ILLUSIONISTS DON'T RULE
Dreamed 1996/8/26 by Chris Wayan
I'm reading Allan Bloom's book The Closing of the American Mind. He makes a moving case for Socrates as the founder of western civilization: free thought is the core, not any specific scientific invention, or even social structure. Because if even a minority has freedom of thought they'll have ROOM to invent all the rest...
During the Enlightenment, intellectuals switched allegiance from rich patrons to the middle class. Just as books were spreading via printing, they figured free thought could spread too, via universal education. They switched loyalties out of self-interest--they had a sort of intellectual trickle-down theory: "Free thought for us gifted, and you slobs can have it too, though you'll vulgarize it into pop culture." And so it turned out--their alliance won, the intellectuals got their free thought, and the workers got... TV.
But still, give them credit--that intellectual elite built modern democracy, dismantled theocracy, royalty and tyranny. Peasants had been trying, rebelling for centuries, but until mass literacy they lacked the resources to win. But once intellectuals sided with workers, tyrannies had to be shored up by main force. Dictators have been losing ground ever since.
Now, though, Bloom thinks this slow liberal revolution has been forgotten as irrelevant. He makes a case. But a narrow one. He only values high culture; he buys that Enlightenment idea that working-class culture is just a trickle-down from high culture, where new ideas are really born.
But when Bloom describes the times I've eye-witnessed, he stumbles--sounds not just blind but oddly mean-spirited. He claims the 1950s were culturally rich, the sixties empty. Yes, Frank Sinatra will long outlast the Beatles...
Next he explains student peace movements were smug and meaningless. Maybe in the elite schools where he was teaching! "Students had no respect for law, justified it by saying 'You wouldn't obey Hitler, would you?' Comparing duly elected officials to Hitler!" Uh, Mr. Bloom, Hitler WAS elected. So was Nixon. Did HE respect law? Nixon's gang were the worst political criminals in American history (not MY judgment--impeached and indicted by their own hardly spotless peers): their side clubbed and gassed students, framed and harassed activists (if white), assassinated activists (if black) and burgled perjured blackmailed and spied on everyone in their way.
Next Bloom says Joseph McCarthy's witch-hunt for Communists was "exaggerated; he really attacked very few teachers." As if teachers were McCarthy's focus! Old Joe could smash careers and cause suicides in politics, film, and business, no problem--as long as he doesn't bother Allan and his friends, so what? Bloom's narcissism astounds me. And McCarthy wasn't just a man, he was an ism.
Yet I gotta be fair to Bloom: his tastes are narrow and his politics idiotic, but he does urge you to wrestle with the big questions, to read great thinkers with the heart not just the mind. I was put down for that, by mediocre professors who'd rather not mess with big questions--better to fart around with sources and cultural contexts.
Though I suspect Bloom's wilfully blind to those of us who frame the big questions a bit differently. Certainly I grew up outside his tradition. I was never taught any of his core philosophers. My family influenced me more than school: I was grounded in Gandhi, Thoreau, Bertrand Russell, Freud (damn). My own nose led me as a child to Margaret Mead, Lao-zi, Barry Stevens and anarcho-feminists like Starhawk and Le Guin, and to shamanic and visionary artists and dreamworkers, from Blake, Jung and Yeats up to Hyemeyohsts Storm and Ann Faraday. In fact it impresses me just how neatly my own education avoids the Euro canon. The only Bloom-gods I learned from were the early architects of American democracy, especially Jefferson--and I got his values from reading science fiction long before meeting them in school.
Earth is invaded by a race of illusionists. Very powerful beings: unlike human hypnotists, they can distort your experience without your consent. They can pass for other people, add hallucinatory characters, or make real people unnoticeable. With close concentration they can even synthesize a whole dreamworld, though a victim who suspects can find telltale flaws. And such illusions don't persist on their own--someone must actively generate them moment by moment, and they take effort. They're not invincible. But one on one, we're way outmatched.
I'm a pilot, flying back from a spy mission deep into territory held by the Illusionists. Not a full success--we landed, picked up the couriers all right, but we got spotted--and attacked. Now my copilot and I are under severe stress. Not sure what's real and what's enemy-generated hallucinations--or blindness. The wrong people are in the plane, and some are missing who I know got on...
But by comparing notes the whole way, and calling our airport tower, we do our best. Pretty sure we'll land safely: since we ARE experiencing illusions, an enemy has to be in the plane with us, and illusionists can die like anyone else if we crash!
And we don't think the illusionist can fake a flight-controller too successfully: the language is just too technical, and too dangerous to mess with. So we're likely to be landing at the right airport, too. So we warn them we have an enemy in the plane, and come in. The ground crew deploys snipers at a distance, beyond the effective illusion-radius, and also watches us debark through videocameras--hard for an illusionist to fool! We really may be able to catch the illusionist alive--at least keep him/her from infiltrating.
I think we're doing well--usually humans in small numbers are considered no match for an illusionist, but our technical skills give us an advantage: because the enemy's life depends on our piloting, we can deduce quite a bit.
Sometimes, reason IS more reliable than your senses.
NOTES IN THE MORNING
A FEW WEEKS LATER
For years I've had recurring nightmares of being strapped down and tortured, dreams of sinister psychiatrists and nightmare asylums and death camps... For years I asked my folks if anything happened in early childhood that'd explain that. They said no.
Well, they just let slip that my crazy uncle lived with us when I was very young. And my sister recalls me describing in detail the shock treatments and the brutality at Agnews State Mental Hospital (later shut down for its institutional abuses, documented in the movie Frances). My uncle apparently told me all about it--and convinced me I better conform or my dad would commit me too.
Years of denial, suddenly collapsed! So my parents are the illusionists--though our struggle must have some limits, since we're all on the same "plane". If we fight all-out, we may end up totally estranged--we'd all lose.
I better use my reason--and comparing notes with my sisters--to sort through the lies.
You out there, sorting through the family lies, the national skeletons, the religious propaganda... beware illusionists. Compare notes. Use reason.
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