Monday, September 15, 2008

Confusion Rules!

I always worry when my day begins with one or more serious questions about truth. Then I remind myself that my mind is freshest in the morning: If I have to deal with such questions, better to do them on the power of a good breakfast, rather than later in the day when I start thinking about when would be a good time for a nap. This was one of those mornings when the questions came at me from several directions, almost all at once. First there was the Truthdig pointer to yesterday's op-ed piece by Donald Luskin in The Washington Post, entitled "Quit Doling Out That Bad-Economy Line" and with the subtitle, "A Nation of Exaggerators." (Considering the events that were to play out within 24 hours of the Sunday Post hitting the stands, the timing could not have been better.) This was followed by my reading Andrew Keen's latest post on his Great Seduction blog, "The Age of Disbelief," which had a really great opening paragraph:

Matthew Dowd, who ran Bush's successful Presidential campaign in 2004, sees the outcome to the election in terms of belief and disbelief. He told the Times' Adam Nagourney about the challenge of breaking through the media fog:

“At this point, the ability to create and drive a message narrative is all but impossible. There’s just so much stuff. The average person has 90 channels. They all get the dot-coms. They all get a newspaper. There is so much flow of information that they just to begin to discount it all.”

They just begin to discount it all. So all this media -- both new and old -- is resulting in nobody believing anyone anymore. And thus we get the spectacle of know-nothing Sarah (brilliantly summarized by Andrew Sullivan in yesterday's London Sunday Times), who appears to Dowd's "average person" as equally (in)credible as anyone else.

This leads Keen to an interesting reading of Dowd:

Dowd suggests that the flow of information is making "average people" into rigorous postmodernists, believing nothing or nobody, discounting all truth. But in all the "stuff" there is truth and there are lies. Sarah really is a know-nothing. She really did take earmarks. She really did increase taxes in Alaska. Read Sullivan, read Rich. These guys are telling the truth rather than just their truth.

Without sounding too much like a defensive apologist for postmodernism, I would suggest that the situation Keen is trying to address has less to do with "the truth" (or, for that matter, "whose truth") and more to do with interpreting data in an appropriate context. This is no easy matter, as any intelligence analyst will probably tell you; and it gets harder as the volume of both data and context increase. There are any number of reasons why the "average person" will cave at the prospect of such a task and basically give in to whoever does the best job of manipulating them (both the data and that "average person").

This brings me to Luskin, who was at least honest enough to disclose his connection to John McCain:

I'm an adviser to John McCain's campaign, though as far as I know, the senator has never taken one word of my advice.

My guess is that there is nothing wrong with any of the data points Luskin offers; but there are plenty of people who would not interpret those data the way he does, based on different premises grounded in different contexts. Who will that "average person" believe? Who should (s)he believe? Presumably any individual should believe an interpretation that is both sound and consistent with that individual's own context. How many "average people" have the time and will for such effort prior to forming a belief, even when a question as important as expected income is concerned? From that point of view, what Keen calls "radical disbelief," cultivating an electorate that discounts all truth, is nothing more (or less) than a point of departure for a manipulation strategy that has been working very well (at least) since the turn of this century. Furthermore, this is a strategy that builds on my previous observations about muddying the waters of history in the interest of propaganda; it is not just a matter of sowing confusion where history is concerned but of creating a "culture of confusion" in the face of just about any source of data. Unless the Democrats recognize this strategy for what it is, they face a serious prospect of being eaten for lunch by the Republicans once again; and this time the meal will take place on the site of new drilling in Alaska!

No comments: