Sunday, September 27, 2009

Idiot Wind, Part I: Winston Smith Meets the Man on the Street

"Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows."

So wrote Winston Smith in his diary in George Orwell's classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The character of Winston Smith lived in a totalitarian state that not only told him that 2+2 =5, it brainwashed him until he himself believed it. If Winston were magically transported to 21st century America, he would undoubtedly be relieved to find that our government would allow him to believe that 2+2 equals whatever he thinks it equals.

But beyond that, I think that Winston would quickly become very disillusioned. Why? Because Winston assumed that granted freedom of inquiry, people would actually be inclined to ask, "What does 2 + 2 equal?" And, being inclined to ask that question, that they would further believe that it's actually possible to determine an answer based on reliable media sources, the opinion of experts and/or empirical evidence.

Suppose Winston met four people on an American street, and to each one he asked, "Does 2 + 2 equal 4?" I think the first man might answer, "Who knows? There are no trustworthy sources on the issue."

I've been reading a newly published book from journalist Charles B. Pierce entitled, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free. Pierce has looked at recent events in America, such as the Terri Schiavo debacle, the opening of the Creationist Museum in Kentucky, and most of the work of the George W. Bush administration, and determined that that in the U.S., "fact" is merely what enough people believe, and "truth" lies only in how fervently they believe it. According to Pierce,

"The rise of Idiot America, though, is essentially a war on expertise. It's not so much antimodernism or the distrust of the intellectual elites...although both of these things are part of it. The rise of idiot America reflects -for profit, mainly, but also, more cynically, for political advantage and in the pursuit of power- the breakdown of the consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people we should trust the least are the people who know best what they're talking about. In the new media age, everybody is a historian, or a scientist, or a preacher, or a sage. And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert.

This is how idiot America engages itself. It decides, en masse, with a million keystrokes and clicks of the remote control, that because there are two sides to every question, they both must be right, or at least not wrong. And the words of an obscure biologist carry no more weight on the subject of biology than do the thunderations of some turkeyneck preacher out of the Church of Christ's Own Parking Structure in DeLand, Florida. Less weight, in fact, because our scientist is an "expert" and, therefore, an "elitist."

I thought the phenomenon that Pierce is talking about was neatly demonstrated this week in the Time Magazine cover article on Glenn Beck, a man who is himself a fountain of anti-intellectualism, and who leads an army of like-(empty)minded persons.

Regarding the September 12th rally that Beck organized on the mall in Washington D.C., Time says, "If you get your information from liberal sources, the crowd numbered about 70,000, many of them greedy racists. If you get your information from conservative sources, the crowd was hundreds of thousands strong, perhaps as many as a million, and the tenor was peaceful and patriotic. Either way, you may not be inclined to believe what we say about numbers, according to a recent poll that found record-low levels of public trust of the mainstream media."

The author of this article could, of course, have added the following: "The ACTUAL number of attendees at the rally, according to the estimate of the DC police department, was 60,000 to 75,000." But that, of course, would constitute real journalism on the part of Time Magazine, as well as acknowledgement that it is literally possible to determine how many people attended the rally.

It's not that Time is being lazy. It doesn't take a lot of effort to do what I did and look on or to get the DC police estimate. Time Magazine has always been a fundamentally conservative publication, and it surely recognizes that people who are picking up their Glenn Beck issue are conservative as well, not to mention willfully ignorant. So why should they not shrug their shoulders and say, "Yeah, sure, there's no way to know how many were there. Could have been a million."

In the second part of Idiot Wind, I'll be discussing the three other Americans Winston Smith meets in his man-on-the-street interviews on the subject of the sum of two and two. Things are going to get worse for Winston before they get better.


BuddhaBlog said...

So called "news" punditry, with its fake-media screaming bias, is hardly the only thing to blame, here. Even neutral media sources are just as to blame for their failure to coherently fight this.

In particular is news reporting that tries to be unbiased by presenting discredited/fringe/inexpert/microscopically represented opinions as just as valid as majority/expert opinion.

One could find a million examples from the past decade, but the one that leaps to mind is the "Obama's birth certificate" thing. On the one side there's a mountain of heavily reviewed official paperwork and testimony by expert specialists trained to speak on just this topic. On the other side, a tiny amount of people screaming that it must not be true because they really want it to not be true, and certain discredited amateurs have presented obviously faked evidence.

Is that the impression you get from neutral news sources? No! You read a paper, and it's presented as still a controversy, with a big mystery about whether it might be true or not. Same thing with WMD's etc.

M. Joseph Goodfriend said...

Your comments are remarkably prescient. I will be revisting the Obama birth certificate brouhaha and discussing faux controversies in Part II of this post.