But What If We're Wrong?
Thinking About the Present As If It Were the past
Chuck Klosterman
(Blue Rider Press)
We all know how Osama bin Laden died, right? Black ops from the Navy SEALs used CIA intelligence got into his compound at Abbottabad and executed him. It was facilitated by the Pakistan government, and was a combination of behind-the-scene workings, American know-how and exquisite care and daring.

But four years after the fact, a detailed 10,000 word article by the author Seymour Hersh appeared in the London Review of Books . . . and upset the apple-cart. Somewhat.

Most of the official details were questioned. Hersh claimed that, since 2005, bin Laden was a prisoner in the custody of the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence service, and that the state military assisted and approved of the murder. Is his version true? Who knows? To Klosterman the key is that we will probably never know because we were "incessantly told one version of [the] story" before hearing the second possible truth four years after the first. "It took only four years for that thinking to congeal," he writes in Wrong:

    Extrapolate that phenomenon to forty years, or to four hundred years, or to four thousand years. How much of history is classified as true simply because it can't be sufficiently proven false.

"In other words, there's no way we can irrefutably certify that an event from 1776 didn't happen in the manner we've always believed, so there's no justification for presenting a counter-possibility. So while it's absurd to think that all of history never really happened, it's almost as absurd to think that everything we know about history is real." [Italics ours.]

History. His story. Who can you believe? And if all this stuff from the past (the siege of Troy; the birth of Christ; the fall of Rome; the Black Death; 9/11) is fabricated - - - in all or in part - - - what is there left that we can believe? And what difference does it make anyway? If our version of the American Civil War is irrefutably distorted, twisted, and fabricated, does it change how I live my life today or tomorrow or next week?

§   §   §

The present? What happens if this is a fabrication too? That instead of this universe, "one singular universe that emerged from the Big Bang," what happens if turns out that we are part of a "multiverse?"

    Imagine an endless roll of bubble wrap; our universe (and everything in it) would be one tiny bubble, and all the other bubbles would be other universes that are equally vast.

Got it? You and me, right now, sitting here sneering at a terrible movie on Netflix, you drinking too much, getting me miffed, especially when you dumped part of my margarita on my beloved cat (Hodge!) and when I complained you said he could lick it off "and get drunk like you." Boy did that light my fire! And, it set off You (#2) and Me(#2) in an alternative universe, except that there my cat was called Fudge (he's a Burmese) and we were drinking Sazarac cocktails and I spilled most of it on Fudge and it took me an hour to dry him off, practically the rest of the night after you had passed out.

And that's only Multiverse #2. In another, Klosterman writes (with some beauty), "There is still another alternative reality beyond that where a version of Earth exists, but it's ruled by robotic wolves with a hunger for liquid cobalt."

So we can't trust the past (who can you believe?); the present is iffy (there are too many presents - - - over a billion billion billion or so); and the future?

Take an evening with television, for example. "Both collectively and individually, the experience of watching TV in 2016 already feels totally disconnected from the experience of watching TV in 1996." What should it be? Well, "it absolutely won't be small groups of people, sitting together in the living room, staring at a two-dimensional thirty-one-inch rectangle for thirty consecutive minutes, consuming linear content packaged by a cable company."

What then? Klosterman ain't too sure, but he knows the programs we know and love (or hate) now will be "like those massive stone statues on Easter Island: monoliths of creative disconnection."

    Its cultural imprint might be akin to the Apollo space program, a zeitgeist-driving superstructure that suddenly mattered more than everything about it, until it (suddenly) didn't matter at all.

In other words: we just don't know about the future, but whatever the hell it will be will knock us out. We can not even imagine it now. Why? Why not? As Zhou Enlai is rumored to have said in 1972, when asked about the impact of the French Revolution. "It's still too early to tell."

§   §   §

I found myself getting quite huffy as I read through But What If We're Wrong? Probably because the author not only doesn't have all the answers - - - at least none that I could connect with - - - but, on top of that, he kept heading out to left field with another astonishing paradigm, one that left me thinking he was onto something big . . . but neither he (nor I) could be sure about whether he was right or wrong or just playing it by ear.

Most of his outta left field stuff consisted of half-there half-not-there musings that made some sort of sense, but, still, I was hard-pressed to figure out how they could even be right (or wrong). Largely, it was a matter of our most entrenched assumptions about mankind and the universe being, probably, wrong.

Example: the most successful American musician of all time? Frank Sinatra? Elvis Presley? Beyoncé? Dr. Dre? Smashmouth? Nope. Sousa.

Marching band music. "It's not 'popular' music, but it's entrenched within the popular experience. It will be no less fashionable in one hundred years than it is today. And this entire musical idiom is defined by one person - - - John Philip Sousa."

§   §   §

Despite all this, and by my lights, Klosterman is right up there with a few of my favorite prophets: Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media, James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State. Social analysts on the order of Salvador Minuchin, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Jacob Bronowski, Loren Graham, with a couple of historians thrown in for good luck: David Kennedy and Margaret MacMillan.

His chosen quotes are, as my kids would have it, awesome:

  • "History is the autobiography of a madman." [Alexander Herzen].
  • "The moment machines become self-aware, they will try to destroy people." [John Horgan].
  • "My prejudices are innumerable, and often idiotic. My aim is not to determine facts, but to function freely and pleasantly." [H. L. Mencken].

    And then there are Klosterman's originals:

  • "If we download the totality of our minds onto the Internet, they - - - we - - - would effectively become the Internet itself."
  • "Our brain avatars could automatically access all the information that exists in the virtual world, so we would all know everything there is to know."
  • "Sports are among the increasingly rare moments of totally unscripted television."
  • "There's growing evidence that the octopus is far more intelligent than most people imagined, partially because most people always assumed that they were gross, delicious morons."
  • With the internet, "We now have immediate access to all possible facts." And this, possibly the best argument for those of us who are unwilling (or unable) to imagine the unimaginable:
  • "There's a common philosophical debate about the nature of time. One side of the debate argues that time is happening in a linear fashion. This is easy to understand. The other side argues that all time is happening at once. This is difficult to comprehend. But replace the word "time" with "history" and that phemomena can be visualized on the Internet."

Klosterman tells us that he was born in 1972, which "allowed me to have an experience that is not exactly unique, but that will never again be replicated: I started my professional career in a world where there was (essentially) no Internet at all, and I'll end my professional career in a world where the Internet will be (essentially) the only thing that exists." Those of us who were, for instance, born in 1933 cannot necessarily see the world through his eyes, but we can come as close as possible with his contrary, troublesome, uneasy-making, kick-you-in-the-ass question: But What If We're Wrong?

And just to make you convinced that things are truly all screwed up, he and his publisher conspired to make a slip cover for this volume that is printed in such a way that you will be opening the book up-side-down, or backwards, or, barring that, convince you that something here is definitely SNAFU.

Take my advice. Get this one. Open it upside-down. Try to figure out what's wrong. If nothing, you then surely have nothing to lose . . . but your surety.

--- Lolita Lark
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