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Popular though this notion is, it’s quite mistaken

Popular though this notion is, it’s quite mistaken

Popular though this notion is, it’s quite mistaken

One of the things I watch most closely with this in mind is the burgeoning realm of contemporary conspiracy theories

There’s a fond belief among the comfortable classes of our time, and for that matter every other time, that the future can be arranged in advance through reasonable discussions among reasonable people. It then sweeps inward from there, brushing aside the daydreams of those who thought they could make the world do as they pleased.

Consider the Roman Empire in the days of its power. While its politicians and bureaucrats laid their plans and built their careers on the presupposition that their empire would endure for all imaginable time, a prisoner on a Mediterranean island-exiled for his membership in a despised religious cult-saw the empire racked with wars, famines, and plagues, ravaged by horsemen galloping out of the east, FL installment loans and finally conquered and fallen into ruin, to be followed by a thousand years of triumph for his faith. We call him John of Patmos today, and his vision forms the last book of the New Testament. He was a figure of the uttermost fringe in his own era: isolated, powerless, and quite possibly crazy. He was also right.

Thus it’s important to keep a close eye on the fringes of contemporary culture, the places where the future is being born out of the surging tides of unreason. Those reveal far more than the conventionally minded imagine, irrespective of their factual accuracy or lack of same. As Alain de Botton commented of religions, whether conspiracy theories are true or not is far and away the least interesting question about them.

To begin with, the popularity of conspiracy theories is a sensitive measure of the degree to which people no longer trust the conventional wisdom of their time. That’s an explosive issue just now, and for good reason: the conventional wisdom of our time is fatally out of step with the facts on the ground. Look across the whole range of acceptable views presented by qualified pundits, and by and large you’ll find that a randomly chosen fortune cookie will give you better guidance. The debacle in Afghanistan is only one reminder of the extent that a popular joke about economics-“What do you call an economist who makes a prediction? Wrong.”-can be applied with equal force to most of the experts whose notions guide industrial societies.

What makes the astounding incompetence of today’s expert opinions so toxic is that nobody in the corporate media, and next to nobody in the political sphere, is willing to talk about it. No matter how disastrous the consequences turn out to be-no matter how often the economic policies that were supposed to yield prosperity result in poverty and misery, no matter how often programs meant to improve the schools make them worse, no matter how many drugs released on the market as safe and effective turn out to be neither, and so on at great length-one rule remains sacrosanct: no one outside the managerial class is supposed to question the validity of the next round of expert-approved policies, no matter how obviously doomed to fail they are.

What history shows, rather, is that the future is always born on the irrational fringes of society, bursting forth among outcasts, dreamers, saints, and fools

Gregory Bateson, in a fascinating series of articles collected in his book Steps to an Ecology of Mind, discussed the way that schizophrenia is created by this kind of suppression of the obvious in a family setting. Insist to a child from infancy onward that something is true that the child can see is obviously not true, punish the child savagely every time it tries to bring up the contradiction, and there’s a fair chance the child will grow up to be schizophrenic. Conspiracy theories in society are the collective equivalent of schizophrenia in the individual, and they have the same cause: the systematic gaslighting of individuals who know that they are being lied to.

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