Wednesday, January 20, 2010

On Manufactured Realities

Warning: Disjointed Political Rant Ahead.

"But this will be the reality because this is the easy reality and our politics now lives off of created reality, not the data."--Andrew Sullivan

So a nudist with a pickup truck defeats a Brahmin who has trouble distinguishing between the Rebel Alliance and the Evil Empire, and everybody freaks out. Because that's what we do now, isn't it? We freak out. Over on Fox News, Glenn Beck is drooling on a chalkboard, and over on MSNBC, Olbermann is Murrowing us over the head, and on CNN, a Wolf is Blitzering, and out here on the frontiers of the Internets, everyone everywhere is freaking the F out. Because that's what we do now; this is the default position in politics, and maybe in our culture: Someone says/does something that may or may not have anything to do with an objective truth, and then it somehow becomes the conventional wisdom. An anomaly occurs, and we extrapolate it to mean that the whole world has changed.

So Sarah Palin writes on her blog that health care reform will result in the death of cocker spaniels, and people freak out and lead that "argument" into the mainstream; and our president declares that he is open to alternative solutions beyond a public option, and the Huffington Post runs a 700-point headline declaring Obama the newest incarnation of Milton Friedman, and suddenly health care is a failure without the public option; and some idiot smuggles explosive in his Fruit of the Looms, and we demand everyone fly in the nude, and in the end, we all run around with our heads cut off, sucking up unemployment insurance, lamenting the deflated value of our homes, and assuming that everyone everywhere is wrong about everything, and that the way to solve the problem is to vote for a handsome "outsider" who drives an S-10. This is the curse of electing a rational president in a post-rational reality: All these opinions, all this unfiltered information, and no one has the time to reason anymore.

So I don't know what this election means--nobody knows what it means, because part of freaking out about everything is getting so caught up in the moment that you lose all perspective--but the most frustrating part, at least for me, is not the result. The most frustrating part is that no one seems willing to live off the data anymore.

P.S. This Tom Junod piece is tangentially related, and makes a lot of sense.


WarningTrack said...

Sullivan's not the best jumping off point for a rant about reason, to my mind; the guy has a major emotional investment in this Presidency, and it comes even at the expense of most of his stated conservative beliefs. He's kind of a mess, ideologically, and borderline hysterical these days. Used to love him, but I can't stand to read him any more.

Anyway, I don't disagree on any particular point, really, though I'm not sure I follow the reasoning that links this sentiment to voting for Brown. I don't think he won because people lack perspective, or the time to reason. He won for a variety of reasons, all of which you've probably heard 1,483 times over the last 12 hours or so, and most of them pretty legitimate to my mind.

I agree that conventional wisdom is often shaped in ridiculous ways, and is at every turn aided and abetted by the apathy of the electorate. But I think this only takes you so far. Health care isn't really where it is because of Palin's comments, nor did Brown win because of some incredible fluke. Relatively unimportant things may dominate news cycles from time to time, but the silver lining in your average news network's ADD is that they'll move onto the next thing just as quickly. The things that get a foothold and affect real change are the ones that have some truth to them, and are still standing after the standard 48-hour saturation period. Information overload means it's easier to fool someone initially, but harder to keep them fooled.

Michael Weinreb said...


As usual, you raise some well thought-out, cogent points; I wish I could say the same, but mostly, I just wrote this post to vent. (Whenever I do that, I try to add the disclaimer.) And I do think Sullivan can be hyper-emotional to the point of incoherence, but I believe we're both talking about the same thing, which is that there are a lot of people whose entire aim in politics is to capitalize on fear and hysteria rather than to advance ideas.

WarningTrack said...

I agree. I guess the main thing is that, while this has always been true, a) it's easier to do now, and b) even people who'd rather not play this particular game probably feel they have to, to a degree.

I'm reminded of that old Churchill quote that "a lie can get halfway around the world before the truth has time to get its pants on." Now, the lie's done a few equatorial laps before the truth's even out of bed.

I certainly won't defend every aspect of accelerated culture; it has many negative attributes, particularly in a political sense. But we're probably seeing the worst possible version of it right now. A lot of this is still new, and people need some time to learn how to filter it all, and tune some of it out. People who can sift through the data, or who actually bother to go to primary sources, will always be fairly rare, but we will get collectively better at this stuff, I think.