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Blast From The Past


Away back in the dim dark ages of the first of the first of the Thaddeus Gazette, current events prompted me to pen this pathetic little essay bemoaning the incivility of the civil discourse then in vogue. Hindsight is a bitch. Here we are fifteen years later, and if anything, it's worse. Way worse.

Or like the cardsharks say, read 'em and weep.


It may be just my own impinging future shock, but I sense the human race getting a lot harsher in its rhetoric of late. All over the world, it seems, there's an epidemic of tough talk and extreme positions, of kneejerking and stonewalling and deaf ears. And while it may be making the Evening News With Dan Blather that much more entertaining to an audience gone numb and anesthetic on a steady diet of boomboom movies and gangsta videos, it doesn't do much for the state of human affairs.

Where is this piledriving disguised as discourse coming from? More and more, I see reasoned, nuanced arguments being abandoned in favor of The Beeg Gun of screaming invective. There are no moderates left in the world, and if there are they're being hacked to bloody bits and fed to the pigs by berserkers disguised as pundits. At the very least, their calm, dispassionate tones are drowned in the howls of the pack.

In part, it may be the amoral equivalent of war in the realm of words. In a talk on terrorism that he gave soon after 9/11, Noam Chomsky opined that the chief reason why people use fear and force on each other is that it works. The same is true of forceful self-righteousness in debate. It may not be fair. It may not be honest. But wowsers does it win. We even see the killer-app version in the current administration's incessant "Criticizing the government in time of war is treasonous" vaudeville routine, although they've made the mistake of one too many times to the well with that one.

But this whole trend appears to be going a lot deeper than just a bunch of politicos and opinion-farters looking to keep their soap boxes intact. The mood of opposition is in the general population as well. The Oregon Citizen's Alliance made a fat living during the 90's walking into lovely little rural Oregon towns of 200 and leaving them bomb-cratered warzones divided into two violently engaged camps of 100 each, one on each side of the gay rights issue. There's gold in them thar divisive tactics. Not just here either -- every night the tube brings us yet another 600 or 2000 year old grudge match brought back to bloody hellish life in yet another starved and overpopulated corner of the globe. There seems to be no end to it. Or, as in the case of India and Pakistan, there's all too obvious an end to it that it would be really REALLY nice to avoid.

Now, oddly enough, there's plenty of evidence that suggests that this kind of didactic, my-way-or-the-highway thinking is not the native processing mode of human intelligence. In a series of studies, regularly referenced by enthusiasts of the branch of mathematics ineptly named fuzzy logic, it was demonstrated that much of human thinking utilizes models of things and processes and situations with built-in slop, an implicit understanding of the condition that my friend Scott Peterson acknowledges by responding to an argument that he might not agree with by saying, "Well, there's something in that." The primary tenet of fuzzy logic, that everything is true or false to a degree, which degree may indeed be absolute but is certainly not limited to it, is mirrored in our ability to apply ideas like "kind of" and "in a way" and "to a point" to the welter of everyday experience and still make meaningful conclusions. It's possible that it is this flexible mode of thought that differentiates us from the rest of the critters hereabouts and makes the gaudy catastrophe of our civilizations possible.

But it appears that we unhappy shaved apes also have some thought processes left over from our simian ancestors, processes far less subtle and discerning. It's clear to me that these modes of thought correspond to our strong emotional responses, fear and anger and probably sex as well. They're worthless for straining flyspecks out of pepper or unraveling secrets of nature, but they're darned useful for figuring out whether to climb a tree right now to escape the wolves on your trail. Unfortunately, they may also be useful for other, darker purposes.

One of the key inadequacies of representative government is the necessity for consensus. With the normal state of human reasoning running to "Well, there's something in that," it's durn near impossible to get all the cats headed in the same direction. Only in times of extremity can a leader kick in the body politic's limbic thinking and actually get something done. At such times people get the mistaken impression that a magnificent unity has descended upon them, a nobility free of partisan backbiting and shenanigans. This is a perilous delusion for a people to contract. It leads to empires, to massacres, to pogroms and crusades and world wars. But it can also lead to fabulous wealth and power for those in charge who can invoke it and ride the tiger they've conjured up. And the rulers themselves are all too susceptible to the same disease of mind.

More and more of late, it seems, leaders who should have more sense have begun to instill a state of emergency into those they lead, the better to induce shared purpose in populations increasingly fragmented and destabilized by a hundred dividing agents, from religious belief to economic status, and by an information sphere tending to a confusing maximum. Torn between McDonald's and their forefathers' ways, beset by a legion of snakeoil peddlers, they're ripe for a little certainty. And every time some downtrodden, bewildered group of people start beating the plowshares of their common sense into the double-edged swords of certainty, heads roll, both others and their own. And that just makes things worse.

An odd little line that I picked up somewhere has stuck with me: "Whenever you get angry, there's something you don't understand." Perhaps most specifically, that something is the redeeming virtue of the concept of maybe, of the truly fluid nature of the stream of life that cannot be stepped into twice in the same place. Reliance on absolutist thinking is armor as much a prison as a defense. Can wisdom redeem the endangered humans from their own dark knights? Search me. All I can say is, I sincerely hope so.

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