It has been said that first impressions mean everything, so the initial post to a blog should try and set the tone for the writing.  I expect the entries in this blog to be insightful, thought provoking, humorous, caustic and accusatory.  It is meant to give people a chance to ponder the thoughts of an other individual, and possibly make them think about their own perceptions.  It is my chance to stretch myself, and at the same time ask the reader to stretch themselves.  The following is an appropriate posting and will hopefully achieve the goal of making the reader consider the lens they view the world through, and stretch their perception.  It was originally a submission I penned for the annual Vanity Fair Essay Contest, and is preceded by the question that framed the context.

In a nation defined by video games, reality TV, and virtual friendships, with a White House that has perfected the art of politics as public relations, what is reality to Americans today?  And did we ever have a grasp of it? 

Perception is reality.  Information drives perception.  Today Americans have access to more information than they will ever be able to consume, yet are accused of not being in touch with reality.  With access to all of this data, how can Americans possibly be missing what the majority of the world observes?  Is the reality Americans perceive based on the same information the world accepts, or are Americans subject to a manipulation at the source, and an intentional alteration of reality?  That so many feel America is out of touch from reality it must be concluded that the information Americans get is either insufficient to gain the proper perspective, or that the information has been modified and inhibits the development of a clearly defined image of reality. 

From the moment our species became sentient beings, aware of ourselves within our surroundings, reality has been whatever has been perceived by each individual.  Whatever stimuli had been synthesized into thought, no matter what the level of rational, this has become part of each individual’s perception of his or her environment.  This perception is reality for each individual.   

Reality varies slightly from individual to individual, and as man evolved into a social animal, living together in groups, the need for a collective consciousness arose.  Individuals shared their unique experiences with the group and expanded the information base from which each entity could develop their own perspective of the world around them.  As this experiential sharing continued a group consciousness developed.  The societal standard became a norm which each individual had to adopt, or fear being rejected from the tribe to fend for themselves.  Groupthink became an effective way to manage the herd.   

As societies continued to develop, so did the need to control the membership and their perceptions of reality.  Groupthink was only so effective in having the general population perceiving things in the same manner.  As man’s ability to rationalize developed, experiences needed to not only be shared but corroborated to become part of the societal consciousness.  This led to questioning and challenges to leadership within the group.  Answers were not easy to find so an omnipotent power was established to explain the unexplainable.  Religion was born, and with it a series of constraints man had to live by, passed down by the supreme power.  The hierarchy within the collective was re-established and control once again assumed.  But, for society to attain the success that leadership envisioned, the societal perception of reality needed to be managed.  Rituals and ceremony of worship would provide the mechanisms for this control, and allow for the manipulation of perception of reality. 

Throughout recorded history access to information has been the mechanism that induced change in societies.  For those who control society it is in their best interest to manage the flow of information.  The Roman Catholic Church did not become the dominant religion in Europe during the dark ages by educating people and allowing them to think for themselves.  Europe was kept ignorant under the boot heel of the papacy and the Church raked in an ungodly fortune by instilling fear in the uniformed masses.  Only education and access to information broke the strangle hold the Church had around the neck of the people. 

Information became the liberator from oppression.  The more information that people had access to, the more education they acquired, the more difficult they were to control.  As the flow of information increased it decreased the control of the elites.  Power was now in the hands of those who were able to get their message across to the common folk.  Armies were no longer controlled by those who would pay them, but by those who could appeal to their hearts and minds.  Governments would rise and fall because of ideas and the ability of these ideas to become part of the collective consciousness.  More than one noble would lose his or her head as the people became empowered by the spread of information.   

Those who came to rule because of information were wise to the power of this new weapon.  They knew that if they hoped to retain their seat of influence they must somehow manage the flow of information and manipulate the message which found its way into the public consciousness.  Two schools of thought emerged in how information should be managed. 

Despots took the approach of using the information as a weapon of oppression; used the flow of information to take power, then restricted it to maintain their control.  Joseph Stalin recognized this strategy.  “The press must grow day in and day out – it is our Party’s sharpest and most powerful weapon,” Stalin bemused to his political colleagues in April of 1923.  The control of information and the manipulation of the message which would become reality for millions would be used to solidify his seat of power and guarantee his ability to control the people.  Adolf Hitler was very wise to the ability of information to shape the perception of the people.  His understanding and use of propaganda allowed the Nazi Party to undertake some of the most heinous acts known to man.  Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, “I soon realized that the correct use of propaganda is a true art which has remained practically unknown to the bourgeois parties.”  He would later write, “For this, to be sure, from the child’s primer down to the last newspaper, every theater and every movie house, every advertising pillar and every billboard, must be pressed into the service of this one great mission.”  Manipulation of the message that would reach the unwashed masses would lead to their control and their unwitting duplicity in whatever venture the government would decide to undertake. 

Progressive leaders, like the founding fathers of America, believed that an open society and free speech were imperative to the success of the collective.  Thomas Jefferson said, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”  He feared that if the flow of information fell under government or institutional control that an important mechanism would be lost in keeping the people informed.  “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,” he wrote in a letter to Colonel Edward Carrington in January of 1787.  Jefferson feared if the government controlled the media the information that enable our freedom would become the shackles which enslave us. 

Has Jefferson’s vision come to fruition?  Have we allowed the flow of information to fall under government and institutional control, manipulating our perceptions to meet the goals an elite ruling class?  One has to wonder. 

The Bush White House has been exposed for manipulating the intelligence to start a war with Iraq.  The same White House has been guilty of inserting produced stories (nee propaganda) into the media.  Certain corporate owned media outlets have been more than cooperative in delivering whatever message the government has decided to release.  They have been less than diligent in their pursuit of news in the political arena when it concerns the White House and the GOP.  These media outlets have been part and parcel in the concerted effort to “wag the dog.”  The message has been manipulated, and with it the average American’s ability to perceive the reality with which the rest of the world is forced to live. 

Much of the information the American people receives polarizes the population.  This is intentional.  The information is meant to divide.  Small groups are easier to manage and more susceptible to groupthink.  The “us or them” mentality plays rights into the hands of those who wish to manage the zeitgeist.  If Americans continue to participate in this practice they will continue to perceive a false reality.  Americans must learn to discern.  They must understand when observation becomes awareness.  Americans must decide; is information meant to inform or obfuscate?   

Americans have the ability to decide whether their perception of reality is manipulated.  Americans can stop the press from feeding them what they want to hear and encourage the press to instead give only the facts which allow Americans to find reality.  “All propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to,” Hitler wrote.  Americans should not allow for similar tactics to be utilized against them, and the dumbing-down of a proud nation.  The perception that America is out of touch with reality must change.  Americans need to get in touch with the rest of the world and their reality.  The onus is clearly on the nation, as the only ones who can get America back in touch with reality are Americans.  It is important that this international assessment of America change, as international perception is American reality.