Belaboring the Obvious

Monday, July 19, 2010

In the midst of confusion...

... one begs--often in vain--for clarity.

It's funny, in a perverse sort of way, that the Information Age has, more often than not, created even more confusion in our lives. We're bombarded with information, much of it useless or counter-productive or untruthful, and we have a declining ability to winnow the wheat--the truth--from the chaff without expending copious amounts of time that we often don't have.

If the Nielsen and Arbitron ratings are any indication, a lot of us simply go mindless, seek escape in mediocre movies and reality television, let the giant one-eyed beast provide the fantasies and phony controversies on which our minds feed, let the commercials and the uncritical stenography of the news media wash over us, creating a state of mental suspended animation, providing a space where we don't have to think too much, or in ways that society--whatever the hell that is--doesn't prescribe.

I don't mean this to be some elitist screed on anti-intellectualism, but, rather, to ask a simple question: what if we have lapsed into a state of confusion created by the Information Age, and if so, what are the implications?

There are rather strong anecdotal indications that a significant response to that confusion is to retreat into ideology that seems to provide order, even if that order is little more than the comfort of the familiar, bumpersticker slogans that make us feel as if there is a path back to some more rational time (this, I think, is a prime motivator for the teabaggers, the genuine need to believe in the myth of a better time). The greater the confusion and disorientation we feel in daily life, the greater the need to simplify, the larger the desire to turn back the clock to some idyllic other life that might never have been.

That's an easy emotion to politically manipulate, and we've seen plenty of such manipulation in recent years. The subtle (and, sometimes, not so subtle) racism inherent in the Tea Party movement is rooted in this myth of a better, simpler time, namely, the `50s, when racism was much more institutional, and therefore accepted as the norm. One never needed to apologize for or feel any guilt for what was accepted as normal.

The level of confusion is also apparent in the teabaggers' embrace of contradictory messages. They are acrimonious over the bailouts of the big banks, of Wall Street, generally, but also think the answer to the problem (guided as they have been by astroturf groups such as Dick Armey's Freedom Works) is less government interference and less regulation and oversight (precisely the policies that created the problem with the banks in the first place). Orwell, in 1984, described this as doublethink--the ability to hold two diametrically opposed ideas in mind and be certain of the absolute truth of both at once. The only way that can work is if the mind is in a state of perpetual and ongoing confusion, and when such confusion is perceived as normal.

If one accepts the old aphorism as true that in chaos, there is opportunity, one might also be inclined to think that there is some nebulous conspiracy to generate that chaos, but, in a society such as ours, that's not really necessary--the desire for the profits which opportunity provides is enough to ensure that profit- and power-minded individuals will act in their own interests. Such might well result in conscious policies of chaos creation as individuals perceive the connection between confusion and profit, but, no grand conspiracy is necessary--the motivations are built into the system. There's money to be made in the technology and money to be made in the provision of "content," so the means of delivery of information and the information itself are mutually reinforcing--at least when it comes to making money--even though the net effects on society may ultimately be destructive, especially when that chaos alters the public discourse and becomes the norm in governance.

Here's, perhaps, the crux of this particular biscuit. Increasingly, because of the flood of information, it's getting more and more difficult to discern duplicitous, mendacious and/or self-serving behavior. All the traditional intellectual tools for coming to some assessment of fact and truth become less effective--and even more time-consuming--when presented with multiple and reinforcing streams of information. It is in such an environment that propaganda--of all sorts--flourishes. Even more problematic is the fact that the press no longer presumes skepticism--especially toward government and business sources demanding anonymity in exchange for information which may be propaganda in part or in whole--so, often specious or slanted information gains legitimacy by press exposure and repetition.

Perhaps the best example is the most recent and most well-known: the carefully-constructed disinformation campaign designed by the Bush White House to sell the Iraq war to the public. Almost no part of that campaign contained any solid truth that endured after the initial invasion, and yet, so pervasive was the propaganda that the usual method of comparing multiple sources and evaluating the veracity of sources on the basis of their proximity to the facts was effectively useless. Nor did most ordinary people perceive that sources with strong backgrounds on the issues were being marginalized. Most importantly, it was only long after the fact, after the damage had been done, that the evidence was found to be either absent, exaggerated and/or manufactured, which is exactly the wrong time to find out. If democracy depends upon the public having accurate information in order to advise their representatives of their wishes, democracy is subverted when that information is only available after the important decisions are made.

Of course, the general atmosphere of secrecy that has increasingly infected government does not make the task easier, nor does the increasing tendency of government to threaten and marginalize whistleblowers, especially those in the national security state apparatus. Nevertheless, when disinformation is coming from multiple sources which in detail or in general agree with each other, the usual means of establishing fact available to the ordinary citizen are less useful, and there is more likelihood that the disinformation continues to be held in high esteem even after its refutation by later information (which might explain why so many people continued to believe Bush administration claims regarding Iraqi nuclear weapons programs, chemical weapons, drone aircraft and associations with al-Qaeda, long after those claims had not only been definitely disproved, but were shown to be fabrications based on unreliable intelligence, as well).

Perhaps the more general question should be: is there a general confusion in society to which information overload has contributed, and is that confusion being exploited, incidentally or systematically, by professional propagandists inside and outside government? Broadly, I would say, yes, this is so, and because I think this true, the implications for democratic participation in governance are not good. One cannot in a Constitutional society restrict speech to filter out the noise of propaganda, so, perhaps, the answer lies in better preparing people through the education system to recognize when they're being deceived or misled (I doubt that many school systems are, for example, teaching Orwell's "Politics and the English Language"), and in pushing back against a corporate system that demands more and more of our time, and in finding ways to make more time available to evaluate all the information with which we are being bombarded.

Again, it's not a problem that's amenable to easy or quick answers, but, without addressing it, we can be certain that the cacophany around us will eventually overwhelm our ability to define the truth, let alone understand what it is.

(On edit, I suppose I should offer some explanation for why this very general look at too much information popped out. Unlike many Americans today, I have a lot of time to read about what's going on, I'm not distracted by television, and have enough education in language to give me a small advantage in recognizing when we're being conned. And yet, even I feel overwhelmed. In part, I've been feeling that way ever since the stories on the bombings in Zahedan, Iran and in Uganda, and the return of the Iranian scientist to Iran appeared, which were reported without much background, or historical context, or how these events may have been influenced by U.S. actions. Then, quite by accident, I ran across two articles by Chris Floyd that offered some of that context of which I was unaware, and, together, suggest a degree of double-dealing on the part of the U.S. government that's troubling. I got the sinking feeling that even I'm walking around pretty much clueless and confused at least some of the time.)


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