A different kind of truth

Eliane Glaser’s new book is a polemical deconstruction of the popular delusions that populate our everyday life.

ELIANE GLASER 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
We live an an age where appearances are as important – if not more – than the substance. This is no secret, of course; we’re all acquainted with the vagaries of presentation over policy, of spin doctors over the truth. We’re even a little self-congratulatory, if truth be told, about our sophistication in detecting these deceptions. You can’t pull the wool over our eyes, we tell the elected class, time and time again. We know the truth.
But do we? Eliane Glaser isn’t so sure.
“A little more than 20 years ago, Francis Fukuyama wrote his famous thesis, The End of History, where he argued that we have seen the triumph of one ideology over competing ideologies,” says Glaser.
It’s lunchtime in the foyer of Kings Place in the center of London, a break between sessions during Jewish Book Week. It’s very busy, and Glaser – soft spoken, yet beguilingly persuasive for this – has to raise her voice slightly to make her point. “I believe we’ve gone beyond Fukuyama’s thesis: there’s actually no ideology. We have the rise of technocrats, pragmatic politics… even the activists who are occupying cities around the world. They don’t say what they mean any more. They don’t have manifestos either, [there is] a general reluctance to have a political project or to lay out a blueprint for change.” Strong stuff.
Glaser’s new book, Get Real: How to Tell it Like it is in a World of Illusions, is a takeno- prisoners affair; a polemical deconstruction of the popular delusions that populate our everyday life. From political ideology – or the lack of therein – to the influence of new technology, from Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire to the hidden impact of inequality in contemporary society, Glaser’s book emphasizes the presence of the same, underlying malaise, namely the death of ideology.
Her premise is simple: Because we no longer subscribe to clearly defined values about how best to live our lives, we have been nudged into a world of illusion, persuasion and coercion – one that conceals the truth. “A development I see as being particularly relevant to our times is the rise of the language and techniques of marketing,” she says. “The techniques of deception developed in the world of marketing are now being applied to all areas of our lives – from politics to our love lives, the things we buy, the things we consume.”
Perhaps, but is this new? Politicians, PR factotums and other snake-oil merchants have tried to convince us of the imminent dawn of a utopian age – one they will create, if we just trust them – since forever. Glaser acknowledges this, but says they now operate in a new context.
PR spin has become more sophisticated, for one thing; that aside, “I think what goes hand in hand with that is a new rhetoric of people power, of Internet democratization, of Internet utopianism, of direct democracy…” She reels these off confidently, scarcely pausing for breath. “…transparency, consumer savviness, the WikiLeaks scandal which trumpeted a new era of transparency and access to information.”
These are usually stated as positives, but one can’t help but detect the skepticism in her tone. Is she saying that these developments are masquerading as new developments, when in fact they are anything but? “Exactly. So while we feel that we are wise to spin and deception, in fact I see a lot of credulousness in our current era, about the ability of ordinary citizens to speak truth to power, to hold power to account,” she says.
The double thrust of Get Real is easy to grasp. Firstly, she proposes that the trumpeted new age of accountability is superficial; secondly, in the absence of an anchoring ideology, those who do not believe in something will believe anything. But what is not immediately apparent is an understanding of who gains from what she presents as a constructed – rather than coincidental – phenomenon.
Glaser refers repeatedly in the book to the “elite.” Who might they be? Glaser concedes that she was not referring to specific people, but rather to a specific group. “I do think there is a material reality there, that power and wealth is being concentrated at the tip. So I do look at political elites who are often multimillionaires. I see CEOs whose pay is hundreds of times higher than that of the average employee.”
And it is not just vested interests with a desire to preserve the status quo; it’s also, as she sees it, about the vested interests controlling the tools to perpetuate a self-serving set of circumstances. “I also see PR as being something that just the rich and powerful are able to use, because [the tools of] PR are expensive. I think that power is propagated in a very material way, just because people have the resources to pay the piper to disseminate their message.”
While an entertaining, thought-provoking and at times provocative read, Get Real does not always strike the sweet spot. There’s this issue of the “elites,” for instance; it’s a bit difficult to establish malice aforethought on their part without naming names, so to speak. And then there’s Glaser’s deliberately argumentative tone, which gives the book character, but at the expense of precision.
One could argue that that is the problem of ideology – her ideology, oddly enough. While pragmatists and wishy-washy drifters can be seen as a danger to the social fabric, ideologues can be just as lethal, albeit through the rigid inability to negotiate compromise.
Glaser has a PhD in English literature (“literary criticism is about reading between the lines, and I try to apply that to reading the world,” she says), and works as a radio producer at the BBC. Interestingly, the seeds of her book were sown while she was on maternity leave. “I felt like I was looking at the world in a slightly different way, now that I was away from the usual habits and routines of work.”
Parenthood always prompts reevaluation of one’s personal values, too. “When you are bringing a child into the world, you think there seems to be so much good going on in the world. There are grounds for optimism.”
Optimism or not, Glaser likes to ruffle feathers, it seems. Her previous book, Judaism without Jews: Philosemitism and Christian Polemic in Early Modern England proposes that contrary to the received wisdom, Oliver Cromwell’s readmission of the Jews to England in 1656 was not “the culmination of a Christian enthusiasm for Jewish ideas,” but rather an inchoate event, symptomatic of a very ambivalent philosemitism among the British.
Even so, she is – quite reasonably – wary when asked to turn her analysis of the loss of ideological thought – of people saying what they mean and acting accordingly – to that notorious cesspool of subterfuge and disingenuous talking: the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians.
“It is outside my area of expertise,” she says. But she is fair game, and gives it a shot. “I suppose that in terms of the Middle East, one obvious illusion is the notion that Israel can be violence- free.” She is referring to the belief that – one way or the other – all acts of violence and aggression can be stopped. “I think that if we accept the fact that there is always going to be a measure of violence, a measure of discord, and that we just want to improve things, then that would be a more realistic way forward.”
Which seems fair enough. Anyone listening?