Feature photo by Tobias Bjerknes
The Nature of the Real
“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” ― Philip K. Dick, in the novel “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon”
You wouldn’t think, in a rational society, that anyone would have to be told this, but reality doesn’t care what anybody believes is true; it just is. And what isn’t, isn’t.
This is a little riff on a place most politicians and true believers in American exceptionalism don’t visit much. It’s called “Reality.” Bear with me. Of course, it seems strange to say that it’s a territory unfamiliar to seemingly ordinary law-abiding people. But there’s no denying we seem to be sleep-walking our way to oblivion. Wouldn’t you say?
Law Divorced from Nature Sustains Unreality
I’ll focus on the unreality of legality. Maybe one reason people seldom visit the realm of reality is that politics is so tangled up in law and lies. If you think about it, law isn’t some system of logic that is self-consistent and obvious to everyone. Law isn’t even built on the scaffold of common sense. In this country, we need specially ordained people who dress up in black skirts and robes and engage in ritualized spectacles to interpret law’s logic for us. And we believe them. Although it’s claimed that law has an internally consistent logic, and therefore is understandable, history consistently proves it to be a morass of murky meanings, interpreted for our dazed sense of normality by that priesthood of the law, attorneys and judges.
Simply stated, law presents itself as a command, not a request or an observation. Law is, at its heart, all about coercion. And why coercion? Well, because it demands behavior that, although it may contradict the inclinations, preferences, and desires of those to whom it is communicated, it never-the-less requires conformity with a reality defined by legislators who pass a law and by judges animating that law with their decisions about what the law means. The resulting command requires us to act as-if the imposed reality the law proposes is the way things should and must be.
Given the chaos and catastrophe that’s been created by the successful enforcement of coercive law throughout history, it seems fair to ask if we wouldn’t get better results if reality and law had more in common. To name a few examples of unnatural situations that have been legalized by law, consider how the enslavement of some people by others was once both constitutional and supported by legal precedent, all based on abstract descriptions of an absurd reality laid down by ostensibly enlightened philosophers. They were, of course, holding second jobs as propagandists for empire.
And what about today’s debt traps, the forced sterilizations of the not-distant past, the new legality of forced pregnancies, and the perennial enslavement of youth through military conscription and the accompanying orders from on high to engage in collective mass murder? What of minority-targeted drug laws, the legal personhood of corporate property, and redlining in housing and finance? Law’s function seems to be not to guide people by nurturing proper relationships with the natural world and with each other, but to institutionalize and protect privileges for some and, through prohibitions and demands, invent a world for the rest of the people to live within obediently and dutifully.
An unreal reality is created by law’s demand that we act as if its premises are real, under pain of legal sanction for failure to do so. To our great chagrin, the unreality thus created regularly turns out to be quite unnatural. Precedent, the legal theory that old laws and court decisions should lock the prejudices and ignorance of the past in place, guarantees that the coercive power of law will be used to perpetuate not only injustice but an abnormal perception of what’s real.
John Adams, the second U.S. president, is often quoted as saying “we are a nation of laws, not men.” But if laws are fallible because the men and women who make and enforce them are fallible, and if precedent is used to perpetuate their errors, then that kind of law, aside from being contrived, is just plain absurd. Wouldn’t you say?
The big problem is that, even if law is just so much gibberish, once it’s institutionalized it can impose an unreality on society against which we have no option but consent and compliance or resistance accompanied by coercive blowback. As a consequence, we are conditioned to accept absurdities as received truths, without challenge. Consider a few big lies that law normalizes and we embrace as true and verifiable parts of reality.
Race: as Theodore W. Allen makes clear in his seminal book “The Invention of the White Race: The Origin of Racial Oppression,” race is a fact-free concept that people act upon as-if real, thus creating palpable and horrific outcomes based on contrived predicates. What’s law got to do with it?
Here’s an excerpt of a marketing description of Allen’s book: “When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no ‘white’ people there. Nor, according to colonial records, would there be for another sixty years. America’s ruling classes created the category of the “white race” as a means of social control. Since that early invention, white privileges have enforced the myth of racial superiority, a fact central to maintaining ruling class domination over ordinary working people of all colors..” I mean, there are red tomatoes and yellow tomatoes, but they’re all tomatoes, even if we make laws that say we have to call them something else, for some political purpose.
Human Supremacy is the notion that human beings are superior to non-human beings of every kind, plant, animal, organic and inorganic. It is a belief without empirical support and one that is vulnerable to challenge on the grounds that it defies basic logic. Belief in human superiority accounts for the self-centered behavior that results in cruelties, rapacious slaughters, intentional and unintentional extinctions, and the looming planetary climate crisis that threatens all life on Earth.
Belief in the Enlightenment era philosophy of human supremacy was developed to rationalize colonial imperialism, the enclosure of the commons, and the establishment of hierarchical dominion over Nature as well as supposedly unenlightened fellow humans.
Environmental Regulation: Legal regulation of commercial abuse of the natural world is as hollow as Bret Kavanaugh’s version of party fouls with young women during his college days.
The claim that legalizing certain amounts of destruction through issuance of administrative permits amounts to environmental protection is laughable. Still, even mainstream environmentalists have fallen victim to this big lie. The existential calamity created by fifty years of officious enforcement of deceit-ridden legislation intended to give legal cover to polluters, extractors, and despoilers for profit is slowly dawning as humanity wakes up to a frightening reality that laws, lies, and denials can’t make go away.
Many other law-initiated and legally supported big lies, such as unpardonable student debt and white male privilege could also be used to illustrate the point that lies packaged as laws create an unreality that does not become more real by making it mandatory for us to act as if it is. Although laws have the feel of being real, of having independent existence in the world, it’s hard not to notice that the antics of those who believe in the unreality evoked by law often seem pathological. Wouldn’t you say?