Saturday, January 19, 2013

Normal: When Did the Bar Get Lowered?

In "O Brother Where Art Thou," Ulysses Everett McGill's (George Clooney) fellow fugitives ask him why he was in charge, and he says, "Because I'm the only one who's capable o' abstract thought."

I bring this up is because I was Facebook-unfriended by someone earlier today, owing, presumably, to a very short thread on the cri du coeur of the moment, i.e., the gun obsession. My putative (now-ex) friend posted a link to a bogus claim that NBC News "admitted" that no assault rifle had been used in the shooting of 26 people at Sandyhook Elementary.

Which is an abstract thought that requires no capability.

When I first heard this claim a couple of weeks or more ago, I was intrigued. The competitive pressures of the news cycle often lead to the abuses once called "pack journalism," where reporters offered up the same facts based on (a) interviewing each other, (b) passive acceptance of unverified facts that somehow justify themselves by getting repeated over and over. I hate evoking the good old days of print reporting, but hey, let's give a point or two to editors, here.

Anyone who followed the Newtown story knows the early reporting was confused--the shooter's mother was a teacher at the school, the shooter himself was a former student, no children were among the victims, etc., factual reporting succumbing to hasty reporting. Indeed, NBC did report, early on, that police found four pistols at the school and an assault-style rifle in the shooter's car trunk, all soon corrected.

But that didn't stop certain people from claiming that NBC "admitted" its facts were wrong and that no assault-style AR-15 had been used in the massacre. You can guess who these claimants were (assuming, of course, you're not only capable of abstract thought, but even low-grade critical thinking).

And their source? Here are a few from Google page one: northeast;;; Pages two and three are similar. I stopped after that.

What didn't exist were supporting links on FOX, NBC, NPR nor any other news or information website, nor any other site with even a vestige of objective correlation to reality. Shouldn't that fact alone have triggered  a hint of skepticism?

At the risk of glorifying the pre-nauseous ubiquitousness of Facebook where so many of these advocacy conversations take place,I've encountered the inability not so much to think, but how to think, very often. Don't like a logical opinion? Well, hell, deny the existence of facts that support it and go git your own facts. Don't watch the news, just seek the only news you want to believe.

While I've thought about variations of this notion for years, it's really begun to loom large in local and national conversations. On another FB thread whose running argument presently escapes me, I used a Wikipedia link (well-sourced with about a hundred citations) in the exchange. A woman gleefully dismissed my point by telling me her community college professor would not permit the use of Wikipedia, so  I was, ipso facto, wrong (she didn't say ipso facto, of course, not knowing what it meant and wouldn't have understood it even if she'd looked it up in Google Translator).

So much here. First, Professor, kudos for telling your education-deprived students not to use Wikipedia. Second, Students--how can you be so fucking ignorant as to use Wikipedia as a primary resource for research? Are you the part of society who had Library cut from your high school curricula, who didn't have to write a discursive term paper, who has no idea what "i.e.," "e.g.." or "ibid." means?

Third, Professor, how can you be so moronic as to preclude the use of Wikipedia at all? I get that the article on, say, Tobacco as a cancer cure may have been written by R.J Reynolds' publicist. But what about the tens of thousands of other articles with hundreds of citations linked to peer-reviewed journals and similar objective source documents?

Oh yeah, Fourth: Ye rigor-impaired, aka The Students, why do you believe anything, as long as it comes up in Google? Ah, students, ah Humanity. I prefer not to, either, but hey. This is life (and not sorry I, Mr. Melville--thanks).

I think the precipitate phrase that got me unfriended was my post saying, "Those who believe absurdities can be made to commit atrocities." Or some such. I didn't look up the exact Voltaire quotation, I just paraphrased it from memory, figuring it didn't make any difference with this particular audience who wouldn't know who Voltaire was and would probably be scared if they did, finding at least one link out there claiming Voltaire didn't exist, and if he did, he flew black helicopters for the New World Order.

And honestly, all this concern/rant wouldn't matter if, not so much ignorance but critical thinking ability, weren't so wide-reaching. I'm not talking about the Black Helicopter kooks, the Nine-Eleven conspiracy theorists and the other idiots. The woman who unfriended me (for the record, we are both more free as a result) isn't dumb. She works at a fairly difficult white collar job and does, in my option, a better job than many of her peers. I'm sure she received a high school education. But still, when faced with a clearly dubious source, she chose to believe what she wanted to believe and was so uncomfortable with an opposing opinion, she eliminated it. This is disturbing.

And it's disturbing because this kind of intellectual sloth is not confined to a small part of the American population, and these people vote for people and initiatives, run schools and so on. It's not that they don't know the answers, it's that they don't know how to ask the goddamned questions in the first place.

I am an unapologetic political Liberal who can argue with, and learn from, the likes of David Frum and Milton Friedman all day. But no one can argue with the dunces and fools who, either because of a lack of critical judgment or, just as likely, cussed laziness, see the world as so much Jabberwocky, and, as with Alice, come away thinking how it fills their heads with ideas, only they don't know what those are.

And thus unable to navigate reality, they believe what's easy, what they want to believe, because that's what someone said to believe and posted it on the Internet. And the egalitarian imperative of our society, where those who insist the earth is only 10,000 years old receive the status of "other opinion," enables them to go unchallenged. 

And what enables them to flourish is the widespread indifference of all too many of the rest of us, because fighting back just too much trouble. It's pushing on a string. It makes me wish I were stupider than I am, because then, I wouldn't be so afraid.

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