Turned in the draft of my first virtual reality screenplay last week. It's a short film about Texas history from pre-history to present, delivered in a whirlwind five minutes. No dialogue. No text. A Koyaanisqatsi-esque film experience, but completely immersive, where your entire field of vision is filled with moving image, and stereoscopic music and sound effects also give a three dimensional impression. Not true time-travel, but a fun experience nonetheless. Maybe because I've been immersed myself in the concepts and possibilities of virtual reality, maybe because of current politics, everything seems like virtual reality. Each day, I read the news and find myself thinking, 'Is this really our life? Is this what we've done with our beautiful democracy?'
I log into Twitter to see what's trending and ... Well first, let me just say there's something fundamentally wrong with chasing after what's trending each day. Aren't I a buy and hold kind of person? Following the news on Twitter is like day-trading for opinions, many of which I don't really want to know in the first place. On the other hand, it does give me access to what most of the key players are saying directly, not simply what's screened by the media. ... So here I am, reading tweets on the latest pack of lies, commenting with a cross between snark and incredulity, and scanning the hashtag du jour, when I notice almost all of the commenters have avatars. They aren't using their real names. Given how contentious our public dialogue has become, it's no surprise people might want to protect their identities, but most of these commenters are either trolls or bots. Not genuine individuals sharing their spontaneous opinions, but paid or automated commentary meant to influence people like you and me.
My students would say "it's surreal." They say this when something doesn't seem real. They don't know about surrealism as a cultural movement, an expression of the subconscious in surprising, but seemingly realistic ways. Clocks melting, a pipe that "n'est pas une pipe," something that, according to Antonin Artaud, one of the first surrealists, verged on the mystical, a cross between "falsehood and illusion." Wait. That last part actually fits. Maybe my students actually do know what they're talking about.
And that's how it feels reading the news. What one minute seems like a crazy conspiracy theory, the next minute has legs. Monty Python style images such as a neon sign flashing "False Election" trots around atop a fish-hose clad pair of legs. A theater of the absurd, which is how the U.S. must appear to the rest of the world. Of course, sites like Breitbart and media outlets like Fox deliver content that has been proven, over and over, to be biased or completely untrue, so we cannot call them news. Meanwhile, taking a play from the Goebbels playbook, they (and either their puppet or puppet-master, Trump) accuse their enemies of what they're guilty of themselves, and cry, "Fake news!" Or is Russia the puppet-master? And who's in Russia's pocket? Trump? Bannon? Sessions? Trump's kids? We already know about Flynn and Manafort. Who else?
I used to wonder what it was like to find oneself in an alternate reality. The world where the real you went to work, but the alternate you stayed on the highway, went on a roadtrip, never saw the real you's life again. We have alt-news, and the alt-right, and now even our beloved Jane Austen, who wrote about the oppressive lives of women who had limited choices in a world where they had no legal status and were completely stripped of money and power except through the "ownership" of a husband or father, has become an icon for the alt-right. Can this be real? Can any of it be real? After all our forebears had done to fight for democracy and equality, have we given it away to thieves who will steal our rights, our resources, our very reality?
We sometimes tell a person to take off their blinders, referring to the devices placed on horses so they won't pay attention to or be spooked by what's creeping up on them on the side. Virtual reality headsets look a lot like blinders except they block out sight of everything, not just what's on the sides, and replace it with an alternate reality. That's fine, if you know it's not real. If you know it's entertainment, and also if you're in a safe place where no one will hurt you while you can't see to protect yourself. Unfortunately, virtual reality blinders are exactly what the powers that be have tried to impose on us, and the very people handing out the blinders are the same ones who will steal our rights and resources, destroying our land, economy, freedom, and democracy in their wake.
Could we just go back to our real lives now or at least time travel to when this is all over? Much as I wish for our normal lives to return, I know that's exactly the kind of lazy escapism that seems to have gotten us into this predicament in the first place. While we were going about our lives, binge streaming Netflix or escaping to some gorgeous trail, we let our guard down. We let the enemy in. Now is not the time for more escapism, but to reclaim our country and the ideals that make it great. Truth. Equality. Justice. And an end to this alt-reality.
Make America America Again!
Jill McCabe Johnson's research and writing practice follow the tradition of the French Medieval poetic form, the "chanson d'aventure" or song of adventure, where a writer walks into a new environment for enlightenment and inspiration.