Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cargo Cults

Note: I'm a little distracted with work and competing ideas today. I'll have to write this in installments. It may take some time for this locomotive to build up steam and pull this train of thought properly. If this entry don't make much sense, I'll try to steer it where I want it go... eventually.

Around the 1940s or thereabouts, on some islands in the South Pacific, a lot of white men suddenly appeared from out of the skies and seas. And they brought with them processed foods, starchy white flours, candies, radios, watches, trucks, jeeps, washing machines, canned meat, iceboxes, medicines, Coca-Cola, and many, many other wonderful things. And then one day they just all up and vanished. 

The natives didn't know where the endless supplies of goodies came from, and so assumed they were summoned by magic. And knowing more than their fair share of ritual and superstition, they constructed crude piers along their shores, and carved airstrips from their fields and jungles. They prayed for the ships and planes to come again, and performed military ceremonies, marching in perfect step and ranks, toting bamboo "rifles", with certain locals imitating the strident cadence of drills sergeants. But, aside from the trickle of a few tourists and old veterans, the magical G.I.s never returned.

We Americans who precipitated these cults may smirk and laugh at their naivete, but are we any less primitive? Aren't there certain things, certain mysterious events and items, that we, for all practical purposes, feel arrived by magic, from the spirit world? 

Oh, I think so.

Now, I'm not really talking about religious fundamentalists, or social conservatives (the American Taliban, as I call them, as they share so many values and opinions with those Islamist creeps). Although they easily come to mind. 

Nor am I talking about the faithful consumers. Those who, with every trip to the gas station, or the pharmacy, or the grocery store, display a simple act of faith in assuming that, since these goods have always been there, they always will be there.They have only a vague conception of how items appear on store shelves, or how government subsidies make them cheaper than they really are. 

Nor am I talking about the SHAM (Self-Help and Actualization) artists, the fuzzy thinkers, the New Agers, the crystal creeps, the ones who believe in astrology, or anything labelled "quantum", fans of Deepak Copra and The Secret. They can be dismissed as marginal, targeted by the media and easily and readily manipulated. And besides, when push comes to shove, when things get tough all over, they discard this mystic baggage in favor of more pragmatic behaviors.

No, I'm talking about the ones who consider themselves sophisticates. The Critical Thinkers. The self-styled Critical Thinkers at any rate. One thing I've noticed is, they all can parrot the terminology. They have read through the glossary of terms, the definitions of logical fallacies. They make use of phrases like "strawman" and "non sequitur" and "ad hominem" in so-called "debates". But few have any conception of how to investigate claims, or how to formulate a reasoned argument. If they've managed to build a reasoned argument, they often miss the fact that the logical construction they've fashioned still fails miserably because it is built upon  a faulty premise. In Internet debates, they are constantly distracted and sidelined by trivial tangental issues, or questions of "semantics". On TV and radio, the pundits cannot properly map out fundamental issues. In short, despite our proclamations to the contrary, we Americans SUCK at critical thinking.

(More later).

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