Breaking the Chains of Illusion
by David Edwards

March 4, 2004

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Personal - Political

Many of the dissident philosophers and rebels of the past like Rousseau, Rocker, Tolstoy, Thoreau, Emerson and Fromm wrote often about the personal experiences, motivations and concerns that informed their political dissent. Tolstoy, for example, eventually came spectacularly clean about his life as a writer:

“Horribly strange, but I now understand it all. Our genuine, sincere concern was how to gain as much money and fame as possible. And the only thing we knew how to do in order to achieve this was to write books and journals.” (Tolstoy, A Confession, Penguin, 1987, p.24)

This was a deeply personal comment, but it shone a brilliant light on the intellectual culture of Tolstoy’s time, and ours.

But today, personal, psychological, philosophical and spiritual issues are hardly mentioned at all, with dissidents insisting that their own experiences are surely of little interest to the public. The operative theory seems to be that the world is in the mess it’s in because people do not have access to the facts revealing the criminality and irrationality of power.

My own view is that the world is also in the mess it’s in because people often aren’t interested in, and even actively avoid, these facts. The point being that the indifference of so many people is often deeply rooted in personal and philosophical issues.

In reality, for example, few issues are more important than understanding just how and why some people come to feel motivated to work for progressive change. Perhaps I am uniquely flawed, but a question that has always loomed large in my mind is: ‘Why should we care about other people in the first place? What actually is wrong with being selfish?‘

From the perspective of everyday life these questions may seem monstrous, but from the perspective of our predicament in the human condition they are surely not. We are fragile, short-lived beings destined to lose every last thing and person we love ­ we are born into an extremely fraught and demanding situation. Given that this is the case, why should anyone consider devoting their already inadequate time, energy and resources to helping others? And yet the 11th century poet Ksemendra wrote:

“Disturbed times produce some who, though buffeted by wild waves, move through the deep waters to embrace all who suffer. Even when undergoing fierce suffering themselves, they still extend kindness to others.” (Leaves of the Heaven Tree, Dharma, 1997, p.421)

But why? Where can we find the motivation to extend kindness to others in this way? The response that it is our ‘moral duty’, that we will thereby be able ‘to look ourselves in the mirror’, is unconvincing. The suffering of life and our profound tendency to selfishness are such that we need to address these questions seriously, and we need to respond with convincing answers. If we can’t find answers, then nobody should feel obligated to care for the welfare of others. Or at least nobody should believe that appeals to ‘moral duty’ will have any great impact on what most people actually do with their lives.

The ingrained selfishness of a fragile, finite being cannot be resisted by illusions, however ‘moral’ they might appear to be.

I mentioned a few of my own personal experiences in my first book, Free To Be Human (titled Burning All Illusions in the US), and apologized for subjecting readers to them. After all, self-focus of this kind may often be a manifestation of egotism intended to imply that the author has some kind of unique experience. My own motive, here, for referring to my very ordinary experiences is to indicate that many of my political ideas and interests actually have their roots in ideas and experiences that might be thought to have nothing to do with politics.

It seems to me that we should not attempt to isolate political dissent from the rest of our lives, from the subtle and not-so subtle feelings in our hearts and heads. Rather, we need to become sensitive to our internal reactions and protestations in response to the world around us.

A World Of "Phonies"? - Appearance and Being

In one of his books of collected essays, Gore Vidal explains what he finds so agreeable about the writing of W. Somerset Maugham: “nothing, he [Maugham] tells us with a smile, is what it seems.” (Vidal, United States: Essays 1952-1992, Random House, 1993, p.232, original emphasis)

This is also what appealed to me when I read Maugham’s novels and particularly his short stories. It seems to me that my interest in political ideas began in a very personal concern with the sense that “nothing is what it seems”.

As a teenager, my curiosity was sparked by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s blistering denunciation of the chasm separating “appearance and being” among his contemporaries:

"We no longer dare seem what we really are, but lie under a perpetual restraint. In the meantime the herd of men, which we call society, all act under the same circumstances exactly alike, unless very particular and powerful motives prevent them. Thus we never know with whom we have to deal... What a train of vices must attend this uncertainty! Sincere friendship, real esteem, and perfect confidence are banished from among men. Jealousy, suspicion, fear, coldness, reserve, hate, and fraud lie constantly concealed under that uniform and deceitful veil of politeness..." (Rousseau, "Discourses Sur Les Arts Et Sciences," in John Hope Masson, ed., The Indispensable Rousseau, Quartet Books, 1979, pp.38-39)

I felt that Rousseau was describing the same world I saw around me - my peers also seemed to become less honest, sincere and authentic as they "grew up" and conformed to society’s norms. Aged 18, a year before I discovered Rousseau, I wrote a short story in which my hero makes a last stand for honesty and sincerity in the face of ‘phoniness’:

“He found he was unable to stand or understand the unnatural behaviour of those around him. Did the punk with the white hair really think that was who he was? Was that his real, honest, unaffected self? Or was it an act? Was the girl talking and laughing hysterically, really showing her true self? Was the voice in her head the same; or was it a show, a façade?”

In the story, my hero quickly chooses to abandon all thoughts of authenticity and becomes, himself, a phony in order to win the heart of a phony girl! Twenty years later I read this by the 2nd century philosopher Aryadeva:

“A soothsayer told a king that whoever used the water when it rained would go mad. The king had his well covered. When it rained the people of that place went mad after using the water and since only the king remained sane, they thought he was mad. When the king found out, he feared they might mock or harm him because they considered him mad, so he used the water too.” (Yogic Deeds of Bodhisattvas, Aryadeva, Gyel-tsap, Snow Lion, 1994, p.112)

In a later science fiction story, I wrote about an inter-galactic salesman who, traveling from planet to planet, hears mention of a long-lost college friend and decides to seek him out. He learns that his friend has been selected as the sole human trade representative by a reclusive alien race. As a result, the friend has become an almost mythical figure, rich beyond imagining. My salesman finally tracks him down, entering an awesome, palatial office to meet him. As they approach to shake hands, my salesman realizes that the money and privilege have come at a price - his friend’s mouth, eyes, nose and ears have all been surgically removed in deference to the sensitivities of his alien clients.

My sense that there was a conflict between our tendency to trade authenticity for money and status as we grow older, and my own concern that I should not become a "phoney", but should also not become some kind of social outcast, seemed very real to me as I grew up through college and beyond.

The problem was this: how can you be yourself and not be rejected by a corporate culture that appears to find imperfect, flawed human reality "uncool"? If ‘cool’ is hair gelled at the right, crazy angles; if it’s the correct jeans and trainers with the correct logo; if it’s being unflustered and in control of our emotions, how can we admit or show our insecurities and imperfections to each other? How can we be real? Or at least, why would we work so hard to create such a "coolly" confident exterior only to admit the lie?

On another level, how can you be an honest journalist ­- sincere, compassionate, truthful -­ when you are selling your work to corporations literally in the business of promoting consumerism and materialism and, in fact, cynicism with regard to everything opposing them?

Giant Frauds And Trojan Dreams

The issue of “appearance and being”, of authenticity versus phoniness, connected with another early interest of mine: the possibility of discovering basic principles of human nature and human happiness. My interest was sparked, in particular, by the work of the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. In his remarkable (and, in my view, deeply flawed) work, Leviathan, Hobbes attempted nothing less than to establish organizing principles for society derived from first principles of human nature. Hobbes claimed, for example, that because all individuals are by nature vulnerable to physical attack from other individuals, or other groups of individuals, everyone is in perpetual fear of such an attack, and so everyone has an interest in joining to form a society providing universal protection.

It seemed to me that the deeper message of Hobbes’s work was that it is all very well studying politics, physics, history, and so on ­ just is it is all very well pursuing any number of careers - but what is the point of studying or doing anything before we understand the basic principles of human nature, or at least the basic principles of human happiness? In other words, why set off in any particular direction, if we have no idea where we’re going?

In my mind, a link between Hobbes’ search for basic principles of human nature and Rousseau’s concern with authenticity centered around wondering how much of our society’s version of human happiness was actually fraudulent or wrong.

It seemed to me that mainstream versions of success ­ unrestrained materialism, high status work, rampant hedonism ­ in fact did not deliver happiness to the people around me. And yet the media and wider culture acted as though they quite obviously did - the issue did not seem to be considered a matter for discussion. Were we somehow victims of a giant fraud? Did the ‘being’ of society in fact not match the (apparently) agreed "appearance"? Perhaps, after all, success and happiness weren’t what they were supposed to be. Erich Fromm summed up my growing suspicions exactly:

“To see himself without illusions would not be so difficult for the individual, were he not constantly exposed to being brainwashed and deprived of the faculty of critical thinking. He is made to think and feel things that he would not feel or think, were it not for uninterrupted suggestions and elaborate methods of conditioning. Unless he can see the real meaning behind the double-talk, the reality behind the illusions, he is unable to be aware of himself as he is, and is aware only of himself as he is supposed to be.” (Fromm, The Art Of Being, Continuum, 1992, p.77)

Perhaps standard versions of happiness are pursued, not because they give us happiness, but because they give us what vested interests want us to need. In 1833, a British Parliamentarian observed of the Haitian people:

"To make them labour, and give them a taste for luxuries and comforts, they must be gradually taught to desire those objects which could be attained by human labour. There was a regular progress from the possession of necessaries to the desire of luxuries; and what were once luxuries, gradually came... to be necessaries. This was the sort of progress the negroes had to go through..." (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, Year 501: The Conquest Continues, Verso, 1993, p.227)

Compare and contrast this with comments made more recently by retailing analyst Victor Lebow:

"Our enormously productive economy... demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption... We need things, consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate." (Quoted, Sharon Beder, Global Spin, Green Books, 1997, p.161)

Awareness of the extent and intensity of this propagandizing raises an awesome possibility: that our failure to achieve happiness is rooted, not merely in some grim reality, but in illusions imposed on us by a grim system of political, economic and cultural control. Is it possible that we are unhappy, not because of what we are, but because of what we are supposed to be, because of what society needs us to be?

If this is true, then breaking the chains of illusion might be one and the same task as breaking the chains of suffering.

David Edwards is the editor of Media Lens, and the author of Burning All Illusions: A Guide to Personal and Political Freedom (South End Press, 1996). Email: editor@medialens.org. 

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