Invitation to a Degraded World

We’re less far than we might imagine from a world where an Orwellian formula like “illusion is reality” could pass muster.

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

What a world! Everyone his own auteur. Everybody from CIA agents and Presidential political consultants to Osama bin Laden directing his own movie or unreality TV show. Of course, why should we be surprised? When it comes to saleable products, illusion Hollywood-style has been up there with weaponry as a major American export success for countless years. And the world has paid attention. I can’t claim that Osama bin Laden ever saw The Towering Inferno or any of the action-adventure dramas where subways barrel down streets, blimps threaten crowded stadiums, or terrorists unleash nuclear weapons on an unsuspecting world. But retro-fundamentalist though he might be, and no matter how often he invokes the Arabian peninsula of centuries ago, he’s a distinctly modern man.

Without the camera — and the knowledge that, whatever you do wherever you are, the camera will somehow be there to catch the moment (viz. Abu Ghraib) and then the TV news will be ready and willing to play it again, and again, and again — the attacks of 9/11 would have been almost inconceivable. They would have made next to no sense. They were, after all, planned and organized as fodder for the TV news, as Osama’s Hollywood-style spectacle, his “export” to be viewed by the world. Similarly, George Bush’s illusion-based bubble-presidency had been planned and organized as an ongoing spectacle of controlled imagery from early on — from those imaginary mushroom clouds rising over our cities to that aircraft-carrier strut. After all, every publicly made argument for our little Iraqi war that won’t end was an illusion, and that’s stopped no one in the administration, then or now.

If there hadn’t been an even grander illusion evoked by the event that began it all, nothing would have developed as it did. As columnist James Carroll writes this week in the Boston Globe:

“After decades [following the A-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki] of implicitly waiting for the mushroom cloud to appear over the nation, we saw the clouds of ash rising from the World Trade Center as a version of that horror. As I heard the scholar John Dower observe, the use of the term ‘Ground Zero’ in New York is an unconscious appropriation of the authentic Ground Zeros in Japan. That is why 9/11 traumatized us out of all proportion to the scale of destruction, which, while tragic, was hardly world-historic.”

Or put another way: With the help of those camera-ready images, those unbearable shots of the two towers crumbling, and then crumbling again, and yet again, director Osama bin Laden, a man of exceedingly grandiose ambitions and distinctly limited resources, managed on the proverbial shoe-string budget to create his own apocalyptic film in lower Manhattan (though not in Washington, where the low-slung Pentagon, proved far less photogenic). With the help of a little dismally good luck in the category of destruction, he brought home nuclear-holocaust-style images that had until then, for Americans, been confined to a world of on-screen illusion; hence the almost immediate and blanket adoption of “Ground Zero” in the media and in everyday conversation for the site where the Twin Towers fell. And he did so with box-cutters, mace, and airplanes, not with WMD. What resulted was a fearful illusion that far exceeded a fearful reality, and so launched a presidency based on a principle of illusion onto the path of full-scale war in the Middle East, and into the sort of disaster — the sort of reality — that is painfully unphotogenic, that in the end no illusions can completely cover up.

Even in our world, reality still does have a way of biting back. If the Iraqis weren’t quite in the mood to wave little flags, if reality (however buried in illusion) insists every now and then on making itself felt, well, that may be inconvenient indeed; but as Jonathan Schell indicates in the piece that follows, we’re less far than we might imagine from a world in which an Orwellian formula like “illusion is reality” could indeed pass muster — as it already seems to in the White House.

Schell’s piece, “Invitation to a Degraded World,” is as well a preview for a new magazine, Final Edition, just being launched and closed down at one and the same moment. Its editor is Wallace Shawn and he’s been kind enough to let me post the piece. In a world where nothing happens just once, the idea of a magazine that appears and disappears in the flicker of a single issue appeals to me. Of his magazine, Shawn writes in a brief introduction:

“In confusing times and bad times, it seems natural to collect around oneself a group of friends and people one trusts, to try to figure things out. So that’s what this is. It’s not going to be an institution, because I don’t think everything has to be an institution, and sometimes the impulse to make things permanent can be a symptom of the grandiosity that is part of our problem. So that’s why this magazine is going out of business after its first issue and has therefore been given the name FINAL EDITION.”

The sole issue of the magazine (being distributed by Seven Stories Press) includes, in addition to the Schell essay, a piece by Shawn, a Noam Chomsky interview (also done by Shawn), a Mark Strand poem, and a story about New York in the wake of 9/11 by Deborah Eisenberg. Tell your local bookstore to order it. Tom

Invitation to a Degraded World

By Jonathan Schell

Ever since September 11, 2001, and the “war on terror” it occasioned, the very quality of public events — their grain, their tenor, their style, if you like — has seemed to undergo a certain deterioration, as if from that day forward history was being authored by a third-rate writer rather than a master, or was being compelled, even as it visited increasing suffering on real people, to follow the plot of a bad comic book. Not the representation of the events but the actual events, not the renderings of the characters involved but those characters themselves, not the telling of the story but the story itself — all seem to have become crasser, coarser, woven of shoddier materials.

The tone was perhaps set by the sudden appearance of Osama bin Laden, a mass murderer who came across at the same time as a comic-book, caricature villain — a man whom it would be impossible to take seriously if he had not killed so many people. The plan that he brought to fruition on September 11 was lifted whole out of any number of action comics, video games, or disaster movies, most of which end up with buildings blowing up, the more the better. (For example, in the most recent Terminator movie, The Rise of the Machines, starring the current governor of California, scarcely any standing structure shown on camera survives for more than a few minutes, and the movie winds up with a nuclear holocaust.)

Bin Laden’s choice of spectacle obviously was contrived to match this stock scene. He lacked any capacity even to slightly dent the military power of the United States, so he delivered his blow to the nation’s psyche instead. What better means than to turn its most common fantasies into horrifying life? He was assisted in his aim by accident. The towers had been designed to withstand airplane crashes. Perhaps that’s why, immediately after the attack, the authorities in New York failed to give timely warning that the towers might come down. Yet they did come down, and when they did the emotional power of the catastrophe was magnified a hundred-fold. The attacks alone would have been an event of the first order; but it was the belief-defying, heart-crushing fall of the towers that knocked history off its course. (What would the world be like now if the girders holding up the buildings had managed to withstand the fires? Would there have been a Camp X-ray in Guantanamo, a war in Iraq, a global “war on terror”?)

As it was, the towers’ collapse added an element of the uncanny to the fantasy made real by bin Laden. Yet although the scale of the crime was new, his strategy was hardly original. Terrorists have long compensated for their military weakness by creating the greatest possible spectacle with their bloody acts. They work in a symbolic realm. Real destruction and real deaths are only the means to accomplish their psychological effects. It’s a strategy that cannot succeed without the de facto cooperation of the news media, which are routine exploiters for commercial purposes of all varieties of violence and destruction, from the local murder or fire in the warehouse to the latest hurricane. (How often does a meeting of negotiators, or a city council or parliament lead the news?) Their habits have guaranteed that the terrorists get all the coverage they hope for.

These media have in addition been busy in recent years scrambling reality and fantasy for entertainment purposes. A watershed was the coverage of the car chase in which the Los Angeles police pursued the white Bronco carrying O.J. Simpson, fleeing arrest for the alleged murder of his wife. Like the September 11 attacks, the Simpson episode recreated in the real world a type of scene — in this instance, the car-chase — that had been seen endlessly in movies and on television. What was sensational in the event was not any intrinsic drama (all you could see were a couple of cars driving along a highway) but the fact that the stale fictional scene was being lived out by real people. Ghoulish criminal cases, always popular, soon became the main stock-in-trade of television news — infotainment. Soon came “reality” television, which reversed the process of the Simpson chase. If infotainment started with real events and turned them into de facto soap operas, reality television started with soap operas and spiced them up by adding “real” elements (consisting mostly of people being serially kicked off the shows).

It goes without saying that movie mayhem and reality television have no moral likeness to September 11. However, the news media’s longstanding symbiosis with violent criminals along with their infection of reality with fantasy provided models for bin Laden’s action as well as a global stage on which it would appear and be guaranteed unlimited coverage. Bin Laden strove for maximum effect with his crime, and he was granted it. At the time, it seemed that everyone was saying or writing, “Everything has changed.” (I also wrote it, in a column right after the attack.) But in this reaction, felt as defiance of bin Laden, was there not also a kind of surrender — not, to be sure, exactly to him, but to his debased style of thinking, his understanding of how the world works? What was damaged was not only the quality of political discussion and decision-making but something that might be called the dignity of the real.

Surely our reaction suited bin Laden well. He had no power to “change everything” unless the government of the United States agreed. Then everything could change.

The government of the United States did agree. And a lot of things — if not everything — did change. President Bush seemed to accept Bin Laden’s invitation to enter into the world of an apocalyptic comic book. Even today, it may be hard to think of any response to September 11 as excessive. A great atrocity had been committed. A great reaction was needed. But was it necessary or wise to divide every person and government on earth into two camps — the good, the lovers of freedom, who are “with us,” and the “evil-doers” who hate the good ones for their very goodness, and “who are against us”? — as if no other evils or horrors existed on earth to compel the attention of human beings?

The comic-book aspect became even more pronounced when the President turned himself into a sort of real life action figure, donning a pilot’s suit and landing on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare success in the Iraq war (though in his National Guard service, in which he was trained as a pilot, he was grounded for failing to show up for a physical). But the fullest realization of a fantasy world built on the foundation of September 11 was the Republican convention, where a collection of villains abroad was blurred into one mass of evil-doers who were in turn blurred with John Kerry, depicted as their domestic accomplice. Iraq, descending in actuality into anarchy, was presented as an inspiring example of democracy for the entire Middle East. Hidden behind the visions of a glorious future — the favorite tense of the demagogue — rose the pile of corpses, Iraqi and American. It was a further curious demonstration of the power of illusion that bin Laden himself slipped through the administration’s fingers, as if the actual villain of September 11 had been dissolved in the fantasy his act set in motion.

Each country that plunges into nightmare — whether Germany under Hitler, the Soviet Union under the Bolsheviks, Chile under Pinochet, or, for that matter, Iraq under Saddam Hussein — travels there along its own path. The American political system — based on free elections, the rights of citizens, and the rule of law — is, though under the severest pressure, still available for use. If it is lost, and the full American nightmare descends, there will be many causes. They will include the militarization of foreign policy, global imperial ambition, the loss of balance among the branches of government, the erosion of civil liberties, and the overwhelming influence of corporate money and power over political life — all present before Osama bin Laden made his appearance. But at every step of the way the skids will be greased by the national capacity, conferred by the media and exploited by politicians, to produce and consume illusion, which, though hardly an American monopoly, may be the specific form of corruption most dangerous to American democracy.

Once, observers imagined that we were entering an information age, but they were wrong. It is a misinformation age. The stupendous machinery of modern media has reached into every cranny of American life. Its outlets have been posted in every household, like a mechanical standing army. The steady, mild propaganda of advertising has long saturated the home for hours every day, the mental equivalent of low-level radiation. Now the public is being dosed with more virulent stuff. The standing army has been given increasingly insistent political marching orders. Stalin and Mao, confined mainly to radios and megaphones, could only dream of such penetration of daily life by their propaganda apparatuses.

The injection of fantasy into the real offends the aesthetic sense, but the true price is paid in blood — in the torture of prisoners, in the launch of wars. If a grasp of reality and the constitutional machinery to act upon it remain intact, then every other ill can be addressed. But if these are lost, the capacity to recover is lost with it, and the game is over.

Jonathan Schell is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute. He is most recently the author of The Unconquerable World (Metropolitan Books) and A Hole in the World (Nation Books), a collection of his “Letters from Ground Zero” columns for the Nation Magazine. This piece appears in print in the new magazine Final Edition, edited by Wallace Shawn and distributed by Seven Stories Press.

Copyright C2004 Jonathan Schell

Used with the permission of Final Edition, Volume I, no. 1 (the last issue), Autumn 2004.

This piece first appeared at, a web log of The Nation Institute.


We have about a $200,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, this week so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

payment methods


We have about a $200,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, this week so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.