“I am often wrong,” wrote satirist and critic H. L. Mencken, a statement that would seem more disarming were it not for the fact that Mencken so often opened his quotations by suggesting his forthcoming thoughts were worthless. “My prejudices are innumerable, and often idiotic. My aim is not to determine facts, but to function freely and pleasantly.” I get this. I understand what he’s getting at, and sometimes I relate to it: Since our interior thoughts are (ultimately) arbitrary and meaningless, we might as well think whatever we prefer thinking. This was especially important to a guy like Mencken, who was against US participation in World War II and hated Franklin Roosevelt. He was quite willing to concede that his most intensely held opinions weren’t based on factual data, so trying to determine what the factual data actually was would only make him depressed. It’s a worldview that—even if expressed as sarcasm—would be extremely unpopular today. But it’s quietly become the most natural way to think about everything, due to one sweeping technological evolution: We now have immediate access to all possible facts. Which is almost the same as having none at all.
Back in the landlocked eighties, Dave Barry offhandedly wrote something pretty insightful about the nature of revisionism. He noted how—as a fifthgrader— he was told that the cause of the Civil War was slavery. Upon entering high school, he was told that the cause was not slavery, but economic factors. At college, he learned that it was not economic factors but acculturalized regionalism. But if Barry had gone to graduate school, the answer to what caused the Civil War would (once again) be slavery. Now, the Civil War is the most critical event in American history, and race is the defining conflict of this country. It still feels very much alive, so it’s not surprising that teachers and historians want to think about it on disparate micro and macro levels, even if the realest answer is the simplest answer. But the Internet allows us to do this with everything, regardless of a subject’s significance. It can happen so rapidly that there’s no sense the argument has even evolved, which generates an illusion of consistency.
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 phenomenon can be visualized on the Internet. If we think about the trajectory of anything—art, science, sports, politics—not as a river but as an endless, shallow ocean, there is no place for collective wrongness. All feasible ideas and every possible narrative exist together, and each new societal generation can scoop out a bucket of whatever antecedent is necessary to support their contemporary conclusions. When explained in one sentence, that prospect seems a little terrible. But maybe that’s just because my view of reality is limited to river-based thinking.
This is an extract from Chuck Klosterman's But What If We’re Wrong? published by Penguin Press