House Of Lies

As odd as the thought might be, our daily lives are built around that which is unreal.  

We voraciously consume movies, television shows, books, magazines, and web-based content that is either entirely fictional or based on a true story, which means they are basically fictional.  The advertising we see and hear is hawking products and services claimingoften with the most specious of evidencethat we can be happier, thinner, more successful, more secure, smarter, sexier, or more popular for a seemingly modest purchase price.  Memoirists routinely shade the truth to present themselves in the best possible light.  Celebrities dazzle us with the assistance of armies of trainers, assistants, accountants, managers, and handlers who help ensure that their lovely lives seem effortless.  Even the supposed realityshows that we obsessively watch are carefully scripted and edited to provide enough faux controversy and fake drama to keep us tuned in for the next episode of someone elses exciting, miserable, or unbelievably screwed up life.

We search for truth where we can, but a great deal of the information made available to us has already been packaged in order to present a version of reality that is most easily sold to a particular target audience.  That which is carefully omitted or selectively presented often conceals a non-preferred truth, which helps with the task of manipulating our emotions, shaping our attitudes, and controlling our actions.

Choose any bit of news or information, and it is easy to see how editorial choices are crafted to elicit the desired response.  On one news feed I read about adult illegal alienscommitting heinous crimes; on another I read about adorable and innocent immigrantchildren hoping for better lives in America.  One moment I read of heroic women asserting sovereignty over their own bodies by choosing to have an abortion; five minutes later I learn of the intense pain a fetus feels as it is sucked from a womans womb. One expertassures us that we can have all of our needs taken care offor freeby taxing the super rich until they squeal; another is equally certain that this is mathematically impossible.  Truthis, as we typically learn as we get older, often dependent on who is doing the tellingand why.  Only the young or the hopelessly daft are foolish enough to abandon the cynicism that allows us to survive the mounds of mendacity (Yes, Im trying to use polite language here) that we now need to stomp through every day of our lives.

Truth is out there, but it can be unpleasant, unpalatable, and unsatisfactory.  Hence, we often choose to believe a version of reality that is less likely to cause us to squirm, or we simply ignore the messiness of the world around us altogether.  One of the reasons that our politics have slid toward the extremeswith political moderates ever more difficult to findis that practicality is predicated on some necessary incredulity.  Continued exposure to those who regularly deal in snake oil and bizarre fantasy tends to hollow out the sensible middle if we fail to leaven our naive faith with some clearheaded common sense.

We sometimes need lies to ease our many human fears, and sadly enough we are now cursed with a crop of political leaders who are happy to win our votes by cooing comforting nonsense.  To tell the truththat we cannot be offered protection from all of the worlds pain, despair, and injusticeis electoral suicide, so we are continually assured that with more laws, regulations, government programs, bureaucrats, mandates, tax increases, safe spaces, security cameras, oversight committees, bans, speech codes, censorship, permits, licenses, web policing, and fees we can eventually be cocooned in bliss.  Are we happy yet?

Those who are now proposing the next step, the use of Artificial Intelligence and computer algorithms to evaluate everyone in order to identify people who might (might!) someday pose a threat to others, are themselves terrifying; these individuals and organizations seem to be suggesting that life in an omnipresent, omniscientbut certainly not infalliblepolice state would be the most wonderful of all possible worlds.  That these ideas are considered credible and within reason seems to indicate that the domestic debate regarding delicate balance between freedom and security could be settled in a manner more Soviet than American.

Politics is, of course, theaterbut it should not be a theater of the absurd.  The lack of reality in so many of our national discussions, encouraged by feckless politicians and cheerleading media and celebrities, has led to policy impasses that forbid compromise due to an utter lack of consideration of costs and consequences by all involved.

The lies each side is able to tell because facts can now be treated as mere annoyances leaves our nation with no path forward, no hope for practicable solutions, and no ability for many to consider viewpoints other than their own.  Therefore, all we have left are the politics of personal destruction, which leads to endless attack and counterattack.  To assert this will lead to anything other than a hell of our own creation is the worst lie of all.

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The Problem Of Right And Wrong

A signal feature of civilization is the eternaland eternally frustratingquest to distinguish right from wrong.  Standards of behavior have changed dramatically over time, and our search for moral clarity has led humanity in many different directions. Guidelines for a good life have come from many religions, cults, monarchs, autocrats, academics, poets, entertainers, politicians, authors, and relatively ordinary individualseach offering their own visions for organizing our governmental, social, and individual lives.  What all have in common is that they have tapped into our deeply felt human desire to embrace principles that elevate our intentions and actions above those whom we deem our enemies or inferiors.

Moreover, we have always needed those to whom we look for moral or ethical leadership to possessor at least be able to plausibly fakea purity of individual character that can inspire us to follow their example and teachings.  The truth of the matter is almost beside the point.  John F. Kennedy may have spent his adult life running around with his zipper hanging open, but he spoke well, dressed sharply, and could pilot a sailboat with his photogenic family smiling by his side.  

It obviously helped JFK that the press was happily complicit in hiding his peccadilloes from public view, but their willingness to do so was a function of their starry-eyed admiration for his easy charm.  He seemed to fit their vision of what a moral and inspiring leader should be, so they were content to engage in some willful blindness in the pursuit of what they perceived to be a greater good.  Those on the inside will always shield a personally compromised leader if they believe his or her purpose is pureand their own power and prerogatives are protected in the bargain.

Finally, it is beneficial to have the right enemies if you are to offer compelling moral leadership to the masses.  Having a great and good vision is important, but it is much easier for your followers or potential followers to offer their support if you can offer an apocalyptic alternative that will occur if your teachings are not followed.  Many centuries ago the Catholic Church was able to exercise domination over Europe because failure to obey meant Satan would arise and your immortal soul would be damned to hell fire for eternity.  Today the conviction that the Earth will spiral into unthinkable environmental catastrophe in only 12 years if draconian measures are not immediately taken to remake our daily lives and entire economic structure is driving the fervor of some for eating insects, living in yurts, and using composting toiletsthe enemy is our species and its crimes against our planet.

The obvious problem with seeking guidance and leadership in the quest for moral clarity is that heroes are not always clearly heroic and villains sometimes not overtly villainous.  It would be helpful if the enemies of humanity were legally required to live in secret lairs inside active volcanoes (evil assistant optional) or daily dress in black leather embossed with swastikas, but we have learned the hard way that truly terrible people can be superficially quite charming and engaging.  Conversely, some of the most heroic people in our history have been bland, awkward, or confrontational.  

Worse yet, it is extraordinarily difficult (if not impossible) to know for certain whether a given individual or action will in the long term serve the interests of good, evilor perhaps both.  For example, the scientists who created the atom bomb toward the end of World War II helped to end the actual combat more quickly; however, it was also the case that hundreds of thousands of people died horribly as a result and a nightmarish era of nuclear anxiety and paranoia warped world politics for many decades to come.  Were these scientists heroes, villains, or dupes?  We are still arguing the point, and the final answer eludes us to this very day.  Right and wrong are often maddeningly complex concepts with innumerable twists and turns.

Nonetheless, we are surprisingly comfortable with condemning the beliefs and actions of others with sometimes startling viciousness, and our inability to recognize the limitations inherent in our perspectives is an impediment to productive dialogue.  In addition, our predilection for rhetorical overkill and fallacious linkagesI just today read of a Presidential candidate equating being pro-life with racism and anti-Semitismrenders all involved less heroic despite their intense beliefs in the merits of their causes or ideas.

Although we have spent the past several decades insisting that our feelings are more important than hard, verifiable facts, relegating our emotions to the margins of our conversations might be the only way out of the quandary we find ourselves in today.  It would, of course, be foolish to forget that facts can be readily manipulated and twisted by those with a partisan purpose, but cool-headed inquiry based on data is less fraught with difficulties than determining who is the most angry, offended, or appalled by a given proposal or viewpoint.  

Some are now convinced that logic is an oppressive tool of patriarchy and racism (Dont believe me? Look it up!).  However, it could be reasonably argued screeching at one another until our eardrums burst is an oppressively stupid method of resolving our disagreements that leads only to unending discord and misery.  

Numbers are not hateful.  Although some would certainly disagree, your bathroom scale is not discriminating against you when you check your weight in the morning. Standardized test scores might be influenced by a familys social-economic status, but that is not a reason for discontinuing the use them as one basic measure of K-12 academic outcomes.  Our spiraling national debt has many causes, but it cannot simply be dismissed as an irrelevant annoyance when contemplating governmental programs that will cost tens of trillions of dollars.

Determining whoand whatis right is never simple.  It is possible to believe with all your heart and soul in an individual or idea and still end up being in the wrong.  However, arguing by attacking and government by grievance are the dead end roads of representative democracy.  Unless we change our style and methods of discussion and resolution very soon, it is all too easy to imagine an America that is irretrievably Balkanized by passion divorced from reasona dystopia born of our self-righteous rage.

The Great “Unpersoning”

In his classic novel 1984 George Orwell introduced a term both banal and terrifying: the unperson. An unperson was an individual who had defied the orthodoxies of the government and society, so any mention of them or their ideas was removed from the public record and news media in order to ensure community harmony. Sometimes these unpersons were killed, but they could also be left to live out the span of their lives with their words gone, their voices silenced, and their individuality erased.

There was once a time in America and Europe when such censorship was unthinkable, but we are now creeping uncomfortably close to the dystopian reality that Mr. Orwell described, one where the ideas of those deemed outside the mainstream are removed from public view in the service of “the greater good” (a term that that typically is used to introduce the most demonstrably “un-good” policies), in this case the suppression of thoughts and ideas deemed hateful or harmful by some.

The mild term now used to describe the closing of someone’s “offensive” account on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or other social media sounds decidedly inoffensive: That person is being “deplatformed”. Setting aside the obvious question of what criteria an anonymous group of corporate screeners is using to decide what is offensive and what is not, it must be remembered that free thought is intrinsically offensive to somebody. We would still be scratching at the ground with sharp sticks if “troublesome” individuals throughout history had not loudly challenge the accepted wisdom—often at great personal risk—and forced changes upon an unwilling world and its leadership. Progress is often dependent on the rebel and the malcontent, and human advancement has been slowed—or rendered nonexistent—during those periods of our history when one orthodoxy reigned supreme and dissenting voices were silenced.

There are, of course, ideas that are—and have been—harmful to individuals, society, and the world as a whole. Allowing those whose ideas are stupid the opportunity to publicly demonstrate their stupidity is a workable and effective response to nonsense that has ably exposed idiocy for many a millennia. Continuing to allow individuals to use their own brains to evaluate the merits of evidence and arguments presented by others—to, in other words, use their common sense—will work much better than employing armies of screeners and evaluators to shield us from the need to exercise our own judgments during the course of our daily lives.

Those who favor taking away the social media accounts and access of those who promulgate and promote foolishness often cite the most extreme examples to support censorship, and their legal and extra-legal efforts to ban that which they characterize as hate speech are informed by honest passion regarding this matter. However, one has to ask whether the examples cited by the censorship advocates to support their viewpoints actually make any sense when held up to the light.

Everyone who claims to love free speech—but actually does not—tends to eventually gravitate toward the example of Hitler and the Nazis to support their censorious attitudes. Wouldn’t it be better, they ask, if “people like that” were simply prohibited from spewing their hateful ideas? Conveniently forgotten is that the German government “deplatformed” Adolf Hitler for 264 days in 1924 by tossing him in prison after the failed Beer Hall Putsch—and turned him into a national hero, which helped to fuel his rise to power.

Prohibition of awful ideas does not necessarily cause them to disappear; it often instead drives them underground, where they can mutate into more virulent and dangerous forms that now have the cachet of the forbidden to make them yet more attractive to potential followers. As painful and difficult as it is to have to listen to insulting gibberish—and as problematic as this sometimes might be because the mentally unstable or morally malformed might be attracted to the words of hate mongers—we are far better off overall if crackpot speech and beliefs are exposed to our scrutiny and scorn.

Censorship is the tool of authoritarian governments; the power and legitimacy of democracy is predicated on a free and open discussion of all ideas and viewpoints. The recently adopted motto of The Washington Post, “Democracy Dies in Darkness”, refers to the oversight of government by an informed citizenry, but it could just as well describe the well-lit marketplace of ideas that is necessary for democracy to function to its fullest. Just as campus speech codes have damaged the liberal idea—and ideals—of higher education, so does the censorship of offensive or extreme ideas on social media damage that which enables and enlivens the traditions and practices of Western liberal thought: the opportunity to hear all sides of a debate and forcefully engage with the opinions expressed.

Conspiracy Theories Or Reasonable Questions?

As long as humanity has had a toehold on terra firma, we have looked for someone to blame for our woes. Our many problems, which for much of our history were blamed on either the disfavor or caprices of the gods, now are typically blamed on human agents—who are usually part of some cabal out to fool and manipulate us.

Whether we are seeking those behind the JFK assassination, the true story behind 9/11, those UFOs parked in Area 51, or the UN office behind Agenda 21 (perhaps our better conspiracies end with the number 1!), many are convinced that dark forces with malevolent motivations are controlling our world in pursuit of one dastardly agenda or another.

It is, of course, simple human nature to demand a simple explanation for catastrophe. Placating powerful gods at one time consumed those portions of our short and often brutal lives when we were not already engrossed with scratching our meager livings from the earth. Those who claimed to be able to divine and communicate with forces beyond our understanding always were able to win favor, and if some degree of protection from pain or horror might be secured through either ritual or avoiding proscribed behaviors, there would always be a ready audience for such notions. Our compelling interests in avoiding famine, flood, fire, and disease baked a certain degree of easy credulity into humanity’s DNA over the course of many thousands of years, and we must recognize this inheritance is within us all.

Today the thunder of the gods has receded somewhat, and our shamans are typically scientists. Based upon their sage advice, we gulp supplements, avoid bacon and cigarettes, run on treadmills like hamsters, slather on sunscreen, and assiduously attempt to forestall the inevitable deaths of both ourselves and those whom we love by seeking out the secrets to our ever elusive immortality. These behaviors are, by and large, fairly benign and typically work to our benefit. When, for example, is the last time you met someone sporting a large and unsightly goiter—and do most of us even know what this is anymore?

However, the flip side of our credulous belief in the wonders of science as an agent for individual improvement is our bizarre belief in the perfectibility of humanity itself. Hence our willingness to embrace ideas based on the crudest eugenic theories and our obsession with elevating ourselves—while degrading others—based upon what are ultimately the most minute variations in our genes. The hatreds and warfare that have soaked our species in blood now more typically manifest themselves in cartoonish characterizations that are more laughable than dangerous—although ethnic and racial slaughters still pop up around the world with depressing regularity. We obviously still have quite a way to go before we entirely stamp out stupidity.

Recognizing our twin desires to both avoid disaster—and to know who to blame when it befalls us—is necessary if we are to fully understand many of the political and social problems besetting our nation and our world. As our global affairs have become more complex and interdependent, the opportunities for exploitation have multiplied exponentially, and government and multinational corporations—often working hand in glove—have become the golden idols at the center of our lives. Far more powerful, intrusive, and frightening than the supposedly omnipotent gods of old, the power of government and industry to grant stupendous wealth, poison our bodies and minds, destroy our planet, provide uncounted comforts and distractions, take away our property and livelihoods, either greatly extend or savagely shorten our lives, and ultimately control every facet of our existences is unprecedented in human history. Zeus and Apollo were mere amateurs compared to Google and Goldman Sachs.

It should not be much of a surprise that our fear and wonder drives us to anxiously search for patterns and clues to help avoid the wrath of these new and implacable gods—and seek the reasons why they insist on punishing so many of us. Some call them conspiracy theories. More times than we realize, they may be remarkably reasonable questions about our remarkably unreasonable world.

Our grim awareness of the naked and shameless lust for wealth and power that drives so many who now control our lives makes the construction of the conspiracy theories/querulous narratives that animate our discussions all the easier. Understanding the extremist ideologies that undergirded so much of the Cold War, it is easier to imagine whispered instructions from a secretive group ordering the murder of a President. Knowing of the desire of multi-national corporations and their government cronies to secure control of Mideast oil supplies, one need not work too hard to see a stupendous plot to fake a terrorist attack against America in order to justify endless war. Having been kept in the dark about so many secret government military projects, little green men in flying saucers becomes a plausible explanation for so many of those bright lights in the night sky. Observing the never ending violence and drug traffic in our inner cities involving African-Americans, it is little wonder that so many are certain this is being facilitated by the government as part of a genocidal war of extermination.

Given the craven and corrupt behavior that is now so common among government officials and business executives, are we paranoid to believe that our needs come far behind the interests of those in power who are chasing riches and influence? One could, of course, argue that dishonesty and avarice have defined the leaders of every age—why else, after all, would one chase high office in government or business? However, we perhaps have a confluence of circumstances today that heightens the stench that often emanates from the halls of power.

The Information Age has been a boon to the average American citizen—and a bane to those in power. Although political scientists often trace our loss of faith in our leadership back to the twin national traumas of the Vietnam War and Watergate, I suspect the crux of the problem is the more adversarial style of journalism these scandals helped to create and the rise of alternative news sources—first in print and later on through the worldwide web. Just as putting a brighter lightbulb in a room causes one to suddenly notice the stained carpet and peeling paint, so has the variety and visibility of news and opinion targeted to—and now increasingly produced by—the masses led to an enormous range of information that speaks to the fears and concerns of virtually everyone.

Although muckrakers and iconoclasts like Ida Tarbell and I. F. Stone played influential roles in shaping opinion earlier in the 20th century, the 24/7 news and information cycle—and the many to whom cheap and powerful technology has now given an unsanctioned and unrestrained voice—has made it virtually impossible for the crooked and corrupt to fly beneath the radar undetected. This visibility produces a higher degree of accountability, but it also calls the motives and methods of business and government—today’s omnipotent yet mysterious gods—into question on a daily basis.

If this scrutiny produces more “conspiracy theories”, so be it. The rich and the powerful are perfectly able to defend themselves if the suspicions of impropriety are unwarranted. If we are compelled to listen to outlandish notions on occasion—only to have them later debunked—I do not find this too high a price to pay for the ongoing oversight that is now possible. If those in charge want our trust, perhaps they had best conduct themselves in a manner that is above suspicion. If not, we should be free to arrive at our own judgments concerning their veracity and good intentions.

Let Our People Tweet!

In a recent interview, Barack Obama made the following observation regarding the promise—and pitfalls—associated with the rapid growth of the use of social media in our hyper-politicized age: “The question has to do with how do we harness this technology in a way that allows a multiplicity of voices, allows a diversity of views, but doesn’t lead to a Balkanization of society and allows ways of finding common ground.” This is a good question, but it may miss the mark just slightly—as many perfectly reasonable questions sometimes do.

The ever-expanding range of social media—everything from Facebook to Twitter to Snapchat and beyond—has fundamentally changed our political, personal, and social discourse in ways we are still struggling to understand. Who, for example, had heard of “hashtag activism” a scant few years ago or would have foreseen the manner in which a political neophyte could leverage his love of “tweeting” into the highest elected office in our nation?

Politicians, reporters, businesspeople, celebrities, athletes, and others now race to provide their instantaneous reactions—we cannot possibly call it analysis—regarding every twitch in the fabric of our world. No event or statement—no matter how momentous or mundane—seems beyond comment, and YouTube personalities now rake in six and seven figure incomes for sharing (or perhaps oversharing) every aspect of their daily lives. Our planet’s population has become a global network of symbiotic exhibitionists and voyeurs, each dependent upon the other for the peculiar gratifications of either posing or peering. It is sometimes a wonder that anyone finds the time to brush their teeth between checking online, posting, and anxiously waiting for the “likes” to appear.

As a result, privacy is now nearly synonymous with invisibility, which has both individual and cultural consequences we can only begin to today fathom. We should, however, by now recognize the drawbacks inherent in engaging with social media in a manner that slices and dices individuals into ever-smaller subgroups based upon identities, interests, and political leanings. Although shared community can certainly result from, for example, finding Facebook “friends” who are just like you—and actively “unfriending” those who are not—this can easily slip into the Balkanization that concerns Mr. Obama. The myopic view of the world that results from communing exclusively with those who agree with everything you say produces the mental flabbiness and smug certitude that has helped to poison so many of our national conversations. Speaking only to those like ourselves surely separates us from one another—and impedes honest discussion.

However, this being acknowledged, I believe that Mr. Obama neglected to emphasize perhaps the greatest benefit of social media: the removal of mediators and filters that decide how information is transmitted—or whether it is transmitted at all. I am old enough to remember when a mere handful of major networks and newspapers were able to impose a virtual information hegemony upon our nation, which turned them into arbiters, gatekeepers, and kingmakers—and drastically narrowed the range of information and opinions available. Perhaps the most startling—or, for some, terrifying—aspect of last year’s Presidential election was that Donald Trump won without a single endorsement from a major news outlet and slogged on to victory while thumbing his nose at their repeated disparagements. This was, no matter how it might otherwise be spun, a stunning populist victory that would most certainly have been stopped in its tracks by the mainstream media in years past. It will be up to historians to determine the merits of Donald Trump’s presidency, but his success at the ballot box would have been impossible before the advent of social media.

Of course, right now a Trump opponent is rolling his or her eyes at his use—some would say manipulation—of his Twitter account, but it should be remembered that there would be no #MeToo moment or #BlackLivesMatter tidal wave revealing decades of pain and abuse were it not for the enormous power and reach of social media. In both of these instances, the entrenched establishment lost control of the narrative because millions of voices were suddenly able to speak and be heard. This is what most terrifies those in positions of previously unassailable power and influence: The average person can now wield a mighty sword to cut them down to size with just the tip of their finger tapping on a screen.

The nascent effort to combat “fake news” by empowering corporations and government agencies to ferret out information they deem unreliable—or perhaps embarrassing—seems to me to be nothing but a thinly veiled attempt by the establishment to reassert their control over what information is available in order to maintain their crumbling authority. Rumors, gossip, and pettiness have been baked into humanity since the dawn of civilization, but the official lies that have driven disastrous misadventures (we never did find those “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, did we?) are too numerous to enumerate and have caused vastly more damage to our nation and its people.

We are likely much better off with a wild and uncontrollable social media environment that asks uncomfortable questions and attacks complacent assumptions. If people are sometimes insulted and misinformation is occasionally spread, this is a small price to pay for the incredibly free and open discussion that is now possible, and we would be fools indeed to have this wrested away from us because some are more comfortable with the hollow silence that would soon follow.

The common ground we find after free-wheeling debate is a firmer foundation than the shaky consensus forced upon us by stilling voices of dissent. We must, of course, learn how to avoid ad hominem attacks and cruel invective as we discuss difficult and divisive issues, but the Balkanization that so concerns Mr. Obama also might be characterized as the messy and maddening freedom to speak truth to power and challenge a status quo that many find unacceptable. It is normal and healthy for citizens in a democracy to disagree, and those who yearn for the good old days when those who owned the television broadcast licenses or printing presses decided what we would be allowed to hear or say are simply hoping that taking away the voices of the many will protect the power of the few.

No matter how many times experts and insiders assure us that strict social media censorship will produce peace, harmony, or security, don’t believe it for a second. We are much better off with the sloppy cacophony of voices and viewpoints that we have right now, and those who are pushing for more curated conformity and crass control deserve nothing other than a good kick in the pants—on social media.