Tag Archives: conspiracy theories

Grievance, Trust And Conspiracy

A long essay in The Washington Post a few weeks ago made an effort to demystify America’s current embrace of conspiracy theories.

The author acknowledged that Americans have always been susceptible to these theories, and that mass delusions, disinformation and conspiracy mongering are hardly unique to America. Granted, the internet has made dissemination of these beliefs far simpler, and more visible to those of us that don’t engage with them, but that isn’t a measure of how prevalent they are.

I read the essay with considerable interest, because–really! What sorts of people believe the most prominent versions going around these days? The essay described a couple of them:

QAnon followers believe that former president Donald Trump spent his time as president battling a cabal of Satan-worshiping “deep state” Democrats who traffic children for sex, a paranoia that has often led to valuable resources being diverted away from real missing children cases. Since the 2020 election, they have also come to believe that Trump’s loss was the result of massive fraud, a disproved conspiracy theory that has in turn created a real threat to our democracy and elections. Going further than the 7 in 10 Republican voters who believe the same election conspiracy, Q followers also assure with prophetic zeal that Trump will be reinstated imminently. Mass arrests of the country’s corrupt elite and a “Great Awakening” will follow, they say.

This one is even more bizarre (if possible):

This one — bordering on messianic and based in part on numerology — involved the slain president’s son, who himself died in a plane crash in 1999. Here on the grassy knoll, they believed, John F. Kennedy Jr. would soon reemerge more than two decades after having faked his own death, or would perhaps be reincarnated outright. The resurrected son of the assassinated father, they assured, would become Trump’s vice president.

The author assured readers that–looney-tunes as these seem–they emerge from a long history of similarly outlandish beliefs. He traced a variety of these irrational stories through the nation’s history–remember all those witches in Salem? The “alternative” theories about the assassination of JFK? The insistence that Barack Obama was really born in Kenya?

Why do such theories thrive here–and under what circumstances? I’m not a psychiatrist and I don’t play one on TV, but think the following paragraphs explain a lot. (It always comes back to racism…)

Here in the United States, conspiracy theories have always been exacerbated by our unique racial, ethnic and religious pluralism, according to Goldberg and other historians.

As populist myths, conspiracy theories allow their believers to feel part of a “true” American community, as special defenders of it. They thrive, the historical record shows, amid the mistrust that exists between people and communities.
Americans have often embraced conspiratorial stories and lies with particular vigor during moments of pronounced uncertainty wrought by social and technological change. And conspiracy theory opportunists throughout U.S. history have found myriad ways to exploit these particular American fissures.

Students of these theories tell us that they are about certainty, belonging and power. They flourish because they resonate with people who are fearful and/or dissatisfied with their lives–people looking for someone to blame for whatever it is that they fear or whatever has gone wrong. As the author says,

To understand the lure of conspiracy theories and alternate realities, you have to interrogate what people get out of believing such things. You have to understand the human emotions — fear, estrangement, resentment — that underlie them.

The author also explains why we are hearing so much more about these trips into la-la land.

Over the past 20 years, sweeping technological change has dramatically accelerated the speed with which conspiracy theories can spread and has made it easier for people with fringe beliefs to find one another. I have seen in my reporting time and again that conspiracy theory communities online can often become more important to believers than their offline relations, a new kind of self-segregation that can eviscerate even family bonds. In our chaotic and divided moment, the stories we believe say something about the factions we belong to, like the music we listen to or the clothes we wear.

The Internet has not only made it easier for conspiratorial communities to organize, but it has also made conspiracy mongering substantially less arduous. No longer do those trafficking in conspiracy theories have to write books or stitch together grand presentations for maximum effect.

Add in the erosion of trust in American institutions, including government, and the very human tendency to see simple incompetence as something darker and more intentional–the need to identify a culprit who did it (whatever “it” was) on purpose…and the next thing you know, you’ve got Jewish Space Lasers.

We live in weird times.

Close Encounters Of The Irrational Kind

No matter what subject I raise in one of these daily posts, the ensuing discussion is likely to contain a lament about the absence of critical thinking. That really isn’t surprising–as an essay on “America’s Cognitive Crisis” put it:

What is the great lesson of 2020? A pandemic killed hundreds of thousands of people and ravaged economies while people disagreed on basic facts. Conspiracy beliefs ran amok. Unscientific racism surged on social media. Medical quackery enjoyed a boom year. What was the common thread that ran through all of it? What should we have learned from such an extraordinarily eventful year?

The crucial ever-present factor in 2020 was critical thinking. Those who thought well were less likely to tumble into the rabbit holes of thinking QAnon is true, COVID-19 is a hoax, 5G towers help spread the virus, racism is scientific, hydroxychloroquine cures COVID-19, demon sperm is a problem, tracking devices are in vaccines, there is mass election fraud, etc. The ability and willingness to lean toward evidence and logic rather than side with blind trust and emotion was the key metric behind the madness. We may view the current year, 2021, as the test to see if we were paying attention in 2020. So far, it doesn’t look good.

Granted, America has always had plenty of gullible folks–ready, willing and able to purchase the latest snake oil remedy or dunk the recently accused witch. But as the author of the essay notes, it’s no longer necessary to be a charismatic apocalyptic preacher or a well-funded, self-aggrandizing politician to pollute receptive minds. “Today anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account has the potential power to ignite wildfires of public lunacy.”

Unfortunately, it is only likely to get worse. The development and increasing use of deepfakes, which are nearly impossible to identify as false, poses a threat for which we clearly aren’t prepared.

Our present course may be unsustainable. The synergy of increasingly sophisticated deception aimed at unthinking masses promises more crippling confusion, disruption, and chaos, perhaps more than America can endure. Every minute worrying about nefarious microchips in vaccines is time not spent intelligently evaluating risk and assessing evidence. Every day sacrificed at the altar of a conspiracy belief or at the feet of a hollow demagogue is another day lost to possible social and political progress for all.

So–once again– I pose “the” question: what can we–what should we–do?

The author spends considerable time illustrating the extent of mass delusions and rampant disinformation, and concludes that much of it is attributable to the fact that too many American minds are incapable of handling close encounters of the irrational kind.

The key problem is that America is a nation of believers more than a nation of thinkers. Therefore, our primary target should not be the few who sell lies and fantasies but the many who so eagerly buy them.

Easier said than done, of course. The author says the only plausible “fix” is to make education for rational, critical thinking a norm of national curricula, and he includes a helpful explanation of the elements of that pedagogy. As he argues,

There is no quick fix available. But there is a preventive treatment. Most won’t like it because it’s slow and involves a lot of work. But it is a solution, perhaps the only one with a fair chance of success. Playing the long game of critical thinking education is the only way to deny the irrational-belief beast and the steady supply of victims it depends on….

The U.S. government cannot outlaw the inclination to believe nonsense. Regulations won’t purge the internet of every lie. Our brains are not going to suddenly evolve beyond their natural tendencies to lead us astray when it comes to perceiving and calculating reality. The answer lies with us. Teach our children thinking skills so that they can be their own editors and fact checkers. Children who grow up in this century must be their own guardians of truth. But they will fall short unless someone cares enough to teach them how.

I just hope we (1) heed the advice; and (2) last long enough to implement it.

 

The People’s Business

The polarization that characterizes American politics these days begins with very different world-views–and very different beliefs about what government is and what it is for. Those differences used to exist within a “big tent” Republican Party, back when there were still a lot of perfectly sane Republicans. (I still remember those times; I told you I’m old…)

I still remember the telling difference between the rhetoric employed by Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, who liked to refer to citizens as “customers” of government, and the Hudnut Administration that preceded Goldsmith’s. I served in the Hudnut Administration, and although we didn’t borrow from business terminology, I think it’s fair to say that we considered citizens to be  shareholders, not customers.

We understood that citizens are the owners of the government enterprise.

So far, the Biden Administration has taken steps to do the people’s business, to reflect a belief that government should actively pursue the public good as reflected in the desires of a majority of its citizen-owners. As Heather Cox Richardson recently noted, Biden has refused to engage with the craziness and has instead acted on matters ordinary people care about.

Biden is using executive orders to undercut the partisanship that has ground Congress to a halt for the past several years. While Biden’s predecessor tended to use executive actions to implement quite unpopular policies, Biden is using them to implement policies that most Americans actually like but which could never make it through Congress, where Republicans hold power disproportionate to their actual popularity.

According to a roundup by polling site FiveThirtyEight, Biden’s executive actions cover issues that people want to see addressed. Eighty-three percent of Americans—including 64% of Republicans—support a prohibition on workplace discrimination over sexual identification, 77% (including 52% of Republicans) want the government to focus on racial equity, 75% want the government to require masks on federal property, and 68% like the continued suspension of federal student loan repayments. A majority of Americans also favor rejoining the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accords, and so on.

There is, of course, a limit to what can be accomplished by Executive Order. Biden has thus far shown an admirable intent to “stay in his lane”–to restrict his actions to those that can be defended as appropriate to the Executive Branch. But doing the people’s business–fulfilling the numerous needs and demands of government’s “owners”–will require action by Congress.

Congress, unfortunately, is massively dysfunctional.

The current debate in Congress about the filibuster illustrates that today’s partisan divide is between those who believe government is obliged to do the people’s business–to carry out the wishes of the owners of the enterprise– and those who quite clearly believe that their role is to prevent that business from being conducted (unless, of course, the business at hand involves a tax cut that will benefit their donors.)

The nation’s Founders contemplated a Congress that would engage in negotiation and compromise, and would then proceed to pass measures by a simple majority vote–not a super-majority. Today, thanks to the evolution of the filibuster over the years, it takes sixty votes to pass anything, no matter how innocuous.

Of course, the Founders also believed that the people we would elect to Congress would be “the best and brightest”–public-spirited, educated and reasonable men (yes, I know…) who would take their legislative responsibilities seriously. I wonder what they’d think of the gun-toting, conspiracy-believing wackos who are currently walking the halls of the Capitol and warning about fires started by Jewish space-lasers …

Not to get overly partisan here, but those lunatics are all Republicans…..and they have no concept of–or ability to do– “the people’s business.”

 

Ladies And Gentlemen, I Give You Today’s GOP

Yesterday, Joe Biden announced that Kamala Harris would be his running mate.

Harris is a walking, talking embodiment of the America that so terrifies white nationalists: an Indian mother, a Jamaican father, a Jewish husband. She’s also a whip-smart lawyer and a seasoned public servant. Harris is one of a new generation of highly accomplished, very diverse Democrats–and by “diverse” I don’t simply mean that their ranks include many men and women of color; they are also ideologically, religiously and geographically diverse.

Then there are the Republicans.

Yesterday also saw primary elections in a number of states. In one of those, in Georgia, a white loony-toons conspiracy theorist handily  won the GOP nod for Congress. (In all fairness, it was a female loony-toons conspiracy theorist, so maybe that’s progress.)

Conspiracy theorists won a major victory on Tuesday as a Republican supporter of the convoluted pro-Trump movement QAnon triumphed in her House primary runoff election in Georgia, all but ensuring that she will represent a deep-red district in Congress.

The ascension of Marjorie Taylor Greene, who embraces a conspiracy theory that the F.B.I. has labeled a potential domestic terrorism threat, came as six states held primary and runoff elections on Tuesday.

Greene has also made a series of videos in which she complains of an “Islamic invasion,”  claims Black and Hispanic men are held back by “gangs and dealing drugs,” and pushes an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. After her win was announced, Trump gave her his “full-thoated support.”

The Brookings Institution , as well as the FBI, has confirmed that (despite Trump’s rants about “antifa” and Black Lives Matter) members of white supremacist organizations and adherents of widespread conspiracy theories like QAnon (largely embraced by white nationalists) are responsible for most of the terrorist attacks in the U.S.

In the last four years, violence linked to white supremacy has eclipsed jihadi violence as the predominant form of terrorism in the United States. Beyond high-profile terrorist attacks in the United States like the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue and 2019 El Paso Walmart shootings, white supremacists have also tried to seize on the protests following George Floyd’s death to foment chaos.

In the Georgia GOP primary, Ms. Greene defeated a neurosurgeon described as “no less conservative or pro-Trump.” She held a lead of nearly 15 percentage points early Wednesday.

The New York Times story, linked above, reported that Greene’s victory “is likely to unsettle mainstream Republicans.”  But there really aren’t many–if any– “mainstream” Republicans left, a reality that seemed to escape the authors of the report (and continues to escape most of the Times political reporters).

The reality–especially painful for those of us who spent years working for a very different Republican Party–is that Donald Trump is not an anomaly, and today’s GOP is no longer a political party connected to a set of governing principles and policies. Today, to be a member of what is now the GOP cult is to adopt a tribal identity –an identity characterized by white grievance and a furious rejection of scientific, demographic and moral reality.

Not to mention sanity.

QAnon is a wild, unfounded belief that Donald Trump, of all people, is waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping pedophiles in government, business and the media–a war that will lead to a day of reckoning on which prominent people like Hillary Clinton will be arrested and executed. A troubling percentage of today’s GOP base believes it.

I keep thinking back to that great–and prescient– speech from the 1995 movie An American President, when Michael Douglas, playing the President, thunders

We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it. 

Today’s Republican Party has become a cult composed of lightly-tethered-to-reality know-nothings who have uncritically and enthusiastically embraced the party’s only consistent, remaining message:  “You should fear ‘those people’ –the ones who don’t look or worship like real (i.e.white Christian) Americans. They are to blame for all of your problems and disappointments.” 

And so it goes….

 

 

Alex Jones And Donald Trump

One of the blogs I read regularly is Juanita Jean’s: The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Parlor, Inc. “Juanita Jean” is really a Texan named Susan DuQuesnay Bankston. She’s a longtime Democratic activist in her part of Texas, and a wit who reminds me a lot of the late, great Molly Ivins.

Bankston’s husband and son are both lawyers (these things tend to run in families), and her son recently represented parents of children who were killed in the Sandy Hook massacre, in a suit against Alex Jones.

As many of you are probably aware, Alex Jones is a truly vile, probably crazy conspiracy theorist who spent years making life hell for those parents–telling his depressingly large and equally crazy audience that the massacre never happened, that it was a “false flag” operation conducted by the government, and that the parents were really actors. Followers of his constantly harassed and threatened the parents. Bankston sued Jones on their behalf and in a deposition, got Jones to admit that the massacre had been real and the children had actually been murdered.

Partly due to negative publicity generated by the lawsuit, Jones has been removed from the larger Internet platforms–Facebook, Twitter, etc.–although he evidently remains on the “dark web.”

These details are prologue: recently, Juanita Jean blogged that her son would be on an upcoming PBS Frontline show about Jones, The United States of Conspiracy. So I watched it.

You all need to watch it too. It explains a lot about ugliness and fear and hate, and where America is right now.

The fact that someone like Jones–who certainly seems visibly deranged, whether that’s a schtick or real–could amass literally millions of viewers (presumably equally deranged) is depressing enough. The danger posed by Jones’ devotees is very real; Frontline showed a video made by the listener who believed Jones’ “Pizzagate” conspiracy and proceeded to shoot up the pizza parlor where Hillary Clinton was supposedly running a child porn ring out of its (non-existent) basement. It showed him hyping several other, equally bizarre conspiracies–including 9/11 and Obama “truther” fabrications.

The really eye-opening revelation was the show’s documentation of the relationships between Jones, Roger Stone and Donald Trump. It is not too far-fetched to think that Jones’ exuberant embrace of candidate Trump–an embrace which included Trump’s appearances on Infowars and his public praise of Jones–resulted in thousands of votes Trump wouldn’t otherwise have received.

Jones’ audience of conspiracy-believers obviously form a significant part of Trump’s base–and while that explains some things, it’s also terrifying.

Far and away the most spine-curdling part of the documentary were the repeated instances in which Jones would be shown making a wild, unsupported and frequently bat-shit crazy statement–followed by a clip showing Trump echoing that statement.

We know that Trump doesn’t listen to Dr. Fauci (or any experts, for that matter). He does, quite obviously, listen to Alex Jones.

Anyone sane who has followed politics in the United States the past four years knows that Donald Trump is both appallingly ignorant and seriously mentally ill. We’ve seen that he can be receptive to conspiratorial theories. But it’s impossible to watch this Frontline presentation without realizing how much closer to the edge he is than most observers have recognized.

I also didn’t realize how many Americans aren’t just close to that edge, but well over it.

Watch it.