Americans suffer from extravagant expectations. So argued Daniel J. Boorstin in his book The Image, first published in 1961. A history professor at the University of Chicago at the time, Boorstin went on to be appointed by President Gerald Ford as the 12th Librarian of Congress, a position he held from 1975 to 1987.
In case you’re wondering, no, the Librarian of Congress doesn’t check out books or collect overdue fines. The position is akin to that of America’s poet laureate; it’s in effect being named the nation’s leading intellectual.
Boorstin’s argument was that, “we have used our wealth, our literacy, our technology, and our progress, to create the thicket of unreality which stands between us and the facts of life… to deceive ourselves and to befog our experience.” He explained that “we are ruled by extravagant expectations… of what the world holds… [and] of our power to shape the world.”
Boorstin believed that the problem was rooted in our ability to manufacture false realities through our media and technologies, and through techniques such as advertising and public relations. Consequently, we have allowed the American dream to become overshadowed by American illusions. We have replaced real events with pseudo-events (his coinage), heroes with celebrities, travel with tourism, shapes with shadows, and ideals with images.
Boorstin’s conservative cultural critique comes to mind often these days, because it seems that we are deeper into denying reality than we ever have been. And nowhere is this more apparent than in our response to the pandemic, to the enormous loss of life that it threatens, and that has already taken place.
Across the United States, students are being sent back to school despite the fact that the COVID-19 virus is highly contagious and far from being under control. We somehow believe that buildings, classrooms, and dormitories that never were designed for social distancing, or even good ventilation, and that schools that were poorly funded and poorly maintained before this all started, somehow will be transformed into safe environments for face-to-face learning.
We somehow believe that the young children who have been kept relatively isolated over the past six months will be immune to the disease once they are brought together with their peers, and that they will not bring it back home with them, despite the way that they share every cough, cold, sore throat, and flu with their families.
We somehow believe that kids will wear masks and maintain separation from one another, when we can’t even get adults to agree to do it.
We somehow believe that young people won’t succumb to peer pressure. That when someone was exposed or is starting to manifest symptoms, that kids will freely admit it to peers at the risk of being branded as having cooties. That kids won’t just trust their friends and classmates when they say that they’re ok, not sick, haven’t been exposed, not contagious.
We somehow believe that teenagers and young adults will go against their nature and engage in social distancing and limited contacts. That they won’t give in to the desire for social intercourse and recreational contact. A colleague of mine at another New York metropolitan area university, where the plan is to reopen for the fall semester, has confided that the faculty there have a pool betting on how soon they’ll have to close up again. Smart money says within a couple of weeks.
Rather than face reality, and concentrate time, money, and effort into offering the best possible remote education for the duration of this crisis, schools from pre-K to college are trying to hedge their bets with poorly thought out plans for “flexible” and “hybrid” learning. And they’re placing the onus on teachers to prepare for multiple contingencies, to change and adapt on the fly, and incredibly, somehow to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and to remain healthy themselves—which is something that medical professionals have not been entirely successful at.
We have long dumped social problems on the schools, requiring them to deal with matters like addiction and drug use, teenage pregnancy, child abuse, malnutrition, and mental illness. Teachers who are routinely underpaid, overworked, and disrespected are asked to solve—or more accurately tasked with solving—all of the problems that families and communities have abdicated responsibility for. Why not add more?
Our denial of reality regarding our schools is linked to the deep desire to get things back to normal. Kids need to be in school so parents can go back to work. As if offices and job sites suddenly can be rendered safe, virus-free environments. And the disease won’t spread as people travel back and forth, many via buses and trains.
We fantasize that somehow economic activity will just resume, and everything will be just the way it was. That all the jobs that have been lost somehow will still be waiting. That recovery will be instantaneous, just a snap of the fingers.
We believe that somehow we can safely open our bars, and that under the influence of alcohol people will continue to behave responsibly. We believe that we can safely return to indoor dining and entertainment without fear of increasing infection rates. We believe we can have sporting events because athletes are especially strong and healthy, and therefore resistant to the disease. Collectively, we are living in a constant state of denial.
We believe that a cure will be found quickly and easily—even though we’ve yet to find a cure for cancer, for HIV-AIDS, for autism, or even for the common cold. We are always looking for that magic pill, or shot, or sugar cube. We expect instant results, a steady stream of miracles, forgetting how long it took and how hard it was to find vaccines for polio, smallpox, and other diseases. Or how limited the effectiveness of the annual flu vaccine made available to us really is. And the worst kind of unreality is the ridiculous assertion that the coronavirus somehow, magically, will disappear.
Extravagant expectations! How else to explain the insane denial of reality in face of the pandemic? We cling to our illusions and delusions rather than admit that we have to make sacrifices now, and for a long time to come. We deny reality rather than summon up the courage and vision to face the facts and take appropriate action.
Extravagant expectations! Of our power to deal with climate change. That somehow, some way, when things get really bad, we’ll figure out a way to solve the problem. Well, not us exactly. But someone. We deny the reality that it’s already too late to stop it, that all we can do is try to mitigate the consequences of our irresponsible actions.
Extravagant expectations! That we can cut taxes and balance the budget. That we can cut taxes and repair our decaying infrastructure. That we can cut taxes and provide essential services. That we can cut taxes and provide adequate medical care to all. That we can cut taxes and maintain social security. That we can cut taxes and not see the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
Extravagant expectations! That we can militarize our police while demanding that they exercise restraint and sensitivity. That we can fight terrorism and maintain civil liberties. That we can have justice without reform.
Extravagant expectations! That democracy is easy, that it even works automatically. That it doesn’t require effort. That it doesn’t require commitment. That it doesn’t come with a cost.
Our nation needs leadership rooted in reality, not fantasy and wish-fulfillment. Tragically, we have a president who is a celebrity, not a leader. He gained that position through no achievement or qualification other than a knack for publicity, and a persona manufactured with the help of Mark Burnett, producer of The Apprentice. Boorstin defined the celebrity as “a person who is known for his well-knownness,” someone “fabricated on purpose to satisfy our exaggerated expectations of human greatness,” someone who represents “a new category of human emptiness.”
Human emptiness. That is all that will be left to us if we continue to cling to our extravagant expectations. If we do not dispel the fog of fantasy and illusion that we have surrounded ourselves with. If we fail to recognize that we always will have to adjust to and work within the constraints and limitations imposed on us by our environment. That true greatness comes not from denying reality and embracing image over substance, but from the dedication, labor, and sacrifice that is required of us in our time.
The American dream has given way to an American nightmare, and to awaken we must replace our extravagant expectations with realistic aspirations. And we have to do it now.