COLUMN: Figuring out what’s real is difficult

Al Lehmann

Al Lehmann

Yogi Berra once commented that, “in theory there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.” (If only real life were as simple as baseball.)

Our lives seem to spin around an axis between the poles of thought and action. Critical deconstruction can’t replace the creativity and necessary action to follow that produce real, valuable contributions to the world. Imagination may generate possibilities for useful undertakings, but it is only action that can accomplish real things.

A designer might create the plans for a new device to address a specific problem the world confronts us with, but it requires precision engineers to produce and test it. Political theorists may compose policies expressly to accomplish desired ends (alleviate poverty or outcompete China, for example), but even if these suggestions pass the thorny tests of public opinion and parliaments, a civil service must put them into action.

Marshall McLuhan once paradoxically argued that a major cause of problems is solutions. We build a new highway to ease congestion, and it fills up with vehicles, along with their risks, air pollution, and noise. IT engineers created cellphones and their communications infrastructure, and unintentionally produce a generation of self-obsessed, addictive personalities. As Leonard Cohen offered in Stories of the Street, “You are locked into your suffering and your pleasures are the seal.”

There can be a near madness to our fascinations. We want good government, so we might, for example, peruse the manifold incidents in the political landscape, sifting through blogs, reacting to tweets, watching reruns of Power and Politics or C-Span, and yet rarely come to construct a clear, well-defined picture of how and why things are working out (or failing to) the way they are. Within the mediated maelstrom of lies and spin, greenwashing, PR, op-eds, and advertising, it’s difficult to construct a reliable model of the world.

We sometimes feel compelled to flee this bedlam, retreating into sitcoms and celebrity culture, latching onto the hollow reassurances of conventionality presented in everything from The Big Bang Theory to Jeopardy, environments in which high intelligence is comedically reduced to absurd forms of social dysfunction or rapid recall of rap lyrics, diverse awards, and authors’ middle names. Celebrities pronounce gravely upon social problems (everything from bad skin to the nefarious plots cunningly hidden in the chemistry of vaccines), transmuting their personal social notoriety into putative expertise with the magic of a Harry Potter. Well, no help there.

It’s easy to imbue plans with a lot of emotional capital, enjoying in advance and in imagination the pleasurable benefits they will create. Sometimes action is merely the amplification of messaging. People gather together, marching under protest signs or MAGA hats, hoping to drown any personal misgivings or uncertainty under a volume only the folly of a group can generate. When pro-Trump rioters smeared their own feces in the US Capitol Building January 6 of last year, it was hardly an intellectual position, yet it spoke volumes.

If exactly what to do may sometimes seem unclear, especially given the overlapping complexities of the wall of challenges facing our future, perhaps the most important thing we must remember is, as far as is possible, to be kind to one another, address the ills that are real, and avoid overreacting to those that are, for the most part, imaginary. Happy New Year!

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