepared for NATO by The International Council on Security and Development revealed thatmost Afghans in two hotly contested provinces, Helmand and Kandahar, "are completely unaware of the September 11 attacks on the United States and don’t know they precipitated the foreign intervention now in its 10th year." The report concludes, "the lack of awareness of why we are there contributes to the high levels of negativity toward NATO military operations…." These particular Afghan citizens live in a remote and technologically poor region of the world. This remoteness makes their outlook more understandable than that of all those "modern" Americans cited above. But what about the world inside the heads of the people who prepared the NATO report? If we assume that their conclusions are an accurate picture of how they see reality in this case, we can only conclude that they too, like the Afghans, are suffering from an impaired worldview. It would seem that somehow they have forgotten, or suppressed, the fact that when, after September 11, 2001, "President George W. Bush demanded that Mullah Omar…turn over Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants or face the full brunt of U.S. military might, Mullah Omar asked to negotiate, and Bush refused. Instead, the United States invaded Afghanistan…." The Taliban leader had asked the Bush administration for proof of bin Laden’s involvement in the 9/11 attack and those in the White House, aided by the Pakistanis, could have probably supplied it. However, America’s leaders did not bother. This also is part of the picture that should be given the remote peoples of Afghanistan so as to make their notion of what is real more complete. Thus, the reality of the Afghans of Halmand and Kandahar is different than that of the NATO commanders and their consultants. Are they equal? And, are either truly real?
The above examples are from our immediate past, but there are similar ones in our immediate future. For instance, we can look forward to a new Israeli "advocacy campaign" scheduled for western Europe early in 2011. The Israeli Foreign Ministry under the leadership of the Avigdor Lieberman, a man whose notion of reality is quite openly racist, has instructed Israeli embassies in all major western European capitals to hire "professional advocacy and public relations experts" as well as to recruit up to one thousand local Zionists per country to promote Israel’s official view of "reality" in the Middle East. This comes after a relatively successful effort by both Israel and the United States to suppress the picture of reality put forth in the UN’s Goldstone report.
The Israeli picture of Middle East reality, and its role therein, has been eroding in the minds of many Westerners. That is why this effort is being made. The source of the erosion is the demonstrable difference between Israeli behavior and Israel’s publically promoted image of reality. As long as the gap between these two is a yawning one, the Israeli effort to restructure reality for the citizens of Europe is likely to be no more than a rear guard action. On the other hand, one should not underestimate the impact of such efforts. Public relations campaigns, advertising, and the like obviously do work. They are capable making you passionate about new cars and new clothes, and they are capable of making you a supporter of the invasion of Iraq because you are convinced Iraqi WMDs are real.
We all live lives that are relatively local and in terms of an understanding of outside (foreign) events we rely on the reports of others. That means, except for our immediate experience, our realities are heavily influenced by our media environment. That environment might entail serious and objective research or it may consist of daily doses of Fox TV. In either case that, in part, is how the universe inside our heads comes about and it, in turn, motivates our behavior. The whole process can bring us down to earth or send us into the realm of fantasy.
In the end we are confronted with two problems. One is that there are people who do occasionally attain power whose private realities are fantasy driven. As noted above, the House of Representatives seems to have an increasing number of such people. The second problem is that, unlike the postmodernist claim that we are all living in equally valid private realities, most individual realities are not private at all. They are instead the artificial creations of a manipulated information environment brought to us by way of the government and its allied media. And both of these problems are sure to lead to on-going tragedy.
Lawrence Davidson is a Professor of Middle East History at West Chester University in West ChesterPennsylvania.He is
the author of America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood (University Press of Florida, 2001), Islamic Fundamentalism (Greenwood Press, 2003), and, co-author with Arthur Goldschmidt of the Concise History of the Middle East, 8th and 9th Editions (Westview Press, 2006 and 2009). His latest book is entitled Foreign Policy, Inc.: Privatizing American National Interest (University of Kentucky Press, 2009). Professor Davidson travels often and widely in the Middle East. He also has taken on the role of public intellectual in order to explain to American audiences the impact of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
Davidson is a regular contributor to Opinion Maker.