A Note on What Lana Sutton Calls “Zombification”

Lana Sutton, whom alas I only know cybernetically, is an artist, dancer, Yoga teacher, gardener, activist, musician and Holy Terror in Chattanooga who has written about the “zombification” of American politics.

This is an attempt to do what in academia is called “theory”, that is to propose a way of explaining WHY so many people seem so uninformed, unaware, and incurious. It is in fact a response in a thread on the Wall Street Journal in which a poster accused me of being wrong merely because, in a long and I flatter myself well-reasoned post, I had used the term “tea bag”.

The Wall Street Journal thread was started by Dilbert creator Scott Adams.

Here is my response in full. It starts from a quote from the poster who didn’t like my use of the phrase “Tea Bag”.

“Your use of the term “Tea Baggers” renders your comments totally irrelevant”

My my my how convenient that is. I have demonstrated that I’ve done my homework enough to realize that the Tea Whatever phenom is one with no decency n substance that I need respect, and my use of the word is part of my conclusion and not my premise.

Your problem, kiddo, in all probability, is I make your head hurt by usin’, not a lotta big words as in the caricature, but something you haven’t seen on TV, and your Daddy ain’t seen on TV since Ed Murrow, and this is appropriate reasoning and language just complex enough to fit the situation.

It makes your head hurt, so you crack a beer and focus on one word.

In 2004, I published a book, which is still earning me royalties, chump. It’s “Build Your Own .Net Language and Compiler” (Apress-Springer). It is quite computer-technical, since it is about how to use the formalizable grammar of a programming language to develop a translator (known as a “compiler”) for computer languages to bits and bytes.

Now, in learning my trade, years before, enough to write that book, I learned that Noam Chomsky (of all people) had developed a classification of languages as part, not of his recent political work, but as part of his scientific linguistics.

He identified a class of languages that consists, generally speaking and in layperson’s terms, of left to right streams of symbols. These streams, known as regular expressions, could be fully “understood” by an abstract machine which would merely be in certain discrete “states” during the processing of any one stream.

This automaton would have no memory. Higher classes of machines might have a simple memory structured so that the automaton or machine could only access its most recent addition to that “stack”, but general human language would require that the automaton or person not only have a richer memory; it would have to backtrack at times to fully understand a sentence in the higher level language.

Interestingly, Anne Wilson Schaef, a consultant to organizations, wrote some time ago about her theory that dysfunctional organizations form “addictive systems”, in which people persist in ineffective behavior (useless meetings, polluting the environment, office politics…you name it) because, in Schaef’s words, “the addictive system has no memory”.

The extreme instance would be a drunk in a blackout. But there are milder instances. NASA’s 1986 Challenger disaster was caused by the incorporation and standardization of extreme schedule pressures; after the crash, this problem was identified on spreadsheets…and forgotten, with the result that again, owing to neglect of engineering standards, the Columbia was destroyed on re-entry in 2003.

Likewise, at least part of the job of the “Mad Men” of advertising has always been to help us forget. In the 1940s, about 45% of all adult Americans smoked unfiltered cigarettes, and were lulled into believing them safe. They had to neglect both their own feelings (cigarettes are really awful things) and the admonishments of people like my grandfather.

Then, after the Royal Medical society in Britain and Reader’s Digest in America started to warn people that men who’d started smoking cigarettes during World War I were dying of a disease almost unknown prior to the 1940s (lung cancer), the Mad Men had to turn on a dime, and cause smokers to forget their reassurances that Camels and other smokes didn’t have no “cough in a carload”, and get them to adopt the filter. By this time, the Mad Men were forbidden by the FTC from making direct health claims, so instead, they showed healthy people doing healthy things like camping and tennis.

The addictive system has no memory. It is a stream of symbols. It is to a computer scientist, a simple “regular expression” meant to make a simple machine do simple things; older computer users may remember what they had to type on MS DOS computers in the 1980s: these were, for the most part, regular expressions.

Now, what does all this horses*t have to do with politics?

I’ve come to believe that in recent years, owing to the continual refinement of public relations that started in WWI under Edward Bernays (who both persuaded Americans to enter WWI and smoke unfiltered Camels), the language of politics has become what Chomsky called a “regular” language: a stream of evocative symbols, meant to be processed by people with neither excess intelligence nor any memory, and meant to produce states, that will produce desirable behavior. In the 1920s, as a result, people did walk a mile for a Camel, all the way the h*ll up Broadway on Yom Kippur, like the hero of The Lost Weekend in search of booze…because they’d been placed in the end-state desired by the tobacco and alcohol men who paid Bernays to ADDICT people to cigarettes, booze, consumption and b*lls*t.

Using the Chomsky model, I realized that at work, we’re at best what he called Type 2: we have a last in first out memory merely to remember and prioritize tasks. At home, people actively, today, seek to be put by TeeVee into the state of being entertained by a stream of symbols, in which are sandwiched substreams that put them into the state of consumers, and today, voters. Chomsky Type 3 if you’re a geek.

For example, a candidate like Al Gore or Obama presents a complex grammatical structure in which we understand, for example, that Social Security can indeed be secured by sequestering funds in what Gore called the lockbox. But to understand what Gore was saying, people had to parse sentences with things like sub and conditional clauses; put very simply, a legislative commitment would have been needed to secure Social Security.

But people, in CS Lewis’s words, maddened by false promises and soured by true miseries, don’t want to hear even probable conditionals. Like children they want reassurance: streams of symbols. Which Bush provided, starting with sneering about Gore’s fuzzy math. That is, Gore was just fuzzy, and no further thought was needed.

I could possibly make a bundle, you know, by coding computer software to REDUCE the complexity of political advertisements and speeches using an automated parser based on my knowledge of computer linguistics. But I prefer teaching little kids English. And…this software probably exists.

Now, I’ve interacted with Chomsky, and I have to say that he is too unimaginative and in my opinion too uncultured (as a scientist and not a public intellectual in my book) to appreciate linkages between his scientific work and politics. So be aware this is my own linkage.

Edward G. Nilges, “Holy Terror: Homage to Lana”, pencil, pen, wash with Gimp modifications, Oct 2010

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One Response to “A Note on What Lana Sutton Calls “Zombification””

  1. […] See the original post here: A Note on What Lana Sutton Calls “Zombification” « Spinoza1111′s Blog […]

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