At the Mountains of Madness

Between the Trump campaign and Russia’s “information war” I have begun to feel like I’m stumbling around blindly in a torpor, trying to understand the grave phenomenon that seems to be unfolding before our eyes. As a history buff I’m always cautious about doom-saying and lamenting the supposed “decay” of civilization. I’m fully aware that every age had its prophets of doom who warned that their current younger generation would surely be the last, just as I am aware that on the whole, humans live longer, better, more satisfying lives than in any other period of history. On the other hand, unlike the overly-optimistic liberal establishment I am not so naive as to think that progress is an uninterrupted, irreversible process. Or to put it in layman’s terms: Yes, we can totally fuck everything up.

What phenomenon am I speaking of? Well Peter Pomerantsev calls it “post-fact.” Rather appropriate term, I think. I’ve noticed a growing trend whereby a person is presented with irrefutable evidence that something did or didn’t happen, and yet this makes literally no impact on their beliefs or behavior. Now in case this sounds normal, let me tell you now that it isn’t. There definitely seems to have been a change, a growing trend.

Take politicians’ lies, for example. It seems like in the not-too-distant past, most political lying was what they call spin, or being “economical with the truth.” This would seem logical in an era of the internet and ubiquitous recording, because if you tell an outright falsehood someone would easily catch you. Observing the Bush administration and Fox News’ antics at the time, it seemed like the trend was getting away from factual arguments and into opinion and things which couldn’t easily be disputed or verified. For example, maybe Saddam didn’t actually have WMDs, but how could you be sure he wouldn’t get them eventually? Realistically speaking that claim is highly unlikely, but virtually impossible to disprove. And as you’re trying to make the case against that unlikely hypothetical scenario, your opponent would have moved onto some other topic, such as Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against Kurds.

To be sure, this is not ideal. It was downright annoying, to say the least. But now something’s different. It’s evolved. See the politician-style rhetoric starts with a conscious realization that objective truth exists, but it might not be on your side. Therefore what you do is grease yourself down and be as slippery as possible. You know that if you get pinned down, you’ll end up saying something that is verifiable, and if someone checks you’ll be found out. This new lying isn’t even lying, insofar as those telling the lies appear to sincerely believe in them. These untruths are stated confidently, in strong declarative sentences as though they were self-evident facts. It matters not how blatantly they are contradicted by material reality. It doesn’t matter if this person is opining on a topic they’ve never even heard of until recently. Once they find the talking point that fits in with their world view, it is “fact.”

It seems I cannot stress enough how insane this is. Imagine we’re co-workers and you catch me eating your lunch in the company break room. Next to me is the paper bag you put it in. It has your name written on it, on both sides, with big black letters. You point out that it’s yours and I, still chewing part of your pretentious gourmet artisanal sandwich, confidently tell you that you are mistaken. Not only do I insist it is mine, but I begin bringing up all kinds of other topics that have nothing to do with the ownership of the food in question. “Someone once ate my lunch from the fridge! Why don’t you talk about them? Some co-workers have shared food with me in the past!” Some of these things could be facts, but they have absolutely nothing to do with the bottom line, which is that I stole your goddamned lunch. My basic line stays the same: “No, it’s not yours. It’s mine. It was always mine. Your name is not Bill. I am Bill. You are Jim.”

Or suppose we change the scenario a bit. You’re upset because you heard your significant other was making out with another co-worker at a party. I tell you that this is physically impossible, because I was at the party from beginning to end and saw neither your significant other nor the person they were supposedly flirting with. In fact, that particular person was on vacation in another country at the time. I can’t speak for the fidelity of your partner, but it is literally impossible that they did what you think. This never happened. Now one would think that, assuming you had no other reasons to suspect such behavior from your partner, at the very least you would probably rethink the dramatic confrontation you had planned for later that night. If anything, you might want to confront the person who told you that yarn in the first place. Put simply- you would modify your behavior according to the facts you have received.

If you’re a Trump supporter, Putin fanboy, conspiracy theorist, or quite possibly all three, maybe you wouldn’t. At least you wouldn’t if you applied the same approach to reality you use online and in political matters to your everyday life. I wonder how such people would react if someone sold them an obviously broken product and claimed it was functioning perfectly. I wonder because again and again I see people like this confronted with concrete facts, sometimes provided by myself, and it has no effect on them whatsoever. They just double down until you basically have to block them because they begin to look as though they’re trying to convince themselves more than anyone else. I guess it takes effort to maintain the fantasy. As one writer put it: They don’t believe in these things because they’re stupid, they become stupid because they believe in these things.

Again, someone might say, with a fair bit of evidence, that this kind of thinking has always been around. That may be the case, but I think that there might be a qualitative difference simply because we live in the information age of the internet and mass media. As others have pointed out in regards to the internet, it creates the ability to construct one’s own echo chamber. Over the years I’ve also personally witnessed another strange phenomenon, whereby people seem to be playing a sort of real-life role playing game in internet discussions. Rather than debating with other people like themselves, they apparently see their opponents as representatives of their chosen enemy. Neo-Nazis will accuse you of being a Jew. 9/11 truthers accuse you of being a government shill. Anti-GMO people say you work for Monsanto or “Big Pharma.” Kremlin supporters say you work for the CIA or State Department, and Ukrainian nationalists and cheerleaders accuse you of being a “Kremlin troll.” Nobody can simply disagree with them. Nobody could possibly have more access to the facts or expertise on the topic than them. So the only explanation must be that they are some kind of evil agent, deliberately spreading disinformation on the internet.

That, I think, is the factor that wasn’t present in past societies. Sure, there were plenty of political parties that demonized their enemies and may have offered their members some kind of adventure to spice up their dull lives, but these movements existed in the real world. You had to join them, interact with their members, learn their ideology, and engage in activism. If you were trying to recruit someone on the street and they said they weren’t quite sure about some of your claims, you couldn’t just point your finger at them and start screaming “SHILL!” The internet makes this all too possible.

In the same vein, if you joined one of these organizations in the past, you usually had to face the consequences of your actions and statements. If you engaged in long rambling speeches about things that never happened you’d be dismissed as a crank and become a public laughing stock. Or if you engaged in a public debate with someone far more knowledgeable and experienced on the topic at hand, you would be easily embarrassed. As soon as you get stumped on a few basic questions the audience would see through you, and you’d know it too.

None of this is the case online. Online you’re a revolutionary fighting for Western civilization against the “Cultural Marxist social justice warriors.” You’re an “anti-imperialist” waging war on American hegemony and globalization. You’re standing up to Putin’s “neo-Soviet Union” and his legion of “trolls,” i.e. anyone who disagrees with your claims or fails to present information that falls in line with the fantasy narrative you’ve created. It’s so much more exciting than reality!

Recently I’ve taken up reading Matt Taibbi’s book The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion, and I can’t recommend it enough from what I’ve read so far. In the introduction, Taibbi speaks of millions of Americans so befuddled and burnt out by politics that they seem to check out of reality altogether and construct their own alternative realities. Against this backdrop he documents the corruption and cynicism within the US government, and while those who have checked out of politics see themselves as some kind of “resistance” to the system, in actuality their abdication of their civic responsibility means the system has even more freedom to be as corrupt as it can. As you read his words you think about how accurately this describes 2016, and then you have to remind yourself that this book was published in 2008. In other words, we’ve exceeded the level of insanity we describe.

I wish I could offer some kind of solution here, but my usual recommendations probably wouldn’t even cut it if they were implemented. What’s the use of teaching people critical thinking skills  when they’ve long since graduated school and quite possibly suspect that the very concept of critical thinking is some kind of Marxist mind-control plot? Who would the teachers be? Who’s to say they won’t claim the teachers are shills for Monsanto or the US government? What about fact-checking projects like Stopfake or Politifact? These won’t sway the alternative reality crowd one bit. The former will be labeled a US government front and the latter is probably controlled by Soros or the Illuminati.

It seems to me in the short term, the only possible solution is to just shut these people down and block them out. I’m not talking about censorship; I’m talking about individuals. In the past I’ve tended to disagree with those who say you should never debate conspiracy theorists, Holocaust deniers, creationists, etc. I tend to disagree. These debates help sharpen one’s own knowledge and rhetorical skills, and they also show audiences that those on the side of truth can stand up to challenges. This, however, refers to actual debates- rules, standards, perhaps a moderator, and an agreement on basic facts of the matter.

Maybe the best response to bold, declarative statements devoid of any supporting evidence and arbitrary dismissals of contrary evidence is to simply say: “Sorry, but that’s incorrect,” and move on. I mean do we seriously need to sit down and “debate” as to whether or not the Earth is a flat disk? “No, the Earth is not a flat disk. No, sorry, but the sun is not a giant space-whale testicle floating in space. That’s wrong, you moron.” Or more relevant: “What’s that? You’ve never been to Russia or Ukraine and yet you’re going to lecture me on these topics and tell me what sources are reliable or unreliable because you have an internet connection?  No, sorry. You are wrong. Your opinion is frivolous and does not matter. Come back when you’ve put in the time and the work.”

Of course this only works for individuals and it is still a stop-gap. After all, the real work is for governments. Based on my own experience and what Taibbi and others have written, what I see is extreme alienation of large swathes of the population in industrialized countries. They’re suffering from things they don’t understand and can’t easily see, so they make up their own villains. This is why I keep saying that the real response to this so-called Russian “information war” must first start at home. Take care of your own people first and you will deny bad actors (including home-grown ones) from leading them astray. Whereas the Russian foreign-language media basically says “Yes, we’re bad, but everybody’s bad so don’t judge us,” the Western, especially publicly-funded media ought to be saying, “Yeah, things are really bad, here’s what you can do about it, here’s what others have done about it.” People often use fantasy as an escape from unpleasant reality, therefore we need to somehow make reality more appealing.

 

UPDATE: If you want to see an example of how unpleasant reality makes people receptive to bullshit, take a look at an excerpt from this article:

“During a discussion on the links between Brexit-backers and the Trumpian proletariat, NPR’s economics reporter Adam Davidson offered the following explanation for right-wing populism’s current appeal:

I know Hillary Clinton’s economic team fairly well, and I’m very impressed by them. They really are top-notch economists and economic policy thinkers. They don’t have anything for a 55-year-old laid-off factory worker in Michigan or northeastern Pennsylvania. Or whatever. They don’t have anything to offer them. And so I think it’s intuitively understandable that a screaming, loud, wrong answer is more compelling than a calm, reasonable, accurate, right answer: Your life is going to be worse for the rest of your life — but don’t worry, these hipsters in Brooklyn are doing much better.
[…] The threshold for wages has gone up. There was a long period in the 20th century where, simply being willing to go to a building reliably everyday for eight hours or 12 hours and do what you’re told was worth a lot. […] And you didn’t need to read, you didn’t need to write, you didn’t need to have any kind of education. Those jobs are all but fully gone. […] So in this country, we don’t have demand for the high-school-only graduates and the high-school dropouts we have, and that’s a big population. Something like 80 million people.”

 

Advertisements

7 thoughts on “At the Mountains of Madness

  1. AndyT

    I think the update sums it up pretty well.

    As weird, disturbing and “post-fact”-ish as they might be, all of these populist movements are the response to terribly concrete issues – jobs being lost forever, people with no chances, etc.

    As long as these disenfranchised people fail to get their voices heard in the “mainstream” discourse, they will rely on populism, over and over again…

    However, as long as a reasonably large and “sensible” middle-class exists, those enraged voters’ expectations are going to be crushed with their unlikely candidates; and this defeat will only make “the establishment” stronger – at least for a while.

    If the only “chance” for blue-collar workers lies with Trump-like characters, the establishment is always likely to win, and to leave their concerns unanswered.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      It really struck a nerve with me, a real socialist and Sanders voter who is forced, by cold reason, to endorse Hillary. That’s how it feels- the only option is a bad one. We need a real alternative. The problem is that these people peddling “alternative” views are conmen who confuse people, make them cynical, and essentially get them to abandon actual politics and activism for internet-based bullshit or street theatre.

      Reply
    2. Shalcker

      There seems to be constant deterioration of middle class base too. So it’s far from being given that they are going to be crushed…

      Reply
      1. AndyT

        @Jim

        Exactly – as strong as my sympathy for those voters might be, I feel I could never vote for someone like Trump… his views are far too extreme, IMHO – and they are also inclined to change several times in a while…

        @Shalcker

        I agree the middle class as we used to know it is shrinking… on the other hand, there are more “educated new-proletarians” (i.e., unemployed/underemployed college graduates and Millennials) – who are unlikely to endorse Trump’s views on race, gender, immigration…

  2. Bill Malcolm

    I’m not sure I agree with you on the newness of the “no matter what facts you have you’re wrong” mindset of people. The British bureaucracy at both the national and local level perfected the technique in its dealings with citizens back in the 1950s, and provided a base technique for bureaucracies everywhere to emulate. It probably well predates the 1950s, but that’s when I became an aware person.

    Furthermore, the Monty Python “Parrot” sketch, the “Argument” sketch and to a lesser extent the “Cheese Shop” sketch, all dating from 1970 to 1972, nail the syndrome completely. You can easily find these on YouTube. They show in hilarious fashion how commerce adopted the technique pioneered by the bureaucrats at City Hall, some of whom happily invented rules themselves outside the purview of their actual responsibilities.

    Now with the Internet, all that has happened is that pig ignorant people who lack the education and or logic skills to reason an argument through to a logical conclusion, invent some wacko theory in their heads and stand by it come what may. Ship and aircraft captains of great seniority, plus military generals of all kinds unwilling to accept the inevitable and standing on pride also have exhibited the disease for millenia. The creation of internet forums where like-minded people could finally get together and take hope in various agreed areas of stupidity while also formulating conspiracy theories of zero merit when the mood struck, is where the modern internet version differs from the past mimeographed newsletters. Oh what rich territory for state-sponsored propaganda to be absorbed! Or just advertising for that matter.

    Into this miasma of lack of knowledge flock the people who paid no attention in school, but are convinced that their ideas are as good as the next man, come what may in the form of complete proof to the contrary. This is what I think of as the real “human condition”. General dumbness. From mothers who refuse to get their babies/kids vaccinated for various diseases, to people who take certain foods to “cleanse” their systems, forgetting they have kidneys and livers, to people who think that chiropractic is a science (so well dissed by H L Mencken a century ago) to otherwise educated people who swallow pills from natural plants as be-all and end-all cures, the world is full of denial of the truth.

    Then onto the world stage as a self-aggrandizing nincompoop and not particularly good businessman steps the ignoramus Trump, so dimwitted he cannot even understand what he does not understand. A bottomless well of hypocrisy and lack of knowledge, powered by an indomitable belief in his ideas being correct, while also being mercurial in temperament. Lord god almighty, the West is about to be ruled by a person who wouldn’t understand Grad 6 math and can be distracted by the sun going behind a cloud.

    I really enjoy your site, and have been reading it for a while. Not sure I agree with all you say in the logical scheme of things as distinct from facts, but it’s certainly far better than the general run of the alternative press, dominated as it is by first runs and rehashes of Russian propaganda of the RT and Sputnik variety. Being a citizen of a smaller country in the West, Canada, my first predilection is always to look with grave disfavour on the utterings of the Big Three powers, because they are first and foremost in it for themselves and are trying to drum up followers.

    I look forward to each essay.

    Reply
  3. Asehpe

    I remember reading somewhere that prejudice comes from a deeply felt desire not to be the worst one in the hierarchy. There is at least someone I’m better than, someone I can look down on, no matter how downtrodden I am. And what if facts go against this belief? Well, I still need to feel better, so screw the facts.

    When I look at the American working class, I see a lot of people who don’t trust “the elites”, including liberals (when was it that being a liberal became synonymous with belonging to “the elites”?…). Eggheads, progressives, rich people, the politcal elite — aren’t they always people “with hidden agendas” who don’t give a damn about us working people? Who can trust anything they say? Who can trust, say, scientists to tell the truth about science — they’re a cabal who wants to fool us, they need their research grants, they’ll manipulate the truth to get them… And how do I know this? Because bad things have been happening to me, working-class white American male, and Nobody Cares. Feminists tell me I’m to blame for women’s woes and that I’m a potential rapist; progressives tell me I’m full of prejudices, I’m the reason why there still is racial prejudice in America; rich people tell me I’m a “freeloader” who thinks only “gimme-gimme-gimme” and never developed a good “working ethic”; hell, the PC police even tells me I’m “abusing others” just because I use words that “trigger” their poor little booboos and make them cry…

    Can’t I ever get a break? Do I have to be the cause of everything bad that is happening in the country, of all the bad things that happened to me? Can’t I just be a decent human being, despite my thoughts, beliefs and opinoins? Nooo–they say, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem…

    Well, now, with President Trump, You All Will Feel The Weight of My Righteous Wrath! And don’t talk to me about facts — my gut tells me that I haven’t gotten a fair deal, that I’m not being fairly judged by feminists like Ms Sarkeesian, by Black Lives Matter, by the Forbes 100; and my life is telling me that things are getting worse, I’ve been laid off, I don’t know what to do to keep my family alive, and I’m really thinking about sitting and drinking booze all day long… Why the heck should I vote to elect someone who says I’m Part Of The Problem? Why should I believe anything they say, when they (feminists, liberals, progressives, rich people) have been In Power for so long, and all I got was this shitty life?… Of course they’re The Enemy! And it doesn’t matter to me if “facts” are on their side because the Devil Speaketh with A Forked Tongue and I know they’re all my enemies and I’m not going to yield one inch, not anymore, no sir! I’ve put up with too much already! It’s Time To React!…

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s