The Power of Bad Information
Persons unknown hacked the AP's Twitter account and spread a bogus story that two explosions in the White House had injured President Barack Obama. The fake report sent jitters through the markets and convinced more than a few uncritical news watchers that it was true before the real facts emerged.
It was an illustration of the power of information to affect material events. This power was never greater than it is today. A few decades ago the financial minister of a Third World country made a trip to the Western banking capital in which his nation's foreign reserves were kept. After meeting with bank executives he asked if he might see the vault in which his government's money was stored. The minister was duly escorted into the depths of the headquarters building. There inside a vault a bank executive handed him a spool of magnetic storage tape. "There are your country's reserves," he said.
That was it. The tape.
In one of the earliest posts of Belmont Club I remarked that on September 11 a malevolent idea had materialized over Manhattan and destroyed two of the tallest buildings in the world and killed thousands of its inhabitants. The genesis of the airplane plot has been described many times by recent history. Yet in the end it all began with an idea. Once the idea had been conceived, it was worked and reworked, tweaked and retweaked until it finally succeeded.
And then an immaterial notion became actual. It became as real as hundreds of tons of aluminum and fuel hurtling at jet speeds toward skyscrapers in New York City.
If anything information has become more influential since. One of the most striking things about the Boston Bombers was that they were dominated by idealism. It was a twisted idealism, to be sure, but an idealism all the same in the sense which "assert[s] that reality, or reality as we can know it, is fundamentally mental, mentally constructed".
And those ideas which they imbibed from the mosque, the Internet, from mentors unknown or shadowy figures in Dagestan ultimatley proved more influential than all the kindness, scholarships and citizenships that were bestowed upon them.
Paradoxically the development of the material world has amplified idealism. The forces that actually control the world's physical infrastructure are increasingly represented by abstract systems. SCADA systems control manufacturing plants. Air traffic control governs the passage of millions through the sky. The software in an MRI scanner can find, or not find, an embolism.
And it is because the world is so dependent on information that the hoax story of Obama's injury was so serious. "I saw it on the Internet" has largely supplanted the old gold standard "I saw it on TV". It can wipe out share values. It can generate a panic. It can do stuff, even though it is as insubstantial -- nay even more insubstantial -- than air.
The manifest power of ideas over things makes the indifference with which radical Islamism is regarded by the left even more puzzling. Radical Islamism does stuff, no less than Nazism as an ideology did. Yet many on the liberal side of the aisle appear to ignore it as a harmless, childish, essentially unserious notion.
When fanatical imams declare that Islam will conquer the west their rantings are dismissed as a kind of hoax. "They can't mean it," we are told. Or we are informed by talking heads that "they are only saying that because they someone drew a cartoon of Mohammed". Or commonly yet, "we provoked it".
Perhaps nowhere was the implicit assumption that Islamism is unserious more dramatically illustrated than in the aftermath of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. In the days following it the Obama administration sent Susan Rice around to explain that the attack took place because someone in Los Angeles produced a video.
So did we provoke Islamism? Perhaps "we" did. But who is the we? Fewer still notice that Islamists focus their attacks on the cultural flagships of the Left. New York, Boston, London, women's schools in Afghanistan, gay politicians in the Netherlands, apostate black women in Europe, and even pacifists who make their pilgrimage to the Middle East to bear witness to their own invincible idealism.
The Tsarnaev's were showered with a huge amount of things. And did they like it? No they hated it. Hated the whole idea of the dirty, degenerate, corrupt West. They hated the idea and took the goodies without a thought. Despite this the mainstream culture is set to respond to their attack with more things. More drones, detectors, armored vehicles, barriers, restrictions, weapons, armor .... more items the list of which goes on and on. But omitted from the catalog of responses will be any campaign to mentally engage radical Islam -- to debate against it, denounce it or render it uncool -- because that would be bigoted.
It is often forgotten that Freedom of Speech means debate. It means patches on software, not paint on the equipment box. It means fixing the insubstantial. It means mental action. This is important because in the case of radical Islam Freedom of Speech has been redefined as the obligation to remain silent. That obligation has even been given a special term: it is called Tolerance. And no one seems to have noticed that Tolerance is essentially the opposite of Freedom of Speech. It means don't program. Don't unhack the hack. Do nothing. Pretend it's all a joke. Watch the whole system melt down. Tolerance is a rejection of the manifest truth that information matters because it can cure or it can kill.
In ancient times the word often used to describe the power of information over man was "spirit". And the old ones knew that though the spirit moved in us, it could be of two kinds. There could be angels and demons. And they still can be, though we give them other names.
And perhaps that is why terrorism is so hard for the modern post-western, multicultural elite to confront. We don't cast out demons any more. They've joined the operating system.