Sometimes I wake up in the morning and tune-in to cable news and wonder if I’ve stumbled into some absurd parallel universe where the kings mock the jesters and money will still buy you anything you don’t want. This morning my world dawned in Beirut where the NBC correspondent told of a theme park which was open for business there, dedicated to the terror crusades and skirmishes between Hezbollah and Israel as told from the Hezbollah POV. The park visitors stroll between crashed airplanes and grenade-gutted tanks and compare the carefully prepared and displayed craters of various improvised explosives, all in a friendly family atmosphere. I rubbed my eyes and pinched myself to see if I was really awake. I was reminded of the tasteless phony musical in The Producers called Springtime for Hitler and Germany. Now we have Six Flags Over Beirut or Disneyland for Terrorism where Tinkerbell wears a tiny suicide vest.
As I was trying to recover from this blunt shock to my sensibilities, the news feature was interrupted by a commercial for a product called the iRenew bracelet. For 19.95 plus shipping we can wear this stylish magic bracelet which, by means of some mysterious juju which we are assured is based on solid science, can balance our energies and give us an invisible shield against all harmful and disruptive modern vibrations. Are these people serious? Should I go back to sleep so that I can wake up in some other world that makes sense?
Surrealism is a type of artistic expression that attempts to portray the impossible or the fantastical in realistic or everyday terms. Dali, with his impeccably rendered paintings in the perfect grammar of realism, depicts totally impossible dream images and fantasies as if they are actually before your eyes. Because he is using a visual vocabulary that we accept as real, we also accept the reality of the symbols. If it looks real and it is presented in a context that we accept as real, then the eyes can be tricked into believing almost any version or perversion of reality. This is why we will tend to accept as true anything that is said by Brian Williams or any classic Walter Cronkite-style announcer. We accept that familiar tone and cadence and context as the proper environment for being told the truth. We expect to hear that voice of authority deliver a reliable narrative of events. There is a whole genre of comedy based on this principle because when we hear that usually reliable announcer’s voice spoken from behind the formal desk of journalistic seriousness and it turns out to be Seth Meyers or John Stewart or Stephen Colbert saying something completely off-the-wall…bam!…pure surrealism, the absurd being couched in the context of the real.
Which brings us back to the iRenew bracelet. The first time I saw the commercial late at night on cable TV, I took it for granted that I was watching the Comedy Channel and this was a droll spoof on infomercials and high-tech snake-oil hucksters. I thought it was a joke. What simpleton old enough to remember mood rings would fall for such quasi-scientific quackery? Then I remembered, oh yeah, we’re dealing with the American mass consumer mentality here, people who will buy bottled water, fried ice-cream, insurance on their insurance policies, anything that says ‘all natural’ on the label, and Sarah Palin as leader of the free world. Why wouldn’t they buy a magic bracelet guaranteed to end their insomnia, give them more energy in bed and improve their bowling average? Glenn Beck is thinking of repackaging these versatile bracelets to be sold as protection against creeping socialism because there are suckers out there who will break out their plastic for nearly anything. When Barnum said that there was a sucker born every minute, he was speaking in the nineteenth century, they come even faster these days. I know I shouldn’t say ‘sucker.’ It’s too derisive a term for today’s delicate political sensitivities. I should probably call them, ‘the factually challenged,’ or ‘the cluely impaired.’
In the 1970’s the renowned Italian scholar and novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco toured America and wrote an observational travelogue entitled Faith in Fakes or Travels in Hyperreality. One of his observations was that Americans preferred facsimile to fact, or as he phrased it, “”America’s obsession with simulacra and counterfeit reality.” He pointed out that our national drink was canned sugar water with caffeine substituted for the original active namesake ingredient and marketed as The Real Thing. We would rather see the movie than read the book or witness the event first-hand. Nothing really happens until it is on TV. Eco pointed in particular to Disneyland as an example of his theory. He saw theme parks as an expression of our desire for a perfect, predictable 3/4-scale world where everyone is happy and safe, a mini-reality that can be kept under glass. We flock to such places on our vacations because while we know that these simulations of life aren’t real, somehow they are better than real life. If Eco were observing today, he would surely note two more cultural oddities that fit his theory perfectly. One is Facebook with it’s make-believe ‘friends,’ and the other is Reality TV. The existence of this new genre and the number and variety of its species demonstrates that we are ever so much more fascinated by reality shows than by reality itself and are more than willing to trade fact for facsimile.
Walt Disney was perhaps the greatest marketing visionary of the last century. Many people thought he was quite daft, just an eccentric cartoonist, until he began using dreams as his business plan and opened his first park in Anaheim. He saw what a powerful teaching and marketing tool a theme park can be. It’s full-immersion learning. Hezbollah has evidently taken a page from Walt’s book and is using innocent recreation as a tool of indoctrination. Disney was selling a simulation of an ideal land where nothing bad ever happens while Hezbollah’s Landmark for the Resistance attempts to normalize the idea of political violence and destruction by making it seem like a walk in the park. It’s a scary contrast bordering on pure surrealism, content confounded by context, as we see video of Lebanese children gleefully playing with 50 caliber machine guns and dancing to gay music about the glory of being a suicide bomber. The Poet’s Eye sees that you can sell a nightmare as easily as you can sell a dream or a bracelet that gives you super powers. I’m working on a bracelet now that protects the wearer from his own gullibility. When he puts it on it instantly balances his chi. You can tell it’s working when he asks for his 19.95 back. And if you buy that, I’ve got a theme park in Beirut to sell you.
I took my troubles down to Madame Rue
You know that gypsy with the gold-capped tooth
She’s got a pad down on Thirty-Fourth and Vine
Sellin’ little bottles of Love Potion Number Nine
—Leiber / Stoller