An offbeat news story broke not long ago about a connection between the Zika virus epidemic in Brazil and a recent release of genetically modified mosquitoes. Folks picked up on it, and now it’s becoming a common theme on the internet. Best as I can tell, there’s zero truth to the rumor, but it got me thinking: Why is this sort of thing so easy for us to believe?
There’s a Canadian television show called “Continuum”. It’s a sci-fi crime show, but it examines themes such as the authenticity of terrorism, the value versus dangers of aggressive policing, and a dystopian vision of a future ruled by a corrupt and oppressive corporate congress that took over when democratic government inevitably collapsed. It’s engaging, well-written, fascinatingly plotted, and surprisingly easy to accept.
Some years back, a movie adaptation of the graphic novel “V For Vendetta” explored similar themes, as did the “Matrix” trilogy and a plethora of similar works of dystopian noir. Most have been extremely popular. Most have had ready public appeal.
And the X-Files has returned. Again: Fascinating, engaging, well-written, readily accepted by the public not so much as truth but as plausible. The truth, we’re told, is still out there — and a part of us is sure of it.
Going back to internet rumors: Two of the top modern conspiracy theories are as follows; first, that the US government was secretly responsible for 9/11; and second, that there’s a global conspiracy to prevent people from finding out the secret dangers in vaccines. Acceptance of each of these is widespread, so much so that several celebrities have endorsed the anti-vaccination cause, and limited outbreaks of seemingly eliminated diseases have occurred as a result.
I’m quite confident myself that there’s no truth to the 9/11 rumor as stated; faking it would have been impracticable and unnecessary (as I’ve argued elsewhere). Vaccines are not completely safe, but the dangers have been vastly distorted and exaggerated by those who believe in the conspiracy. (I’m still working on that article; believe me when I tell you it’ll be a doozy.)
All of this begs the question: Why do we find this stuff so easy to believe? What is it about corporate entities and our governments that makes these horrific rumors so plausible? Why do we so love to hate and mistrust those faceless entities with power over our lives?
The answer to those questions is, I believe, complex and multifold, but it can be explained in terms of three basic truths, to wit:
- On the whole, most of us don’t like the way our lives work out.
- Governments and corporations have repeatedly demonstrated themselves to be untrustworthy.
- The more we each learn about people, the easier it is for us to believe that power corrupts us.
While over time I’d like to examine each of these individual points in greater depth, this article is far too short for that. Besides, I think that, after a few brief words to clarify my meaning, many of us will agree in principle to each proposition.
On the whole, most of us don’t like the way our lives work out.
Shit happens; it’s axiomatic. It’s a proverb, and one we all accept.
It’s a proverb because it’s true, but it’s not the whole truth, not by a long chalk. Yes, bad things happen, but so do good things — and if we take care and make an effort, the good things can be made to outweigh the bad.
But we were sold a dream once upon a time, that success is just a matter of will and hard work. As Steinbeck put it, we don’t see ourselves as the working poor; instead, each of us is “a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.” And yet, the longer we live, the more we see of life, the more aware we are that it’s not that simple.
The American Dream is real, but it’s not easy. The number of self-made millionaires is extremely small — but we each see ourselves becoming one, somehow, in some way. It’s the dream that keeps us in our productive place in the larger machine that is our economy: productive, somewhat content, but always striving. It is, in a sense, a necessary part of being an American. And it’s also a lie, because it’s a goal that most of us will never achieve.
So we need to focus on smaller goals, on things that are within our grasp, if we want to become content with our lot. Alternately, we can rebel, blaming the machine for not providing something that, ultimately, it was never designed to give us in the first place.
There’s certainly value in the second option. Societal change does not arise from a contented populace. But it’s not a terribly pleasant prospect.
Governments and corporations are untrustworthy.
Over the course of our not-very-long history, the government of the United States has done some truly awful things. We’ve fought unnecessary wars, assassinated world leaders, conquered our neighbors, engaged in economic warfare, attempted genocide on our natives, profited from the slave trade, oppressed and imprisoned our own people, and bombed our own citizens with fighter planes. Right now, we’re operating a drone assassination program out of the White House. And we’re the good guys, right?
As for corporations, we all know about the Exxon Valdez, the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf, the bee die-offs in Ontario in 2012 (not due to the GMO crop but rather the commercial pesticide), and the recent housing bubble collapse, among other things. Corporations, acting for profit rather than for the public good, have ridden roughshod over the rights of mere individuals for centuries.
A tale is told — true in form if not in detail — of four men who traveled to Washington in the middle of the 1800s. They had with them $40,000. Two weeks later, they were broke — but they had title to billions worth of railroad right-of-ways. Bribery and corruption is an art form. (from Heinlen, “The Man Who Sold The Moon”)
I could go on, but I’ll save that for later. I think we’re probably on the same page here.
There have been several books written on the subject of a link between psychopathy (or sociopathy) and management in business and in government. A 2013 article in Forbes gives some details; there’s more reading available elsewhere, if you’re interested. The bottom line, though, is that amoral behavior is a classic model of that which is needed for corporate success, and that, intelligently applied, it can lead to promotion.
It has been suggested that power doesn’t corrupt so much as it merely attracts those who are readily corruptible, and there may well be truth in the contention. The end result is the same, however; often, companies are managed by people that don’t have any particular desire to benefit the public — or, for that matter, even their co-workers or shareholders.
The Bottom Line
We’ve defined the problem; indeed, it seems quite apparent: Corporate entities, be they governments or businesses, tend to act for their own benefit and not for that of the public. We’ve explained a couple of the reasons for this (although, to be sure, we’ve skipped over the profit motive and a bureaucracy’s tendency for self-protection).
So what should we, the public, do about this? Indeed, what can we do? Unbridled capitalism leads to corruption and mismanagement, and it’s certainly not in the public good. The alternative that is government oversight is equally impalatable; if there’s one thing we know about government, it’s that we can’t trust it except to be inefficient.
I don’t have a perfect answer, I’m afraid. It would make sense to require that any corporate entity have an oversight board which would be compelled to act for the benefit of the public, that corporations have artificial consciences installed if they cannot act responsibly on their own. (In point of fact, that’s what a “board of directors” was originally designed to do.) Then too, it would be wise to find a way to manage the same within governments. But who could compel this — and how?
But I see hope in this: We all know about the problem. We’re perfectly aware of it, and in the movies and shows mentioned above we’ve begun a public dialogue. In the age of the internet, many of our best and brightest will be made continually aware, and we will have dedicated thought on how best to address these issues. Then too, with the resurgence of populist political campaigns like those of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and before them the rather more idealistic one of Barack Obama, we can certainly see that public tolerance for these irresponsible practices is very limited. (No, I’m not endorsing Trump, nor even Sanders. I’m here to tell you to think, not what to think.) Heck, even Bloom County has returned.
I have confidence in the power of any informed, discontented, and motivated populace to create societal change.
You are now informed.
I have faith in you.