‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.’
These words are from a brief but memorable conversation the journalist Ron Suskind had with Karl Rove, who was the chief political adviser and Machiavellian ‘teacher of tricks’ to the Bush dynasty. He had a way with words, and these particular ones were spoken in a low-key aside, not exactly an unguarded moment but one which acknowledges — in carefully chosen words — what both parties know.
“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from a judicious study of discernible reality.’
I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism.
He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” He continued, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Suskind published his article in 2004, leaving the speaker unnamed in the original article but identifying him later as Rove. It’s a revealing little passage, and we are indebted to Suskind for publishing it. First, an empire which starts to believe that it creates reality sounds like Ozymandian hubris to me, but perhaps that’s taking Rove too literally. To ‘create reality’, in the political sense, means that you have the power to force acquiescence in your deceptions, to intimidate everyone into pretending to believe your lies. To make such a claim shows the empire has complete — complete — confidence in its control of communications and media: but that, apparently, was already taken for granted back in 1962, when the US Joint Chiefs of Staff proposed in ‘NORTHWOODS’ plan. So it is not so surprising to find someone at the centre of power who puts it like this. When we act, we create our own reality.
Or as Baudrillard would say, The simulacrum is true.
Which is, as Orwell would immediately have recognised, the perfect example of doublethink. The power to create reality rests on the sucker brigades’ ability to master doublethink, its self-discipline in resisting thoughtcrime.
As for his ‘reality-based’ designation, it’s somewhat respectful — dismissive, but tolerant, a refreshing change at least from being called a ‘conspiracy theorist’ or delusional or whatever. Respectful too in comparison with the way people like us are viewed by our families, colleagues and the general public at large — whom Rove, by the way, habitually called ‘the sucker brigades’.
‘Reality-based’. OK, I’ll have that. And yet, so far has the relationship between map and territory already travelled on its Baudrillardrian progress towards the ‘death of reality’, it’s actually a put-down. ‘Reality-based’, in effect, simply means quaintly irrelevant. You’re not delusional, you’re reality-based.
But that’s not what we’ll say to the world.
‘And let us never tolerate outrageous conspiracy theories concerning the events of September 11th…’
— George Bush at the United Nations, New York 10/11/01
People like us, those who fall prey to Baudrillard’s ‘false desire’ to know, were predicted and arrangements were made. The ‘reality-based community’, in the new conditions, is no threat to the empire, which has the power to create reality. To believe that ‘solutions emerge from a judicious study of discernible reality’ is laughable in the Straussian-Platonic world of the noble, imperial lie. ‘Reality-based’, here, might almost be a term of contempt.
Rove believes that these enemies of the lie need not be feared, because the lies are so layered and extensive that they create a trap. The ‘conspiracy theorists’ become so fascinated by the studious discernment of reality that it disables them. Their conclusions are academic; they make no difference in the real world. Mesmerised by visions of the abyss, they are baffled as to how knowledge can be translated into political influence. The weight of the new reality is enough to induce a defeatist paralysis, and these gazers into the abyss become isolated in a society they cannot affect. No matter how strongly based their knowledge is, their problems of communication are exacerbated by media stratagems until getting through to the inhabitants of the enchanted land becomes virtually impossible. How do you teach chess to a beginner so absolute that he believes no such game could possibly exist? The system of delusion relies on this cleverly constructed trap, which has kept the realists in their cage for a long time.
For Rove as for Baudrillard, the concept of reality is quaint, old-fashioned, and irrelevant; it is a clinging to territory that no longer survives the map, or even gives rise to it any more.
Henceforth, Baudrillard decrees, it is the map that engenders the territory and […] the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.
And, you should understand, that’s the desert you’re going to wander in if you succumb to the ‘false desire to know’.