The day that reason died


Aliens sort of
I’m not a believer in alien visitations and UFOs, but I’ll bet if an alien did swing by, after an hour or two observing us, checking out Facebook or Twitter, they’d lock their doors, hang a detour sign around our planet, and race off. They’d tell their friends not to visit us because we were all nuts. Scarily, dangerously crazy.

Seriously. What sort of world can be called civilized when it has people touting — and believing — homeopathy? Reiki? Chemtrails? Anti-vaccination screeds? Anti-mask whines during a frigging pandemic? Wind turbines cause cancer? 5G towners spread COVID-19? Creationism? Reflexology? Alien abductions? Crop circles? Astrology? Crystal healing? Ghosts? Flat earth? Bigfoot? Psychics? Ayurveda? Nigerian generals offering us free money? Palmistry? David Avocado Wolfe? David Icke? Gwyneth Paltrow? Donald Trump? Alex Jones? The Food Babe? Televangelists?  Ken Ham? You have to be really hard-of-thinking or massively gullible to fall for any of it. But we do, and we fall for it by the millions.

And that doesn’t include the baseless , puerile crap like racism, homophobia, misogyny, pedophilia, anti-Semitism, radical religion, trickle-down economics, and nationalism, all of which evils remain rampant despite concerted efforts to educate people since the Enlightenment. Little wonder aliens wouldn’t want to be seen here.

Why would they want to land on a planet of such extreme hypochondriacs who one day are happily eating muffins and bread, then the next day millions of them suddenly develop gluten “sensitivity” or even “allergies” right after some pseudo-wellness guru pronounces gluten an evil that is killing them? Or who self-diagnose themselves with whatever appeared in the last illness or pseudo-illness they saw in a YouTube video? Or who go ballistic over being asked to wear a mask for public safety despite its very minor inconvenience? Or who refuse to get a vaccination to help develop herd immunity and would prefer their children suffer the illness instead?

Despite all the efforts, despite science, logic, rational debate, medicine, facts, and common sense (which is not common at all these days) everything has been downgraded into mere opinion. Everyone has a right to an opinion, we say (which is politically correct bollocks), and we respect their opinion (even if it’s toxic bullshit or simply batshit crazy, or in Donald Trump’s case, both). All opinions get equal weight and consideration, especially on social media, where people will eagerly agree with anything that confirms their existing beliefs that the world is out to get them or that makes them feel special.

Who should you believe in this dark age of anti-science and anti-intellectualism: unemployed, high-school-dropout Bob who lives in his parent’s basement and watches porn in his PJs when he’s not cranking out conspiracy videos, or Dr. Fauci, an award-winning physician, medical researcher, epidemiologist, and immunologist who has dedicated his whole life to public health care, with more than five decades experience in the field, who has served as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) since 1984, and is considered one of the world’s leading experts on infectious diseases? But there are two sides to every issue, cry Bob’s followers (by the way, there aren’t: that’s another stupid fallacy) who rush to share Bob’s latest video about why you don’t need to wear a mask during a pandemic, and that you’ll develop immunity if we all just cough on one another. What do experts know, they ask. Bob speaks for us; he’s one of us. We trust Bob, not the elitist guy with the string of degrees. And even if we do get sick, we can just drink some bleach because or president said it will cure us.

Doomed. We are so fucking doomed when wingnuts like Bob (or Trump) get any traction. But there’s Gwyneth Paltrow doing a Netflix series to promote her batshit crazy ideas about health and wellness, and women shovelling their money at her to buy her magic stones to stuff into their vaginas. Bob is just a small, sad voice compared to the commercial money harvesting machines that Paltrow, Wolfe, and Vani Hari are. Doomed, I tell you.

While a lot of hokum has been around for ages, I’ve often wondered if there was some recent, seminal event that caused it to explode as it has into every corner of the world. Sure, the internet is the conduit for most of the codswallop these days, but was there something before that that started the tsunami of ignorance, bile, anti-intellectualism, incivility, and bullshit? Was there a tipping point when reason sank and cranks went from bottom-feeding fringe to riding the surface?,

Maybe — I think I’ve found it: August 22, 1987.

Let me digress with a look-back. When the first personal computers arrived in the late 1970s (I got my first PC, a TRS-80, in 1977), they were quickly accompanied by software aimed at making work and life easier and more efficient. Word processing, photo editing, graphic design, layout, accounting, calculation: even people without the education or experience in the arts could use them. With word processing and desktop publishing tools, people could write and prepare books even though they weren’t editors or layout artists(my first book was written entirely on and about the Atari 800). People could create logos and touch up photos without being graphic artists, develop spreadsheets and databases even when they weren’t accountants.

It wasn’t very long before we had the tools to create and edit videos, audio and music recording, tools which had once been the desmene of highly-trained professionals. YouTube and podcasts were being done by everyone (and still are). The verb “to photoshop” entered our vocabulary because so many people were able to alter or fake photographs using easily-available software that it’s difficult to trust any image online.

In short, the technology paved the way for a whole new digital democracy where everyone could contribute self-made media, and social media provided a conduit to share it widely. With nothing in place to ensure the content was factual, not harmful, or even real. Technology didn’t create the unscrupulous people who would use it to beguile and con the gullible: it merely made it easier and faster. And then it got warp drive when the internet arrived. Welcome, brave new media world.

So why did I pick August 22, 1987? That’s when the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) acting under arch-conservative Pres. Ronald Reagan, revoked the Fairness Doctrine, a policy that had been in place since 1949 to ensure, “…holders of broadcast licenses to both present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was—in the FCC’s view—honest, equitable, and balanced.”

In other words, before Reagan got his meddling hand in, media had to at least make some effort to be fair. Fairness is not a word in the neoliberal vocabulary, so out the policy went.

Revoking the policy opened the floodgates to a tsunami of biased, one-sided, even fake content with no formal way for the public to complain about it let along determine its validity. Yes, it was in the USA, but once the FCC acted, the virus spread worldwide, particularly along the conduit of conservative media like talk radio and soon through the conservative propaganda machine, Fox “News.” Once they weren’t required to be fair and balanced, conservative media could blast opinion, no matter how irrational or vomitous, and pretend it had the same gravitas as actual news (in Canada, check out any issue of the National Post). It didn’t take them long to slant the news, either, to fit their ideological agendas.

(To their credit, conservatives proved far more adept at spreading their gospel and taking over the media after the Fairness Doctrine was revoked than any liberals or Democrats ever managed.)

More to the point, conservatives own most of the media outlets, so they have the loudest voice for their conspiracies and their ideology. According to a 2007 study conducted by the Center for American Progress and Free Press,

Our analysis … of 257 news/talk stations owned by the top five commercial station owners reveals that 91 percent of the total weekday talk radio programming is conservative, and 9 percent is progressive. 
Each weekday, 2,570 hours and 15 minutes of conservative talk are broadcast on these stations compared to 254 hours of progressive talk—10 times as much conservative talk as progressive talk.
A separate analysis of all of the news/talk stations in the top 10 radio markets reveals that 76 percent of the programming in these markets is conservative and 24 percent is progressive, although programming is more balanced in markets such as New York and Chicago.

Little wonder that Hilary’s emails got such wide coverage, while the egregious use of private email servers by the Trump family and administration barely got any media attention. Or that four dead in a 2012 attack  in Benghazi spawned a conservative shitstorm of accusations, where more than 160,000 dead (and still counting) under President Trump’s incompetent, incoherent pandemic management barely raises a Republican eyebrow. You might think it blatant hypocrisy, but it’s just a page in the conservative playbook: do as I say, not as I do.

Talk radio is a major vehicle for the conservative screechfest; a vehicle for conservative unity, but equally national disunity: theirs is an us-them, good-bad, loyal-treasonous politic with no middle ground or compromise. You’re either a conservative (and NRA member) or you’re a traitorous, communist, atheist, tofu-eating, cross-dressing, pansy scum. Conservative talk radio is to political fact and dialogue what professional wrestling is to actual sport: loud, garish, entertaining (at times), and fake. In an interview in Forbes magazine, 2015, Tufts professor Jeffrey Berry explained why there are so few liberal/progressive talk shows:

Partly it’s demographics. Minorities are a large potion of liberal America, and they have ethnic radio they prefer: Spanish-language radio or inner-city stations. Those stations do have talk programs, but it’s not the same as a Limbaugh or a Hannity. It’s more general, not really railing against the system. It’s more general, not really railing against the system. No one is yelling. ‘We need to get rid of the Republicans. They’re the worst thing to happen to this country.’ But you’ll hear conservative radio hosts say that about liberals on their programs.

So liberal talk show hosts are polite. They aren’t ranting and screaming and frothing at the mouth like their conservative counterparts, which makes them pansies: less of a force. And conservatives sure do love their force. Since most of these talk show hosts are men, it seems more than a little Freudian to wonder why they have to be so abrasive and in-your-face. It’s almost as if they all had small dicks and desperately needed to compensate by being super-sized assholes. And they excel at it. Why Ann Coulter needs to compensate is a whole other topic.

Charles Sykes, the very conservative-yet-anti-Trump author of How the Right Lost Its Mind (2017), added a second, somewhat vague date when conservatives went off the rails into the quagmire of conspiracy bullshit:

Sometime in the last decade conservative commentator Matt Drudge began linking to a website run by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. By doing so, he broke down the wall that separated the full-blown cranks from the mainstream conservative media, injecting a toxic worldview into the Right’s bloodstream. The conservative movement never recovered.

Alex Jones would be a mere crank screaming on a park soapbox had it not been for the revocation of the Fairness Doctrine. That gave him and a whole lot of other fringe characters, an opportunity to have a larger, louder voice to a much wider audience. Drudge was merely a witless enabler, much like Moscow Mitch McConnell is for Trump. But Sykes is right: the conservatives followed Jones and the rest into that deep rabbit hole of lies and conspiracies and never emerged. The became the world trophy holders of the most wingnut fantasies, and likely will remain so for many decades to come.

Drudge (and other influencers) helped low-level conservative cranks like Jones climb the slippery pole, but others, like, Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich, Howard Stern, the racist Rush Limbaugh, and the muck-dweller, Tucker Carlson become conservative celebrities on their own. In a culture where celebrity status is worshipped as godlike, people actually started believing their balderdash and bullshit. And so the rest of the public debate on issues and events took on the adversarial, accusatory, angry, facts-are-merely-opinions tone the radio jocks were known for.

But celebrity status depends on staying on top, so in order to stay in the Red Queen’s Race. Jones, Limbaugh, Carlson, and others had to become increasingly louder, outrageous, disingenuous, and sensational. And in doing do, they drag their listeners down into the hole with them. When people start believing in Pizzagate or that Sandy Hook was a hoax it’s not a long way to fall into the flat earth or anti-vaccination conspiracies. Next thing you know, you’re sending Gwyneth $66 USD (plus shipping and taxes) for a yoni stone. Maybe get a matching pair. 

Reason, logic, rational (and civil) debate? Gone. Wiped away by the fury and spume of Jones and other conservative commentators once the Fairness Doctrine was stripped away. Science is reduced to just another, easily-discredited opinion. Experts? Establishment elites you don’t want to heed because they’re all part of big-government/big-pharmacy/big-medicine/big-media/big-pet-food or whatever big-something-we-despise is on the burner today. Facts don’t matter. Only the commentator’s voice does because he’s confirming our biases, reinforcing our beliefs, making us feel special by agreeing with our fears.

People start burning down 5G towers because they have watched and listened to these cranks, and now truly believe radio waves to be source of a biological virus. They gather in thousands during a pandemic to protest wearing masks. Does the stupidity ever end?

I’m not saying conservatives are behind every crank notion or conspiracy, but  they sure seem to own the vast majority of those political sinkholes today.

Try as I will, I cannot find a leftwing conspiracy equal to Pizzagate. Or the Birther nonsense. Nor can I find a leftwing equivalent to the “War on Christmas” bullshit (you can understand how deluded people who think saying “Happy holidays” is an attack will also believe antifa is an organization rather than a slogan: no one said believers were very bright). Nor is there a leftist equivalent of the violent, racist, alt-right and their neo-nazis, nor a religious leftwing base to match the pseudo-Christian Talibangelists . No one on the left is as vocal (or batshit crazy) as Alex Jones in spreading misinformation and lies, or as openly venal as Trump’s uber-looney “spiritual advisor.” Although there have been plenty of wacky, venal gurus and self-help charlatans on the left, none has managed to scale the heights of utter, batshit lunacy that Trump’s new favourite doctor – Stella Immanuel – does with her alien DNA claim and demon spawn diagnoses.

To be fair, what Americans call their “left” wing is what might barely pass as centrist in other countries, and would more likely be seen as somewhat if not completely right-of-centre. Calling an American a “liberal” is  a powerful invective; calling them a socialist is the worst of all insults (not that Americans actually know what socialism is or means or how it works) and will spark a flurry of gun waving, bible thumping, and flag saluting to prove they are otherwise. So I use the term liberal loosely.

I can’t (entirely) blame the conservatives for the mushrooming growth of New Age fads, pseudo-science, fake wellness, crank religions, psychics, medieval claptrap like astrology or palmistry, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vani Hari, or the totally batshit notions of a flat earth, chemtrails, or crystal healing, aside from conservatives’  innate support of unrestrained, predatory capitalism with which to fleece the gullible regardless of the issue (and the whole fallacy of allowing them to operate under the disguise of free speech without any responsibility for the damage they cause).

But many of these fantasies, hoaxes, and con games have been around in some form or another for several centuries (back when conservatives were the feudal overlords and the left were all their serfs). However, because of their staunch anti-science, anti-intellectual, pro-Talibangelist views, one can easily blame conservatives for the sorry intrusion of creationism (and its lipstick-on-a-pig cousin, “intelligent” design) into education (okay, it’s given that conservatives are anti-public-education, too, but let’s save that for another post.)

Political debate has become increasingly divisive and polarized in the past three decades: devolving into shouting matches between accusers, especially in the USA. Why can’t we re-introduce the Fairness Doctrine or something akin to it; make it a worldwide initiative to restore civility, rationality, and at least a token gesture towards fairness? What do we need to do to restore science, facts, and reason to the public discussions? I don’t know. But I believe if we continue like this, things will only get worse, not better.

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