B.S. Barometers

I plan to get to many of your excellent topic suggestions over the course of the following months. I will begin with Tribal Witch Doctor’s excellent query, which I quote below:

Could you please discuss your views on finding reliable sources of information? Particularly, could you discuss your views on how the media skews or informs popular opinion and how to circumvent the political propaganda and bias inherent in most of the popular press. One of the things that impresses me about your work is your ability to present the salient issues as seen from different sides. For example, you recently mentioned how a lot of people are under the (wrong) impression that current situation is all about oil (and by extension other underhanded economic agendas such as so-called “dollar hegemony”) rather than the stated geopolitical issues. If this is all conspiracy theory nonsense, I’d like to have facts to back myself up. Apart from reading sources from two or more opposing sides, do you have any method of cutting to the core of truth amongst all the rabble out there? Do you have any favorite sources for political information?

This is an important question. So many different opinions in the media on the same subject, so much material and information at our fingertips. What ends up happening in this glut, is that those who raise their voices the most, or come up with some seductive argument that moves the emotions tend to carry more weight, or at least make it difficult for us to sift fact from fiction. Newspapers and media have slants that are subtle. So much subtext and assumptions. People latch on to the most immediate effect, what is most present to the eyes and ears. They are captivated by the tactics of the moment and cannot see the larger strategies at play. It has become harder and harder for all of us to understand and analyze events.

I have the following motto or philosophy: I give absolute trust to no single source, no single writer. There is no authority out there who can help in this predicament. What I come to depend on is my own good judgment, my own ability to distinguish between the hacks, those who hype, the mystifiers and others who are genuinely trying to get at the heart of the matter. I rely on my own powers of observation. And after ten years of researching my books, and having to dig deeper and deeper into the subject, I have developed certain deciphering keys.

For instance, a writer who obviously has a political slant is not necessarily to be discounted. A good political writer will lay out the events with some objectivity and then interpret them. I ignore their interpretations and I analyze the events they have brought forth with my own two eyes. When a book is simply full of conjecture, bias and emotionalism, I ignore it completely. When a book is overly laudatory or complimentary about some figure, I ignore the hyperbole and focus on the sober facts, if any, that they present. I am very wary of writers who are cutesy and clever with their language because I believe they can be very tricky.

I appreciate writers who have a low-key style. Sometimes, however, a writer can be saying something important but just laying on too much verbiage–a bad writer in other words. I cut through the crap, to the heart of the matter. What immediately sends up my b.s. antenna is detection of the writer’s ego, and the axes he or she has to grind. A good, responsible writer allows readers to come to their own judgments. That is true communication.

I alluded in another thread to a pamphlet by Schopenhauer about debating tactics and strategies. An invaluable book. The tactics he points out are those typically used by writers or debaters to obscure the truth, to mislead, to win an argument based on sleight of hand. This is like a bible for me, a genius method for distinguishing the honest arguer from the dishonest; I carry it everywhere. Later, I will enumerate the tactics he reveals.

With recent events, such as the Iraq War, it is trickier. Writers have less perspective. I read about a dozen books on the subject. My favorite happened to be George Packer’s Assassin’s Gate, because it seemed like an honest attempt to figure out why this war happened. The research was first rate, as well as the sources, and the writer clearly did not have a political agenda. It was chock full of interesting information. That is the key–to take the information someone provides and analyze it yourself. But I did not rely completely on Packer. I read other books that filled in some gaps, etc.

With the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict, it is all so new and the information so hard to sift through. I have a clearer sense of the Hezbollah strategy, having studied them to some extent (I will discuss this soon enough), than the Israeli one, which seems hard to fathom right now. But we are in the dark, most of us. The point is that I realize my own powers are limited and that I can misread events, particularly if the information at hand is not the full picture. And so I keep my mind open. (Please read chapter 2 of the WAR book for greater detail on what I am talking about here.) Perhaps I need to reassess this particular conflict–how it appeared at the beginning is not how it appears right now. The worst strategists are those who think they know everything and think they are never wrong. Events on the ground are constantly instructing us.

With television it is more complicated. This is not a media suited to rational analysis. It is image and emotion driven. Yes, a good interview on Charlie Rose can be instructive, but I would personally rather read an article in the New Yorker, whose facts and anecdotes I can verify on my own. The BBC World report is a good antidote to American news because it comes without the usual slants and hype.

In everything, however, I bring my skepticism, and my ability to read between the lines. Finally, I use my ability to analyze power moves. As I discussed in the prior blog entry, so many people obscure issues with abstractions, etc. I like to go deeper into the events to figure out motivations, and why people are really doing what they are doing. What is the power move behind it all? The effective truth? Some of this is clearly conjecture on my part, but I try to be as brutally honest as possible and see as many sides before making my power judgment.

Concerning conspiracies and conspiracy theorists: I am greatly influenced by Machiavelli’s writing on the subject in the Discourses. There, he presents the theory of why most conspiracies fail. Too many conspirators and someone will leak news of it beforehand. (As Benjamin Franklin says, three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.) Too few conspirators and the chances of success are minimal. In modern times, with the media on the prowl, it is almost impossible to keep a secret.

I happen to be a basketball fan, and during the recent playoffs the officiating was so bad that rumors were circulating about a referee conspiracy against the Mavericks, led by David Stern. To me, this is nearly impossible to imagine, because all it would take is one person to have compunctions and reveal a smidgen of this to the press, and suddenly the NBA would have zero credibility and the damage would be incredible. The Bush people being behind the 9/11 events is clearly impossible under the Machiavellian standard.

Is it possible Cheney and company have had closed door meetings about oil in Iraq and how to get our greedy hands on it? Not only possible, but probable. But clearly, after reading the many books on the subject, the true motivation behind this was was to rewrite the politics of the Middle East and tie Bush’s legacy to that. Overturning Saddam, as Bush Sr. knew, is the worst possible way to secure Iraqi oil. The potential for chaos in the area, for a power vacuum is far more likely than the possibility of creating a grateful ally. In such a matter, your powers of analysis and your research is what will guide you past all of the nonsense that is spewed on talk radio.

I recently saw a documentary on PBS that completely, and I mean completely debunked the whole conspiracy notion that the moon landings were fake. The evidence for our landing on the moon was incontrovertible. At the end of the documentary, they showed the evidence to the main conspiracy theorists and it did not shake their beliefs. The point is that we live in times where rational thinking is drowned out by entertainment, seductive sound bites, hype and emotionalism. In this fog, all cows are gray. There is no point in trying to argue with the conspiracy theorists. They will believe what they want to believe. As the saying goes, people want to be deceived.

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