February 25, 2008
See No Evil
I recently had a conversation with a person I'll just call "a successful writer", and when I mentioned an idea that he classified as "conspiracy theory" he said this: "The trouble with conspiracy theories is that they really take a toll on readership. Many people write you off as a conspiracy nut and the result is that we don't get to have your voice in the mainstream dialogue."
Now that gave me pause. It was a slap in the face that forced me to confront the question of whether I want to participate in a dialogue in which one must wear blinders and observe strict boundaries to the free flow of logical discourse or thought. Must I stymie the flow of rational thought wenever I reach a point deemed unacceptable by the establishment? Let's be clear with our terms. The term "conspiracy theory" is not a literal description, it's a label for ideas that cross certain borderlines, in particular, ideas that suggest abuses of power or illegal activity by people in high places. Conspiracy theory is the label for forbidden thought. The problem with "going there" is not just that one can be proven wrong. It is that it is forbidden to even think about it or discuss it. If one disobeys, one is exiled from the community.
The fact that the term "conspiracy theory" has no literal meaning is one of the many things that was firmly established by the events of 9/11. The official explanation of events of that day is unequivocably a theory of conspiracy. It's the ultimate conspiracy theory for the world's most spectacular crime, but it's not called a conspiracy theory. That term is reserved for any ideas that contradict the official story. This is a very important point. Conspiracy theories are not about conspiracies, they are about forbidden thought. The label "conspiracy theory" is a stop sign on the avenues of rational thought and inquiry. It says, "Stop here. Entrance forbidden."
When one reaches the stop sign, one must turn around, one must find another way, must bend the very laws of physics if that is what it takes, or throw them out altogether in order to avoid following a certain train of thought to its logical conclusion. In 2008 the abuses and outrages of the American political system have ballooned to such monstrous proportions, that there is very little room to think at all if one wishes to remain respectable. That's why the noise from the official media propaganda system is so overwhelmingly loud. The box in which we are forced to contain our thoughts is getting so small there is barely enough room within it to scratch one's nose.
My conversation with the Successful Writer raises the question, "Why does one write?" If one chooses writing as the means by which one seeks financial security, and one wants to write about politics and "go where the money is", then it is necessary to observe the boundaries and play by the rules of the big media owners. If one seeks the wealth and glory of someone like, for example, Chris Matthews, then one must play the game by the rules and always stop at the stop signs. That's the price you pay for entrance into that club.
But there are other reasons to write besides wealth, fame or financial security. There is, of course, activism. Does one write to effect change? If so, then one may wish to challenge authority, but must also consider that one's audience will be larger if one's writing appears in the mainstream. And credibility gets a boost by acceptance within that sphere. But if the writing itself is artificially cut off wherever it may offend the mighty, then the writing itself may suffer, become stunted and its effect nullified. After a prolonged period of staying within a small fishbowl the writing may just atrophy.
Even within the activist community, there are rules to be followed. In politics, one must "choose one's battles". You can't fight every battle, so it is better to choose the most important ones and leave others alone, especially avoiding issues that are so controversial one may lose credibility by engaging in them and risking being branded a conspiracy theorist or a nut. So many progressive writers and activists strictly avoid anything deemed "conspiracy theory" in order that their writing on other issues will have more impact. These are choices one has to make in these areas. So Daily Kos, for example, an alternative Web-based news source that is aspiring for mainstream acceptance, refuses to entertain certain notions, such as the idea that the official 9/11 story is not entirely correct, or that voting machines may not be entirely reliable. "We are a reality-based community," Kos proclaims. However, in the shifting sands of that reality, we may see an idea that was once in the category of forbidden thought, like the unreliability of voting machines, suddenly shift into mainstream acceptance.
But there are still other reasons to write besides wealth, fame or political activism. Writing as a medium of exploration and inquiry has its own reason for existing, its own rewards. Surely a writer needs readers and cannot forever write in a vacuum only for himself. But the exercise of language as a medium of thinking and experience exists for its own sake and does not require rewards of a material nature. The pursuit of truth is its own reward as the practice of any art can be its own reward. Instead of accepting the limits of the fishbowl of the political elite, one can allow thought to be a bird of wing and follow it anywhere it may go. And though one's body may be imprisoned, one's spirit may soar.
So there is writing as a means of financial security and recognition, writing as a force for social change, and there is the pursuit of the exercise for the sake of the art, for the exploration of the human spirit. The latter does not mean writing only for oneself. The act of writing presumes a reader, though it may be far removed in time and place from the writer. But like a sculptor or a painter or an athlete, a writer can draw great pleasure from the exercise of the medium itself, from the practice of the art.
McLuhan called media the extensions of man, and they are the means of movement, by which we may progress. It is through the medium of language and ideas that we may take ourselves to a new stage of development, both individually and as a community or species. So even writing that does not obey the stop signs and does not bring material rewards or glory may still be an engine of progress. Language and ideas are the ultimate drivers of human growth, the progress of communities and the evolution of the species. So while disobeying the stop signs may not bring immediate material gratification, one may find down the road that the writing actually went somewhere and one has evolved as a human being.
Jean Paul Sartre shed some light on the evolving function of the writers in his historical analysis called “What is Literature?” in which he traces the rise of writing as we know it with the rise of a middle class and the transition from royalism to democracy. The act of writing requires a reader for its completion, Sartre said, and a writer cannot force a reader to read him, so writing is inherently an appeal to a reader, and therefore and act of generosity between two free people. The act of writing itself implies the freedom of the reader. “One does not write for slaves,” he said. “The art of prose is bound up with the only régime in which prose has meaning, democracy. When one is threatened, the other is too."
Since the writer consumes but does not produce, Sartre said, “his works remain gratuitous; thus no market price can be set on their value ... Actually the writer is not paid, he is fed, either well or badly depending on the period. The system cannot work any differently, for his activity is useless. It is not at all useful; it is sometimes harmful for society to become self conscious ... If society sees itself and, in particular, sees itself as seen, there is, by virtue of this very fact, a contesting of the established values of the regime. The writer presents it with its image; he calls upon it to assume it or to change itself. At any rate, it changes; it loses the equilibrium which its ignorance had given it; it wavers between shame and cynicism; it practices dishonesty; thus, the writer gives society a guilty conscience; he is thereby in a state of perpetual antagonism toward the conservative forces which are maintaining the balance he tends to upset."
In the 19th century, as the merchant class took over power from the noble class and became the reading public, the writer became employed as an expert. “If he started reflecting on the social order, he upset it,” says Sartre. “All they wanted was to be provided with infallible recipes for winning over and dominating….” The writer’s works became “inventories of bourgeois appurtenances, psychological reports of an expert which invariably tended to ground the rights of the elite and to show the wisdom of institutions and handbooks of civility. The conclusions were decided in advance; the degree of depth permitted to the investigation was also established in advance; the psychological motives were selected; the very style was regulated. The public feared no surprise, it could buy with its eyes closed.”
Needless to say, the best writers refused, and, Sartre said, “It was taken for granted that it was better to be unknown than famous, that success – if the writer ever got it in his lifetime – was to be explained by a misunderstanding.”
Now we are in a new age, a new century. With the Worldwide Web we are really in a new world and no one knows exactly where it is going. We can’t call upon Sartre for insight into the condition to which we have evolved because he is gone and our world bears little resemblance to the one he knew. But he did utter a principle that might be used as guidance in assessing the place of writing in this brave new world.
“I say that the literature of a given age is alienated when it has not arrived at the explicit consciousness of its autonomy and when it submits to temporal powers or to an ideology, in short, when it considers itself as a means to an end and not as an unconditioned end."
I've already committed far too many sins to ever be allowed entry into the mainstream, so I'll just continue to give vent to whatever ideas produce themselves in my consciousness through the process of inquiry. I refuse to block my consciousness from pursuing a line of reasoning just because of an authority that says, “Don’t go there.” If common sense tells me that a bullet cannot go down, then up, then over and down again, or that a huge steel and concrete skyscraper can’t suddenly melt and dissolve into ashes for no reason, then so be it. I don’t care what the implications are. I do not wish to pretend the laws of physics can be suspended by the authorities in this society or any other society in history. I do not recognize an authority that tries to force me to relinquish my common sense.
If I have a cause, that is my cause. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's. I do not expect the power structure to relinquish its iron grip, certainly not because of anything I do. I am not chasing windmills. Let them have their power. Let them wallow in it until it destroys them in a pisspool of their own greed. But I refuse to give up the integrity of my own mind.
Let whoever wants to read it read it.
-- David Cogswell