February 3, 2021 | View PDF
In recent days, I reread Daniel Boorstin’s book, The Image, or What Happened to the American Dream. Boorstin trained as a historian, but in his 1961 book, he steps away from history long enough to peer deep into American’s modern-day thought processes.
He identifies certain illusions that, he insists, hamper correct thinking.
I would agree. Illusions abound in modern-day America. We wonder, “what is true, what is false, what is real, what is fake?” We fill our minds everyday with truckloads of information, but we are at a loss what to do with it. The illusions float upon the wind. We imbibe them in the water. They live in us.
We repeat them. Others repeat them. The illusion bounces into our ears again and again, as if we reside in an echo chamber. If we hear the illusion enough times, we believe it true. Boorstin says, that “the thicket of unreality stands between us and the facts of life.”
In the first chapter, Boorstin points at an American illusion that he calls “extravagant expectations.”
He writes, “We expect too much of the world. We expect new heroes every season, a dramatic spectacular every week. We expect everybody to feel free to disagree, yet we expect everybody to be loyal, not rock the boat. We expect everybody to believe deeply in her religion, yet not to think less of others for not believing.
“We expect the contradictory and the impossible: compact cars which are spacious; luxurious cars which are economical. We expect to be rich and charitable, powerful and merciful, active and reflective, kind and competent.
“Never have people been more the masters of their environment. Yet never has a people felt more deceived and disappointed. For never has a people expected so much more than the world could offer.”
Is he right about our extravagant expectations? Do we expect too much from our employers, our spouses, our children, our friends, our communities, our government? He thinks so. I wonder.
A second illusion that Boorstin points to is the “pseudo-event.”
True news reveals a new event: a birth, a marriage, a death, a tornado, an earthquake, a volcano, an election result, a revolution, a battle, a wheat harvest, and so on, each a legitimate form of new news.
But Boorstin argues that the daily news now in America revolves around what he calls, “pseudo-events.” Into that category he lumps “press conferences, interviews, and leaked information.”
At a press conference, a politician or a company official stands before a gathering of journalists and answers a series of their questions by drawing from a stack of memorized canned answers. In an interview, a single journalist directs the same questions to the same politician or company official.
Leaked information is more often an unsubstantiated rumor, and few can judge its veracity.
Boorstin says that we suffer daily from “A Flood of Pseudo-Events.” They “are more dramatic, are planned for dissemination, repeated at will, cost money to create, are more sociable, more conversable, more convenient to witness, and they spawn other pseudo-events in geometric progression.”
He concludes, “Counterfeit happenings tend to drive spontaneous [real news] out of circulation.”
Boorstin then points at a third illusion: when American society mistakes a celebrity for a hero. A hero is a person who achieves a worthwhile goal. For example, consider the scientists who developed the Covid-19 vaccines in record time. I say, give them a Nobel Prize. We call them heroes.
But a celebrity is someone different.
Boorstin says, “she is neither good or bad, not great or petty. She is the human pseudo-event, fabricated on purpose to satisfy our exaggerated expectations of human greatness. She is morally neutral, made by all of us who read about her, see her on television, and who buy her songs.
A hero makes new news. “A celebrity hires a press agent.”
On May 21, 1927, twenty-five-year-old Charles Lindbergh became a global hero, when he flew the Spirit of Saint Louis across the North Atlantic and landed in Paris, France, but then newspapers decided to convert him from hero into celebrity. They asked him to inspire, to lead, and to speak.
Boorstin says that when Lindbergh “gave into these temptations, his pronouncements were dull, petulant, and vicious. He acquired a reputation as a pro-Nazi, and a crude racist. When in Germany, he accepted a decoration from Hitler. Very soon the celebrity was being uncelebrated.”
A celebrity is known for being know, not for any remarkable achievements.
Ralph Waldo Emerson ended his essay on Illusions, saying, “The mad crowd drives hither and thither, now furiously commanding this thing to be done, now that. What is he that he should resist their will, and think or act for himself? Every moment new changes and new showers of deceptions to baffle and distract him.”