2013-01-23

Being Real In A Fake World

By now, you must have heard that this "breathtaking" performance of the US National Anthem was a ruse: Beyonce lip-sync'ed it. Some have expressed shock and disapproval, but I have to wonder why. This was the presidential inauguration of this man:
Not to put to fine a point on it, but "Let me be clear..." Teleprompting is the speech equivalent of lip-syncing. Why the hubbub? Why the shock? Why even the surprise? Shouldn't we have expected by now that our most celebrated vocalists are lip-sync'ers, and our most celebrated politicians' most important quality is the ability to read stuff off a couple of screens placed just outside the camera angle?

It's not as if this is anything new.

Life In The Twenty-First Century
I am not really talking about Barack Obama or the office of president. I am not talking about Beyonce Knowles or the state of popular "live" music. Neither am I talking about the Manti Te'o media hoax, nor the fact that Lance Armstrong "never" doped to win the Tour de France. Nor will I mention that Bill Clinton "did not have sexual relations with that woman. Not once." I'm not going to write about the pantomimed YouTube video I saw of "five people playing the guitar" while covering that Gotye song and that there are people out there who really believe that the video depicts a live performance.

What I would like to say is this: As the 1990s wound to a close and Photoshop, AutoTune, teleprompters, and air-brushing all became household names, some of us lost our ability to decipher truth from... fantasy.

I say "fantasy," because "lie" is not exactly the right word to use. It's not as if anyone ever lied about using pitch-correction software in the music studio. It's not as if anyone lied about employing a teleprompter, or hiring a public relations specialist to craft our messages in a more favorable light. Everyone seems to understand, at least on some level, that the models shown on magazine covers do not really have perfectly sculpted abs, right?

Reality Check: Do we all understand that models as skinny as those used for magazine covers simply do not have sufficient muscle mass to make the painted-on abs shown in the picture to be real? If you want great abs, you have to build muscle and add body mass. Those little magazine waifs simply don't have what it takes for their abs-as-shown. This is a simple, logical point that should be universally recognized, but if you're still not convinced, then I can pull out some quotes from industry insiders, i.e. the guy who actually gets paid to paint the abs on.

Polished Fantasy Is A Tempting - But Unsustainable - Alternate Reality
Well, that's a case in point. You see, some of us willingly engage in the suspension of disbelief. We can't really blame them, either. Isn't it a lot more fun believing that Barack Obama is The Greatest Orator In The History Of The World? Isn't it more fun to believe that Beyonce sang that anthem live-and-in-the-moment? Isn't it better to aspire to a more fantastic vision of beauty than exist in a world where perfect abs and a 22-inch waist are two things that can never coexist? Isn't it better to believe that all the amazing performances we see on YouTube really do depict what we want them to depict?

For what it's worth, all of my YouTube videos show the very performances heard in the recording. Note, though, that my videos will never have as many views as those five hipsters pretending to play the Goyte song. And that's the key point, right there: As a society, we tend to prefer deluding ourselves with an attractive lie than keeping ourselves honest. It's just a YouTube video, right? It's just some Goyte song. Who cares if they didn't record it in that one take like that?

Look, it's not just TV inauguration ceremonies, magazine covers, and YouTube videos. (I may seem like a relatively trivial guy, but I'm not that trivial.) We humans enjoy that which we perceive to be "harmless" delusion. How many of these things can we think of? The delusion of "god." The delusion of "good government." The delusion of "there ought to be a law." The delusion that simply voting for something or posting a cute little "info-graphic" on your Facebook page will "affect change." The delusion that those Kiva micro-loans actually produce economic development. The delusion that the American Idol competition really does single out the one, most talented unsigned musical artist in the nation.

Har har har...

It's not that I object to anyone's belief in god, government, or the artistic merit of obvious media concoctions. Instead, I'd argue that when you live your life under the weight of all these seemingly harmless fibs, the truth eventually catches up with you.

Eventually, you realize that Barack Obama's promise to end the wars and close Guantanamo Bay was just a lot of empty political talk, no different than "saving or creating jobs." Eventually the money and time you spend at the doctor's office hits your pocketbook, no matter how much you believe that the ACA "is supposed to" cut health care costs. Eventually you die and God doesn't pat you on the back for eschewing bacon and wearing a magic hat. Eventually you and four of your friends try to play Goyte on one guitar and discover that it doesn't actually sound that way. Eventually you turn 40 and realize that no matter how much dieting you combined with how many crunches, you still didn't develop the physique of a 13-year-old girl with picture-perfect abs.

What happened? Reality happened. Life didn't conform to your wishes. Instead, it conformed to reality. In the meantime, you could have done something that made a real impact on politics. You could have saved real money on health care. You could have eaten bacon occasionally and wowed a cute guy with a gorgeous head of hair. You could have learned to play a real song on a real instrument, the way music can really sound, and you could have made your body genuinely healthy.

But, you couldn't do any of those things because you were too busy hiding from the facts, replacing them with a fantasy you would prefer to be true.

Getting Real
That slimy guy who got a promotion over you even though he never did any real work? Don't worry about him. He got fired and then got divorced. You never saw him fall back down to Earth, but it wouldn't have been satisfying, anyway.

It wouldn't have been satisfying for exactly the same reason it was so unsatisfying watching him attempt to build a career on a lie. I'm all for justice, but being the spectator at an execution is macabre. It's not gratifying to watch someone receive their come-uppance.

For the most part, this is because someone else's failure has nothing to do with your own success. Even if that someone else is initially successful in living life according to an elaborate delusion, reality catches up at some point. We have to ask ourselves how we're going to feel about it on our death beds.

Someone like Lance Armstrong can dope his way to the top, sure. He won 7 Tours, retired, and set his sights on living out the rest of his days comfortably; but reality had other plans. Now he has to go begging for our National Forgiveness on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Someone can dedicate their lives to a false idol, a false god, a false government, and drive a lot of wedges between themselves and other people, all for the sake of what they wish to be true on their death bed. But for those people, there will come a moment when they will realize that the conflicts we have with other people in our lives are never worth an imaginary hug at the end of a losing battle with death.

Your god, your politics, your art, and your work all come down to how you feel about yourself. If you consider yourself morally reprehensible, you will seek forgiveness from a kind Santa Claus who will lavish you with toys in reward for being good. If you don't think your neighbors can trust you to respect their privacy, you will seek control of your entire community through politics, where respect for property and privacy is enforced by your raw, political will. If you feel you have no creative talent, you will imagine that anyone brave enough to post a YouTube video is a budding virtuoso. If you feel incompetent on the job, you will seek success through perception.

It goes without saying, that a person fully satisfied with herself will feel no need to seek out imaginary redemption, political power, artistic delusion, or undue career success. She'll never achieve any of those imaginary things, of course. But neither does anyone else, not permanently.

In the meantime, every second of her life will be hers, lived according to her creed and her values. Everything she counts on will be the truth.

Conclusion
It's a shame that our presidents, artists, and colleagues are phonies. We can't change that, even if we wanted to. (To believe that we can change this age-old fact of human existence would be to suffer yet another silly delusion.)

What we can change - what is perfectly easy to change - is our own behavior. We can shrug off our delusions and stop engaging in the suspension of disbelief. We can learn to value the beautiful colors of the real world, using our own two eyes, over and above the imaginary life we see in pictures and Facebook .jpegs.

The result is a beautiful life lived in reality, in spite of the phoniness surrounding us. It's worth it!