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I really miss Sir Terry Pratchett. Looking at the news (and the comments to the news) makes me wonder if this be-hatted weirdo who wrote about witches, imps, and golems was actually the last great humanist…

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Today, let’s talk about a concept from one of Pratchett’s later books “Making Money”.  Halfway through the novel, two of the characters are trying to unravel a deepening financial mystery which is threatening to derail the economy of the fantasy microcosm which the novels are set inside.  The fictional sleuths investigate the late Chairman of the Royal Bank and find that his wardrobe is filled with very specific boudouir costumes. Staring at this excess and pondering the depths of the human psyche, one of the characters forms a social hypothesis which is outlined below (I copied the following verbatim from a Pratchett wiki):

The Horseradish Sauce Hypothesis runs thusly.

Everyone likes a beef sandwich, right?

But just to vary the flavour one day, you put a little horseradish sauce on it.

You discover you like horseradish sauce, so the next time you do a beef sandwich you put a little more sauce on it.

Then a little bit more.

Then a little bit more.

Until one day, you put so much horseradish sauce on the sandwich that the beef falls out.

And you don’t even notice.

I am going to say nothing of truly addictive things like fentanyl, nicotine, lechery, or alcohol (which everyone already knows are habit-forming), and instead write about how society is being conquered by dangerous, low-grade flavors of horseradish.  This sounds harmless enough (after all, everyone has to get through their meaningless day jobs), yet, as in the sandwich example above, you don’t notice when the meat falls out.   One goes from “reading the news” to internet troll without recognizing it, and it’s happening to all of us.

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The internet is the all-time expert on horseradish.  It knows the specific variety that everyone likes: Facebook likes, shopping, gambling, esoteric adult material, cat photos, Farmville, getting angry about ANTIFA, reading diatribes about how the earth is flat, or whatever. It’s all there.  The special sauce which makes the internet so addictive is that it knows what rewards give your brain a little jolt of dopamine and it can administer these little jolts every 5-12 minutes all day.  Most people spend all day in semi-isolation in beige cubicles doing meaningless & stressful tasks for distant masters.  The internet is to such people what cocaine-laced water bottles are to depressed and lonely laboratory rats.  The little razor-hooks can find the cracks in everyone’s façade because they dangerously mimic life’s true sources of meaning and joy.  If you squint cross-eyed at the list in the second sentence of this paragraph you can imagine how these things are sad substitutes for friends, romance, knowledge, status, and a sense of belonging.

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This is not how I would build a society.  It is sad that people have gambling problems instead of fulfilling life quests, or naked pictures of women instead of girlfriends, but I guess it moves stocks, diet pills, and plastic novelty hats well enough to keep the world economy chugging along.  The real problem is that the internet has moved beyond being a private venue for embarrassing vices to being the main venue for news and political discourse. It is where society collects and dissemination  information and opinions.  The internet is now where we self-select into groups.  This is not resulting in a golden age of clubs and volunteering, instead it is transforming the country into a boiling cauldron of tribal anger.    It feels good to be furious…or maybe not good, but at least it feels like something and one seeks it out every day until the beef in the sandwich is gone and all that is left is the empty calories of spicy sauce.

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I try not to write about our déclassé president, because I regard him as a symptom of this problem rather than the problem itself (and also because granting him attention makes him stronger).  Yet he is apparently a near-univeral flavor of internet horseradish.  People back home in West Virginia can feel the righteous joy of punishing smug coastal elitists by joyously watching that fellow destroy the whole country and rob us all blind. People in Brooklyn can feel the righteous joy of being angry about this mendacious hustler. Getting worked up by the news becomes a dollop of horseradish and we all need more each day.  I know I now check to see what grotesque enormity the president has committed before I check anything else.  If child poverty in Central Asia dipped four fold or the UN seriously curtailed human trafficking or something I would probably not notice, but I moronically know every dumb thing the President tweeted.

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There has always been a degree of degraded spectale to American politics–it’s part of democracy…part of humankind!–but it these piquant empty calories are taking the place of vital nutrients for the body politic.  As we stare in horror or glee at the political theater, our problems are not getting solved.  New discoveries are not being made. Compromise and reform are not being achieved.  When Trump is gone in 2020 or 2024 (assuming the republic survives), we are still going to have this dangerous fascination with outrage.

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Making the news into addictive “infotainment” is dangerous.  It is less an inquiry into truth and more like the ill-concealed traps and lures within infomercials aimed at the elderly or the ignorant.

There is a quote from Anais Nin which succinctly and poetically summarizes the horseradish hypothesis: “Abnormal pleasures kill the taste for normal ones.” It seems deceptively straightforward until you think about it, and then its tragic power becomes evident.  Really think about how you look at the news lately…are you trying to determine the truth of what goes on or are you looking for a dollop of outrage to push you foward to the next sensational click?

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The beef is falling out of society’s sandwich in a lot of ways right now. I concentrated on political problems becaue they are top-tier troubles, but the other ignoble horseradish is part of this too.  Everybody needs some special zest, but if the banquet is nothing but novel jallop, we all begin to starve!

Terry Pratchett with Starlings on his Head

Terry Pratchett with Starlings on his Head

Normally I write up all of my obituaries at the end of the year, but today I wanted to say a special farewell to Sir Terry Pratchett in thanks for his opus of delightful fantasy novels. Born in 1948 in Buckinghamshire, the successful author died today (March 12, 2014) of complications from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Doctors diagnosed Pratchett with the debilitating neurological disease in 2007.  He subsequently donated a substantial sum of money to the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, saying that he had spoken to several survivors of brain cancer, but no survivors of Alzheimer’s disease. This is an extremely worthwhile charity, as is Pratchett’s other great cause—saving the world’s last remaining orangutans. If you have lots of extra money, you should give some to Alzheimer’s researchers and orangutan conservationists. Additionally Sir Terry owned a greenhouse full of carnivorous plants and had a fossil sea turtle from the Eocene named after him. However, none of these details of his life are what make him important to his readers.

Librarian of the Discworld as he appears in The Discworld Companion, illustrated by Paul Kidby (Copyright Pratchett and Kidby )

Librarian of the Discworld as he appears in The Discworld Companion, illustrated by Paul Kidby (Copyright Pratchett and Kidby )

Since 1983, Sir Terry spent his years churning out Discworld novels. Discworld was a multi-racial world of beefy barbarians, doughty dwarves, incompetent wizards, operatic vampires, and naked avarice. The stories spanned across many fantastic yet strangely familiar continents, but the narrative always returned to the sprawling twin metropolis of Ankh-Morpork (which, though putatively a medieval city state, will seem instantly familiar to anyone who has set foot in London or New York).

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Like Don Quixote, the Discworld novels started out making fun of fantasy and the endless follies of life before falling deeply in love with fantasy and even more deeply in love with humankind. In the Discworld books, people are presented as benighted and greedy: their unspeakably stupid schemes to defraud each other generally drive the action (in the very first scene, Ankh-Morpork burns down moments after fire insurance is introduced). Yet the defining characteristic of the novels was the humor and humanity within the the personality of the characters, many of whom were not even technically humans. Beyond the petty scheming endemic to society, individuals were revealed to be ultimately curious and compassionate: even very unlikely figures had heroic and sympathetic natures.

Discworld characters by yenefer

Discworld characters by yenefer

As I write this I realize I am saying farewell not to Terry Pratchett, a rich balding English guy whom I did not know, but to Nanny Ogg, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, Gaspode the Wonder Dog, Sergeant Detritus (a hulking but kindly troll), Tiffany Aching, cruel Greebo, Ponder Stibbons, the Luggage, and stalwart Carrot of the Watch.  It’s like a whole group of my friends died (along with a carnivorous sentient trunk).

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Discworld was a toy theater where Pratchett presented his ideas of what makes life beautiful and worthwhile in delightfully adroit symbols. The ultimate figure in this little macrocosm was finally revealed not to be Lord Veteneri, the philosopher-king who despotically yet benignly rules Ankh-Morpork; nor Granny Weatherwax, the flinty sorceress who protects Discworld from alien incursion; nor even Samuel Vimes, a recovering alcoholic who rose from the depths of poverty to reshape the social contract. Instead Discworld was ruled by the symbolic personification of Death, forever watching the strutting, lying, primping figures below him with bemused yet avuncular affection. After spending time with this imposing seven foot tall skeleton with glowing eyes, the reader came to learn that metaphysical mystery, supernatural solemnity, and the terrors of oblivion were no match for friendship, humor, kindness, and an egg fry-up with miscellaneous crunchy bits.

Good bye Sir Terry, your world meant the world to us and we will miss you a lot.

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