The Media, Mueller, the Big Con and the Democratization of Narrative26th March 2019
Here’s the fundamental “story” of the Mueller Investigation: elites don’t like “the little people” democratizing public narratives. The elites–who reckon their right to rule is self-evident–want to set the narrative and the context, because that’s the foundation of power: once you get the citizenry to agree on your narrative and context, you secure two valuable things: 1) political legitimacy and 2) their obedience.
Elite anxiety over the “the little people” democratizing narratives is not a new phenomenon. Elites have demanded control of any media outlet that doesn’t parrot their line and have tried to declare skeptical inquiry sedition for generations, stretching back to the founding of the Republic.
The elite interest in controlling the narrative and context long predates the era of “fake news.” Please read this excerpt from the 1991 book The Radicalism of the American Revolution about the democratization of everyday life in post-Revolutionary War America (1790 – 1830):
“The result of all these assaults on elite opinion and celebrations of common ordinary judgment was a dispersion of authority and ultimately a diffusion of truth itself to a degree the world had never seen. With every ordinary person being told his ideas and tastes, on everything from medicine to art to government, were as good as, if not better than, those of “connoisseurs” and “speculative men” who had college degrees, it is not surprising that truth and knowledge became elusive and difficult to pin down.”
This democratization deeply unsettled the elites, who were accustomed to leading by setting the “acceptable” narrative and context. Democracy, they discovered to their chagrin, isn’t a force that one can bottle up and dispense in measured doses around election time; it spreads throughout every sphere of the society.
This reliance on one’s own judgment depreciated the power not only of self-appointed elites but of those claiming superiority based on credentials. As novelist Herman Melville understood so acutely, this democratization of everything made everyone, pundit and commoner alike, a potential mark for a con and a potential chump for a compelling pitch that appealed to vanity, social aspirations and what we now call virtue-signaling.
Melville laid all this out in one of my favorite novels, The Confidence-Man, ostensibly a collection of stories about a motley cast of characters on a Mississippi riverboat but actually a meditation on the nature of trust, confidence and cons.
This puts Melville’s 1857 novel at the very heart of the Mueller Investigation as various elite-promoted narratives are revealed as cons. Authority, of course, is well-placed to push The Big Con; declaring “the truth of the matter” as an article of faith is the acme of The Big Con.
Democracy requires all Americans take responsibility for sorting the wheat from the chaff. We’re all potential marks, so we have to remain skeptical of every context and every narrative being pushed by authorities, elites, self-appointed experts, etc., all of whom are of course as self-serving as anyone else trying to advance their interests with a compelling story.
Here are a few paragraphs from my Amazon review of Melville’s novel:
What ties the book together is not a story but a theme: the nature of trust and confidence. In a very sly way, Melville shows how a variety of cons are worked, as the absolutely distrustful are slowly but surely convinced to do exactly what they vowed not to do: buy the “herbal” patent medicine, buy shares in a bogus stock venture, or donate cash to a suspect “charity.”
In other chapters, it seems like the con artist is either stopped in his tracks or is conned himself. Since the book is mostly conversations, we are left to our own conclusions; there is no authorial voice wrapping up each chapter with a neatly stated ending. This elliptical structure conveys the ambiguous nature of trust; we don’t want to be taken, but confidence is also necessary for any business to be transacted. To trust no one is to be entirely isolated.
Melville also raises the question: is it always a bad thing to be conned? The sickly man seems to be improved by his purchase of the worthless herbal remedy, and the donor conned out of his cash for the bogus charity also seems to feel better about himself and life. The ornery frontiersman who’s been conned by lazy helpers softens up enough to trust the smooth-talking employment agency owner. Is that a terrible thing, to trust despite a history of being burned?
The ambiguous nature of the bonds of trust is also explored. We think the Cosmopolitan is a con-man, but when he convinces a fellow passenger to part with a heavy sum, he returns it, just to prove a point. Is that a continuance of the con, or is he actually trustworthy?
The book is also an exploration of a peculiarly American task: sorting out who to trust in a multicultural non-traditional society of highly diverse and highly mobile citizens. In a traditional society, things operate in rote ways; young people follow in their parents’ traditional roles, money is made and lent according to unchanging standards, and faith/tradition guides transactions such as marriage and business along well-worn pathways.
But in America, none of this structure is available. Even in Melville’s day, America was a polyglot culture on the move; you had to decide who to trust based on their dress, manner and speech/pitch. The con, of course, works on precisely this necessity to rely on one’s senses and rationality rather than a traditional network of trusted people and methods. So the con man dresses well and has a good story, and an answer for every doubt.
Much of the corporate media pushed a narrative that careful investigation has not confirmed. If there is one thing we can agree upon, it’s that Mueller played it by the book and used all the resources available to him to follow every potential lead.
Various elites were counting on a conclusion that justified their dogged promotion of a specific agenda (impeachment), and now the backpedaling, air-brushing, convoluted explanations for why they fell for the con, etc. begins.
Every con depends on the mark wanting to believe the con is true.
Falling for a con is painful. The first reaction is to deny being conned, of course. The second is to blame skeptics for being correct in their skepticism.
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