America’s War for Reality

Exclusive: The United States has been on a three-decade binge of unreality, imbibing delusions that began with Ronald Reagan and have continued through the Tea Party. The challenge now is for rational Americans to show they have the toughness and tenacity to fight for the real world — and to save it, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

The real struggle confronting the United States is not between the Right and the Left in any traditional sense, but between those who believe in reality and those who are entranced by unreality. It is a battle that is testing whether fact-based people have the same determination to fight for their real-world view as those who operate in a fact-free space do in defending their illusions.

These battle lines do relate somewhat to the Right/Left divide because today’s right-wing has embraced ideological propaganda as truth more aggressively and completely than those on the Left, though the Left (and the Center, too) are surely not immune from the practice of ignoring facts in pursuit of some useful agit-prop.

President Ronald Reagan.

But key elements of the American Right have set up permanent residence in the world of make-believe, making any commonsense approach to the real-world challenges nearly politically impossible. The Right’s fantasists also have the passions of true-believers, like a cult that gets angrier the more its views are questioned.

So, it doesn’t matter that scientific evidence proves global warming is real; the deniers will insist the facts are simply a government ploy to impose “tyranny.” It doesn’t matter how many schoolchildren are slaughtered by semi-automatic assault rifles – or what the real history of the Second Amendment was. To the gun fanatics, the Framers wanted armed rebellion against the non-violent political process they worked so hard to create.

On more narrow questions, it doesn’t matter whether President Barack Obama presents his short or long birth certificates, he must have somehow fabricated the Hawaiian state records to hide his Kenyan birth. Oh, yes, and Obama is “lazy” even though he may appear to an objective observer to be a multi-tasking workaholic.

The American Right’s collective departure from reality can be traced back decades, but clearly accelerated with the emergence of former actor Ronald Reagan on the national stage. Even his admirers acknowledge that Reagan had a strained relationship with facts, preferring to illustrate his points with distorted or apocryphal anecdotes.

Reagan’s detachment from reality extended from foreign policy to economics. As his rival for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, George H.W. Bush famously labeled Reagan’s supply-side policies – of massive tax cuts for the rich which would supposedly raise more revenues – as “voodoo economics.”

But Bush, who knew better, then succumbed to Reagan’s political clout as he accepted Reagan’s vice presidential offer. In that way, the senior Bush would become a model for how other figures in the Establishment would pragmatically bend to Reagan’s casual disregard for reality.

Perception Management

The Reagan administration also built around the President a propaganda infrastructure that systematically punished politicians, citizens, journalists or anyone who dared challenge the fantasies. This private-public collaboration – coordinating right-wing media with government disinformationists – brought home to America the CIA’s strategy of “perception management” normally aimed at hostile populations.

Thus, the Nicaraguan Contras, who in reality were drug-connected terrorists roaming the countryside murdering, torturing and raping, became “the moral equivalent” of America’s Founding Fathers. To say otherwise marked you as a troublemaker who had to be “controversialized” and marginalized.

The remarkable success of Reagan’s propaganda was a lesson not lost on a young generation of Republican operatives and the emerging neoconservatives who held key jobs in Reagan’s Central American and public-diplomacy operations, the likes of Elliott Abrams and Robert Kagan. The neocons’ devotion to imperialism abroad seemed to motivate their growing disdain for empiricism at home. Facts didn’t matter; results did. [See Robert Parry’s Lost History.]

But this strategy wouldn’t have worked if not for gullible rank-and-file right-wingers who were manipulated by an endless series of false narratives. The Republican political pros manipulated the racial resentments of neo-Confederates, the religious zeal of fundamentalist Christians, and the free-market hero worship of Ayn Rand acolytes.

That these techniques succeeded in a political system that guaranteed freedom of speech and the press was not only a testament to the skills of Republican operatives like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. It was an indictment of America’s timid Center and the nation’s ineffectual Left. Simply put, the Right fought harder for its fantasyland than the rest of America did for the real world.

There were a number of key turning points in this “info-war.” For instance, Reagan’s secret relationship with the Iranian mullahs was partly revealed in the Iran-Contra scandal, but its apparent origins in treacherous Republican activities during Campaign 1980 – contacting Iran behind President Jimmy Carter’s back – were swept under the rug by mainstream Democrats and the Washington press corps.

Similarly, evidence of Contra drug-trafficking – and even CIA admissions about covering up and protecting those crimes – were downplayed by the major newspapers, including the Washington Post and the New York Times. Ditto the work of Central American truth commissions exposing massive human rights violations that Reagan aided and abetted.

The fear of taking on the Reagan propaganda machine in any serious or consistent way was so great that nearly everyone looked to their careers or their personal pleasures. One side dug in for political warfare and the other, too often, favored trips to wine country.

Distrusting the MSM

As this anti-empiricism deepened over several decades, the remaining thinking people in America came to distrust the mainstream. The initials “MSM” – standing for “mainstream media” – became an expression of derision and contempt, not undeserved given the MSM’s repeated failure to fight for the truth.

National Democrats, too, showed little fight. When evidence of Republican misconduct was available – as in the investigations of the early 1990s into Iran-Contra, Iraq-gate and the October Surprise case – accommodating Democrats, such as Rep. Lee Hamilton and Sen. David Boren chose to look the other way. [See Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]

The Democrats even submitted when the Right and the Republicans overturned the electoral will of the American people, as happened in Election 2000 when George W. Bush stole the Florida election and thus the White House from Al Gore. [For details, see the book, Neck Deep.]

In the decades after the Vietnam War, the American Left also drifted into irrelevance. Indeed, it’s common in some circles on the Left to observe that “America has no Left.” But what was left of the Left often behaved like disgruntled fans in the bleachers booing everyone on the field, the bad guys who were doing terrible things as well as the not-so-bad guys who were doing the best they could under impossible conditions.

This post-modern United States may have reached its nadir with George W. Bush’s presidency. In 2002-03, patently false claims were made about Iraq’s WMD and virtually no one in a position of power had the courage to challenge the lies. Deceived by Bush and the neocons – with the help of centrists like Colin Powell and the editors of the Washington Post – the nation lurched off into an aggressive war of choice.

Sometimes, the Right’s contempt for reality was expressed openly. When author Ron Suskind interviewed members of the Bush administration in 2004, he encountered a withering contempt for people who refused to adjust to the new faith-based world.

Citing an unnamed senior aide to George W. Bush, Suskind wrote: “The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ …

“‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”

Reality Bites Back

Despite this imperial arrogance, real reality gradually reasserted itself, both in the bloody stalemate in Iraq and in the economic crises that Bush’s anti-regulatory and low-tax policies created at home. By Election 2008, the American people were awaking with a terrible hangover from a three-decade binge on anti-reality moonshine.

In that sense, the election of Barack Obama represented a potential turning point. However, the angry Right that Ronald Reagan had built – and the corresponding crippling effects on the Center and the Left – didn’t just disappear.

The Right counterattacked ferociously against the nation’s first African-American president, even intimating violent revolution if Obama acted on his electoral mandate; Obama often behaved like one of those accommodating Democrats (in retaining much of Bush’s national security team, for instance); the mainstream press remained careerist; and the Left demanded perfection regardless of the political difficulties.

This combination of dysfunction contributed to the rise of the Tea Party and the Republican congressional victories in 2010. But Election 2012, with Obama’s reelection and a general rejection of Tea Party fanaticism, has created the chance of a do-over for American rationalists.

After all, the United States continues to see the consequences of three decades of right-wing delusions, including high unemployment; massive deficits; self-inflicted financial crises; a degraded middle class; poor health care for millions; a crumbling infrastructure; an overheating planet; costly foreign wars; a bloated Pentagon budget; and children massacred by troubled young men with ridiculously easy access to semi-automatic assault rifles.

Yet, if rational and pragmatic solutions are ever going to be applied to these problems, it is not just going to require that President Obama display more spine. The country is going to need its conscious inhabitants of the real world to stand up with at least the same determination as the deluded denizens of the made-up world.

Of course, this fight will be nasty and unpleasant. It will require resources, patience and toughness. But there is no other answer. Reality must be recovered and protected – if the planet and the children are to be saved.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).

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19 comments on “America’s War for Reality

  1. rosemerry on said:

    I find it depressing that so many Americans have such extreme biases. Tens of millions of “evangelical christians”,huge numbers of racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, pro-guns for all; prejudiced against gays, women’s right to choose abortion if needed;valuing human life before birth, but not after (and not before or after birth in one of the “enemy” countries). No other claimed democracy has the death penalty, imprisons such large numbers of “drug offenders” and yet calls itself a bastion of freedom.
    Solving the problems Robert outlines takes a real change in understanding by the US population. With the education system being destroyed, the MSM refusing to speak the truth, and the ingrained ideas of so many people, it will take a lot of doing.

    • Eileen Senkok on said:

      Rosemary will you please put your comment on Facebook? It was excellent.
      Thanks.
      Eileen

  2. tom coombs on said:

    Thanks Robert,wish I had more dough so I could help out…Tom. I’m passing thios on..

  3. Jo Wilkie on said:

    ANother brilliant piece by my favourite US journalist! When I read your articles it gives me hope that there are more people like you in the US who can see things so clearly. Thanks!

  4. Morton Kurzweil on said:

    The fallacy in this argument is that “the struggle is between those who believe in reality and those who are entranced by unreality”. It is not between those who choose which reality they accept. It is an oxymoron to believe in any reality.
    Belief is the means on knowing certainty through perception. This is a gut feeling assessment of values. Self witness is the poorest witness. Group witness that requires others to agree rely an mass agreement to support a conviction.
    Reason and knowledge based on logic provides degrees of probability. Since believers depend on group acceptance of values, they respond viscerally to information that rejects their belief identities.
    Sane people, those who live in a world of of probabilities and possibilities have no interest in religious delusions. They are secure in the evidence of contradictory theories and tested conclusions.
    There are always 20% of any population who will attach themselves to any idea and any group which will supply the answers to their need for certainty. These people are genetically predisposed to the dependency of belief.
    Such people and groups must be taken seriously by the sane population and treated accordingly.
    The First Amendment accepted this by separating belief from government. Such believers must be treated without respect, without legitimacy and as wild children among adults.

    • lsym1938 on said:

      Excellent article.
      Morton, I appreciate your clear perception and statement of the “truths” in the article. I do, however, have a problem accepting that “it is an oxymoron to believe in any reality.” What is real does not require belief, only acceptance and understanding (the sun consists of certain gasses, etc.). What humans get caught up in is that belief is often a mixture of real and fiction, especially when the facts may not be available or known to us – i.e. worshiping the Sun as a God. Across the ages, very smart/clever people have learned to take advantage of some peoples’ belief concepts and manipulate the real so that it appeals to certain belief systems. In that sense, they create an alternative “reality” which those people accept as their belief.
      As to your last sentence, I am of the opinion that all living things, including human beings, must be treated with respect. We just need to work hard(er) to make sure the real prevails over the myth and make sure the crass manipulators are unveiled for the charlatans they truly are.

  5. Sean Wilmut on said:

    years ago, at the end of a crummy meeting in a crummy job, I was told, sneeringly, by a Big Shot :
    “What is truth ?”
    The light went on for me, that I was dealing with a sociopath, and I had no place to be in the organization. Quietly I left.
    On the one hand reality is many things, with multiple aspects, etcetera. But there is also fact. Children get fed, roofs keep out water, boats float – or not.
    There is no magic, no god will steer your car when you fall asleep, no charm wards off bullets or death.
    All this is called reality and truth, and knowing – and acting in accordance with it – is called adulthood.
    . . . putting away childish things, stand up and fight, Arjuna !

  6. Natalie on said:

    The first 8 paragraphs do not have 1 single piece of supporting evidence. If you are too lazy to actually formulate an argument than I will not read the rest of your “investigative report”. Maybe throw some facts out to support your argument every now and again instead of relying on name calling and cliches. *Gag*

    • James P Guthro on said:

      I wonder what side of the political fence YOU fall under? You appear to be a pretty good example of the phenomena about which he writes.

    • Natalie,

      It’s terribly amusing of you to slam Parry for not providing “supporting evidence” in “[T]he first 8 paragraphs” which consist of a summary of conclusions. Those conclusions are not only later supported with facts and links in his text, but they’re also well known, and thoroughly documented, in his books.

      It’s also terribly amusing that, in huffing over his first 8 paragraphs, you fail to cite a single error of fact with evidence supporting your disproof.

  7. Though there surely are many contemporary US right-wingers who reject in a wacky way fact-based reality, what the unnamed Bush insider Susskind quotes meant isn’t necessarily crazy. It is wicked and cruel, but not abstracted from reality.

    The Bush insider Susskind quotes said: “… when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

    When I heard that, the first thing I thought of was de las Casas’s opposition to European slaughter of Native Americans in the 16th century. De las Casas succeeded in getting laws passed to improve treatment of the natives, but the colonial Ayn Rand types mostly ignored them and continued the torture and slaughter. They and their US “pioneer” heirs did indeed create new realities for the rest of us to study as they went on and eliminated most of the original inhabitants, defamed them to future generations, and deforested and desertified enormous swathes of land, all of which those of us who care were just left to study. That’s how these powerful heirs of the Western tradition operate.

    Similarly, Bushes I and II succeeded in destroying Iraq, as did Clinton in the interim. Scientists who now want to study ancient Mesopotamia are now at a loss, as are those of us who want to find out clearly what happened to Iraq, what the US did to Iraq, from 1991 to the present day. Powerful US figures created the horrific new reality there, and we can only research what they did and try to see through the rubble to the history of the region. Those who enabled and implemented the destruction were/are evil and cruel, but not delusional. They knew there were no weapons of mass destruction there; they just wanted to destroy the country so they could control it. And they have indeed created a new reality there, a hellish reality. It will probably eventually be the American parking lot that US power-mongers hanker for.

    That’s how I interpreted what Susskind’s Bush aide said. It’s evil, cruel, and depressing but not divorced from reality.

    • That Bush aide was Karl Rove. Susskind recently revealed this, unless I’m mistaken. It’s a horrible, unspeakably arrogant, and profoundly evil statement that epitomizes the Bush years and the neo-conservative ethos.

  8. I agree with Mr Parry’s assessment of the problems that this country — and the world it lives in — faces. And obvious to most of us progressives, substantive answers will NEVER be forthcoming from the right-wingers. However, I have to admit that it seems that he and many other progressive/leftists/etc so often focus almost exclusively on the rich and ‘important’ people and their shortcomings (which are many), but seldom mention the seeming elephant in the room – - – the large portion (30, 40 or 50% ?) of the US public that casually support these charlatans all in the hope (vain as it typically is) that they too can someday be rich & famous. My sense as I live amongst many of them is that they desire and virtually demand someone spin comfortable tales to cover their greed and indifference. There are SO many good books, magazines, and even radio & TV programs as well as the Internet today that there’s no plausible reason for someone to be massively ignorant on these issues short of the willful ignorance that Mr Parry alluded to, and unfortunately I don’t think that is penetrable by rationality, but only traumatic events.

  9. calzone on said:

    Mr. Parry, I know that you have gone “all in” with your support of “our first black president,” but please, do not misrepresent the views of those of us who have realized that this man is not who we thought we voted for in 2008.

    You say that “the Left demanded perfection regardless of the political difficulties” as if all of Obama’s betrayals can be so easily explained as a matter of an embattled Democrat facing a hostile and all-powerful Republican apparatus.

    This is so inaccurate and intentionally misleading that it makes my blood boil. There may be some instances you can point to that fit your contrived narrative of the past several years, but please, let’s not forget about Obama’s policies of extrajudicial assassination and indefinite detention that have nothing to do with “pressure from the right.”

    These are Obama’s policies and Obama’s policies alone. You say that the left demands “perfection,” which is a lie. In fact we are simply demanding a government that respects the Constitution and internationally recognized principles of human rights.

    Please stop misrepresenting reality, as you do in this ironically titled piece about reality.

  10. Eric Bischoff on said:

    Pretty clear, concise recap and analysis of the situation. I only wish I could write like that. Was it Mark Twain who said “it is easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled.”

    • Eric Bischoff on said:

      Obama is the center! That’s part of the problem with reality/not. Americans have convinced themselves of the full spectrum only being from extreme right to just left of center ignoring almost half of the total spectrum.

  11. Morning Star Athbhreith Athbheochan Kwisatz Haderach Druid on said:

    There are only two ways to perceive Reality:
    from a dead chaotic energy / materialistic perspective of Reality,
    or from a living patterned structured / spiritualistic aspect of Reality.

    Earthly governance based, on the dead matter perspective, inevitably descends into tyranny. As long as there are resources of others to be taken the Imperial Capital will prosper – but nations of Vampires eat themselves if the blood from yonder province stops flowing in. Individuals with the chaotic material -energy view of Reality are firm in the belief that there exists no consciousness greater than that of the individual man and the crutch of Reality is that i myself, and i alone, am the MAN. Coercion, loss of life, destruction of family are the inevitable results. This is where we are today . This requires acceptance of the State as Supreme Law.

    This was recognized by Martin Luther with Germany fighting Roman tribute which set the stage for the Reformation that brought the only true freedom “civilized” man has known.

    Only an elemental form of self governance which enshrines a moral system dedicated to the preservation of Life, of family and of community in which there exists a Creator and Sustainer can create freedom and prosperity.

  12. dickerson3870 on said:

    RE: “. . . today’s right-wing has embraced ideological propaganda as truth more aggressively and completely than those on the Left . . .” ~ Robert Parry

    CHARLES DARWIN: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge…” – from the Introduction to Darwin’s The Descent Of Man, first published in 1871

  13. Kevin B. on said:

    This article is a good example of name calling and misrepresentations wrapped in what might otherwise be regarded as good writing. His command of language is notable, perhaps brilliant at times, but it suffers under the weight of his politics, which is anything but balanced. Sadly, many are easily duped by such rhetoric, whether on a blog or a teleprompter.