The Bamboozler who Came to Dinner
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I have a neighbor who reads a lot of history books. I have always suspected that he only reads them so that he can impress dinner guests with the newest “truth” he has discovered in the pages. Usually, it is enough to just let him go on about whatever he is reading, but every once in a while his evening lecture deserves some discussion that goes beyond his selected text. We all know, and try to avoid, someone who reads a book, a magazine article or visits a website and immediately awards themselves an advanced degree on the subject, but their stories are still important when they are balanced by multiple perspectives. Admittedly, my bias for avoiding that single version of the historical record motivates my thinking, so when he hijacked the dinner conversation to lecture on his current reading about the ancient Egyptian library in Alexandria, his text moved right into those ideas that make Story Chip so important.

The book that he read seemed to praise this ancient effort of the Pharaoh Ptolemy to assemble both the knowledge and scholarship of the Mediterranean in much the way that the late Carl Sagan did in his Cosmos series when he said, “Books break the shackles of time, proof that humans can work magic.” A library, or archive of stories, achieves magic by storing and sharing the collected wisdom of a culture, but there is also a danger because each library has an editor who decides what is collected and what is left out. Sagan was keenly aware of this failing of knowledge as well:

One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we've been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We're no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It is simply too painful to acknowledge — even to ourselves — that we've been so credulous. (So the old bamboozles tend to persist as the new bamboozles rise.)

At dinner that night, I took on the bamboozle. As much as the library at Alexandria represented a quantum leap in research and preservation of knowledge, it also was the first salvo in the battle for the minds of men; books that were included in the library versus the thinking that was excluded. I pointed out that Alexandria could also be seen as the world's first bureaucracy perpetuating itself by deciding what was truth and deciding who would get access the truth that had been assembled there. Oral traditions were brought under the control of the bamboozlers. I pointed out that the Greeks were the first book burners, destroying the work of Democritus and condemning Socrates to death for his thinking. The cradle of civilization was also the cradle of censorship and controlling truth by regulating media of communication.

Well, that certainly led to a lively conversation at dinner. Unfortunately my neighbor had never heard of Harold Innis and apparently had missed the Cosmos series and became strangely quiet while the rest of us talked about the never ending conflict between bureaucrats, censors, bamboozlers and oral traditions. Innis and Sagan both recognized the importance of continual research to improving the human condition. Innis expressed his profound concern for monopolies of information and the role that oral traditions played in preventing them. Or, story telling is important.

The next time you are sitting through a monologue from a someone who has just finished reading or watching a single perspective, you can do a face plant in the vichyssoise, or you might try to share some additional stories that broaden the conversation. You might find that everyone at the table starts to take a role in the conversation, and you might also find that the bamboozler becomes much quieter. You could be a hero by just telling your story.

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