There was an interesting comment posted in response to the last note by Brutus, author of The Spiral Staircase blog, where he described our ongoing public dilemmas about what is “normal” as being a full on epistemological crisis. I think that might be a pretty reasonable call. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think that this hits the nail square on the head. It occurs to me, furthermore, that an awful lot of what I have been writing about in my own space here has been about this very crisis, for a few years now. Years.
One thing I have found, and mention often, is that trying to address all sorts of topics, while facing this problem, runs into some recurring difficulty. One part of the difficulty is that I keep repeating many things, while very aware of repeating myself, because it seems to be necessary. Another is that so many topics are nearly impossible to cover without going on at some length about it, and then realizing that even then, the results are somewhat sketchy, just a light skim of the subject.
Look around at what passes for news and communication these days, and whether it is some supposedly serious news report, in any medium, or the assorted commentary people can do around the WWW, on “social media”, bulletin board type website forums, reader comment sections at the bottom of web pages, or blogs, and what seems to be normal now consists of small mental belches. In some of those settings, offering up more than perhaps a couple of short sentences might be regarded as “long winded”.
The irony, then, is huge, when you take a look at events and circumstances such as the current President of the United States making his primary form of communication an endless series of brain fart mental twitches typed and transmitted via the Twitter website, with its “tweets” of a maximum length of 140 characters.
Recently, the President indulged his Twitter habit like so:
Fake @NBCNews made up a story that I wanted a “tenfold” increase in our U.S. nuclear arsenal. Pure fiction, made up to demean. NBC = CNN!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 11, 2017
… and later had a follow-up:
With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 11, 2017
Just sorting this mess out is a good example of the problem of sorting out a cluster of different things, where untangling some mess can take some doing, and get lengthy.
For one thing, NBC does not have a license. NBC News is an operation of the NBC television network, which provides television programming to an array of television broadcast stations. Television broadcast transmitters, along with other radio transmitters (yes, for the technically unaware, television broadcast signals come from radio wave transmitters), are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission, with the exception of very low power transmitters.
What, exactly, is meant by “the Networks” (and for that matter, why is that word capitalized?)? All television networks, in general?
Adding an extra weird twist, some news reports about this then proceeded to talk about Trump threatening the licenses of NBC network affiliate TV stations, although that is not what he actually said. That raises more questions. You have to wonder about the state of affairs where people are finding it necessary to do some sort of interpretation of what the President meant to say. What does that say about the current President and their ability to communicate? Then, there a bit of a nagging question about how often news reports feature somebody “fixing” something by altering the facts of a matter?
Then, of course, what is “Fake News”?
You might think of the brilliant satirical parody of The Onion, a parody of a news magazine, with a popular website. It seems that some people are actually confused by that now and then, which is funny in itself, but then that gets into a compound issue that is at the heart of a lot of problems of the epistemological crisis Brutus is talking about; some people are just not very bright, dealing with a time when events and circumstances regularly add weight to the idea “truth is stranger than fiction”.
There are some other websites doing that sort of news parody, but complicating things slightly, there appear to be an assortment of sites around the web that are a different sort of beast, sites that might, presumably, be considered by the people doing them to be “news parody”, except that it’s parody without any sense of humor, simply presentations of “news” that is just false, fiction. This sort of thing could possibly be explained, at least in some cases, as examples of people who you have certainly encountered in your own life, people with no evident sense of humor, but then try to yuk it up with the idea that it’s considered good to have a sense of humor. That can be pretty annoying, especially given the problem that people like this often think it’s “funny” to simply say something false, to tell a lie, or just be sarcastic. You know them. They were once the asshole kids on elementary school playgrounds saying things like “Billy’s a homo!” and “Suzie eats boogers!”.
There is the old and obvious, of course. The stuff has been staring people in the face as they go through checkout lines in American grocery stores for decades, the “tabloid” papers periodicals offering reading material for idiots.
All that might be only slightly incidental to the subject here, although somewhat relevant. What is actually real, genuine, relevant, honest journalism as news, and what might be called “fake news”, has become a difficult question for a lot of people. [I will say this again, this is not a new topic here, so please forgive any redundant repetition.]
One major problem in tackling this subject is the way that so many people jump to irrational conclusions about what might be “fake news’ and what is “legit” news as a kind of function of their being locked in the grip of the pervasive epidemic of bipolar political disorder. Again, (sorry!), this is old and redundant, I have been over this before many times, but there is a serious dilemma in this as people who are not locked into the mob delirium of the bipolar political disorder see it as what it is, observing this constantly as this problem plays out, even as the people who are in the grip of that simplistic tribalism are completely unable to recognize it, and even attempting to point it out to them is usually guaranteed to only freak out and point at you with accusations of being an evil propaganda agent of the enemy Other Side.
That gets even more complicated as many things present problems of failing to fit into various clichéd notions of that disorder. Just as one example- if somebody decides that they need to go along with the assumption of some kind of political club label and describes themselves as a “Libertarian”, there will be people who immediately then describe them as “the alt-right“, whatever that is supposed to mean, another fairly new bit of lingo, “radical Right-Wing”, or something of that sort. They can find themselves, somehow, simultaneously proclaimed to be “anti-government radicals” and “Radical Right Wing authoritarian government fascists“. Figure that one out.
I will stop there, as we could go through lot of case examples of things failing to fit into the neat simplistic boxes some people would like, and I am trying to not digress too much. That sort of thing does matter, as people suffer all kinds of reality distortion and confusion trying to somehow resolve, without actual resolution, some incoming information with whatever they already think (with the word “think” used very loosely here), or, to be more accurate about some cases, what they believe they are supposed to think.
The phrases “Fake News” and “conspiracy theory” have been flying around for a while now. One odd thought I have is noting that the phrase “fake news” suddenly appeared, not so very long ago at all, but I realize that now I cannot remember exactly when that appeared, and in what context. Interesting.
The phrase “conspiracy theory” has been around a long time now. It gets thrown around a lot, as a pejorative term to dismiss somebody or some story or idea as the paranoid delusions of misinformed morons and lunatics. One item that you should read is the short essay by Paul Craig Roberts on “conspiracy theory“. Among other things, he mentions something that has been said before by an assortment of people, that the very phrase was introduced into the American public lexicon by the CIA as a derogatory term of ridicule to apply to anybody who suggested that some official story was false, specifically to discredit and neutralize people who were suspicious about the account of the murder of President John Kennedy.
Things get especially weird when the phrases “conspiracy theory” or “conspiracy theorist” are applied to stories or people when it makes little or no sense.
One example is how often I have seen writer James Howard Kunstler described somewhere as a “conspiracy theorist”. It’s almost funny, especially considering that Kunstler himself has often remarked in his writing and speaking that he describes himself as being somewhat allergic to conspiracy theories, his way of describing his skepticism of the various ways many people try to neatly package all sorts of situations and events in human existence as being explained by some secret master plan scheme of some group or organization.
I do not speak for him, the man is a very articulate character who explains his own thinking very well at length, and also, sometimes, in very short succinct form, in his books, essays, and speaking. In general, though, I can note that he occasionally mentions his own ideas about the course of human events. As he puts it, sometimes situations arise simply because people thought it was a good idea at the time. You can then follow through with that and see for yourself that situations then tend to continue on more or less from simple inertia and the ease of conformity- “that’s just the way things are”.
The ridiculous example of him being labeled as a “conspiracy theorist” actually should be a useful lesson. It should be a case example demonstrating that too many people, if presented with facts and thinking that suggests that a situation is not what they think it is, or presents a situation outside their awareness, will sometimes deal with it by simply not dealing with it, with one way of doing that being to slap the label “conspiracy theory” on it, categorizing it in a way that rationalizes the elimination of the stuff from consideration, purging it from their system like a foreign body, a virus, or some allergic irritant.
It gets even weirder. There are people who do what I just described, this reflex reaction of rejecting something as “conspiracy theory”, even when there is some straightforward reporting of simple facts, and then, with absolutely no apparent sense of irony, turn right around and completely embrace an actual “conspiracy theory” wad of confusion and conjecture, while never seeming to have the thought occur to them that they are embracing exactly the kind of “conspiracy theory” silliness they claim to reject. A prime example of this is all the noise about “Russia hacked our election!”, and “Russian meddling in our election” and “Russian collusion”, about ideas of Donald Trump and associates as Russian secret agents acting as puppets executing Vladimir Putin’s evil plans to destroy America and take over the world, a classic example of exactly the kind of “conspiracy theory” that some people claim to loathe and reject, even as they swallow all this with little or no objective scrutiny.
It keeps getting weirder if you consider what, of everything going on, might really be an actual conspiracy. I wonder sometimes if people have been so manipulated by the tossing around of the phrase “conspiracy theory” that many people are afraid, literally afraid, of even suggesting that a situation might involve some form of actual conspiracy, even when ridiculously obvious and blatant.
I think Brutus is right.