Where do I start about the unreality of our reality?
Perhaps in my own field of psychology and psychiatry. We claim we have remarkable techniques for treating addiction, depression, ADHD, bipolar and other disorders—yet these conditions have risen dramatically in recent decades and continue to rise apace. The answer—let's provide more of our outstanding treatments, their obvious failures to reverse our epidemic of mental and emotional disorders be damned!
And education. We have been trumpeting education reform to enhance our children's grasp of science, improve our reading, and reduce the racial gap in achievement since at least the Soviet's launching of Sputnik in 1957, which co-occurred with school desegregation. Since then, America's educational standing in the world has plummeted, kids read less and more poorly, and racial differences remain, and since 2009 have worsened. We seemingly have redoubled our efforts to halt these trends in recent years with the charter school revolution, Race to The Top Fund, No Child Left Behind, Common Core (the last three are federal initiatives), Education Pathways (the Gates Foundation)—need I continue?*
And, yet, 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, these racial differences persist. Indeed, the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress found a bigger black-white gap has appeared, along with no overall educational improvements since 2009. About a quarter of high school seniors achieved math proficiency and fewer than four in 10 did so with reading. But that's only the tip of the iceberg of our illiteracy. Almost half of Americans believe in creationism (the same percent or more that believed it in 1982), and the numbers of Americans who accept the reality of global warming is declining—as are those who do believe climate is changing and who attribute that change to human activity.
Let's take a jump to the international arena, where Russia's premier Vladimir Putin has eradicated reality. First came his claim that those masked men in Russian tanks who appeared in Crimea weren't Russians—why would you think that? Everything happening in the Ukraine is other than what it appears to be, according to Putin. But he has now pulled off the greatest magic trick of all by claiming that Russian troops have pulled back from Ukrainian borders without a single troop or tank budging!
Putin thinks, "Who needs reality?" Russians by and large accept his version of events and his popularity is soaring. But, Americans, don't get cocky—the same thing is true here. Remember the Iraq War, which killed and displaced 100,000s of Iraqis, killed 4,500 American military and disabled 10,000s more, only to result in a chaotic, dictatorial regime now in place in a religiously torn and violent society? Who regrets that? Not former president George W. Bush, vice president Dick Cheney, or secretary of state Condoleezza Rice (now a professor at Stanford). All of this was brought to mind by Erroll Morris's film ("The Unknown Known") of interviews with former secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, in which he blithely denies past statements or actions that Morris replays with historical footage. As The New Republic describes Rumsfeld's attitude:
For the past four years, Donald Rumsfeld has been cheerfully defying the assumptions of our public culture of confession and forgiveness. By now Rumsfeld’s errors as secretary of defense have been exhaustively documented: focusing on Iraq rather than Al Qaeda, misjudging the existence of WMDs, sidelining the advice of high-ranking military officers, providing too few troops for the Iraq invasion, remaining blithe as the country spiraled into chaos, and refusing to listen to allegations of torture. By all rights, he should be repentant or, as he was after his resignation, invisible. But since 2010 he’s reemerged, with two books, a website, a charitable foundation, a witty, avuncular manner, and no demonstrable remorse. He is simply, astonishingly, unconcerned, his motto the same as 11 years ago when he dismissed reports of looting in Iraq: “Stuff happens.”
And the same things happen every moment in our current political/cultural sphere. As Paul Krugman points out, that Obamacare has joined eight million members, nearly all have paid their premiums, the price of health insurance has actually on balance declined, and fewer Americans are uninsured—meaning that fewer will die—are all irrelevant to Republicans' views of the Affordable Care Act. For them, ACA is a failure and an abomination, and that plays well with the electorate! This political reality remains true no matter what actually happens to health care coverage and costs, as Americans who accept and who reject Obamacare are exactly, evenly split.
But why stop at Obamacare? We have a host of issues that, no matter how often investigated and argued, never change the allegiance of their partisans. There are the IRS scandal and Benghazi cover-up, federal funding for birth control, sex education, and many, many more issues. Social psychologists for some time have been impressed about the inexact relationship between reality and perception. Lately, recognition of this discrepancy has become a cottage industry, with many researchers pointing out that reality has nothing to do with psychology. People hold beliefs and express attitudes consistent with their values and group memberships—what's reality got to do with it?
And thus professionals at the highest levels, certainly politicians and world figures, completely disregard reality, with no fear of consequences.
Oh, as do bloggers who claim that abstinence from alcohol is the healthiest policy, with no fear of contradiction (that is, after my and a Danish physician's comments on her post were removed).
Stanton Peele has been empowering people around addiction since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has developed the on-line Life Process Program. His new book (written with Ilse Thompson) is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict with The PERFECT Program. His writings are available at www.peele.net and he can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.
* (May 12) Since I wrote this, the New Yorker has profiled one of the grandest, best-financed educational reform efforts ever conceived, involving among the most notable and prestigious group of political and cultural figures ever put together—New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Newark Mayor (now New Jersey Senator) Cory Booker, and Facebook new-age guru Mark Zuckerberg. This group coalesced to retool the Newark school system in 2009.
Of course, the state of New Jersey had taken management of Newark schools away from the municipality in 1995 due to corruption and ineptitude. The results? "Fifteen years later, the state had its own record of mismanagement, and student achievement had barely budged." Of course, this mismanagement, first by the city, then by the state, comes at a tremendous cost—per student expenditures for Newark students to fail disastrously, for themselves and the city, is among the highest in the nation.
Come the gurus to remedy this, and the same plan as always is enacted—hire a star superintendent, change the teachers' contract to get rid of bad teachers, and charter more charter schools. Now, less than five years later, Zuckerberg's $100 million is gone—along with millions more from other foundations and the state—and let's just say no change is visible. The biggest hang-up pointed out by the article is the lack of community acceptance of the plan. Of course, there are actually good, research-based educational psychology techniques and planning that focus on this crucial element of community involvement. But it is a mark of special, high-priced interventions that they ignore existing research to create their own special plan-of-the-day (tens of millions of Zuckerberg's dollars went to new-age educational consultants).
Oh, but the best thing about the 12-page article detailing this disaster is that it is kind of positive and optimistic about the fiasco, even as Senator Booker and the others distance themselves from it (they refused to be interviewed)! The basic point of the article, title "Schooled," is that the great leaders went into the inner-city school system with undue confidence and a complete naivete which has by now been dispelled. But, despite the fact that the reformers have never "acknowledged how much of the philanthropy went to consultants who came from the inner circle of the education-reform movement," and the effort's basic failure "to build coalitions and educate and advocate,” the article concludes "In Newark, the solutions may be closer than either side acknowledges." Come back in ten years and surely the educationally disadvantaged of Newark will be on a par with kids in the suburbs, or will at least have greatly improved, or at least will be doing somewhat better without having wasted hundreds of millions of dollars!
Do you think Christie, Booker, and Zuckerberg would bet their lives on that reality!
May 13, 2014. The biggest opponent of the Zuckerberg et al. plan, Ras Baraka, was elected mayor of Newark: "one of the most contentious issues in the mayor’s race was a recent school reorganization plan, One Newark, which was pummeled by Mr. Baraka’s supporters." Ah, well—what's the use of being an Internet billionaire if you can't piss away a $100 mil? Who really cares anyhow? Except the people of Newark who rejected the $100 million plan and its sponsors.