Saturday, November 10, 2007

As Molly said earlier in this blog she was looking up one matter (still to come, honest!) and stumbled on the fascinating internet world of urban legends. Now, one of Molly's personal failings is that she is easily distracted, and the subject of "urban legends" is some sort of ultimate quicksand for such a person. Almost all of us have been the recipient of an "urban legend". This sort of thing could be defined as folklore on steroids. In the age of the internet and ,even better, digital photography we all receive endless stories of the amazing, amusing and atrocious. We are acephalus if we believe even a small portion of them. Some of these are obvious fakes using the technology available nowadays to the ordinary owner of a digital camera. The graphic to the left is one of many circulating about the internet purporting to show the face of the Devil in the smoke rising from the Twin Towers. It's an obvious fake, and shouldn't be taken seriously. Such things should come with a package warning-"for amusement purposes only"-, and often this is solely what their originators intend. Unfortunately there is now a mass market for nonsense of all sorts. Each piece of bullshit has its own niche market that will take it seriously.

Not that this is totally new. Previous altered photographs of Bolshevik leaders with the figure of Trotsky removed were, of course, believed by communists worldwide, as were much grosser lies. Not that this mindset is dead today, but it is certainly less common. Their are very few Catholics alive today who can make the "efforts of belief" required of the diminishing population of leftist sympathizers of say Cuba or Venezuela's Chavez who will deny,deny,deny,deny all bad news about their substitute Vatican. Most Catholics today have much more sense than that, assuming they pay more than minimal attention to what the Curia says at all. In the days when there were large and functioning communist dictatorships with pretensions to international socialist leadership the sheep of the international communist movements, whether Soviet or China aligned, were required to make much more heroic gestures of stupidity than any Catholic was ever required to make. At least the Catholic Church doesn't "change its line" from year to year. What is different today is that the best of photographic fakery that was only available to giant and brutal dictatorships or large corporations (are they the same thing ?) in the 1930s is now available to millions of people who only need to put minimal effort into learned the techniques.

The whole idea of great conspiratorial theories is, of course, not very new either. The Russian government, after all, forged 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion' in the 19th century. They did this in an atmosphere where such fantasies had wide play amongst the less intelligent members of the dominant class. Conspiracies certainly existed then as now, but, like now, their reality was at least 3 orders of magnitude smaller than the "exposers" would claim- assuming they existed at all. What is new today is the power of the internet and its situation in societies where most people have at least a slight apprehension of their own powerlessness in the face of organizations that are far bigger and more powerful than any time in human history. It is the way of the "sluggard" and the "dullard" to attribute the effects of such organizations to personal malevolence rather than larger and more impersonal social dynamics. This sort of response is, of course, childish and primitive. It draws on some rather basic human sociobiology, responses that we have always had to leaders who abuse their position to the detriment of the community. But in the modern world it is as out of place as trying to settle a dispute with a war club would be. Bopping one evil son-of-a-bitch on the head does little good in a complex society where evil is institutionalized and a matter of routine. The whole matter of "conspiratorial theory" has actually taken on a life of its own today, even claiming the status of an independent ideology, whether it be right wing or left wing. As for right wingers I will leave them the distress of dealing with their own nuts, with little sympathy from my part. As for the left wing, to which I belong, all that I will say is to reiterate the resemblance of such nonsense to classical fascism (something most leftists today have little knowledge about) with its own leftist allusions connected to such fantasies of conspiracy. The difference today is that the internet provides a greater marketing opportunity than radio did for the Nazis.

But to travel away from the distasteful there are much more benign forms of legends. In previous days these were very much local or national at best. The local haunted house was the local haunted house. In an age of mass communication such things travel across the world at the speed of typing on a keyboard- or faster by simply forwarding. Perhaps the age of the internet should be renamed as "The Age of Global Fantasy". This isn't always bad. Fantasy is a great thing providing its doesn't behave like a malignant tumour and spread and contaminate our more rational ways of dealing with the world. The medical term "malignant" (sort of "evil" in its etymology) is very apt here. The mole on the left side of my nose, which I inherited from my mother and which one of my sisters shares, is "benign". It will sit there in its proper place and do nothing until I finally die of dissipated living. "Malignant" means that it spreads and takes up residence in places that it does not belong, disrupting healthy function in another organ. Some of us have better tumour surveillance than others. Metastatic spread or "carcinoma in situ" is attacked vigorously. Others have fewer defences, either physical or mental. Almost all urban legends spread by the internet are quite benign. They come to rest in an isolated area of a neural net. There they are either walled off or simply sit in glorious isolation without spreading further. Sometimes they are attacked by the neural equivalent of a natural killer cell.

But that is not always the case. Sometimes the neural net can be invaded by the equivalent of a "promoter gene". Here I ask the reader to take a leap of imagination and imagine that neural nets are similar to genomes, and that the spread of a "meme" is equivalent to the spread of a tumour, not just the "virus" that it is usually equated to- though the process is the same. Such "promoter genes" today could be such things as a belief in "post-modernism", a general feeling of disempowerment without the intellectual resources to see where it comes from, a semi-religious belief in some sort of "primitive utopia" or many other promoters of both the left or right (sometimes shared by both) that allow unverified factoids to spread and influence/disrupt other intellectual/neural functions. These promoters make the organism/neural net susceptible to invasion that distorts the actual import of the anomalous factoid so that it lodges in other more important centres and becomes a greater matter than its actually should be if it was properly walled off.

The great historical example of this is the career of Charles Fort and the cult that he has inspired. Not that this guy is very well known today, but his career is extremely instructive. What Fort did was to make a life's business, and a fairly good living it was, by collecting and publishing examples of the "inexplicable". Some of his favourite themes such as "ball lightning" have actually entered normal science today even though they were rejected in his time. Most of his collection remains the purvey of cultism over 100 years later. Given his wide span of "interests" it is no wonder that some of the fish that he dragged up proved to be real. If you go for thousands of things it's not unexpected that 2 0r 3 may prove to be right. The other 99,997 mistakes are forgotten. Today the work of Charles Fort is carried on by the International Fortean Organization, without his humour or his sense of showmanship.

All this leads into a very big question. When you meet a con-man you should be able to recognize him or her and avoid them. But when your wallet or your genitals are safe at home you may be puzzled by an intellectual question. How much of his own bullshit did that bastard believe ? It is actually a very interesting question. Few con-men can carry out their schemes without being fooled by their own nonsense at least in a limited sense. About the only situation in which this can happen is where the con-man is a)totally psychopathic ie shows few or no emotional signs that would allow others to detect their deception and/or b) has no conception that the "truth value" of a statement is important at all as compared to the other values associated with making a statement. Charles Fort very much believed in "b". He set about to make his collections consistent with "entertainment value" which was very much in accordance with his financial interest. Was he a psychopath ? No !!! He was simply selfish and deceived himself at the same time that he deceived others. He promoted an ideology of "radical scepticism"(ignoring scepticism to the anomalies) which predated post-modernism, but he lacked the political will to promote an "alternative reading" that lies behind modern post-modernism. As such he was far cleaner than present day liars are. His purposes were fairly obvious and clean. Financial benefit is actually a very clean motive as compared to others that humans are capable of.

There are cases in point here. As an anarchist I have been privy to over 30 years of the published diarrhea and evil acts of a so-called anarchist (even if he denies the label when it is convenient for his purposes) by the initials of BB. This brain damaged petty thug has set his life's goal as solely causing distress to other people, and he has picked a good set of victims. Many modern anarchists seem intent on proving how anarchism could not work by tolerating an obvious psychopath and even promoting him. Their anarchism is, of course, not my anarchism. What is sad is that a movement that presumes to offer a better way to govern an entire society can only deal with evil psychopaths (who actually BRAG about their diagnosis in print) when such nuts violate the rule of not squealing to the cops. Fuck me sideways with a stick. This fucker should have been expelled and sent to the Nazis where he belongs long before he lost a little fight and tried to rectify it by calling in the cops. Calling the cops is a tiny ,tiny,tiny,tiny itsy-bitsy offense compared to everything this guy has done over the years. This is a person who takes a malignant joy in causing distress in other people. Unlike Fort his main purpose is not to be amusing. His main purpose is to cause pain. Unfortunately the "neurological pluralism" of human psycho-biology means that such people will occasionally be born.

There are, however, others in the political space that I inhabit that are not so obvious. To a large degree they can be viewed with the same lens that one views a television preacher. How much of their own bullshit do they believe ? In the case of BB the answer is none because the whole idea of "truth" is irrelevant to the purpose of causing pain. Most situations in the real world are not so clear. When a "post-leftist" or a "primitivist" ideologue with a few years on them, a modicum of common sense as seen by other pronouncements, and a financial interest in promoting some obvious nonsense promotes bullshit one can adopt the obvious response that they merely wish to sell more copies of a magazine or get more donations to same or to a website before the cash cow runs dry. But that would be incorrect. These people actually do believe at least a portion of their own bullshit, just as the average tele-evangelist does. The comparison is very apt. They are the American expression of how any idea, no matter how noble and beautiful, can be corrupted.

But all this is not just sectarian but also very sad. The whole subject of urban legends is actually quite amusing and fun to play with- as long as you don't get sucked in. Here are a few of the sites that Molly has gathered for your amusement, all of them collections. Enjoy and don't believe.

*Hoax Photo Test (Can you detect the fake ?)

Now Charles Fort would probably be amazed to see how his efforts have resulted in a cult. Perhaps if he was resurrected he could play again today. Molly would suggest a collection of "odd beliefs" rather than "odd facts". So to close here is one of Molly's favourite "cat legends", at least as big as the faked photograph to the left.
"Some people at the other end of the village are well into an organic, vegetarian lifestyle. Even their pets are vegetarian- a black Labrador who farts constantly and a grey tabby cat. It was really funny the other day when some friends of ours went to buy some eggs from those people. "Doesn't your cay miss meat", they asked the veggie family. "Oh no, she' perfectly adapted to a vegetarian diet now and doesn't miss meat at all", the people replied. Just then the cat came dashing into the kitchen carrying a half eaten rabbit, and the embarrassed owners went totally pale and silent. Last thing I heard was that they were buying Whiskas in the village shop and holding it at arm's length like it was radioactive or something !".
The above is followed by a rather boring explanation at . Why not let the legends stand as amusement without either believing them- or worse making them into cult objects- or trying to debunk or explain away what is really a joke. Molly has actually met such people and their stupid ideas, and when she is asked about the "best" way to do something really foolish all that she can reply is "don't try".
The Cheshire Molly

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