Join the dots: Marlon Brando, AGW, the next Olympics, Dan Brown and Wikileaks? (Clue: “What are you afraid of?”…”What do you got?”)
As is often the case, my inspiration for this piece comes from a Guardian article by someone called Steve Rose: Are the 2012 Olympics part of a plot to take over the world? It’s vaguely amusing I suppose; I’m really not going to spend much time on it, but the gist is that some pretty strange people believe the whole shebang in East London is a front for – wait for it – a world government to be formed in response to a ‘fake’ alien invasion to be staged during the 2012 Olympics. More layers of paranoia than you could shake an onion at.
I’m reading this after a quick look at another Guardian climate change thread – the same one I commented on yesterday – and after the inevitable depression at the sheer banality of the comments (not to mention the irrationality) it was good to find something that wore it’s stupidity on its sleeve, as it were. But I couldn’t help but notice the connection between the articles, and a theory I have about society that is hard to articulate without appearing elitist in some way: an awful lot of people aren’t very well educated.
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Look, I’m as humble as any man who understands mortality should be. Dust to dust: will my name – anything at all about me – be remembered 100 years after my death. A thousand? Of course not. This temporary flash of light is so brief, and so intrinsically unimportant, that to consider myself as anything but a fleeting mirage of sentience hosting a staggeringly limited perception of reality, would be pretty stupid. I refuse to be that daft, or that self-important.
That said, if you don’t understand the journey your life has taken, if you are not prepared to evaluate both the route you took and the number of times you got lost, there is no way of measuring ‘progress’ – however you define it. (For me, it’s a spiritual matter, one of cohesion between my actions, my heart, my head, and anything else that makes me ‘me’. I’ve never liked the notion of talking the talk without walking the walk).
Intelligence and its application through education serve, in my life, a most vital function. When I was young, I existed in a dual state of belligerent confidence and abject terror, alternating between the two with unnervingly predictable unpredictability. I discovered only one way to counter the terrible anxiety of my youth, and that was to educate myself out of it. My fears were dark, formless things that usually turned out to be nothing but shadows, no substance at all. I have observed several things about these states of terror: as guilt must attach itself to a past we cannot change, so anxiety feeds off a future we cannot predict.
A simple example of the discipline I employed to counter anxiety is this; as a young man I would worry a lot about things like paying my bills. After spending days, weeks or even months agonising over the terrible shame, the nameless humiliations and all the other formless things that would no doubt lead inexorably to my public shaming in a debtor’s court, the loss of my home, my car, my wife, my few valued possessions, the desertion of all my friends…you get the idea…after all that self-inflicted fear, I would look back a year later and think – “hold on a mo…nothing’s actually happened at all. I found the money, paid the phone bill. What the hell was I worrying about?” Five days later, I would be plunged into a new bout of abject terror when the next gas bill landed on the mat.
It doesn’t require too much introspection to see this is a pretty daft state of affairs, a vicious circle of self-inflicted wounds. It is, of course, a habit; a way of thinking that becomes so familiar there is even a certain comfort in it. I’m not going to stray into cod-psychology here, but suffice to say I sorted this out not by seeking therapy, but simply by not bothering to worry so much. It might appear to be irresponsible to shrug and ignore the future, but when you let the future take care of itself, you have more energy and attention to give to the present, and this makes more sense that fretting over issues that cannot yet be resolved. (Later, when I constructed an analytical method of evaluating business performance on the basis of a company having a finite amount of energy, and analysing how that energy was being used or abused, I also realised that personal anxiety can be quite disabling, since the energy I’m using to worry about stuff is energy I can’t use to address the things I’m worrying about).
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I’ve always believed that education is something we should pursue all our lives. It’s too easy to claim we don’t have the time, but I’m hard pressed personally to find anything more important than growth: in nature things are either growing or dying – I don’t think there is anything between those two states, any kind of stasis in which there is neither growth nor decay. All the time I’m making the effort to grow, I can foster a sense of rebellion against what I call my one ‘true’ fact; I’m going to die, the only thing I know with absolute certainty. (I feel obliged to say at this point that my one ‘true’ fact is very helpful to me, and not the least bit morbid. I have not found a better way of lifting myself out of anxiety, depression, any moody old nonsense I indulge in from time to time, than to remind myself this is my one go, my one ticket to ride. Asking myself if this is really how I want to experience the roller-coaster – looking inward and feeling bad about it – usually snaps me out of it).
The auto-didactic nature of my life is also a measure of necessity, since my formal education was a fucking waste of time (for the most part, certain exceptions granted). I knew pretty early I was just being fitted to a menial role in the industrial machine, and those paying for my education – commercial interests – would also limit their investment to the barely sufficient. As I’ve written elsewhere on this subject:
When our education is so circumscribed we are, in effect, turned out as damaged goods. Where we could have been made strong, individual, independent, free-thinking, class-free and non-conformist, we are instead turned into headless chickens with the balance of a banana. The historian AJP Taylor wrote: “All change in history, all advance, comes from the non-conformists. If there had been no troublemakers, no dissenters, we should still be living in caves.” This point is obviously lost on those who decide the criteria for state education.
‘House of Mirrors’ (PDF)
Damaged goods? What kind of damage? The same damage ignorance always causes; fear, superstition, anxiety, violence, hatred, bigotry – you name it, ignorance will be a staunch supporter. If you have an interest in history, you will know that much of it is replete with tales of terrible intolerance, appalling acts. It seems clear to me that much of it is motivated by fear, and the reaction to it that causes people to attempt the truly impossible – to make today just like yesterday. Why else would religions persecute science? Or Republicans? There can be nothing inherently bad about knowledge, nothing evil or inappropriate. Why would we not embrace it wholeheartedly, knowing that the very breath of life is found in understanding, enrichment through exploration? The answer is that we are afraid, and that fear is of the unknown. In human terms, the unknown is Hegel’s ‘the other’ – anyone who is perceived as different from us. In broader terms, the unknown is the relentless flux of the universe around the static position of our awareness, for we exist in a single, perpetual moment.
Here we have two threads inescapably drawn into the shoddiest cloth – bad education and nameless anxieties. We are not well educated, and we know far less than we ever believe (Dunning-Kruger and all that), unless we get to the satisfying point my father told me about when I was young: when you know enough to realise how little you know, or will ever understand (a good starting point for an education). And our faux-education imbues in us a shallow confidence that turns to anxiety under the slightest duress. Truly, for many of us, the most powerful force working within us is terror.
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I’m near the end of this little venture. I dragged Brando into this because, as with growing disbelief I read the ‘Alien Olympics’ article, it reminded me of so many people who believe climate change is a conspiracy of some sort, and indeed all the people world-wide who believe in similar fearful things, hence the paraphrased version of Johnny’s expedient ambivalence: “What are you afraid of?”…“What do you got?”.
It reminded me of 9/11 troofers, who believe their own government conspired to destroy the twin towers, for a dazzling array of reasons and motives. (They have this in common with climate change deniers, who depend on a most bewildering, and deeply inconsistent, range of theories). In fact, the amount of anxiety expressed in daily life rather shocks me. This is from the same article:
In a 2006 poll by Scripps Howard/Ohio University, 36% of Americans agreed that the US government was either involved in the 9/11 attacks or did nothing to stop them. Another poll by Zogby in 2007 put the proportion at 26.4%. Then again, polls this year also found that 18% of Americans believe Barack Obama is a Muslim and 27% believe he was born outside the US. Public credulity seems to be at an all-time high, or reliable information at an all-time low. For the conspiracy hardcore, though, 9/11, the London 7/7 attacks and other terrorist incidents are what’s known as “false flag” operations; hoax attacks designed to advance the conspirators’ agenda, and the London Olympics plot is the next one.
It isn’t just credulity in my opinion. The willingness to embrace the irrational – evidence is the last thing any of these theories have to support them – is a sign of the times, and perhaps of all times. The astounding success of The Da Vinci Code – one of the worst written books I’ve read (part of) in my life – is, I believe, testament to the resonance of its conspiracy-laden plot with the lives and anxieties of the people who bought it in such huge numbers. People like this feel like victims, and are reassured when their victimhood is brought into focus, put in a context of helplessness against an array of forces so terrible, so secret, so well disguised and ruthless in purpose, what chance can any individual have? Surely there is no escape from the forces of evil that seek at every turn to do something bad to me?
What makes things worse is that when you lift your head out of Dan Brown’s fetid little one-plot world, you find you’re up to your neck in something strikingly similar, very real, and disturbingly sinister. There is nothing left to the imagination when you read the Wikileaks files; personally I’m neither shocked nor titillated by the ‘revelations’, since if you read history you will know that there really isn’t anything new in all this, with the exception of how easy it was to load 250,000 secretive documents onto a device the size of a cocktail sausage.
What joins all the dots? The same fear that drove the Inquisition. The same superstition that drowned ‘witches’. The same ignorance that sparks the mob to violence. There is so little difference between the mobs roaming the dark ages, and the fundamentalists roaming the deserts of the Middle East or the ghettos of urban America, it is hard to suggest we are really much better educated than our forebears. It isn’t our fault: we’ve been sold one almighty pup, and that’s the conspiracy – to keep us in the same meek servitude to profit we’ve always been.
For many around the globe, there is little difference between the feudalism of Shakespeare’s time and the present day. For the rest of us, in the so-called ‘developed’ world, we may have developed ways to make a profit for our masters, but we really haven’t developed ourselves very much at all – not if we measure that development by our freedom from irrational fears and the self-contained confidence to embrace change that only genuine knowledge can confer.
Look around, see how many people are still superstitious, still locked into an agrarian mind-set 200 years past its sell-by date. If this is progress, it really is very slow indeed. Perhaps we should attempt to speed things up a bit by being a bit more diligent about how we educate ourselves, trusting less in the state to provide us with our independence, for the state never willingly gives away anything of value .