Handling the tricky stuff

Handling the tricky stuff

Sunday, November 22, 2015

We’re All Not In It Together: Fantasy Trout Fishing in Delusional America -- 2

2: getoffmylawnyoudamnkids

"Now is the winter of our discontent"
Richard III

I’ve just turned 60 and I’ve found the experience, as they say, to be not entirely a pleasant one, though I do enjoy my Senior Discount. On Thursdays. At the supermarket. Waiting in a long line with the folks using walkers and credit cards they don’t understand how to use in place of the hard currency that they have but can’t count and the checkers can’t either…

As they also say, old age is not for sissies. All the body parts that had slowly been becoming non-functional over the last 20 years now suddenly hurt. And life for people like me, supposedly on the doorstep of my “golden years,” is not growing calm and peaceful, but worrisome and chaotic, just like it is for everyone else in the early 21st Century – no senior pass or exemptions (except in paying the dog license). In “Lethal Weapon,” the Danny Glover character says “I’m getting too old for this shit!” and I totally get him.

Old age also brings, um, anger management issues. #IStandWithClint

I also get misanthropes, from Plautus to Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino”  (which was, by the way, the car I first learned to drive in). Everywhere I look, I see people who really don’t make sense, and when I do think I understand them, I find them shocking and despicable. Without the cute cartoon minions.

Yes, I know, classic grumpy old white guy stuff, and that’s what I’ve long suspected is going on with me, except when you look around you see a lot of people who feel the same way. Women. Minorities. Younger people. Pretty much everyone who has been, as the hippy bumper sticker says, “paying attention.” Je suis Charlie. Yup, we’re all grumpy old men now.

Because when I try to look at it reasonably, beyond the arthritic aches, the poor sleeping habits, the too-close-to-the-surface emotions, there seems to be a lot going on around us that is obviously shocking and despicable.

Politics has become uglier than I remember it ever being before --  at least in my lifetime. Driving, even in smaller cities, has become rules-optional, and you see people on the roads every day driving in an unabashedly lawless way. Many people seem to have also lost the inhibition against doing outrageously wrong things in public, from rap stars to the police to the Hiltons and Kardashians, to certain presidential candidates. We used (back in my Bronze Age youth) to call such people “crazy,” but no more. We all know that these people are just being deliberately awful.

And, along these lines, let’s consider everyone’s personal frame-of-reference, guiding principles, ideology, “personal code” – what we used to call “philosophy of life.” In a normal, sane world, this should reflect “the times” and be colored somewhat by the surrounding culture, the extent of human experience and the current state of human knowledge. An illiterate serf, living a nasty, cold hungry life on the manor of his 13th Century overlord, should have a somewhat different idea of the nature of “reality and truth” than a 21st Century office worker with at least 12 years of education, a smart phone, and access to television and the internet. Should have. I say that because if you were to draw a Venn Diagram with two circles representing the general worldviews of these two hypothetical groups of people, I’m really not convinced that the two circles wouldn’t overlap considerably.  Here’s my guess of the overlap between our modern and medieval  views of the world:

OK, it’s purely my own grumpy observation, but I don’t see that a whole lot has changed in say, 1000 years. The late great Carl Sagan noted that we still live in a “demon-haunted world.” But let me go on a bit about this topic:

When I was young, I read George Orwell’s futuristic novel “1984” (1984 was still the future then), which was science fiction with a shockingly absurd premise.  In Orwell’s novel, the future was a totalitarian society where people’s rights had been taken away by their powerful leaders, and they had lost much of the hard-won sensibility of modern man through sophisticated brainwashing.  In the opening pages of the novel, you are told that these horribly oppressed and changed people hold these new “truths” to be self evident:


In the 1960’s (and the 1950’s, when the novel was new), this was a horrifying vision, but, thankfully, pretty easy to detach yourself from emotionally, since the premise was so absurdly science-fictiony. It was pretty hard to believe that people would ever reject the basic understanding that modern human have gained through history and accept as true things that are obviously, at face-value, false. No one is really that stupid, right? And a whole culture wouldn’t allow itself to be “brain-washed” into believing things like that…

The Culture Curmudgeon stands on his front porch now and snarls at you: “Oh, really? Yuh think so?”

Consider some of these “truths” floating around in our current culture:

-- GMO’s are dangerous for your health…. because they contain human-manipulated DNA, like every other modern crop or meat
-- Global warming is a hoax… despite the known physics of gasses, a massive amount of climate data, and the judgment of 98% of climatologists
-- Vaccines cause autism… though the one study claiming that has been proven to be fraudulent and totally discredited by other studies
-- Evolution is a lie… despite the fossil record, modern biology/medicine and nearly two centuries of biological evidence supporting it
-- President Obama was born in Kenya… despite official birth records in Hawaii and a birth announcement in the newspaper
-- Eating organic food is healthier for you… despite the total lack of any science to support that assertion
-- Gayness is a learned behavioral choice and can be “untaught” … despite, well, reality and the experience to the contrary of millions of gay people throughout history
-- The Founding Fathers were fundamentalist Christians and their goal was to found a Christian Nation... despite all historical records of their religious beliefs, many of which could barely be described as Christian, and despite the explicit wording of the First Amendment
-- The Earth is the center of the universe and was created out of nothing 6,000 years ago (i.e. after the documented record of the first human civilizations in Mesopotamia and the Indus River Valley)… despite all the knowledge of modern astronomy, geology, archaeology, biology, etc. etc.

I realize that I am picking heavily (though not exclusively) on the dogma of the political right, but really you can find numerous blatant examples of cognitive dissonance and anti-factual and even nonsensical contradiction (“war is peace”) buried in the belief systems of most of us, if you dig a bit. The way we have always dealt with this personal crazy is that we always called this stuff “belief,” which acknowledged the fact that some of our core principles came from things like religious beliefs (where faith proudly tells us things that deliberately contradict our basic understanding of physical reality) and family traditions, which can be sentimental and silly but are, well, traditions that we feel some loyalty to anyway. By calling these codes our “belief systems,” we acknowledged that they were personal to us and we didn’t expect everyone else to live by them.

The thing is, we have subtly changed our rhetoric, and where we used to say “this I believe,” we now say “this is truth” (as the bumper sticker equates the Christian fish with ‘Truth”) or “this is knowledge” (as we use the word “knowledge” in a phrase like “low-knowledge voters”).  This tends to give the opinions we want to express the air of being factually correct, provable with evidence and inarguably right, even when, in fact, we know that they are not actually so absolute.

Somehow, Orwell’s book has gone from being the fantastical fiction that we once thought it was to being an accurate prediction. A “brainwashed” slogan that many people around us could plausibly be heard chanting is “SCIENCE IS FALSE,” though this is as nonsensical as “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY,” since the word “science” actually means “knowledge.” This is almost a synonym for  “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”

But I need to correct my own rhetoric a bit here – large chunks of the people who forcefully defend the accuracy of these counter-factual beliefs are not actually “brainwashed” into believing their own words, nor are they ignorant of the knowledge and information that contradicts them, as many of us would like to believe they are. They are simply insisting on believing in a different set of “information” than previously rational people would have agreed exists – and they do this by equating their belief with reality, arguing that the information that others call “reality” is suspect because it supports the interpretations of “the other side.” As the comedian Stephen Colbert quips, “reality has a well-known liberal bias.” Or, as a conservative acquaintance of mine once told me, “I read different history books.” In a story I heard on NPR about the re-writing of school textbooks in Texas, a woman being interviewed was challenged by the reporter about her assertion that it was a “fact” that Moses was a Founding Father of the United States. She defended her somewhat indefensible position by saying, “I guess I think everything is relative to a person’s belief system.” Bingo. Game, set, match. At least as far as anyone who holds such conservative truths to be self-evident.

And so it goes. But, again, I don’t mean to pick just on conservatives, because this kind of thinking goes on across the political spectrum. I’ve heard similar arguments with people who insist that Ebola can be cured by gargling with lemon juice. Organic lemon juice, of course. Or by sticking to a diet of “Paleolithic” fruits and meats (whatever that means).

How do we live with this, or, more relevantly, how do we live together when people act like this? We tell stories about the other people that we think explain why they don’t accept our belief system, our set of “facts.” Most commonly, we believe that the others are ignorant (as in “low-knowledge voter”), which allows us both to dismiss their beliefs and to see a simple cause – bad education, stupidity, stubborn failure to learn, etc. – for why they are living their lives by a strange, “untrue” code.

I’m a professional science writer, a kind of journalist who tries to explain the “news” of current science to the public, partially as a kind of educational service, partially because it is significant new information -- “news.” For decades, one piece of public polling intelligence has greatly disturbed me and my science writer colleagues: about one third of the American public think that the theory of evolution – a powerful scientific argument for how life develops that has been massively supported by nearly 200 years of scientific observations and that is the cornerstone for all of modern biology and most of modern medicine – is simply false. Instead, these people insist that the “biblical account of creation” is accurate – that God created humans and all living things (in their modern form) out of nothingness in a single week about 6,000 years ago. This contradicts all the knowledge of modern geology (or, as we now call it, “earth science”), biology, archaeology, astronomy… basically all of the natural sciences. And it’s not just the thirty percent with strong religious beliefs that reject the basic modern understanding of life – more than half of all Americans are at least “not sure” that they “believe” in evolution. For most of my professional life, the only way we could explain this piece of knowledge dissonance was to say that the public was profoundly ignorant of a foundational piece of modern knowledge.

But that’s not true, and we science writers have actually known that, but were in denial. Creationism -- the political movement that religious fundamentalists began about a hundred years ago to fight the teaching of evolution in the public schools – morphed (one is tempted to say evolved ) a couple of decades ago into another anti-evolution argument known as “Intelligent Design.” This argument doesn’t simply assert the “truth” of the biblical account (old fundamentalist bumper sticker: “The Bible said it, I believe it, and that settles it.”) but tries to “refute” the theory of evolution by quibbling with it, finding “holes” in it, generally trying to find excuses for rejecting it.

The “evidence” that Intelligent Design proponents argue is generally so weak that no one would be convinced by it unless they had decided in advance that they want to be convinced that “evolution is wrong.” This, really is the point – these people have learned all about evolution (in order to “refute” it) and they have surely seen a significant amount of the massive amount of evidence – it is obvious that they are not ignorant. Proponents of Intelligent Design (and the half of all Americans who appear to be inclined towards their argument…?) are simply choosing to reject the “truth” of something they actually know modern knowledge massively supports. They have their own “truth” and no amount of education or evidence-based argument is going to change that.  I don’t know about you, but I found it a lot more comforting when I believed that they were simply ignorant.

So, the contemporary world is full of intellectual dissonance and we even have to employ cognitive dissonance in order to deal with it: People aren’t stubbornly insisting on things that they really know are wrong, they are “stupid.” Well, as Forrest Gump says, “stupid is as stupid does.” If we think that other people are denying reality because they are “stupid” aren’t we being, well… stupid? We are all living, I guess, in our own bubbles.

And all this head-banging with other people makes me, well, grumpy.

Everyone's favorite cat.

Grumpiness is apparently a natural enough state for old people like myself, but, as I said before, it’s not just old people who are feeling it today. We’re all detached from each other, we’re all turned inward towards our own personal reality, we all think everyone else (to varying degrees) is “crazy” (or “stupid,” if we want to be charitable towards others, bless their hearts). It’s a lonely place we’re in right now – we’re all not in it together anymore.


And stay off, dammit.

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