Thursday, November 03, 2011

Not anonymous

I wasn't expecting the non-controversy of the Shakespeare authorship question to impinge on me, but I have been researching the life of an English individualist anarchist, Henry Seymour, with my friend Dan (who does nearly all the work). The final phase of Seymour's active life was spent as the editor of Baconiana, a publication of the Francis Bacon Society, predominantly devoted to proving that Bacon wrote the works of Shakespeare. So we have to deal with it and discuss it in whatever we end up writing.

At least it is fashionable now that Hollywood has joined the fray with the new film Anonymous, rehashing another theory, first proposed by J. Thomas Looney (really), that it was the Earl of Oxford who wrote the plays, despite him dying before some were written. A minor point like that does little to dissuade determined advocates and I suppose that the one thing going for Seymour and his ilk is that Francis Bacon was actually alive at the time. Though that is about all, mind you.

The definitive debunking of the anti-Stratfordians, as they have become known, is James Shapiro's Contested Will, but for a good condensed read here is a splendid despairing review by Stephen Marche in the New York Times. It is full of great lines like, "The movie is certainly overflowing with those superactorly British actors who tend to make you feel that you should be enjoying their performances even when you’re not." And this one, "Let me assure everybody that Shakespeare professors are absolutely incapable of operating a conspiracy of any size whatsoever. They can’t agree on who gets which parking spot. That’s what they spend most of their time intriguing about." And Marche goes into battle for more than Shakespeare.
Counternarratives have an inevitable appeal: wouldn’t it be cool if there were yetis? If the United States Army were keeping extraterrestrial remains in the Nevada desert? If aliens with powers beyond our imagination built the pyramids? If Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare but actually this, like, lord who had to keep his identity secret? 

You don’t have to be a truther or a birther to enjoy a conspiracy theory. We all, at one point or another, indulge fantasies that make the world seem more dangerous, more glamorous and, simultaneously, much more simple than it actually is. But then most of us grow up. Or put down the bong. Or read a book by somebody who is familiar with both proper historical methodology and the facts. 
This attraction to the outlandish is relatively harmless when confined to the outer reaches of the Internet or self-reinforcing societies. The real damage occurs when it begins to enter the mainstream, as Marche makes abundantly clear.
We hear politicians opine on their theories about climate change and evolution as a way of displaying how little they know. When Rick Perry compared climate-change skeptics like himself to Galileo in a Republican debate, I dearly wished that the next question had been “Can you explain Galileo’s theory of falling bodies?” Of all the candidates with their various rejections of the scientific establishment, how many could name the fundamental laws of thermodynamics that students learn in high school? Healthy skepticism about elites has devolved into an absence of basic literacy. 

... Along with a right-wing antielitism, an unthinking left-wing open-mindedness and relativism have also given lunatic ideas soil to grow in. Our politeness has actually led us to believe that everybody deserves a say. The problem is that not everybody does deserve a say. Just because an opinion exists does not mean that the opinion is worthy of respect. Some people deserve to be marginalized and excluded.
What is remarkable is the resilience of these fantasies. For example, October hasn't been a good month for the legion of obsessive climate change sceptics. It saw the publication of the report of Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project (BEST). There was no shock at all in the findings, they confirmed the accuracy of the temperature data showing the increasing warming of the planet, including the much abused "hockey stick", that climate scientists have been producing for decades. What was missing from the TV reports in this country is the most important point of all. The study had been set up by a scientist, though not a climatologist, who brought some expertise and respectability to global warming denial, Richard Muller. He was a climate change sceptic. And he has proved to be a good scientist. When faced with the evidence he changed his mind.

As for the die-hards, one of them made a big mistake. Anthony Watts came out with this widely reported statement about BEST when it started. "I’m prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong". Well it did and did he? Don't be silly, of course not.* That isn't what happens. People hold fast to their ideas and try and rationalise away the reality. And it will be the same with anti-Stratfordians and all the other advocates of crazy, convoluted, if superficially attractive ideas. What may be consoling or even just fun is still wrong if it is actually, well, wrong. But once there is a congruence between conspiracy thinking, economic interests and political power, what passes as harmless idiocy can become very dangerous indeed. And that, simply, is why truth matters. And Shakespeare's authorship matters too, especially to people like me who believe that talent, even genius, is not the sole preserve of the upper classes.

*For a full account see here and there is a neat video here.
The Marche review is via here

1 comment:

Anton Deque said...

Good post Peter. Much for thought here. My only observation is that there exists no weight of evidence to convince conspiracy theorists however intelligent.