I Do Keep a Slightly Sharper Lookout

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – Being a Yankee, I’ve always strode confidently through the woods and thick brush. The odds of there being something painful or lethal lurking underfoot have been so minuscule that the thought never enters my consciousness. (I will admit the occasional eruptions of ground hornets, those spiteful little creatures that put both man and dog ajump; but they’re pretty rare.) However, when swishing through tall grass in the desert, the dry brush and prickly pear in the Southwest, or the hardwood forests of Appalachia, I do keep a slightly sharper lookout on my next few steps. I’ve got at least one set of rattlesnake rattles in my collar button box to remember Texas by.

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Ever get one of those? I should say, how many dozens like that have you gotten? Every time I get one – literally this very minute, as I wrote, the home phone rang, and a recorded young lady’s voice breathlessly offered me information about eliminating my debt – I have to remember the Biblical injunction about amputating any body parts that offend us, and restrain my index finger from responding to the siren call of the nameless persons offering this nirvanic solution.

Time was, I used to ask the students in my classes to try to distinguish between facts, data, truth, interpretation, commentary, conjecture, fiction, misdirection, misinformation, disinformation, lies, damned lies, grift, and swindles. They were intrigued one day when I opened a small bottle of perfume on my desk and asked each of them to raise their hand when they could smell it. When all the hands were up, I passed the bottle around so they could tell it was water. Why did they believe it was perfume, I asked. Well, they said, because you told us. Mmhmm…

(I can’t believe my good luck! My computer just pinged again, and this time it’s someone from “Microsoft_Support Team863”: “Hope your [sic] doing good…check the order receipt…” The receipt is for $499.99; something I ordered, and the message is signed by good old Josh Smith.)

That was an easy one – though I will check my credit card transactions this evening to ensure that nothing nasty’s leaked through. No longer can any of us tramp carelessly through these cyberwoods without fear of being bitten or stung; the new reality is that calamity is but a careless key stroke away. I presume my old students have gained sophistication in the ensuing sixty years. I’d like to believe that I have, too; but only a few years ago my wife and I fell for the “Granny Scam” and sent $1,500 we couldn’t afford to a “grandson in distress” in Mexico City. He’d’ve gotten us for $4,000 on a second try if a bank officer hadn’t caught it. Old folks are the most easily scammed.

In the April 9, 2022, issue of “The Atlantic,” Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg very powerfully posits that, “Disinformation is the story of our age.” So many of us have become habituated to reading and listening to only information and arguments with which we’re predisposed to agree, that the national dialogue has turned toxic. It’s rather like bears that, habituated to dumpsters, slip easily into subsisting on garbage – which is often the death of them. The article is outstanding – though the only folks likely to look it up are those least likely to profit from considering it. But that’s the sad story of our age, possibly the last age of the American republican experiment. The Internet makes almost everything more accessible.

I recently stumbled into an Internet discussion among true believers in “chem trails” – vapor trails that persist, but are really chemicals being spread in the atmosphere by “them” in order to control and destroy “us”. When I suggested that was nuts, no one offered proof. Instead, I was derided as a “sheepie” and fool, and told to “check the evidence.” You can guess where the evidence exists.

One of the fastest-growing and most useless cyberactivities is fact-checking. Useless because those who need them most are most unlikely to trust them. We are a nation – though hardly the only one – permanently bent over little screens that can bring the world’s knowledge into the palms of our hands. But it’s utterly useless there unless we can distinguish between verifiable statements and those that have been invented and planted to serve someone else’s agenda. It’s not getting easier.