Reality bites

Reality bites July 9, 2024

The 2024 election echoes the first election we discussed here on this blog back in 2004. That was the year, some of you may recall, of “the reality-based community.”

That term came from an anonymous official in the George W. Bush administration who was speaking with journalist Ron Suskind. Twenty years later, Suskind still hasn’t identified who that official was. Everybody guessed it was Bush’s campaign manager, Karl Rove, but it could’ve been almost anybody in the Bush White House because the phrase so perfectly captured the ethos and hubris of that administration.

OK movie. Great soundtrack.

Suskind’s article, “Faith, Certainty, and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” appeared in October 2004 and included this passage:

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.”

That article was published in The New York Times Magazine. Twenty years later, the Times’ political reporter Peter Baker wrote something eerily similar. But Baker wasn’t agreeing with Suskind. He was agreeing with the anonymous Bush official:

Americans do not just disagree with each other, they live in different realities, each with its own self-reinforcing Internet-and-media ecosphere. The Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol was either an outrageous insurrection in service of an unconstitutional power grab by a proto-fascist or a legitimate protest that may have gotten out of hand but has been exploited by the other side and turned patriots into hostages.

So either one thing or some other thing happened on January 6, 2021. Or maybe both. Who can say?

Not Baker, apparently, who seems to exchange the reporter’s duty to confirm who, what, when, where, and why for a new concept of reporting multiple realities in which everything, everywhere, all at once is equally true and equally real because it is “believed” or claimed or declared to be so by an equal number of people. After all, what’s the point of judiciously reporting on reality if so many people choose to pretend something else is real?

Except this isn’t what “reality” means. The word refers to the actual truth of actual things as they really are. There ain’t no such thing as “different realities.” As Philip K. Dick, of all people, put it, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Or, as C.S. Lewis wrote, “Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows.”

Just ask Herman Cain.

Sometimes reality bites really hard.

The multimillionaire Tea Party activist and former Republican presidential candidate thought he could “live in a different reality” than the one we all lived in during the spring of 2020, when the Covid-19 virus was first surging through a world that did not yet have effective treatments or vaccines. Cain didn’t like that version of reality so he chose to create his own, choosing to live in a “different reality” in which it was perfectly safe to attend a crowded indoor Trump rally.

Cain attended that rally on June 20, 2020, at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He tested positive for COVID-19 on June 29, was hospitalized on July 1, and died on July 30.

You can’t live in a “different reality” because no such place exists. Trying to pretend otherwise can get you killed. Or worse.

What’s worse than getting killed? Well, for one, the meaninglessness of Peter Baker’s imagined world in which no reality is more real than any of the others. Nothing is true. Nothing matters. “The torture of restlessness and vague desire … a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.”

Contrast that fuzzy nonsense with the clarity and honesty of Chris Quinn in a March 30, 2024 editorial in which he strove to live up to the name of his newspaper, The Plain Dealer,Our Trump reporting upsets some readers, but there aren’t two sides to facts: Letter from the Editor“:

This is a tough column to write, because I don’t want to demean or insult those who write me in good faith. I’ve started it a half dozen times since November but turned to other topics each time because this needle is hard to thread. No matter how I present it, I’ll offend some thoughtful, decent people.

The north star here is truth. We tell the truth, even when it offends some of the people who pay us for information.

The truth is that Donald Trump undermined faith in our elections in his false bid to retain the presidency. He sparked an insurrection intended to overthrow our government and keep himself in power. No president in our history has done worse.

This is not subjective. We all saw it. Plenty of leaders today try to convince the masses we did not see what we saw, but our eyes don’t deceive. (If leaders began a yearslong campaign today to convince us that the Baltimore bridge did not collapse Tuesday morning, would you ever believe them?) Trust your eyes. Trump on Jan. 6 launched the most serious threat to our system of government since the Civil War. You know that. You saw it.

The facts involving Trump are crystal clear, and as news people, we cannot pretend otherwise, as unpopular as that might be with a segment of our readers. There aren’t two sides to facts. People who say the earth is flat don’t get space on our platforms. If that offends them, so be it.

Flat-earthers do not “live in a different reality” in which the earth is flat. They live in the same reality as the rest of us, the only reality available to any of us. We may not have the capacity to perceive or to understand every aspect of this one reality with epistemological certainty, but we all know the earth ain’t flat.

And, as Quinn says, we all know what happened on Jan. 6.

“You know that. You saw it.” That’s reality.

Choosing to pretend that you don’t know that or that you didn’t see it does not create a “different reality.” It just makes it more difficult and dangerous for you to live in this one.

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