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We’re Haunted by a ’90s Reality

If we want to understand what’s going on now, we must untangle cultural threads spun a quarter-century ago

Colin Horgan
Jun 5, 2018 · 6 min read
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Soon after President Donald Trump tweeted a photo of himself and Kim Kardashian in the Oval Office — they were meeting to discuss prison reform, a cause for which Kardashian has recently become an advocate — a thought experiment was born: How would you explain this event to your past self?

In some ways, our reaction to the Trump-Kardashian summit is completely understandable. We’re living in a world that would have been difficult to imagine a decade ago, when Obama was getting ready for the general election, and which would have been nearly unimaginable 20 or 25 years ago — back when Kim Kardashian was still merely the namesake attached to the O.J. Simpson trial, and Donald Trump was simply a real estate tycoon allegedly trying to avoid paying taxes.

There is a truth buried in those reactions, too: Right now, though we barely realize it, we are living out the consequences of decisions and events from a quarter-century ago.

Recent major events have shown this to be the case, even if they were in many ways unexpected — not just Trump’s presidential victory, but also Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, and the growing backlash against the liberal global order of the post-Cold War era. Even revelations that our data has been used in ways we could not fathom — as a way to predict and influence our political behaviour, or to monitor our activities — have their roots not just in recent years, but in a period now known more for cultural nostalgia than sociopolitical influence.

Yet in this instance, it helps to go back in time. Back to 1995. The year of the O.J. trial and Trump’s alleged tax avoidance, both of which were instrumental in setting in motion the series of events that would lead to last week’s White House meeting.

It was in 1995 that renowned physicist Carl Sagan explained his fears for what the world around him was beginning to look like.

Prefacing a lengthy takedown of pseudoscience and conspiracy theories in his book, The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan pointed out a structural failing in the way the world was constructed and the direction in which it was going. It was a direction, he thought, that might lead us to lose our desire for truth, and thus our grip on what was legitimate and what wasn’t; what was real and what was simply fantasy. He wrote:

“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements — transportation, communications and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting — profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology,” Sagan wrote. “This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

Sagan worried that, “as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive.”

After all, he continued, it had happened before.

“Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us — then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reaches for the controls,” Sagan wrote.

Fifteen years later, in 2010, Donald Trump’s Apprentice, having already run long enough to fatigue viewers, had morphed into Celebrity Apprentice as a way to pump ratings. Meanwhile, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, the program that propelled Kim to her current heights of fame, was already five years old.

By that time, we were firmly planted within a culture not even Sagan would have been able to envision. We were losing the ability to distinguish between what was real — the tactile world that surrounded us day to day, and which we could affect and would affect us — and what was, instead, “reality,” as presented by the multiplying screens that were beginning to surround us at all times.

“We yearn for the ‘real,’” David Shields explained that year, 2010, in his book Reality Hunger. “We want to pose something nonfictional against all the fabrication — autobiographical frissons or framed or filmed or caught moments that, in their seeming unrehearsedness, possess at least the possibility of breaking through the clutter.” He continued:

“The body gets used to a drug and needs a stronger and stronger dose to experience the thrill. An illusion of reality — the idea that something really happened — is providing us with that thrill right now. We’re riveted by the (seeming) rawness of something that appears to be direct from the source, or at least less worked over than a polished mass-media production. Our culture is obsessed with events because we experience hardly any. We’re overwhelmed right now by calamitous information. The real overwhelms the fictional, is incomparably more compelling than an invented drama.”

Here we are, eight years later. Change has come, but mostly by way of amplification.

The meeting between Kardashian and Trump was not the first time a celebrity has traveled to the White House to speak to the president, or promote a cause. But it was uniquely suited for our time, when we are finally beginning to untangle cultural threads spun a quarter-century ago.

Both Kardashian and Trump were at the White House almost entirely because of their particular brand of celebrity — the kind they have respectively cultivated over the years. The meeting was both a product of their “reality” and a perpetuation of it: Trump, the powerful TV executive who really never was; Kim Kardashian, the advocate for a genuine cause, famous more or less simply for being famous.

Both real — yet not. In a world that is real — yet not.

We have created the future Carl Sagan predicted: A world where nothing feels real enough. Where everything is just beyond our reach, and just beyond our comprehension. A world where everything appears beyond an invisible barrier. Where we are set at a distance from politics, science, and each other by our screens — which we also don’t truly understand.

We have created a world of magic. No wonder we don’t believe anything is really real anymore.

As for the rise of Trump and Kardashian, they are not the cause of the world we live in, but a symptom. And they cannot be evaluated properly without doing exactly what so many Twitter users suggested — looking back. But once we look back, we have to evaluate what we see there, not just cast our eyes forward again to our present day. When we look back a quarter-century, it’s all there; Sagan described it, jarring though it may be.

We should remember this feeling — of staring at the picture of Donald Trump and Kim Kardashian meeting in the White House, that disruption of our internal timeline. It’s a bit like stepping off an overseas flight. Call it time-lag.

Proper context is everything, especially when things feel unsettled. Armed with it in advance, we might not have been so surprised to see Kardashian and Trump together, discussing something as important — and real — as prison reform. We might instead have realized that, in a way, it makes perfect sense.

They are the Realest, the Most Real in “reality.” They are the ones who have created events in a world where nothing feels like it’s happening. And so, they are the people who have — for many years, one episode after another — helped many of us to feel real.

writer.

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