Answering Readers' Questions

On Truth, Conspiracy, and... Anime?


    Jonathan T / ChumbaRoomba ask:
What if instead of Conspiracy enabling individuals to abdicate from the making of truth-value judgments, Conspiracy Practice and Conspiracy Theory emerge from an interwoven tapestry of narratives formed of the truth-value judgments of a multitude of individuals—and only when examined holistically in the context of the knowns and unknowns of history can we see who made good judgments based on true or false facts and who made bad ones? ...How do we sort True conspiracies from False? 

This is a great question, and one I still struggle with. To put it in my own terms: could it be that what I regard as the malevolence of conspiracy practice and the ignorance of conspiracy theory simply stems from well-meaning people adhering to, and making decisions based on, what they regard as their truth?

I’m not sure I have a decent answer. Certainly the secular world has this experience when dealing with extremist religious groups. How can an athiest tell a true believer that they are wrong, when they claim the authority of a god? Contemporary politics are, to my mind, similarly as much or more a test of faith than an examination of fact. The core problem is to identify a space where the definition of truth can be narrowed to some set of facts that can be measured, tested—verified, from the latin verificare: to make true.

Too often we forget that the unverified is, quite literally, not truly "true." It can still be reasonable, and even probable, but fact unverified is no fact at all, a circumstance made all the more difficult in a moment when the truth has become emotionalized or psychologized, and increasingly confused for what’s more accurately called “belief.”

    Thomas Moller-Nielsen asks:
I don’t quite see how the Liar’s Paradox is supposed to relate to the issue of self-censorship. As I understand it, The Liar’s Paradox involves sentences which cannot be either true or false without entailing a contradiction. (“This sentence is false”, if true, is false, and if false, it is true.) Self-censorship, on the other hand, involves refraining from publicly uttering one’s beliefs due to fear of possible negative social/political/economic/consequences. But what does the former have to do with the latter? What is logically paradoxical about failing to publicly air one’s views?

It has been said that I'm prone to failures of elaboration. In this case, I invoked the Liar’s Paradox to describe and contextualize the role not of the writer or speaker but of the reader or listener: In a culture of self-censorship, how do we who consume news and opinion know what to believe? How can we tell when someone is being honest (or thinks they’re being honest)? Self-censorship doesn’t just prevent communicators from expressing themselves freely. It eventually erodes the trust of the public—the true “silent majority” who might not have a platform, or want a platform, from which to speak, but who rely on the voices of others to inform them.

    Larsiusprime asks:
Ed—how much do you think the current state of the internet is due to the surveillance impetus of state actors, and how much [to] private forces? Or are they inherently related? Curious which end of the dog is wagging which, in your opinion.

Good timing on this one: today's news is full of the escapades of one of those private forces, namely the Israeli NSO Group’s sale of hacking tools to the likes Kazakhstan, Azerbaijian, Mexico, and Hungary. These tools, which were developed by the Israeli state—or more accurately those recently in the employ of the Israeli state—were sold by NSO, nominally a private company. The links between the two significantly complicate any answer. Look to this space later this week for more in-depth treatments of this issue, but for now let me just say this: while it's not easy to tell where the state ends and the private begins, it's not hard to see that it’s those whose seek to limit the expression of institutional powers—journalists and opposition candidates and human rights activists—who most often find themselves the victims of it.

    Eoan asks:
Have you seen or read the series Liar Game?

I wondered when the anime questions would start.

I’ve been rigorously dodging questions like this for as long as I’ve been in the public eye. Occasionally, a friend asks me why.

When you’re the subject of a controversy in an environment where a significant portion of the media has greater economic incentives to titillate than to edify, even passing references to something like video games or anime will get you treated like a weirdo — despite the fact that they’re probably more popular than baseball, these days. That’s just how it is.

As a result, I’ve been pretty careful about the things I’ve said and how I’ve said them, because my every utterance was evaluated by the worst people on Earth for its utility in not only discrediting me as a person, but me as a proxy for people in favor of surveillance reform. I cared a lot about that, and so I worked hard to minimize my peculiarities — or at least the evidence of them.

Fortunately for all of us, The Peculiarities Of Edward Snowden is no longer the kind of article that gets assigned at The New Yorker anymore — except in place of something like a book review, if a writer can’t be bothered to read or understand the text — which means I have finally recovered a lost freedom.

That freedom is, in part, what has enabled me to start this newsletter, which is probably the only place where someone will be able to ask me about a wildly obscure manga like Liar Game, and I’ll be able to say, “Yeah, sure: I read it — at least through the Contraband arc.”

What a world.