Friday, November 14, 2008

Truth: A Matter of Taste

A: Boy, it sure is cold out!
B: What's the temperature?
A: Mid 30s.
B: Mid 30s? Already? I don't believe it.
A: Well, that's what my car thermometer said on my way home from work.
B: Hah! Do you know who makes car thermometers?
A: Who?
B: Liberals!

"The masses have never thirsted after truth... Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim." --Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind

The rise of the Internet has given people an easy means in which to combat corporate media bias -- one of its most important functions -- but along with that it has given people an easy means in which to combat what they perceive to be the bias of reality itself. The Internet allows people to stay isolated within a very small frame of reference, reading only a very narrow and specific range of opinions. Instead of researching, people only read articles found on their favorite websites. Instead of investigating sources, people believe only the things that fit in with what they want to hear and disregard the things that don't. This is true of all forms of media, of course. Radio and television have so many channels and personalities that all one has to do is tune out everything that doesn't fit into ones ideological framework. We no longer have news in this country, we have companies that sell various "realities" to their consumers.

During an interview on CNN, Joe the Plumber was asked about some of the back taxes he had failed to pay. His response was another question: "Why is the media vetting me more than they are vetting Barack Obama, someone who's running for President?" So what was Joe really asking? What part of Obama's past was not already explored by the media? His association with Bill Ayers? The endless clips of Revered Wright that were played over and over for two weeks and then emerged again later in the campaign? The fact that he admitted to using cocaine? His voting record? The fact that he wants to "spread the wealth around"? What exactly did "Joe the Public" not know about Barack Obama? Was he referring to how the media didn't expose Obama as a Muslim? Was he talking about how Obama wasn't born in the United States and used a fake birth certificate? Instead of believing that perhaps these things weren't carried by the mainstream media because they didn't stand up to the scrutiny of professional journalism, or that the sources he was reading and listening to were not after truth but a McCain Presidency, Joe decided to believe that these truths remained hidden because of a worldwide, highly organized Liberal Media Conspiracy. Or perhaps he was completely oblivious to the fact that Bill Ayers and Reverend Wright were covered at length by CNN because the sources he got his news from told him these issues were being ignored. He never bothered to check because he had no incentive to step outside his bubble. This is a tendency we all share, and one that we must constantly force ourselves to deal with, especially in our super-saturated, information-overloaded culture. (For criticism of CNN, see this post.)

I. An excerpt from Jacques Ellul's Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes (1965):

"Through such a process of intense rationalization, propaganda builds monolithic individuals. It eliminates inner conflicts, tensions, self-criticism, self-doubt. And in this fashion it also builds a one-dimensional being without depth or range of possibilities. Such an individual will have rationalizations not only for past actions, but for the future as well. He marches forward with full assurance of his righteousness. He is formidable in his equilibrium, all the more so because it is very difficult to break his harness of justifications. Experiments made with Nazi prisoners proved this point.

Tensions are always a threat to the individual, who tries everything to escape them because of his instinct of self- preservation. Ordinarily the individual will try to reduce his own tensions in his own way, but in our present society many of these tensions are produced by the general situation, and such tensions are less easily reduced. One might almost say that for collective problems only collective remedies suffice. Here propaganda renders spectacular service by making man live in a familiar climate of opinion and by manipulating his symbols, it reduces tensions. Propaganda eliminates one of the causes of tension by driving man straight into such a climate of opinion. This greatly simplifies his life and gives him stability, much security, and a certain satisfaction.

At the same time, this crystallization closes his mind to all new ideas. The individual now has a set of prejudices and beliefs, as well as objective justifications. His entire personality now revolves around those elements. Every new idea will therefore be troublesome to his entire being. He will defend himself against it because it threatens to destroy his certainties. He thus actually comes to hate everything opposed to what propaganda has made him acquire. Propaganda has created in him a system of opinions and tendencies which may not be subjected to criticism. That system leaves no room for ambiguity or mitigation of feelings; the individual has received irrational certainties from propaganda, and precisely because they are irrational, they seem to him part of his personality. He feels personally attacked when these certainties are attacked. There is a feeling here akin to that of something sacred. And a genuine taboo prevents the individual from entertaining any new ideas that might create ambiguity within him.

Incidentally, this refusal to listen to new ideas usually takes on an ironic aspect: the man who has been successfully subjected to a vigorous propaganda will declare that all new ideas are propaganda. To the degree that all his stereotypes, prejudices, and justifications are the fruit of propaganda, man will be ready to consider all other ideas as being propaganda and to assert his distrust in propaganda. One can almost postulate that those who call every idea they do not share "propaganda" are themselves almost completely products of propaganda. Their refusal to examine and question ideas other than their own is characteristic of their condition."

II. A QUIBBLE by Mark Slouka (edit: this article was added at a later date)

"We have every reason to be pleased with ourselves. Bucking all recent precedent, we seem to have put a self-possessed, intelligent man in the White House who, if he manages to avoid being bronzed before his first hundred days are up, may actually succeed in correcting the course of empire. The bubble is rushing back to plumb; excitement is in the air. It would be churlish to quibble.

Still, let's. Although the guard at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has indisputably changed, although the new boss is not the same as the old boss, I'm less certain about us. I'd like to believe that we're a different people now; that we're more educated, more skeptical, more tough-minded than we were when we gave the outgoing gang of criminals enough votes to steal the presidential election, twice, but it's hard work; actual human beings keep getting in the way.

My neighbor, a high school teacher living about an hour outside New York City, wants to torture a terrorist. He's worried because he believes that Osama—excuse me, Obama—cares more about terrorists than he does about us. He's never heard of the Spanish Inquisition. Another neighbor—an actual plumber, actually named Joe—wants Mark Haddon's *The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time* tossed out of the high school library. Joe came by recently. Did I want my kids learning how to curse and kill dogs and commit adultery? he asked. I said that my kids already knew how to curse, and that I hadn't realized that killing dogs and committing adultery were things you had to learn. He showed me the book. He and his wife had gone through it with a blue highlighter and highlighted the words "crap," "shit," and "damn" every time they appeared, on every page. They'd written to Laura Bush about it, and received a supportive letter in return, signed by the first lady. "You're a teacher," he said. "Don't tell me you support this kind of filth." I asked him if he'd read it. Well, no, he said, but he knew what it was about. He didn't really go in for reading, himself, he said.

I like a party as much as the next man, and I still have moments when I realize that the bastards are really, truly out and think that maybe, this time, it really is morning in America, but a voice from outside the ether cone keeps whispering that we haven't changed at all, that we're as dangerous to ourselves as we've ever been, and that the relative closeness of the popular vote in this last election (given the almost embarrassing superiority of the winning ticket and the parade of catastrophes visited on the nation by the outgoing party) proves it. Go ahead and bask, this voice says, but that rumble you hear above the drums and the partymakers is real, and it's coming our way.

What we need to talk about, what someone needs to talk about, particularly now, is our ever-deepening ignorance (of politics, of foreign languages, of history, of science, of current affairs, of pretty much everything) and not just our ignorance but our complacency in the face of it, our growing fondness for it. A generation ago the proof of our foolishness, held up to our faces, might still have elicited some redeeming twinge of shame—no longer. Today, across vast swaths of the republic, it amuses and comforts us. We're deeply loyal to it. Ignorance gives us a sense of community; it confers citizenship; our representatives either share it or bow down to it or risk our wrath.

Seen from a sufficient distance (a decade abroad, for example), or viewed through a protective filter, like film, or alcohol, there can be something almost endearing about it. It can appear quaint, part of our foolish-but-authentic, naive-yet-sincere, rough-hewn spirit. Up close and personal, unromanticized and unfiltered, it's another thing entirely. In the flesh, barking from the electronic pulpit or braying back from the audience, our ignorance can be sobering. We don't know. Or much care. Or care to know. What do we care about? We care about auto racing and Jessica. We care about food, oh yes, please, very much. And money. (Did you catch the last episode of *I Love Money*?) We care about Jesus, though we're a bit vague on his teachings. And America. We care about America. And the flag. And the troops, though we're untroubled by the fact that the Bush Administration lied us into the conflict, then spent years figuring out that armor in war might be a good idea. Did I mention money?

Here's the mirror—look and wince. One out of every four of us believes we've been reincarnated; 44 percent of us believe in ghosts; 71 percent, in angels. Forty percent of us believe God created all things in their present form sometime during the last 10,000 years. Nearly the same number—not coincidentally, perhaps—are functionally illiterate. Twenty percent think the sun might revolve around the earth. When one of us writes a book explaining that our offspring are bored and disruptive in class because they have an indigo "vibrational aura" that means they are a gifted race sent to this planet to change our consciousness with the help of guides from a higher world, half a million of us rush to the bookstores to lay our money down.

Wherever it may have resided before, the brain in America has migrated to the region of the belt—not below it, which might at least be diverting, but only as far as the gut—where it has come to a stop. The gut tells us things. It tells us what's right and what's wrong, who to hate and what to believe and who to vote for. Increasingly, it's where American politics is done. All we have to do is listen to it and the answer appears in the little window of the eight ball: "Don't trust him. Don't know. Undecided. Just because, that's why." We know because we feel, as if truth were a matter of personal taste, or something to be divined in the human heart, like love.

I was raised to be ashamed of my ignorance, and to try to do something about it if at all possible. I carry that burden to this day, and have successfully passed it on to my children. I don't believe I have the right to an opinion about something I know nothing about—constitutional law, for example, or sailing—a notion that puts me sadly out of step with a growing majority of my countrymen, many of whom may be unable to tell you anything at all about Islam, say, or socialism, or climate change, except that they hate it, are against it, don't believe in it. Worse still (or more amusing, depending on the day) are those who *can* tell you, and then offer up a stew of New Age blather, right-wing rant, and bloggers' speculation that's so divorced from actual, demonstrable fact, that's so not true, as the kids would say, that the mind goes numb with wonder. "Way I see it is," a man in the Tulsa Motel 6 swimming pool told me last summer, "if English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for us."

Quite possibly, this belief in our own opinion, regardless of the facts, may be what separates us from the nations of the world, what makes us unique in God's eyes. The average German or Czech, though possibly no less ignorant than his American counterpart, will probably consider the possibility that someone who has spent his life studying something may have an opinion worth considering. Not the American. Although perfectly willing to recognize expertise in basketball, for example, or refrigerator repair, when it comes to the realm of ideas, all folks (and their opinions) are suddenly equal. Thus evolution is a damned lie, global warming a liberal hoax, and Republicans care about people like you.

But there's more. Not only do we believe that opinion (our own) trumps expertise; we then go further and demand that expertise assume the position—demand, that is, that those with actual knowledge supplicate themselves to the Believers, who don't need to know. The logic here, if that's the term, seems to rest on the a priori conviction that belief and knowledge are separate and unequal. Belief is higher, nobler; it comes from the heart; it feels like truth. There's a kind of Biblical grandeur to it, and as God's chosen, we have an inherent right to it. Knowledge, on the other hand, is impersonal, easily manipulated, inherently suspect. Like the facts it's based on, it's slippery, insubstantial—not solid like the things you believe.

The corollary to the axiom that belief beats knowledge, of course, is that ordinary folks shouldn't value the latter too highly, and should be suspicious of those who do. Which may explain our inherent discomfort with argument. We may not know much, but at least we know what we believe. Tricky elitists, on the other hand, are always going on. Confusing things. We don't trust them. So what if Sarah Palin couldn't answer Charlie Gibson's sneaky question about the Bush Doctrine? We didn't know what it was either.

How did we come to this pass? We could blame the American education system, I suppose, which has been retooled over the past two generations to churn out workers (badly), not skeptical, informed citizens. Or we could look to the great wasteland of television, whose homogenizing force and narcotizing effect has quite neatly corresponded to the rising tide of ignorance. Or we could spend some time analyzing the fungus of associations that has grown around the word "elitist," which can now be applied to a teacher driving a thirteen-year-old Toyota but not to a multimillionaire CEO like Dick Cheney. Or, finally, we might look to the influence of the anti-elitist elites who, burdened by the weight of their Ph.D.s, will argue that the words "educated" and "ignorant" are just signifiers of class employed by the oligarchy to keep the underprivileged in their place, and then proceed to tell you how well Bobby is doing at Princeton.

But I'm less interested in the ingredients of this meal than in who's going to have to eat it, and when, and at what cost. There's no particular reason to believe, after all, that things will improve; that our ignorance and gullibility will miraculously abate, that the militant right and the entrenched left, both so given to caricature, will simultaneously emerge from their bunkers eager to embrace complexity, that our disdain for facts and our aversion to argument will reverse themselves. Precisely the opposite is likely. In fact, if we take the wider view, and compare today's political climate (the arrogance with which our leaders now conduct their extralegal adventures, the crudity of the propaganda used to manipulate us, our increasing willingness to cheer the lie and spit on the truth, just so long as the lie is ours) to that of even a generation ago, then extend the curve a decade or two into the future, it's easier to imagine a Balkanized nation split into rival camps cheered and sustained by their own propaganda than the republic of reason and truth so many of us want to believe in.

Traditions die hard, after all. Anti-intellectualism in America is a very old hat—a stovepipe, at least, maybe even a coonskin. We wear it well; we're unlikely to give it up just like that. Consider, for example, what happens to men or women (today as ever) the minute they declare themselves candidates for office, how their language —their syntax, their level of diction, the field from which their analogies are drawn—takes a nosedive into the common pool. Notice how quickly the contractions creep in and the sleeves roll up. The comparison to high school seems appropriate; the pressure to adapt is considerable, and it's all in one direction—down. In American politics, as in the cafeteria, the crowd sets the tone. It doesn't know much, and if you want in, you'd better not either. Should you want out, of course, all you have to do is inadvertently let on—for example, by using the word inadvertently"—that you're a reasonably educated human being, and the deed is done.

Communicate intelligently in America and you're immediately suspect. As one voter from Alaska expressed it last fall, speaking of Obama, "He just seems snotty, and he looks weaselly." This isn't race talking; it's education. There's something sneaky about a man like Obama (or even John Kerry, who, though no Disraeli, could construct a sentence in English with a beginning, a middle, and an end), because he seems intelligent. It makes people uneasy. Who knows what he might be thinking?

But doesn't this past election, then, sound the all clear? Doesn't the fact that Obama didn't have to lower himself to win suggest that the ignorant are outnumbered? Can't we simply ignore the third of white evangelicals who believe the world will end in their lifetimes, or the millennialists who know that Obama's the Antichrist because the winning lottery number in Illinois was 666?

For starters, consider how easily things might have gone the other way had the political and economic climate not combined into a perfect political storm for the Republican Party; had the Dow been a thousand points higher in September, or gas a dollar cheaper. Truth is, we got lucky; the bullet grazed our skull.

Next, consider the numbers. Of the approximately 130 million Americans who voted this past November, very nearly half, seemingly stuck in political puberty, were untroubled by the possibility of Sarah Palin and the first dude inheriting the White House. At the same time, those of us on the winning side might want to do a cross-check before landing. How many of us—not just in the general election but in the primaries, when there was still a choice—voted for Obama because he was the It thing this season, because he was so likable, because he had that wonderful voice, because he was black, because he made us feel as if Atticus Finch had come home? If nothing else, the fact that so many have convinced themselves that one man, thus far almost entirely untested, will slay the culture of corruption with one hand while pulling us out of the greatest mess we've known in a century with the other suggests that a certain kind of "clap your hands if you believe" naiveté crosses the aisle at will.

But the electorate, whatever its issues, is not the real problem. The real problem, the unacknowledged pit underlying American democracy, is the 38 percent of the population who didn't move, didn't vote. Think of it: a country the size of Germany—83 million people—within our own borders. Many of its citizens, after decades of watching the status quo perpetuate itself, are presumably too fed up to bother, a stance we can sympathize with and still condemn for its petulance and immaturity, its unwillingness to acknowledge the fact that in every election there is a better and a worse choice. Millions of others, however, are adults who don't know what the Bill of Rights is, who have never heard of Lenin, who think Africa is a nation, who have never read a book. I've talked to enough of them to know that many are decent people, and that decency is not enough. Witches are put to the stake by decent people. Ignorance trumps decency any day of the week.

Praise me for a citizen or warm up the pillory, it comes down to the unpleasant fact that a significant number of our fellow citizens are now as greedy and gullible as a boxful of puppies; they'll believe anything; they'll attack the empty glove; they'll follow that plastic bone right off the cliff. Nothing about this election has changed that fact. If they're ever activated—if the wrong individual gets to them, in other words, before the educational system does—we may live to experience a tyranny of the majority Tocqueville never imagined."

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