When the Music Stops
Coronavirus and the Reality Principle
My first job after graduating from college was in the public relations department of a small advertising agency. One of our clients was a residential real estate developer who was building an upscale housing development. We were working on the promotional materials—press kit, flyers, press releases, etc. The development project was called Deer something (Creek? Valley? Run? Crossing? I can't remember now), and the logo was an antlered creature in mid leap, ostensibly a large buck—a very expensive logo that had already been approved and paid for by the client. In the meeting, while we were discussing the final version of the press kit, I couldn’t stop staring at the logo. Something was wrong.
Then it struck me and I just blurted it out: “the logo looks more like an elk than a deer."
On the car ride back from the meeting, my boss was furious. "There are some things you just don't say in a client meeting," she said in disgust.
It should be no surprise that I lasted less than a year in that job, but I learned a lesson from my brief flirtation with PR: It matters what you call the animal on the logo. An elk is not a deer. 2+2=4, not 5. The earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around. "And yet it moves," whispered Galileo after he was forced to publicly testify to the opposite by the Catholic Church.
When presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway immortalized the term “alternative facts” a few years ago, many journalists reacted with shock and disgust. Some even suggested that her freewheeling relationship to facts is a new kind of assault on truth and reality. Without excusing her—she is cynical and craven—I heard something different. When she said, the press secretary gave alternative facts, I heard, we have our sense of reality and you have yours. I immediately recognized this posture towards reality, not as new thing, but as something that has long been a feature of post-war America.
Maybe I am cynical too, but I am already well acclimated to life inside of a reality distortion field. I have lived here for decades. Lies and “spin” define every aspect of American life. When the telemarketer cold calls and leaves a message on my voicemail, she says she is “getting back” to me; she lies. The car ad shows an average American family driving to the top of a mountain in their new SUV on a whim; they will never do this. The college I work for once branded itself “the campus of tomorrow“; it wasn’t. My mental environment is daily warped by grifters, conspiracy theorists, PR spin-masters, advertisers, and slick marketers, all preying on my fears, insecurities, and latent desires. Consequently, it is a daily struggle to catch even a glimmer of reality as I move through my life.
As I watch Donald Trump lie, distort, and distract in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, I am reminded of something Sigmund Freud called the “reality principle.“ Freud believed that the human psyche is driven by competing forces. On one side is the "pleasure principle," which is the collective force of an individual's basic drives and desires. Standing in opposition to it is the "reality principle," the individual’s ability to apprehend reality and act on it. For Freud, an adult is a person who has evolved beyond the powerful spell of the pleasure principle. Adults learn to successfully subjugate their drives and desires in order to live productively within civilization. While I am no Freudian, the reality principle concept has always fascinated me. It hints at something that I have always believed, that reality is a fragile object of human perception. Humans are not automatically wired up to live a reality-based existence. As such, we are easily derailed from perceiving reality and from acting on it in productive ways.
The reality principle also explains those moments when a fact or circumstance punctures the fantasy, thus forcing us to pay attention. When the reality principle is activated, the music suddenly stops. The normal mechanisms of distortion and distraction no longer function as they did before. We are spellbound by that which can no longer be denied.
Americans are living through such a moment with the spread of coronavirus. The music has stopped. Schools and businesses shut down. Sporting events, recitals, and political rallies cancelled. Normal daily life is suspended. Every news story, it seems, is about the pandemic.
As uncomfortable as it often is, the reality principle can also be clarifying. I noticed, for example, that the Trump administration and the Democrat-led Congress quickly hammered out a deal on a package of government interventions to protect the economy and the American people from the financial fallout of the pandemic. Years of performative acrimony and elaborate ritualized partisan combat simply withered away in the face of a deadly infectious disease.
I noticed too, that the President is foundering. He seems incapable of inspiring confidence. He looks and sounds scared, bewildered, out of his element. This is because in a reality-principle moment, everyone looks to the leader to acknowledge the truth, which is is a key component of successful crisis leadership. But Trump may be incapable of facing truth in this way. He rose to political power and has mostly governed in a Twitter-fueled, take-no-prisoners blitzkrieg that is about controlling the "narrative" from one day to the next. This battle is fought on the same plain of low-stakes faux-reality where we look for our entertainment. A season of Game of Thrones, a televised NFL game, celebrity gossip on Instagram, a Democratic presidential debate, a Sean Hannity rant, a tweet from the president, the radar map on the Weather Channel—it is all streaming by in a vast river of entertainment and algorithmically titillating content. But a deadly new virus creates its own narrative. The virus is humanity's oldest adversary. Relentless and purposeful, it plays by the same rules that govern our bodies, the elemental stuff of life and death. This reality cannot be tweeted away or shrugged off in a press conference.
Trump's failed leadership is an easy target for those looking for a scapegoat, but really, most Americans are in exactly the same place, each of us waking up from a dream state fueled by decades of mass exposure to television and social media, mediums that turn everything they touch into an entertainment product—the pleasure principle on steroids (the very idea that Donald Trump could be president emerged within this media ecosystem. He didn’t create the present moment from his words and actions as much as he gracelessly embodies it).
Media critic Neil Postman prophetically described our current cultural circumstance thirty years ago in his excellent book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Discourse in the Age of Show Business. In it, he depicts America as a country consumed with entertainment. In the introduction, he names Las Vegas as the ultimate metaphor for American culture:
Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even popular notice.
Add the accelerants of the Worldwide Web and social media and now the party goes on 24/7. An entire generation now “lives” on the Internet—“digital natives“ swimming in a sea of entertainment—the pleasure principle as a way of life.
The reality principle is a bitch. We are all learning this, or relearning it. The virus is a great teacher. Whatever comes of the current pandemic, reality will have its day. We will learn, as humans have always learned from viruses. The lights will dim for a time, but they won’t go out.
An elk is not a deer. 2+2=4. “And yet it moves.“
In the car ride back to the office that day, I couldn’t wipe the smirk from my face.