We’ve All Been Playing Along With a Distorted Reality, and We Need to Stop NOW
Updated: Oct 5, 2022
“The masses have never thirsted after the truth. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.”
— The Crowd, Gustave Le Bon
A thing that is or is likely to be wrongly perceived or interpreted by the senses.
We Want To Believe the Illusions
A good magician will tell you that the key to pulling off any trick relies on one thing: distorting the reality of the observer.
This isn’t as hard to do as you might think. In fact, it’s surprisingly easy to fool most people, especially if they’re willing to be fooled. When we watch a magic show, we know there’s some sleight of hand going on, but we don’t bother to look too closely. Because we want to play along. We pretend what we’re “seeing” is real because we want to believe the illusion.
I believe this is happening on a much larger scale all around us now: our perceptions of politics, the economy, race relations, and even the COVID-19 pandemic have all been distorted. These distortions aren’t hard to see if we’re willing to look closely, but we usually don’t — because we want to play along. We see what we want to see. Like someone watching David Copperfield make the Statue of Liberty disappear, we “know” a 300-foot hunk of copper can’t vanish in the blink of an eye, but we suspend our disbelief and embrace what logic and common sense tells us can’t possibly be true.
We want to believe the illusions. And this belief is what has kept humanity behind the Veil for eons.
Sometimes the magician’s sleight of hand is too obvious to hide, so he’ll use a distraction — a disarming joke, a sexy assistant, or an intervening event like dropping an object — to keep the observer from seeing what would otherwise be impossible to miss and remind us that we’re really watching a magic show. I believe this dynamic is also at play in our world: we often overlook glaring signs that our reality is being distorted when our attention is diverted and we’re too busy looking the other way.
Humanity, especially in the Western world, has been playing along with an elaborate magic show for ages that’s convinced us to embrace many illusions: democracy keeps us free, voting gives us a voice, governments represent our best interests, and the free market economy gives us all a chance to get ahead. We embrace the illusions because they make us feel good about ourselves and our lives. They gives us hope and make it easier for us to keep moving forward when things get tough. Illusions keep us happy, or at least content. And who doesn’t want to be happy?
But something is changing now. Can you feel it? It’s getting much harder to play along with the magic show. The illusions are wearing thin because the sleight of hand has become so damn obvious.
All over the world, people are waking up in large numbers, but it isn’t happening as quickly in the United States. Americans have had front row seats to this magic show for decades, and we’ve enjoyed it more than anyone else. We don’t want the show to end. And so as the life we once knew slips away, many of us desperately cling to the belief that we live in a country we don’t really live in, even though logic and common sense tell us that what we’re really seeing now are thinly-veiled illusions:
We know corporations and deep pockets fund the “viable” candidates in every election, yet we convince ourselves that voting gives us a voice and a chance to level the playing field against these same elites.
We know multi-national conglomerates that don’t share our interests own most news media, yet we rely on them to tell us what we should believe and who we should trust.
We know there’s a revolving door between government agencies and the industries they regulate, yet we believe an FDA-approved drug — developed at “warp speed,” generating billions in profits and shielding manufacturers from any liability — is absolutely “safe and effective.”
We know our government has knowingly misled us on critical issues — from WMDs in Iraq to its role in gain-of-function research that may have contributed to the Coronavirus pandemic — yet we trust it to tell us the truth about everything else.
We know that corruption is endemic in business and billionaires have seized a staggering share of our country’s wealth, yet we trust Bill Gates and other “visionaries” to give us guidance on issues like public health and climate change.
We ignore these obvious distortions in our reality and rationalize the cognitive dissonance they create — and the more educated and intelligent we are, the more we’ll rationalize what we’re seeing. Because if we’re educated and intelligent, we may suspect we’re in a magic show, but we think we’re smart enough to see the sleight of hand. We don’t think we can be fooled. So we’ll acknowledge flaws in the System but tell ourselves they aren’t that bad or dangerous. We’ll compartmentalize the problems and discount the possibility that they might all be connected or run much deeper than we can imagine.
Yet dismissing and downplaying these distortions keeps us from asking logical, common sense questions:
If our government is so prone to corruption, why should we trust our leaders to look out for our best interests? If corporations are driven to make money (not serve the public), why should we rely on the media they own to tell us what we should or shouldn’t believe? And if our voice really matters and voting really makes a difference, why does our country continue to deteriorate, year after year, no matter which party controls the White House or Congress?
I think the reason we can’t bring ourselves to ask these questions is because we know the answers will end the magic show. And deep down, we’re afraid to face a world without illusions.
If you’re still playing along with this magic show, don’t feel bad and don’t blame yourself. There’s nothing to be ashamed of because we’ve all been there. Even if we’re not playing along now, we all have at some point.
But we can’t keep doing this, my friends. It's breaking our world, and it's enslaving humanity.
If we want to fix what’s broken and save ourselves, we need to take action now. Every one of us needs to stand up, make our way to the nearest exit, and leave this magic show.
I think the key to walking away, and helping others find the courage to join us, is understanding why this show has kept us mesmerized for so long. We need to understand the thought processes that have encouraged humanity to embrace a distorted reality and keep us all behind a Veil of illusions.
So let’s dive in.
We Ignore and Dismiss Distortions of Our Reality. Here's Why.
We tune out reality distortions for a variety of reasons: if our life is going well (or well enough), we might seal ourselves in a “Denial Bubble”; groups or institutions that share our values might encourage or enable reality distortions; people we trust or respect may persuade us to dismiss distortions; or we may simply fear being alienated or shamed if we see distortions and call them out to others.
The Denial Bubble a/k/a “My Life Is Fine, Nothing To See Here”
It’s easy to ignore reality distortions when we’re not directly impacted by them. This can keep us in a “Denial Bubble,” the comfy cocoon of safety that prevents us from seeing what’s happening to “other” people.
For example, we might not be troubled by complaints of censorship if we're not being silenced, ourselves, or if we believe people who are being silenced are wrong or dangerous. We might discount mounting evidence that a vaccine has had adverse effects on others if we (and everyone we know) have been vaccinated and feel fine. When we’re in our Denial Bubble, it’s difficul to summon empathy for people whose experiences don’t match ours.
Distortions in our economic reality are probably the easiest to dismiss. As the old adage goes, “When your neighbor is out of work, it’s a recession; when you find yourself out of work, it’s a depression.” So if we’re lucky enough to have good health insurance, we might dismiss concerns that the Affordable Health Care Act actually made health care more unaffordable for a lot of people. Or we might ignore the collateral damage of lockdowns if we worked remotely and never missed a paycheck. Generally speaking, the higher we are on the economic ladder, the easier it is for us to ignore these distortions. Because money smooths over unpleasant wrinkles in our reality; the more of it we have, the longer we can ignore reality distortions around us and remain in our Denial Bubble.
I think this is why I was so clueless about what was happening around me for the first forty years of my life. When I was a senior executive at a major media company, making a lot of money and living a carefree life, I was tightly sealed in my Bubble. But as the economy slowly began to sour and I found myself working harder to get ahead, my Bubble weakened. And when I moved to Montana and “unplugged” from my old life entirely, it finally burst.
My Wall Street lawyer friend Dan (you might remember him from Chapter Three) is a perfect example of someone who’s hermetically sealed in a Denial Bubble. He makes so much money and is so content with his life that he refuses to see any distortions, even when I point them out. Dan and I often engage in spirited debates about news and events that leave me feeling like we're living in completely different worlds. It wasn’t until the 2008 Financial Crisis that I realized why this was happening: we had been watching the same magic show all our lives, but I was losing interest because the sleight of hand was becoming so obvious; Dan, however, was still enjoying the performance and happy to play along.
In the fall of 2006, I sold my house because I’d gotten my first whiff of something foul in the real estate market. But Dan thought I was being paranoid.
“The market is on fire,” he wrote in an email. “People are falling over themselves to buy.” (Dan lives in Manhattan, where the price of a two-bedroom apartment was more than $1.5 million at the time).
“The market’s great in L.A., too, but I’m hearing things aren’t so good in places like Vegas and Phoenix.”
“You need to get off the Internet and read Investors Business Daily. Get some perspective.”
In the summer of 2007, I emailed Dan about signs of distress in the subprime mortgage market, but he pooh-poohed them.
“We may see a few loans go bad, but that’s par for the course after a run-up in prices,” he told me. “This is a non-event.”
Six months later, when the subprime mortgage crisis started to go mainstream, Dan still wasn’t worried.
“A few bad apples won’t kill the whole market. There’s no way this will affect prime mortgages.”
By early 2008 it was clear that the subprime mess had spilled into the broader housing market. That’s when I raised the red flag, warning Dan that the housing market might start to affect the rest of the economy.
“Ben Bernanke has repeatedly confirmed that there won’t be any impact on the broader economy.” (Bernanke was Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank — we’ll get into the Federal Reserve and its role in the magic show in Chapter Ten). “I think they’re in a better position to assess the fallout than some random blog you’re visiting.”
“I’m not visiting random blogs,” I insisted. “And given how many foreclosures we’re seeing around the country, I can’t see how this isn’t going to affect the rest of the economy.”
In the fall of 2008, the financial crisis I had been anticipating finally came to a head. The Dow lost thousands of points over the course of a few weeks, and every day was turning into a roller coaster on Wall Street. Dan took a little longer to respond to my emails, and when he did his responses were cautious; the carefree optimism was gone. He had never told me who his clients were, but I got the sense that what was happening in the markets might be hitting a little close to home.
In early September, shares of AIG, one of the largest insurance companies in the world, began tanking, something that the “random” financial blogs I was visiting (many of which would be labeled “fake news” sites a few years later) had warned of several months earlier. Now these blogs were sending out red alerts: the subprime mortgage rot was eating its way up the food chain. The next victim would be Lehman Brothers, one of the biggest banks on Wall Street.
I immediately emailed Dan.
“Where did you hear that?” he asked. “Because no credible news organization is saying that Lehman is in trouble.”
“It’s not in the mainstream news, but neither was the subprime crisis until it hit. Haven’t you noticed the pattern? We don’t hear anything on the news until after it happens or it’s just about to happen.”
“Lehman will be fine,” Dan assured me.
Less than a week later, on September 15, 2008, Lehman declared bankruptcy. I got an email from Dan an hour later. That’s when I found out Lehman had been one of his firm’s biggest clients, and he had lost his job. I also found out just how tightly sealed he wanted to stay in his Denial Bubble: “No one saw this coming,” he wrote.
Dan dropped off the radar, then re-surfaced a couple of months later after landing a job at another Wall Street firm (making more money than he had before the “Great Recession”). In the interim, the government spent nearly $800 billion to prop up banks, the markets stabilized, and Dan was back in his Denial Bubble, convinced the worst was behind us.
That’s when I finally understood why he fought so hard to dismiss reality distortions and stay in his Bubble: he desperately wanted to believe the illusion.
Dan needed to believe the U.S. economy was invincible so he could continue to claim his stake in its never-ending prosperity. He wasn’t ready to give up vacations to exotic destinations, concerts at the Lincoln Center, and dinners at five-star Michelin restaurants. So he ignored the obvious signs of distress: the unfathomable debt the government heaped on taxpayers, foreclosures that displaced millions of homeowners, the bankruptcies that claimed a wide swath of jobs. He couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge deep cracks in the foundation of the economy that would fundamentally change it for years to come because seeing these distortions would challenge his worldview and his expectations about his own future.
I haven’t spoken to Dan in a while, but I’m pretty sure he’s still sealed in his Bubble and will stay there — until it’s pierced one day. I don’t know when it will happen or what it will look like. Maybe he’ll have more trouble getting back on his feet after the next market crash. Maybe he’ll wake up one morning and find the company he’s entrusted his nest egg to has gone belly-up overnight. Maybe another COVID lockdown will be too much for his clients to bear. The only thing I know for sure is that Dan’s Bubble won’t pop until shit gets “real” for him.
“If ‘My Team’ Is Okay With Distortions, So Am I”
Reality distortions might be flashing all around us like neon signs at a strip club, but we won’t notice them if we’re consumed by partisan politics. If we’re a loyal Republican or Democrat, we’ll rationalize any distortions that our party enables; the stronger our party allegiance, the harder we’ll fight to ignore these distortions.
We’ll vote for someone we have every reason to believe is corrupt or who acts inconsistent with values they claim to have, as long they give lip service to the issues that matter to us (like illegal immigration and abortion if we cling to the Right or #Metoo and systemic racism if we cling to the Left) — or if we believe they’re better than the alternative.
Party loyalty can persuade us to look the other way if politicians we favor are caught doing something we’ve accused the “other team” of doing: if we’re Republican, we’ll work ourselves into a frenzy over corruption in the Clinton Foundation, but fall silent when members of our party are indicted for bribery and fraud. If we're progressive, we'll lambaste Trump for caging immigrants at the border, but ignore the fact that his Democratic predecessor carried out the same brutal policies.
We can even talk ourselves into defending actions that run counter to issues that concern us: if we’re conservative, we’ll insist on “my body, my choice” when it comes to vaccine mandates but disregard a woman’s right to reproductive freedom. If we’re progressive, we’ll condemn Republicans for holding super-spreader rallies during a deadly pandemic but downplay the risk to public safety when millions to pour into streets to protest police brutality.
Our partisan allegiance will force us to ignore what we know in our heart isn’t “right” or what doesn’t make sense — as long as “our team” tells us to ignore it. Which brings me to Barack Obama.
I was a faithful Democrat for most of my political life, but by the time Barack came on the scene I wasn’t just losing faith in the party; I was losing faith in the System, itself. I was on the cusp of seeing the Veil and starting to suspect that Democrats and Republicans were distorting my reality — because when I dug deep, I could see they weren’t that different on the most fundamental levels.
And that was the essence of my problem with Barack: his plans to “change” America for the better looked good on the surface, but didn’t differ substantially from any other president. His campaign was riddled with inconsistencies, but almost no one I knew could see them. My friends and colleagues were die hard progressives who enthusiastically supported his candidacy but couldn’t clearly articulate why: if they were white, the reasons never went beyond, “He’s black, he's smart, and it’s about time”; if they were black, the reasons rarely extended beyond, “He’s one of us.” But from the moment he made his bid for president, I had trouble reconciling the image of the candidate portrayed in the media with what my gut told me and what I knew about him from personal experience.
In a twist of fate, Barack and I crossed paths thirty years ago when we were editors on the Harvard Law Review. At the end of our first year on the Review, I gladly cast my vote to elect him as the journal’s first black president. I supported him not only because I wanted to help him make history, but also because — in stark contrast to most of the other editors on the Review — he struck me as a pleasant-tempered, even-handed guy. Let me explain why this mattered to me.
Nearly everyone at Harvard Law School was Type-A, but the Review was packed with Type-As on steroids: bombastic twenty-somethings who took themselves way too seriously, delighted in intellectual masturbation, and spent their free time trying to intimidate and impress each other. That’s not to say that every editor was an annoying masturbator; some were well-adjusted and had pleasant personalities, but they were few and far between. It was a completely joyless environment, and by the end of my second year I gave up on the idea of doing “face time” in Gannett House (the journal’s home base) and opted to complete my assignments in the library.
Yet among the masturbatory Review editors, Barack stood out.
On the one hand, I appreciated that he was an odd duck whose feathers never ruffled. He never criticized anyone and managed to rise above the petty infighting that consumed everyone else. But on the other hand, he never went out of his way to stake his position on issues. He didn’t exude strength or passion; he never fought hard to make anything happen or keep it from happening. He just sort of went with the flow, bobbing like a buoy in a boat’s wake. He revealed very little of himself and was diplomatic to a fault, almost as if he suspected every conversation was being secretly recorded and might be used as evidence against him at some point.
I never gave another thought to Barack or his career aspirations until I saw him deliver the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. As the media swooned and the crowd went wild, one thought ran through my mind: There’s no way in hell this man should ever run the country.
My friends and colleagues supported Barack with an almost cult-like passion, but I wasn’t impressed. His lofty speeches seemed heavy on style and light on substance. When I listened closely, what I heard was masterfully-crafted bullshit (note: lawyers can easily spot bullshit because we sling it every day, so serving it up with dramatic pauses and a teleprompter wasn’t a selling point for me).
But there were other red flags.
As an Illinois Congressman, Barack had a habit of voting “present” for controversial legislation; given how cautiously he had played his hand on the Review, this seemed true to form. Closer to home, there were bigger issues. Signs of distress in the housing market had become so obvious that even Hillary Clinton was forced to acknowledge them, but Barack barely addressed the spreading decay in his speeches. I wondered, How can he change anything if he can’t even see this enormous crisis looming? What kind of hope can he offer people at the grassroots level if he's out of touch with what’s happening on the ground?
None of my colleagues was more oblivious to these reality distortions than Adam, a vice president of development at VH1. While his interest in politics was refreshing in an office where some people thought Herbert Hoover had invented the vacuum cleaner, Adam’s party loyalty blinded him to obvious things about Barack that simply didn’t add up.
One afternoon in early 2008, Adam dropped by my office to discuss a deal I was negotiating. Predictably, our conversation lurched to his then-favorite subject: the Democratic primaries.
“Did you catch Barack’s speech last night?” he asked. “It was so awesome!”
“Nah, I missed it.”
“I don’t get you. You have a chance to send one of your classmates into the history books, a guy who can bring, positive fundamental change — a black man, for Chrissakes!— and you’re sitting it out?”
I sighed. “I get that you think being black and going to the same school are reasons to send him to the White House, but what do you really expect him to change? How is he going to dig us out of the economic pit we’re falling into?”
“We’re not in a pit, the economy’s doing fine. You need to stop the doom and gloom.”
(NOTE: Adam would confide to me three years later over cocktails: “You were right. This economy is a fucking nightmare”).
“Fine, forget the pit,” I said. “You’re really expect him to fundamentally change things?”
“Damn straight. He’s going to change everything.”
“Name one thing you expect him to change.”
Adam snorted. “Always the lawyer, always looking for specifics.”
“I’m just asking why you want him to be president.”
“It’s a silly question. All that matters is that he’s a brilliant guy. We get him elected, he’ll surround himself with other brilliant people, they’ll fix the stuff that’s wrong.”
“So you can count on him to go head-to-head with the banks that are caused this housing crisis and the corporations that are sending working class jobs overseas?”
“Even though those same banks and companies are donating tens of millions of dollars to his campaign?”
“He’ll take their money, then he’ll do the right thing.”
“So when other politicians take money from those same banks and companies, do you trust them to do the ‘right thing’?”
Adam considered this for a moment. “Not really.”
“So…why would you trust him to do the ‘right thing’?”
“Because he’s an outsider!”
“But how can he be an outsider if his top donors are also donating to Clinton’s and McCain’s campaigns?”
Adam rolled his eyes. “Come on, he’s a brother. A brother can’t be an insider!”
“…But it doesn’t matter if you’re a brother if you’re taking money from insiders.”
“He has to take their money. That’s how the game is played. That’s the only way to win.”
Adam winked knowingly. “You can’t win unless you play.”
I sighed. “And if he wins, what do the rest of us get, besides a black face in the Oval Office?”
Before I could get an answer, Adam’s cell phone rang and he ducked out of my office.
After he left, I sat my desk. Dazed. What the hell had just happened? I’d spent ten minutes engaging a guy who was super-passionate about Barack, yet couldn’t coherently explain why he was voting for him. As I reflected upon our exchange, I realized whyAdam refused to see the glaring distortions I saw: his team was ignoring them, so he was, too. He embraced the illusion that Barack Obama would “save” the country in ways that no other candidate could. He saw what we wanted to see, even if it made no damn sense.
“The People I Trust Say Everything Is Fine (or Under Control)”
As humans, we tend to believe our lives will continue to function as they always have and minimize the threat of impending change to our environment. Bad shit may be afoot, but as long as Netflix is still streaming and we can afford the monthly payment on our smartphone, we can pretend everything is fine. Until it clearly isn’t. We’ll cling to our sense of what’s normal and comfortable — even if it’s illusory — as long as possible. This tendency is known as “normalcy bias,” and it keeps us from seeing how our reality is being distorted.
Normalcy bias is reinforced when people with the loudest voices — influencers we trust — aren’t calling out reality distortions and assure us that everything is A-OK.
NBC Nightly News’ Lester Holt may casually drop a bombshell that should disturb the hell out of us, like the fact that the NSA is collecting every emoji we send from our smartphones and air marshals are monitoring us if we fidget excessively during flights. But if Lester follows this unsettling story with an inspirational segment — like a paraplegic veteran’s triumphant recovery in rehab or a precociously charity-minded ten-year old — we’re likely to tune out red flags that we’re on the fast track to an Orwellian society. After all, if the people we trust to inform us don’t seem too concerned about an impending police state, then why should we?
If we’re highly educated and discerning, we may need a little more than Netflix, smartphones, and Lester’s steady composure to convince us things are normal. But we can still be convinced. We might read an op-ed in The New York Times about the expanding surveillance state and the increasing threats to our privacy. We may even be extremely troubled by these developments — until the writer assures us that these Constitutional “glitches” can be fixed if a Democrat is elected (or stays in office, if they’re already there). Because Republicans are the ones who hate civil liberties. The well-written op-ed won’t bother to point out that these same “glitches” keep happening -- and getting worse -- whether a liberal or a conservative is in the White House and regardless of who control Congress. The writer won’t remind us that these attacks on our freedoms are coming from our own government, not from Russians who rely on social media so subvert our democracy.
We can also be persuaded to ignore reality distortions if People in Charge, the authority figures and “experts” we’ve been conditioned to trust, dismiss them: the President and members of Congress; government agencies like the Federal Reserve, the CDC, the FDA, and the FBI; and non-governmental agencies like the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the World Economic Forum. When a crisis that elicits reality distortions becomes glaring enough to hit our radar, the People in Charge swoop into action. They assure us they can fix whatever’s gone wrong and bring us back to normalcy.
If the economy that was “booming” six months ago suddenly crashes, the Fed will pump ginormous amounts of money into the economy (i.e. into the coffers of banks) to keep the System moving and make sure Netflix is still streaming, iPhones are still working, and Lester isn’t freaking out. We’ll trust these economic experts to bring us back to “normal” — even if the money the Fed pumped into the economy has ticked debt up a few trillion dollars and we’re having more trouble than ever making ends meet.
If a pandemic overtakes the planet, the CDC will implement guidelines to “flatten the curve” and insist we get vaccinated to reach herd immunity. We’ll trust these public health experts to bring us back to “normal,” because we'll do anything and everything to get to "normal" — even if the solutions they craft don't bring us back to the lives we once had (because we're still masking and afraid to touch each other); even if the pandemic continues to drag on because the vaccine can't keep us from getting infected or spreading the virus.
We play along with whatever People in Charge tell us and ignore what doesn’t make sense because we crave normalcy, even if it's just an illusion.
Identity Politics and Label Shaming
Even if we’re willing to acknowledge reality distortions, we might be reluctant to call them out because it can invite blowback. I ran into this a lot as I became more aware of the illusions that blanket our world like heavy fog at a coastal airport. If I pointed out distortions to people who were sealed in Denial Bubbles or whose party allegiance encouraged them to defend distortions, they would immediately slap a label on me: conspiracy theorist, paranoid, doom-and-gloomer, etc. Labels are tough to wear because they can be hurtful and alienating. They can cost us our family, friends, jobs, and even our sanity.
If they’re humiliating or embarrassing enough, labels can intimidate or silence us when we have the courage to point out things that don’t make sense. As a result, label shaming has become one of the most effective means of obscuring reality distortions.
Labels are also unfair because they squeeze our values and personalities into tiny boxes. Most people are textured, multi-faceted beings, but labels reduce us to the human version of sound bites:
If we’re white, outraged that our government spends money like a drunken sailor, and want to buy a gun without getting hassled, we’re a white supremacist or racist;
If we’re white, think that elites are exploiting our country while hanging everyone else out to dry, want to preserve the environment, and demand affordable healthcare for everyone, we’re a socialist or communist;
And if we’re black, concerned about reckless government spending, own a gun, and are worried about climate change, we basically don’t exist.
Calling out reality distortions that involve a Person in Charge who also happens to be a member of a protected class can invite the most vicious label shaming. But the shaming will go nuclear if they’re called out by a member of a non-protected class.
So if we’re white and point out distortions involving a black elected official, we’re racist. If we’re male and point out a reality distortion involving a female elected official, we’re sexist. And if we’re a white man who identifies a reality distortion involving a woman of color, we'd better keep our mouths shut.
This means that women and people of color can propagate and enable the biggest reality distortions, but we won’t point them out because we’ll be shamed into silence.
So we can condemn a white man (George W. Bush) for receiving millions of dollars in speaking fees from the Wall Street banks that were responsible for the 2008 Financial Crisis, but if we criticize a woman (Hillary Clinton) for doing the same thing, we’re sexist. We can protest drone attacks carried out by a white president (George W. Bush), but if we point out that a black president (Barack Obama) launched ten times as many strikes that killed even more civilians, we’re racist.
The quest for tolerance, inclusion, and politically correct speech therefore yields a bizarre irony: whereas white men with privilege were once the biggest defenders of the Veil and the illusions it hides, women, people of color, and even non-binary Americans — “ostensibly” the biggest victims of the System — are now far better equipped to do the job.
Distractions That Keep Us From Seeing Our Distorted Reality. Here's How it Happens.
Sometimes we’re so oblivious to what’s going on around us that we never catch sight of reality distortions. Our attention can be diverted and distracted for many reasons: we’re so busy that we can’t see what’s happening around us; when we’re exhausted by our jobs, we crave entertainment as a means of “escape”; non-stop “breaking” news leaving us scattered and off-balance; we’re encouraged to live in chronic fear; and when we’re pitted against one another, we focus more on our differences than recognizing distortions.
Fear taps into our hard-wired, primal instinct to survive. We'll go to almost any lengths to avoid threats that put our lives in danger (or create the perception of danger). As you look around today, you’ll see fear everywhere because we’re all afraid of something.
Even if no single fear consumes us, the collective weight of our fears takes its toll and propels us into a fight-or-flight state, leaving us scattered and rattled. So even if we’re able to “see” what’s happening around us, we won’t be able to process what we’re seeing in a rational or logical manner.
I understand fear so well because I used to be a fear junkie. In fact, I was almost as addicted to fear as I was to entertainment (more on that below). But as I became more aware of the Veil of illusions, I realized that a junkie can’t survive unless someone or something feeds their habit. And you don’t have to look long or hard to see that the media is the biggest peddler of fear.
By the time our son, Morgan, was four years old he had dubbed the NBC Nightly News the “scary show.” If Lester Holt popped up on our 51" plasma screen before we could grab the remote and change the channel, Morgan would be treated to a laundry list of daily horrors: a crazed shooter who had put a school on lockdown; a town that had been blown away, swept away, or burned to a crisp; people cradling victims after a bombing in some war-torn country; or protesters clashing with police.
And then there was the stuff our son was too young to understand but settled over me and my partner, Lisa, like emotional ash: a government official who had been snared for corruption; layoffs that kicked a chunk of families down another rung on the class ladder; or a study telling us that something we were eating (and had assumed was perfectly safe) might actually kill us. It left us feeling frightened, vulnerable, and helpless.
By the end of every broadcast, when Lester would thank us for letting him to bring these very scary updates into our home, my teeth would be clenched and my fingers gripping the armrests of our couch. I was tense and anxious and didn’t even realize it. I would spend the rest of the evening recovering from the experience. Instinctively, I would grab a glass of wine to dull my non-specific angst, argue with Lisa over the stupidest things, and crawl into bed a few hours later, waging war with my insomnia.
This is what fear does to us. And right now, nothing is making us more fearful than COVID-19.
For the past year and a half the Coronavirus pandemic has kept human beings all around the globe in a perpetual state of terror. It consumes the media and our daily conversations with friends and family. We’re reminded of danger when we leave our homes and see people wearing masks and ubiquitous signs reminding us to “Be Safe!” We’re constantly encouraged and coerced to get vaccinated so we can protect ourselves.
The fear is intense, yet it’s completely disproportionate to the actual threat the virus poses to 99.95% of the population. Because when we’re fearful, we react based on emotion, not facts.
We don’t realize that if we’re healthy, our chances of dying in a car accident in our lifetime are four times higher than our chances of dying of COVID-19. We don’t realize that out of more than 112 million Americans age 18–44, only 25,634 have died from the disease, 95% of whom had underlying conditions. We don’t realize that there have been virtually no instances of a healthy child dying from COVID-19. And if someone shares this information with us, many of us won’t “hear” it — because the chokehold fear has on us is so strong.
Our fear of the virus has completely changed the way we live our lives. So we’ll do anything the People in Charge tell us we need to do, whether or not it makes sense, just to get our lives back and end the emotional pain we’ve endured. We’ll even convince ourselves that forcing everyone to be injected with a vaccine — that won’t prevent infection or spread of the disease, has no long-term safety data, and for which manufacturers carry no liability — is our only path back to normalcy.
In other words, our fear has supplanted logic and reason.
The problem is that when large groups of people abandon rational thought, it leaves society vulnerable and oblivious to other threats hiding in plain sight. When we're terrified, we can’t see mounting evidence of censorship that should be unthinkable in a free country; we can’t see that prolonged lockdowns and denying unvaccinated people the right to work and feed their families can ultimately claim more lives than the virus we fear; we can’t see that a democratic ally’s descent into a totalitarian state — denying citizens the right to even leave their homes without checking in with authorities — sets a frightening precedent for free nations all over the world.
This makes fear one of the biggest and most dangerous obstacles to seeing distortions in our reality.
Unless we’re very rich or extremely lazy, working is something we all have to do. But working looks a lot different today than it did hundreds of years ago.
Because most of us lack the skills to hunt or gather our own food, make our own clothes or build our own shelter, we rely on grocery stores to feed us, retailers to clothe us, and other people to build or sell us homes. These are all conveniences, but without money we don’t have access to any of them. Today we need money more than ever, and every year we have to hustle harder to get the money we need to survive. Never in history has it taken so much money just to stay alive, which makes us busier than ever. And the harder we hustle, the less time we have to pay attention to reality distortions around us.
It’s an insane level of busy-ness.
By the way, isn’t it curious that the word “busy-ness” sounds an awful lot like “business”? All my life I’d been conditioned to think that business was a good thing, something to be proud of.
“It’s good for business!”
“Got to bring in more business!”
“Good news, business is up!”
But as I became aware of the Veil and the illusions it conceals, I realized that the busy-ness was just a distraction. It left me too drained and exhausted to think and little time or energy to notice what was happening around me.
If you live in Europe, your work day is probably manageable. You also have the benefit of holidays sprinkled liberally throughout the year to help you unwind from the hustle. Plus, you get a lot of bang for your hustle: free health care, subsidized education, maternity leave, and a decent pension. If you’ve gotta hustle, Europe is probably the best place to do it.
But if you live in the United States (and prefer not to rely on unemployment), you’re probably working yourself to death. The 40-hour work week has now turned into the 47-hour work week, which means a full working week has been tacked onto the life of the average American worker over the past few decades. Some people work even harder, putting in ten and twelve hour days and working six or seven days a week. This leaves most American wage earners with little time to do anything other than getting to and from work, eating, and sleeping, doing chores, and wrangling family.
There’s just no time to think.
Don’t get me wrong; working isn’t bad. It’s not healthy to be idle, and it’s important to stay mentally active and have a sense of structure in our lives. The problem is that too many Americans are over-worked, and overworked people don’t pay attention to what’s happening around them. Is it a coincidence that Europeans — blessed with more free time — are more likely to take to the streets to protest against governments and laws that don’t work for them, while worn-out Americans are glued to the couch?
Even as many Americans are working and harder just to keep from going under, those on the higher rungs often take pride in grinding themselves into an early grave. In some circles, busy-ness is a badge of honor or a status symbol. Before I dropped out, I used to have conversations with colleagues that usually went something like this:
“Hey, how’s it going?”
“Oh my God, just crazy busy! You know how it is.”
“I hear you. My inbox is so out of control.”
“Right? Haven’t slept more than a few hours in weeks.”
Some laughter, then an awkward sigh.
“Oh well, I guess it beats the alternative.”
“Ain’t that the truth?”
We indulged in these dysfunctional exchanges, not just because a lack of busy-ness could lead to unemployment, but because we wanted to fit in with the other busy-ness freaks.
Busy-ness even consumes our precious free time. When we’re not glued to our devices to prove how available we are to our employer, we’re shuttling kids to games and after-school sports, or attending parties, fundraisers, or sporting events. Our children are even being trained to be busy, filling their waking hours with classes and extracurricular activities to make themselves more marketable to colleges. If we’re not busy, it’s almost as if we don’t matter.
The busy-ness churn leaves us on autopilot, prone to what psychologists dub, “hurry-sickness,” the state of being too busy to simply stand back and think. We’re working so hard that we don’t have time to notice what’s going on around us. So we rely on tidbits of information we pick up from the news, social media, or anyone we trust who has more time to pay more attention than we do.
This why more Americans didn’t notice growing numbers of homeless on streets or that inflation that was quietly gathering speed during the pre-pandemic economy that was “booming.” When we’re overwhelmed with busy-ness, we’re too exhausted to ask ourselves if what we’re seeing with our own eyes matches what we’re told.
Plugging In and Tuning Out
If busy-ness consumes our waking hours, entertainment fills the precious pockets of time in between. Whether we’re watching ESPN, Instagramming, glued to the season finale of our favorite show, or gaming on our Xbox, we’re trying to escape a world that’s left us exhausted and drained. Entertainment may seem like a harmless distraction, but it’s actually quite insidious. Because when we invest ourselves in people and events in a make-believe reality, we often ignore “real” people and events in the world we live in.
Before I “dropped out” of my life in L.A., I was thoroughly addicted to TV. Although my addiction could be excused for professional reasons (since I’m an entertainment attorney), I was also addicted because I craved an escape from my busy-ness. After spending nine or ten hours at my computer, my mind was still spinning by the end of the day. All I wanted to do was sit back and watch images roll by on a screen.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that my addiction was a dangerous distraction that isolated me from events unfolding in the “real” world. Moreover, my escape was only temporary; like a junkie coming off of a drug-induced high, the more I escaped, the more I dreaded returning to the busy-ness of my “real” life, which left me in withdrawal and yearning to escape again.
That was ten years ago.
Today, our escape options have gone exponential. We’re bombarded with thousands of cable and streaming digital channels that produce a staggering amount of content. In fact, there are now more than 16,000 TV shows on 140 streaming platforms in the U.S. There is so much programming that if a person doesn’t have a job, it’s hard to imagine why they would want to leave the couch to get one.
Entertainment has become such a huge distraction that the average American knows more about pop culture than their own government. They can rattle off the names of more Marvel Avengers than U.S. presidents. 60% of Americans know that Homer is Bart Simpson’s father, but only 42% can identify all three branches of government. And 10% of college graduates think Judge Judy served on the Supreme Court.
Our entertainment addiction is dangerous because it conditions us to prefer fictional worlds to the one we live in. If we’re fixated on non-existent characters and situations, we’re less focused on real-world events. When we’re plugged in and tuned out, we lose our situational awareness and reality distortions can fly right by us.
The 24/7 “breaking news” news blitzkrieg guarantees we’re told what’s happening, why it happened, and what we should think about it. But regardless of the issues and events that bombard us today, we’re likely to forget about them in a few days when the news cycle resets and we’re pummeled with a new round of stories.
The information assault makes it difficult to stay focused and follow details on a single story or issue because our attention is instantly re-directed to the next rapidly unfolding obsession-of-the-moment. This diverts our attention from issues we might have found troubling — if we had heard about them.
When a 21-year-old white man murdered nine black people in a Charleston church in 2015, the story consumed the media. The following week, however, outrage over this horrific crime veered in a completely different direction: debate over the Confederate flag. Was it too racist to be displayed in public? Should Americans even be allowed to buy replicas one on Amazon?
Yet while the Confederate flag frenzy raged in the media, something else was unfolding that few Americans were aware of: President Obama quietly nudged the House of Representatives to grant him authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an ultra-secret trade agreement, without public debate.
The agreement was so closely-guarded that it could only be viewed by selected members of Congress and staff with “high-level” security clearance; it was only available for review in a soundproof basement; and anyone reading it was prohibited from making copies or bringing handwritten notes outside the high-security basement.
Yet this cloak-and-dagger treaty barely registered in news headlines.
If the media had given the story more attention, I’m pretty sure a lot of people would have wondered, “Hmmm…a trade agreement that’s so hush-hush we can’t even find out what’s in it? How can the government keep information from the people it’s supposed to be representing? How does this even happen in a free country?” It was a glaring a reality distortion that many people were never exposed to because the media was so consumed by the Confederate flag controversy.
Why was the TPP important?
Democratic Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the treaty’s most vocal critics, claimed the treaty would have crushed American jobs and handed total control of 41% of the world’s economy to corporations. The Brookings Institution, on the other hand, argued that the treaty would have been a “win for all parties” by reducing trade barriers and boosting exports. Of course, we’ll never know if TPP would have been a blessing or a curse — because average Americans didn’t have access to that soundproof basement.
Although Donald Trump killed the treaty shortly after he took office, what’s truly alarming is how an agreement with such far-reaching implications managed to get as far as it did without the awareness of most Americans. And herein lies the real danger of the information blitzkrieg: when the media focuses our attention 24/7 on provocative issues and events that inflame and incite us, we’re more likely to miss reality distortions that can affect us most.
When we’re pitted against each other, we can’t see what we have in common with the people we’re fighting. Division keeps us focused on our differences and obsessed with “niche” issues instead of focusing on the issues that affect all of us — regardless of how we vote, the color of our skin, or who we sleep with. When we’re divided, we weaken our collective power to recognize the most insidious reality distortions upon which the Veil relies.
It’s hard to believe now, but thirteen years ago the U.S. was a country full of hope and optimism. When Barack Obama was elected, there was widespread anticipation that the first black president would fulfill Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of racial unity. But from the very beginning, I had my doubts.
I remember perching in front of the TV with Lisa in January 2009 to watch Obama’s inauguration. My partner's face was lit with an almost childlike excitement that surprised me.
“I think his election is going to change everything,” she said, teary-eyed.
“You really think so?” I asked.
“A black man is finally going to lead this country. Think about what that means and what’s possible now. It’s such an amazing moment!”
I wanted to share Lisa’s enthusiasm because she was right. We were watching history unfold. We were and experiencing a moment many people had dreamed of but never imagined would become a reality. And yet something felt “off” to me about this moment.
“So you don’t think there’s any chance this could…I don’t know, maybe backfire on us?”
Lisa shot me a confused look. “Seriously? How can having a black president ‘backfire’?”
“Well, let’s start with the fact that we keep calling him the first black president. But he’s really half-white, and he was raised by a white family. I’m not so sure a lot of white people appreciate that we’re ignoring that part of him. And even if they do now, don’t you think that might get kind of old after four years?”
Lisa nodded, understanding. During the campaign we’d both questioned why the media always called Barack "black." Since his father was Kenyan and his mother was white, wouldn’t that make him the country’s first biracial president? I had grown up in an America that stubbornly clung to the antebellum formula: a single drop of black blood made a person black, like a dash of petroleum might taint a glass of milk. But that kind of thinking seemed outdated in a country striving to become post-racial. How could we hope to transcend race by ignoring half of a person’s heritage and focusing exclusively on the other half?
From where I stood, it seemed like a shrewd branding strategy: the “first black president” was simply a better marketing hook than the “first biracial president": it made progressive white voters feel warm and fuzzy about electing a “black president”, and it inspired voters of color who were desperate for representation.
“But here’s what bothers me more,” I said. “We keep reminding everyone that he’s black. But how can we transcend race if we always focus on it? Shouldn’t post-racial America be a country where race isn’t an issue, not one where race is always on our minds whenever we look at someone?”
By the time Barack left office eight years later, racial tension had surged to levels not seen in decades. And while the situation clearly deteriorated after Trump hit the campaign trail, the reality is that America was already in a downward spiral. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray all died at the hands of police before Trump arrived to Make America Great Again. Dylan Roof took lives in a Charleston church before the Obnoxious Orange One hit Twitter. Black Lives Matter emerged from the crevices of anger while America was still basking in the glow of electing its first black president.
I wasn’t able to articulate any of this to Lisa that day, but as I became more aware of the illusions around me, I realized why I was bothered by the relentless spotlight on Obama’s race: I sensed it might become a lightning rod that would further divide a country in desperate need of unity, deflecting attention from the reality distortions I could see rapidly emerging all around me.
Today, the U.S. is gripped by division that goes way beyond race: conservatives are pitted against progressives; the vaxxed against the unvaxxed; cis-genderists against gender non-conformists; women against men; capitalists against socialists. But while our emotional bonfire rages, we miss reality distortions pointing to much greater problems looming on the horizon that will affect all of us much sooner than we think.
While we bicker and point fingers at each other, America is gathering speed in a global race to tyranny, shamelessly abandoning civil liberties and constitutional protections we’ve assembled and cherished for centuries. When we focus on what makes us different and what separates us, we can’t see that without fundamental freedoms, we will all find ourselves victims of the ultimate existential threat: elite control over nearly every aspect of our lives.
Division is a self-defeating, self-destructive mentality that helps to keep the Veil in place and unless and until we remove the Veil, we’ll never be able to fix what’s broken in our world and save humanity before it’s too late.
Now that you understand what reality distortions look like and why we play along with them, let’s get into why they’re so important. Distortions create illusions, and without illusions, the Veil can’t exist.
So what are the illusions? We’ll tackle those in my next post.
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