Modern life, mass urban society, generates illusions that every one, sooner or later, recognizes. The industrially prepared foods provide tastes that are chemically induced similitudes of natural ingredients not present in the products. The blueberry toaster tarts have no blueberries. The butter flavored shortening has no butter. Clothing fashion falsely invokes assurances that the person wearing the clothes cannot provide. The woman wearing the revealing, teasing casual clothes is not sexually promiscuous and does not even have the capability to enjoy the experience she provokes. The man wearing the expensive suit is not self-assured and has none of the authority his clothes advertise. The office job we perform is dull, repetitive, and could be done by anyone with a high school degree and two weeks training; yet owners fill our minds with motivational slogans that falsely assure us how invaluable our work is. Everyone one on the street speaks the language of love and friendship, yet relationships are so casual and fleeting that no one retains actual acquaintance with anyone more than a few years. No one we call a friend would risk their life for us. Medicines produce the illusion of health. Much of the chemical pharmacopoeia prescribed by physicians only reduces symptoms, while leaving untouched the disease that ravages our bodies.
Life is a parody of movies. We recognize that movies are illusions, that the images on the screen are not representations of real events but contrivances, like magicians' acts. The screen victim is not really blown up in the car; camera angles and editing only made it appear so.The hero is not really lifting a two-hundred pound rock; the "rock" is only Styrofoam. But while we are inside the movie, so to speak, as a viewer, we share the illusion. Only the end of the movie releases us from the spell of the illusion.
Modern life, unlike the movie, doesn't end; it never releases us from the illusions in which it ensnares us. Nonetheless, most people become disillusioned at some point with some aspect of modernity. Disillusion usually comes in personal crises. Your child has a life-threatening illness. Caring for the child so consumes your time and emotion, that nearly everything else sloughs off your life as unimportant. Illusions are not so much broken as ignored. Or friends let us down so hard our relationships fracture like crude earthenware and reality seeps into our lives. Perhaps the side effects of a medicine become so obnoxious that we are compelled to cease treatment, where upon we discover the medicine had no underlying therapeutic value and the illness remains uncured. We travel to a rural society. We eat fresh food from a farm and whole grain bread made in the farmer's kitchen, and so discover real food. In the midst of a personal crisis, the Sunday sermon, faintly echoing an ancient Platonic dualism, suddenly makes sense and we are led to see a different kind of personal life.
It is the power of normality in modern life that the personal disillusionments of the many do not agglomerate to become a social crisis. We seek personal solutions to personal difficulties. We find comfort in partial answers. Eating organic food and baking our own bread satisfies some of the need for real food and a nutritious diet. Abandoning clothing fashion and wearing comfortable, sensible, but not sexy clothes makes life easier and, doing less shopping, gives us the time to read a book. Our child pulls through the devastating illness and we devote months to quiet enjoyment of the child's company, making scrapbooks and photo albums, and encouraging recovery. We seek bits and pieces, moments, threads, and glimpses of authenticity.
The natural history of the illusions of modern life and the personal search for authenticity have been a familiar theme of Western culture criticism for the past 150 years. The European philosophers, especially existentialists, devoted their creative careers to exposing, analyzing, and proposing solutions for the malaise of modernity built up by illusion and pocked by little disillusionments that weaken and paralyze individual lives. Conservative critics have similarly traced the social corrosions of modernity in intricate detail.
European history has a more worrisome story to tell about modernity. Catastrophes in modern society generate a social hunger for authenticity that transformative political action satisfies. Fascism and communism were built on many bases, but mainly they promised to give their followers lives of authenticity. Fascists and communists were supposedly connected to the real story of history, the fundamental evolution or revolution of society that belied the false magic and fraudulent illusion of pointless mass urban life. "Supposedly"? The solutions were themselves pathologial delusions.
Might we, here in the US, ever face such a historical moment? Without a catastrophe, unlikely. The emollients for wounded personal lives, treatments for rehabilitation of dropouts, therapies for sullen souls are on every street corner, in churches for the fallen in every neighborhood. Our political parties are not attuned to the underlying discord, cannot think of ways to channel little anxieties into big votes, and so ignore it. But all of the benign neglect would end if we have a national security emergency. A national emergency would rip the veil of illusion from all of our lives. We would be confronted by reality--an ugly, barbaric reality. A major WMD strike in an American city, or several simultaneous school sieges, like that at Belsan, or a widespread postal anthrax attack that immobilizes national and state governments for months ... such events would transform us. The hunger for authenticity, so released, would be fuel for political mobilization and change. Politics would become a wildfire feasting on parched forests.
Wise thinkers and leaders would contemplate the likelihood of this scenario and ponder how they could prepare the nation for an outcome more desirable than the outcome endured by Europeans. We have a lot of history ahead of us. Only fools think 9/11 was a singular event.