Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Embrace the Absurdity

In meditating on my last two posts, I've come up with a “new madness” -- and allow me to insert a quiet note of caution... not like the strident din of the alarm that sounds when the deep-fat fryer at McDonald's gets too hot, but as a warning that the following is more speculative than usual.

Let's say that Navrozov's idea is on the right track; what does this imply? It implies that the Big Lie is more effective as a controller of the thinking of the masses than a thousand small truths – and the array of alternative theories about 9/11 is nothing if not a collection of a thousand (or more) small truths... or at least questions. But the popular mind is too used to dealing with life in very large chunks – in ideas that, basically, cancel out facts and common sense. People lose patience with “analysis” -- with “wonkish” probing... they want answers, and answers now! And the simpler the better (and politicians know this). And – the more inflammatory, the more of a call to direct and violent action, the better. What could be simpler, for instance, that a “Global War on Terrorism”? It has all the conceptual makings of a crusade – and it is, in fact, a crusade, albeit one that is guaranteed to fail in the long run even more than it is failing in the short run. Communism was a crusade, and anti-communism was a crusade... but “anti-anti-communism” was a bit more subtle, and thus remained the province of academics, by and large. (There were no unruly mobs who set cars on fire in response to Nixon's “outing” of Alger Hiss – at least not as far as I know.) Feminism – dare I say it? -- is a crusade, which stands as a single, seamless monolith against all the subtleties of history, sociology, and anthropology (not to mention biology, especially endocrinology). Racism, likewise, is a comfortable bit of simplicity compared to the intricate subtleties of human behavior, aptitudes, motivations, etc. In fact – come to think of it – many of the “-isms” of our time are vain attempts at simplification of that which is intolerably complex. “Leave it up to the experts”, some will say – as if they ever listen to what the experts have to offer. The problem is that even the experts fall into the same trap, but because they are experts (or so they contend) their theories, models, and recommendations fall into the hands of busybodies, demagogues, and tyrants – and thus become woefully relevant to the everyday lives of everyday people. We are living in, among other things, an age of technocracy – where “findings” and “data” (alleged) are used to shout down and drown out things that are right before our eyes. We are still infected, for example, by what remains of urban optimism – despite what can be plainly seen as the state of our cities. We accept a simplistic, superficial, National Geographic/chamber of commerce view of urban society at the price of ignoring all the blatant dysfunctions that it entails.

But Navrozov's thesis implies more than the Big Lie. It implies that the effectiveness of the Big Lie lies not in its credibility, but in its very incredibility – the fact that, upon analysis, it is far from air-tight and is full of holes. He even says, in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, that “part of the intention of those who had conspired against DSK was to create a flagrantly absurdist case – yet have him publicly destroyed despite its overt implausibility.” But why the absurdity? Shouldn't the Big Lie – or even a Little Lie – be as smooth, easy to swallow, and digestible as possible? That's what one would think if people were thinking rationally – but the Big Lie is premised on the notion that people do just the opposite... that they embrace absurdity, not in the existential Kirkegaardian sense but almost as a political statement – a statement against reason and logic. It is – to reference Kirkegaard again – an expression of despair... in the face of a world that has ceased to make sense. If the goal is to influence behavior, an absurdity is as good as reasoned argument – better, in fact, because it forces people out of whatever residual habits of reason and logic they may have. It's like Maxwell Smart's iconic line, “would you believe...?” -- and the response is expected to be based on emotion and impulse rather than reason and logic. When the government tells us fairy tales about things like 9/11 it's appealing to our desire – our burning need – to believe in fairy tales, because there is no arguing against them. They are sufficient reason to make sacrifices and alter our entire way of life in a way facts can never be.

How often, after all, are the most serious actions we take in life based primarily on reasoned consideration? Consider going to war... or getting married... or joining a political party. The two pillars of most decisions, for most people, most of the time, are: Emotions, and emotions disguised as facts. We don't even have the luxury that less sophisticated peoples have of doing something on impulse alone – hot-bloodedly. We have to fancy that we have “good reasons” -- but that is not a deference to reason as much as to the need to rationalize, which is programmed into us from preschool on. The courts still make a place in their deliberations for impulsive behavior, but in everyday life it's considered shameful to do anything random or arbitrary. (How many times each day does some politician or law enforcement official describe a murder as “meaningless”? Forget about Johnny Cash's line “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”)

“It seemed like a good idea at the time” is the universal plea. It would almost have been healthier, for instance, to simply attack and invade Iraq for no damn good reason... but this could not be tolerated, so rationalizations and arguments had to be provided. And when those rationalizations and arguments proved baseless, what then? Did we retreat shamefacedly? No – because once the act had been performed, it became its own justification. “Staying the course” defies all logic, but it does appeal to emotion and primitive impulses. So we could throw out all of the original justifications without regret, since we had found a new reason – which was no reason. Absurdity, in other words. And yet – and this is key – that lack of a reason, paradoxically, lends itself to greater persistence than we would have been capable of showing otherwise... since there is no risk of any new information or arguments succeeding against it. This is closely related to the concept of cognitive dissonance, which I've discussed before – the idea that the greater the cost, or sacrifice, involved in a given action, the more likely it is to be valued and to persist. The worst thing one can say about our troops who perished in combat (or the civilians who perished on 9/11) is that they “died in vain” -- that is the epitome of shame for a society, which is why the phrase is endlessly repeated by demagogues who, from the beginning, have been anxious to exploit this most unfortunate human trait. There is also the phenomenon of “mission creep”, which is another way of saying that whenever we fail in one mission, we quickly morph it into a different mission which is supposed to have a higher probability of success. Thus one absurdity gets piled upon another ad infinitum.

Consider also that folksy saying – popular, apparently, among male fans of country-western music -- “That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.” No amount of humiliation or exposure of weakness can deter people from developing and maintaining that attitude – and, again, the more absurd the situation becomes the more likely it is to be expressed. And as Navrozov points out, the absurdity of the original narrative does not, in the least, keep it from being clung to as long as no viable alternative presents itself. The original reasons we went into Iraq turn out to be entirely false – lies, in fact. But what is the alternative? If there is one, it's too subtle for the unwashed masses to comprehend, so they stick with the original. Saddam may not have had WMDs, but he would like to have had... or he might have acquired some... and besides, he had a bad attitude. Case closed! JFK may not have been killed by a lone nut with a gun, but the alternative is unthinkable, so we're sticking with the lone nut theory; case closed! There are more holes in the government's 9/11 narrative than there would be in a chunk of Swiss cheese the size of WTC1, but the alternative is unthinkable, so we're sticking with it. And so on. A more carefully laid-out, more nuanced narrative might invite analysis, and surely we can't have that.

The point is that people will believe what they want to believe – or what they are told, by the proper authorities, to believe, because they believe in those authorities. They are, in other words, authoritarian in their thinking. A reasonable argument might open the matter to debate, so the Regime selects absurdity instead – or at least allows absurdity to dominate. This forces the matter away from reason and logic and into the realm of pure emotion, which is exactly where they want people to be, and remain. And, it's more important to preserve the myth of benevolent (or, at least, non-malevolent) government than to entertain any alternatives – this being the almost unique Achilles heel of American politics. Since we are an “idea people” above all, and since government of the people, etc. is the paramount idea, we are uniquely immune to facts – especially when those facts appear to violate all of our fervently-held premises about government and ourselves. A more cynical, hardened, world-weary attitude – like that allegedly held by Europeans – might be in order. But wasn't this Republic founded in order to leave all of that doom and gloom behind? Aren't we still the shining city on the hill – even as our real cities fall into decay and anarchy? And again, I suspect that few if any of our so-called leaders believe this, but they have to pretend to in order to dupe the rest of us into believing it. And that is part of the absurdity as well – and perhaps the most dangerous and fatal part. Because of what we believe about ourselves, we can tolerate any degree of deviation from it, even the most blatant. The rest of the world sees this in all its enormity; the tragedy is that we don't.

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