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Saturday, October 7, 2017

Alien Nation

H.R. Giger
The life of all conspiracy theories is alienation, some very important truth missing from the narrative received from established authorities.

The thing that is pejoratively referred to as “conspiracy theory” is really just a response to logical inconsistency in the received narrative.  Alternative theories are inevitable in in low- or poor-information environments, as almost everyone agrees is the situation we find ourselves in today.  Far from indicating that the practitioner lacks capacity, the crafting of alternative narratives is an attempt to restore coherence and mental discipline to the processing of significant events.  

That is precisely why alternative narratives attract such scorn.  Self assertion exposes a troubling contradiction: our society’s (alleged) simultaneous commitments to individual autonomy and democratic consensus.  To propose an alternative narrative, especially a well-crafted one, is to uphold autonomy, but in a way that challenges the fitness of more conventional people to participate in the project of consensus building.  If you are not insane, and you admit the reality of comparative objectivity, truth cannot be a democratic project.

Still, alternative narratives are just narratives, subject to the same epistemological constraints as received narratives, with the added political debility that their proponents lack social capital.  As a result, even if an alternative narrative is substantially correct, if so much as one of the supporting details presented is proven incorrect or incomplete, it will be typically be rejected in favor of a far less coherent received narrative.  It is cruel and unfair, but this is ironically motivated by the same concern that gave birth to the alternative theory in the first place:  the need for a narrative that works, albeit as a social lubricant rather than robust logical construct.

This is why a generalized commitment to the idea of truth is so important for crafters of alternative narratives.  Starting from a deficit of social capital, the crafter of an alternative narrative must necessarily adopt a long-term strategy, minimizing his own exposure to valid logical criticisms as his opponent slowly burns through social capital to compensate for logical incoherence.

We can’t allow ourselves to become distressed when our narratives are not immediately accepted.  Good decisions are based on accurate information, and accurate information can only be obtained by an iterative process with a methodological rigor and consistency that is entirely indifferent to the whims of social capital in a fickle society.  In other words, if we are to become champions of accuracy, we must willingly--and repeatedly--alienate ourselves from society.  We have to own our alienation.

This is why I’ve undertaken a sort of people’s biography project, collecting personal narratives of alienation in order to build a more sophisticated appreciation for the countless complicated ways we estrange ourselves from the people around us.

I have no doubt that certain aspects of my own alienation make me uniquely qualified to perform this kind of work.  For instance, I am an ugly, horse-faced man who none the less projects a certain type of quiet, retiring dignity.  I’m pretty sure that this is why so many near-strangers have felt comfortable sharing their most painful vulnerabilities with me--they recognize their alienation in me, and at the same time know that I lack the social capital necessary to become a serious threat.  I represent release without consequence, a chance to achieve some sense of integrity, even if fleeting and incomplete.

What follows is a selection of my favorite alienation narratives, collected over a period of years in various hotels, bars and restaurants, pared down for relevance to this theme, and, of course, obfuscated to prevent the identification of any specific individuals.  Most of them come close to a type of confession, a private admission of some fault the narrator cannot admit to their friends yet which they none the less cannot bring themselves to regret.

”I got married right out of high school to an older man I did not really love.  He was nice enough, just very boring and very preachy and judgmental.  Not my type at all, but kind and a good earner who lived outside of my home town, which I was anxious to leave.  

Eventually it got to be too much for me and I started to have affairs.  It went on for years until I gave him a venereal disease.  It made me sick the way he cried and begged me to stay.  I kept thinking:  ‘I just gave you VD, you dumbfuck!  I fucking hate you!’

I could never tell any of this to my current fiance.  He wouldn’t understand.”  
Penny, 30-ish woman

”Years ago, straight out of college, a close friend and I accepted positions in a global consulting firm.  For a long time our careers pretty much tracked in tandem until I got friendly with the husband of the HR director of our regional office.  That turned out to be a great move because it gave me an accelerated education in office politics, especially the career value of the various client assignments.

However, I also received occasional, under-the-table early notice of policy changes which I couldn’t in good conscience share with my friend.  This was mostly not a big concern until the financial crisis of 2007, when my friend was assigned to a ‘goat’ project, very work-intensive and technically demanding, but to a very unprestigious client not at all on our office’s fast track.  If he had known, as I did, that our office was going to be folded into that of a much larger neighboring region, he probably would have left the firm.  

But I respected the HR director’s confidence, told my friend nothing, and the inevitable happened:  the firm expanded its review requirements in light of the crisis and destroyed his budget.  There’s always some attrition when consolidating offices, but this series of events guaranteed my friend wouldn’t make the cut.  I saw that much coming a mile away.

What I didn’t see coming was the vicious way they cut him loose.  The crisis churned up a bunch of sludge that had been laying there for years and the new office chief wanted to start with a clean slate.  Somebody had to take it on the chin.  My friend got blacklisted and, as far as I know, never worked another day in his life.  

As far as I know.  I got busy settling into my new role and just lost contact.  But sometimes I wonder.”  
Jim, 40-ish man

”A few years ago I went to a cousin’s wedding in the deep South.  I had a good time and tried to moderate my drinking, but was totally unfamiliar with the weird, winding rural roads.  In the darkness, and a little disoriented, I ended up in a fender bender with a young black woman, maybe in her early 20s.  We were on the road talking when the cop got there, and I don’t know if my body language was defensive or what, but the cop started grilling her pretty hard, getting all up in her face.

I have a job that requires a clean driving record, so this encounter could have ended in disaster for me.  In the circumstances, I didn’t feel I was in any position to challenge the cop, so I just hoped for the best and let the situation play itself out.  I got a verbal warning; she got taken in to the station for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.  Beyond that I don’t know what happened.

It wasn’t really much of an accident.  I would be surprised if the bill totaled $500.  But I can’t go back in time and change the way I reacted, though I revisit it in my mind from time to time.  I guess this is why I’ve become something of a social justice warrior on the internet.”  
Phil, 30-ish (white) man

”When I found out I had cancer, my marriage descended into constant arguments so I ended up leaving.  I haven’t spoken to my ex since.

None of this is her fault.  She tried to be very supportive, but there was something that she didn’t know and was getting dangerously close to finding out:  I’m the product of incest.

She knows that I’m adopted.  I just never told her that I know who my biological parents were.  I couldn’t risk a DNA test revealing that, and she and the doctor kept hounding me to get one done in order to identify qualified organ donors.

If it were just a question of my ego I might have been able to handle it, but I have kids.  Thank god they ended up normal, which they never would have, psychologically, if they had this hanging over their heads.  The whole point of this exercise, of this marriage, was to leave the past behind and create a new future.  Who would it have benefited to drag all this up again?  For 30% survival odds and crippling debt?  At least this way they get some life insurance money.

It tears my guts up to put them through all this doubt and anxiety, but sometimes certainty is worse.”  Jake, 50-ish man

“I was always the weird, ugly kid, gawky with a bird’s face.  I don’t have any brothers and sisters, and my mom left me with my grandmother after my dad went away.  I was totally used to being alone, at home, at school, in the lunch room and the playground.

So I actually resented it when this kid, I’ll call him Bobby, started asking me about myself in 1st grade.  I was pretty sure he was fucking with me, but he sure was taking his time getting around to it.  I got bored enough to play along, and in a couple of days we were pretending to be friends.

Until maybe 4 or 5 months later, when we were crawling up and over some play tunnels at recess.  Bobby had gotten a little ahead of me and was moving, head first, over the crest of this huge play tunnel surrounded by a bed of gravel.  I couldn’t help myself, and shoved him over the side, where he landed on his face.  He ended up losing an eye.

It was pretty funny, but I was still a little shaken up, so the principal and his parents believed me when I pretended I didn’t know what happened.  The school wound up paying the medical bills, probably on the reasoning that it was inexcusably fucking stupid to surround a slippery goddamned jungle gym with a pit of pointy rocks.  

But I don’t think Bobby’s mother would have pressed the point even if she knew it was me who pushed him.  My family’s poverty was legendary and it would have been like trying to get blood from a stone.  Plus, Bobby’s family were some kind of smug Jesus freaks.  Mormons, I think.  They probably thought they were getting extra god points for forgiving me, the bastards.  That’s why I enjoyed doing it so much in the first place.

The only thing that made me think if something else might have been going on happened a couple years ago when a neighbor of mine came back from Afghanistan.  Now his face is all messed up, one leg and part of the other are gone, and I think he might be missing his nuts.  But his friends still come around, and in fact, he and his girlfriend are getting married next month.

I wonder if it works different if you get ugly after being normal first.”
Todd, 30-ish man

“I wonder if I’m becoming autistic or something, or if I have been all along.

In my senior year of high school I had an intense fling with the sister of a friend of mine.  She and I were total opposites, so it was pretty exciting, in both the positive and negative sense of that word.

But I went away to college, and sustaining a long distance relationship was just not in the cards.  She was too impulsive, which was what drew me to her in the first place.  That was obvious from the beginning, so it was not hard to accept intellectually, although it didn’t stop me from dwelling on it inwardly in quiet moments.

Fast forward to the summer after my sophomore year, which I spent back in my parents’ house.  I ran into my friend for the first time in years at the bank.  It felt a little awkward at first because this fling didn’t end well and I knew their mother never liked me hanging around her in the first place.  A little bit of bullshit self deception on all of our parts, except perhaps my friend, since this girl was always the wild one and everyone knew that.

Not to dwell on this unnecessarily, but that point is worth emphasizing:  EVERYONE knew that.  In great and lurid detail.

Anyhow, my friend’s tone now was totally genuine and free of these heavy associations.  I convinced myself that I was being a silly cunt by acting like such a drama queen, and so overrode a feeling of creeping doubt when I accepted an invitation to meet him for dinner at a local restaurant.

I noticed my friend’s car in the restaurant’s lot ahead of me, and through a window caught a glimpse of him--and someone else next to him in the booth. Entering the building, I wound my way first around the bar opposite where he was sitting, glancing around a pillar to get my bearings.  Of course it was her.  An uncharacteristically heavy her.

I didn’t need to think about this now, mostly because I’d spent most of the last two years anticipating it.  Now, I figured, was the time to take advantage of all that anguished forewarning and literally leave and cut my losses.  Which I did.

I probably didn’t become Rain Man all at once.  I spent a couple of months torturing myself about the right thing to do, but all doubts were removed when I caught sight of her, her mother--and her baby--one day as I wandered the local shopping mall in a stupor.  My informants seem to have been correct in every detail.  The math was unassailable.  This child could not possibly be mine.

Not that you could tell by the icy glare her mother shot when she noticed me staring.

Although this incident has stayed with me all this time, I almost never say anything about it.  I mostly don’t see the point.  I mostly don’t see the point in anything, anymore.”
Ray, 40-ish man

“My career languished for a while after I moved back to my small provincial hometown from the large coastal city where I attended college.  My company has a very structured, seniority-oriented career path, and I no longer clearly fit into any of the existing categories.

But last year I finally caught on and received a promotion.  Turns out that I had graduated out of the entry-level, technical competence intensive part of the career path before I even transferred back home.  Now I’m expected to develop sales oriented relationships outside the company and more collegial relationships with upper management and mentoring relationships with junior members inside the company.  This entails a lot of insincere shmoozing with people I don’t really like.  Golf courses and Christmas cards.

Last week I had to attend a going away party for a departing junior associate that I was mentoring.  Let’s call him ‘Jamal’.  Yes, Jamal is black.

I don’t know why, but I found myself mechanically repeating some canned lines from my mentor training to Jamal as I prepared to leave.  WTF was the point supposed to be?  He was leaving the company.

That’s when his girlfriend, let’s call her Carla, started this bizarre, slow maniacal laugh.  Everyone at the table felt uncomfortable, but Carla didn’t stop, or even appear to notice.  To cap it all off, her left eye began to roll creepily back into her head.

Nobody overtly acknowledged this, not even Jamal.  For my part I just plowed through to end of my prepared comments and departed on schedule with the expected pleasantries all around.

I hate my job.  I had an entirely different idea of this profession before I entered it.  I assumed the engagements were going to be personal, technical and ethical.  Instead they are almost entirely commercial and political.  What little time I have to myself I now spend drinking and hoping that I won’t wake up in the morning.”
Sharon, 30-ish (white) woman

“I don’t like my son.  

I don’t hate him.  I don’t wish he didn’t exist.  I just don’t like being around him.

He’s such a smug little prick.  Always questioning my ‘life choices’ and trying to convert me to some dumb opinion he just swallowed from NPR.  As if I were so stupid that my seven decades of life experience counted for nothing and he were bringing the real world to me for the first time.

I endure him for the sake of my wife during the holidays, but I live for the days in between.”
Gar, 70-ish man

“Look, you’ve already gotten everything from me worth taking.  Three tours of duty in Iraq, including Falujah.  Go away.”
Unnamed, 40-ish man

“Well, yeah.  Of course I’m alienated.  We’re all alienated.  That’s what makes us individuals.  If we all achieved perfect identification we’d be the same person and there would be no scope for our ambition.”
Alex, 40-ish man