Friday, August 11, 2006

Age of Scrutiny

Wherein another quote from Interface

Cy Ogle is a political media consultant explaining his philosophy. This is excerpted from a conversation ranging over four pages.
In the 1700s, politics was all about the ideas. But Jefferson came up with all the good ideas. In the 1800s, it was all about character. But no one will ever have as much character as Lincoln and Lee. For much of the 1900s it was about charisma. But we no longer trust charisma because Hitler used it to kill Jews and JFK used it to get laid and send us to Vietnam.

Today, we are in the Age of Scrutiny. A public figure must withstand the scrutiny of the media. The President is the ultimate public figure and must stand up under ultimate scrutiny; he is like a man stretched out on a rack in the public square in some medieval shithole of a town, undergoing the rigors of the Inquisition. Like the medieval trial by ordeal, the Age of Scrutiny sneers at rational inquiry and debate, and presumes that mere oaths and protestations are deceptions and lies. The only way to discover the real truth is by the rite of the ordeal, which exposes the subject to such inhuman strain that any defect in his character will cause him to crack wide open, like a flawed diamond. It is a mystical procedure that skirts rationality, which is seen as the work of the Devil, instead drawing down a higher, ineffable power. Like the Roman haruspex who foretold the outcome of a battle, not by analyzing the strengths of the opposing forces but by groping through the steaming guts of a slaughtered ram, we seek to establish a candidate's fitness for office by pinning him under the lights of a television studio and counting the number of times he blinks his eyes in a minute, deconstructing his use of eye contact, monitoring his gesticulations--whether his hands are held open or closed, towards or away from the camera, spread open forthcomingly or clenched like grasping claws.

I paint a depressing picture here. But we, you and I, are like the literate monks who nurtured the flickering flame of Greek rationality through the Dark Ages, remaining underground, knowing each other by secret signs and code words, meeting in cellars and thickets to exchange our dangerous and subversive ideas. We do not have the strength to change the minds of the illiterate multitude. But we do have the wit to exploit their foolishness, to familiarize ourselves with their stunted thought patterns, and to use that knowledge to manipulate them toward the goals that we all know are, quote, right and true, unquote...

...A human being cannot withstand the scrutiny given to a presidential candidate, any more than a human being could survive the medieval trial by fire, in which he was forced to walk barefoot across hot coals....

Anyone can walk barefoot across hot coals. But you have to do it right. There's a trick to it. If you know the trick, you can survive. Now, back in medieval times, some people got lucky and happened to stumble across this trick, and they made it. The rest failed. It was therefore an essentially random process, hence irrational. But if they had had fire-walking seminars in the Dark Ages, anyone could have done it.

The same thing used to apply to the modern trial by ordeal. Abe Lincoln would never have been elected to anything, because random genetic chance gave him a user-unfriendly face. But as a rational person I can learn all of the little tricks and teach them to my friends, eliminating the the random, hence irrational elements from the modern trial by ordeal. I have the knowledge to guide a presidential candidate through his trial in this, the Age of Scrutiny.

Additional links:

Just came across an interesting review at Inchoatus. Of Interface, it is "not literature and we are forced to give it a rather mediocre rating" yet it is also "a great book and should be read." The reviewer is slightly conflicted. Or, having just come across Inchoatus, they have their own levels of definitions and this makes sense. However, the reviewer does recognize one of the very strong points of the novel:
In many ways, this is a book about stereotypes. In an age where every conceivable ethnic group has a political action committee, when every physiological difference becomes protected, and when all psychology has shrunk to self-help platitudes, generalities become truths, and blogs that cater to the most detailed possible demographic, Stephenson bothers to offer a list of stereotypes used for political purposes. A flavor of these:

Stone-faced urban homeboy.
Burger-flipping history major.
Bible-slinging porch monkey.
Pretentious urban-lifestyle slave.
Apartment-dwelling mall staff.
Shit-kicking wrestlemaniac.

Once again, Stephenson takes these labels, peels them back and uses them as a lens to examine the real person beneath.

Good point and easy to overlook amidst all the intrigue and illuminati-like subplots.


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