Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Friday, November 22, 2013

Brief Blog Reviews XI: Disinformation

I’m posting this Brief Blog Review on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, so it seems appropriate to go way out on a paranoid limb. This month’s review is of the prolific and imperfect Disinformation, a witch’s brew of all sorts of minority and fringe positions. You name it, you’ll find it here: mind-control, surveillance, anti-vaccination, 9/11, hyper-elite secret cabals, alien invaders, and scads more. Most of the blogs reviewed in this series have one or two posts a week. Disinfo has sometimes ten or twenty in a day. Way too many. Too many to read, too many to take in. Nonetheless, I’m putting Disinfo up here as the best single-source digest of what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style”, and not just because we need a bunch of cautionary tales. I admit that I am probably more open to raising my eyebrows at the received version of the daily news, no matter which appointed gatekeeper has passed it on stamped “Approved for General Distribution.” Truth be told, with corporate offices in NYC and several glossy publications (and a television series) to its credit, Disinfo is already itself dangerously close to becoming an alternative gatekeeper for the self-styled cynical hip -- skepticism (of a sort) commodified. But my commending the paranoid style isn’t so much about content. I cut my teeth on Robert Anton Wilson, that zetetic apostle, and while I obviously think that one must problematize doubt as well as certainty, there is much to commend a serious and recurrent engagement with Not Buying What You Are Told.

I once was at a spiritual retreat with a number of other people, including a gracious and articulate woman who suddenly surprised me by expressing dismay over the many “chemtrails” she observed in the otherwise blue sky. Whoo-boy, I thought, and tried to gently redirect the conversation. It was considerably later that I reflected: I don’t know what “warrant” she thinks she has for “believing” in chemtrails, but what warrant do I have for disbelieving in them? I went around in circles a few times like this: “Well, if that were true, then... then, the experts... then somebody would have... I mean, somebody other than those people...” Sigh. Honesty finally compelled me (not without a fight) to confess that it mostly boiled down to “chemtrails” seeming, well, just outlandish. Crazy. Paranoid. In short, I wasn’t really thinking. I had already decided, on purely extra-intellectual considerations, that I need not think. This idea was beyond the pale.

Now, is this a bad reason to not consider any given hypothesis? No, not really; or not always. No one has the time, energy, and competence to decide the merits of every last claim “on the evidence.” Sometimes parsimony has to suffice, and doubtless it is often right that it suffices. But one may concede this finitude of personal resource, without resigning oneself to the conveniently available default positions of one’s demographic. It is very easy to act as if one has rejected the “obviously” false, nutty, weirdo claims on some kind of evidence, and forget that one is shooting from the hip of prejudice. Remembering this is one part of what it means to remember that one is awash in a sea of ideology.

There are indeed ideas that are beyond the pale. Some ideas I cannot entertain even if I try. They are not, as William James put it, “living options” for me. But ideas don’t just start out that way by definition, nor do they inevitably remain that way. It is worth asking why certain hypotheses with a general family-resemblance to each other tend to recur in the paranoid fringe, but it’s also worth noting that ninety percent of the time, the term “paranoid fringe” is already a way of chiming in with your superego’s not-so-subtle “Nothing to see here. Move along.” On most days, chemtrails still seem beyond the pale to me. But I don't pretend that I have, or understand, any evidence that makes them plausible or not. And I am less cozy living within the pale; it no longer seems so self-evidently solid to me.

Disinfo’s posts, all presented in a well-designed format whose readability is several cuts above the average paranoid site, are cumulatively a virtual smorgasbord of Things They Don’t Want You To Know. It'll point you to reports that vaccine companies falsify evidence; that incandescent light bulbs are more efficient than fluorescent lights, and safer as well; that fluoride in the water is lulling you into a sleepy conformism, and the evidence is precisely that you find the claim outlandish! These are just a few of the more boring examples. Plenty of the Usual Suspects (Bilderbergers, Trilateralists, Bohemian Grove, Skull’n’Bones, and so on), plenty of surprising eye-openers, lots of conflicting points of view (as I write there is a post on the “selectively doubting” psychology of conspiracy theorists). Most importantly, there is a certain sense of humor about the whole thing, a levity which nonetheless usually resists the temptation to treat the whole thing as a joke (and although it does tend towards the typical standard-issue suspicion of organized religion, there are exceptions even here). Disinfo won’t leave you knowing what to believe or what not to, but it might get the question, “Why don’t I believe that?” to be a little more explicit... and the answer, a little less automatic.

No comments:

Post a Comment