Friday, March 19, 2010
THE JESUS FACTOR. Just to refresh your memories, I'll quote a relevant chunk from the last post that wasn't about healthcare and the death of the United States. (btw, saying I'm ready to die right now isn't a suicide threat; it's a way of saying the stakes are now life and death in a way they haven't been for generations, and being ready to die for those stakes is a necessary price of admission to the discussion. "Ready" and "anxious" aren't synonyms in my lexicon.) Ahem. The chunk:
[T]his is not a narrow religious question. We have just seen that science is capable of not only conspiracy, but also of poisoning the waters, so to speak. The Global Warming 'crisis' -- and the exposure of its corrupt 'science' -- is proof that small, venal, parochially human incentives for career or political gain can result in mass distortions of what is popularly conceived to be indisputably true and factual. We have seen for ourselves that scientists are willing to pervert their disciplines in the name of what they see as socially and politically and financially advantageous or merely congruent with their pre-existing prejudices. Are you scared or angry yet? Are you really prepared to let them do in your conceptions of God and meaning and morality because they have giant instruments they're willing to apply on behalf of their preconceptions? Or are they just greedy mechanics with ready access to a wrench they'll use, when pressed, to bash in their wife's brains? Because everyone knows she didn't have any 'understanding' to begin with. Talk to me.
Actually, I have more than three points. But that's all I'm going to offer for now. What I have, in truth, is the basis for a reconceptualization of the entire human social contract in the age of the Internet, mass media, the so-called information explosion, and a threadbare consensus reality. Anybody want to hear it?
Several of you say you do. I'm only going to outline the basic ideas here. Your discussions and questions can be the means of fleshing out the depths and additional dimensions inherent in the outline. The most important concepts are historical stratifications of authority, mass media, post-modernism, traditional assumptions about organizations versus individuals, consciousness, and the Internet.
All societies to this point in time have been organized around caste systems. The ancients had mostly layers of hierarchy, gods, royals, priests, soldiers, craftsmen, and peasants, with little freedom of movement between layers. This state persisted into the middle ages, where some of the layers became social segments not quite as precisely arranged in a hierarchy. Thanks to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, artists and intellectuals -- and later, scientists -- acquired an authority that could sometimes successfully contend with the hierarchy, which remained absolute in a social sense but not necessarily in all other respects. Still, the craft (trade) and peasant classes were subordinate to all others. The rise of capitalism changed the equation again because money could buy power, however low its origins, although the social castes remained. An aristocrat was always automatically superior to a peasant, and highly educated intellectuals were always superior to those of more humble schooling. This state of affairs survived even the American Revolution and the cultural exceptionalism and the social mobility it enabled. Even the low-bred barons of industry acquired social status only through the increasing educational credentials of their children.
The important thing to understand about this is that social mobility (and consequent influence) was a function of moving from one segment of an increasingly complex and staggered hierarchy to another. It was a movement among categories -- say, from aristocrat to scientist/artist/intellectual, from nouveau riche to old money, from peasantry to economic power, from middle class tradesman to intellectually credentialed, or to any number of permutations of these. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were always socially superior to Benjamin Franklin. But Franklin moved into a segment that was approximately equivalent if not entirely equal. In every case, however, the movement was from insignificant to powerful, connected, and therefore famous and influential. Versus not.
The ascendancy of these -- from books to newspapers to magazines to advertising to movies to records to radio to television -- have increased mobility to some extent but have also ossified the oldest slots and boxes while adding a few more categories to the mix: journalist, movie star, musician, cultural icon. The mass media also made it possible for politicians and political movements to become influential despite lack of social credentials: organized labor, oppressed ethnic and racial minorities, the female sex. All of which led to a certain process of cross-pollination; it became possible to belong to more than one authoritative segment: female intellectual, ethnic artist, labor leader, peasant movie star, intellectual journalist. Etc. The proliferation of such cross-pollinations multiplied the number of definable segments and created a vigorous and confused amalgam of authorities that seemed very much like a democratic mingling, a marketplace of ideas.
But it wasn't really. In important ways, all the new competing and overlapping segments were mere camouflage. Underneath, the old hierarchies flourished and reasserted themselves in the dark. There were the people who had money and power and breeding and a natural authority nothing could undo. And there were, in the post-Enlightenment era, people whose educational credentials meant that they knew something, as opposed to all the people who didn't. Know anything, that is. And because what they shared was power and influence, they began to grow together, to complement one another, based on their conviction that collectively they were the right people to tell everyone else what to do, meaning all the dumb people who didn't have breeding and power and influence and education and ideas and the means to drive their ideas into the population as a whole. Which is when they began abandoning ideas altogether in favor of concentrating their power over the dumbshits who annoyed them so much. That's when they decided -- given that the only truth they could agree on was the importance of power -- that ideas and even truth didn't exist. What existed was the infinite ability of those in the right positions to remake truth on the fly based on their superior capacity to wield facts like weapons and distort anything and everything for their own purposes. Religion, literature, art, science, philosophy -- all of it meant nothing. It could all be whatever they needed it to mean at the moment, which was proof positive of their superiority over the worthless commoners. Every idiocy people could be made to believe was only reinforcement of their own natural right to reinvent the truth on a day-to-day basis. And so they did. They used an imagination no longer geared toward creation to transform black to white, good to evil (and vice versa), justice to injustice, virtue to vice, and most importantly, native common sense (which they never had) into demonstration of ignorance and folly.
Traditional Assumptions about Organizations Versus Individuals
Meanwhile, the increasing proliferation of segments and sub-segments had led to the creation of all kinds of organizations. The celebration of individuals and individual mobility which had accompanied the American Experiment and its proliferation of confusing cross-pollinations was becoming a hindrance to the atavistic preference for the simpler hierarchy of the high and the low all power-seekers rediscover in their experience of making up truth for their inferiors. Which caused them to forget some things. Like the fact that almost all important breakthroughs are not the function of commissions, congresses, corporations, colleges, committees, and political alliances, but of one guy with a better idea: Henry Ford, Albert Einstein, Nicola Tesla, William Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson, Leonardo da Vinci, James Madison, etc. You see, the community of the superior rarely consists of the actually superior. It consists of the self-anointed ones, the superiorly disposed. Who rely on the group to affirm their omniscience and right to lead. The story of corporations is almost always a story of decline from the brilliance of the founder to the embarrassments of bankruptcy. The story of governments is even more pitiful. From false humility to fatal hubris and shocking irresponsibility leading to utter ruin. Thus is the tale of human civilizations written across the pages of history.
What human civilization still has going for it. Your consciousness. Mine. The consciousness of people who don't necessarily accept the laws laid down repeatedly for them by those who deem themselves smarter and more aware. But what is consciousness? It's the ability to make decisions for yourself about what is, what has been, and what will be. What is fact. What is truth. And what constitutes the difference between them.
What is it? It's nothing less than the collective consciousness of the entire human race. It's the biggest breakthrough in the history of humankind. Why? Because it records everything. It bashes all the distinctions between layers and segments to nothing, which is what they always were. There are no layers. No segments. There are only the regions of the whole each individual person impinges on or is defined by. We all now have the power to Google a person, a belief, an organization, a set of relationships, a pattern of ideas. There is no more pyramid. There are only smears of links upon links that create tiny percentile regions of the whole representing the reach of single persons, ranging from the official bios that used to intimidate us to the silliest, most parochial things they have ever done. Joe Biden is no longer just his carefully constructed senate cv; he is also his YouTube gaffes, the senate gossip, his hair plugs, the blogs of friends, family, and acquaintances, the indiscreet twitters of his intimates. He is a fallible and limited man, not the falsely grand persona of his NYT defenders.
The same is true of absolutely everything in the world. Global Warming may be a science. It's also a scandal, a religion, a financial scam, a political conspiracy, a cultural byproduct of the baby boomer revolutionaries, etc. Is there one truth of the matter? Probably not. But paradoxically, this "fact" doesn't mean the post-modernists are right. It means they're wrong. It means, rather, that values are more important than facts, since we have seen that facts -- and all the people who believe they are in possession of the truth because they possess more facts -- are not necessarily right. We can see, and even prove to ourselves, that where they begin affects where they end up, no matter how much they claim to be pure intellectuals.
Which is where the Reconceptualization figures in. The overwhelming tidal wave of information on the Internet suggests that truth outweighs facts, because facts can be and generally are twisted in service to a pre-existing notion of truth. In other words, we are all capable of recreating the universe in terms of the truths we believe and the questions we ask, whether we're Oxford PhDs or curious amateurs, with no better chance of being absolutely right because of PhDs or native intuition.
Which suggests... a lot of things. Not that we should ignore facts. But that we should trust our individual experience, use it to discern between pontification and modest inference. We need to abandon our corporate, committee, and other organizational training in favor of what the earliest scientists would have considered empirical experience. What happens when you skip a pebble across a river? What does that say about Global Warming, universal healthcare, the existence of Bigfoot, time travel, the age of the universe, and race relations in the United States of America?
The vast glut of the Internet is driving us relentlessly back to ourselves, to the ideal of humanity as a sliver of divinity represented by Christianity, and to the simplicity of thought and analysis we find in our own minds as the basis for all aspiration and decision making.
The Internet should not intimidate us. It should empower us. It reaffirms that the smartest can be the dumbest, and the simplest can be the smartest. It does not argue against the acquisition of new knowledge. It commands us to confront facts with the bedrock of our own experience.
Many mansions. There can be more than one truth. Perhaps there can be many. Yours is one of them. It only becomes a white elephant when the answers get too easy. And my guess is that when there's more than one truth, they'll be strangely consistent with one another, which would militate against outright religious war. If your own mansion isn't conceived as a fortress besieged.