Friday, January 2, 2009

Resolution Time

Well, I've made my New Year's resolution: No more conspiracy theories! I capitulate! From now on, I'm going to – working up from the fine, solid baseline provided me in my youth by “social studies” teachers and textbooks – assume that the media are unbiased and undeceived, and are reporting the facts as accurately as they are able, and that the government officials who supply them with most of those facts have the interests of the citizens – their economic, social, physical, and moral well-being – at the top of their list of priorities. I'm also going to assume that the “entertainment media” really do exist solely for entertainment purposes, and pursue no political or social agendas, either intentionally or otherwise. In other words, I'm going to assume that the world, and the United States in particular, is pretty much as it appears on the surface, and that there are no hidden agendas, forces, or power centers operating to manipulate world affairs or exploit the people.



Well, of _course_ I have no intention of doing any of those things – and, let's be honest, neither do most people. On some level, everyone is a conspiracy theorist, the main differences being ones of degree rather than whether or not. Start with our politicians – start with obvious cases, like Blagojevich. Can anyone claim that there is, or ever has been, anything the least bit honest, or non-agenda-laden, about the way he represents himself, or about his style of governing, or about his programs? And of course he's being singled out right now as “the one bad apple”, but the truth is that there is a continuum, and I'm not even convinced he's on the extreme end; I suspect he's at somewhere around the 25th percentile, i.e. one quarter are even worse, but haven't yet been busted, or exposed. His mistake was getting someone pissed off. And let's admit that most government misdeeds happen right in plain sight – the problem is not so much in detecting them but in identifying them as misdeeds. Listen to Ron Paul or Joseph Sobran talk about the proportion of government “programs” that are unconstitutional, or at least extra-Constitutional. Some? Most? The answer is “virtually all”. But are those deeds hidden? No – they are committed out in the open, because they are designed to achieve political gain, and it's hard to politically gain from something if no one knows about it.

As to the broader question of, are most, if not all, politicians bad, evil, and corrupt because politics is intrinsically bad, evil, and corrupt – that will have to wait for another time, but I offer the tentative answer of “no”. There are many ways in which politics can be made to actually serve the people, but for that to happen you have to have a solid moral, or at least ethical, base to the society, and to the political system. We had a base like that once – not perfect by any means, but impressive nonetheless – but it seems to have, by and large, disappeared. The few truly “good” (i.e. moral and ethical, not just skilled) politicians out there are invariably shunned by the rest (think “Ron Paul” again). In this sense, politics reflects the society it grows out of as much as it “determines” that society. Of course, there is a give-and-take process going on, as with the media and the arts; in a sense those are co-determinant with society. But for a healthy society to have a rotten political stratum, I don't think that can be demonstrated historically or shown to be theoretically possible. If anything, there may be occasional “lag effects”, i.e. times when a society is on the way down but the political situation stays at least stable; I think the Sixties showed this to some extent. And, the America of the late 19th Century was wholesome enough on the grass-roots level even while political shenanigans of all sorts were going on in high places. So in a sense one acts as a moderating force on the other. But overall, and especially in times of trouble, “the people” and politicians tend to be of one heart and one mind, which means that morally, economically, socially, or on whatever other dimension you care to name, to quote Tom Lehrer, “we'll all go together when we go”.

Having presented that piece of the argument, let be briefly mention the futility of expecting the news media to ever be “fair and balanced” about anything. Exhibit A is their coverage of the Obama campaign, compared to which news of the Second Coming will be on page 18, below the fold. And let's not forget Barry Goldwater, whom the media of 1964 pronounced “insane” without so much as rifling through his psychiatrist's files, Ellsberg-style. Oh, and how about coverage of the McCarthy hearings, and Nixon's pursuit of Alger Hiss? Or, how about their coverage of everything else Nixon ever did, or didn't do? (And here I thought “Unforgiven” was only a movie.) And how about their “fair and balanced” reporting on things like the teaching of the Theory of Evolution, or the theory of global warming, or human sexuality?

Well then, how about the “entertainment media”? Surely they're only in business to make money, not pursue political agendas? OK, then how come so much effort is wasted by Hollywood making politically-laden films that lose money? And how come they still have a bee in their bonnet about the “blacklist”? Could it be that the blacklist had some validity? Could it be that it was a perfectly commendable case of the larger society defending itself against subversive elements? And why is it that about five minutes after a socially-controversial issue hits the headlines, we see a few score films and “made-for-TV” movies about it, as if the material had already been prepped and was just waiting for the right time for release? And why, in particular, do films or TV shows that present radically-opposed views typically die on the vine for “lack of funding”? (This is assuming that they would have been economically viable, which, in many cases, they undoubtedly would have been.) Why, in short, do “the media” represent the most highly-censored facet of American culture outside of academics?

Not convinced as yet? OK – try this exercise. Anyone can do this right at home, with no special equipment. Take a look at today's paper. And look at a network news program – record it as well. And read through one of the establishment magazines – you know, Time, Newsweek, etc. Then wait a day – or a week, in the case of the magazines. Go back and read, or watch, the same thing again. You'll notice a slight attrition, let's say, in the accuracy and completeness of the material presented, compared to what has come to light since. Well, not surprising – after all, if a media outlet waited until it thought it had the “whole story” it would be conveying nothing but “old news”, and would soon lose business and go broke. What counts is the “scoop”, and never mind the details; those can be policed up later. OK, but then do the same thing again – another day, another week – after everyone has had plenty of time to do fact-checking, and sewing up of loose ends. Well, for starters, by that time the story has faded, and usually disappeared. You won't see it again, if ever, until it's time for “the year in review”... or in a textbook... on on Wikipedia. But just in case the story is still around, comparing it with the “hot off the press” version will show significant differences – oftentimes wild discrepancies in the “facts”, who said what, who did what, and the significance attributed to all of this. Keep this process up long enough and you come to realize that the original story was almost completely either wrong or grossly distorted, and in many cases – one suspects! -- intentionally. But here's the point. No one ever goes back later to check up on the “news”. It has its brief life – a day, a week – and then it becomes, as far as your brain is concerned, “history” -- every bit as irrevocable as something out of Gibbon. No one remembers retractions; no one reads the “corrections” column that appears at the bottom of page 17, to correct a screaming page 1 headline from the day before. The person who was arrested is assumed to have been guilty, and there they stay, right up to, through, and even after their trial. “Found innocent?” “Released?” Forget about it. They've been guilty all this time, and they still are. This is what's so dangerous about “news”. It is, by nature, off-the-cuff, incomplete, and fraught with impressions, emotions, and hyperbole. But it forms the ground, the core of reality for nearly everyone. How many of our citizens even read one monthly magazine, i.e. one that attempts to provide a bit of distance, and perspective, on current events? For that matter, how many even read the daily paper? A 24-hour news cycle is much too long for an entire society afflicted with ADHD. Much better to chow down on CNN all day and the “talk shows” all evening, and then say, “that's a wrap”, and go to bed thinking you actually understand something.

And yet what is it that rules, and determines, the way we think about the world? It is, by and large, the “news” -- and, what's even worse, the news not as reported by someone who was actually there, i.e. who actually witnessed an event, but by someone who spends all day sitting in “press conferences” being talked at by people who are known and notorious liars. So out of this many-layered bog of deceit, distortion, and hidden agendas comes what the vast majority consider “the facts” -- and it's those “facts” that they take with them on those rare occasions when they visit a voting booth. And this is called, lest we forget, “democracy”, i.e. “rule by the people”.

Let me ask another question. What, exactly, is, or ought to be, the function of truth? Sure, it's one of the “eternal values”, along with “the good” and “the beautiful”... but at least those are intrinsically rewarding. Is there anything intrinsically rewarding about truth – about “the” truth? Well, of course, on a primitive level it helps to know, for instance, whether a given plant is nourishing or poisonous... or whether an animal one encounters is tame or wild... or whether another person is friend or foe. Those are truths, or facts, of a sort, and in a primitive environment they may be all that is needed on an everyday basis. But then we also have the human tendency to seek out “the truth” about the human condition, and about metaphysical and epistemological questions, and that, in turn, leads to philosophical and religious systems which, at the very least, attempt to “model” the truth, i.e. provide a structure and an explanation, albeit incomplete, designed to satisfy the quest for answers.

But what happens in a highly-evolved, technologically-complex, multi-layered society like ours, with its myriad levels and compartments of knowledge, social and economic activities, political demands and intrigues, and especially the growing distance, if not outright alienation, between the governing and the governed... the rulers and the ruled... the controllers and the controlled... is that the “truth”, if it involves anything beyond the edge of the plate you're eating from, is, to put it mildly, elusive. There are so many people out there with so many agendas, and plans, and ambitions... and they control the levers of government, many of them also control, or heavily influence, the media (and entertainment, and the academic world)... and, to borrow a phrase from Scripture, their ways are not your ways. Their quest for money, power, and influence has very little to do with your own, or with your welfare in any other respect... and when it comes to “the truth”, or “the facts”, the last thing in the world they want is for their agenda to be repeatedly exposed to public perusal. Because, as powerful as they are, they are not all-powerful. They, or their servants, can, at least in theory, be voted out of office. Their businesses do, in many cases, still depend on the free choices of consumers, i.e. of the public. They employ, and depend on, armies of servants, lawyers, accountants... and, in some cases, literal armies. In other words, they depend, to a surprising extent, on the unquestioning loyalty of their subordinates; that, and willingness to serve – willingness to be exploited, even. The notion that “no man is an island” actually applies more to the powerful than to the lowly fur trapper or homesteader, for example. But in any case, a major element in their power structure is a denial of the truth to the lowly and unwashed, i.e. to the average citizen. By their lights, no good can come of it, and much that is bad can. And if we accept the premise that they, by virtue of their power, hold the cards when it comes to governments, and the media, how can we then expect to ever get “the truth” out of those entities? The answer is, we can't – we'll get as much of it as is needed to convince us that the rest is true, in a kind of Ponzi scheme of information... but when it comes to the big issues, it won't be there. And this isn't usually about just manipulating information for the sake of manipulating information, a kind of game – this has real consequences for the purveyors of “news” and for the consumers of “news”. The mistake the Clintons have always made, for example, as a number of commentators have pointed out, is that they lie even when they don't have to – they lie just for the sake of lying, the way a fox kills chickens just for the sake of killing. The problem with that is that it becomes so blatant, and transparent, and ludicrous that all of their credibility goes out the window, and they're capable of nothing from that point on but things like... becoming secretary of state. (Oh well... did I claim that this model was perfect? But in the world of international affairs, where the truth really is – to quote Paul Krassner – Silly Putty, maybe being a pathological liar is advantageous.) But seriously, when it comes to the Clintons, even their facilitators -- the people who help them stay in power -- know that they have no use for the truth, so they make allowances. But can an entire system be based on this premise? It's hard to see how. It's much easier to deal with that slow trickle of half-fact, half-fiction that we get from most government officials and from the media. At least it preserves appearances – a thin veneer of civilization, whereas all we get from characters like the Clintons is moral and metaphysical anarchy, akin to the situation under the late Roman emperors. And appearances, after all, are what we are talking about, since politics in our time is about little else.

So here's the bottom line. If, as I have amply demonstrated, the truth is not in, and can never be in, politicians, or the media, or the “news” -- and don't even get me started on academia and the “arts” -- then what ought to be the mission of the seeker after truth? To despair, and go jump off the nearest water tower? That would be one way of making a (very brief) statement – but that is not my way. See, I'm one of that loony remnant that still believes that “the truth is out there”, a la “The X Files”. I don't think the world is chaotic to the core, or random, or unknowable. There is too much evidence from science, and too many demonstrations from philosophy, for me to accept this. (And even ideas from physics like the “uncertainty principle” don't – contrary to pop-science belief – mean that nothing is knowable, only that the process of inquiry has some impact on what is discovered. Well yes, I can confirm that by trying to find out which puppy is piddling on the carpet.) So, if the truth is out there, and if all we can expect from the Regime and its many “organs” is a thin, eked-out gruel, we have to take things into our own hands and try to read between the lines, to observe, and to think – to think about what makes sense, given what we know, or suspect, about human nature, to use logic and, yes, speculation when necessary. And -- most important, perhaps! -- to have a sense of humor, and irony. And what it all boils down to is “model building” -- we each construct, as we plod along, a multi-layered “model” of the world and how it operates. Hopefully the model is amenable to change if new data appear. If we are especially daring, we should be willing to toss out large chunks if they are no longer of any use. Will the model ever be perfect, i.e. will it ever represent, or be identical with, the ultimate truth? Highly unlikely. Will it come to more and more resemble things as they are? Hopefully! And will that fact, all by itself, constitute sufficient reinforcement for us to continue the effort? It will, if we're committed to the truth, and not to just muddling through.

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