Tag Archives: conspiracy theories

Religious Liberty?

Remember when Hillary Clinton outraged the Chattering Classes with statements like  “basket of deplorables,” and accusations of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

According to Wikipedia, the phrase “vast right-wing conspiracy” preceded Clinton’s 1998 use. It was listed as a conspiracy theory in a 1995 memo by political opposition researchers. Wild conspiracy theories are everywhere you look these days–mostly but not exclusively  on the political Right (are Jewish Space lasers the grandchildren of the Elders of Zion?). When Clinton leveled the accusation, the blowback was both overwhelming and understandable.

But a recent data breach at the shadowy Liberty Counsel suggests she may have been on to something.

LIBERTY COUNSEL, an evangelical Christian nonprofit that provided a brief cited by the Supreme Court in its decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, has been hacked, revealing a 25-gigabyte internal database that contains nearly seven years’ worth of donor records. The hacker, who identifies with the Anonymous movement, released the data on the hacktivist site Enlace Hacktivista, and the transparency collective Distributed Denial of Secrets is providing it to journalists who request access.

“Noticing a worrying trend of far-right and anti-abortion activists aligning themselves with the evangelical Christian movement, hiding their funding sources behind laws that allow church ministries to keep their donations secret,” the hacker wrote in a press release, “we decided to bring about some much-needed radical transparency.”

In addition to fighting abortion, Liberty Counsel — a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group — has focused its legal efforts on challenging LGBTQ+ rights and vaccine mandates in the name of religious freedom. Because it is registered with the IRS as an “association of churches,” Liberty Counsel is not required to file a public tax return, meaning that its finances are largely shielded from the scrutiny applied to other tax-exempt organizations.

The disclosures showed that “nonprofit organizations” controlled by Liberty Counsel not only encouraged supporters to vote for Trump –in violation of IRS rules that prohibit such endorsements– they also documented the ways in which Liberty Counsel has deployed  disinformation about election integrity and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Are you wondering why I titled this blog post  “Religious Liberty”? As the linked Intercept article goes on to explain, the legal privileging of (some) religion has not only facilitated the lack of transparency illustrated by the breach, but has served to conceal a theocratic political movement within a cloak of faux piety.

Liberty Counsel’s virulently anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and efforts to legalize discrimination in the name of religious freedom led the Southern Poverty Law Center to designate it as a hate group. “The organizations on our hate group list vilify others because of their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity — this includes Liberty Counsel and their vilification of LGBTQ+ people,” said Rachel Carroll Rivas, interim deputy director of research for the SPLC’s Intelligence Project.

Some examples: Liberty Counsel represented Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue a marriage license to a gay couple. The day after the January 6th insurrection, its president sent an email to supporters stating that “our research and legal staff have been deeply engaged in stopping the steal of our 2020 elections.” (The email and a later blog post insisted that Trump could remain in power if God intervened: “We know God can intervene and turn what looks like a hopeless cause into a miraculous victory!” (Evidently, God was uninterested…)

During the pandemic, Liberty Counsel successfully sued  LSU’s School of Dentistry and Loyola University, requiring them to abandon their vaccine mandates on religious freedom grounds. The organization is currently suing the U.S. government over the military’s vaccine mandate. (God evidently wants people infected..)

If these activities were limited to a single organization, it would be troubling enough, but the breach disclosed a network of similarly fanatic entities, and campaigns that stretched the definition of “religion” to the breaking point.

While Liberty Counsel is best known for legal battles over abortion and LGBTQ+ rights, the hacked data shows more than $1.6 million in donations resulting from petition and fax campaigns built around dubious claims about the pandemic and election integrity…

The largest petition included in the data set, launched on the eve of Biden’s inauguration, makes no mention of religion: It warns of “giant pharmaceutical companies in partnership with government officials sweeping harmful and even deadly COVID-19 vaccine reactions under the rug” and demands that politicians oppose unspecified efforts “to make COVID shots mandatory, to require a Vaccine Passport or to electronically track and trace my movements.”

I don’t know how “vast” Liberty Council’s conspiratorial network is, but I do know the  Religion Clauses of the First Amendment weren’t intended to shield partisan political activity from legal scrutiny.

We can protect genuine religious liberty without enabling political fundraising  by hate groups.

 

Potpourri

There are a number of recent news items and  comments to this site  that don’t merit a full blog post, so today is a “potpourri” of several unrelated observations.

First of all, kudos to the College Board, which is evidently preparing to remove the AP label from classes in states that prohibit the accurate teaching of history or otherwise restrict what can be taught in the classroom. In a letter to participants in the AP Program, the Board reiterated its commitment to the intellectual integrity of AP classes and the principles upon which the AP Program is built. As the Indianapolis Star article reported, those principles include

 “an unflinching encounter with evidence,” opposition to censorship and indoctrination and “an open-minded approach to the histories and cultures of different peoples.”

Should schools, presumably on their own at the behest of state or local government, violate these principles, the letter says they could lose their AP Program designation. It gives as an example the concepts of evolution.

In 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, nearly 13,000 Hoosier students took and passed at least one AP exam.

Next, a recent report may explain why so many of our fellow Americans are receptive to propaganda, conspiracy theories–including Trump’s “Big Lie”– and various other simple-minded explanations of complicated realities. Okay, this is snark–but the Guardian recently focused on a study showing that over 170 million Americans who were adults in 2015 had been exposed to harmful levels of lead as children. That might explain it…

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, they estimated that half the US adult population in 2015 had been exposed to lead levels surpassing five micrograms per deciliter – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention threshold for harmful lead exposure at the time.

The scientists from Florida State University and Duke University also found that 90% of children born in the US between 1950 and 1981 had blood-lead levels higher than the CDC threshold. And the researchers found significant impact on cognitive development: on average, early childhood exposure to lead resulted in a 2.6-point drop in IQ.

And that leads me to Item #3, my response to a question posed recently by several people who are regular readers and commenters to this blog: why have I not blocked  a couple of recent trolls, or Todd’s increasingly unhinged posts?

Let me explain.

WhenI first began this blog, I established a very simple rule for commenters: civility. No ad hominem attacks. So long as regular commenters and the various trolls who visit here from time to time refrain from personal nastiness (or repeated efforts to dominate the discussion), I don’t block them, no matter how looney-tunes I may personally regard their various theories and accusations.

One of the significant downsides of the Internet is its enabling of “bubbles.” Blogs with a definite point of view–a category into which this one certainly falls–are especially likely to “preach to the choir.” That preaching has some value–it may illuminate issues in new ways, enable thoughtful discussions, and/or reassure people that others see the world the way they do.

But bubbles can also be blinders.

Most of us agree in the abstract that we should listen more carefully to those with whom we disagree. That’s in the abstract, however. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone–I tend to pay much more attention to people who express opinions and take positions with which I broadly agree–or at least regard as reasonably evidence-based– and dismiss the opinions of those I’ve categorized as ideologically rigid and/or irrational. It’s called confirmation bias, and most of us are guilty of engaging in it.

That said, it really is important that we recognize the extent to which many people on both the Right and Left desperately need to see the world in black and white, need to identify  the “bad guys” who are responsible for their troubles and disappointments,  and need to impose conceptual order of some sort on a complicated, shades-of-gray world. For many of those people on the Right, the “bad guys” are all people of color and/or non-Christians; for those on the Left, the “bad guys” are all rich people and corporate actors, a/k/a nefarious Oligarchs.

Reasonable people can have productive debates with folks who occupy a different place on the political spectrum, but who live in the real, shades of gray world. We need to recognize the difference between those people–with whom we can have principled and even heated disagreements– and those whose anger, fears  and inability to tolerate ambiguity have permanently warped their world-views.

We can’t make those distinctions if we wall ourselves off and refuse to acknowledge their existence, or the distinct nature of the challenges they represent.

 

 

Speaking Of Conspiracy Theories…And Space Lasers….

Two recent reports about the hostage-taking at a Texas synagogue gave me one of those “ah ha” moments, a genuine epiphany.

I thought I understood anti-Semitism. After all, I’m Jewish–and what’s more, I grew up in a small town in Indiana where I routinely encountered classmates with negative feelings–and sometimes bizarre beliefs– about Jews. (Yes, we live in houses like “real people” and no, we don’t have tails. I am not making those questions up!)

Clearly, however, I still have much to learn about the deep-seated assumptions in which anti-Semitism is grounded.

The column from MSNBC was straightforward. The opinion piece took aim at the FBI assertion that the choice of hostages wasn’t “related to the Jewish Community.” While it is true that the perpetrator’s goal was not to harm Jews, but to obtain the release from prison of an unconnected person, the hostage-taker himself explained that he targeted a synagogue because he believes the U.S. “only cares about Jewish lives.”

The  article argued that the FBI statement

failed to capture the very nature of antisemitism and how it’s embedded in a wide range of age-old and contemporary conspiracy theories about power, elites, U.S. governance and global cooperation. As Yair Rosenberg explained in The Atlantic this week, antisemitism is not only a discriminatory prejudice, but also “a conspiracy theory about how the world operates.”

The second “aha” article  I read was the one from The Atlantic referenced in the foregoing quote.That article explained something I’d never previously understood: anti-Semitism isn’t simply one more manifestation of human tribalism– another “us versus them” hatred–it’s a conspiracy theory.

Most people do not realize that Jews make up just 2 percent of the U.S. population and 0.2 percent of the world’s population. This means simply finding them takes a lot of effort. But every year in Western countries, including America, Jews are the No. 1 target of anti-religious hate crimes. Anti-Semites are many things, but they aren’t lazy. They’re animated by one of the most durable and deadly conspiracy theories in human history.

I’m pretty sure I am not the only person–Jewish or not–who had never previously recognized what the article persuasively described–the weird way in which Jews “play a sinister symbolic role in the imagination of so many that bears no resemblance to their lived existence.”

Evidently, once he had taken the rabbi and congregants hostage, Akrim (the hostage-taker) demanded to speak to the rabbi of New York’s Central Synagogue. Why? He was convinced that the rabbi had the power to authorize the release of Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani woman he was trying to free.

Obviously, this is not how the prison system works. “This was somebody who literally thought that Jews control the world,” Beth Israel Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker told The Forward. “He thought he could come into a synagogue, and we could get on the phone with the ‘Chief Rabbi of America’ and he would get what he needed.”

The author noted the irrationality of that belief.

The notion that such a minuscule and unmanageable minority secretly controls the world is comical, which may be why so many responsible people still do not take the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory seriously, or even understand how it works. In the moments after the Texas crisis, the FBI made an official statement declaring that the assailant was “particularly focused on one issue, and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community.” Of course, the gunman did not travel thousands of miles to terrorize some Mormons. He sought out a synagogue and took it hostage over his grievances, believing that Jews alone could resolve them. That’s targeting Jews, and there’s a word for that.

it is really hard to take this lunacy seriously–although the consequences are very serious indeed.

It is patently ridiculous to think that a Jewish “minuscule and unmanageable” minority secretly exercises immense super-powers, that–as wacko Marjorie Taylor Green insists–we can deploy “space lasers” to set fires in California. (Why would we do that, even if we could?) It is particularly ludicrous to those of us who grew up in the “unmanageable” Jewish community to suggest that we are even capable of agreeing to conspire; as my mother used to say, the only thing two Jews can agree about is how much money a third Jew should be contributing to charity.

And as far as the “minuscule” descriptor goes, with inter-marriage rates hitting new highs  (Pew Research has found the current intermarriage rate to be 58% among all Jews and 71% among non-Orthodox Jews) we’re heading from minuscule to undetectable.

Pretty soon, the nut cases might have to find a different group guilty of running the world….

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.