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W.R. Marshall: You gotta start somewhere … again

wayne_thumbnail“I feel like everyone is always talking about politics and the economy but without ever really saying anything.”

I didn’t say that, my good friend V said that. She’s young and bright, and like most of us, fed up…oh, and she’s right.

I used to write a snarky political column. Some pieces were snarkier than others, but there was never a paucity of snarkiness. A snarklike magma flowed under everything I wrote, and it was generally aimed at some bloviating snarkmeister who was saying as little as I was saying, just snarking from the other side mouth of his mouth. (I’ll try to never again use any permutation of snark.)

And look where snark has taken us. (I said I’d ‘try’, but I’m a recovering snarkaholic.) We’re distrustful, embittered, outright angry, and occasionally despondent. We all have our own reasons for being so, but part of it – a big part – is there’s just too much crap crashing through the ether.

Thirty years ago, pre-internet, philosopher Jean Francios Lyotard wrote about “quantities of information” replacing knowledge, and the problematic nature of shoveling through all this stuff.

Information – not knowledge – is now a global commodity, like golf balls or Starbucks. You can have anything you want in your Venti, and once you’ve paid, you own that little cup of perfection – it doesn’t matter what anyone else drinks, this one is yours and you will sip it any damn way you please.

We’ve come to think of information the same way. It’s personal, ours, it doesn’t have to agree with anyone else’s information and it’s better than knowledge because it doesn’t have to deal with bothersome facts. And, because Lyotard was right, and information has replaced knowledge, he doesn’t get to be right anymore even if he’s the guy who said it. You might have information that says not only is he was wrong, but he’s not even French, and you read some guy on the internet said he was born in Norway or Kenya – and we all know everything on the internet is some version of gospel. (In the future we can discuss why we think that – and we do, even if you think we don’t.)

We seem to have reached the point where opinion or inference or a half-assed wisecrack carries the same weight as physical truths.

They don’t – and that’s not an opinion or an inference or a half-assed wisecrack.

I think it’s time we got back to some clear thinking – and the fact that I’m the guy saying this shows just how far down the rabbit hole we’ve fallen.

So here’s what I propose: we spend a little time looking at the world and sifting through the ‘information’ to see what lies beneath. Look deeply, not broadly, see if it’s something Plato said more than two thousand years ago or something some dude uttered in his basement last week. (Not that the dude mightn’t be profound – it’s just unlikely given the Dude/Basement Uncertainty Principle, which states: you can either know where a dude is in his basement or what he’s up to, but you can’t know both.)

There are big questions facing us, but they seem to get buried under partisan finger pointing and self-serving reportage. Behind every argument, an idea lurks, sometimes centuries old, often forgotten, or never learned (talking points don’t demand knowledge, just literacy) – perhaps it’s time to look at ideas again.

What we’re talking about here is philosophy, the stuff one usually conjures when thinking about dudes and basements, but it is, in fact, just the opposite. It’s a demand for clarity, a search for reason.

Philosophy is simply what William James – pillar of American intellectualism, legendary Harvard professor, spiffy dresser, and plagued by bouts of indigestion (at last, a link twixt he and me) – famously called, “the unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly.”


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