The Allure of a Clear Mind

Nikolaus Kennelly, Columnist

Maybe the defining symbol of the 21st century is television static. A random pattern of flickering dots superimposed onto an image, except imagine that the image is your personal reality and the flickering dots are pieces of information that don’t fit neatly into, and in some cases conflict with, that reality. I know this metaphor is a little abstract, but just go with it. When you’re sitting there watching TV and the screen begins to get all snowy, what do you do? Well, after exhausting all the obvious options, you’ll probably call up a repair person. In my metaphor this repair person is a preacher, public intellectual, politician—in short, a purveyor of simplified realities.

Saul Bellow put it like this: “In electronics, in economics, in social analysis, in history, in psychology, in international politics most of us are, given the oceanic proliferating complexity of things, paralyzed by the very suggestion that we assume responsibility for so much. This is what makes packaged opinion so attractive.” He wrote that sometime in the early 90s, a time when most packaged opinion came either through TV or newspapers. Since then the proliferating complexity has snowballed, impelling people toward packaged opinion on the Internet, and ultimately into the hands of crazy ideologues like Alex Jones and the president (a pairing that should no longer strike people as outlandish).

With the arrival of the Internet, many of us were put it in the same position as the rat in that classic McGill experiment, the one with an electrode attached to its nucleus accumbens—the structure that regulates dopamine—and a little lever that would send it electric signals. The rat refused to eat or drink, preferring to just sit there hammering away at the lever until it perished from exhaustion. We humans have shown that we are at least self-aware enough to recognize when we’ve overloaded, but instead of total abstinence, we look for others to manage our intake, often in the form of neat and tidy opinions.

The problem, of course, is that there’s no guarantee that we haven’t handed the lever off to a sadistic or insane manager. And even if we were certain of our manager’s sanity, it seems doubtful that we’d know for sure that he was in full possession of his own lever. Here I present exhibit A: Steve Bannon. Bannon is someone who many have unwittingly entrusted their levers to, but he’s also someone who doesn’t fully possess his own lever. Instead, he’s handed it off to, among others, the purveyors of Strauss-Howe generational theory, a theory that treats American history as periodic and predictable. So, by handing their levers to Bannon, many people were actually handing them off to modern day seers. Think they’d give all this a second thought if they knew?

I can, of course, offer many other examples of sadistic or insane ideologues, but that’d miss what I’m really trying to get across. My point in writing this is simply to argue that there’s a third way: Instead of overloading on information or turning to managers, we are capable of stepping back and abstaining from information on our own. And no, advocating for self-managed abstinence isn’t the same thing as praising ignorance. It’s just a way to avoid ending up like the rat.