Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Through the Looking Glass Darkly – Some More Random Thoughts

I'd like to begin this meditation with a quote:

“There are crackpots with crazy ideas all over the world, and what evidence was I giving that I was not one of them?”

The quote is from Robert Pirsig, author of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, and it's contained in a book by Mark Richardson called “Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” So, to sum up, it's a quote from a book about a book... and it's the author of the book about a book quoting the author of the book. Are we straight on this? But I guess part of the charm of this self-referencing circularity is that it illustrates one of the main themes of the first book, namely Zen, which, in my opinion, is a philosophy much more than a religion. In fact, it's not even a philosophy so much as an anti-philosophy; it's, as much as anything, an attitude, or an approach to the world, and as such (again, in my opinion) it can, potentially, coexist, complement, and enter into symbiosis with other aspects of philosophy as well as with religion. It seems to involve an attitude of what is called “non-striving”... “being here now” (that's from Baba Ram Dass)... “nothing special”... and focusing on what is right in front of one's nose – which someone once called the most difficult thing to do. It stands in gentle opposition to the compulsion to always have our mind on something else -- something besides what we're doing, somewhere besides where we are; someone other than who we're with. It's in opposition to the chronic striving and dissatisfaction, therefore the constant frustration, that infects many people, and is particularly exemplified in good old American middle class ambition and boosterism. And in this it's not really all so different from various forms of Christian meditation and the notion of acceptance – not of the despairing type that characterizes much of what is called Existentialism, but of the type that believes in Divine Providence. Are pain and suffering, for example, merely absurd and meaningless, or are they – can they be taken as – providential, as opportunities for spiritual growth as well as for sacrifice (“making holy”) in reparation for our sins and the sins of others? What, in other words, do we “make” of pain and suffering? It's easy enough to accept good things – the bounty of the earth, friendship, families... we don't question the “why” of such things. We only ask “why” when things go wrong – and how many priests and ministers have stood up at a grave site and attempted to answer that question and provide some consolation to those present? This is not only the great philosophical challenge; it may, in fact, have been the origin of philosophy itself. And every religion, or school of philosophy, provides an answer of some sort – either that or no answer at all, which is also an answer. And for the individual, the choice is always between absurdity and meaning – between seeing oneself as a passive victim vs. attempting to give structure, and definition, to one's experience. Does life “go better” with meaning? The psychologist Viktor Frankl thought that it did – in fact, he considered the will to meaning to be a significant survival mechanism.

So the first book – i.e. the one by Pirsig – attempted to, among many other things, relate the concept of Zen, i.e. of immediacy and focus, to something most of us would consider just about the least philosophical activity of all, namely the maintenance of a fast, loud, and dangerous motor vehicle. But he successfully calls to mind an old chestnut that people would not consider a typical Zen tenet -- “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” (To which some wag responded, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” I imagine the Zen answer would be yes to both.) An equally important theme in the Pirsig book is that of Quality – and it's easy to see the interface between the Zen idea and the Quality idea. We can better perceive, and appreciate, the quality (in the sense of merit or value) of something if we take a calm, unhurried approach to its consideration. And, we can, in a sense, add quality, or value, to things by giving them the proper sort of attention. (This is a recurrent theme – or issue – in the philosophy of art. Does the “quality” of a work come only from the work itself, i.e. from the artist, or does it come from the “appreciation” of the work, or from some symbiosis of the two?)

An interesting thing about the Pirsig book, from the social history point of view, is that it has always been considered a kind of “hippie book” -- you know, the man who travels far and wide in search of the Truth, etc. This, despite the fact that it was published in 1974, well after the hippie wave had crested and we were well on our way to the next era – that of “Disco” (with its attendant lime-green double knit leisure suits and other cultural enormities). But here, at least, was a home-grown philosopher who had made The Great American Road Trip in the spirit of Jack Kerouac... who was an intellectual but not a mainstream academic... who had had a run-in with the psychiatry racket (I call it the “Ministry of Sanity”)... and who was, at once, insightful and profound but also uncertain and not entirely coherent. An ideal American “type” for that time and place, in other words. If his book was, in a sense, still a work in progress at the time it was published, it's because _he_ was still a work in progress at that point – and still is, for all I know. And the extent to which his view of things trickled down into the culture at large was, I'm guessing, not great; he was dealing in concepts that were simply too counter-cultural – i.e. they were opposed to the dominant culture as well as to the “conventional counter culture” of that time (you know, on the protest sign or bumper sticker level). As he well knew, everyone is too involved, too restless, too dissatisfied with things as they are. But still, he reserved the right to see things as he saw them, and to critique the larger culture for its manifest muddled frenzy.

The second book – very briefly – is an attempt to, in a way, “channel” the first book, and/or its author, by following his footsteps (OK, tire tracks) across the country as one of a well-established and ongoing group of “Zen pilgrims”. Isn't this the American way, though! Do what The Great Man did – go through the same motions – follow the same trails – and you might wind up with Understanding. But as some sage once put it: “Don't be me! Be you!” And frankly, isn't the experience of others – even of the wisest – impacted, given flavor and tone, and even corrupted, by “accidents” of their own specific lives? How much of what they taught is really their own baggage? This is always a challenge when trying to sort out things said, or written, by “wise men” -- especially the wise men of the hippie era, who were, as often as not, prisoners of their own subjectivity (not to mention lusts and substance dependencies). So whenever I read literature – from this era in particular -- I think things like, do I have to worry about that broken engagement when he was 22? About his attack of smallpox? About his run-ins with the local political strongman? There is always a translation problem – from “there and then”, and that person, to “here and now” and me. But I also feel that, when it comes to philosophy, especially of the “popular” type, the motto should be “If the shoe fits, wear it.” People can talk to us across the centuries without even intending to at times... and wisdom is where you find it, etc. So the idea is to remain open, but not make a fetish out of anything or anybody, the way Richardson kind of did with Persig. (And I'm not saying that Richardson was not better off for having made the journey; he apparently was. But there is no reason to recommend that as a one-size-fits-all formula.)

Now, what does all of this have to do with... anything, in fact? And why did I offer that quotation at the beginning? Simply because there is, for anyone engaged in inquiry of any sort, a constant struggle to find the right “focal length” (and also depth of field, for you camera buffs). One could, of course, if one were so inclined, emulate the stereotypical sage sitting in the Zen garden and meditating on (or upon, or both) a single smooth rock. That might, in fact, be the most philosophically sound activity it is possible to engage in. But this takes – needless to say – a certain type of person, and few of us are that type, or could be, even after great exertions (which would be very non-Zen in any case, so the situation is truly hopeless). Well then, how about basing one's philosophy on the sum total of all observables? Sounds easy – but whole libraries have been written on how one is to know that something – anything – is real, is “the case” -- not to mention the problem of assigning, to say nothing of proving, causal connections. Is a world of unconnected facts that only appear to be connected any more to be preferred than the world of the single rock? This is why people seldom stop at that point.

They might then want to explore the – also observable – inner workings of that which they observed in the first place, and posit causal connections and processes; this is what is called “science”. Or, they might go off in another direction and explore the process of acquiring knowledge, and speculate on the meaning, or significance, of both what is observed and what can only be inferred; these are some aspects of what is called “philosophy”. Or, they might prefer to relate their observations and inferences to the world of the spiritual and immaterial, in which case they might be doing “theology”. Now these are all respectable academic disciplines, and they have at least one thing in common, which is what is called “model building”. You have a number of facts at your disposal, and some notion as to how those facts might be interrelated (conceptually, physically, chemically, spiritually, whatever). You don't have enough facts, or connections, to, as yet, flesh out a theory about what is going on... but you'd like to, nonetheless, establish a framework to guide further inquiry, and into which additional data or ideas can be placed. So you come up with a “model”, which you fully expect is not the ultimate theory, or matrix, or blueprint... but it's convenient and helpful, and will do until something better comes along, as long as one avoids the danger of confusing it with reality and insisting that new information must fit into it (rather than adjusting it to account for the new information).

Now, here's the point. The vast bulk of humanity is not, by any stretch of the imagination, scientists in the strict sense, or philosophers, or theologians. But they are nearly all model builders – i.e. they have a natural tendency to come up with notions about the way things are, how things work, and why. This has, in fact, been described as a natural, almost instinctive trait of the human species, and I'm inclined to agree. And the marvelous thing about so many of these models is that they are valued to the extent that they “work”, even if they are wildly “wrong” according to more disciplined criteria. Think about primitive peoples and their amazing variety of “theories” about natural phenomena – plants, animals, the weather – reproduction – illness and medicine – nutrition – and so on. It's all about what connects with what – or what seems to. And that's the point. If the theory works, it stays in the body of collective tribal knowledge. If it no longer works, or is replaced by something better, it eventually goes away – although this may take a while... many generations, in fact. (Think about political theories in the West. Think about Marxism!) So yes, it is “man the builder” to some extent, but even more it is “man the model builder”.

Now, this is at the societal level – the pragmatic, survival level, if you will. But clearly individuals build models as well, usually with the help of, and with reference to, the group model, but occasionally one will go off on their own and, in effect, found a new “school” of philosophy, or science, or theology, with a single person as both teacher and student – themselves. And in some cases, their one-man schoolhouse may expand and become a real school, or religion, or branch of science, or maybe a cult. (A “cult” is what we call a point of view, or area of interest, held by a small minority with whom we do not agree.) (And, oh yes, they must seem to be slightly subversive or dangerous. This is why Chicago Cubs fans are not considered a cult, even though they meet all the other criteria.) In fact, there are even words for the one-man cult – so as not to leave anyone out. The words are “crank” and “crackpot”, as in:

“There are crackpots with crazy ideas all over the world, and what evidence was I giving that I was not one of them?”

Why, here we are back at that quote! And Pirsig's existential dilemma at that point was that he felt – and rightly so – like a minority of one, in his views about many things... and it wasn't just because he was stuck teaching at a state school in Montana, although I'm sure that helped. And when you find yourself a minority of one, you start to wonder – maybe there's a reason. Unity of vision, and unity of purpose, are more common among sane people than among the insane; one of the risks of insanity is that of a great existential loneliness. But was Persig insane? Some of his family, friends, and colleagues thought so. But the issues he was concerned with do have a certain universality. And the most important issues were – so he felt – the most neglected. Like that issue of Quality. But what is “quality”? Well, that's part of the issue, isn't it? Everyone knows what it is – or thinks he knows. But not everyone agrees. So he started to feel a bit stressed out, hence the motorcycle, and the road trip, etc. I'm sure we can all relate to that on some level. Plus, ironically, even a successful crank or crackpot – one who, say, starts a new religion and becomes rich – is no less a crank or crackpot just because he succeeds. And conversely, even if a man remains a minority of one, if he's right he's right. The truth is not subject to popular vote, no matter what the Democrats say. Much better to fall back on the utility argument than go by success, I would say. And what is “utility” if we're not talking about things with objective criteria for success – like a model for how to hunt deer, for example? I think most people – those who are “into ideas” -- would say that utility, roughly, equals explanatory power. But what does it mean to “explain” something in this sense? It means that our model – as far as we've developed it up to that time – fits many, if not all, of the known facts, and does not blatantly contradict any of them. But, let's admit, the model also has certain premises built into it as to things like human nature. So we tend to interpret the “facts” according to what we know, or think we know, about the way people are, and the way they operate, in the more general sense. These don't have to be “universal”, like some kind of reflex – only in accord with the known, or suspected, nature and motives of the class, or classes, of people we are discussing. So if I'm speculating about the motivations of the Food and Drug Administration, for example, I might not feel any need to bring in anthropological data about African witch doctors. On the other hand, I might! So there are a lot of judgment calls in this business.

Thus, the perennial dilemma of the man who deeply cares about things that most other people barely perceive, or think about. It may make him a bit of an oddity, but does it make him a crank, or insane? Not necessarily. Let's say a few people – a small academic or artistic coterie – agree that his concerns are worthy of attention and investigation. And let's say that they are relatively well-adjusted to their social milieu. Then we can say that he's probably onto something, but it is likely to remain rarefied, and esoteric, and he'll never make any money at it. That's fine; knowledge is its own reward, as is insight. But then some other issues arise. One is that of the “mainstream” vs. all that is not. And there is a natural tendency, on the part of most people, to assume that whatever is “mainstream” is more likely to be correct – a sort of implicit process of natural selection of ideas. The only problem with this is that we see, historically, how the “mainstream” has shifted – often drastically – over time. This may be most dramatically illustrated in the case of medicine, but it's also true of history, economics... even the so-called “hard sciences” in some cases.

Corollary to the somewhat authoritarian faith in the “mainstream” is the notion that today's conventional wisdom is superior to that of any previous era – call this the “illusion of progress”. In fact – again, historically – there are plenty of examples to be had where a given discipline experienced regression, i.e. where its practitioners were actually more ignorant than those of a previous generation. Then there's the simplistic notion that when it comes to the really important issues – like “global warming”, for example -- the issue has been settled, and anyone who persists in disagreeing can safely be labeled a crank or crackpot. But again, this can be fairly easily demonstrated to be false. And when politics get involved, it is most assuredly not the case.

Now let's have a look across the broad spectrum of knowledge, or alleged knowledge. Heaven knows, there are enough controversies in the “hard sciences” -- and when it comes to “the arts”, it's a wonder that fistfights don't break out more often. But if you want to really descend into chaos... well, start with history. Then, if you dare, wade into economics. But for the truly fearless, there is nothing like “current events”. This is an area where the ratio of “information” over actual facts is stunningly high – and, seemingly, getting higher every day. And why is this? It's because there is no area of collective life where there are so many vested interests – or conflicts of interest. And this is based on the fact that nearly all political debates boil down to economics – and as an economist friend of mine commented recently, “People hate economics because it says that in order to get one thing you have to give up something else.” (He was talking about real economics, not the political kind that says you can have as much of anything you want forever, and never have to worry about paying for it. People _love_ that brand of “economics”.) So in a situation where there is much to be gained or lost, information is at a premium, and the truth (assuming it exists at all) is at an even greater premium. We have to distinguish, of course, between “political truth” -- i.e. the truth (so-called) of the moment – and the kind that is a bit more lasting, and that corresponds to what has traditionally been thought of as “the truth”. It is commonly said that politicians are master manipulators of the truth – but this isn't quite right. What they are master manipulators of is “information” -- but what connection that has with the truth is an entirely different matter. Now, some people will say – perhaps with a cynical tone – that the “truth” doesn't matter in politics anyway – all that matters is what people believe, or want to believe, at any given moment. And that's – um – true, in a limited way. But it is funny how, time and time again, the real facts tend to bubble up, and go prowling about the world, seeking whom they can devour. Politicians can cover up, but they're not quite so good at covering up the cover-up, and so on. Every once in a while a glimmer of light breaks through the smoke screen, and then we get a brief glimpse of what is (or may be) actually going on, before the clouds converge again.

And this brings us back to levels of knowledge, and levels of inquiry. The Zen master contemplating the rock knows that other things exist, but he is content with his rock. That rock has sufficient “thingness”, “suchness”, “here-and-now-ness”, to satisfy all of his meditative needs. But the guy next door has a different focal length. He wants to take in, and account for, more of the world – which means that he needs, for starters, a more elaborate model. And as one's focal length expands, the models one needs to deal with all the data that come pouring in get more and complex and, ultimately, unwieldy – so at point that most people (with a few exceptions, like Isaac Asimov) draw back and become “specialists” of some sort. Thus we have a division of labor when it comes to knowledge, facts, models, theories. But there's another factor as well, and here's where it gets curious. No one ever criticizes the historian, economist, philosopher, scientist, or theologian for wanting to get “deeper” into the subject matter they have chosen – in fact, it's considered a mark of merit, even more than how “broad” one is, to have gone “deeper” into it than anyone else. Thus, even in the top ranks of something like physics, you have specialties and areas of emphasis, and they generally defer to one another whenever appropriate; anyone in the field can readily name “the world's expert” in a given specialty – or at least the handful of top experts.

Historians, philosophers, and social scientists tend to be a bit more grandiose, and start to think that their findings and insights in one area are readily translatable, and transferable, to other areas. Thus we have the B.F. Skinner syndrome; his scientific techniques were innovative and impeccable, but he had no problem at all leaping from findings on rats and pigeons to speculating about what motivated human beings and – even worse – how human society ought to be designed. Historians tend to study people, and societies, of the past as if they were just like us (psychologically) – which is manifestly untrue, but it makes things simpler. And no one has to worry about a historian from 2,000 years ago making those assumptions about us... so the game is clearly tilted in favor of “here, now, and us-ism”. The best historians, however, avoid this error, and wind up doing much better history as a result. Social scientists, on the other hand, are only concerned with the here and now, but make a similar error in that they assume the distribution of human talents, motivations, and pathologies that they observe in today's society is normal and natural, and that people have always been this way, so why question it? In other words, they take too much as given, and wind up asking too few questions instead of too many. There are even similar flaws in medical research, as far as that goes. And when it comes to psychology -- well! Today's pathology was yesterday's normalcy, and vice versa. (This is what R. D. Laing referred to as "the politics of experience".)

So, as I said, no one ever criticizes the historian, economist, philosopher, scientist, or theologian for wanting to get “deeper” into the subject matter they have chosen. In fact, if they're content with just the “top layer” of observations, they're considered to be superficial, underachievers, hacks (no matter how many books they sell to a gullible public, or how many “chairs” they occupy in large universities). But! The minute anyone tries to go deeper into current events, and analyze the real motives, and the real agendas, behind what appears in the “news”, he is accused of... yeah, you got it... being a crank, a crackpot, a conspiracy theorist, paranoid, and -- the latest term, right off the press at DHS -- a “potential terrorist”.

And why is this? Well, again, it's a matter of vested interests – economic, social, racial and ethnic pride and self-image, and suchlike. The “information” disseminated by the media is designed to convey just the right amount – not too much, not too little – of fear, anxiety, and insecurity... and then, in the same spoonful, just the right amount of reassurance and consolation. To break through that barrier – through that delicately constructed and balanced facade – is a threat, not only to the media and their masters, but also to the people who believe in, and rely on, the media to, basically, tell them all they need to know about the world – their world – on any given day, at any given moment. The media are spinning instant myths, by the thousand, 24 hours a day, and some of them will be “just the thing” for any given person – they will latch on to those stories the way pollen latches on to a pistil. And just try and convince them that they've been conned (again)! They will not welcome the news, and you're likely to get a good thrashing for your trouble. (The worst thing you can tell a prisoner of the mind is not that he's in jail, but that the door isn't even locked.) So, in sum, it's the very superficiality of the media, and of that which they disseminate, that is of the essence. If one starts to probe, and explore, the game is threatened, and defensive action is taken. And a major part of this defense is not violent retribution so much as what I call “alienation” -- i.e., turning the questioner, the skeptic, into a crank or crackpot in the eyes of everyone else. So the media and the “crank” stand on the same field of battle, each pointing a finger at the other and shouting, “The truth is not in him.” But the “crank” is only one person, after all, and... don't we have a “spirit of democracy” in this country? Isn't the majority always right, by definition? Or, at the very least, it stands a better than even chance of being right. Plus, the “crank” is clearly (according to the media) “not our kind” -- marginal, oddly dressed, poorly groomed, talks funny, a “loner”... you know the litany. He's just the opposite of the slick, perfumed, perfectly-groomed and coiffed princes in Congress and the business world, in fact – so why listen to him? In fact, it would be a public service to shut him up.

So the dice are thoroughly loaded in favor of the media, and those they facilitate, being able to maintain a superficial level of dialog and discussion that would be considered ridiculous in any other area of life. And this puts the person who wants to “dig” a bit at a distinct disadvantage... and the disadvantage increases in proportion to the depth of the digging. If you're willing to stick with the media's fairy tales about current events, you'll get along fine – you won't be shunned around the water cooler, you'll be invited to luncheons and parties, asked to coach Little League... you know, all those marks of bourgeois acceptance for which the only price is voluntary, self-imposed brain death. Show yourself as a bit of a skeptic, or cynic, or “independent”, and you may get into the occasional heated discussion but it will never come to blows – and your social life may erode a bit, but it won't entirely disappear. At worst, you'll be known as “opinionated”. But dig a little deeper – and keep those around you updated on the progress of your digging – and those around you are likely to be... well, not around you any more. Suddenly you have become what, in current foreign-policy parlance, is called an “existential threat” -- not threatening other people's physical existence so much – that's easy to deal with, you just call “security” -- but threatening what I call their philosophical existence – their epistemology and their metaphysics.

Wait a second. What?? Most people don't even _have_ an “epistemology” or a “metaphysics” -- or, if they do, they don't know it and don't care. But this is not correct; they do know, and they do care. A person's epistemology, in the non-academic philosophical sense, is basically their sense of how they know things – and also, how do they know they know? They find things out, for example, from their parents first, then their (usually public) school teachers, and the media, and college professors and textbooks, and then... well, then they generally quit finding things out, except for the fact that they are wedded to the media, i.e. to the organs of the Regime, which means that, from that point on, they will only “know” what the Regime wants them to “know” -- no more and no less. (And don't be fooled by the alleged “diversity”, “fairness”, and “balance” of the mainstream media – they are basically all shoveling the same load of stuff in the same way, day after day, and the “differences” only exist to reassure people that there _are_ differences, and that they have a choice. Even the most abject conformist doesn't like to think that he's conforming on all counts.)

As for “metaphysics”, again in the non-academic sense, that's another word for the truth – the real truth. The way things are, or “that which is the case”. It can also mean “that which is important”, i.e. a subset of the facts. Nothing too mysterious about this, except – how do we determine what is the case? Through a process of inquiry, and that gets us back to the epistemological question, and... see above. “Rinse and repeat”. It is, for most people, an endless circle of deception and delusion – which is why they cling to it all the more fervently. On some level, they realize that it's all a myth, a house of cards... but it's all they've got, and woe unto the one who attempts to wean them away and “detox” them.

So, it can be said with some degree of confidence – and there are plenty of “media critics” out there who do, on a regular basis – that, although the American public is not “brainwashed” to the extent that, say, the citizens of China under Mao were – or that the citizens of North Korea are today – it, ultimately, amounts to the same thing, because even though there are allowable differences of opinion at the margins, the basic premises are never presented as anything but absolutes – i.e. they are not to be questioned. Another way of putting it is that, even though Americans can enter into open debates about relatively trivial differences concerning the facts, their epistemology and metaphysics are cast in concrete – and is the latter that “count”, when issues of real, profound change are concerned. Without what is called a quantum shift, or a sea change, or a seismic shift, in these factors, nothing of any consequence is going to change in this society.

But there's nothing unique about our society in this respect. It is, sadly, the baseline of human societies down through the ages, and ours is no exception – in fact, it's the same thing but writ large through the media and the plethora of “information”, which is anything but. Information theorists speak of a “signal to noise ratio”, which is another way of expressing the proportion of truth vs. lies and propaganda. Can anyone doubt that this ratio is abysmally low in our time? We have an “information explosion”, thanks to the media and the Internet, but a paucity of truth, and all of the “fact-finding” commissions on earth can't make a dent, since the “facts” are the one thing they fear the most. Or, rather, what they fear is that the facts might be revealed to any but a select few. So the vast bulk of what we take to be “information” is just so much stuffing. What if you received a package in the mail that contained nothing but packing material, but no “thing”? And yet when we read, or hear, or watch “the news”, that's exactly what we're getting – a bunch of shredded nonsense and nothing worth keeping. But that is the lifeblood of the Regime, as I call it – and the ignorance doesn't stop with the “street people” or the complacent middle class – it goes way up the ladder and even to what we think of as the “top” (e.g., certain presidents who will remain nameless). And yet it seems as though there must be someone “up there” who really understands what's going on, and is able to manipulate events at will – not with complete success, but “good enough for government work”, as the saying goes. And shame on anyone who wants to lay an ax to the root of the tree – they are deluded, obviously... “paranoid”... and aren't we all in the same boat?

So – to return to the “depth of field” problem. How deep do we dig? And, more importantly, how deep can we dig before the picture becomes hopelessly fragmented and pixilated, and no longer adds up to anything on a conceptual level? One example is the popular “ad hominem” approach, by which we judge, for example, the soundness of a given foreign policy according to the quality of the toilet training of the secretary of State. (Sound ridiculous? There are libraries full of books based on arguments of just this sort.) Then we have what I call the “helplessly buffeted by the winds of fate” approach, by which human beings, and politicians in particular, are just unthinking cogs in a much larger historical machine, that rumbles on of its own accord regardless of any individual human action. Then there is the opposite theory, that of the “great man”, by which history is determined, by and large, by the actions of certain key individuals, without whom things would have been markedly different. And there are many other approaches as well... and, guess what, the one that I prefer is the one that basically says, if a given historical event looks like the result of some great historical movement or cycle, it probably is. If it looks more like the result of the actions of a single individual (given that he has considerable persuasive powers), it probably is. And, if it looks like it's all the aggregate of the separate psychological states of the people involved... it probably is, at least to some extent. And of course, most events will be the sum of interactions among these three, plus other factors as well. Now, this approach is not designed to “simplify” anything, needless to say. In fact, it more or less guarantees that things will remain intractably complex. But in this case as in many others, when realism comes into conflict with parsimony, I tend to opt for realism.

But wait! There's more! The “historical movement”, “great man”, and “psychological” models – and their synthesis (notional, I admit) – still only deals with surface phenomena most of the time, i.e. with “facts” and events that most people can agree really did occur. But I don't think that's enough – and this is where I part company, on a permanent basis, with the media, our “leaders”, politicians, most academics, and everyone else who seems to, somehow, mysteriously, receive the same talking points on a daily basis from the same source. Every once in a while an event occurs, that – as one commentator said – reveals, like a flash of lightning on a dark night, what is really going on – or at least what is going on one layer below the surface. And even this one-layer-down level of inquiry is anathema as far as the media are concerned. Now, you might say, but what about “investigative reporting”, and all these committees, and inquiries, and investigations, and “special counsels”, and so on? Sorry – no dice. These are all designed to _appear_ to be “looking into things”, but their job is, in nearly all cases, to come back with “findings” that will reassure the public that there is, indeed, no “story behind the story”, and that everyone should just relax. They are engaged, in other words, in cover-ups. (Imagine the small-town cop in any old movie saying, “Nothing more to see here, folks – you might just as well go home.”) What you will find is that, in every case where someone is persistent enough to dig up some real “pay dirt”, he is ruthlessly attacked from every angle by the Regime and its media slaves. So yes, beneath the calm, reassuring voice of "Uncle Walter" Cronkite saying, “And that's the way it is”, is a deadly hive primed to attack anyone who contends that “That's the way it isn't”. And of course, it is the very vehemence of these attacks that convinces anyone who is the least bit skeptical – let alone a die-hard “conspiracy theorist” -- that something's up. Surely attacks of this magnitude would not be mounted simply on the basis of a person being wrong. The threat to the Regime is that they are _right_ – and that they won't shut up about it. And what we're seeing now – e.g. from the Department of Homeland Security – is an expansion of the definition of “threat” to include anyone who openly questions the party line on... well, just about anything.

So the question is not one of whether to dig – for “dig we must”, as they say in New York City, if we're to get closer to the truth and be anything but mind-numbed serfs. The more important questions are, how far to dig, and how to know when we've dug far enough – or too far. And, if you want to get “metaphysical” about it, there is also the question of how many distinct “layers of truth” there are to each issue, or question. We might be somewhat satisfied with the information that we come up with at one level, but we're certain that there's more. And there probably is more, but at what point to we begin to encounter diminishing returns – and how do we know? That's the aggravating question. Sooner or later, we're going to have to quit worrying about providing evidence to others that we're not crazy, and start worrying about providing that evidence to ourselves. And it is apparently true that “conspiracy theorists”, so-called, love nothing more than to wallow in conspiracies – and the deeper, the more complex, and the more vast, the better. Sooner or later, someone's likely to ask, does it even matter? Isn't it more important to simply live? But that gets us back to the guru and the rock. Yes, “simply living” is enough for many people, and more power to them. But they still have a problem. They have to, for example, live somewhere – in some society – either this one or some other. And they may be called on to, from time to time, go through the charade of voting, or at least asked their opinion about some political matter... and is their answer going to be, “Don't bother me; I've got my rock”? It seems like current events almost force one to adopt, at least on a tentative basis, some sort of model, subject to update as often as need be, as to what is really going on and why. I, at least, would feel like a total airhead if I didn't at least have a few “theories” kicking around. But at the same time, I'm perfectly aware of the risks involved, as discussed above. I can get on the Internet at any time day or night and start “digging” into a given issue, or event... and as I descend deeper and deeper into the “conspiracy mine” my response pattern goes through a fairly predictable sequence. To begin with, it's “Well, that's just propaganda – there's obviously much more to it than that. It's just a cover-up.” (That would be a response to the MSNBC version.) Then it's “OK, this guy is a bit more skeptical, but he still doesn't quite get it; he's still way too invested in conventional attitudes, values, the stuff he learned in school, etc.” (Rush Limbaugh.) Then (with any luck) it's, “Aha! Finally someone who isn't afraid of the truth! This makes a lot more sense than anything I've read so far.” (Any good issue of The American Conservative.)

It would be easy enough to quit right there – at that delicate balance point of optimum satisfaction. But one is occasionally compelled to probe deeper. And then the reaction is likely to be: “Yeah, well... cold be, but I think he's giving the Regime (Establishment, whatever) a bit more credit than it's entitled to. They're only made up of fallible human beings, after all – not all-knowing, all-powerful, demigods.” (Some stuff in Culture Wars.) And then, “OK, this guy's gone totally off the deep end. If he's right, the whole world is absurd and nothing means anything.” (Some of the conspiracy sites, and anything ever written by Lyndon LaRouche.) And then... well, who knows how many more layers there are? When I get down to this level the bed starts looking awfully good. But here's the point. We each choose our own ideal, optimal level of inquiry – into anything. And, of course, our optimal level of inquiry varies according to the thing, or issue, in question. (Who was it who said, “A man will propose marriage in dimmer light than he would require to select a necktie.”) But whatever level we choose will represent, for us, the truth – or at least the proper focal point at which the truth is to be found (assuming we have the energy or inclination to persist in the task). Other levels may be of interest – the adjoining levels, for example (this is the “depth of field” dimension) – but we will more or less take our stand at our generally-preferred level... and even if we suspect there is “more to it”, we will choose (not be forced, note) to remain more or less satisfied where we are. Thus, you can step onto any city bus and you'll wind up sitting with people who are perfectly happy with the mainstream media version of things... with people who are more into the “in-depth” level of analysis... the marginal conspiracy theorist... the hard-core conspiracy theorist... and the guy who fell through the looking-glass and never looked back. And I'm not going to sit here and judge any of these positions – only say that the one I have carved out for myself works for me because it explains more of the phenomena I observe, and more of the (observed or inferred) causal connections, than the alternatives do... and it doesn't make me feel totally crazy.

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