Fatal distractions: the flight into illusion
Bermuda’s politicians are, rightly, being upbraided in some quarters for elevating magical thinking to the status of guiding philosophical principle. Wishing something to happen and actually making it happen are very different things.
One involves whimsy, rainbows and moonbeams and has no place outside a preschool playground — certainly not in the decision-making processes of this community.
The other requires critical thought, forward planning and a fair degree of stick-to-it-iveness. After all, nothing of substance is ever achieved without effort and sacrifice.
Yet politicians from across the partisan divide seem increasingly intent on having you believe six impossible things before breakfast — and Lord knows how many more comforting if utterly preposterous fictions before you sit down for dinner.
But Bermuda’s cultural landscape is particularly ripe for such escapes into fantasy and unreason precisely because the realities are so daunting and seemingly intractable.
The aftershocks of the financial crisis are still strong and continuing here. Our socio-economic infrastructure remains weak and destabilised. Unemployment, underemployment and all of the attendant woes which stem from an underperforming economy are everywhere in evidence.
Recovery remains frustratingly elusive. For a generation of whom it has been said even instant gratification takes too long, the long march back to fiscal solvency and sustainability is proving especially frustrating.
Such is the public’s appetite for instant solutions to a host of longstanding problems that Bermuda’s political class is increasingly pandering to it with a slew of warm and fuzzy generalities — and even fuzzier notions about what is actually required to refloat the Bermuda economy — at the expense of truth, reason and plausibility.
Criticise the politicians and political propagandists if you will. But the fact is they are simply meeting a rising demand for wish fulfillment (although some certainly deserve blame for helping to create the conditions which gave rise to this insatiable craving for soothing fantasies).
As the great moral philosopher Pogo Possum once said, we have met the enemy and he is us. It is we who have given Bermuda’s politicos free licence to hawk reassuring untruths with impunity because the actual truth is so very discomfiting. We are the ones who have raised the white flag and surrendered to the allure and artifice of political stagecraft.
In our contemporary, image-driven culture — one in which the fabricated, the make-believe and the theatrical are displacing and supplanting the authentic-illusions are increasingly deemed to be more real than reality. They are, of course, infinitely more consoling.
So the public figures with the most gravity-defying approval ratings are those who can most successfully create an illusion of faux intimacy with the electorate, who claim to “feel their pain” and traffic in the pop psychologyhappiness snake-oil peddled by Dr Phil and other TV self-help gurus.
By and large Bermuda’s politicians are no longer expected to demonstrate mastery of complex issues. Indeed, frequently they do not even demonstrate more than a passing familiarity with them. Complex subjects are, by definition, complicated. Sharp-edged. Confusing. They do not easily lend themselves to memorable catchphrases which can be widely circulated by way of internet meme and cannot be readily reduced to easily digestible soundbite form. So we are not overly interested.
Instead we ask our politicians to indulge in simple — simple-minded even — platitudes and slogans and uplifting messages which tell us absolutely anything is possible as long as we vote against The Other Guy.
All ambiguity, nuance and detail is banished. All that really matters is having our pre-existing belief systems continually reinforced by incessant repetition (belief systems based, of course, on the inherent and unquestionable superiority of our party over The Other Guy’s).
We claim to want more honest, more candid politicians. Yet when we get individuals such as, for instance, the Minister of Finance or the Shadow Attorney-General, both of whose stock in trade is the plain and unvarnished truth, we dismiss them as boring. Or, worse yet, as arrogant, bloodless and entirely detached from the concerns of the common man and woman.
Precisely because they have the effrontery to sometimes suggest a glorious and prosperous future is not Bermuda’s by right and will not come about without pain and perseverance, we are wont to dismiss them as the crapehangers of public life. Precisely because they tell us what we need to hear rather than what we would like to hear we become tone-deaf and dismissive of their arguments.
The fact is what too many of us really want from our politicians are entertaining distractions rather than solutions — not if the solutions are going to cost us too much in terms of deep thought or taking meaningful personal action.
It’s axiomatic that the worse reality becomes, the more people will seek refuge and solace in illusion. But the flight into illusion, the insistence on trying to interpret reality through the prism of unreality and unmooring ourselves from reason and responsibility, is a sure-fire method of making what is already a bad situation even worse.
Politicians are certainly not the only ones in Bermuda who have to wean themselves from magical thinking as a matter of urgency.