What Has Happened to Our Brains?

windmills

A windshield shot on the way to Big Spring, Texas.

American politics and culture are now characterized by… insanity.  Or at least half-witted thinking. Why?

My son, based upon his very limited experience of air travel, was expecting an email message from Southwest Airlines the day before his departure which would provide a direct link to the sign-in/boarding pass menu. My own experience of post-9/11 flying is nil–and I certainly haven’t a twenty-year-old’s comfort with the Internet. But I was able to find what he needed at last and sign him in from a thousand miles away, just because I did a lot of poking around. Southwest’s follow-up emails seemed interested only in marketing new apps for enjoying pop-cultural drivel from six miles up, clearly assuming that all of its patrons knew the specific protocol for confirming a flight. The link I needed sat in small print at the bottom of the original ticket, emailed a week earlier.

The days when you hold on to a piece of paper worth hundreds of dollars and present it to the right officer at the right moment are plainly gone–and maybe that’s a good thing, on the balance. But it isn’t an unmitigated improvement. Thinking in the old world required vertical movement: prioritizing, classifying, imposing value. “Put the ticket in a safe place: there’s only one, and we’re stuck without it.” Now virtual documents exist in potentially infinite copies, consuming no measurable space, accessible at any time whatever–provided that you remember the access codes. These are arbitrary words, numerals, or combinations thereof: the more arbitrary, the better. Nothing is nailed down. Nothing has any fixed relation to objective space/time. All is fluid. When you fail to “remember” an random sequence of gibberish that has no rational connection to any part of your past, you must retrieve it by finding a highlighted word to click or tap (as if your most critical secrets were some kind of kid’s game); and the link itself will be placed where some programmer-cum-marketer thinks it belongs–usually buried under teases and ads, or perhaps hidden within “frequently asked questions” (the last resort of the panicking).

I wrote a couple of weeks back of Sargasso Sea Syndrome: the tendency of electronic-age thinking, that is, to be endlessly interconnected but never rooted, always reaching out laterally in random twists rather than anchoring in any up-and-down, more-to-less-important references or values. E-thinking is associational. It’s like screen-saver: one image flows into another. Trying to sell cosmetics online? Write a keyword phrase: not “cosmetics” or “beauty”, or you’ll achieve zero-visibility. Write a little piece about a starlet: “How Angelina Jolie stays young,” or, “Halle Berry’s secrets for smooth skin.” Those will be both the titles of one-paragraph puff-pieces and keyword phrases… and now you have set up a series of falling dominoes, just waiting for a casual browser to give the first one a nudge.

Someone will object, “But everything on computers and the Net is very hierarchical. Think of all the drop-down boxes in menus. Think of any search, where species is carefully classed under genus.” Not really true. If I want to research a thesis concerning the Celtic Other World in medieval Christian allegory, I could type in just those seven words… and I would dredge up a smattering of books and articles in whose titles or synopses most of the words appeared. Long experience has taught me, though, that my most valuable sources will almost certainly not be caught in the net hauled up by my trawling. The great scholars will come at my subject tangentially as they examine some other in brilliant detail. Most scholars who study Christian adaptations of the twelfth century (is there still one alive?) probably do not have a special interest in Welsh or Irish… and practically no Celticist these days is a Christian or wants to admit anything Christian into his (I should probably just say “her”) research projects, which likely ooze with giddy enthusiasm for the pagan.

What happens, then–and I’ll bet it’s the same with the hard sciences–is that e-searches roll up a little ball of trends. Their results are essentially a cluster of Facebook buddies “liking” each others’ selfies. Nobody reads deeply any more: “cutting-edge scholarship” is a wasteland of fawning courtiers admiring the emperor’s new clothes and winning promotion for louder and more frequent parroting. There’s no core truth, no ultimate destination, no “it” at the bottom of the dark pool. Nobody’s working beneath the surface.

As for drop-down menus, my son’s efforts to transfer to another college have made me realize how hard it can be just to find a phone number for the Registrar’s Office. Yes, the drop-down arrangement is literally vertical–but it is not thoughtfully vertical. Like Southwest’s emails, any given menu probably prefers to wave flashy, “sexy” items in front of the visitor rather than provide the shortest path to vital information. The objective is to stuff your head with images. Once you’re hooked, you will eventually stagger and stumble your way through the recruitment door.

Mike Adams, a professor at UNC Chapel Hill, has written much about his sparring matches with campus feminists. In a recent post (“Hysterical Women’s Studies”, posted 7/23 at Townhall.com), he described his helping a young coed who had been assaulted off campus to contact the local D.A.–and further described, in particular, how this charitable assistance ignited a feminist firestorm. Apparently, he was supposed to have directed her to campus authorities so that the feminists in question could create from a non-campus incident the UNC equivalent of the Duke Lacrosse Team (a complete non-incident). Adams shortly found himself being branded a “pro-rapist” in emails sent by the Women’s Studies program and its alguazils. Rational deduction was not in evidence, and was obviously not required. A bunch of self-promoting careerists felt “raped” because their fantasy was not advanced, and they proceeded to call for blood.

You and I probably know scores of people, or at least a few settings populated by such people, around whom or wherein simply expressing dismay at the sell of fetal body parts would draw howls of indignation: indignation against us for implying that Planned Parenthood is capable of wrongdoing. (Adams, too, provides several examples of scenes where the mere offer to debate abortion’s propriety has drawn frenzied charges from academics that they are being figuratively raped and murdered–often without “figurative” as a qualifier.) Now we learn that suggesting black lives matter in equal amount to other human lives is a ground for justifiable homicide–not in the KKK’s eyes for fully humanizing the African, but in the Black Panthers’ eyes for disparaging blacks as merely human.

Of course, all of this is insane… but the diagnosis is not very comforting, since it comes with no treatment. I volunteered just above that many professional feminists care only about putting another notch in their career’s ever-blazing gun… but that ascribes to them a coherent, if very disappointing, motive; and I don’t know how true the cynical intent is, even among academics. From those with three degrees to those who dropped out of high school, this insanity seems just as prolific. It’s usually honest, not feigned. The affected really believe the claptrap that flames from their tireless mouths. They hate us, they hate us more for throwing logic at them, and they feel supremely virtuous for hating us and for shouting over our logic with stopped ears.

It’s bad enough when you have to listen to a deafening chorus (audible lately from that most beautiful and Catholic of islands, Ireland) that “gay” sex is just love, and that lovers should be allowed the respect of getting to marry. The sound of so many abstract nouns denoting complex matters of value judgment being ground up in sentences like the foregoing resembles what you might hear if you ran a bunch of nuts and bolts through a food blender. (The vast, vast majority of “gay” people I have known were “attracted” to their own sex mostly or entirely because the emotional mutilation they had suffered from our heterosexual hook-up culture had become unendurable.) We can’t parse a verb any more; we can’t connect a major and a minor premise any more. All “reasoning” is sidewsie grabbing. “Love: good. Marry: yuck! Uh, but good if, you know, someone wants it, like if they’re really in love. Everyone in love who wants to get married… um, should get married. Why not? Yeah, why not? What are you? Like a–a love-phobe, or something?”

Even rather “non-emotive” issues can no longer be analyzed by the general population with any degree of finesse. When driving into West Texas with my son to view a prospective college, I was dumbfounded by the number of windmills in the Texas Panhandle. I had noticed an even greater volume of these during an earlier trip through the Big Spring/Sweetwater area… but I had supposed the adventure confined to that dusty tabletop. It hurt me in a different way to see more rolling and majestic escarpment farther north littered with all those god-awful pinwheels. Maybe you’ve passed flatbed trucks on the Interstate carrying a single blade: it’s huge, isn’t it? Calculate the amount of energy needed to manufacture, load, haul, and erect that one blade–and then multiply by, perhaps, two hundred thousand. Now tell me that these desecrated horizons resembling what Don Quixote on LSD might have seen will produce enough energy to pay for themselves in a century (as a good half of them, on any given day, sit motionless). Tell me that this isn’t just some smiley-dino Band-aid on a liberal’s infantile conscience that our ever-opportunistic energy corporations have manufactured and applied for the sake of government grants or tax write-offs.

We are surrounded by idiots–and they are us. I realize that if I were not writing for a website, no one would be sharing my worries at this moment; but we can and should, at least, continue to use the Internet as a supplement to our reading habit. We older types learned to read from books and are, for that reason, somewhat inoculated against the “random laterality” of scrolling and clicking. When we see a windmill, we think, “Show me the budget. Show me the profit margin” (even those of us who know more about medieval Welsh than accounting). When most of our neighbors, and especially the younger ones, see a windmill, they think, “Oh, cool! No more oil! New energy source! We’re saving the planet!” And those are the ones who put one or two bits of ratiocinative driftwood together as earbuds pump Fiddy Cent through their brains–the ones who actually “think”.

In my earlier piece, I said I didn’t have any antidote. I still don’t… but I probably should at least have ended with an exhortation to limit our children’s exposure to e-drugs. Some of this gadgetry they will probably need to find such employment as still exists in the post-Obama era–but don’t let them have more than the necessary. Don’t encourage the habit. There’s no cure for this disease, but forcing the brain to exercise vertically could slow the degenerative spiral.

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