Conspiracy theories as idolatry

After you have had children and grandchildren and have lived in the land a long time—if you then become corrupt and make any kind of idol … I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you this day that you will quickly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess … you will worship man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell.


We get a glimpse in Deuteronomy of idolatry as a denial of reality.

How can you worship these things which are not alive when you have the witness of heaven and earth that your forefather saw?

How can you deny the reality of the power Yahweh and instead run after inanimate objects? They clearly can do nothing.

What the Deuteronomist is calling out here is a fundamental misattribution error. You take the blessings and cursings of Yahweh who made the world and you with it, and attribute it to something in that world.

Instead of placing your God in the centre of your being, instead of attributing causality to him, you put some warped version of reality there instead.

At some level this is all about what you hold to, centrally. What’s at the core of your being. Everything else flows from that.

Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.


Conspiracy theories are very much like idols. They speak to your core. In fact, there’s considerable evidence they exist to protect your core beliefs. You reconfigure an inconvenient reality so you don’t have to reevaluate that thing you hold most dear.

This clicked for me this weekend when I stumbled across this fantastic video:

I had always wondered why conspiracy theory types were almost universally Trump supporters. And this gives us a starting place to figure out why.

You kind of need the conspiracy theory, since Trump is so obviously a grifter and a conman. You can’t take Trump-the-Man at face value. He’s transparently awful.

You have to engage with Trump-the-Myth. Because Trump-the-Myth is a completely different animal. He’s a genius, a Christian, a prolife champion, an antipaedophile warrior… really, whatever you need him to be.

Once you’ve got that mythos in your deep heart, confronted with the real Trump, you start to make stuff up. Or you seek out stuff other folks made up.

Trump doesn’t think COVID’s a big deal? I’ll turn the simple act of wearing a mask into an no-holds-barred cage match. Trump downplays racism? I’ll deny the lived experiences of others and instead attack CRT, etc. I could go on, and on, and on.

It’s astounding, really, and there’s a whole other discussion to be had about why so many Christians in particular seem primed to discard reality in favour of conspiracy. (Could it have something to with the widespread antiscience conspiracy theory that is YEC?)

At the end of the day, praying to the invented god Ba’al via house idols so your crops don’t fail isn’t so different from pinning your hopes on Trump to do x, y, & z.

Trust in the LORD with all your heart / And do not lean on your own understanding.


Ba’al doesn’t exist.

The Trump you worship doesn’t exist either.

And as always, maranatha.

Bullet points for a Tuesday lunch hour

  • We fundamentally don’t understand our own reasoning. Or, another way, people don’t know why they think what they think. This is pessimistic, I know. But this is (my understanding of) the scientific consensus. I’d go for far as to say that most of “why do I think what I think” is post-hoc rationalization.
  • I tend not to take folks too seriously when they frame stuff a certain way, or spell out their reasoning on a certain issue. This isn’t to say I doubt they think that way; I assume, probably too generously, good faith on the what. I just think the why is inaccessible.
  • Turns out, though, the why is pretty important. For instance, you’d expect that a lot of the folks vigorously supporting the Hong Kong protests would be as vigorously supporting the Portland protests, since they have similar features. But not even a little! A lot of folks might enumerate a list of differences about what the protests are actually about, etc. But I suspect that list would be a list of stuff they found after they’d already made a gut-level decision. A post-hoc rationalization.
  • (The real reason is probably something along the lines of political affiliation, by the way. I suspect a lot of the support for Hong Kong was anti-China, not pro-democracy.)
  • The natural pushback to this is that being suspicious of these post-hoc rationalizations is just an easy way to discredit someone’s position without having to deal with the actual content of their position. The short answer is, yes. That’s true. That’s a danger, and I’m certainly not immune to it. The longer answer is I’ve been alive for a long while now, and on the internet talking with folks about stuff for a good part of that. And I’ve seen so much inconsistency between what people say they believe and what positions they end up taking, I just have a hard time believing any of it.
  • Take for instance the evolution of the Evangelical position on how exemplary their leader’s moral behaviour should be. When their guy’s a creep, suddenly the overall opinion changes. Not for everyone, of course, but for enough people that it’s statistically significant.
  • My take on these sorts of things is that personality, media, politics, and community (respectively and in decreasing order) play a much larger role than we like to acknowledge.
  • More fundamentally, people aren’t rational in the way that economists would like, or that the Enlightenment assumes.
  • This is also another nail in the coffin of non-situational ethics. In-group ethics in particular become an exercise in community interpretation, especially when filtered through politics.
  • I have a special affection for folks who are weathering the current (acute) political crises without abandoning their ethics. If you’re going to be a fundamentalist at least be a good one and don’t jump ethical ships per election. If morality and ethics are fixed, let them be fixed.
  • I’m not even going to touch on “reasons” that most people know are straight up bullshit, like the NRA’s “guns === freedom” defence-of-liberty bullshit. The only way you can take that kind of stuff seriously is if you switch out all the dogwhistley words for what they actually mean. This is why I appreciate “I like shooting stuff” over “I need to defend my family”.
  • Or even worse, standards that only apply to folks I disagree with. Imagine how quickly an editor at an Evangelical publications would be shot into space for publishing an editorial in support of abortion rights, yet the same sort of thing at a liberal publication is met with howls of outrage. Rank bullshit. Why are liberal publications required to both-sides everything, while conservative publications get to have airtight editorial control? Absolutely rank bullshit.

Bullet Points for a Friday Lunch

  • That wearing masks has become a political issue is absolutely infuriating. Any time medicine drifts into politics, it’s a shitshow. And more and more stuff is being politicised recently. You kind of have to wonder who has a vested interest in driving stakes between people.
  • Think about the way the Bible talks about principalities and powers. Whether you think they’re spiritual beings or a way of talking about emergent phenomena, it’s hard to look at the church and not see these powers at work. Especially in the merging of country, party, and faith. Critically, the call is coming from inside the house. Christian leaders are complicit here. They’re trading in currency of power; and power always corrupts. The evangelical wing of Christendom especially is in trouble these days; it’s hard to look at their enthusiastic embrace of a crooked and depraved wannabe despot and think otherwise.
  • The phone call to talk about the email could have just been an email.
  • It’s interesting that the “spirit of fear” response to mask wearing follows the same template as Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. If you are a Christian, don’t wear a mask, “for God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind”. The response is, of course “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”.
  • The spirit of fear quote is also wildly decontextualised and repurposed; you could literally say that about anything! Don’t look both ways before crossing the street, for God has not given us a spirit of fear! Don’t wear a seatbelt, for God has not given us a spirit of fear! It’s absolute nonsense. You don’t get to just pick some words out the Bible and use them however you like.
  • Prosperity gospel is a sort of magical thinking. It links cause and effect where cause and effect either don’t exist, or where they’re opaque. It’s an easy view to adopt. Everything suddenly has a reason (though, unfortunately, the reason is you, which kind of sucks). But it’s not just in Christian circles; I’ve seen the same sort of thinking around stuff like epigenetics. There’s a powerful thing in the human brain that wants to draw a line from point [a] to point [b]. And it’s easy to make the mistake that if something explains something it must explain everything.
  • Overly causal thinking is also another way to generate guilt. If I don’t have enough faith / eat the right food / do the right whatever, it’s my fault that me and my family suffer in some way. This is too much burden to bear, especially unnecessarily.
  • It’s fun to break things down by their function instead of by their theoretical whatever. For instance, functionally, the preordained plan of God, decided before the foundation of the world, is functionally the same as random action. How could you tell the difference? Or, being anti-abortion is functionally about locking you into voting for a particular political party. Handy way to start explaining why some stuff is the way it is.
  • You need to allow for luck. Or providence (again, functionally identical), or whatever you want to call it. But critically, you don’t get to decide that other folks are lucky and you earned it. You’re lucky too. For instance, a lot of people want to say that poor folk are poor for a reason. Conveniently, the flip side of that is that you’re not poor for a reason. However true that may be (not very, imho), it’s immensely self-serving.
  • I know a lot of folks who went to school for like $10, bought a house with a bag full of old nickels, and worked in a stable career with a pension for 40+ years acting like they somehow earned 100% of that. What? Nah, you lucky. Lots of folks work hard and get nowhere. You worked hard (you claim!) and got somewhere. What’s the difference? Are you magic? Blessed? A better kind of person? Or maybe, just maybe, you’re lucky.
  • Also if you earned it, you don’t have to be grateful, you don’t have to give back, you don’t have to see yourself embedded in the social graph. You earned yours. Convenient!
  • This is a really easy way to think if you live in a suburb.
  • Don’t apply the general to the specific. Average IQ is 100, individual IQ varies. Stop thinking about “the gays”. Think about your relative or your neighbour. Stop making people feel bad that they didn’t recover from their surgery in the average time or whatever. People are not the conceptual group they’re in.
  • At the same time, stop expecting the average. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and you’ll almost certainly be different.
  • Empathy is a powerful thing. It’s hard to nurture. It’s becoming a dirty word in some circles, coincidentally the same circles that will try and strip you of it so they can sell you their politics of the antichrist.

We Both Got Toes

Here’s a fact: there’s a plurality of opinion about what the Bible says.

It wasn’t so long ago that you could reasonably ignore (or at least downplay) this fact. It’s a lot easier when there’s two churches in your town: the one you go to, and the apostate one.

You don’t have that luxury anymore. You are a simple search engine away from every conceivable reading of the Bible, from the comfortingly familiar to the bracingly bizarre.

So which one is the right one? It’s a good question. Or at least, it was a good question. Good enough that actuals wars were fought over it. People died over their reading of the same book.

Again, easy to have wars when there’s two sides. Our blessed protestant homeland vs their superstitious catholic wastes.

We (okay, maybe it’s just me) tend to approach our approach like lovestruck teenagers. They’re the one for me. This person, who just so happens to live in my city, and go to my church, and participate in my youth group, completes me. (And if you know me, you know I’m speaking from some real experience, right?)

Importantly, this is a real feeling. It’s even an important feeling. And since feelings are thought, let’s not try to pretend that we shouldn’t feel this way. At least for a time. But when you grow up, if you want to start thinking about these sorts of things, you realise there are a few billion potential mates for you in this world, and the chances that yours just happens to live on the next block are astronomically small. So either you believe in some sort of providential whatever, or you sort of abandon this idea of “the one”. (And so what if providence smells a lot like proximity; that’s not the point.)

If you abandon your teenage brain when it comes to romance, why not doctrine? What’s the difference? So yeah, it’s a bit more of a shocking question, or at least it feels that way, but why not?

If you’ve stuck around the church past adolescence you probably attend some variation on the same church you went to then. What are the chances? And if you’ve changed your mind a bit (let’s say you went from a Reformed church to a Baptist church), what’s to say you shouldn’t change your mind even more?

I don’t have a great answer to this question. But maybe that’s the point. This entire post is perhaps a reflection on something I like to call epistemic humility.

It hasn’t been long (geologically, at least) since I was very, very firmly in the a camp called epistemic realism, or objectivism (and please for love of all things holy, don’t confuse this with whatever garbage Ayn Rand shat out and gave the same name).

I’m not some epistemic idealist now, but I will say this: For folks of a certain temperament, and I count myself among them, it’s really tempting to chuck as much stuff as possible into the “stuff we can all know 100% for sure” bucket and call it a day. This is the easy route. For those seeking to hew as close as possible to what they call realism (and I sure hope there aren’t that many folks who really, passionately care about that sort of thing), the impulse is to use your Big Brain and Know Things.

And to be fair, I think there’s a lot of stuff that can go in that bucket. This is a whole other post, but most ideologies and systems of belief are having a really hard time right now dealing with actual facts. So when science says this, but I believe that, what do I do?

Still, there’s lots of other stuff that we either can’t know or can’t know precisely. Maybe most stuff. Acknowledging this is epistemic humility. My willingness to admit that what I think I know might not be as knowable as I thought.

This humility is a sort of freedom. It allows a graceful interaction with a plurality of viewpoints without abandoning my own. It allows others to inform where I might be wrong, or might be approaching from a place of unknown privilege.

It at the very least allows me to find the points of commonality I have with my fellow humans, whether that be at the Table or on streetcorners.

It’s also super uncomfortable. I don’t like being wrong. I don’t like having my biases and for-granteds and privileges exposed. I want to have it all together.

But hey, you wash my feet, I’ll wash yours, we both got toes, maybe it doesn’t matter what shoes you’re wearing.

The new conservatism

Having spoken to a few conservative recently, trying to suss out what they actually like about Trump (who is transparently an awful president and just as awful a person), I think I’ve stumbled upon the blazing obvious:

Conservatism is dead.

I mean, it’s obviously not dead. But it’s dead. Or perhaps the old glossy shell is being removed so we can all get a glimpse of the fetid interior.

Either way.

It used to be possible (whether that was right or not; I certainly believed myself to be in this camp) to be a principled, economically-oriented conservative.

I think conservatism (or, again, maybe not at its core, but certainly as it was served up) was about economic systems. Capitalism vs Communism. First vs second world. The guiding us-vs-them (never forget conservatism is always in the first instance tribal; there’s always an us; there’s always a them) was the global conflict against communism. Or, because the USSR was the 900kg gorilla of communism and the USA the 900kg gorilla of capitalism, USA vs USSR. (Also wonderfully ripe for classical Marxist analysis, but that’s a whole other thing.)

Since then, western conservatism (notable in North America and perhaps Great Britain) has undergone a remarkable realignment. The us-vs-them axis has been completely realigned, and Russia is now no longer the bogeyman of 20 years ago. If anything, contemporary conservatives are extremely sympathetic to Russia.

It’s quite hard to understand why this might be. I bet many of the old guard in both Canadian and American conservative circles find this absolutely mindboggling. How can you view Russia, our historic enemy, favourably?

But because conservatism is no longer primarily intellectually aligned with economic theory, it starts to make sense.

What, then, might the current alignment be?

I think contemporary conservatives, perhaps not rightist intellectuals, but certainly the at ground level, are primarily aligned along cultural lines.

You can’t underestimate the effect that narratives like clash-of-cultures have had, especially since the September 11 attacks. Clash-of-cultures (or clash-of-civilizations) is one of those foundational “great books” of contemporary conservative thought. The fact that it’s astoundingly popular doesn’t actually make it true; it just makes it a widely-endorsed myth.

There’s lots to say about clash-of-cultures, not much of it good. What it does have is that sort of “sounds about right to me” gut-check quality that conservative love. It might not be true, but it sure is truthy.

Conservatives have further boiled this myth down into a handy heuristic (and you can see American fingers in this pie; they’re not the only colourist racists in the world but boy howdy do they do it best): White good, brown bad.

In the original clash of cultures, the Protestant/Catholic West isn’t quite the same, culturally, as the Orthodox East (eastern Europe and Russia). But once you collapse “the West vs the Rest” into “the white vs the brown”, Russia starts to look a whole lot more Western. Add to that their persecution of minorities in general (ethnic, sexual, etc) and they start to feel very much of a kind with conservatives.

I think that explains a lot of what’s in the wind in recent conservative discourse. This (seemingly) sudden movement against any kind of diversity, (or as rightists would put it,” degeneracy”) has to be understood through a clash-of-cultures mythic lens. Diversity is weakness. We can’t provide a united cultural front if we’re multicultural, multiethnic, nonbinary, sexually fluid, and so forth.

I see late stage conservatism as an ouroboros of myth. There’s no there there. It’s resistant to facts, while claiming only to believe in facts (not feelings, natch). It’s completely fabricated, but it feels true. It’s stunningly postmodern while desperately trying to inherit the “Enlightenment”. It’s a construction begging the folks living inside to ignore all the bad wiring.

At least you can say that honest postmodern folk (who I do not count myself among) will freely admit that that stuff is constructed (while attempting to unmoor these constructions from their precursors, which is, in my opinion, not a great idea).

So I guess… conservatism is dead, long live conservatism?

Colonial past, colonial present

It’s hard to understand the present condition of the Middle East without understanding its past. And by its past, I mean its colonial past.

You can’t really understand, for instance, the current state of Israel without looking at its where it came from.

Plainly, Israel is a colonial state. It’s probably the most obviously colonial state in existence. Its genesis is complicated, a result of a bunch of ideologies and influences. But it was formed by colonial powers (thanks Britain!), and it continues to be one of the few expansionist colonial states.

If you’ve ever struggled to understand the affinity of America with Israel, sure, it’s interesting and nuanced and complex, but it’s also a case of like attracts like. America (and Canada, we by no means get to wash our hands of this) is a strongly colonial power, though in serious denial.

In particular US Christianity has an affinity for Israel that seems to line up with their extremely idiosyncratic doctrinal positions, like premillennialism (though by no means a new idea) and dispensationalism.

If you’re a bit more pessimistic (or, as a pessimist would say, realistic), you might say that a powerful, hegemonic patron state that just happens to be a colonial power living in the lands of a fairly historically dispossessed native people having a close relationship with a client state that just so happens to be a colonial power living in the lands of a fairly recently dispossessed native people, justified for religious folk with a set of doctrines that just so happen to align along that axis… that’s all a teensy bit too coincidental to be an accident.

That’s not to say that there’s some conspiracy to produce this result; probably not. But when things line up so nicely it’s probably not just some historical accident. We have this (blissfully ignorant) tendency to assume our doctrines and ideologies influence our politics and foreign policy, as if there’s no feedback there.

Is there any reason our politics wouldn’t influence our doctrines, though? I can’t think of any. There’s plenty of doctrines to choose from, all with convincing (ish) hermeneutics and frameworks draped about them. Why not choose the one that allows you the most simpatico bedfellows?

None of this even gets into our North American history of racism, both individual and systemic (and, for Christians, doctrinal; the point above stands, when you remember that entire denominations were created around preserving the institution of slavery). I think you could probably view Israel as existing at some weird intersection of colonialism and xenophobia, since present-day Israelis tend to be white seen as white (ish), where Arabs are not. But setting that aside for now…

It’s easy to say, based on all this, Israel Bad. But that cat’s out of the bag. Israel is. I’m not really dealing with value judgement here, as much as (as best I can see them) facts. Israel is a fact. A fact produced by a certain history which can’t just magically be undone. And it’s important to recognize that the Arab states would like nothing more than to undo Israel. None of this justifies Israeli or Arab aggression. It helps to explain it, but it doesn’t justify it.

It would be easier to sympathize if Israel weren’t an expansionist colonial power. If they weren’t trying to reclaim the “holy land” by disenfranchising and displacing Arabs.

As always, we live in the colonial present. We like to deny it, but in Canada, well within my parents’ lifetimes (however blissfully ignorant of this they choose to remain) the residential school system was still in operation. If we can’t acknowledge that, if we can’t at the very least acknowledge our colonial past, how can we expect to escape the colonial present?

Axioms, heuristics

I remember very clearly sitting in the basement of a Toronto house, eating Indian food and meeting members of the Indian community as part of a Christian missionary-style thing. Maybe “remember clearly” is an overstatement; I actually just remember very good pakora and someone talking about how tolerance and diversity are self-defeating.

All this in the basement of a house in a multicultural city (or at least a city with multicultural pretenses). It was one of those moments, in retrospect, I can’t help boggling at our privilege. Sitting there, a mission field in our laps, whining about the very thing that enabled it.

It’s stunning, really. (And I have more on that for later.)

But that aside, the talk about tolerance centered around how tolerance can’t tolerate intolerance, thus tolerance is self-defeating, thus… something?

It’s just… silly.

Tolerance isn’t an axiom. You can’t disprove it. It doesn’t fail its own test; it’s not a test. It’s a heuristic.

We all do this all the time. We have guidelines or instincts or heuristics that guide our lives. Here’s one of mine: if someone is stridently and unapologetically anti-vaccination (among other antis), I’m immediately suspicious of anything else they say.

But if we turn this into an axiom it’s plainly ridiculous. Antivaxxers can obviously be right about stuff. They don’t, for instance, tend to take long walks off short piers, my wishes to the contrary.

Tolerance is a heuristic, too. I obviously don’t believe that all perspectives are morally equivalent, but I do have to act as if they were (in public) in order to get along in a world where my truth claims are expressed by a vanishingly small percentage of the population.

But only to a point.

If your perspective on freedom of religion is that we should legislate one variety of religion, we’ve reached that point. I’m under no obligation to tolerate your 1600s Church of England crap.

If your perspective on the ethnic makeup of western nations is 100% European, I’m under no obligation to give your belief any sort of legitimacy.

That’s the point at which the heuristic no longer applies. When you start making your perspective the perspective. Because in order to function in the world, in order to have a government and public sphere that works for everyone (not just for your tribe).

We just can’t be funny anymore

I’ve seen this rash of (mostly old, mostly male, mostly white) comedians implying they can’t be funny anymore thanks to this era of intense political correctness.

It’s bullshit.

They’re lazy. They don’t want to adapt to changing times and changing tastes. They want to lean on their old (unfunny!) crutches. They don’t want to have to evolve because they’ve not had to evolve.

And so the barest scrutiny feels like oppression.

It’s bullshit.

There are lots of folks out there making comedy who don’t grind a boot heel into the necks of the marginalized.

And there are still lots of folks making comedy who do.

Because this isn’t a problem. It’s not a thing that exists. Cancel culture is made up. It’s another symptom of this of whiny, insecure, fragile ego that flips the (reasonable) suggestion that maybe we should treat others with a modicum of dignity into a persecution complex. (And trust me, I know all about persecution complexes: I was raised Evangelical.)

This is just the typical “I’m not oppressing you, you’re oppressing ME” response you get anytime you try to hold power to a higher standard.

And as I’ve said before… It’s bullshit.

Folks who are supposedly “cancelled” have thriving or rebounding careers (Louis CK anyone?). You can find bonkers offensive stuff being produced today by Netflix (at the very top of the recommendation queue: Chappelle). And people looooooove it.

See, that’s because “cancel culture” is bullshit.

Your failure to find a market for your comedy isn’t society oppressing you.

Maybe you’ve had some bad luck. Maybe you’re not so funny. Maybe you’re lazy and stagnant and assuming you can just ride to the top with the same old same old.

I dunno. But I can tell you one thing. Your inability to adapt to a free market (a market that is by definition free to change under your feet) isn’t a good sign. You don’t get to tell people what they should and should not find funny.

Times change. What was funny yesterday isn’t funny today. This has always been the case. It will always be the case.

You don’t get to be the exception.

On not watching the news

I don’t watch the news. I don’t think that’s a secret.

Why? Well, that’s a bit of a rabbit hole. Lots of reasons, really, though at the end of the day it might just be about temperament: I just don’t enjoy it (especially cable news). It makes me feel gross. But not because of the content, primarily, but because of the tenor and tone of the presentation. I might listen to a podcast that attempts to present the same information or perspective in a different format.

That aside, when I say that I don’t watch the news, people tend to ask something along the lines of “how do you stay informed?”

My answer has always been that I follow highly focused trade publications where I can trust the authors have at least some technical understanding of the things they’re talking about.

But that’s an evasion, isn’t it? Dodging from one kind of news to another doesn’t solve the fundamental problem (that we’ll get to shortly). It just means that I follow a different kind of news.

The real answer to “how do you stay informed” is “how do I stay informed about… what?”

This is two questions, really. The first question is more about filtering. How do I select from the vast quantity of information available? How do I sip from the firehose?

But this is again a kind of dodge. It’s also (I guess) sort of technically interesting but not really theoretically interesting, at least to me. You can build an algorithm for this (or at least imagine one).

What I’m interested is whether or not we can ever be informed about anything at all, as it actually is.

This might seem like a strange or useless question. Of course we can be informed! What else is the news?

We’ve gotten to the point where we have to define our terms, sadly. What do you mean when you say “informed”? Do you mean simply that you have some information about something? Or that you have some accurate information about something? Or that you’ve built some kind of conceptual shortcuts to thinking about things?

But let’s put that aside for now. Let’s think about the media. Specifically, what does the media do? How does it work? What’s it for?

Maybe it’s helpful to think about what it does by looking at a time where there was (roughly) no media. Take, let’s say, 500 years ago. You live in a town. You’re a peasant. You don’t have the concept of “media” (you may not even have the concept of “information”!). All that you know about the world is either your direct experience of the world or experiences of the world that have been relayed to you by other people. You have either your lived experience or hearsay. Your world is small, necessarily.

You, the peasant, have a very small experience of the world. But at the same time you have a much less mediated experience of the world. Yes, it’s still mediated by your mind, and yes, your indirect experiences are mediated by other people, but still. You’re closer to some hypothetical “reality”.

Now introduce newspapers. Your sphere of awareness grows. But does it? What you read in a newspaper is more mediated experience. It’s literally written by other people who have different lived experience than you, who might not even live in the same physical sphere as you, who might not approach the world using the same intellectual tools you do. This is hearsay but on a grander level, with an artifice of “journalism” built up around it to reinforce its legitimacy (another category the peasant doesn’t have access to, by the way; a way to express this is that journalism is a social construct).

If you read something in the paper, how closely does that something resemble actual reality (assuming, again, that such a thing can be approached in any real way)? It may. It may not. You have no way, short of being there yourself when the thing happens, of knowing. Your experience, your knowledge, is completely mediated by the newspaper, by the writer, by the editors, by the owners, by the reporters… the chain of mediation is incredibly long and complex. By the time the paper gets to you, with these things in mind, would you be surprised that it is by and large not “accurate”?

That’s just a newspaper. It’s pretty easy to not read a newspaper in ye olden times. You had to go to a place and buy the thing and then sit down and read it. And even when you did read the paper it’s not like there were a million different papers written with your weird proclivities, inclination, or temperament in mind. There were, what… 3? 4?

Even if you imagine that each brand of paper has its own mediative approach (that is, they tend to mediate or warp reality in a particular direction), it’s still pretty simple to arrive on a common set of facts. 3 or 4 perspectives can talk amongst themselves.

Roll this forward. The innovations in media now encapsulate more and more sense data. We move from static text, to voices on the radio, to faces on the television. We invent more and more clever ways to essentially hack the attention spans of people. We move the media closer and closer to our own bodies. What you once had to go out and purchase is then delivered to your house, then to a box that lives inside your house, and then to a rectangle that lives in your pocket. (The next step must be some kind of live-streaming implant. I’m happy to be a grandpa about that: count me out.) We could give this a catchy name like, say, the axis of sensation.

Here we reach what I consider the two pinnacles of mediated reality: Cable news and social media (more on that later). Cable news operates at such a frenetic pitch and speed that it seems desperate to overwhelm, to occupy as much sense data as it can. Watching it feels like taking some kind of stimulant.

But at least when you’re watching cable news you have those same 3 or 4 channels to watch. At least you’re a mostly passive participant, other than changing the channel if you’re so inclined. Social media on the other hand (and I won’t dwell on this too much; enough people are screaming about this at the moment), allows me to participate in my own contextualization, to essentially select from a vast array of providers who will (initially) tailor my experience to my perspective and (eventually) optimize me by optimizing my attention (inevitably) to the extremes of that perspective. We could give this a name, too. Let’s call it the axis of choice.

We start out in prehistory very close to zero on both axes, sensation and choice. As we expand into societies we start (generally) to expand along the axis of sensation, but very slowly, since we’re talking, essentially about hearsay.

With the invention of modern media, we start expanding along the axis of sensation and choice (slowly at first, only a few newspapers that you have to read) and then more quickly (10 radio stations to listen to) and more quickly (20 TV channels to watch) and more quickly (120 channels + cable news) and finally arriving at the current moment where there are more “channels” than you could hope to count encapsulating every sort of sense data imaginable thanks to the internet. The speed at which we progress along these axes increases. We have less time to adjust. And as our realities become more self-selected but at the same time more mediated (or constructed, or, if you prefer, simulated), we are in very real danger of losing touch with any grounding in reality at all.

This is what I mean when I ask “informed about what”? If I listen to the media and I hear about some war, I don’t experience the war. I’ve never experienced a war. I don’t have any way of contextualizing the story I’m being told, no way to match it against lived experience, no way of understanding it in terms of lived experience. All I have to contextualize it is other stories of war that I’ve been told before. I can overlay this story with that story and see if the stories agree, but to what end? What is this other than comparing two fictions to eachother? And how could I know?

You know what this feels like. I know you do. This mediation of reality is laid bare when the media covers (badly) something you’re familiar with. My person domain has always been computers, formerly hardware, now software. But media accounts of computer-related happenings are usually either completely wrong or at least so glossed and simplified that they might as well be wrong.

Then you move along to the next thing and forget the lesson you’ve just learned. But how can this be? If they’re materially wrong about this thing, what’s to say they’re not materially wrong about that thing? So when my lived experience disagrees with the mediated reality presented to me, I choose my lived experience. This seems obvious (don’t @ me). But how should I approach subjects extending beyond my lived experience? I could crowdsource the lived experience, but what would that be but journalism (only worse)?

Thus, how can I assume I’m informed when I read or watch or listen? Can I really say that comparing a bunch of fictions to other previous fictions is better than never being subject to these fictions at all? Or am I supposed to be content with eking out what little drops of reality I can get? Is it even possible to compare and contrast all these competing worldviews to arrive at some Frankenstein’s monster of a composite thing all pasted together?

I don’t know the answer to these Big Questions. But I think they’re worth asking. I also genuinely think they’re worth answering! It seems like being accurately informed about the state of things as they actually are should help me vote, help me help others, help me organize resistance to unjust status quos. But without some kind of critical analysis of what exactly I’m consuming (my “media diet”), how can I even believe what I see? How can I set forth a set of facts that I think we should (or even can) agree on?

The answer to this central question is unclear. All the tools at our disposal have the same simulation problem. Some weakly, some strongly.

In the meantime… I don’t watch the news. Maybe you shouldn’t either.

Bullet points for a Monday morning

  • You think you’re most valuable as a programmer. But somehow you keep getting dragged back into crap work like figuring out how migrate data in and out of an accounting application. I don’t even have the luxury of pretending I’m bad at this crap.
  • I’ve blogged so little in the last few years I’m largely unfamiliar with this new WordPress interface. I certainly don’t find it very user friendly. Is there a “list” block I can use? (It turns out having the visual editor turned on is helpful here, and also yes, there is a list block).
  • Trudeau in brownface is kind of what I expected, I guess? I’ve never been a fan of this kind of dredge, unless it’s obvious that the figure in question is still a latent racist (and let’s be honest, there’s not no evidence of that with Trudeau). I look forward to all the folks who said it was no big deal for their guy to now say it’s no big deal for the other folk’s guy. Just locker room brownface, etc. (I fully expect zero non-hypocrites here.) Or hey, maybe this will end up being a real power move, really appealing to the sensibilities of boomers like who really seem to love racist (often orange) shitheads.
  • There’s a lot of folks in my life whose opinions I don’t really take very seriously. I’m not perfect, sometimes it’s just because I don’t like them. But usually it’s when they’ve shown a constant disregard for even attempting to find some kind of truth. So, if you’ve constantly gobbled down every dumb moral panic (P&G are satanists, Saturday morning cartoons are teaching New Age stuff, rampant sexual abuse in daycares), which could be at least excused for being pre-internet hoaxes, but if you’re into blaming cancer on epigenetics, or antivaxx, or global warming denier, or any of those class of mental defects, you’ll have to pardon me if I don’t take your stance on anything too seriously. In this day and age there’s no excuse to be ignorant.
  • We live in the postmodern era, like it or not. Everything is perspective. The internet enables a sort of fragmenting of consensus. It might just be the case that wide societal consensus is no longer even possible, and was only ever possible because of the stabilizing (read: repressive) race and gender based power structures, and the real physical inability of folks of different persuasions to find eachother, especially outside of cities. Public intellectuals who we can consider anti-postmodern (or conservative, or regressive), largely intuit that if we want to roll back perspectivism (and inclusion, and tolerance, and other interpolations), we should rebuild those power structures. This makes sense of why in the postmodern state, Jordan Peterson and white supremacists and incels sound largely alike. They’re just concentric circles around the same idea. Whether it’s that there are a certain number of genders (because science says so, lobster lobster), or white folk are genetically superior (because science, and don’t forget James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA with Crick, was a huge racist who believed stuff like this), or that women exist simply to be used (or any of the other… wide varieties of incel delusion), they’re all trying to do the same thing. And that same thing looks a lot like the 1940s and 1950s.
  • It’s not hard to see why JP/nazis/incels/Trump would appeal to Evangelicals especially. Evangelicals are (only technically these days, but still, it’s in the air) all about Biblical authority in a very expansive (read: impossible) way. The idea of language as a tool to interpolate different, contrasting, valid perspectives is brushed aside, since we have everything we need to know in the Bible. It just so happens that the “good old days” of the Evangelical imagination coincide with the good old days of the Petersons and Nazis of the world. Birds of a feather, where the feather is longing for a time that no longer exists and only ever did for a small slice of people.
  • It’s an odd marriage: Peterson in is trying (badly) to articulate gender roles in terms of a foundation (the science of lobsters) that disputes the Evangelical foundation of gender roles (the Bible). Note that Peterson find the Bible a source of useful myths but is not himself a Christian. I’d actually find it hilarious if what finally caused the downfall of creationism wasn’t the literal mountains of evidence to the contrary but a desire to keep genders “like they always were”. It’s important to remember that just because two different groups are looking for some kind of rational foundation upon which to build their constructs is not the same thing as having aligned goals. It’s possible to be smothered by your bedfellows. The church and state are a great (tangential) example: the state is always poison. The state church is a poisoned church. The Evangelical church is a poisoned church.
  • Of course the ability to look at the “truth” of the 1940s/50s/60s from other perspectives is actually a huge gift. We start to see that for a large swath of marginalized folk, those “good old days” are in fact anything but. They are (or at least can be) generators of intergenerational socio-political effects. We can, as a society attempt to address these effects with collective action.
  • But addressing these effects is of course a tacit admission that the traditional white male perspective isn’t the only one worth considering. Which is how the white male traditionalists manage to see fairly benign policies such as affirmative action and even immigration into tools of oppression. If you see yourself ideally embedded in a society that elevates your group, anything that threatens that feels like persecution. This despite white male traditionalist hegemony being largely intact in the West, only fraying slightly at the edges. The histrionics around minority representation are bonkers, at least from this angle; at this rate dismantling the patriarchy and posthumanity are going to happen at the same time.
  • I think this sketches out a framework for understanding why Evangelicals, Petersons, Nazis, incels, and their ilk all want to glom together. They can smell the same goals. But this is what makes Trump such a weird idol for them all (and they tend to looooove Trump). He’s probably the nadir of post-foundational truthiness. He makes vague promises about returning America to some former glory (which, as we can see above, is absolutely a dogwhistle), and spends his time persecuting widows, orphans, and foreigners, and a bunch more beside, but for all that is just virtue signalling. He hasn’t done what they all want because he can’t do what they all want. The cat is out of the bag.
  • This hasn’t been a very good Bullet Points. I’m sorry. But I need to go to work now, so…