I think ultimately what we are all at war with is reality. War, as General Smedley Butler famously wrote, has more or less always been a racket, but here in America, I think it became most fully so during Vietnam. By that I mean to say that it was during the Vietnam War that American began to lose the war with reality.
History is written by the victors, but said victories are rarely as complete and final as they appear. Losing narratives linger in the shadows, like viruses, waiting for the immune system of the dominant narrative to flag.
The Nazi party, for example, began as a revision of the history of WWI, which briefly became the dominant form. That revisionist strain persists to this day.
The narrative of the Confederacy similarly persisted beyond the military and legal destruction of the Confederate States of America. It likewise lurks in the shadows of the dominant narrative.
When Orwell wrote that who controls the present controls the past, he was talking exactly about this condition of incomplete victory, where societies are held in place by a bunch of historical certainties that must be continually maintained against the incursion of narrative viruses.
These narrative viruses, like physical viruses, plug into and exploit the moral and rational systems that comprise the sub-structure of belief. The sense of fairness is one such sub-structure.
Here’s where we get to a problem we face as a culture, as I see it, as regards the war with reality:
Culture begins in a state of worshiping these sub-structures as religious truths. As principles. We worship, for example, fairness. But as time goes on and cultures develop in their material power, we learn that these truths we once treated as gods can actually be violated. This realization sparks what we might call a race to the bottom, which eventually discovers that there is no bottom.
This disturbing reality is represented in dramatic form in Woody Allen’s film, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, which juxtaposes supposed archival footage of a Jewish rabbi discussing the ethical nature of G-d with the story of a Jewish doctor who has his mistress murdered to stop her from exposing their affair, and is then horrified to find that – rather than being punished for his crime – he gets away with it.
Statecraft has followed similar lines. Once, leaders felt they needed to be servants to the great moral sub-structure of social order. Then they realized that they could violate this moral order and, in fact, use the power gained by the crime to write a history that justifies it. Claudius in Hamlet put’s it this way:
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offense’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law. But ’tis not so above.
He is worried, in speaking these lines, that a judgment after death awaits him, where he will answer for his crimes. But, imagine there’s no heaven. It’s easy if you try.
So, the psychological forts which stand against pursuit of power contrary to reality fall, and said pursuit loses all bounds.
This is where we are as a culture, I think: in a war with reality that has spread into the hearts and minds of every person.