Down the Rabbit Hole

The hyperlink rabbit hole: Sometimes you tumble down it and find yourself sitting under a giant mushroom and idly chasing the dragon with a blue caterpillar. And other times you find your hairs standing on end under the blood curdling screams of a paranoid-schizophrenic, axe-wielding maniac. And then there are those times when you fall all the way to the Bottom and sink helplessly into the a morass that you weren’t even aware existed:

Great and powerful evil is on our doorstep. Great and powerful evil is here. I beg you, read about the progressives. I beg you, please, do your homework on eugenics. It is starting all over again. What we said we would never, ever forget, I’m telling you I am doing research right now on the 1930s and Forties.

This particular quagmire of insane gibberish is courtesy of Glen Beck. The “great and powerful evil on our doorstep” to which he is referring is Canada, specifically its decision to entertain legislation to legalize physician-assisted suicide. The legislation was subsequently shot down, but Beck isn’t going to let a little thing like that get in his way. And why should he:

I’m going to show you things in the coming weeks in history that you just had no idea, no idea. I’m working with some really well educated, intelligent people right now who know history, and I came back and I said I was at an archive last weekend and I came back and I said, I need this, I need this footage, I need this footage, I need this footage, and they didn’t even believe me that it even existed.

You see, Beck has privileged access to important information. He has secret, historical knowledge at the tip of his fingers that even his well-paid-and-educated team of researchers isn’t aware of. In other words, he’s in the know. And you definitely aren’t.

While we might like to think that Beck’s appeal is the result of massive doses of toxic runoff and pharmaceutical waste in our drinking water, it appears that this isn’t the case: Beck is just another in a long, degenerate line of cheap hustlers. Aristotle was well acquainted with the Becks of his own time, and he even reveals a worn page from the huckster’s playbook in his Rhetoric:

Again, some impression is made upon the audience by a device which speechwriters employ to nauseous excess, when they say ‘Who does not know this?’ or ‘It is known to everybody.’ The hearer is ashamed of his ignorance, and agrees with the speaker, so as to have a share of the knowledge that everybody else possess.

I’ve spent most of the last five years of my life studying coercive and conspiracy rhetorics: I’ve written papers on the Westboro Baptist Church, suicide terrorism, sales and marketing, and the Zeitgeist movies. A central trope of conspiracy and coercive rhetorics is what is known as the “illuminated eye” (if you want to know what it looks like find a dollar bill and look on the back). The eye represents secret knowledge known only to a select few. The only way to obtain this knowledge is to be accepted into the inner circle of a group. This creates an immediate division between those “in the know” and those on the outside who aren’t in possession of “the truth”. It serves to reinforce group identity and coherence and provide a justification for the insular ideology on which these groups thrive. If you are the only one in possession of the truth, then you will have little reason to listen to any arguments from those poor, ignorant souls who are unaware of the way things really are. It’s also a transparent pathological appeal to pride: who doesn’t want to know more about the way things really are than everyone else?

While I’ve credited Aristotle with pointing out the paucity of Beck’s rhetorical skill, I don’t think I can let “Big Daddy A” off the hook that easily. In fact, I think I’m going to go ahead and take this opportunity to skewer Big Daddy A and Big Daddy P like a couple of slow-moving, fungus-covered carp in a dried-up mud hole (sorry, my inner hillbilly is coming out). After all, if anyone is responsible for the veneration of “true” knowledge, it’s Aristotle and his teacher. One could roughly describe their project in the following manner: Since the mass of people labor in ignorance and stupidity, it is the job of a certain few elect people in the know to devise ways to control them and to lead them towards the truth. Of course, you can’t just tell them the truth, because they are incapable of understanding it. Instead, you have to find ways to control them and trick them into following the right way of doing things. These methods are the province of those in power—those with the right breeding and education—and only these people should be trained in these methods, because they are the only ones with the capacity to understand the way things really are and thus are the only ones capable of wielding this power ethically.

Insular rhetorics tend to appeal to just this narrative when they push their projects. For instance, the more recent waves of suicide attacks were mainly committed by individuals who subscribe to a takfiri (=infidel) ideology. The name itself is an inside joke. It’s meant to convey the fact that a lot of other Muslims consider the takfiri’s ideology to be antithetical to the core teachings of Islam and thus most Muslims consider takfiris to be infidels. However, takfiri ideology teaches that it is in fact most other Muslims who are not adhering to the proper form of Islam and thus the real “infidels” in this case include anyone who doesn’t subscribe to takfiri ideology. Takfiris also tend to see themselves as the true members of the Muslim ummah (=the world community of Islam), and they believe that their special status makes them responsible for defending the ummah by any means necessary and also makes them responsible for trying to lead the rest of the Muslim community to the truth inherent in takfirism. Once again, we see a pattern of how this narrative of select knowledge reinforces group identity and insulates a discourse from outside criticism.

While one might be tempted to say that Big Daddy A and Big Daddy P can’t be blamed for anything going on in Islam, this would be historically inaccurate. In reality, Greek thought has probably had more influence on Islam than on Christianity, if only for the fact that Islam had access to Greek texts that were lost to Christianity for centuries. In fact, many Islamic scholars have decried the corrupting influence of Greek thought on Islam and sought to rid Islam of its influence (takfiri ideology tends to owe its intellectual heritage to these strains). I would also argue that monotheistic traditions tend to reinforce this narrative of select knowledge known only to the elect. It seems to be a central trope of monotheistic discourse.

It’s also a central trope of the Western thought (like I said earlier, if you don’t believe me, look on the back of a dollar bill). It’s as revealed in something as simple as a commonplace like “knowledge is power”. And I’m not exempt from its influence. Even as I sit here trying to point out the dangers of this narrative, I still believe that knowledge is power. The question for me is: whom do I throw my lot in with? With Aristotle, Plato, and Beck, who seem to believe that the power of knowledge is meant to be a strategy for controlling people through their base emotions? Obviously not. I don’t want to see knowledge as a sacred treasure, coveted and controlled by a select few. I’d rather see it as a gift, as something freely given without expectations of an immediate payoff, as something that passes freely between equals in full public view, as an act of dialogue unbounded by narrow self-interest. That might be the only way of unlocking the ethical power in knowledge. That might be the way of using knowledge, not for control, but for liberation.

References:

Aristotle. Rhetoric and Poetics. Trans. W. Rhys Roberts. Modern Library Ed. New York: Random House, 1954. Print.

Beck transcript: http://www.glennbeck.com/content/articles/article/198/36445/

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7 Responses to Down the Rabbit Hole

  1. leckiemc says:

    Andman –

    Los and I loved this – I really enjoyed how you took us from Beck to Islam to the history of Western thought. Such a good read. I’ll think of something more substantive to tell/ask later – I just wanted to compliment you while I was thinking about it!

  2. lanceelyot says:

    Ah, but imagining knowledge as a gift . . . is that not also “Platonic” in the sense that knowledge is an object and can actually be contained, owned, or otherwise controlled? Knowledge can be used to liberate what? Our souls? Our minds? Oops . . . methinks that’s Platonic, too.

    • I was using “gift” in the Derridian sense of the word to mean something that is not subject to the laws of exchange and demand and as something that resides outside self-interest or rational-choice theories of morality. I know you’re familiar with mystical philosophy, so I’m assuming you’re familiar with Buber. In this sense, the “gift-giving” I am imagine would be analogous to entering into an I-Thou relationship with the other. It would be entering into a relationship that is outside a cost-benefit/utilitarian matrix. This is the “liberation” I am entailing: a liberation from these structures. I didn’t specifically mention Derrida, because I reject his notion that a gift can never be simply because one must always fall back into some sort of utilitarian/practical relationship with the world. Rather, I side with Buber and believe that an I-Thou encounter can awaken possibilities that we weren’t aware of and return us to the world transformed and allow us to conduct our practical negotiations of the world in a more ethical and cooperative manner.

      I’m also a rather boring pragmatist/empiricist, so I don’t believe in the independent existence of mind or soul. Mind and soul are nominal categories for me. They don’t exist. They have never existed. They never will exist. There is the body and whatever the body does. Everything else is conjecture and useless metapsychical speculation.

      For more on Derrida’s idea of gift see: http://www.iep.utm.edu/derrida/#SH7a It does a fairly good job of boiling down his main points (if such a thing were possible).

  3. lanceelyot says:

    That makes sense.

    I was just playing a little Socrates game. Buber wins :-).

  4. hassanak says:

    Had my first encounter with Buber over the summer. It was both idealistic and beautiful.

    Y’know, etymologically the word soul refers to “being” — I think of it as being tied to the conscious body, rather than simply the body. Also, what’s so wrong with division and classification? What is empiricism if not observation and genus-species categorization? I remember sitting in college biology and being puzzled when the professor informed the class that a fox and a white fox were different species. I couldn’t understand how that was different from different breeds of dog, which are considered the same species. That’s cuz there isn’t necessarily a difference — it’s a function of categorization. In either case, it’s just an act of naming…

    Btw, linking Islam to papa’s A and P was brilliant :p

    • I agree with you that it’s just naming. But I think we can only get away with that attitude because we understand the arbitrary nature of language. I think most people still operate under the assumption that if something is named, it exists. So if there is a name for Islamofacism, it must be real. If there’s a name for Obama’s socialist plot, it must be real. If there is a name for the soul, it must be real. If there is a name for the mind, it must be real. Naming calls something into being in most people’s eyes. I can still remember the first time I came to the realization that words weren’t accurate representations of reality: my mind was completely blown. There’s simply no reason to think that is the case. It’s completely counter-intuitive. I even fell into this sort of thinking by default at the end of my last reply (as you so justly pointed out). It’s so easy to forget.

      So I think I basically agree with you that naming is just basically saying something like “X is an arbitrary designation I’ve assigned to a set of propositions or a concept so that we can talk about them usefully.” But I don’t think most people have this conception. This is why I think we have to be careful about naming things. And why I hesitate to do so. And honestly, I don’t care if anyone does believe in the soul or God or the mind or what have you. I was simply laying down my position, as boring as it is.

      (Empiricism is a weird beast. George Berkley believed that the only things directly apprehensible to the human being were ideas in the mind and that our perceptions of objects were just that– perceptions– and that these were the only things directly knowable by sense experience . Thus, he denied the reality of the material world. There are plenty of other examples of pure insanity in the history of empiricism. Unfortunately, my brand is rather banal. I think the world and objects in it exist. Even if I have no way to prove this. I just act as if this were so. Also, yes, I agree that the conscious body would be better than just the body. I was probably overstating my case for emphasis and drama. Also, I hesitate to use the word consciousness, but that’s a story for another day.)

  5. Pingback: Astrology and the Science of the Concrete | RhetHistoria

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