Belmont Club

The Man in the Mirror

Mirrors which systematically distort images perform two functions. The first is to show us freaks because we want to see them. Funhouse or carnival mirrors are said to pander to the public’s sense of cruelty. People like to stare at grotesques even when it is themselves. The second purpose is political. Propagandists have long known that nothing rivets a public’s attention like monstrosities. “When you encounter a person whose nose, mouth or eyes are distorted in a way you have never encountered before, you instinctively lock on. Your gaze remains riveted, and your brain stays tuned for further information.” And if you are told it is something to be hated and feared, you will believe it until further notice. The Nazis portrayed the “Eternal Jew” as sickly and malformed; their films showed groups of Jews emerging from doors juxtaposed with rats fleeing a sewer. This made it so much easier to justify the extermination of Jews in their millions.

The Inhuman Other

Funhouse mirrors are so useful they are passed on like heirlooms, at least between one generation of spin masters and the next. After the Nazi defeat the funhouse mirror was turned around. The term for freak was no longer “Jew” but “Nazi.” Mike Godwin observed that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”  Sooner or later people will be tempted to use the ultimate insult. But there was nothing immutable about “Nazi” as a term of hate. Man needs to see freaks and any freak will do. A lesser known version of Godwin’s adage is Stead’s Law, which asserts that discussions between any two atheists will inevitably converge on Christianity. And there is the reduction ad Klanum which suggests that anyone who disagrees with the “progressive agenda” is a secret member of the KKK.  To everything there is a season, and a freak for every purpose.

There’s a time to warn of Christian militias; a time to urge the pelting of “hatemongers” like Andrew Breitbart. There’s a time to warn of the dangers of being angry with the policies of the President.  We pray it’s not too late.  But maybe it is. The freaks are everywhere. Even Human Rights Watch is not exempt. The wealthy patrons of that progressive NGO in Britain, described by the Times of London as “the Democratic Party in exile,” have found a snake within their garden of Eden. It has since been revealed that Marc Garlasco, the HRW’s “only military expert,” was by night ‘Flak88,’ “an obsessive contributor to internet forums on Third Reich memorabilia and an avid collector of badges and medals emblazoned with swastikas and eagles.”

A lavishly illustrated $100 book he compiled and self-published is dedicated to his grandfather, who served in the Luftwaffe. On members-only sites such as he was writing comments like “VERY nice Hitler signature selection”; “That is so cool! The leather SS jacket makes my blood go cold it is so COOL!”

When you come to it, the “der ewige Juden” was such a useful image. Perhaps the term “eternal Jew” is a term just waiting to make its comeback in the polite European circles, already rapt with admiration for the Palestinian cause.

Who makes monsters? Mostly the Left: because of its huge presence in the media and the arts, the Left has traditionally manufactured the most hate-objects. They’ve done it for so long that it has become almost a birthright. The photographer Zombie has documented dozens of calls from the left, from demonstrators to celebrities, for the assassination and murder of President George W. Bush. But that’s not a crime, is it? “Threats to the president aren’t excusable now, and weren’t excusable in the past — and yet death threats against Bush at protests seem to have been routinely ignored for years (and readers who have any evidence showing that the threateners depicted below [in the Zombie post] were ever prosecuted for threatening the president, please tell me and I’ll update this essay with the new info). Why the discrepancy?”

The discrepancy is probably because the Left has long appointed itself the guardian of the freak-minting industry. It is a prerogative that is jealously guarded. Thus Glenn Reynolds could receive this insulting email calling for civility without the slightest irony. “I cannot emphasize this enough: your brand of public discourse is hurting our country. It us poison. So fuck you, you GOP utensil, and fuck your mother for bringing you forth.”  Get it Glenn? So too could Ann Coulter be threatened by protesters at the University of Ottawa to prevent her from making a “hate speech.” S**t flows downhill. There is no mystery to that. It’s Leftist physics.

But the unintended consequence of uncontrolled and systematic distortion; the unforeseen effect of shipping funhouse mirrors everywhere is that sooner or later frustrated audiences put on corrective spectacles. The most sophisticated audiences eventually have a pair of corrective spectacles to suit every context. The term for this method of fixing distortions is adaptive optics. My grandfather had a simple rule of thumb for understanding the controlled news broadcasts in the last days of World War 2. Whatever the Japanese broadcasts claimed he believed the reverse. After listening to one strident description of a vast Japanese naval victory he concluded, “the IJN is no more.”

Adaptive optics works by measuring the distortions in a wavefront and compensating for them with a spatial phase modulator such as a deformable mirror or a liquid crystal array. …

An adaptive optics system tries to correct these distortions, using a wavefront sensor which takes some of the astronomical light, a deformable mirror that lies in the optical path, and a computer that receives input from the detector. The wavefront sensor measures the distortions the atmosphere has introduced on the timescale of a few milliseconds; the computer calculates the optimal mirror shape to correct the distortions and the surface of the deformable mirror is reshaped accordingly.

One might argue that the explosive growth of the blogosphere has been driven by its utility as an adaptive optical appliance through which to view the media. But it’s a hell of a way to run a railroad. Since the reality “out there” is first distorted by the media to the point where the discerning members of the public must apply a further distortion to make the image sensible, we inflict a huge signal loss on the viewer.  There is no guarantee that the applied corrections don’t do more harm than good.  Back in the days of the anti-Marcos underground I asked someone why he bothered to read either the government newspapers or the Communist Party propaganda sheet. He replied, “I buy it for date, my friend. It’s still good for telling me what day it is.”

A better situation would be one in which billions of independent sensors gathered an image and left the end user to process the information. The terrible memetic distortions of the 20th century are partly rooted in the ill-matched marriage between news gathering and meme-minting. The phrase the medium is the message was originally intended to convey the sense of absolute divorce between content and information. In an environment dominated by the formal medium, real information content actually declines. A point is reached where all news stories become variations of a few didactic themes. Who has not sat in an airport lobby watching the network news and briefly suspected that it was the same news with a different locale and set of actors? But perhaps the reductio is the point. Orwell believed every successful tyranny had to stamp out the ability to think by reducing information content, and ultimately by reducing the language itself into a kind of pidgin called Newspeak. A few big and simple untruths are always easier to peddle than complex reality. A person who I cannot I identify for fear of breaching Godwin’s Rule once wrote:

because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.

One of the most important challenges of the 21st century will be to find some way to get at the approximate truth. The current crisis is to a large extent a crisis of information. Whether what we wish to know is the value of the liabilities of a financial system; whether carbon-driven AGW exists, whether “reforms” are affordable; or whether the Russians will comply with the proposed drawdowns in nuclear weapons information is so important that gross distortions are impossible to accept. We can live in a world with some funhouse mirrors, but we can’t live in a world where most of them are.

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