22 August 2014

Angels, Aliens, Ghosts, Secret Societies, and Conspiracies

When I was in elementary school, several year younger than my son is now, I went to the library, read lots of books, and watched lots of "documentaries" in an effort to see if there was anything to all manner of weird: alien abductions, ghosts, werewolves, vampires, ancient astronauts, Atlantis, alchemy, the Yeti, the Loch Ness monster, telepathy, clairvoyance, prescience, telekinesis, auras, time travel, kirlian photography.

I tried to figure out how much historical proof there was of events, miraculous or otherwise, in the Bible. I learned what I could about angels (one often sees the phrase angels and demons paired, but they are far more angels than demons in the Bible, the Zoroastrian dualistic notions of battling realms of heaven and hell is more of an extra-scriptual tradition than it is a deeply rooted Biblical idea). I read about Egyptian and ancient Greco-Roman religion. I tried to figure out what the Mayans were on about, why did they conduct human sacrifices? What did their myths mean? Did they have hidden wisdom?

I studied codes, spies, ninjas and assassins. I learned about secret societies and examined many of the leading conspiracy theories.

I hadn't yet started to reach much fantasy or science fiction. It was an instinct to learn about the world, about what is real and what is not. It wasn't really distinct from my efforts to learn about planets, or the big bang, or string theory, or general relativity.

Almost as obscure was the time that I spent learning about things like survival skills in situations that it is extremely unlikely that I will ever encounter.

The instinct has never really died. One of the most ambitious research projects I've ever done in my entire life was a project in college to prepare a history of events surrounding the efforts to exterminate secret societies at my alma mater. I still read at least half a dozen scientific journal articles in physics and neuroscience and psychiatry and anthropology and genetics every week. Most of what I read is utterly uncontroversial and mainstream, but I'm aware and keep abrest of the minority views in each of these disciplines. I still try to fathom ancient civilizations. I still delight when I discover some obscure part of American history that most people don't even know is out there and would have never suspected. Curiousity killed the cat, but it makes men into gnostics, in the literal sense, people seeking hidden wisdom.

Fictional stories about these searches for hidden wisdom can be engrossing, even when they are searches of mysteries that you are almsot sure that you have already figured out. How can it be fascinating even if you don't even remotely believe it to be true or about something that could ever be true? What is the draw?

There isn't a lot of utility in knowing many of these things.

Even if we have the most remarkable burst of technology imaginable, I know that no human will every go much beyond the solar system, at least, not in my lifetime, not in my children's lifetimes, not in my grandchildren's lifetimes. I also know that there is nothing particular cool on the Moon, or Mars, or any other plausible near space destinations. They make barren Utah deserts look like exciting hotbeds of mystery and unexplored phenomena and life by comparison.

Nothing that astronomers see beyond this solar system really has any direct relevance to anything in my day to day life. Knowing what family of languages the language that the ancient Minoan Linear A script transcribes belongs to will not change how I do my job as a lawyer, pay my bills, or raise my children. I made a special effort to go all the way to Loch Ness to see it in person when I was in high school, but the existence or non-existence of the Loch Ness monster is pretty much irrelevant to my life.

Learning these things may on rare occasions have some practical, or at least social, value. But these endeavors are basically quests for knowledge for knowledge's sake. The joy is in the search and in the satisfaction of knowing the truth as surely as it is possible to know it.

The motivation for seeking out useful and useless knowledge is basically the same, and often resides in the same people. Newton devoted much of his life to alchemy and Unitarian theology in addition to the time he spent formulating calculus and classical mechanics and gravity. One of the 20th century's leading quantum physicists is also fascinated with deep relationships between linguistic families. The people who founded and led our nation for its first century or so delighted in creating sophisticated, subtle secrets and mysteries that fill the architecture of our nation's capital. The most elite Ivy League colleges in the nation that train the people with more need for utilitarian knowledge in their future careers than anyone else are also hotbeds of secret societies.

Secret societies and conspiracies are attractive for reasons much like the other kinds of knowledge, even when they could, in theory, have some relevance. The quest for the secrets, because they are secret, is as much of a draw as the value of the knowledge sought itself. We fear secrets, but most of the most threatening things in our existence are perfectly transparent, maybe.

But, maybe not. One of the narratives of the financial crisis is that it was caused by secrets and lies spun by the wizards in obscure upper realms of the financial markets known only to a select subset of Wall Street lawyers and bankers with incredible power and incredible wealth. Lots of legislative action really is the product of back room deals. An ability to decipher elements of office politics that you don't have official access to is often key to your personal economic survival. Who hasn't felt the wrath of, or at least seen someone else suffer, as a result of a secretly communicated malicious rumor? Even the best managers are powerless to stop back channel gossip, the best that they can hope for is that the gossip is most accurate and mostly furthers the organization's purposes, rather than undermining it or spreading lies.

Globally, political power changes hands via coups and rigged elections orchestrated by conspirators as it does by transparent democratic elections. One of the narratives of electoral politics is that it is manipulated by "the Committee that Runs Everything," an oligarchy of influential behind the scenes lobbyists and manipulators, and wealthy individuals whose campaign contributions distorts the playing field, with an agenda that is as much self-serving as civic. One of the narratives of early American political history is that the bonds and ties of the secret society of the Free Masons were critical, first, to facilitating the conspiracies involved in conducting the American revolution, and then in governing the nation successfully notwithstanding any flaws that may have been present in our formal political blueprint.

A large share of all criminal activity is carried out by individuals, or by small, ad hoc and temporary alliances of small numbers of individuals who aren't part of any larger organization. But, an important subset of all criminal activity, a subset that has a huge impact on the shifts in the serious violent crime rate from year to year, is organized. Perhaps a quarter to half of all inmates in Colorado prisons (the subset of convicted criminal who have committed the most serious offenses, weighted for the seriousness of that offenses committed) are members of large, regional or even national criminal gangs or organized crime organizations. These organized criminals are part of organizations that are a form of conspiratorial secret society, and the criminal organizations are the only ones with the capacity to threaten the integrity of the criminal justice system and the authority of the state. Some of our Latin American neighbors to the South, like Mexico and Columbia, have experienced episodes in recent history in which criminal organizations and state bureaucracies have struggled and the criminal organizations have won. The United States experienced that during Prohibition, and during the Progressive Era between the Civil War and World War I - really the United States had almost a century of continuously corrupt government in at least some areas. Post-World War II Italy had similar problems with its mafia.

The United States has mostly fought big, conventional wars. So, perhaps we can be forgiven for forgetting that most of the world's wars are not like that. The typical war is a domestic insurgency against a somewhat authoritarian or corrupt or incompetent regime, and the most powerful tools of insurgencies are deadly secret societies and conspiracies. Only in our post-9-11 "war on terrorism" have we really entered that realm again, although the Cold War was filled with never ending spy v. spy activities that so far as we know probably didn't have much of a decisive impact on how anything actually came out. I'm not entirely convinced of it, but there is a narrative of national security that makes the case that our covert operatives are many times more important in the outcome of our national security efforts than our overt military resources.

In other words, understanding secret societies and conspiracies might actually, unlike so many other of the knowledge for knowledge's stake undertakings, actually have some real utility. While many popular beliefs about secret societies and conspiracies are indeed absurd and misguided and rely on flaws understandings of how the world really works, there are also plenty of cases where credible cases can be made that they matter. Whether you want to use them to secure advantage, or merely want to understand how to thwart them well enough to prevent them from being used for improper purposes, maybe understanding how secret societies and conspiracies really work is something that has practical value.

I won't be leaving my children any vast fortune as an inheritance, unless something unexpected happens. But, part of me would like to leave them a legacy of knowledge and mysteries and secrets. Of some private knowledge that only they and an elite few others know, that abound in fictional accounts of secret societies and conspiracies. In part, I think this would be good because maybe being a part of something like that and knowing how it works would have practical value for them. In part, I'm attracted to the idea because I think that they'd get a kick out of it if it were well done, even if the secret knowledge didn't really have any practical value.

But creating that kind of mystery and well crafted conspiracy of secrets is quite an undertaking, and the truth of the matter is that I can't think of any knowledge that I have to pass on to them that would benefit from being a secret, not yet anyway.

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