In the last fifty years, the American experience has hurtled forward from Kennedy’s Age of Camelot, to the Age of Aquarius, and now the Age of Apaté (a-pat’-ay), named for the Greek goddess of deceit whose evil spirit was released once Pandora opened her box. The lid on Pandora’s mythical box (actually a jar) was loosened by the alchemy of Ronald Reagan and the ambition of Mikhail Gorbachev that ended the Cold War. When Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika-styled reforms slipped perilously toward revolution the Soviet model imploded. However, what was once widely considered a great victory over godless communism—the collapse of the Soviet Union—quickly became affected, or perhaps more accurately infected, by the spirit of Apaté. Hubris and deceit were easier and, let’s face it, more fun than humility and honesty. With the Soviets out of the way, we Americans were free to assume a wide berth of exceptionalism to expand our reach and reign. And, we did it on the wings of Apaté.
Today, many debate today whether we have entered another Great Depression, or just a Great Recession, but it may be more accurately considered a Great Deception. From WMD, to credit default swaps, to non-reform reforms and unreal reality shows, we Americans have elevated the art of deception from a hapless wizard deceiving a dream-addled girl from Kansas, to a metastasized algorithmic ethos denominated in fraud. We face unimaginable deficits while we continue to ignore their obvious causes lest a noisy constituency or moneyed lobbyist objects. We wage war without a clear objective and no exit strategy to, among other things, protect our access to a source of energy that compromises our health and security while slowly but surely killing the planet on which we live. We are re-writing our history books to expunge our liberal heritage in favor of Christian nationalism—a crown of thorns to replace Uncle Sam’s top hat—as we elbow both reason and tolerance out of the public square. Bigger lies and more hate are essential ingredients in contemporary narrative.
Jonathan Franzen’s new book, Freedom, may indeed be the defining period piece of the era. As Charles Baxter aptly points out in his review of Freedom in The New York Review of Books (9/30/10), “the noble lie serves as the pivot point around which almost everything in Freedom turns.” Alas, at least all elements of American culture, including politics, economics, religion, literature, and entertainment are aligned—albeit around an axis of deceit.
Fear not, we will find our way out of this sticky web of deception; or perhaps more likely hurled into the stubborn certainty of a reality based in truth. The fanciful altered state of the last twenty years is coming to a painful end. As with most empires that vanquish their enemies, the last and greatest challenge is in facing itself. This too is America’s final imperial test. Our future rises or falls on our capacity to see things as they are under the blinding light of truth. We may or may not be different than the fallen empires that preceded us, but we will most certainly fail if we continue to indulge Apaté’s nefarious ways.