So, there I was. It was Saturday evening, and I paused for a bit from whatever I was doing and turned on the television to see if there was something worth watching for a while. Flipping through channels, a bit of news appeared. Big breaking news flash; Whitney Houston dead at the age of 48.
This was a fairly big story to many people, of course. The problem was that it became the only story.
Saturday night, and then Sunday, every time I turned on CNN and left it on for a little while, it was a consistent pattern. I never saw CNN spend a minute on anything else except the death of Whitney Houston. They ran some thrown together video montage of random video clips of Whitney Houston, looped and cycling around and around. The small bit of actual known information was repeated. They got people on the telephone for endless chatter about Whitney Houston’s life and career. People filled time endlessly with whatever speculation and conjecture and general guessing they could come up with.
As far as you could tell from CNN, nothing else was happening in the world. Eventually, at the bottom of the screen, a little bar of text cycled through bits of text indicating that, in fact, there were news stories happening, many major news stories, with, no doubt, lots of important stories involved in each of them, of serious importance to people. Each got a few seconds on the screen with a maximum of about eight words of text summarizing them. Above that, and in the audio, the endless fill on Whitney Houston went around and around.
Similar patterns, of the general form found in this story, happen with other stories. This particular story of the death of Whitney Houston was not exceptional in the way CNN made an endless marathon of cycled repetition of a tiny bit of information, archival footage and whatever current video they had, and speculation, conjecture, and endless rambling to fill time, while everything else in the world was ignored.
They do put quite a lot into giant shiny studio sets and the latest greatest flashy computer and video technology, however, so they can dazzle people with gizmos.
This is the state of CNN today. They’ve deteriorated to the point of being virtually useless. There was a brief period of some hope for them when they put Elliot Spitzer on, a guy who can get to the bottom of some things and wash away the bullshit, with a show in the evening on weekdays. Then, suddenly, after a couple of months or so, he inexplicably disappeared, that time slot filled by Erin something, I can’t even think of her name, with a nightly hour of mostly vacuous chatter.
Elsewhere on cable, Fox News continues, pretending to be a news network, the nonstop propaganda machine of Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, an operation that would make Joseph Goebbels proud.
It’s no mystery to me how we can be living in a time and place where so many people are just so badly uninformed, misinformed, and just terribly confused about so many things that are so important.
With dozens of cable/satellite television networks, and everything else we have, a decade into the 21st century in the United States, we like to congratulate ourselves with all kinds of chatter about information technologies and being in “the information age”. To some extent, some of it is true. Unfortunately, the reality of things is that what we have is an astonishing collection of misdirected attention, confusion, and just plain noise, with too many people unable to deal with it and sort it out.
I write very often about the situation we’re facing right now in our petroleum resources and usage, trying to bring this to people’s attention, blow away some of the fiction and nonsense, and point people toward good real information, and the people who know the stuff and are honestly explaining it. Those people are around, but mostly lost in the noise.
The people charged with the task of informing the public are failing badly in this. You rarely find what needs to be laid out and explained in the news media.
The basics of the subject don’t require a degree in engineering or science to get your head around the general gist of what’s involved and what the state of things is, but it does get a little involved. It’s more than a 20 second sound bite. Things like the pattern described in what’s generally referred to as Hubbert’s curve or Hubbert’s peak, or the nature of oil shale or tar sands, what they are, and what it takes to do something with those, are unknown to most people, even while we keep hearing grossly misleading propaganda about tar sands and oil shale. Watch cable news, and you’re unlikely to get anything realistic and useful about all this.
Despite all the complex and interwoven financial disasters that have been rocking the world, for almost five years now, and building up to the inevitable disaster long before that, when have you ever gotten any clear information and explanation of things like securitized mortgages, and credit default swaps, and collateralized debt obligations, and all of the crazy contorted shell games under the general description of “derivatives”? Regarding that stuff, I only have the most general idea of much of it, and can’t claim that I really understand much of it, beyond the most basic dumbed down layman’s summary.
You know something is wrong when Alan Greenspan comes forth and admits in a television interview that even he didn’t understand a lot of that when it was presented to him. It’s good to know it’s not just me being a bit too dim to get a grasp of it. At the same time, knowing this does not make me feel better. It very definitely does not make me feel better.
I don’t know how anybody could spend any time watching Fox News and take any of it seriously, other than something such as what I do from time to time, checking in (as much as I can stand until disgust drives me off) to see what sort of bullshit people are swallowing.
There’s a whole kind of confusion cult there, with people evidently locked in by a combination of things. There’s the “echo chamber” effect, where people keep hearing the same nonsense, vague insinuations, and pure fiction, repeated often enough that it sinks in and takes hold by people thinking “I keep hearing this, so it must be true”. All that is layered on top of being told, constantly, something of the form “we’re the only ones who tell you the real truth, everybody else is lying to you”, with the standard party line about everybody else in the world being part of some supposed “liberal media bias” conspiracy. The word “cult” really fits perfectly on different levels.
I’ve had my own experiences with people lost in that fog, and trying to shine a light in and pull them out of it and point to reality is likely get some reflex response about “left wing propaganda”. I’ve seen it in action too many times, such as trying to point to some bit of reality, as an antidote to some confused fictional nonsense from somebody like Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck for example, and getting some sort of response like “it’s funny how THE LEFT is so afraid of them!”.
“The Left”? Try something more like “reality based humans” are disturbed by this.
Just to be clear, let’s break this down like this. You talk to somebody about person X, who they seem to regard as some kind of authoritive source of information and insight about the world, who in reality is an endless source of general confusion and deception. A constant running theme from X is assorted incoherent nonsense about “The Left” (or a batch of other terms) as the source of all wrong with the world (or at least the United States). You tell them about what an egregious fountain of bullshit X is. Apparently, the mental process goes through some reflex reaction something like “oh… they say X is bad, and X is always warning us about the Evil Left, so, clearly, this can only mean that they’re one of The Left X is warning us about, and they’re afraid of X because of their exposure by the shining light of truth shone by X on their evil conspiracies and folly“.
In those circumstances (and I’m discussing this because this is something I’ve found often enough to be apparent as a regular pattern), it’s virtually impossible to get through, because anything you say about person X, who they regard as their guide to all that is right and true in the universe, actually being some form of carny huckster with delusions of grandeur, is seen by them as some form of proof that X is “really telling it like it is”, you’re one of those people X warned them about, who are threatened by X exposing them.
There’s some sort of locked self referential feedback loop in action, and there may be no way to break some people out of it, since part of the phenomenon includes what I just described, so they just dig in deeper. They’re locked solidly into a deluded confusion cult.
Dealing with people like this, there’s a high probability that trying to address matters of fact will get some response like “well, that’s your opinion…” when it has sweet fuck all nada to do with opinion, it’s a matter of fact.
Fairly often, I’ve found that dealing with this kind of thing and trying to get through to them, I find that I’m trying to communicate something to somebody who can’t even stay on the subject. I’m not only talking about odd, absurd tangents and digressions and diversions from the matter of the moment, but, sometimes, something else that’s really disturbing. This is finding that the person you’re addressing will say something that makes no sense, is a non sequitur, in response to what you’ve said. It’s as if they didn’t even register what you actually said, and are suddenly rattling away on something as if they’re responding to something you did not say.
God help us when the matters at hand get more complex, and you’re dealing with this kind of foolishness or full on madness.
Things are only a little better among some people who label themselves as “left” or “progressive” or “liberal” and are also prone to the problems of defining themselves in some batch of dogma and in terms of dualistic opposites.
A few months ago, a local “occupy” group demonstrated, in sympathetic support of the Occupy Wall Street protests. I saw a photo posted online by someone who was part of it, and proclaiming their support. I looked at this photo, and what did I see? People standing in the space where everyone was gathered, holding a banner with some “no nukes!” message opposing nuclear power plants. Wait a minute. What?
I just sat there looking at this, thinking, “do you people have some kind of attention deficit problem?”. I couldn’t believe it. Just to compound the matter and make it clear that it wasn’t just an anomalous oddity to have these people showing up with their nuclear power protest banner, I found soon afterward that a bunch of people from this “Occupy” group had shown up at a meeting in the region concerning a nuclear power plant to stage a protest about that. I was astounded by how badly some bunch of people had so completely lost the plot.
I’ve said this before, and it bears repeating; terms like “left” and “right” and “conservative” and “liberal” have been so badly abused and mangled and distorted that they’ve all become just completely useless. They all need to be scrapped, because they have become utterly worthless for serious communication. Then, people might face the necessity of the task of paying attention, getting actual facts about reality, and thinking, and actually figuring out what they, personally, think about a matter.
What a concept, eh?
We don’t get anywhere in this with things like CNN filling time with lots of nothing about Whitney Houston and ignoring all else, or whatever the singular monotonic focus story might be happening from time to time, and it’s actively destructive to have the noise from what might better be called Faux News Channel.
A few days ago I flipped on the TV and took a look at the Sean Hannity comedy hour on Fox News. At the time, the guest was Liz Cheney, who seems to be following daddy’s path as public mouthpiece for a particular segment of American lunacy.
As a graphic lurked filling up a corner of the screen reading “America at Risk”, Hannity and Cheney rattled off predictable one liner cliches about how proposed reductions in the amount of money spent by the Department of Defense would, you guessed it, put America at Risk! Got to keep ’em scared, right?
It would be belaboring the obvious to say that the “message” this duo were riffing on was President Obama and his adminstration want to weaken the defenses of our great nation and destroy America handing us over to our enemies, at least for anybody who ever checks out this particular chunk of television and can see it as what it is. Never mind that for years and years the United States government has been burning hundreds of billions of dollars every year, in reality even more than what numbers we’re usually told, not so much for actually maintaining a defense of the country as much as keeping a worldwide military empire.
The very same people who freak out about any suggestion of any kind of reduction in military spending will, guaranteed, in short order, be squawking about “government spending”, while managing the cognitive dissonance of avoiding talking about the decades of massive military budgets that have bankrupted the United States. But in presentations like this segment of Hannity’s show, getting into actual facts and reason doesn’t enter into the game being played.
As that farce rolled on, Hannity made his injections of nonsense and fiction.
For example, Hannity declaring that the XL pipeline proposed to carry tar sands sludge from Canada into the United States “would save the whole US economy“. This is so grossly delusional that even by Hannity’s normal standards of detachment from reality it was a little startling. Rolling right along, keeping them coming, he told his audience “Obama won’t let anybody drill for oil here in our own country”, which has a couple of serious fundamental problems. One is that this particular statement was simply and completely false, which is no surprise. It’s Sean Hannity. Simply and completely false is an essential core part of what he does.
The other part is only slightly more subtle, but not unknown to anybody paying attention to things I’ve been writing, or focusing on the subject for themselves. We can drill as many holes in the ground as we want here in the United States, and we are just simply not going to be pumping oil out of them simply because we really want it and demand it. We reached the peak of oil flow in the US over forty years ago and went into the diminishing returns decline downside of Hubbert’s curve, and we’re four decades behind in facing this and acting accordingly. People paying attention to somebody like Hannity looking for information about the world around them are not going to be getting this information. You can bet the farm on that.
There is a lot of missing information, all the things I’ve been writing about concerning oil in previous installments, people are not getting, including explaining what things like tar sands and oil shale are and are not, like neither being crude oil.
As I’ve said many times before, many people are talking about these things, in clear terms, talking about reality, as things really are, but the noise of nonsense, wishful thinking, liars, and general delusions are overwhelming that. You can find examples of both in the “Drumbeat” aggregation of stories around the web, found on The Oil Drum.
In one article from the past few days, “How much oil is left? Who cares?“, the writer does a reasonable concise job of addressing the fundamental issue of oil, which is that the idea of asking whether we’re about to run out of the stuff is the wrong question, that completely misses the point of the supply and consumption problem.
In another article, “Mr. Darcy’s earth shattering results“, we get a perfect demonstration of the confused noise on the subject. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the failure to grasp our situation by being wrapped up in what you might summarize as an attitude like “but we got technology!”. There’s a lot of this, in which somebody, no doubt thinking themselves rather clever and insightful, explains that over time people keep getting more and more clever and innovative about how to get more oil out of the ground, so, therefore, according to their reasoning, this “debunks the idea of peak oil”. Things like this are often written by somebody appearing at least superficially to be some educated, informed, qualified person, with research filling their piece, yet they don’t see the obvious, staring them in the face right there in what they’ve written.
What’s wrong with this piece? It essentially argues that the whole idea of “peak oil” is somehow negated by technology and methods allowing the retrieval of more of the oil underground than was possible at times in the past. In the process of arguing this, the writer of the article seems to completely miss the point staring back at them, which is that we are now into an era where the rates of oil consumption, and what we have remaining, is making it more and more necessary to do anything anybody can think of to get any oil, of any quality, or even substances that are not actually petroleum as near-petroleum substitutes (tar sands – bitumen; oil shale – kerogen), anywhere we can, however this can be done.
The further obvious point is that all of the complex high tech processes and projects involved will get you more of the oil that otherwise would be left in the ground, but it’s not just more difficult and complex, more difficult and complex also means more expensive. The fact that articles like this are even written, as some kind of argument contending “see! we got it worked out, no problems!”, is a clear indicator- we’re scraping the dregs now to try to keep things flowing at the rate people expect, have grown accustomed to as normal.
To restate, the whole article written claiming to dismiss any concern about “peak oil” actually makes a great case that in fact it is a very real problem, and we’ve arrived at that problem period. Worse than that, I think that for anybody reading that article, or others very similar to it, anybody who doesn’t already understand the situation we’re in, and something about how all this works, might be convinced that the article makes a convincing argument, not understanding what I just explained, and be left more confused than ever about what the term “peak oil” actually means.
You probably won’t be getting any of this on CNN. Definitely not on Fox News.
Hold the presses.
I should note something here, because this is information that actually helps to get something across, that emphasizes what I’m saying about the avalanche of confusing and misleading pseudo-information. I’m actually backing up to insert something at this point at an appropriate point in the text, doing an edit, because in the course of doing online reading, with this piece set aside to return to and finish later, yet another item on the web came to my attention. This is from the online Wall Street Journal, Citigroup Says Peak Oil Is Dead. Let that title soak in for a minute. A large bank says peak oil is dead. The first obvious problem, the general motion of anybody paying attention to what some large corporate bank (especially Citigroup) has to say about the subject, the second and much more absurd problem, the same running theme of people putting forth ideas that, somehow, one thing or another has made the very phenomenon of “peak oil” simply disappear, negated. At least some credit, very slight as that is, goes to the Wall Street Journal writer who at least slightly hinted at a touch of reality to go with the nonsense from Citibank.
In any case, what we all need to know and understand is not getting through to people. The level of confusion and ignorance through a whole batch of topics and situations is terrible, just absurd. Wade through the vacuous noise on news web pages in reader comments and it’s enough to make your jaw drop sometimes. A lot of what passes for “public discourse” consists of chatter from, and among, people who just don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.
In an almost perfect kind of weird synchronicity, this week’s episode of the webcast KunstlerCast, episode #194: What Does Urban Really Mean?, came up, with a discussion that touched on similar territory. The catalyst for the discussion of the week there was an upcoming 20th anniversary event of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Host Duncan Crary discuss this and go into a discussion of something that is a significant problem in trying to make people aware of the kinds of things the “new urbanist” people address. I’ve just recently written about the whole phenomenon of American suburbia and what that has done to American cities and to our consumption of petroleum, and Kunstler is certainly one of the people with a firm understanding of this. His writing was one of the primary reasons all of this came to my attention.
But one of the problems encountered in getting the problems and issues across to people is running into problems communicating with people where there are significant problems, among many people, in understanding what “urban” means. As was discussed in this webcast, for a large portion of the American populace, the whole suburban enterprise as it has taken shape over the past sixty years or so has become such a ubiquitous idea of “normal” that millions and millions of Americans have their whole concept of how life and the world around them works based in this. A lot of people encounter the word “urban”, and having lost any ideas of cities as they have existed and functioned through all of human civilization up until the American suburban expansion, tend to either think of “urban” as being some kind of synonym for “ghetto”, or some sort of “lifestyle” of Manhattan upper classes or yuppies, or some sort of bohemian enclaves. They don’t see anything “urban” as relating to their life, or as anything they would want to be the setting for their life.
There are so many people in the US today who have only ever known a suburban existence, that everything they think about as normal arrangements for life revolve around suburbia, with distinctions between “city” and “country” lost as suburbs somehow mutated into something different that is neither city nor country, and entirely dependent on petroleum fueled vehicles to function in anything and everything.
It’s hard to even talking about the problems with the whole thing when people can’t conceive that this isn’t standard normal.
That’s one subject. There are many more subjects that are vitally important, including the ones I’ve been writing about myself in this little corner of the web. There are serious, informed, thinking people addressing them. In the meantime, though, they’re lost in the noise. The majority of people in the United States now are too busy being distracted by assorted shiny objects, entertainment for idiots, clueless and ignorant people in some symbiotic (or should this be “anti-symbionic”, there must be a good word for this) relationship with deceptive bastards happy to manipulate them for their own ends, and celebrity gossip obssessions.
Neil Postman really hit things right on target in his book “Amusing Ourselves To Death”, and part of what he wrote about there is exemplified perfectly by what I started out with here about CNN spending hours, days, on one story, of the death of a famous singer. In a book written in the early to mid eighties, he perfectly described the problems of television as a medium for news and information, turning everything into dumbed down superficial tiny chunks, foreshadowing exactly what we have now in television news being corrupted and reduced down to “sound bites” and “infotainment”.
As I finish this up, it’s now early Saturday evening, today was the funeral of Whitney Houston, and not only did multiple cable TV networks show the funeral service for Whitney Houston, turning to CNN revealed a group of people chattering at length, for what purpose I do not know, about the funeral after it was over.
As Duncan Crary and Jim Kunstler were saying, it’s difficult these days to have serious conversations about things that matter, as even if you get people to turn their attention to a subject, it’s an extraordinarily difficult thing sometimes to even get people dialed in to what things are and what things mean, never mind then getting somewhere constructive.
I have heard people say from time to time something about polarization of people in American society, which does get into a real problem of many people getting sucked into some simplistic dualism trap, between some misguided notion that this simplifies things (it certainly doesn’t, any more than getting obliviously drunk or dosing yourself with some downer drugs makes problems go away) and manipulative people encouraging this, with a particular kind of advice. That is, telling people that people should expose themselves to “other points of view” more. There is something to that, especially when you consider things like the Fox News/Republican party/”tea partier”/et al echo chamber madness, but it misses the more fundamental point.
What’s needed is more of people getting actual real, true, accurate facts of reality, and working from there. Then figuring out what you think about that. If you want commentary and opinion, there’s nothing wrong with that, when it’s from people actually telling you about facts and reasoning that lead them to what they think about the subject. Fact check. Think. Consider the sources and what you’re getting from them; are they actually thinking, and honestly (as in, not thinking about how they can manipulate people into swallowing bullshit), or are they bundling collections of lies and fabrications with a parade of logical fallacies (which pretty much disqualifies people like Hannity and Beck and a large batch of people like them almost as soon as they open their mouths).
Of course, talking about all this has a certain wry irony to it. If you’re somebody who would take the time to read something like this, you’re not one of the problem children.
You can work on the people who are, though. Do the homework. Tell people the truth.
On that note, I’ll leave you to read the latest from Richard Heinberg, one of the people who comment in the domain of reality.