“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive”….ourselves. With apologies to Sir Walter Scott.
If only life were as neat and orderly as my ancient history text book showed it to be. There it was on glossy paper, spread out across two sets of adjoining pages, maps of the ancient and modern world. Including time lines top and bottom, with countries outlined and identified. Underneath their modern English names were one or two older names in smaller stylized script, often including exact beginning and end dates. I remember one in particular that caught my eye. “United States of America” followed by the year 1776. But with no end date indicated, it looked like unfinished business to me. You’ve got to love those historians and their exact dates.
Of course, in reality there are no exact dates for the birth and death of city/states, other than in the author’s mind. Children continue to be born, the old still die, and life goes on under different circumstances. But you’re rarely informed of the subjective nature of historical events when you’re young and impressionable, so they’re presented in the history books as fact. The last thing the reigning Empire wants is to appear uncertain about previous Empires. Even before we begin to read and comprehend on our own, we’re presented with the illusion of a beginning and end to everything, often with very clear lines of demarcation. This concept is continuously reinforced through our daily indoctrination of carefully scripted news stories, care of our modern media saturated existence. Naturally, critical thinking is optional and definitively not encouraged.
Mix in a healthy dose of hard core science, where you learn very early there are correct and incorrect answers to all your questions, and a pattern of social myth making emerges. Of course, the correct answers are held for public safekeeping by our cultural high priests and authority figures, be they academic, governmental, scientific or religious. Lest you forget, cultural icons and heroes must always be respected and deferred to. Maybe now’s a good time to remember that most history and science books are written and re-written by those very same keepers of the public mythology. What we believe as a culture, sometimes called our public myth, is usually determined by those whose pockets are the deepest or most powerful, not by those who are the wisest and most knowledgeable.
Have you ever read a book written by the survivors of the vanquished, the so called losers? I have, a number of times, and it’s usually very enlightening to see the world from the other side of the bloody divide. In their hands, our cultural myths aren’t treated with the same loving care and respect we afford them, nor should they be. But of course they must be lying because they have an ax to grind. Revisionist history is how those in power politely describe the writings of the defeated and the victims crushed in the head long rush of conquering empire. The public myth tells us that the losers can do nothing but taut the victorious with their lies. Ignore them and they’ll go away. Besides, the winners never lie about the facts, though we’re told there’s plenty of room for differences of opinion. And just about everything can be reduced to an opinion if you’re looking to obscure.
Of course, one of the unspoken duties of the winners is to distort the written and visual record, so that it conforms to the public myth. This is the principle reason why recently retired or replaced holders of powerful governmental and military positions are handed huge advances to write their memoirs. These sacred tomes of divine wisdom are quickly embraced by other propagandists as the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help their Gods of propaganda. Once in hand, it’s quickly woven into the fabric of the public myth as supporting documentation. Thus another slice of the propaganda cycle is complete and ready for its next rotation.
We possess extremely complex belief systems and world views. How they develop and evolve is greatly influenced by external information sources we rarely question or challenge. After all, these sources are our cultural authority figures, the experts, professionals and intelligentsia that form our cultural propaganda delivery and support system. These sources cannot be seriously questioned, particularly from within, without being declared a heretic. Just look at how Zero Hedge, and other non-conforming web sites, are treated as an example of how heresy is handled these days. While we may not pay much attention to everything we hear or see, our unconscious is absorbing it all, raw and unfiltered. This information feeds into and supports our world view with little conscious thought or scrutiny. This is the reason why repetition is so vitally important to effective propaganda. Our brain always absorbs even when we do not look and listen.
It’s shocking to realize how seldom we change our basic beliefs or understanding when confronted with new information that normally would affect change. Instead, we bend or ignore facts to fit our established world view. John Maynard Keynes once said “When the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do, sir?” Sadly most people don’t subscribe to this logical practice. Instead, conformation bias and denial are the tools we use to manage and manipulate information to our liking. And there are plenty of governmental, corporate and private citizens ready to help us accomplish this through deliberate and targeted propaganda. The most common personal warning sign that this is happening is the pain of cognitive dissonance, which is usually set off when new information is in conflict with long established and dearly held views.
Rarely do we push through this cognitive pain to reappraise our inventory of established truths for validity or relevance. It’s so much easier to discard ugly deviations, or cherry pick information that confirms our preferred vision, rather than conduct the top to bottom review that’s called for when the facts change. Intellectual laziness is the polite term for this phenomenon. I think a more honest explanation is deliberate and mostly conscious denial. However, even when I’m alert for and aware of this phenomenon, I’m still surprised how often I participate. It’s frightening to see how deeply conditioned we are in the art of self deception. The truth hurts, so I employ the most powerful pain killer know to man, that of denial. It’s extremely difficult to reject popular opinion and strike out on our own independent path. Group think is indoctrinated into us from birth and socially rewarded at every turn. It’s emotionally safer and more comfortable if you stay near the center of the pack. Herd mentality in all its glory, which is corralled by the public myth and which we too are the keepers.
I often say all writers are essentially propagandists and that applies to me as well. I’m using this forum to cherry pick information which I then present in the most compelling manner to make my case. In effect, I’m feeding you my spin, which along with other pieces can be used to build a myth. The most effective propaganda is that whose basic premise is slipped by the reader or TV viewer so smoothly it’s never recognized. Once the premise is planted and accepted, the hard work is done and the fish is quickly reeled in. What’s that you say? You’re too smart to let the wool be pulled over your eyes? That you can discern truth from lies and would eventually figure it out given enough time and inclination? Honestly ask yourself, how much effort would you put into examining something you already believe to be true? Wouldn’t you deem it a major waste of your time? Consider the premise I put forth in the title of this article. Did you notice? Did you question? Or did you accept and start to read?
Most people see information as chunks of data that can be compartmentalized, examined and manipulated. But rarely do we recognize that many of the truths we hold as impeccable are based upon long lines of information. If at any point this information could be proven false, the entire line is suspect, along with your impeccable truth. Consider a long string of mathematical calculations. While there may be dozens of individual problems with separate answers, each answer then feeds into another calculation as a sum or variable. Make a mistake at any point in the line and the entire data stream is corrupt. How we view our world is based upon many preconceived notions and beliefs. Change just one small piece we previously thought correct and everything changes to some extent. Change two or three and suddenly we have a crisis of confidence and a cognitive dissonance. Yet when we feel that pain, how often do we reboot and reexamine everything? Why would you reexamine what you think you know to be correct, particularly when most everyone else is in agreement? Peer pressure and conditioning are hard to resist, even in the privacy of your own mind. “We are never deceived; we deceive ourselves.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
My basic premise and the basis for this series of articles is that the American Empire is ending. In fact, it has peaked and is now in rapid decline. While I can’t offer an exact date for this change of direction, it doesn’t diminish my argument in the least. I’d be hard pressed to give you the date for the decline of the Roman Empire, but clearly it followed the same trajectory. Did Rome’s downward spiral start when the capital was moved to Constantinople in 330 AD? Or when Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 AD? It matters little at this point, except to the historians. While America descends, China and India ascend.
Actually I would argue that while Empires come and go, the culture of environmental and human exploitation and destruction we call civilization has grown in efficiency over the past 3000 years. We Americans now stand proudly at the pinnacle of the insanity, picking up where the Romans and Europeans left off. I’ll leave that thought for another day but I think you get my point.
America as a social and financial entity ceased to function at peak efficiency decades ago. This rapid decline is the main reason behind the massive increase in financial engineering, which is now coming apart at the seams, deliberately in my view. To argue over this or that detail is to be in denial of the obvious. In fact, I consider the official bickering over these details as a deliberate attempt to distort and distract while the final looting and rape occurs. Using propaganda and other psychological operations, our leaders lie about the economic condition of America. They do so not because they expect the lie to withstand close scrutiny, but rather to enable those who wish to believe the lie a plausible excuse to do so. Remember our conditioning. When in doubt, defer to authority and suspend disbelief.
A classic sales technique is the assumed consent close. Rather than directly asking you to purchase this new car, I simply assume you are purchasing and begin asking you closing questions. “Do you prefer the red one we looked at first or the blue convertible with the beige interior? Could you please get your insurance card out of the glove box before you clean out your car? Just sign here and here. Thanks.” You’d be surprised how many new automobiles, rooms of household furniture, whole life insurance, variable annuities and pieces of expensive jewelry are sold in this manner. Something similar to this technique is being used by the mass media to sell us something we already wish to buy. Only they aren’t selling the death of America, but rather its remarkable resilience and miraculous comeback. We’re being sold false hope, disguised as assumed consent questions such as, should we audit the Fed, can we expand healthcare with a public option, will Son of Stimulus be rolled out by the first or second quarter of 2010, should we……..well, you get the picture.
False hope binds us to impossible conditions and situations. Please read that statement again and then let it sink in for a minute.
As long as we believe there’s residual value in keeping America on life support, we’ll continue to pour borrowed money into this mess, rather than roll up the derivatives, fire the managers and start over. We don’t wish to face the reality that we’re in way over our heads. As long as we’re not forced to look too closely at the horrible condition our country’s in, we’re all too willing to do our part and avoid applying critical thinking to the subject. Like an old bull unknowingly led to slaughter because he thinks he’s off to mount another cow, we’re desperately trying to keep alive the magical American myth of life, liberty and apple pie while shielding our eyes from the rotting corpse it’s rapidly becoming.
That’s probably too harsh for the average American’s sensibilities, but let’s ask ourselves a few questions in an effort to find the truth, or at least something approaching the truth as we know it. Let me be clear on something before I get flamed for my harsh tongue. I’m not America bashing in the least. I’m America myth bashing. The American myth of exceptionalism is enabling her destruction as we stand idly by, applauding the mythical facade our leaders and media display 24/7. As long as we cling to the hope that all she needs is a tune up and some minor repairs, we’re condemned to a long and painful death spiral. We’re being sold exactly what we want to hear when we need to hear it. To claim otherwise is to lie to ourselves and to each other.
America is crumbling from the foundation up, and yet we gather around the TV, talking about a fresh paint job and a new screen door, both bought on credit, while handing our grandchildren a bill they’ll never be able to pay. The only way we can live with this lie while perpetrating these despicable acts upon our own family members is to deny it’s even happening. The big lie, which we must continue to tell ourselves, has taken on a life of its own and is consuming everyone and everything in its path. We are addicted to our own public myth and to sustain the lie, we simply ignore the truth. The only way to break through this lie is to go back through decades of propaganda and myth and find out what went wrong. Since this would be too painful, both individually and as a society, we distort reality as quickly as we change cable channels. It’s not just our leaders who are corrupt but we as well.
We have become cowardly, unwilling to commit to the tough decision of setting aside instant gratification in order to assure our grandchildren a home to live in. This is the ultimate act of selfishness, compounded by the fact that we claim we’ve been hijacked by our leaders. Sadly, our leaders are doing exactly what we want them to do, which is to continue the lie. Did we really think we could put our toys and war machines on the charge card and not worry about the bill, just because some politicians said we could? What are we, 5 year olds, pointing our fingers elsewhere when asked who broke the vase? Even if we personally followed the path of fiscal prudence, why didn’t we scream bloody murder, demanding we stop this insanity before the country began its suicidal plunge? Why do we still remain silent? Our hands are bloody and the only question is, how much is yours and how much is mine. Citizenship is all about individual responsibility, something we’ve been avoiding for a while now, at least since we started calling ourselves consumers.
Look at the endless propaganda on TV that’s used to lull us back into a drugged stupor, so we don’t dwell on what we’re doing to our children’s children. American flags wave in the background as chiseled men and full breasted women expound on how wonderful we are for building and loving this great nation of ours. The great American love story, brought to you nightly on prime time TV. This is where the bad guys always loose, men are men and women are sexual objects to lust after. Watch closely children, this is the American dream. Why wouldn’t we love America the myth? It’s everything we want without the pain. Nationalism is our unifying religion, a potentially fatal addiction to our public myth that enables us to fiddle while America burns. More drugs over here doctor, the patient’s waking up.
So how do we deal with this, and what does this have to do with Zero Hedge? Well, I would say it has everything to do with ZH, but then again I’m just a propagandist, weaving my magical myth. But to be honest, in desperation I’m seeking another way, a different path. I’m tired of moving in and out of the various stages of loss and grief. One moment I’m screaming at my zombie neighbor, imploring him to wake up and see the insanity. The next I’m filled with self righteous indignation as another patsy banker’s head is placed on the public pike. Sometimes I start my morning bargaining with unseen powers, begging for a truce or cease fire, only to end my day crying in my hands in fear and frustration of it all. And I’m not alone.
Zero Hedge seems to be a refuge for the walking wounded, a safe haven inside occupied territory for the psychically damaged and demoralized. But we need more than rest and relaxation in order to regain our feet. We need to heal and grow our ranks, to find a way to help ourselves and those who follow us into the refuge. Surrounded by lies and deceit, we are indoctrinated to such an extent that we still speak the language of denial without realizing it. We have no choice but to start at the beginning. While Zero Hedge speaks truth to power, we need to speak truth to ourselves, to talk openly about what has happened and where we’re going. Part of the seduction of denial is the avoidance of personal responsibility. In my view this must stop, thus my declaration that we’re all responsible for this mess. I have no doubt America can be repaired but the process starts at the personal level.
From a financial point of view, I’m sure we’ve all held a winning trade past its prime, giving back money we should have booked. And who hasn’t kept a dog way too long, when we should have thrown it overboard months ago? While I’m certain there are multiple reasons for poor investment performance, a fearless and thorough examination often shows that bad investment decisions are the result of personal shortcomings, such as wishful thinking or denial. For myself, when this happens, I find I’ve violated one or more of my trading rules. They are as follows.
One, know myself, particularly my strengths and weaknesses. Two, know my trading environment or don’t play in the sandbox. Three, always consider the other side of trade. If I’m buying, why is the other guy selling? If I’m selling, why is the other guy buying? Look for weakness in my thinking. Four, from time to time, mentally clear my computer screen of existing positions and then follow step three with each holding. If I wouldn’t buy or sell it now, why am I holding it? Five, trust my instincts, not my heart. My heart lies to me all the time with plenty of help from my brain. Instinctually I usually know when to buy or sell but often I ignore my gut feeling and wind up screwing the pooch. Over the years I’ve found that too much thinking gets in the way and often makes things worse.
These trading rules, as with life itself, requires a clear eyed view and a deeper understanding of ourselves, our fellow man and the real world, not as we wish to see it but as it really is. Unfortunately we still engage in wishful thinking way too often, constantly pushing the hope “dope” button and regretting it afterwards. Considering the direction our world is headed, it’s going to be more difficult to think clearly unless we make personal changes. Old habits die hard because we desperately cling to them for emotional support. Understanding why we do this will go a long way to helping us jettison that old baggage. Even if we are trapped on the crazy train to hell, just because we can’t get off doesn’t mean we must participate in the insanity.
So with the active participation of my fellow Zero Hedge readers, I would like to continue this exploration in a series of “End of Empire” articles, each time focusing on a different aspect of the unraveling. We need to develop our intellectual, emotional and financial coping techniques. Of particular importance to me will be the comments and feedback I get from you, for I assure you I don’t have all the answers. This isn’t a rally to arms but rather a cry for help. Either we heal as a community or we continue to hemorrhage, alone and isolated. It’s going to be a wild ride so let’s buckle up and do this together. After all, there’s safety in numbers, inside the new herd mentality of Zero Hedge.
Cognitive Dissonance 11-29-2009