December 25th, 2005

Discordian

"What did you do in the War on Christmas, uncle Brad?"

I was a conscientious objector in the War on Christmas. I stayed home and kept my mouth shut, and let the various sides fight it out.

I waited until today to write about this at all because, by the time most of you see this, the tempest in a teapot "War on Christmas" will be over for another year. Why did that matter to me? Because I know this game, and I'm not fond of it any more. It's an old Discordian game going back at least as far as the early 1960s, one of the most successful components of Operation Mindf--k, and it's called "Yes, And." Here's how you play "Yes, And." Target a paranoid, or someone among your enemies that you suspect might have latent paranoid tendencies. Go over their writings and speeches, looking for something that they suspect, are warning against, and would go full-blown paranoid if they had any evidence that it was true. Now send them a letter thanking them for calling attention to this problem. Tell them, "I'm glad somebody is warning people about this. I ought to know, I'm (some insider from the other side who's uncomfortable and wanting to defect). And as someone on the inside, let me tell you, you're absolutely right that (easily checked fact that they dislike #1). Not only that, but (easily checked fact #2 that they dislike). And you're right to worry about (widely repeated rumor that makes them nervous), I've seen it with my own eyes. But the real reason I'm writing to you is to let you know that it's actually much worse than you think. Not only are (their enemies) doing all of that, they're (here's where the meat of the game goes)."

What goes in that last blank is something that anybody in their right mind would recognize as stark raving lunacy. But it needs to be something that a paranoid would want to believe was true, not because it would be good news, but because it would prove they weren't paranoid after all, that their worst fears have come true. And to cement the deal, if you're really good at playing "Yes, And," you make it something that a halfway competent reporter could debunk in at most three phone calls. The hope is that when they receive that letter, they'll go public with it. Like a shouting prophet, they'll go public and tell people that they absolutely must wake up, that the danger is at the door, that it may already be too late, "And look, I've got proof right here!" The reason you want to do this is to discredit them as a public figure, to make sure that nobody ever listens to them ever again.

When I was young, I thought this was a great idea. Since then, I've learned to doubt the wisdom of playing this game, for two reasons.

The lesser of the two reasons may only matter to me: it's not fair. Even in a war of ideas, even with the future of my nation or of mankind on the line, I'd rather lose than win unfairly. It's just how I am. I don't expect anybody else to make the same decision, to have the same values. It's just that I loathe and despise cheating even more than I hate the idea of losing, even losing all. When I was young, I didn't think that playing "Yes, And" was cheating. When I was young, though, I had no idea how fast the real world, the working world, moves. Playing "Yes, And" amounts to saying that you're unqualified to have an opinion in public unless you're willing to do the research to check the validity of a source before you use it. When you put it that way, it sounds reasonable, doesn't it? But not everybody has the time, and those who do may not have the skills or the rolodex it would take to check things out. You'll see the mildest variant on this attitude on LiveJournal, I know I certainly see it on my friends list. People fall for some variation on "Yes, And" (like, for example, the Little Red Book hoax last week), don't check with Snopes.com, and everybody who did check Snopes.com or who withheld judgment until the facts were in shouts them down for not having done basic research. But if it had been true, wouldn't it have been better to have responded immediately? And news flash, but not everybody on the planet has heard of Snopes.com.

It's also unfair because it's something that almost everybody on the planet will fall for at least once in their lives. When someone comes to you with new information, you often have no reliable way of verifying their veracity and honesty. So you compare what they're telling you with what you already know to be true. And if they get all the rest right, then you're naturally inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt when they tell you something that seems plausible to you. The most piously scientistic among you will fall for this in your personal lives just as often as the rest of us.

But the other reason that I've come to hate and fear and despise the game of "Yes, And" is that it is a much, much more dangerous game than it was 40 years ago. 40 years ago, there were only three television networks in even the most developed countries. There were more newspapers than there are now, but there were already only two news wires (AP and UPI) that fed them all. Back then, if you played a successful game of "Yes, And" against some prominent figure, their denunciation would be followed up, probably the next day, by your hoped-for equally prominent headlines denouncing that prominent figure as an idiot. It's not like that today.

Alvin Toffler predicted this, back in 1970. One of the least-remembered sections of his best-seller Future Shock, and to me the most interesting and important part of the book, was his section on Solutions. The problem he forecast, for those of you who are too young to have heard of it, was that as manufacturing technology improved, and shipping costs decreased, and printing costs decreased, and human mobility increased and sped up, people would be confronted more and more by overwhelming "over-choice." Before, if you went to the grocery store to buy green beans, they had a bin of green beans. By 1970, there might have been three or so brands of green beans in two or more styles. Now, I go to my grocery store and there are probably a dozen kinds of green beans. He forecast this, not even realizing the areas where it would get most out of control. Been shopping for a long-distance phone service plan lately? Or looked into Medicare part D? Then you know what he meant when he called "over-choice paralysis." When confronted by so many alternatives that nobody in their right mind could possibly know which was the right choice, what do you do?

Well, most people who reviewed Future Shock stopped there. (Unsurprising. I can count on the thumbs of one foot all of the book reviews I've read in my life where I suspected the reviewer had finished the book before the deadline for the review.) He went on to speculate as to how society would respond to over-choice. What he predicted was "the rise of the 'super-simplifier.'" A "super-simplifier" is someone who subscribes to a world-view or a subculture that assures him that he only needs to know one or two things. A "super-simplifier" deeds responsibility for over-choice to a professional whose values he trusts; that person is supposed to swim in the sea of too much information, evaluate and analyze it, and then come back and tell his or her followers/subscribers what they need to know -- which choice is the right choice, which news to pay attention to and what to make of it, what books and articles to read, and so on. Sound familiar? This is why Fox News isn't being ironic when they call their all-right-wing news channel "Fair and Balanced." What they mean is that as someone who shares their viewers' values, they took what someone like them considers to be a fair, honest, and balanced look at both sides of the argument, decided which side was the right side, and report only the truth. To report the untrue side would be unfair (to the truth) and unbalanced (in that it would give falsehood the appearance of equal weight with truth). Bill O'Reilly and his kind are the ultimate "super-simplifiers."

In a world full of "super-simplifiers," if you play a successful game of "Yes, And" against one of the super-simplifier spokesmen, what are the odds that the evidence that the super-simplifier fell for a hoax will make it to their subscribers? If it does, what are the odds it will get the same play? Some super-simplifier falls for some paranoiac hoax and denounces it for two weeks. Eventually it gets through to them that they were duped. They take 5 minutes out of one day's broadcast, or one paragraph at the bottom of a column, and denounce the hoaxer. If they're feeling honest and generous, maybe they devote one whole broadcast or column to it. And then, out of embarrassment, they drop the subject. So what happens to anybody who trusts them for information who caught, say, four or five of the preceding columns/shows and missed this one? They get turned into delusional paranoids, and potentially dangerous ones at that.

The War on Christmas argument is like the ultimate game of "Yes, And" -- for both sides. It feeds the paranoid tendencies of both sides. In so doing, it eggs on both sides towards pulling out their ugliest arguments. Liberals and others in favor of widespread toleration feel under attack by the War on Christmas crowd (and they are), and out of anger and fear they over-react. In their over-reaction, they say things guaranteed to anger and alienate the other side even further, not to mention anybody not already in the fight. Social conservatives fall for the War on Christmas hype, and it feels to them like proof that their darkest fear is true, that the "tolerance" forces have no intention of tolerating them and hope to destroy the social conservatives altogether. This fear, and anger, and need to fight back drives them to drag out their ugliest, most sectarian, most bigoted arguments -- further angering and alienating liberals, and anybody in the middle who wasn't part of the fight. So whichever side you're on, if you fight in the War on Christmas, what you're really doing is further alienating the partisans on the other side, guaranteeing that no common ground will ever be found between your positions, and guaranteeing that your arguments on other topics even when obviously true will not be heard. You're also doing your part to alienate those who aren't partisan from having any hope that politics or debate will solve any of our problems, because between you and your enemies, you're doing a great job of convincing the public that both parties are dominated by easily angered and dangerously crazy total morons.

(That being said, later tonight or maybe tomorrow: "Christmas is the Reason for the Season.")