Tens of Thousands

Quantifying mendacity

1/18/03

I have assigned everyone to whose speech I must attend a CQ value. This number determines the amount of energy I will devote to remaining mentally alert while they talk, or to giving serious consideration to their assertions, or passing their statements along to others. Although I now arrive at this quantification by a simple and conscious bit of long division, I believe that everybody is more or less aware of the CQ number of everybody else. It is our Credibility Quotient - the degree to which we are able to tell the truth. Liars, once discovered, are forever discredited. Not necessarily disliked or shunned, it is their lot to become the trivial, empty presences, the styrofoam peanuts, who fill the spaces between significant and meaningful encounters in our lives.

Lies are almost a definition of human perdition. We lie to others and we lie to ourselves. There are hundreds of degrees of truth, hundreds of ways to lie. Probably it is impossible to stop lying altogether, just as it is beyond our ability to say what it is, finally, that is true. Those among us who are convinced (by lying to themselves) that an advantage is to be gained by lying to other people are the least redeemable of souls, having glorified falsehood. Only massive doses of further falsehood suffice to salve the damage and misery they bring upon themselves in this way. It is tough enough as it is to make sense of the world without deliberately making up bullshit.

Most of us, fortunately, are not out-and-out pathological liars. We are fibbers, exaggerators, misleaders, withholders of the whole truth. Our respect for the truth as an absolute if unattainable value versus our belief that manipulation and suppression of the truth provides an opportunity to gain power and wealth constitutes a sliding scale for the majority of men. We are, on the one hand, moral beings committed to Enlightenment values. On the other hand, we are jaded and weak and corrupted and practical. We live in the vast grey zone, relatively ethical, relatively mendacious.

To calculate the Credibility Quotient of an individual, you must have at least one pair of hard figures, preferably more for better accuracy. These are simply the two numbers you need to catch somebody in a lie. They tell you the fish they caught was 12" long; you happen to have looked in the creel and know for a fact that it was only 8" long. You are now able to divide one by the other and arrive at a CQ of 1.5. Now when this same guy tells you his sports car will go 180 mph, you can calculate the true speed of his car by dividing 180 by his CQ (1.5), i.e. 120 mph. In the case of reductive exaggerations, multiply by the CQ. Simple.

The higher a person's CQ, the fuller of crap they are. The less attention you have to pay to them.

*****

I went to a Peace March today, the first since 1968 or so. It seemed like an important point in history (the future half of which is always hidden from us) to register a presence in opposition to George Bush’s “preemptive” invasion of Iraq. It is clear to me that these are very bad men whose agenda must be vigorously opposed. I wanted to know how many of my fellow hominids shared my horror at this upcoming bit of butchery, and to see what it would be like to stand among them. So I violated my promise to myself to spend all weekends at home and drove to Tucson this morning.

Everybody was to rally in front of the “Old Main” Building at the UA campus at 9:30 and then march to a park about 12 blocks away. The turnout was several times larger than anyone expected. Demonstrations were coordinated nationwide, this being a scary place in the movie where Ol’ Dubyuh either permits himself to look stupid (not likely) or does something really tragic and ugly.

Marches from the age of myth, my college days, were smaller and nastier. The country was running blood. We rallied there, in front of the “Old Main” - headquarters of the loathsome campus ROTC program, both a staging area and a likely target for arson - without notification by newspaper or internet. Nobody on either side was in a conciliatory mood. Police in those days showed up in full riot gear, in shielded, helmeted, truncheoned phalanxes. We had rocks and Molotov cocktails. They had tear gas. Soldiers were coming home in body bags and Vietnamese were burning up in balls of napalm. Civil rights marchers in the south and militant protesters in Chicago literally put their lives on the line. People were very serious about their positions in 1968. Those were confrontive times.

This morning was not at all like that. Many of the youngsters in attendance were barely learning to read during the first Gulf War a scant 12 years ago. About half of the crowd were closer to my age, old Vietnam era troublemakers. I couldn’t characterize the mix. All kinds of people, all ages. Many dogs. Many babies in trams. Hundreds of signs on poles and stuck into hatbands, expressing revulsion for Bush’s war and contempt for Bush himself. Their numbers were much higher than the midwar demonstrations of the late sixties, an estimated 2000 leaving the campus, and growing to 5000 (according to organizers) (4000 by more neutral observers) by the time they reached De Anza Park. Marchers were six or eight abreast across the designated traffic lane and adjacent sidewalk. No matter where I positioned myself in it (I was taking pictures) the column disappeared from view in both directions. The mood was festive, a bit self-congratulatory, optimistic, not really angry or despairing, lacking the goad of a Spiro Agnew to discredit us as “pompous academic parasites,” or the rumors of paranoid agents with clipboards taking names. The cops were numerous but innocuous, pedaling back and forth in their silly black shorts and helmets on their silly bicycles, with only their holstered Glocks to remind you of their lethal purpose. Passing cars honked their approval and flashed “V” signs.

Beating up protesters on live tv was counterproductive to the goon squads of Johnson and Nixon, and did much to turn public opinion against the promulgators of the war. Things are not yet grim in this country, so it is premature to say that any lessons have been learned. But since the government has taken over the mainstream media, they have been very effective at saturating us with misinformation, even about our own opinions. Speaking of the upcoming savaging of Iraq, my friend Hoell says: “Curiously, so far there hasn't been much of an organized uproar against this action.” You can believe this only if you still think you can find out what is going on in the world by watching your television set. Massive internet petitions are delivered to lawmakers almost weekly without acknowledgement. Demonstrations clog the streets of our major cities. My brother Tom sends me videotapes of huge anti-war rallies in Santa Barbara, none of which are reported on local or national news. Eleanor Eisenberg, Director of ACLU for Arizona, was wrestled to the ground and arrested by jackbooted cops in Phoenix last month. Pictures and story came from e-mail announcements and newsletters, but hardly a word in the newspaper. Europeans, Islamics, Asians, virtually the whole world is screaming bloody murder against us today in giant demonstrations everywhere, but here in Teletubbyland all we are getting on tv is war foreplay - interviews with fighter pilots and sailors poised for the assault, demos of our latest horror weapons, a gloating anticipation of the Circus Maximus, prime time snuff porn. Stories are not actually suppressed, since the internet (while it yet exists) allows us to find out about these things in any case. They are instead edited, curtailed in length, downsized in importance, followed up by government statements telling us how such things are to be interpreted. This has not always been the case, but over the past 30 years it has become so. Propaganda has become a science, and we are on the receiving end of it.

So when media polls assure us that 74% of us are enthusiastically supportive of Dubyuh’s performance, or that 60% of Americans favor the invasion of Iraq to rid the world of Saddam Hussein once and for all, what are we to make of that? What is the CQ of the news media?

Armed with a conservative estimate of 4000 Tucson peace marchers, an imprecise but credible figure according to my personal witness and unsophisticated counting techniques, I switched on the NBC Evening News to see what kind of turnout had occurred across the country. Their estimate of the nationwide turnout: “Tens of thousands.” They repeated this several times during the short report. Tens of thousands. An estimated 10,000 braved the cold and showed up in Washington DC, said NBC, accounting for half the national turnout right there. Then they cut away to their top story, the massing of troops in Saudi Arabia.

They would have been technically correct in estimating “many dozens” of protesters. A rigorous interpretation of “tens of thousands” would have to mean as few as 20,000 people, but not more than 200,000 people (hundreds of thousands, technically) nationwide. But having observed 4000 protesters here in conservative, apathetic southern Arizona, I have to believe that I have caught NBC News in a quantifiable lie. 10,000 in Washington DC? Twice as many as in Tucson? As few as 20,000 across the US? Tucson accounts for one fifth of all protesters nationwide? One 1/50th tops? Somehow, miraculously, we have become the new Berkeley! Tucson, a hotbed of pacifist activism? I think not!

The real figures will arrive within a day or two, and then we can assign a CQ to the television news. If 60,000 people showed up in Washington DC, NBC’s CQ will be 6. NBC polls showing a 74% presidential approval rating can be amended to 12.3%. The new CQ number can be disseminated to those of us who are not internet connected, to families at the mercy of conventional media and the doctored information they receive from it. They can continue watching that cute Matt Lauer, and still arrive at the truth with a couple of strokes of a pocket calculator.

*****

1/22/03

Okay, the numbers are in. Your favorite news sources have been tentatively assigned CREDIBILITY QUOTIENTS as follows:

TUCSON MARCH

Independent estimate: 4000
CQ = 1

Organizers estimate: 5000
CQ = 1.25

Police estimate: 1000
CQ = 4


WASHINGTON D.C. MARCH

Independent estimate: 200,000
CQ = 1

Organizers estimate: 500,000
CQ = 2.5

Police estimate: 30,000
CQ = 6.6

Network news: 10,000
CQ = 20