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Posted by on Nov 24, 2011 in Arts & Entertainment, Guest Contributor, Media, Politics, Society | 2 comments

Less Than Zero

In Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (a book that you’ve either read or will never read, so there’s no spoiler here) Yank Tyrone Slothrop turns out to have been the infamous (within psychological conditioning circles) Baby Tyrone.

Young Baby (as opposed to Old Baby, which would be Toddler) Tyrone is conditioned to a Pavlovian response. And, when the scientists realize that the experiment has been a success, they UNcondition him from that response, and a fictional mystery (utterly a novelistic conceit and having nothing to do with Reality) appears: is it possible to condition to Less Than Zero?* In Tyrone Slothrop’s case, it was. In the case of Fox News Viewers, what was once fiction has become Reality, itself, and they owe Thomas Pynchon a tip o’ the old O’Reilly tam-o-shanter, at a bare minimum.

[* OK, technically Pynchon calls it “Beyond the Zero” but it’s entirely too complex to go into and doesn’t dovetail neatly into the fabulous  Elvis Costello section further down, and it’s my metaphor, so nyeah! It’s “Less Than Zero” for the duration of this essay.]

Faux Nooz™ viewers have been shown (until the intensely skeptical blogaggle takes the inevitable quick, deconstructionist detour away from their vapours du jour, Whitewarmer II) to be, shall we say? less-well informed than people who don’t watch any news at all. 

i. Adding up the Minuses

Straight from the horse’s mouth:

According to the latest results from Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind Poll, some news sources make us less likely to know what’s going on in the world. In the most recent study, the poll asked New Jerseyans about current events at home and abroad, and from what sources – if any – they get their information. The conclusion: Sunday morning news shows do the most to help people learn about current events, while some outlets, especially Fox News, lead people to be even less informed than those who say they don’t watch any news at all.

Which literally means that Faux Nooz™ has literally found that mythical less-than-zero point. And now that I’ve carefully constructed the metaphor, let me deconstruct it:

You can’t know less than nothing (barring brain conditions) and you don’t have less experience than you had before. You don’t become stupider, but you DO become less well-informed.

As your sum of bad information exceeds your sum of good information, your personal world-simulation goes further and further out of skew with reality.

Fortunately, reality is self-correcting, as any kid who ever tied a towel around his neck and tried to fly off the barn can attest. Fantasies and fictions, no matter how earnestly held and fervently believed are always the two of clubs in any cosmic game of Hearts. They are trumped by every kind of reality in the deck.

I am not here to guffaw, or sneer. I do not believe that Faux viewers are any more or less intelligent than anyone else, but their WELL-INFORMED intelligence has created the illusion of “less than zero.”

The first  Fox News Symposium (Egypt, c. 230 BC)

ii. Beyond The Seventh Seal

Turn up the TV. No one listening will suspect,
even your mother won’t detect it,
so your father won’t know.
they think that I’ve got no respect
but everything means less than zero.

— Elvis Costello, “Less Than Zero

This Week, the Republico-Conservative wing declared their Final Solution on Facts, discarding unwelcome reality entirely. Mitt Romney releases an anti-Obama TV ad using audio doctored to say exactly the opposite of what it actually said (Obama quoting John McCain using the actual term “Quote,” just as Rick Perry’s “Lazy” hoax had similarly distorted actual audio a few days earlier).  Bachmann pulled several whoppers out of a sunless place, Newt Gingrich became a paragon of Christian value, Herman Cain suggested that Iraq could not be attacked because it had lots of mountainous regions, etc. etc. etc. etc.

This has been going on for some time, of course, and politics intrinsically involves lying (because, Bulworth notwithstanding, people only like to hear truths from comedians and sometimes not even then), and everybody does it, all lands, all parties,  but this is a horse of a different color.

I don’t know how Mitt’s crew thought they could get away with the audio smoke-and-mirrors ad, except that, in the face of the (seemingly expected) outrage, the crowd that Mitt was going after didn’t care that the attack ad was demonstrably false. The sheer brass of that almost takes one’s breath away, if you impute conscience and, therefore, a sense of shame to Mitt’s handlers.

A sense of shame springs from conscience — or, for many, eating a magic apple after losing an argument to a talking snake — and whatever that entails, it increasingly appears that virtually no one in the vocal GOP/Conservative axis GOTS a conscience. Because there is never a sense of shame.

“Shameless” derives from this, and what drove the point home to me was an interchange on MSNBC with Michael Steele, the immediate past Chair of the Republican National Committee. Steele had been shown the commercial and the original clip, and was asked for his reaction, asked if it was a lie.


Without blinking, Steele responded that politics was hardball if you were going to play at this level and so on and so forth,

And you realized that he’d unblinkingly tell you it was night when it was day without a whiff of hesitation, but he wouldn’t be doing what he’s doing if he couldn’t — if he wasn’t a skilled and practiced liar, as both parties and Independent holier-than-thous do with astonishing frequency. But he hadn’t IGNORED the blatant lie in the Romney ad, he’d BLOWN RIGHT PAST IT. Somehow the quaint notion of “lie” had simply passed through his consciousness as effortlessly as krill through a tuna net.

Lying was considered normal and this was hardball, and what was everybody so upset about?

You can’t explain color to the blind.

iii. Fee, Fie, Faux, Frum

I smell the angst of a Canadian.

The country through which we passed is very wild and mountainous, and but thinly settled. The majority of the people are very stupid, ignorant, dirty, and, of course, poor. They are probably a fair specimen of the ‘poor whites’ of the South. It was rarely that we found one outside of the villages who could read and write.

This was not, of course, the modern GOP being talked about, but Greenville, Wayne County, Missouri, 40 miles from where Rush Limbaugh grew up in Cape Giraudeau, Mo. And, while it looks like things haven’t improved all that much since the Civil War, from whence the correspondent writes,  it might as well have been ripped from today’s political headlines. Relocated G.W. Bush speechwriter ex-Canadian David Frum writes a long essay in New York Magazine entitled “When Did the GOP Lose Touch With Reality?” It’s a fair question, but perhaps not the important question.I will confess that I have had a difficult time writing for the last few weeks because TEH STOOPID IT BURNS!

The sheer volume of the tsunami of ignorance — willful and not — has been quite literally overwhelming. How does one make sense of sheer, savage senselessness*? [* The current GOP rhetoric, and not any wistfully remembered bodice-ripper ‘historical’ romance of the 1980s.]

The attempted or actual destruction of Planned Parenthood, the Public Broadcasting System, ACORN, Occupy Wall Street, etc. etc. etc. The amazing profusion of union-busting laws, voter suppression laws, abortion restriction laws and “life begins at conception” referenda. The adamant refusal to DEAL with immediate crises while endlessly screaming at future or vague crises — the profusion of “new Jim Crow” laws regarding “illegal immigrants.”

Megan Kelly’s weird justification that “pepper spray” was essentially a foodstuff, since you can eat peppers and pepper spray is made out of them.

The continual reliance in all policy discussions of rhetorical fallacies formerly reserved for the schoolyard: “I know you are, but what am I?” and “Donkey did it once, TOO!”

No, there’s a generalized dumbness to the national debate from one side that is militant in its defense of dumbness and in a way different from the anti-intellectual strain that goes back at least to the antebellum “Know Nothing” or, officially, the “Anti-Masonic Party.”

Skill and expertise don’t matter. Anybody can do it.

Faux facts are accepted unquestioningly, because they are ideologically comforting. Facts that don’t fit are subjected to atomistic skepticism, analyzed all the way down to baryon/anti-baryon pairings.

David Frum writes, in part:

I can’t shrug off this flight from reality and responsibility as somebody else’s problem. I belonged to this movement; I helped to make the mess. People may very well say: Hey, wait a minute, didn’t you work in the George W. Bush administration that disappointed so many people in so many ways? What qualifies you to dispense advice to anybody else?

Fair question. I am haunted by the Bush experience, although it seems almost presumptuous for someone who played such a minor role to feel so much unease. The people who made the big decisions certainly seem to sleep well enough….

Frum was roundly attacked (or, squarely) for his long essay (which I suggest you read, even though I disagree with much of it), because, in the new, angry reality, anyone who raises the slightest peep is a target for immolation.

The idea of considering ideas from someone with whom you disagree is as absurd as an Operation Rescue abortion clinic.

iv. Never Yell ‘Theater!’ at a Crowded Fire

How DARE the New York Times! Or, conversely, ‘Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on you!’ At any event, the sham(e) is being dished by The Usual Suspects in a ham-handed redux of 2009’s WhiteWarmer … er, “ClimateGate!”

Fox News (and yes, there’s no byline, oddly enough) fires the opening “media” salvo after the story has escaped from bloggerville:

Planet Earth – SCITECH

Did $16 Stand in the Way of Climate Science?
Published November 23, 2011

University of East Anglia

The Climatic Research Unit, a key climate science facility at the School of Environmental Sciences, a part of the University of East Anglia in the UK.
The head of a key British climate lab, a central figure in the 2009 “Climategate” scandal, thought requests made under Great Britain’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) were a nuisance that should be stonewalled while crucial correspondence is deleted — unless someone pays up first, that is.

[…] the email reads.*

The correspondence was one of 5,000 emails stolen from the servers at the University of East Anglia’s climate research facility in England and posted online Tuesday. Along with the day-to-day work of science, the emails reveal internal debates, anger at skeptics and even deception from scientists investigation whether man’s actions are warming the planet.

The newly leaked emails span from 2000 to 2009 and fill in correspondence first seen in December 2009, when a batch of emails from the data breach dubbed “Climategate” turned the world’s attention to East Anglia. University spokesman Simon Dunford told the Associated Press that a small sample examined by the university “appears to be genuine.”

[* The email is purported to be the most “sensational” email, bedrock of this science assassination/story.]

A healthy “skepticism” there, eh?

Seeking the facts with partiality.

The anonymous Fox writer(s) conclude(s):

Steven McIntyre, a noted climate skeptic and author of the blog Climate Audit, disputed those vindications vehemently.

“Unfortunately none of the ‘inquiries’ did even a reasonable job,” he told “None of them interviewed any of the critics … there were no transcripts. The inquiries made erroneous findings on facts known to thousands.”

“In my opinion, the ‘inquiries’ have actually made matters worse,” McIntyre told

The newly released emails come less than a week before the Nov. 28 opening of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 17) in Durban, South Africa, which is intended to control carbon emissions and monitor the world’s climate — a fact underscored in a document that accompanied the leaked emails.

Compare and contrast.

Flying monkey memoir

Here is how the New York Times opened:

New Trove of Stolen E-Mails From Climate Scientists Is Released
Published: November 22, 2011

The anonymous hacker who shook the world of climate science two years ago by posting a trove of stolen e-mails delivered a new batch on Tuesday, stirring up climate-change contrarians a little more than a week before global negotiations on greenhouse gases are to begin in Durban, South Africa.

The new e-mails appeared remarkably similar to the ones released two years ago just ahead of a similar conference in Copenhagen. They involved the same scientists and many of the same issues, and some of them carried a similar tone: catty remarks by the scientists, often about papers written by others in the field.

Climate scientists said the release was likely intended to torpedo any potential progress in the Durban negotiations, though not much progress had been expected anyway given that countries have been reluctant to commit to binding emissions limits….

This analysis OUGHTN’T be problematic, especially considering that several investigations in the US and UK showed that nothing was either amiss with the scientists in question or the conclusion that global warming IS taking place. Nonetheless, in certain circles, certainty is impervious to fact. Thus, assuming their impervious facts, the following responses were recorded:

And so on. A salient feature of the new less than zero is that any layman is MORE of an expert than experts, and that the non-certainty inherent in the scientific method is automatically trumped by the certitude of the hard-core ideologue: whether via the writings Ayn Rand,  Timothy LaHaye, or Moses.

[* On today’s holidayousity, the following is offered on the Rockwell Blog:

The Great Thanksgiving Hoax
by Richard J. Maybury

Each year at this time school children all over America are taught the official Thanksgiving story, and newspapers, radio, TV, and magazines devote vast amounts of time and space to it. It is all very colorful and fascinating.

It is also very deceiving. This official story is nothing like what really happened. It is a fairy tale, a whitewashed and sanitized collection of half-truths which divert attention away from Thanksgiving’s real meaning.


Before these free markets were established, the colonists had nothing for which to be thankful. They were in the same situation as Ethiopians are today, and for the same reasons. But after free markets were established, the resulting abundance was so dramatic that the annual Thanksgiving celebrations became common throughout the colonies, and in 1863, Thanksgiving became a national holiday.

Thus the real reason for Thanksgiving, deleted from the official story, is: Socialism does not work; the one and only source of abundance is free markets, and we thank God we live in a country where we can have them.

Er, OK. But, perhaps a little more warm turkey and a little less cold duck.]

My point here is that facts that are unpopular are ceaselessly attacked (generally using rationally suspect arguments, or, technically NON-arguments) while popular facts are unquestioningly accepted. We even see the self-referential body-armor of the missionary: I know what I know because I believe what I know and opposition to what I know only PROVES what I know.

That’s fine for martyr stories from Daniel in the lions’ den to Tim Tebow in the Lions’ stadium. But it flies in the face of 2500 years plus of Western culture and civilization and is NO basis for any kind of policy discussion in a democratic form of governance.

v. For whom the tell boils

The Huffington Post notes:

This isn’t the first study that has found that Fox News viewers more misinformed in comparison to others. Last year, a study from the University of Maryland found that Fox News viewers were more likely to believe false information about politics.

Let’s bring this all together: turning one’s back on facts can ONLY work when one’s audience (voting bloc) ALSO is happy to turn one’s back on facts.

When false facts and false reasoning become the lingua franca in all ‘debates’ the UNREAL is often prioritized above the REAL. THAT is the Less Than Zero.

Examples, the UNREAL babies of abortion are prioritized above the REAL one in five American children living in poverty.

How partisan “skepticism” works

The UNREAL “crisis” of Social Security and Medicare “reform” is prioritized above the REAL actual funding for several years in the short term, AND the problems of so many slipping into poverty and preventable illness. The UNREAL eventual crisis of impossible debt is prioritized over REAL Americans losing jobs and homes willy-nilly. Indeed, the prioritization of the UNREAL macro “budget crisis” exacerbates the loss of jobs (public sector jobs vanishing in the hundreds of thousands) and homes while NOTHING is done in the “now.”

All that matters becomes the “then.”

A “then” which more often than not becomes a statement of fact on the order of “When I am the Queen of the May.”

The construction of unreal narratives using unreal “facts” and the outright rejection of scientific evidence and logical reasoning have conspired to produce our Less Than Zero audience, and our Less Than Zero present malaise and deepening crisis. That is the core of the odd crusade for know-nothingism and fantasized reality that now holds the nation in political paralysis.

The path to resolution

The Less Than Zero Phenomenon becomes functionally literal. By deliberately dumbing down the thought processes and “fact” database, the purveyors of propaganda actually create a functional disability of the viewer/listener/reader to process immediate, practical reality. Thus, our bizarro Washingtonian paralysis of unfilled agency heads and subheads, unfilled judgeships and unfilled policy appointments.

Which is the functional equivalent of being stuck fifty miles from nowhere, in an unforgiving winter storm, with maybe fifty miles of gas in the tank, and deciding that, because you don’t like someone else in the car, the solution is to put sugar in the gas tank.

There is a world of difference between incompetent attempts at real journalism and slick attempts to call propaganda “journalism,” just as there is a huge difference between a street hooker and a street transvestite hooker. The packaging may be the same, but the package is entirely different. Fox News would be the transvestite hooker, in case that wasn’t clear.

And Faux ofttimes covers real news. Just like creationists often cite real science.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s news. It’s less than zero, in fact.

Thomas Pynchon concludes our reading with this hymn to him:

Words for Salman Rushdie*

[* Rushdie had written a glowing review of Pynchon’s Vineland a few weeks earlier.]

The New York Times Book Review
12 March 1989, p. 29

Our thanks to you and to Marianne Wiggins for recalling those of us who write to our duty as heretics, for reminding us again that power is as much our sworn enemy as unreason, for making us all look braver, wiser, more useful than we often think we are. We pray for your continuing good health, safety and lightness of spirit.

Thomas Pynchon



NOTE: Every section head represents a blog posting I began and abandoned in the last week.

A writer, published author, novelist, literary critic and political observer for a quarter of a quarter-century more than a quarter-century, Hart Williams has lived in the American West for his entire life. Having grown up in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico, a survivor of Texas and a veteran of Hollywood, Mr. Williams currently lives in Oregon, along with an astonishing amount of pollen. He has a lively blog His Vorpal Sword. This is cross-posted from his blog.

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