Nothing Is Real

June 18, 2015

Multiple Pages
Nothing Is Real

T.S. Eliot’s observation that “human kind cannot bear very much reality” is surely up among the half-dozen wisest things ever said about our common nature.

There is, of course, individual variation in how much reality we can bear. I flatter myself by believing I am up toward the high end. I readily admit, however, that I have spent not insignificant portions of my life in a state of self-delusion driven by wishful thinking—a hugely underestimated force in human affairs. Some humility is in order, and not just for me.

There is group variation, too. Speaking generally, and again with much individual variation, the old can bear more reality than the young; men more than women; people in up-against-it professions like medicine or law enforcement more than those in comparatively sheltered occupations; people educated in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, math) more than humanities majors; and so on.

I am now going to propose a half-baked theory to you.

“In advanced societies, the average amount of reality people can bear has declined across the past few decades.”

Theory: In advanced societies, the average amount of reality people can bear has declined across the past few decades.

This, I believe, has something to do with the ever-increasing availability of screen-based entertainment (movies, TV, the internet), something to do with the decline of religion, something to do with the revolution in manners that we call “political correctness,” and something to do with the falloff in violence, as chronicled by Steven Pinker.

There are surely connections there; but which is cause, which is effect, and which mere symptom, I don’t know. That’s why the theory is half-baked.

Illustrations: As we have seen these past few days, the whole zone of “identity” is shot through with barefaced, unblushing denial of reality.

All but a very tiny proportion of human beings are biologically male (an X and a Y chromosome in the genome) or female (two X chromosomes). A person who is biologically of one sex but believes himself to be of the other is in the grip of a delusion. That is what everybody would have said 50 years ago.

Some of those who said it would have followed up with an expression of disgust; some with unkind mockery; some with sympathy and suggestions for psychiatric counseling. Well-nigh nobody would have said: “Well, if he thinks he’s a gal, then he is a gal.” Yet that is the majority view nowadays. It is a flagrant denial of reality; but if you scoff at it, you place yourself out beyond the borders of acceptable opinion.

It is, of course, the same with race. I still blink in disbelief when I hear or read someone saying, “There is no such thing as race.” It falls on my ears much like “There are no such things as mountains,” or “There is no such thing as water.” Of course there is such a thing as race. Until recently, everyone knew this. As I like to remind people, the founder of the modern biological sciences surely knew it.

Here is a thought experiment. I am going to let you into a corridor—the kind you find in a school or a college. There are doors along the corridor to six classrooms, each seating 30 or 40 persons. Each door has a glass panel you can look through; each is marked with a number from 1 to 6.

I have arranged for room W to be filled with persons flown over from a tribal territory in Western Australia. Room K is filled with Koreans; room E with Estonians; room S with natives of Senegal; room Q with Quechua-speaking Indians from Paraguay; and room T with Tamil speakers from South Asia. All the occupants wear identical uniforms.

Before admitting you to the corridor I hand you a sheet of paper and a pencil. You must briskly walk the length of the corridor and back, looking into the rooms. On the paper you must write your guess as to which number room is W, which S, and so on. Upon leaving the corridor you will hand me the sheet appropriately marked up: It might be 1-K, 2-T, 3-W…

What is the chance you will correctly identify all groups by sight? The chance is, of course, 100 percent, unless you are irremediably stupid.

Yet that is how stupid you must pretend to be if you want to hold socially acceptable opinions! There is no such thing as race!

It is a short step from that level of willful self-enstupidation to the bizarre “transracial” delusions of Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP leader and Africana-studies teacher who has two white parents but believes herself to be black.

Flickering screens: A hundred years ago, when we first began to watch flickering screens for amusement, representations of reality predominated. There were cartoon films almost from the beginning (Felix the Cat, 1919), but nobody mistook their moving blobs and stick figures for real live objects.


William Friedkin, the Oscar-winning director of The French Connection and The Exorcist, has dismissed the modern craze for superhero and sci-fi movies…. “Films used to be rooted in gravity. They were about real people doing real things. Today cinema in America is all about Batman, Superman, Iron Man, Avengers, Hunger Games: all kinds of stuff that I have no interest in seeing at all.”

Religion as a lens: When people stop believing in God, the old quip goes, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything.

Very serious, practical people—statesmen, generals, industrialists, engineers—often used to be deeply religious, holding the unreal—the transcendent, if you want to be polite—corralled in one part of their mind while the rest grappled with reality. Religion focused wishful thinking—kindly Sky Fathers listening to our prayers, wisps of immortal spirit-stuff in our heads—into a coherent set of ideas and habits.

With that focusing lens gone, wishful thinking runs amok. “I feel female/black, so I am female/black!” “Race creates tensions we don’t know how to manage, so let’s pretend it doesn’t exist!”

Nothing is real

And nothing to get hung about.

Strawberry Fields forever

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