Montezuma’s Bane (a.k.a. Fake News)

Chris Kutarna
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I’ve been in Australia for the past couple weeks to write, to research—and occasionally, to share with other people what I’m writing and researching about. Highlights included a talk at the Committee for Adelaide on June 26 and a keynote at DATA61+LIVE in Melbourne on June 28—that, and celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday Down Under with friends at an ice hockey match (seriously). I wanted to celebrate by taking part in Canada’s other national sport (lacrosse), but it’s winter down here, so…

I’m pretty optimistic about this ‘second Renaissance‘ we’re living through, but I also try to be sober about the case for pessimism. I think, for example, of Montezuma II (1466-1520)—the Aztec emperor who ruled over his civilization’s greatest expansion…and its fall to Hernan Cortez and his Spanish conquistadors. The Franciscan friar, Bernardino de Sahagun, gathered Aztec accounts of their downfall just a few years after the events took place. As he wrote in his chronicle:

The Mexican king Montezuma sent his sorcerers
Who were to cast a spell on the Spanish.
And when they failed, he sent a second group of messengers:
The soothsayers, the magicians and the high priests.
But it was to no avail.
They could not bewitch the people…

The meeting of Cortes and Montezuma II at Tenochtitlan, 8 November 1519. Oil on canvas.


Well, of course they couldn’t. Curses aren’t real!

That is exactly how the Spanish reacted, too. Their techno-rational worldview was impervious to magic spells and mythic rituals. But those same spells had always worked before, among us Aztecs. If you were a sorcerer, and you publicly cursed me, that curse became part of our shared reality. You knew you’d cursed me, I knew I’d been cursed, everyone who saw and heard about it believed that I’d been cursed…Your curse was an uncontested fact of our world, as “true” as my public claim that “My name is Chris” is true.

So today, against anti-immigrant commentators in the UK media who point to the welfare burden of migrants, I cast a fact!: Immigrants to the UK pay £15 billion more via taxes than they withdraw via social benefits each year. Or against climate-change denial back home in Canada’s agricultural belt, I cast a fact!: Wheat yields fall 5-10% for every 1-degree rise in global average temperature.

Then my hands fall, helpless. My facts have no power, because they do not cross into this other culture that has invaded. And I am no ordinary fact-caster. I am a high priest of our techno-rational world, anointed at the holy alter of Oxford University itself! (Although I only wear my robes when I’m back in Oxford).

It matters not. My protective magic is failing. And I fear the consequences for all of us. History suggests the stakes are very high…

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