Saturday, September 18, 2004

Counter Reformation for Dummies

If I were a praying man, I’d thank Providence every day that I wasn’t born as a person of literary ambitions in a 3rd World country. I have an intense sympathy for those poor souls who are more or less stuck with the scutwork of explaining how the ancient traditions of their people are—who would have thought it?—precisely relevant to contemporary problems because the positive features of modernity were all adumbrated by various dimly remembered prophets, sages, and poets. Armies of national intellectuals have found their widely varying talents herded into the defile of this historical situation. Nobody writes what they want, just what they can; but the predicament of so many 19th and 20th Century public men and women shows that the great constraint on creativity is not a lack of ability or some subtle psychological block or tragic and ineluctable abyss between conception and performance or even the suffocating, inescapable influence of the Zeitgeist, but often enough the absence of any other plausible career move.

A lot of what gets passed off as historical determinism is no more mysterious than the canalizing effect of available career options. And it’s just for this reason that the best way to assert ideological hegemony is not brainwashing or terror but the creation of opportunities for bright young comers. The Roman church wasn’t particularly successful in countering Protestantism by burning people at the stake, but restricting the best bureaucratic and academic jobs to the faithful had a powerful if gradual effect, especially in Hapsburg lands. Transubstantiation didn’t become any more plausible between 1500 and 1700, but it paid rather better to defend it just as it pays better to arrive at free market solutions to every conceivable problem in an intellectual world increasingly dominated by the patronage of highly ideological foundations. Overt persecution of opposing views is unnecessary and counterproductive so long as personal ambition can so easily be mobilized in the service of authority. Of course the very best minds are a little too proud to shill for anybody, but the mediocre always dominate the scene in the short run as one can easily verify by monitoring the Op Ed page of the New York Times.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Before and After the Fact

At any given time, a mind can only entertain 5 or 6 things. That’s not a bad performance for a single naked ape. Unfortunately, the group mind is just as limited. As a result, everything has to be articulated in terms of a tiny sample of current cant. It is exceedingly difficult to introduce a new idea or even to widen the repertory a bit if only for stylistic variety. Even using a different expression for the same concept loses readers. For example, in political contexts one inevitably ends up writing that the other guys remarks are “troubling,” a locution I, for one, find positively horripilatory and not in a good way. Sometimes cant is accidentally accurate, however. For example, it is quite correct and even apt to arraign the mass media as facilitators of the Republican Big Lie technique.

Television talking heads have picked up the preemptive defense that they are blamelessly innocent and objective because they simply report what both sides say about the issues of the day. Proclaiming this policy is the sheerest invitation to political thuggery. It’s like putting up posters in a bad neighborhood to let everybody know which warehouses are unlocked. If the media will not call even the most egregious whoppers, it will pay the unscrupulous to repeat them as they certainly have.

Simple minded people–and that means all of us most of the time—automatically assume that what people utter has a prima facie validity. We’re well aware that people can lie and misrepresent things, of course; but the default on our program is trust and it takes energy to listen critically. You have to do something. For this reason, even those of us who know better are influenced by the endless repetition of false information. Propaganda works and what makes it effective is repetition, not cogency. Since the radical right has the means to get its message endlessly repeated—think of the Swift Boat campaign—truth or falsity becomes irrelevant and even the opponents of the administration will end up doubting themselves about matters that are long past reasonable question. It is the sheerest vanity to think that one is immune to the spin. You aren’t just being partisan, dear readers. In fact things are worse than you think.

When the purveyors of information abdicate responsibility to keep things on the level, we all wind up living in the Winchester House of Mystery wondering why the short guys look tall and water seems to run up hill. If we had a free press in the United States, no major party would nominate an incompetent like Bush or allow such a figure to run on a platform of 2+2=5. As it is, practically anything can happen because the entire country is suffering from a breakdown in reality testing. Media facilitators bear a large share of the responsibility for this outcome and should be made to pay a personal penalty for their cowardly and convenient “objectivity.”