American In Worldland: Have-It-Your-Way Truth

11/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

TUCSON, Arizona - Cocooned in our delusional state of exception, we Americans have achieved what eludes only the scariest of despotic states: We have obliterated truth.

When reality bites, we defang it. We stretch our most basic principles to accommodate profit and personal convenience. We soften ugly words so "torture" can equate to a bad hair day.

Voltaire noted centuries ago that a witty remark proves nothing. Yet today, a bon mot - a sound bite - elbows aside thoughtful informed analysis and facts observed firsthand.

For expatriates (no, not ex-patriots) like me, visiting home from the real world is like plunging down Alice's rabbit hole. What passes for truth is mirrors and weird pharmacopoeia.

Phrases like "home-cooked" or "farm-fresh" are obvious enough fibs. Misrepresentation is part of our culture, expected and accepted. But big lies and half-truths are something else.

Barry Goodfield, an Arizona-based conflict negotiator and psychotherapist, is among countless veteran world watchers who are deeply worried by this.

No one can assess truth without knowing how others perceive reality, he says. But few Americans ask questions. Most decide what they think is true and judge others accordingly.

"Arrogance and ignorance," Goodfield concludes, "are the worst possible combination."

The Internet offers us solid sources and wise comment from everywhere. It also allows us to respond. And so with everybody talking and not many listening, we believe what suits us.

Our nanosecond attention spans make us easy prey to flimflam, political or corporate. Artful manipulation replaces genuine grassroots movements with Astroturf.

At home, health care is the most obvious case.

Nearly every nation, whether left or right, regards not dying unnecessarily as a basic human right. Yet even Americans in desperate need believe publicly funded medicine is socialism.

If this life-and-death domestic issue is so easily obscured, consider trends and events beyond our line of sight that affect us all far more profoundly than doctor bills.

Endless "media" debate is mostly about business models. The real issue is that we are losing our eyes and ears abroad. We have lost touch with the realities that underlie truth.

As a nation, we are rooted in the ideal of doing the right thing. But that requires knowing what the right thing is.

We destroy societies to save them, demonizing or glorifying with little thought to vital complexity. Iraq is not "over." As in Vietnam, we are removing ourselves from the mess we made.

Barack Obama's looming Afghan quagmire is already eroding global goodwill that we have not seen since the early days of John F. Kennedy.

Hardly anyone familiar with Afghanistan believes that foreign troops, in any number, can remake the society that turned back Genghis Khan, Alexander, the British, and the Russians.

Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, says Afghans clamor for more U.S. forces to push back the hated Taliban.

But reporters who live the story daily tell me that if the Talibs tempered their extremism a bit, they would win any fair election by a landslide. Mostly, Afghans want some stability.

Outsiders can make a difference but only with a nuanced understanding of the players and the problems. In the end, Afghans themselves must shape their own controlled chaos.

Yet most of us look at this imponderable puzzle as an exercise in image management, a matter of PR and branding.

When pictures showed American contractors partying in Kabul, a Fox News military commentator said they weren't "helpful" because foreigners might think they were U.S. troops.

Those "foreigners," many of whom have a firm grasp on truth, draw few distinctions between soldiers and mercenaries who are deployed under the same flag.

A powerful military is a blunt instrument, better suited to pushing Humpty Dumpty off the wall than to cleaning up afterward. Whatever its intention, it ends up brutal and deadly.

We saw this in Vietnam, but to a fresh generation that is ancient history. We would have seen it more plainly in Iraq had we not let the Pentagon and news executives restrict our view.

After millions dead and billions squandered, too many Americans now see war not as hell but rather as an aseptic game of electronic Risk played from a safe distance.

In Vietnam, editors demanded free movement for reporters and photographers whose job was to brief citizens on what was happening in their name. They were as essential as medics.

In Iraq, journalists are "embedded" with U.S. forces. Now, Stars and Stripes reveals, they are vetted by The Rendon Group to weed out "negative" reporters in favor of dupes and sympathizers.

Despite severe newsroom cutbacks, plenty of gutsy journalists are out there eager to bring reality into American homes. But hard truths are inconvenient.

We are deprived of Al Jazeera in English while many flock to Fox. Even mainline sources like The Associated Press can face uphill battles when they oppose government stonewalling.

AP recently pictured a dying soldier despite pleas from his family and Pentagon. Photo editor Santiago Lyon, once among the best of war photographers, told an interviewer why:

"This photo was key to understanding what happened that day in Afghanistan because it shows the very real and terrible and awful effects of war."

Censor shocking photos? We should require, as prerequisite to voting, that every U.S. citizen see the worst of them, eyes taped open a la Clockwork Orange.

Would it shock our children to see other people's children seared to a blackened crisp or blasted into fragments? Most likely it would, but that is the plain truth.

Should National Public Radio find more emotive synonyms for torture, as some suggest? Why is that even a question?

Henry Giroux, in a perspicacious essay for Truthout, borrowed as an epilogue a quote from Hannah Arendt:

Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear.

Wide acceptance of deceit, Giroux writes, suggests "a troubling form of infantilization and depoliticization."

In the smug surroundings of a Phoenix mall, Goodfield makes the point in smaller words. As reporting dwindles and schools dumb down, he says, authorities ask citizens for blind faith.

Government and big business alike prefer that people not look beyond our borders. We will pay an ever heavier price, he adds, as our kids grow up thinking we are all okay in our separate universe and don't have to worry about anyone else.

"The more you deprive people of information," Goodfield concludes, "the more you drive them toward dictatorship."

Is this inconceivable in our bastion of representative democracy? Probably, but think it over.
In despotic states, managed truth fools only some. What with satellites and the Internet, people who care can watch reality from just about anywhere. And despots fall.

Our blindness is voluntary. In an overheating world, literally and figuratively, complacent citizens shape whatever reality suits them best. That scares the slats out of me.