The Mind Reels

I’ve been mulling over what seem to me foundational issues for as long as I can remember, and it’s a funny thing, because all of this mulling has nothing whatsoever to do with how I get money to live.

The nightowl moonlights.

Thinking of it that way, I am struck by a way of understanding the symbolic meaning of moonlighting in the tradition of American pulp fiction. Those of you (and you know who you are, though you might not read my status updates anymore) may make the connection to the Bat, and to this old sufi joke:

Why is the Moon better than the Sun?

Because we need the light more at night.

So, that, on a personal level, is how it seems to me. I think the way I make money in the world is pretty useless. I mean, it’s useful for people. It serves economic ends. It provides a service, and it forces me to learn as a person.

But, relative to the flow of history, the great imperatives of our existence, it’s useless. Relative to these, it’s the mulling over foundational issues that seems to me valuable – except that by any metric under the sun, it’s this mulling that’s useless.

And here we get to the recurrent fantasy of American pulp fiction, where the moonlight tinkering of some lone nut actually breaks through and contacts the Aliens, or maybe the old gods of Ancient Egypt. Doesn’t matter what the form is, exactly.

One of the most inconvenient truths I’ve found is that large groups of people are almost always wrong.

For some years I’ve been bothered by something James Madison wrote: Even if every Athenian had been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would have been a mob. Of course it’s absurd to imagine every Athenian being a Socrates, and it’s possible to miss the point of the image by thinking too much about it. That point being: the judgment of groups tends toward unreason.

We have a clear image of this tendency in Orwell’s 1984, in the demonization of Goldstein and the Two Minute Hate. But, just thinking in terms of 1984, we might conclude that the problem is Big Brother coercing people. It’s actually much worse than that. All Big Brother did was take advantage of the tendency of the group.

And the sobering, even bleak, idea that’s been weighing on me is that this is pretty much the situation we live in. Blaming Putin or Cambridge Analytica might make you feel good, might make you feel that there’s a bad actor out there skewing the way people think. As I see it, the deep and terrifying problem is that groups of people tend toward self-deception and error. We incentivize it for each other.

What’s more, ye Democrats, your party leaders reached this understanding years ago. In fact, Madison is one of the founders of your party. The Clintons and Wasserman-Shultzes and Steny Hoyers – that is, the leadership class – operate from the idea that the people can’t be trusted to make decisions. They must be guided in their choices by pre-structuring “democratic” process to reach preordained ends. For your own good. Your job as voters is to cheer.

And all of this is very old news. The disconnect between the idea of America and the actuality of America has long been established. Of course, we expect platitudes from our leaders when in front of the cameras; but our taste in fiction reveals how much we know that behind closed doors it’s a different story.

Thing is, the technology of social media, ubiquitous data collection and the dawn of artificial intelligence have taken this very old game and turned it up to eleven. The mind reels.

One point I was trying to get to earlier is this: in life, we learn to get along – specifically in our jobs, but in society more generally – by going along with things we know are wrong in some way. Going along to get along, as it is commonly put.

To not develop this flexibility is, generally, to remain a sort of child.

Problem being, as is well known, all of this going along to get along-ing makes it tricky to understand where to draw the line. As Hamilton put it some centuries ago: those who stand for nothing fall for anything.

The trick, it seems to me, is connecting that two-year-old intransigence to its proper object, so that we are flexible about all those things where it is appropriate to bend, while in those things where it is not, we are firmly rigid.

The madness of crowds, as previously mentioned, lies exactly in getting this ‘trick’ wrong, and covering over this error by coercion and persuasion. To get this trick wrong is to be flexible where one should be fixed, and fixated where one should be flexible.

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