Science, YouTube, US Presidents and Sinclair Lewis


Blogging and other uses of the Internet to disseminate one’s opinions, accurate or not, about every possible subject,  now nearing the end of 2008, reminds me in certain ways of the blossoming of sexual freedom in the 60’s. Joining in is damn near irresistible to anyone with  previously sheltered and suppressed inclinations to publish and, once acknowledged and given free rein, nobody wants to stop doing it once they’ve started. The diversity of partners and new ideas they bring to the activity isn’t a small draw, either; the extent to which voyeurism of other’s activities limits the time for one’s own fun can be a major impediment to getting much done oneself, i.e. output, as one would if the range of options available for input weren’t so vast.

WordPress, the host of this blog,  doesn’t make one’s choices any easier. The front end offers a menu of sites with a sampling of recent posts in a rotation of general topics. Unless one clicks right past the menu, hand over eyes, there is risk of getting sucked into the morass of WordPress blogs, never to arrive at one’s own “dashboard’ page. The same scenario doubtlessly plays out when accessing one of the dozens if not hundreds of blog hosting services available globally.

I remarked separately on the range of quality apparent in comments appearing in a popular Korea blog, The Marmot’s Hole, that “sublime” and “ridiculous” were merely stations along the route between the extremes of opinion, ideology and appropriateness (or its lack) in evidence. So the problem becomes: How to distinguish, in the absence of reliable vetting and rating of Internet content, both user generated, and that increasingly made available by the traditional forms of so-called “mainstream media” (MSM). How can the individual user do reliable science on his or her input, beyond the application of one’s own common sense (or lack thereof), and whatever wisdom and insight imparted by ones education and experience? I’ve always liked the simplest definition of science I have come across. Expressed as an imperative, “Reduce error!”. Enter YouTube.

Everyone needs all the tools they can marshal to reduce the effect on their knowledge base of the error present in much online content (including this), and the best content on which to practice is probably the daily news. These days, the political news is the foremost candidate for science, which in this case is just a polite word for the more apt phrase: bullshit detection. The problem is really rather more serious than that, and we are challenged instead to detect among the myriad sources of reporting, some small pockets of air where we can seek refuge from the seemingly all-encompassing bullshit pumped out by its ideological sources. Sources vested in bullshit are more numerous and pernicious in these highly political times, and today those come from the entrenched powers on the American right.

It’s important to distinguish between the American rightwing ideologues and all other rightwing ideologues, because of the up-is-down slant they give to almost every reckoning of a political sort in the waning days of the Bush Imperium. It was observed in a recent Korea Times column that rightist French President Sarkozy  is significantly to the left of US Democrats, and that seems about right, viewed from here in Seoul, where a newly elected conservative president shows himself to be surprisingly responsive to significant public pressure to adjust the course of his government’s policies. There was a time (although you’ll have to be at least 40 to remember it, when you could count on the primary conservative spokesmouths to speak the truth about most subjects on which there was more than mere opinion available. That started saying goodbye with Nixon, left the party with Reagan wearing the wrong coat and carrying the host’s best silver in the pockets, slept all the way home on the subway with Bush the Elder, and is still beating on the door of the wrong apartment, waiting for the cops to arrive on the bullshit wagon with a capital W.

You have to love YouTube, though, and never mind that video movies can be found there put forward to support of every conspiracy theory, slime attack, bad music, sports trivia, reruns, barfights, sleaze-o-rama vacuity imaginable. You can also find evidence of objective reality. A good example comes in the person of Scott Ritter, whose job it was, once upon a time, to discover and detail the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Another is Seymour Hersh, whose prowess as an investigative journalist is unsurpassed in the profession. There is Juan Cole, who knows more about the Middle East, its people, culture and politics than any five members of the W administration combined. The list of examples of knowledge sources of this depth and accuracy is actually far longer than one might expect, were one to expect that governmental policies of the past eight years were based on who knew what about whom, where and when?

But I’ve written about these and other contemporary suppliers of Bush-era bullshit antidotes before (see blogroll). A source I haven’t written about, and one that is positively eerie in in its close fit to contemporary conditions, given that it is A) fiction, and B) written in 1935. I’m talking about Sinclair Lewis‘ It Can’t Happen Here. Before I go further, credit is first due to a political scientist friend, Dennis Florig of the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul. When he moved into his new office, Dennis jettisoned a couple of boxes of dogeared paperback fiction, and I seized the one with this in it.

It’s about how a Fascist president comes to be elected in America, and what happens as a result. The portrayed results are grim indeed, and probably don’t resemble very closely what would actually happen. People certainly don’t express themselves the way they did in Lewis’ time. But the circumstances leading up the election, the subliminal fears, abject myth and blatant falsehoods on which the election was decided by a sheep-like electorate; the demagoguery and boogeyman front line of the victorious campaign is spooky-scary, so closely do the details match the of McCain-Palin campaign. In a weird transpositional way, the present-day picture seems almost a caricature of the fictional one, given the personal descriptions of the candidates, their histories and their views. Anne Kilkenny’s an informative source on Sarah Palin, for reference.

Remember that this was a story produced as the author, already an accomplished novelist and acclaimed intellect, as the recipient of America’s first Nobel Prize for Literature, observed the early developments in Europe that culminated in WWII. Lewis didn’t know all the horrors that would come with that ending to the historical story, and no doubt thought his own speculations somewhat gentle by comparison. If the scene we are watching unfold around the current US election play out in a fashion at all similar to those Lewis imagined in the ’30’s, this time will make WWII play like West Side Story. Don’t let it happen here. Become informed. Insist everyone you discuss these important issues with becomes informed before weighing in with stupid opinions based on fears, right-wing slogans, me-first greed, neo-Klan mutation psychosis or downright douchebaggery (and yes, I’ve added it to my dictionary as a synonym for New Millennium Republican disrespect for truth and clean government, so you may see it again in these pages).

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2 responses to “Science, YouTube, US Presidents and Sinclair Lewis

  1. Hi Jack! You’re on the blogroll now my friend. Sorry I didn’t put it on earlier. *blushing* 😉

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