Reality, Shmeality

Michael Tomasky has an important post pointing out that the Republican Party and the Mitt Romney campaign are trying to construct an alternate reality where their candidate is the favorite to win the presidential election Nov. 6. This is a sophisticated version of the tried-and-true "working the refs" strategy the GOP is so good at, which involves immediate and forceful criticism of any media piece that doesn't favor them. In that scenario, reporters eventually start tilting toward the Republican view as the path of least resistance. Nothing comparable exists on the left.

Image courtesy Flickr user jim_and_kerry under a Creative Commons license

In this case, after Romney barely registered a presence in the third presidential debate, Republicans are united in contending that just by speaking in complete sentences, Romney solidified his status as the favored candidate and presumptive president-elect.

Factually, this isn’t remotely justified. At worst from Obama’s perspective, the thing is tied. As far as we know, looking at all the averages, on a state-by-state basis he’s ahead. If you assume seven or eight states in play and go through all the permutations, Obama often wins by taking just two or three of them. Yes, a lot hinges on Ohio. But he can win even without it (he needs a strong inside straight, but it’s possible). Romney absolutely cannot.

Conservatives know all this. But they’re constructing an opposite reality. This is at the heart of everything going on right now, I think. It’s what they can do that liberals can’t really do. They've always done it.  “Romney is going to win” in 2012 isn’t so different from “We’ll be hailed as liberators” in 2003. They say something and try to make it so, and the media go for it time and time again.

Tomasky, if anything, understates the situation. The construction of an alternate reality extends well beyond the political campaign of the moment. Large numbers of people, disproportionately Republican, live in a world where Barack Obama is a Muslim, born in Kenya with an agenda of turning America and the world into a socialist totalitarian state. A vast conspiracy of thousands of scientists — 98% of climatologists worldwide — is peddling falsified studies of climate change in order to … take over the world or something. Oil companies that foul the Gulf of Mexico and powerful Republicans who shoot old men in the face are owed abject apologies. Women cannot get pregnant in the course of being raped. Slaves had it good. There is no one left to speak for the oppressed white man.

Julian Sanchez noted the “epistemic closure” of conservative media back in 2010:

One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!)

The alternate reality, of which Romney's inevitable ascendance is but a part, ought to have a name. Other such constructs do. In the comic books I read in my youth, there existed a second Earth known as Earth-Two that was similar to the one I was familiar with. Another universe was Bizarro World, the opposite of the usual reality. That would be a good name if it were not already a cliché. So, inspired by Jeff Jarvis's Internet, Schminternet post about proprietary online spaces that resemble the open Internet but are not, I suggest that the real and the fake worlds be known as Reality and Shmeality. (Or "Schmeality"? Either spelling works for me.)

So the New York Times, CNN (mostly), and other mainstream news organizations live in Reality. Fox News is based in Shmeality; it is the most visible source of Shmeality construction, though perhaps not the most pervasive. Talk radio has for decades served up Shmeality to listeners across the country, mainly in the suburban strongholds of the imaginary.

And these media outlets can be radicalizing for a couple of reasons. One is that they substitute for community judgments the judgment of the host. There’s no cultural back-and-forth where more liberal members of a community can mediate the harsh judgments of the bigger assholes in a community. And second of all, despite the intimate feeling of listening to the radio, the people on it are basically strangers.

Through emotional manipulation and sheer repetition, well-known talkers such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and their less celebrated but no less influential brethren do more than deny reality, they build their own, a sprawling tree house of the absurd, somewhat resembling our world, but full of fear and sinister plots, usually carried out by women in slacks, men with graduate degrees, dark-skinned foreigners, and Frenchmen.

We got some warning about Shmeality in 2004 when one GOP operative (thought to be Karl Rove) dismissed realism as a footnote to history, as Ron Suskind wrote in the New York Times:

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." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "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."

The term "reality-based community" became a catch phrase on the Left to draw a distinction from Shmeality, but it didn't stop or even slow the pace of construction.

Shmeality has wings devoted to the Left Behind mythos, whose readers are invited to contemplate the destruction of those who think differently from themselves, and the aspirational Ayn Randian fantasies of a world where even servants are no longer needed by the rich, white elite. These constructs certainly inform the shape of the world.

We all have our fantasies where we can retreat from the world for a time to recharge or simply rest up. But Shmeality isn’t just a mental spa for the resentful suburbanite. As we see in the presidential campaign, it bleeds into Reality and infects our public discourse. With Shmeality, working the refs progresses past a play for political advantage and becomes a takeover attempt. Journalists and other commentators and activists are outnumbered and have only finite resources with which to resist. It’s been said that we make our own reality, but others make theirs as well, and when they get organized, they can try to replace ours with theirs, by hook or crook. Shmeality is a harsh, oppressive world. It cannot replace the physical world — denying climate change won't stop it from happening — but it can overwrite our social relations, replacing community with paranoia, science with superstition, aspiration with resignation, and democracy with bullying oppression.

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