Category Archives: Politics

Spare Me The Sudden Experts

When the US pulled out of Afghanistan, I was surprised. I was used to us being there, and “leaving” was something always discussed in the future. It came fast.

The news kept coming fast. The Taliban on the move, the invasion of Kabul. Everything was so rapid.

What was even more rapid was watching so many people suddenly become experts on Afghanistan. Social media lit up with opinions and advice and critique and so on. Plenty of people were happy to provide great wisdom that, for some reason, they’d never shared before.

It was the same as everything else I’ve seen online and in the news for years. Plenty of very confident people holding forth sudden opinions on complex subjects. Of course, most of them had political agendas, even if they didn’t know it. Even an opinion I might agree with stoked suspicion.

Sadness oozed through me like hot tar. Twenty years in Afghanistan and it took a day or two for it to become the territory of Reply Guys, Keyboard Warriors, and annoying pundits. The all-devouring news cycle closed in, and the opportunists pounced on fresh meat.

Spare me these sudden experts.

I watched the same kind of people opine on Benghazi and COVID-19, Biden’s electability and the safety of going maskless at school. There are legions of people, for pay and for free, who will pontificate about anything for no good reason.

Our culture has no place for ignorance. For admitting you don’t know. For humility and re-focusing. It’s all about the immediate satisfaction of acting like you’re right. It’s all about a high, engagement numbers, and whatever agenda.

These experts are meaningless. Scrambling, hollow things trying to feed a voraciously empty ego. No plans, no goals, just the next buzz and sometimes a political agenda disconnected from their moralistic posturing.

Of course, I know where this goes – I feel I can hold forth on this due to observation. The American attention span is short. People won’t want to go back. Afghanistan is going to be a discussion, then a buzzword, then a footnote. Also we have COVID-19 to deal with.

The Sudden Experts will just find something else.

Equilibrium and The Realism of Foolishness

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

I recently got to see Equilibrium (2002), a movie best described as “a dystopian art film with gun-fu.” We follow the story of John Preston (Christian Bale), an enforcer in a future of emotion-suppressing drugs and underground smugglers of art. The film got limited marketing in the United States, and more’s the pity – it’s a beautifully done film made for only $20 million.

On the surface, the premise seems silly – to prevent war, people must take emotion-deadening drugs and avoid sensory experiences like art. Specialized enforcers known as Grammaton Clerics use gun-fu and their calculating minds to hunt down “sense offenders.” It’s a concept you’d expect on a second-tier episode of The Orville or a Star Trek series, if well done.

As I analyzed this well-done film, something haunted me. I kept analyzing the seemingly half-baked premise of “we must stop emotion and be rational. That’s when I realized – I’d seen people express similar views in real life.

Those online enough (such as myself) are painfully aware of people who declare how rational they are. Such self-congratulating would-be rationalists are quick to say how other people are irrational and emotional. These people – almost inevitably white men – obviously think they should be in charge of “the other.”

I have no problem imagining these pseudo-rationalists trying to medicate their emotions to unleash their supposed great mental powers. It takes me little effort to imagine some guru or internet personality selling them drugs or supplements to do so. The internet has produced enough would-be gurus claiming to lead people to a paradise of rational thought (again, almost always white men).

Equilibrium seems to be built on a simplistic premise, but many people base their own lives on shallow ideas. That is what haunted me about Equilibrium – the idea people would hate their own emotions and claim to build a rational world is too real.

I take this as a reminder to be careful when judging fictional settings. They may seem too simple – but forget that some people hold very simplistic views. They may seem overly complex, but life can be complicated. The question is neither simplicity nor complexity, sophistication or crudity – but do they help us think and feel.

In the case of Equilibrium, beyond the considerable artistry, it shows a “rationalist” society as a horrible place. The washed-out dark gray of the existence, the emotionally-numbed sadism, were awful. In short, Equilibrium says of its seemingly simplistic world, “yes, this would be awful, yes it would fall apart.”

Then I cast my gaze on the internet and see men declaring their rationalism, their freedom of emotion. I see them dead inside or burning in a rage they call “critical thinking,” insulting people on the internet. They would try to build a world like Equilibrium while saying it was something else.

Let us be careful judging fiction. We may find it is judging us and judging others more than we realized.

Steven Savage

Creativity, Conspiracy, and Motivation

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

In my previous blog post, I noted conspiracy theorists easily fit into my model of Creative Types. Because various presentations and forms of conspiracy thought fit my model, I think we can think of conspiracy theories as being a kind of pathological creative act. This leads to the question of why people engage in conspiracy theories.

Fortunately, as we’ve heard about incessantly since the media managed to pay attention to the online world, it often comes down to power.

Conspiracy theories give a sense of control.  A conspiracy theory explains a messy world, so you think you know what’s going on. You can bend your creativity towards “explaining” things and giving you that rush.

Conspiracy theories give you a target. Having explained the world, you can then figure who to blame. Of course, these targets are often ones of traditional bigotry, and you can harness creativity to explain why you hate people. One merely has to look at the mental acrobatics people go through to remain racist and sexist to see this in action.

Conspiracy theories make you the hero.  A conspiracy theory means you figured it out, that you are the hero. A conspiracy theory is a sick kind of Isekai power fantasy that runs inside your head. Your ego grabs onto your creative urge and rides it into the bloody sunset because it can make you the protagonist.

Conspiracy theories can give you power. Grifters and would-be grifters flock to conspiracy theories, and if you want to grift, it’s a world rife with targets. Grifters use their creativity to spin more stories, make money, and ensnare their victims. They may even believe their lies after a while, though I’d wager most of them don’t even think in “reality” after awhile.

Conspiracy theories can give you connections.  You meet fellow conspiracists in your endeavors, you share ideas. Such reinforcement feels good, so people do it – especially those alienated or disconnected. If you’ve ever seen conspiracy communities talk, they seem to take pleasure in exchanging ideas – and creating new theories. The social thrill has a “round-robin” writing element.

That’s it. Conspiracy Theories are about power and control, and creativity is damned easy to use to support them. Connecting ideas, finding explanations that fit, etc., are all creative acts. The Conspiracy theorist, from a podcast ranter to a lone person making a connection, is engaged in a creative act – an act of power.

(I’d like to thank David Neiwert and Stephan Lewandowsky, whose work informed my model.)

However, I think focusing only on power and just saying “oh, it’s creative as well” misses something. Creativity is fun, and people enjoy using it. The conspiracy theory world doesn’t only deliver a sense of power, explanation, or money but also offers a creative rush.

Think of all the times you made a piece of art or wrote a paragraph that feels right. Consider the settings you’re making with their crystal-clock clarity or a song you composed that hit all the right notes. It’s a rush, a high, and it’s compelling if not outright addictive.

Now pair that with the power one falsely feels believing in conspiracy theories. One has a sense of power, control, enemies to fight, money to make, and the creative rush on top of it. How many highs is that all at once?

Tell me how addictive that sounds now.

I’ve even wondered if some of the pushers of conspiracy theories and propaganda-as-news are so high on their supply they don’t see the evil they do. Are they lost the same way the rest of us might be in a videogame or a mystery novel? I’m not prepared to forgive those that spread this malice, but I wonder if we might understand it a bit better.

In summary, I think conspiracy theorists and the like are motivated by power and the rush of creativity – of finding the truth and explaining things. To help people out of this, we need to consider both.

Steven Savage