Way back in the olden thymes, a popular gag was to comment about the Soviet media’s disconnect from observable reality. Every schoolboy learned that the name of the main party newspaper, Pravda, meant “truth” in Russian. Unlike America, with its free-wheeling adversarial press, the Soviets had one newspaper that published the official truth. It’s right out of Orwell! It was all mostly nonsense, of course, but it was a useful bit of propaganda that served the interests of the liberal American media, as well as the Cold Warriors.
My school library had copies of the English version of communist publications. I no longer recall if Pravda was one of them, but there were others from Soviet Block countries, along with publications form Western communist organizations, like the Daily Worker and Mother Jones. I used to enjoy reading these, especially the news articles, because it was like experiencing an alternate reality. Even allowing for the gross bias of the New York Times, something obvious in the 80’s, the commie rags were hilariously delusional.
As a result, I’ve often thought that there should be an index that measures the distance between a society’s official dogma, its acceptable truths, and observable reality. Every human society has its pretty lies, of course. This is the grease that keeps the gears moving. There are also the things everyone knows are true, but everyone agrees to not discuss. Then there is the official dogma, the prevailing orthodoxy, that exists because the people in charge demand that it exist. This is where we see the reality gap.
In the case of the Soviets, they often made claims about their material prosperity, relative to the West, that were plainly nonsense, even to the people of the Soviet Union. These were less obviously false in the 1950’s, as Europe dug out from the war and Stalin forced modernization on his country. The gap grew larger after Stalin, as the West slowly passed the Soviets in material prosperity. By the 1980’s, the gap between East and West was so large it was a punchline in the West, but the Soviets still insisted otherwise.
You can see this gap on a smaller scale in cities like Newark and Baltimore. While in Newark, I looked up the local politicians, expecting the usual suspects. The funny part was the talk about the city, as if everything is coming together and the boom years are just around the corner. The pols in Baltimore talk the same way. They will claim that young people are flocking to the city, when in reality the place loses population every year. In fact, the worse things get, the more they talk about how the city is turning the corner.
The question that naturally arises is whether necessity drives this growing gap between reality and orthodoxy or does delusion drive the decline? In business, management will address falling sales with more marketing, not accepting that it is their poor management and poor products. The marketing efforts will exacerbate the decline, as the gap between the promise and reality grows. On the other hand, maybe lying is the last resort, when there’s simply no way to address the true causes of the decline. Maybe it is both.
The other question is at what point does the gap between reality and official orthodoxy get so wide that the strain collapses the orthodoxy. In the case of the Soviet Union, it was not a bloody revolution or violent civil war that ended the system. It was mostly the fact that the system had grown so absurd, not even the people in charge could accept it. This may be what is driving the North Koreans to strike a deal with Trump. Kim Jong Un spent a lot of time in the West. His close circle travels abroad. They know their system is absurd.
The challenge, of course, is quantifying this gap between official orthodoxy and observable reality. For example, is the reality gap in America today bigger than the gap was in 1980’s Russia? We’re required to pretend there are 57 genders, which seems a click more nutty than pretending the Lada was a nice car. There has never been a time or place where humans came in more than two sexes. Cars have been of varying quality since the dawn of the automobile. The Lada was crap, but it beat walking.
Does it matter if lots of people are willing to believe the nonsense? Today, lots of liberal women buy into the unlimited gender stuff. In fact, it is quite remarkable just how fast so many people in modern America are willing to accept the latest crazy. For there to be a reality gap, the public has to know it exists. No one in the Soviet Union thought the Lada was a good car. You were even allowed to complain about the poor state of consumer goods, just as long as you kept it to a minimum. It was the foundation of Soviet humor.
All that said, it seems that a society can tolerate only so large a gap between reality and its official truth. Whether or not we are reaching some sort of breaking point is probably impossible to know. A year ago, no one imagined the North Koreans offering to make peace. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, no one saw it coming. Maybe people just get used to the disconnect until one day, the number of people who notice it reaches a critical mass. Then like a precipitate falling out of solution, the whole things collapses.