Opinion » John Rember

End of Empire Psychosis

When cognitive dissonance just won't do the job


When George W. Bush stood in a flight suit on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and declared the Iraq War a mission accomplished, I finally understood that the man was batshit crazy. Before that, I had regarded him as just another increment in the incremental takeover of American government by multinational corporations. It didn't matter who was in the White House, I had thought. What mattered was that Exxon and British Petroleum and Halliburton would rule the seas, that Boeing and General Dynamics would rule the air, and that Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland would get to say who planted what crops in every country with a patent office.

It hadn't occurred to me that Bush might actually believe what he said, or, worse, that he really thought he was the leader of a democratic country that in turn led other democratic countries against the bad people of the world, who hated us for our freedom. But there he was, in a flight suit that was itself a tangible lie, telling us without irony that Iraq and Afghanistan had joined the community of free nations.

Since that time, I've decided the worst thing that can happen to a country is to have a leader who believes his own rhetoric. Voters understand this, and instinctively shy away from sincere politicians. Al Gore would have won the presidency had he adopted Bill Clinton's easy smiling cynicism, and effortlessly communicated that he wasn't about to feel anybody's pain, no matter how much of it he saw coming down the pike. As a presidential candidate, John Kerry had a streak of awkward, truth-blurting integrity that made people think he might use the presidency to identify many more lost causes than Vietnam.

George W. Bush won twice because people assumed nobody could be the kind of stupid he was in public. Somewhere behind that idiot grin, Americans assumed, was a kind of low cunning that was in touch with reality, and that reality justified the war crimes, the deaths of thousands of Americans and Afghans and Iraqis, and the emptying of the American treasury into corporate pockets. But there was no cunning, low or otherwise, and no being in touch with reality. There was only the idiot grin. Behind it was howling nothingness. I've seen his paintings.

Lately I've started to worry that President Obama is starting to believe his own rhetoric. Never mind the hopeful signs of cynical realism--the devious foreign policy; the empty calories under the sugared phrases; the drone killings; the domestic spying; the absurd projections of hundreds of years of coal, gas and oil interspersed with environmental pieties. Never mind Obama's obvious intelligence, which could stay in touch with the real world if it wanted to.

It doesn't want to. Instead, our president is using his superior mind to insulate himself from reality rather than perceive it--a not uncommon malady among academics, but one rather more serious when the academic who's come down with it is the leader of the American Empire.

Psychologists have a term--cognitive dissonance--for what happens when the real world doesn't match up with your beliefs about it. If you believe United States presidents can't be crazy, and then Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush come along, you have a moment of discomfort, usually resolved when you say, "Oh. I guess presidents can be crazy after all." That's called reality testing. A hallmark of mental health is that you occasionally test your beliefs against reality and--because you know reality is Godzilla and you're Bambi--you let reality win.

However, when you don't let reality win, it's a kind of psychosis--one where reality just gets in the way of your beliefs and has to be dispensed with. It can happen anytime, but it's more apt to happen at the end of empire, when infrastructures, central banks, governments, universities and constitutions start to turn belly up and die. It's happened to every empire that's ever existed, and it looks to be happening to ours on schedule.

That's why, when I read about people who insist the climate isn't changing, or who want us to go back into Iraq, or who believe that fossil fuels will last hundreds of years, or that the dollar will forever be the world's reserve currency, I don't bother to call them nuts. It's just end-of-empire thinking, and it's a given that it's psychotic. Too much is at stake to stay sane, once the cocooning fabric of empire starts to rot and unravel.

I am, of course, as guilty of end-of-empire thinking as Obama. I'm in the petro-state of Alaska right now, sitting in warm sunshine, eating a banana that won't grow here, having gotten here via Alaska Airlines, rented a car and fought through the traffic jams of Anchorage and down the southern highway. I've made it to the tourist town of Homer. Across the bay are huge greening mountains. The glaciers between them are considerably smaller than their photos in the Homer Chamber of Commerce brochures. In the local museum are displays dedicated to lives of bare subsistence, when people lived off the land, constructing their technology from local wood and rock and animals.

Yet I'm planning on driving back to Anchorage in a week, and getting on another plane, getting off in Boise, and then driving to Sawtooth Valley. There will be trips to town when the groceries get low. There will be Netflix and the Internet, and music, and electricity, and music, and lots of time to waste. It all depends on an endless supply of oil. I'm deeply, sincerely certain that's exactly what we have.