Tag Archives: conspiracy theories

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.

 

But Reality Is So Complicated…

Paul Krugman devoted a recent column to the conspiracy theories that have emerged to “explain” the coronavirus. My only quibble with the column was its narrow focus; I’ve come to the conclusion that a substantial percentage of Americans find reality so intimidating, messy and/or incomprehensible, the only way they can make sense of it is to assume that someone or some group must be intentionally responsible for the aspects of that reality they most fear.

It can’t be random–“those people” must be engaged in a purposeful effort to harm or mislead them.

We really haven’t come very far from colonial days, when clerics opposed the newfangled smallpox vaccine because smallpox was undoubtedly sent by God, and inoculating people against it would constitute interference with God’s plan. Just substitute “those people”–the Deep State, the bankers, the Jews, the DNC, whoever–for God.

It’s just really hard for some people to accept randomness, and the fact that–as the undignified saying goes–shit happens.

As Krugman writes

We still don’t know how much damage Covid-19 — the coronavirus disease — will do, but it’s reasonable to be very concerned. After all, it appears to be highly transmissible, and it is probably a lot more lethal than ordinary flu.

But not to worry, say right-wing pundits and news organizations: It’s all a hoax, a conspiracy by the liberal media to make Donald Trump look bad. Administration officials and Trump himself have echoed their claims.

These claims are, of course, crazy. Among other things, Covid-19 is a global phenomenon, with major outbreaks ranging from South Korea to Italy. Are the South Korean and Italian media also part of a conspiracy to get Trump?

I agree with Krugman that this particular reaction was predictable to anyone who  follows the right-wings long-running war on facts, especially when facts prove  inconvenient or conflict with the right’s preferred version of reality.

And as Krugman also reminds us, much of their insistence on attributing unwanted outcomes to nefarious evil-doers rests on projection.

In the case of Covid-19 the usual suspects were, in part, engaged in projection. After all, they themselves engaged in a concerted effort to politically weaponize the 2014 Ebola outbreak against Barack Obama, whose response was in reality smart and effective. By the way, in the aftermath of that outbreak the Obama administration put in place measures to deal with future pandemics — all of which Trump scrapped.

Denial, as my grandfather used to say, isn’t just a river in Egypt.

Climate change? As recently as the 2018 midterms, a survey found 73 percent of Republican senators denying that man-made climate change is happening. The success of Obama’s economic measures?  Right-wing politicians and pundits insisted that the numbers were being cooked. (Those evil “deep state” folks, no doubt…) Etc.

But fair is fair: this sort of nonsense is hardly confined to the crazy people on the right, although clearly, the right has a majority of the crazies.

For example, a troubling percentage of his supporters are absolutely convinced that if Bernie isn’t the nominee, it will be due to a plot by “the establishment” to rig the process. Despite the results of Super Tuesday, it is evidently inconceivable to them that a majority of Democratic voters might prefer Biden or someone else–that large numbers of voters might honestly believe that Bernie would be less likely to beat Trump and more likely to doom Democrats’ down-ticket prospects.

As a column from Talking Points Memo put it,

To hear many Sanders surrogates describe it, the establishment and power brokers closed ranks and pushed Biden into the lead. But again, this just pretends like millions of voters don’t exist, or function as pawns of party elites. So you have one theory of political agency for Sanders supporters and another for everyone else. This stands no kind of political scrutiny.

Party workers making anti-Bernie arguments are engaging in typical (small-d) democratic campaigning, not “rigging” an election. Similarly, doctors aren’t conspiring to hide the “dangers” of vaccinations. Scientists aren’t part of an international cabal engaged in falsifying data on climate change. The government isn’t running a secret program entailing the discharge of dangerous airplane “contrails.”

Elvis’ death wasn’t faked, and there really isn’t a monster hiding under the bed.

In fact, there’s no one here but us flawed human beings trying to make sense of the shit that happens in a complicated world.