Knowledge of Power
I was reading an article¹ on QAnon, and all I could think was “I get it.” Not the bit about a secret cabal, because that requires a lot more faith in self-interested people’s ability to work together and the egotistical’s ability to keep their actions secret. Instead, there’s probably some comfort to the idea that this kind of over-arching control is possible, even if you believe it’s horrible. It’s better to have a target, a specific cause for dissatisfaction than to have to rage against the universe itself.
For me, the appeal would be all about secret knowledge. I hoard books, PDFs, text—in other words, knowledge. I can’t ultimately distinguish between curiosity and paranoia. Information is weaponized and turned against us all the time, and so it’s much easier to trust a person when you’re smarter than they are. Often it’s politicans trying to use history to legitimize the indefensible, or someone on YouTube trying to convince us that they’ve figured out some new law of the universe. So I spend much of my time armoring myself, layer after layer.
Nostalgia is another avenue of attack. Whether it’s for the 1950s or the 1980s, it tends to display a very different view of society than was actually the case. Nostalgia by its nature is very selective, and tends to enhance our tendency to remember things fondly while editing out the negatives. But ultimately these nostalgic pseudo-memories can start to overwrite real history. As the host of a podcast on this subject recently mentioned, it’s important for us to be aware of the plot to the new Cold-War era Call of Duty because it won’t be long until that’s how a lot of people view the real events.²
This isn’t a new phenomenon: trying to edit history to push an agenda is as old as historiography itself. It’s the reason so many of us think that Nero actually played a fiddle while Rome burned (or was otherwise a degenerate), not realizing that much of the history of his reign was written by political opponents. In the United States, the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War, which says that Secession was more about political rights and self-governance than what it was actually about (slavery), remains a significant part of the popular conception of the war. See also the myth of the clean Wehrmacht during World War Two.³
That I’m aware of these things, is a product of a great deal of effort. It means that I look up claims before I believe them, and have to spend a lot of time and energy on making sure that a narrative I’m being told is actually accurate. It’s fact checking cranked up a couple notches, because it’s usually harder than just checking a newspaper to see whether x actually happened. And this is of course why these distorted views can spread so quickly: we have to be willing and able to do the research to begin with, which is harder still (as we now know) when we’re exposed to something that reinforces what we already think.
In addition to recognizing false narratives, it’s worth thinking about what those stories tell us about our own wishes. I’ve found that if I start fantasizing about a certain thing, it’s not necessarily reflective of a desire for that specific thing, but instead my mind is telling me in a roundabout way that there’s something I’m missing. So if I imagine myself changing to job x, this doesn’t per se suggest that I want to do that job specifically, but instead may be showing me something about my current situation that I want to change. The same thing applies to nostalgia generally, and so it’s worth thinking about what differences are being imagined to see what the actual goal is.
There’s another blind spot to be worried about, though. Even if we devote the time and energy to verifying a given narrative, this still controls what we think about and how we see the world. If I tell you “don’t think of an elephant,” what’s the first thing you think of? Thus by denying or rebutting an argument, you’re still implicitly orienting your thinking along the same axis as the other person, even if you’re coming at it from the opposite direction. This is still limiting in significant ways, and is far harder to see and address. One thing I’ve found is just to seek out things that few people are interested in. If there’s an area of history, for example, that isn’t part of popular culture or discussion, that is the one I’m seeking out. For example, how many non-historians know that the richest person in history was (probably) a west African king in the middle ages?⁴
The reasons I originally gave for my data addiction are true as far as they go, but I do wonder what else is going on. I think another factor is this hope that one day it’ll matter that I know what I know, even if it’s not clear how; sort of a rainy-day stockpile. This hasn’t really proven to be the case, and as I get older, I find myself increasingly frustrated that I don’t really have more to do. I mean, I have hobbies and activities that I enjoy, but the thing I get paid to do is not in either category. Reading books and playing games all the time would be more satisfying if either one connected to anything, but they don’t. And it’s hard to take any particular pride in the number of hours I’ve devoted to my Steam library.
I’d prefer to think Camus is right versus someone more nihilistic, but I’m certainly struggling to find happiness while pushing my rock.
⁴ Musa I (1279 – c. 1337) is said to have carried more than 50,000 pounds of gold with him on pilgrimage to Mecca, enough to cause a 10-year gold recession in north Africa and the Middle East.