California Energy Crisis / George W. Bush

The Illusion Decade Has Been Rife With Lies

January 5, 2006

As we stand at the mid-point of the Millennium’s first decade, there is no doubt that we will long remember its colossal tragedies – the September 11th attacks, the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.  Yet the vivid realities of these events are the exception to a decade otherwise defined by an Orwellian triumph of illusion over reality.

The decade began with the collapse of two of the greatest financial illusions in the post-war era.  Blinded by the lure of the internet and the mirage that profitability did not matter in the new economy, investors from Wall Street to Main Street lost millions as the NASDQ index dropped 78% as part of the Dot-Com crash.

Meanwhile in Houston, the leaders of Enron were making money the old fashion way – by fraud.  Through smoke and mirrors, Enron jumped to seventh on the Fortune 500 list boasting a market capitalization of $65 billion before its house of cards collapsed.  Enron’s pièce de résistance was manipulating the electricity market to create the illusion of a supply shortage in California that forced rolling blackouts throughout the state and cost Californians more than $70 billion.

This would pale in comparison to the feats of the decade’s master illusionist – George W. Bush.  Whether it was using poster-board photo-ops displaying an Orwellian image of the President unveiling his “Healthy Skies” and “Healthy Forest” initiatives despite the fact that these proposals actually would have very “unhealthy” results or convincing Americans that they could have could “have their cake and eat it too” through record tax cuts which would not threaten the budget surplus, the Bush administration made the art of deception central to governing.

Without question the administration’s greatest illusion has been the Iraq War.  From the launch of its public relations offensive in September 2002 (because as White House Chief of Staff Andy Card explained “you don’t introduce new products in August”), the administration painted a parallel picture of looming mushroom clouds and U.S. troops being welcomed as liberators by weary Iraqis.  After going to war based on these myths, the administration fed us even more illusions such as Jessica Lynch’s staged rescue or President Bush’s Top Gun declaration of “Mission Accomplished.”

At the same time, the press played into the administration’s web of deceit by abandoning any notion of indisputable facts.  This was evident in 2004 with the coverage of the Swift Boat Veterans’ attacks on Senator Kerry, in which the press minimized or ignored the fact that these allegations were contradicted by military records and, instead, reported the story as one of competing illusions.

It is ironic, however, that “reality television” has thrived in this Illusion Decade.  Yet only in such a decade can a scripted program about a Beverly Hills heiress’ summer in rural Arkansas be considered “reality” television.

While the “faux reality” of Paris Hilton’s “Green Acres” experience may be harmless, the decade’s principal illusions have been more pernicious as demonstrated by the thousands of soldiers killed or maimed in Iraq or the scores of workers who lost their jobs and life-savings in the Enron crash.  These illusions have also distracted us from or lulled us into false complacency about other pressing problems such as the precarious financial security of middle-class Americans which rests upon a housing bubble and record household debt, global warming or the threat posed by nuclear weapons programs in North Korea and Iran.

In 1961, historian David Boorstin explained that,

[w]hat ails us most is not what we have done with America, but what we have substituted for America.  We suffer primarily not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions. We are haunted not by reality, but by those images we have put in place of reality.

What Boorstin foresaw and is increasingly apparent, is that the illusions which fueled the first half of this decade are likely to haunt us for its remainder or longer unless we “disillusion ourselves”.

It has been said that experience consists of illusions lost, not wisdom gained.  As we enter 2006, let us hope that we have the benefit of experience and wisdom during the remainder of this decade.