Red Pill, Blue Pill, and White Pill
Books offer a choice about the color of the pill you are asked to swallow.
In the classic film circa 1999, The Matrix the color coded pill became a metaphor for a person’s desire to connect and dissociate with the reality of existence. Swallow the red pill guaranteed the consumer delivery into a frightening world of grim reality of life compared with the blue pill that offered an intoxicating illusion of normality, comfortable and vivid but ultimately false.
If you are a writer, you have to choose which pill you are offering to readers.
What he aimed for, Chabon says, was to combine regret and loss ‘with a slight sense of optimism: that there is going to be a next time, that we get these moments and they do recur.’
The intriguing part of Schulz’s review is about the cameo appearance of Obama giving one of his uplifting “Yes, we can” speeches in 2004. Obama was blue pill all the way until he reached he reached the White House where he swallowed a bottle of red pills after that first day in the Oval Office. As a parable for being electable, it rings true. Promise the electorate the red pill and smear your opponent with rumors he has already taken the blue pill and is lying to you about what he’s found reality to be.
Books, like political candidates, make promises to the public. Choose me. That simple request is never as simple as it sounds. The red-pill literary adventure takes the reader on a dark, bumpy ride where seriously damaged people, institutions, and cultures are shown for what they are. Noir is the pathway of the red-pill world of crime fiction. If you want blue-pill crime fiction, don’t buy a noir novel as that is exactly the world you wish to escape.
That brings me to the main point. Blue-pill books and politicians offer escape from reality. They knock off the sharp edges, polish the glass until it sparkles, and promise hope and redemption. The red pill boots you headlong into a world where you won’t be safe or saved. It is a place of doubt, uncertainty, inequality, intolerance, and hatred. No one gets elected on a red pill platform. The possibility of redemption is a blue-pill experience.
The considerable power of hope and redemption in daily lives was once the exclusive reserve of religion or other sacred institutions. In contemporary times, there is the emergence of a third period: let’s call it the white pill. Religious fundamentalists who come from divergent religious backgrounds swallow the white pill, which turns non-believers into demons and infidels and believers into members of the purity and loyalty brigade.
The white pill suppresses tolerance, compromise and critical analysis, and substitutes overwhelming feelings of hatred and revulsion directed toward non-believers. Swallowing the white pill is entry into the world of black and white, where enemies are demons and are to be destroyed. Violence and death follow like night following day. A third-rate YouTube film or a cartoon throwing mud inside a sacred zone has the capacity to activate the rage center of white pill users and send them into the street with banners, guns and bombs.
The white-pill people are fact-hating fanatics who occupy in a twilight space between those who take the red and blue pills. They have their own books, leaders, and manufacture their illusions that remain resilient to evidence, argument, or persuasion. White is good. Everything non-white is evil. Their world is a simple binary one where instead of ones and zeroes, it is good and evil. And a fanatic high on a white pill is highly sensitive to a slight to his or her idealization of sacredness. They will die before giving up their illusions.
As I write this essay, I think of the three red pills in the bottom of my literary cabinet—Phnom Penh Noir, The Orwell Brigade, and Missing in Rangoon. If Kathryn Schulz’s review of Telegraph Avenue is right, I have chosen to go against the age where the queue is long for the blue pill. And I would add even longer for the white pill. For red-pill writers, we are left to the margins, hawking our visions to people racing past, taking a sideways glance, before rushing ahead to find a pill that promises salvation and redemption.
Reading is hardly on the radar screen of most people. It’s called a leisure activity. A private pursuit for those with time and money for books, who are mainly seeking a way to entertain themselves or experience adventure or thrills, and occasionally a book might inform and instruct them about a feature of the world that attracts their interest and attention.
The world of color-coded pills is far more serious in the political realm where powerful interests use huge wealth to write the population of voters a prescription. Sometimes like Romney, they are caught telling an audience of the red-pill vision he really has of them. It is hard to recover once you’ve changed the prescription. That is true whether you are a politician or author.
As Obama found out after his election, showing the blue pill can get you elected. Once in power, switching to the red one will turn supporters bitter and resentful. ‘Why I Refuse to Vote for Obama’ in the Atlantic is the fall out by someone who feels Obama’s prescription in the last election was a swindle. The relationship between authors and readers is no different. A book also makes a promise to the reality that a reader can expect to find. Promise one thing and deliver another, and the reader will refuse to buy the next book.
Most people will vote in large numbers for candidates who promise them the white-pill program. They also want books that deliver the experience of the white pill. They demand the death of blasphemers wherever they can be found and destroyed. Next time you are thinking about buying a book or voting in an election, ask yourself—what color of pill is being promised. In many places, the red pill is illegal. Offer it you go to jail. Swallow the red pill and you are sent into exile.
The danger is a world where the blue and white unholy alliance comes to power and bans the red pill. Meanwhile, in many places, you still have a choice. Whatever you decide is your poisonous relationship with reality, will it be the world you were promised? Or will you be left with a hangover and as Chabon’s fiction suggests, you suck it in, try again, and again. Your head striking the wall until the wall gives in.