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.
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/