09 January 2008
Pundits, Stories & Conspiracies
It had become a compulsion for me – dining with Bernard and Maddie. Perhaps it was because the clash between these two old siblings seemed like sublime proof of free will. These two had come from the same gene pool, were raised by the same parents in the same place and yet they had come to make sense of the world in such contrasting ways. Or, perhaps this was proof of destiny, so compelled did they seem to be who they were.
Bernard was disgusted. “These pundits all predicted Barak Obama would win. Once Hillary Clinton won instead, they explained her victory without even pausing to acknowledge that they can’t predict anything and so obviously don’t understand what’s going on. Prediction is the most basic proof of understanding,” Bernard concluded. “But these people are free from accountability. I want to be a pundit. Now that,” he paused, “is a sweet gig.”
“It’s like those mid day stock market headlines that are trying to track the bounce up and down and down and up and down again, making out like it all has meaning, even though anything they conclude at 10 AM will be rendered moot by 2 PM,” I added, trying to prove that I understood.
“Exactly,” Bernard agreed with me. “It’s like they’re excitedly reporting on the trajectory of a pinball or like kids trying to hum along with the radio that is tuned to static.”
Maddie said, “Well, the pundits just look foolish because they don’t know that this is all controlled anyway.”
“All controlled?” I stupidly asked.
“Yes. The Trilateral Commission decides who will become the new president. The election is just for show.”
“You think that democracy is a farce?” asked Bernard incredulously.
“You don’t have to use foul language,” Maddie chided. “But yes, I do think that democracy is just a drama made to distract people from how little control they actually have.”
Bernard and I were silent. Democracy as a distraction from control actually seemed, at some level, plausible. This was, for me, uncharted ground. I enjoyed Maddie’s company in no small part because she made me feel superior – something I was ashamed of the instant I realized it.
“You think that the whole thing is controlled,” asked Bernard.
“Well, obviously,” said Maddie.
He nodded. “We have a hunger for narrative. It started with a group of people huddled around a fire, afraid of the dark. They don’t know if they’ll be alive in the next instant. Someone begins to tell a story and they’re all transported. Suddenly, they think about tomorrow, they think about yesterday. Now their lives have a context – the invisible something that lets you see everything else. They have a narrative and now their lives make sense. Narrative made civilization. And to this day we’re wired to seek out stories.”
“And this has to do with conspiracy theories how?”
“Our need for narrative is stronger than our need for facts. We can’t take reality in its naked form – it is shapeless and void. ‘In the beginning was a great void, and then God spoke,’ Bernard said, loosely quoting Genesis. “Narrative made reality – before that it was a buzz of noise and confusion and temporality. We don’t want facts – we want a story.”
“So people prefer to believe that their lives are controlled by conspiratorial cabals rather than dare to think that we live near the abyss of "things just happen," of random events that even the experts can’t predict or properly explain. The only honest thing the reporters of the elections and stock markets can say is, ‘Something happened today. We don’t really know why. Something new will happen tomorrow. It may or may not be like what happened today. As a matter of fact, we really haven’t a clue what is going on or what will happen next. Nobody does. We recommend that you liberally express your love and quickly eat your lunch because the next moment may not even arrive. We just don’t know”
“That sounds extreme,” I push back, but Bernard was on a roll.
“So we grasp for words and confuse syntax with synthesis of the facts, confuse coherent stories with coherent reality.”
“But reality always gets our attention sooner or later,” I say.
“Really? Do you know how many stories we consume in a day? We get reports at work. On the radio DJs are prattling on about celebrities. We watch movies and TV shows. We read books and articles. Listen when someone stops by our cubicle to tell us about their weekend. We’re story junkies. We can’t get enough. These writers out on strike, they’ve finally realized this. They want the money they should have for crafting the narratives that give our lives meaning – they are the modern myth makers. Our modern economy grinds to a halt without stories. No money from bankers without a good story. You don’t get elected unless you have a good story. You can’t win her heart unless you have a good story – or she provides one for you. She has to have something to tell her friends, and it’s a story. If they buy the story, they’re happy for her. If not, they advise her against making things serious with you.”
“I don’t know from stories,” Maddie said. "The Trilateral Commission chose Bill Clinton because they knew he’d pass NAFTA. It’s all a cabal.”
“What I said,” Bernard looked at me. “We love the idea of order and we’ll gladly trade reality for narrative. We’ll adopt conspiracy theories if they promise to make sense of our world, if they promise to add some structure to our lives.”
“You don’t have to talk like I’m not right here,” Maddie huffed. Suddenly, I felt for her. No wonder she so clung to her political fantasies. Growing up with a brother like Bernard, how could she not feel a desperate need for the very stories he so casually debunked? Who could take that much reality, really? At that instant, Maddie made sense to me. And for the first time, I envied her and her certainty. Bernard’s story about stories sounded good to me.