Punching Clouds: The Escalating War Against Meaning
If you're confused and frustrated right now, it's not an accident.
It's time, if you'll forgive me, for a little stream of consciousness.
I'm in a weird place. Maybe you are too.
I'm also a little frustrated with the fact that my thoughts are moving more and more to a larger arena than just what is transpiring in the Church, and because of that I'm not sure if 1P5 is the appropriate venue for them, but it's the one I've got (for now) so I'll put them here anyway. I'm going to do something unusual, though, and cross-post this here to my as-yet-unused Substack account. Depending on how tangential some of my writing becomes in the near-future, such a non-1P5 venue may be desirable.
It's easy to subscribe by email to Substack posts, so if you're interested, please do so right here:
The context for my consternation today is the election, of course (though it's bigger than that; stick with me if you can, even if you're sick of or disinterested in that topic). If I'm trying to be accurate, I suppose I shouldn't call it an election, but an absolute crapshow being passed off as an election. I told you on Wednesday morning about that strange, sudden feeling I got, when I went outside to take a break from election coverage and pray, that it was all just a game they were playing, a pretense of an actual democratic process, rigged from the word go. Just enough bread and circuses/smoke and mirrors to keep the masses convinced they did their part.
That feeling that the game was rigged has looked more and more like a fact since the moment I had it.
But there's more at work here than this pseudo-election. That's just the symptom of a much bigger and more dangerous disease.
You see, the thing that's really disturbing about what's happening is that massively suspicious behaviors and activities can be happening right out in the open -- blatant appearances of cheating and fraud -- and a huge number of people can look at them and say, "What? I don't see anything." (If you're doubting the number of red flags in evidence, check out this post from former CPA/Auditor and current best-selling novelist Larry Correia, which is the single-best summary I've seen. Just brace for some pretty salty language.)
What this comes down to, ultimately, is what my friend Kale Zelden referred to in a recent piece for 1P5 - namely, that our sense-making apparatus is broken. Kale's piece zeroed in on the fact that the Church herself no longer makes sense, but what's true about her is even more true of the world. I riffed on this theme again when I tweeted about the surreal, "Lovecraftian" nature of the Francis papacy, and discussed this phenomenon in a podcast. Hilary White swooped in to explain just what "Lovecraftian" actually means.
All of this comes as an attempt to explain the surreality of an existence where the lines of meaning have been blurred beyond recognition. Or as Hilary explains it:
Something that is Lovecraftian is something that defies or overturns the natural, observable order of reality; it is anti-rational, like saying that a thing is not the same thing as itself. Lovecraft’s horror-fantasy fiction has a popular cult following in our time of radically destabilized conceptual frameworks; we are no longer sure of any of our former certainties about what life is for or how it is to be lived, and Lovecraft’s fiction speaks to this fundamental insecurity. In our time the very underlying notions of reality are called into question, with people declaring that they can “identify” as a different sex and that this personal, subjective determination makes it real enough to warrant the support of the law. Reality no longer counts; our “post-truth” society is a cultural, legislative and judicial situation in which truth is not a defence and the Real is no longer of any interest to anyone.
In his recently released book, The Parasitic Mind, evolutionary psychologist Gad Saad has an entire chapter devoted to this sickness, entitled, "Anti-Science, Anti-Reason, and Illiberal Movements." Saad writes:
Postmodernism proclaims that there are no objective truths. Evolutionary psychologists like myself recognize that human universals exist precisely because they constitute elements of a shared biological heritage. Inevitably, my student’s companion and I ended up in a debate. She scoffed at my first principles, and I scoffed at hers, so I laid out a challenge to my interlocutor: I would offer what I considered to be a human universal, and she would tell me why I was wrong. I began with what I was sure was an incontestable example: when it comes to Homo sapiens, only women bear children. She rolled her eyes at my gargantuan “stupidity” and told me of a Japanese tribe where men somehow “spiritually” bear children. She scolded me for focusing on the material and biological realm because this was what kept women barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen. Apparently, my first example was too toxic and triggering, so I made a second less “controversial” attempt. I proposed to her that sailors have always relied on the fact that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, and this was an objective universal truth. How do you think she “dismantled” my second example? She went into her toolbox of postmodernist bullshit and deployed a deconstructionist retort: she questioned my use of the “arbitrary labels” East, West, and sun. She then added that what I refer to as the sun, she might call dancing hyena (I’m not kidding). Our conversation soon sputtered out.
Saad, Gad. The Parasitic Mind: How Infectious Ideas Are Killing Common Sense (Kindle Locations 1258-1268). Regnery Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Saad goes on to talk, for much of the rest of the chapter, about the specific problems presented by the advent of "trans" everything - gender, age, speciesism, etc. Saad is good at poking fun at the absurdity of this kind of "thinking" - if you can even call it thinking - but the dark reality of how pervasive it has become is no less terrifying despite his valiant attempt.
Refusing to accept reality is of a piece with inventing one's own version as an ersatz replacement. Or as Mythbusters' co-founder Adam Savage was fond of saying:
Today, Kale wrote to me again, grasping at the contours of this problem that seems to be picking us off from the shadows with increasing ferocity, like the prowling of some sort mythic beast torn from the pages of Lovecraft's own overwrought prose:
I can't get out of my head the failures of our ability to make sense.
Indeed, as the whole mess unfolds via Twitter and Facebook and the broadcast news, the wide expanse of the information ecology strikes me as hopelessly polluted...the mental and emotional equivalent of smoke stacks pumping s*** into the atmosphere, or crap being poured into the waters...you get the image. We "live and move and have our being" in this online world (especially post-covid) and we simply can't trust anything. Right now, it really FEELS like we are asked to disbelieve our lying eyes.
Groucho [Marx]: "Who are you going to believe...me or your lying eyes?"
This really is the meaning crisis, and it isn't terribly funny. How do you actually sniff out distortions, see when things are a bit smelly? In the world of deep fakes and infowars...and more importantly, CNN and Fox spewing carefully though inartfully decadently framed "versions" of truth. We were breathlessly assured that "democracy dies in darkness" by the WaPo in the days after Trump's election, but what they didn't tell us is that democracy dies in distortion...and they have peddled it nearly non-stop through commissions and omissions...the latter being really the most subtle and insidious. We are familiar with the meme: "pics or it didn't happen." It used to be so simple, right?
It was a surprise to me to see Kale referencing the advent of deepfakes in his latest attempt to get a a grip on What's Wrong With The World. I had, only moments before he sent the email, tweeted this:
Now if you don't know what deepfakes are, buckle up. For simplicity's sake, here's Wikipedia on the topic:
Deepfakes (a portmanteau of "deep learning" and "fake") are synthetic media in which a person in an existing image or video is replaced with someone else's likeness. While the act of faking content is not new, deepfakes leverage powerful techniques from machine learning and artificial intelligence to manipulate or generate visual and audio content with a high potential to deceive.
The video I saw that grabbed my attention as a turning point in the deepfake phenomenon was this clip of comedian and actor Bill Hader doing Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions on an episode of Conan O'Brien's eponymous talk show. As subtly as Hader slips into his impression, his face morphs into that of the Austrian actor and former California governor. The transition is disturbingly seamless:
I started looking around for more on deepfakes, and found out that Trey Parker and Matt Stone -- the creators of South Park -- have created a show making extensive use of them. In fact, their protagonist in the episode I began watching is a wig-wearing, obviously deepfaked and alternatively-voiced Donald Trump presented as a (ambiguously gay) local journalist called "Fred Sassy," who attempts to get to the bottom of what deepfakes are and how dangerous they might be. It's layers upon layers of satire and self-reference, and there's some disturbingly crass content involving a puppet made to crudely resemble a naked pornographic model, so I don't recommend a full viewing (at least not in view of children). But beneath the on-the-nose humor and vulgarity, the technology on display is demonstrative of how dangerous this kind of fakery will soon become.
In his email to me, Kale also zeroed in on the way our own information is being used by tech platforms to manipulate us:
[W]hat is truly disturbing is the AI algorithms which create a distortion field so great that it can cause the very fractiousness we are seeing unfold in front of our eyes. The algorithms need about 300 clicks and an hour to out predict our interests and desires...and predict what we WOULD LIKE and WOULD click on...
"They sell us to ourselves," he continues. "We give them all of our 'stickiness' and information and it is weaponized against us."
And this is a problem. A BIG problem. He goes on:
We humans are ill-adapted to see so much...like a light that blows out an image. The sheer dazzle of misinformation blinds us, and in turn we are told that we aren’t really seeing what we are seeing. So our instincts are to choose tribe over truth because truth seems ungraspable.
What happens when a person can’t render a true account for what they think, mistakes they have made, lies they have told? What if an institution can’t do this?
And more importantly what happens when institutions will to NOT do this kind of reckoning and examine? They WON’T do this reckoning, this soul searching, and in fact they persist. They continue to choose to double down on the lie that is the cover story for the theft?
In the informational ecology, our Commons, we are filling it with bile and smoke...am I filling the space or scrubbing the space?
I'm worried for us all because we are being played...this is not a conspiracy theory...but hopefully the first step in being able to recognize the problem. Social media seems hell bent on us NOT seeing the problem clearly. Keep clicking...keep liking...keep sharing...we are building an empire that weaponizes you against you.
Coming back around to the election, I think what we're seeing is a microcosmic expression of the larger issue: the thing I've been saying for years is actually a war against reason, against reality and meaning itself.
You can't have a conversation with someone who, like in the example given above by Saad, says that compass directions are arbitrary and argues against the objective existence of the sun. But if millions of such people exist, if they've been manipulated consistently and had their own narcissistic ignorance fed back to them by the platforms of their choice, why should we be surprised if they are willing to be useful idiots in the theft of an election in the most powerful, technologically-advanced country in the world? An election that is being stolen by the forces behind a presidential candidate so disconnected from reality by his own clearly-failing mental faculties that he might as well be a deepfake himself?
After all, a Biden victory is not what they were after; they wanted a Trump defeat. And if they get it, the prize isn't so much the White House, but the unobstructed ability to continue pushing a global technocracy that will ramp up control over us until we have no potency outside of their approved channels of action. And we'll only have access to those channels if we play along like good little soldiers.
To those already immersed in this Matrix under construction, nothing is real. And if nothing is real, then nothing matters. At least, nothing that doesn't involve the immediate gratification of their appetites or the easing of their suffering, real or perceived.
That last bit -- the alleviation of suffering -- is the illusory promise that the progressive left has ridden into power for as long as anyone can remember. Take money from those who produce it and use it to buy the loyalty of those who don't. And if you don't have enough, just deficit spend to fund your giant social welfare piñata, because money isn't real either. You can always just print more.
We are living in a post-rational world, and those of us fighting the insertion of this particular mind virus are kicking and screaming, trying to keep our apprehension of reality within a workable framework of reason, logic, law, and order.
But that's ultimately like trying to punch a cloud. You can't come to blows with or get your hands around a thing that has no fixed form or substance. Saad again on the nigh-impossibility of the task:
Since postmodernism purports that reality is subjective, one person’s parody is another’s gold mine of meaning. With this epistemological sleight of hand, postmodernists are able to extract meaning from the most meaningless of texts. Voilà, postmodernism is akin to the Hydra in Greek mythology. Cut off one of its heads, and several new ones will grow.
In a way, this is the first "trans-election." It ultimately may not end up mattering who actually won, only who identified as having won, how many fake ballots identified as real ballots, how many states identified as having conducted honest and fair elections, and how many of us are willing to politely accept this surreal play-acting out of fear of being seen as purveyors of incivility. Saad calls this the "spider wasp" phenomenon:
Political correctness is like the sting of the spider wasp. Recall that the afflicted spider is dragged to the wasp’s burrow in a zombie-like state and is subsequently eaten in vivo by the wasp’s offspring. Political correctness achieves the same macabre objective— it allows nefarious ideas to slowly consume us while we sit quietly in a zombie-like state, too afraid to speak out.
It's hard as hell right now to know what's actually real. We're drowning in a sea of information, much of it false, trying to derive some kind of meaning from a mosaic of pieces that don't all fit together. So much of what I'm seeing on both sides of the electoral divide right now could very well be misinformation -- or more to the point, disinformation -- which makes the ever shrinking pool of obvious truths even more difficult to identify in the chaos. Assertions of malfeasance without substantiation, videos of polling places devoid of context or explanation, whistleblowers making claims difficult to verify, media gaslighting about races won or lost, claims that it's all some big trap by the Trump administration to catch his opponents red-handed, and so on. There's real information intermixed, but the signal to noise ratio is grossly distorted. (This same set of observations will no doubt apply to the McCarrick Report, which we're now hearing will finally be released next week, no doubt riddled with fictions, misdirections, and omissions.)
I can anticipate your objections: I'm not saying voter fraud isn't happening, only that right now, there's a lot of sifting that needs to go on so that we don't wind up chasing red herrings and destroying our own credibility in the process.
And so, we're left walking essentially blind, relying primarily on instinct and intuition to sort out true from false, as identifiable facts become ever more elusive. Some would say this is "walking by faith, not by sight," but I'm wary of borrowing the scriptural term as a hermeneutic for navigating temporal minefields like those our full-scale information warfare is now placing before us. Not because faith can't guide us, but because we have a propensity to interpret as faith what is actually just our own attempt at sense-making. Discernment is key here, and not everyone is adept at it. Which is why we can reliably expect the number of conspiracy theories -- which exist as a function of our imagination's need to bridge gaps in information and trust -- to absolutely explode. False prophecies, false narratives, and false teachers will continue to proliferate, and it will be increasingly hard to act as the "voice of reason" in your tribe when reason alone will no longer cut through the static.
As Kale said above, "our instincts are to choose tribe over truth because truth seems ungraspable."
If in reading all of this you find the phrase "diabolical deception" springing to mind, you're not alone. Fr. Z just stepped up the spiritual warfare a notch:
Today after Mass I recited – with the permission of the bishop – the Exorcism against Satan and Fallen Angels (Title XI, Ch. 3 of the Rituale Romanum).
I asked God to aim this exorcism at all those places where votes are being counted in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Wisconsin.
I asked Mary, Queen of Angels, to ask the Holy Angels to protect vote counters and from the temptations from the Devil to commit fraud and to sin, to prompt then to do the right thing and not to lie.
If you're a priest and you can get similar permission, please consider following suit.
Our struggling is not against flesh and blood, remember, but principalities and powers.
Keep fighting for the truth, even if it seems more elusive than ever.