reality checks

Maybe you saw John Oliver on Last Week Tonight describe his plan to begin airing commercials on morning shows Trump watches in order to educate him on a few key points. If you haven’t, it’s worth a laugh.

Oliver’s basic argument though is that we have a president who doesn’t believe that an agreed upon reality exists. Instead, he gets to believe whatever he wants, his supporters get to believe whatever they want, and his critics and opponents are simply people with a different set of beliefs. But none of us has access to reality. In this context, Oliver argues, as many have, that we must have a basis for establishing facts, and without such a basis we’re in serious trouble on many levels.

Of course it is not just Trump supporters who believe in conspiracies. In the NY Times, Sydney Ember points to an increasing number of democrats embracing conspiracy theories. As Ember points out though (and which sounds to me like an echo of Fredric Jameson), conspiracy theories arise as a way of asserting some control over a situation, of making something vast and complex more understandable by depicting it as the actions of a group of people with recognizable motives. On the other hand, as the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid…

As is obvious, I have no more idea than you what is going on with Trump, the White House, the Russians, and so on, though all of this does make me think there should be a new version of The Americans set in the present day.  Of course, I can offer you a theory. I’ve got a whole bag full of hermeneutic strategies, plus I’ve been to the movies and read spy thrillers and cyberpunk dystopia novels. I think I’ve seen every James Bond film.  I could go on all day: white supremacist militias, egomaniacal theocrats, oil magnate star chambers, genocidal fascists, tripped out technocrats, disgraced generals, rouge spy networks, etc. etc. What do you want?

Here’s the thing though… there is something or some things that are actually happening in reality. We need to know what they are. That knowledge has to be built. If something happens right before your eyes, your mind makes sense of it. Even knowledge from direct observed experience is built. And when you’re trying to construct knowledge of something that cannot be directly observed–because it is distributed or hidden, too big or too small, and so on–then constructing that knowledge is harder. It requires time, effort, and material resources. Often it requires the collaboration of multiple people. And in our culture that means it takes money.

As a result a reality check is also a bank check: knowledge has to be paid for. Because that’s true we can always doubt the motives of the people constructing the knowledge. They are researchers working for a chemical company or bank executives or government officials. Scientists at universities do the research that funding agencies will support. Journalists report the stories their editors will publish or air. Politicians tell you the things they think will get them re-elected.  But there is no undoing that. When it comes to knowing about the world, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. That said, we can evaluate the strength of the knowledge we produce though in doing so we must write another check. This is where we find ourselves in Latourian matters of concern.

Some might say that our democratic republic is coming to an end. Again, I can offer you many interpretations and stories about that. To me though the failures of our government begin and end with our not understanding well enough how the thing works on a material level. As a result we get all these conspiracy theories, and even though those things are poor constructions of reality, they are more than powerful enough to elect presidents, topple governments, start wars, and worse.

As I sit here, I am honestly mystified by what goes through people’s minds. Certainly, I have values which may be different from yours, I have a vision of the society in which I’d like to live, and I would and do work toward creating that world. At the same time, I can distinguish between what I’d want and what is. Similarly, though I can interpret the world (and we all must do so regularly in order to live), I can recognize that my interpretation is always limited and can be wrong. These must be recursive processes. That is, as I refine my understanding of the world, my values, vision, and actions must also be refined. However these processes can get all confused, so that for example one’s interpretation of a religious text can drive a systems of values and an understanding of the world. If those interpretations are flawed but cannot be revised because of belief then one ends up with some serious cognitive shortfalls.

In other words, shoehorning the world into one’s existing belief structure is a bad long-term survival strategy. That’s what we might call knowledge on the cheap. It works fine for simple, reliable stuff like gravity. In fact it probably worked just fine for most purposes through most of human existence. But not for stuff like this.  Not for constructing knowledge about networks of dozens and hundreds of actors distributed around the world. Not for running a government with thousands of employees, representing hundreds of millions of citizens. Knowledge like that comes with a big bill and must be carefully constructed and tested, but it can’t take forever to make either. You need to have systems in place. You need elaborate institutions with trained professionals to make those institutions work. If you don’t have those things, then all you’re left with is bullshit conspiracy theories constructed by jamming into your brain whatever random knowledge you encounter and spitting out some preconceived notion.

Not smart.