Friday, December 31, 2010
Friday, December 24, 2010
For societies to function there has to be agreement on what the facts are, or at least those facts that hold us together, and that’s where we exchange one problem (that we all tend to see the world differently) for another: to communicate at all, we have to agree – so whose facts are we to adopt?
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
When I attempt an explanation of something I often find that the greater my conviction of the truth of it, the more I turn out to be saying that "A is A, because it's A". And so it is that I've just written a bunch of really obvious stuff. But no, I shan't delete it. It’s supposed to address, or partly address, the question of why we don't move even when danger seems to threaten.
Mainstream truth - the shared knowledge that holds a society together in all its many aspects - is by definition (if not by intuition) a very narrow and confined/confining thing. Like a train on the tracks, it just has to be here and only here, going in this direction and no other. Anyone who gets invited onto a mainstream radio or TV show is very much plugging into the system, getting into harness, implicitly agreeing to stay within bounds and toe the party line – choose your own metaphor. The rare occasions when radio guests leave the beaten path of consensus truth on the public airwaves inevitably cause a negative stir, and these individuals - unless, like George Carlin, they have entertainment value (a great way to broadcast unpalatable truths) - either don't get invited back, or are thereafter introduced in suitably warning tones, as "the maverick...", "the controversial...", "the iconoclastic...", "the conspiracy theorist..." so as to cue us to the properly guarded stance we should adopt to everything they say. And there's the tautology - the mainstream cannot but deal in the consensus, forever justifying it. The fringe can only occupy a marginal place in our consciousness, forever in opposition. Minorities are, by definition, few in number. Unpopularity is a necessarily small set. As I say, kind of obvious.
But obvious truths, once their outlines have been chiseled out of the rock face, give a good footing for reaching higher understandings. Here’s one: if things are going radically off the rails then the mainstream cannot provide the knowledge needed to deal with it. In a way, it must deny it, to stay true to itself. Our popularly-elected spokespeople for this or that branch of knowledge may hint at dangers, but it really isn't in their ambit to say - on German radio, say, in 1938, "Guys, this Hitler fanatic who now runs the country is a total freak, and if you've a drop of Jewish blood in your body get the hell out of here now!" These kinds of warnings can only be whispered privately, and, as we well know, will likely not be taken seriously even when the evidence of their truth is all but staring us in the face. Because by the time we, the majority, are really confronted by the truth of a radically new situation, it's altogether too late. Whatever change there is, must begin with a minority - obviously. So, equally obviously, if there's change the majority must always be behind the curve. If they were not, then we'd all be multi-millionaires for having jumped onto this or that next great thing - or having jumped off the last great thing that's now about to tank. This obviously can't and doesn't happen.
There are clear advantages in sticking with the herd, or there wouldn’t be one to stick to. The very size of the herd is its own justification. There is safety in numbers. The majority viewpoint is the tried and tested path. It has been shown to work - that so many people are riding on it is living proof of that. More tautologies. Popularity is popular.
But history is painfully punctuated - indeed, is defined - by upheavals. And an upheaval is - again, by definition - a brief period in which the majority gets stiffed. As long as things are more or less progressing without a major hitch we can say that we have a mainstream situation, and a consensus truth that mirrors it. History has nothing to say about these periods at all. To the outside observer nothing interesting is happening. Bourgeois heaven!
But then an earthquake, an invasion, a drought, a flood, a meteorite strike, a major bankruptcy, a sex scandal rocks the Establishment. The majority's comfort zone is invaded, and it makes the news - and enters the history books because those involved were caught off-guard. And even then it's not the poor, suffering majority that the news highlights, but the sons of bitches - or the heroes - who caused whatever it was to happen. A tiny minority. Sorry, but it is impossible to identify with a starving million. The faceless multitude is just that: faceless, as every journalist knows.
So I guess what I'm trying to say - light at last! - is that the inventor, the financier, the industrialist, the explorer share with Cassandra the ability to sense, or maybe imagine, the shape of a different future before others do - and to act on it. And none of the above will be able to sway the majority to their opinion until after they have made their significant move. That's what makes them all pioneers - a bit odd, a bit quirky, temperamental perhaps, eccentric certainly. In a word, not mainstream. But not glamorous, either - until and unless they become celebrities for their predictive success, and get invited on a talk show safely after the event that made them famous. Other than that they’re a damned nuisance.
And there's obvious risk in sticking your neck out. If there weren't, then more would do it, and it would be a mainstream thing. The US Patent records are packed with ideas that never got off the ground, were never accepted, but history doesn't celebrate the legions that get trodden under. It shows the narrow path that we all took after the last shakeout came to an end and the pioneers became the celebrities of the day - after first being pilloried, of course, for their crackpot beliefs. The mainstream loudly celebrates the mountains of its success. The valleys it ignores. The mainstream is, above all, optimistic.
I tried out for the role of Cassandra in 1999, when I thought Y2K would cause TEOTWAWKI*, and got roundly booed off the stage. You can't do that too often and expect to hold an audience. Besides, (and apart from my being the wrong sex) Cassandra wasn't a popular gal even when she was right. It just isn't an attractive role. Particularly for Americans, who (in the words of Robert Duval in Network) crave, above all, a "big-tittied success" (Cassandra was, I strongly suspect, flat-chested). And paradigm shifts are not lightweight furniture, to be shunted about at will. On the contrary, it's very much against our will that they work - another good reason we shun, rather than shunt, them.
One of my favorite sayings is a Roman one - "The Fates lead the willing. The unwilling they drag". The other day - finishing a 123-page doomsday report that I actually paid $36 to download - I came across a similar one, from Mongolia:
"Ride out to meet your destiny - or be consumed by the stampede of Fate."
This sort of pioneering courage strikes me as the attitude necessary for an adventurer. The authors of the report made a very telling point. They said they were not marketing fear, and urged their readers not to act out of fear, but to "follow your nose". They also quoted R. Buckminster Fuller, that great American scientist-sage, "Choose a prevailing force - and use it!" Danger and opportunity, as the Chinese observe, go hand in hand. The fear factor comes in because we think we're losing something. The truth is, we've got too used to what we know, and are hanging onto it, forgetting that this, too, was once frighteningly unfamiliar; the province of pioneers.
__________________________________*The End Of The World As We Know It.
Monday, December 13, 2010
Excerpts from The Devil’s Dictionary, compiled by Bierce over a period from 1881 to 1906, and republished by The Folio Society, London, 2003 -
Friday, December 10, 2010
You may be wondering, like me, how Julian Assange suddenly finds himself accused of rape just after he embarrasses the Swedish, British, and American governments with his latest WikiLeaks exposees. Well you see, there's justice, and then there's revenge. Despite all the high-minded rhetoric it turns out that the latter trumps the former, at least where sex and politics are concerned -