What’s your point?

I was recently forwarded this (very lenghty) story which purports to show how a cabal of “venerable Wall Street banks, shady offshore financiers, and suspiciously compliant reporters at The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, CNBC, and The New York Times” along with all sorts of organized crime figures.

After a few pages of the document I’m not quite sure what to make of it.  Given the complexity of the financial system we have I suspect that you can string together any number of associations and ‘smoking guns’ to advocate your own particular theory of what’s to blame, who’s profiting and how we’re getting the wool pulled over our eyes.  I can’t, however, discount the argument either.  Hey, they may be right.

Unfortunately, this document makes it very difficult to assess the central argument.

As I was thinking about it, I was reminded of another case where the writer was attempting to change the paradigm of how we think the United States works in the world today but seemed to miss the mark: ‘Armed Madhouse‘.  Both suffer from similar problems that undermine their attempt to convince a skeptical audience (assuming they just don’t want to listen to themselves talk or preach to the small group of people who agree with them yet either don’t have the will or ability to change things).

  1. Tone: The authors come dangerously close (and I’m being generous here) to reminding the reader of that crazy guy on the street corner with a shopping cart filled with tin cans and fishing lures warning everyone about the giant extraterrestrial seed pods that are going to take over the world.  It’s a fine line between passionate patriot and tin foil hat wearing kook and when you’re arguing that everything your reader thinks about how the world is run is wrong you need to (at least appear) like you’re a rational, calm and wise person.  When you’re threatening to overturn conventional wisdom most people’s default setting is to discount them.  Therefore you need to make them think ‘Hey, this guy doesn’t seem like a crank.  Why would he say something like that?  Maybe there’s something to it.’
  2. Style:   I assume that in an effort to capture the attention of the reader regarding what could be regarded as some dry subject material, the authors elected to write in a very informal style.  That’s great in some formats (particularly blogging) but, again, it can make you appear less authoritative.  After all, even I have a blog and you wouldn’t trust me, would you?  🙂  Narratives can be compelling and help you get your point across but ultimately, if you’re trying to push an argument the narrative has to be subordinate to your central theme.
  3. Organization:  The Deep Capture document is, quite frankly, a mess in this regard.  It’s as if the writer(s) had 15 minutes to disgorge everything in their minds or lose it forever.  If a document was ever in need of graphics (event timelines, association diagrams, commodity flow charts, etc) this one has to be it.
  4. Overreach:  If you’re going to claim that your nemesis is a sociopath, do yourself a favor and back it up (he’s certainly a terrible financial adviser but that does not qualify as a symptom in the DSM).  Name calling reduces the strength of your primary argument by both getting you off your message and making you appear that personal grievances are your motivation, not any idealistic concern.  If we really are facing the extinction of the United States or the undermining of the constitution, why should I care if Person ‘X’ was mean to a little old lady five years ago?  No matter how personally satisfying it may be to label your foe as a ‘coke head/psychopath/terrorist’, if you can’t back it up, your readers will begin to wonder what else you’re exaggerating.  If you’re going with the flow of conventional wisdom you’ll have more wiggle room here.  You can call the heads of oil or tabacco companies ‘amoral and lacking in any virtuous human qualities’ because most people, at some level, buy into that stereotype.  It may not help your argument but it won’t damage it as much as leveling those same comments at Amnesty International without exhaustive proof.
  5. Focus:  These works try to do too much at one sitting.  If you want to make someone into a hero then run with that.  If you want to warn people of a danger to their freedoms and encourage them to rise up then do that.  If you want to heckle your personal enemies then do that.  It takes a skillful master to do all of those simultaneously however and chances are you don’t have the skills to pull it off.  So…just do one thing at a time.
  6. Evidence:  I have a couple of rules I try to live by:
  • Never trust anyone who insists on exclusively using a nickname that has nothing to do with their given name.  One good indicator of this is if they put the nickname on their business card.  For example:  Joe ‘Sheriff’ Watson or Laurie ‘Bud’ Shirinsky.  They’re all shifty and this point has absolutely nothing to do with this post.
  • More relevant to the discussion here:  Never trust anyone who says things like:  ‘I examined the facts with a completely open mind and let the facts speak for themselves.’ Or, ‘I came at this problem trying to disprove the very proposition I’m now fanatically advocating.’  Those tend to be among the most close minded people you’ll ever find.

Of course, I guess you could argue that perhaps these works were written with these faults intending to discredit the arguments they purport to advance.  Put the truth out there but in such an unpalatable way that people reject it out of hand.

Hmmm…where IS that tin foil?

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