Against Image


One of the things I’ve learned here in the South is why our country – run mostly by Southerners for the past couple of decades (if you count George W as a Texan and Texas as part of the South rather than the West, which is a close call) – is a flaming mess. Apart from the concentration on moolah as the only acceptable criterion of character or success, the chief ingredient of Southern leadership, as in all other areas of Southern life, is a belief that nothing actually has to be good as long as it looks as if it is.

I’ve had a few short-term jobs in construction over the last year or so and this Southern propensity for replacing quality with an illusion of quality shows up very clearly there. It is practically a law that, for example, if you can rebuild a staircase in 3 days but jerryrig it so it will stand for another year in a day, you don’t rebuild; you support it, paint over it, hide the temporary fix, and then everybody pretends it’s as good as new because it looks as though it is. That’s what paint and spackle are for.

But the most significant use of image is, of course, personal. If you dress in a way that suggests you are a successful and financially astute businessman, you can be a rip-off artist extraordinaire, a cheat, a thief and a con-man, and nobody will ever question what you claim as your bona fides. If you dress “like a tramp”, clearly that’s what you are. It is expected here, in a squirt of naivete hardly explainable in the 21st century, that whatever you look like you are, you are.  It is as if the old adage, “You can’t judge a book by its cover”, never made it further South than Philly.

This is now, after 30 years of training, how we as a culture relate to reality. George W is presidential material because he seems on tv like somebody you could have a beer with, and even though he is actually a snotty, snobby, arrogant little prick with a brain the size of a standard pixel (and that’s giving him the benefit of the doubt) and an ego the size of Siberia, we vote for him because he doesn’t act – in public anyway – the way he really is. We assume that he wouldn’t lie to us, just as in the South they assume that the stairs are secure because they look secure.

That this is our general way of evaluating the world and the personalities around us is clearly believed by the Democrats in the current healthcare kabuki. They jettisoned from the very beginning any attempt at a real reform of the mess our healthcare system has become in favor of an illusion of healthcare reform whose only legitimate claim to change lies in the way it cements the power-position of health insurance companies and Big Pharma, which is, after all, not so very big a change from before. They are moving heaven and earth to pass this dog in the apparent belief that if they say it loud enough and long enough and often enough, we won’t notice that it’s all an illusion, smoke-and-mirrors judiciously applied, that the dog is actually dead and it’s Harry Reid that’s wagging its tail with a wire from behind a curtain hidden by the fog and the frantic if pointless dancing out front.

We are, it seems, now willing to live like Southerners – with a rickety, dangerous set of stairs that could and will fall down in the very near future, most likely injuring or even killing some innocent visitor in the process, as long as the stairs look stable and especially if they’re also pretty. We’ll accept living on top of a toxic garbage heap as long as it’s covered with grass and trees and, preferably, a playground for the kids.

It isn’t that the North and West are totally free of illusion. They certainly are not. The difference is that in the rest of the country, when the illusion fell apart and reality slapped us upside the head, we would rail and complain but eventually we’d fix it. In the South, when reality slaps you you slap back. You deny, deny, deny. The stairs were always fine. Nothing wrong with them. Look at these pictures! You can see for yourself how pretty and strong they were. This denial can go so far down here as refusing to admit, even as you stand in the rubble of the collapsed stairs, that anything whatever has happened. You simply start using the stairs at the back of the house and insist that there’s nothing wrong with the stairs in front but using the back has become more convenient.

Thus, in the South (as someone said to me this week, sparking this post) if it is snowing anywhere on the planet, global warming is a myth and the polar ice cap isn’t melting. By that logic ( a favorite in the South) the sun clearly moves around the earth, not vice versa, because all you have to do is look up and you can see it move across the sky. If it seems to be moving around the earth, then that’s what it’s doing and the scientists are all liberal liars.

There are very serious problems with this kind of thinking. The only thing it’s good for is providing excuses for inaction. You don’t have to make any sacrifices to fix any problem, no matter how serious it is, if you simply refuse to admit the problem exists. Having learned this from a South that has been following these rules since the Civil War (still referred to down here with disarming misdirection as “The War of Northern Agression” – typical Southern denial given the historic fact that they started it) and have been surviving, if precariously, using cheap band-aids, paper clips, rubber bands, and duct tape, and covering the whole mess with pounds of glitter, rhinestones, and pretty yellow ribbons.

To live by image is, ipso facto, to die by it. In Savannah, brand new underground electric lines have been blowing up (one of the explosions threw a manhole cover 30 ft in the air and 100 ft down the street, barely missing a pedestrian, and a flaming fireball from another explosion was 4 stories high) because the city originally mandated the use of cables that were under-rated for the amount of power they were expected to carry. Now they’re being put to the expense of replacing all the equipment they went cheap on in order to avoid a potentially ruinous lawsuit if, the next time, a visitor gets maimed or killed by flying debris or burned to a french fry by out-of-control fires (this is predominantly a tourist town and the city patently isn’t afraid of suits from locals). But, you know, it looked OK.

Living by illusion may just barely be possible as an individual but for a nation to live by illusion is a recipe for disaster. The mortgage bubble was, at its root, an illusion based on a simple premise: real estate always increases in value. This was an easily disproved illusion yet it hung on long enough and fooled enough people that it is on the verge of bringing the entire world’s economy to its knees.

I find it odd that I actually have to explain that illusions are, ultimately, bad for you. That they don’t work. That they leave you vulnerable to catastrophes that should never have happened in the first place. Yet that’s where we are after 30 years of a Southern leadership in which image and illusion are considered indistinguishable from actual reality.Or, indeed, are better than actual reality.

From NAFTA to the death penalty and 3-strikes to “Islamofascists” to trickle-down to mortgage bubbles to “we can win in Afghanistan when no one else in the history of the world has managed it”, we have built a sizeable chunk of our social and political “reality” and our financial structure on illusions, not to mention our culture and our foreign policy. It is absurd, it is counter-productive, it is emphatically not in our best interest. But we’re doing it anyway.

When you believe in image and illusion, you’ve already lost.

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2 responses to “Against Image

  1. An even bigger illusion is the one where Northern and Western Republicans insist that Southerners aren’t in charge of their party.

  2. Huh. Well, arguably, they could be right. The Southern Mafia has been replaced by Chicagoan Rahm Emanuel, and Westerners like Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are in charge of Congress while Mid-Westerners like Al From and Easterners like Lanny Davis and larry Summers still pull a lot of weight backstairs.

    But the point of the post is that it no longer matters where they’re from. Southern Rules have become the standard strategic framework for tacticians in both parties: Tell people you’re doing one thing and then pass a bill that does the opposite or, better yet, doesn’t do anything at all but looks as tho it does.

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