"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Life On A Need-To-Know Basis–What’s So Important Anyway? The Need For Intellectual Closet Cleaning

Washington is a town on a need-to-know footing.  Information is power especially when it is withheld.  The haves and the have-nots are measured not by wealth but by who knows what and when.  The last person to know is the first to be cut, a loser in the game of what’s what.  Cries and whispers are the currency. Scuttlebutt, rumor, and innuendo are only farthings but the Capital cannot operate on whole notes along – major stories, scoops, and Page One news.  It relies on bits of information and bets on their collage. Sightings place people where they might not ordinarily or should not be; only suggestions of influence or impropriety, worth nothing alone, but when pasted together resemble something of the truth.

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The city is made of of concentric rings of power and information.  The tightest inner circle has access to Top Secrets, information gathered in the dead of night, shared with no one, assumed correct and responsible and essential to the national interest.  The circles widen and loosen as one radiates outward.  Secret, Eyes Only, Restricted, Classified, and Limited Circulation – meaningless classifications because once one leaves the fortified inner circle, information is everyone’s  The nature of an information-obsessed culture is a leaky one.  Leaks have especial qualities– vengeance, retribution, and paybackbut woe is the duped leaker, the gullible, impatient, vulnerable sucker.  Even back-channel information has to pass through a credibility sieve.

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The need-to-know culture of Washington is infectious; and even residents of Ward 8, Mayor Barry’s walkin’ around money ward, ward of political patronage and no-show jobs, rely on knowing what’s what in City Hall and what’s coming up for deliberation on the Council.  Positioning is everything, and the inside track to easy money and local influence is getting there first; and getting there first means a few dollars here and there to street informers, flowers for the Councilmember’s secretary, and box seats for the Nationals.

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The concentric circles don’t end in the wards nor in the PTAs, nor the Neighborhood Advisory Committees.  Dinner parties, teas, playgroups, and luncheons – inconsequential, informal, and social though they may be – are venues for sharing the information, leaked, official, or rumored that comes from inward.  Talk of children, trash pickup, schools, and streets is deferred until politics, everyone’s social marker – Left or Right, principled or laissez-faire – is discussed.  Here the where and how of information – the stock in trade of inner circle combatants – is irrelevant.  The Washington Post or the New York Times are credible sources enough without citation.  Information gained publically is worth something only if it suggests insight, personal though it may be.

Finally gossip, the last ripple, the last lapping of information, comes to Washington’s edges.  Who did what to whom without particular reference to the White House or the Senate is good enough.  Kibitzing in the hot tub – the watered-down version of top secret leaks – may have no import, but the ethos remains. 

Washington is predictably divided on the need-to-know spectrum.  The upper-middle class intellectuals west of the Park read three papers daily, are deliberately inclusive of their news sources, and consider themselves to be well-read and up-to-date.  They can discuss immigration, Russian involvement in the 2016 election, tax reform, and gun control with opinion but without bias.  They are ‘informed’ and are proud to be so.  How can a democracy thrive, they say, without serious reflection of the issues. ‘Democracy dies in darkness’ reads the headline on the Washington Post online site, added not long after the Trump inauguration, the emergence of ‘fake news’, and based on the surprisingly naïve assumption  for a national newspaper of record, that there actually is such a thing as objective reporting. 

The middle class reads less, is less well-informed, and less concerned with the news.  What difference does it make? reasonably ask the plumber, the carpenter, and the bricklayer.  If anything, it is enough to wear the colors of Manchester United or Barcelona; to adhere to broad principles and images; to belong to a club, a society, a group of believers.  Fake news or real, leaked or attributed, logical or not, information is less a matter of intellectual consumption than a social tag. 

The lower class, the dysfunctional, unemployed, and disenfranchised families and neighborhoods of the inner city, have no use at all for information, news, or updating unless it is practical, immediate, and necessary.  Gang members rely just as much on information and disinformation as their Congressional counterparts.  The only difference is that theirs matters and that of the Capitol does not.  Theirs is subject to reprisal and murder.  Gossip is actionable in a loosely-configured environment.  Time cannot be wasted on parsing, investigation, and conclusion.

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The need for and usefulness of information is inversely related to the concentricity of the circles – the closer one is to the seat of power, the less vital, immediate, and essential is the information.  It by necessity is always suspect, planted, or misused; and is related to affairs that are themselves influenced by subjective, unreliable, and self-serving opinion.  Of course the inner circle advisors of Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump are providing their leaders with information that suits their own agendas.  if there is any lesson to be gained from Shakespeare it is that the palace is an untrustworthy and unreliable place.  Iago, Volumnia, Goneril and Regan, and Hamlet spread self-serving information only to secure their position or accession.

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The farther one is from the center of the concentric rings, the more important is information – whatever its source and veracity.  There are no particular legal consequences for eliminating a suspected informant, rival, or  pretender.  Truth and objectivity have little place in a fluid, uncertain environment.

Which leaves the academic intellectual class and the hopelessly idealistic middle one.  What is to make of their need for, use of, and dependence on information?  Especially as the residents of Upper Northwest age, how is it that they still cling to the chimera of getting it? Why haven’t decades of intellectual pursuit turned up the only conclusion possible – there can be no conclusions in a randomly-sorted world? What has changed in five millennia? Since human nature has not changed one iota since the Paleolithic and before, why the untimely pursuit of knowledge?  These Upper Northwest and Upper West Side intellectuals should no better.

The middle class is the best off of all.  Information is nothing but televised ideas – take them or leave them, paste them as banners and bumper stickers, or dismiss and forget them.  No need to divest oneself of unnecessary information or supposed facts for the world does not depend on them or the need to logically decipher them.

A former colleague, former intellectual, former avid follower of current events, former student of world history recently retired from the business of thinking about non-essentials.  He unsubscribed from his daily newspapers, restricted his Facebook sites to friends, babies, and fishing, cut all news channels from his Internet source, and read only drama and fiction.  This was no giving up, he said, no retreat from reality, but an embrace of it.  What in a world of impossibly subjective ‘facts’ could be more relevant than Shakespeare, Lawrence, Conrad, Ibsen, and Greene?

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He no longer had a need to know anything.  Divestiture was the reward of a long life.  It was no longer a matter of ‘Too soon old, too late schmart’, but a realization that there was no such thing as schmart.  If he was neither a product of the Southeast DC ghetto nor of the Middle West, middle class, Las Vegas-Hollywood imagery, then what was the point of any information.  Turkish soap operas, Tennessee Williams, and grand guignol were more than enough.

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