America’s growing conspiracist underground and distinguishing truth from paranoia

Landscape
The Japanese sink the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor – conspiracy theorists accuse President Franklin Roosevelt as deliberately letting that attack  happen.

How can you tell when you are listening to a conspiracy theory, versus a story that deserves a respectful hearing?
Jonathan Kay interviewed Americans who believe that their government deliberately killed, or allowed to be killed, thousands of its own citizens on 9/11/2001 so that it could go to war in the Middle East.

Here are some highlights from his book, and I’ll debate some points as well.
1. Are conspiracy theorists “losers” who could never rise to power?
The answer to that one is “no.”  Often conspiracy theorists lead nations.
Consider the following statement by Adolf Hitler:
Should the Jew, with the aid of his Marxist creed, triumph over the people of the world, his Crown will be the funeral wealth of mankind, and  this planet will once again follow its orbit through ether, without any human life on its surface, as it did millions of years ago.
One problem with the above theory is that though Marx was genetically a Jew, religiously he was not, and he didn’t like Jews.  A quote from Marx:
What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.
Ultimately Hitler lost, of course, but he almost conquered the Western world.  It was a near thing.  He was almost a winner.
2. Are conspiracy theorists right-wing crazies?
No, conspiracy theories exist on both the left and the right.

For instance, socialist candidate for the presidency Bernie Sanders says that our economy is “designed by the wealthiest people in this country to benefit the wealthiest people in this country at the expense of everybody else.”
He doesn’t say it our economy is a self-organizing system, instead he says it was designed by exploiters.
The idea of the economy being rigged also comes up with our current president. Dr. John C Drew, who knew Barack Obama in his younger days at Occidental College, says that Barack believed that the government was rigged so that it created poverty, and the only solution was redistribution of wealth.

Naomi KleinA respected leftist author named Naomi Klein believes that the world is controlled by a cabal of hypercapitalists who’ve been personally recruited and indoctrinated by U.S. economist Milton Friedman!
In addition, she says the state of Israel promotes the terror of Palestinians against its own civilians–because the “continual and continuously expanding war on terror” helps inflate the profits of the country’s “high-tech security” industries.
3. Do conspiracy theorists mistake the motives of their own government?
Naomi Klein’s theories assume a sinister government in Israel that would destroy its own citizens for profit.
The idea of a sinister government willing to kill its own citizens also shows up in the “truther” movement, the people who believe that the attacks that destroyed skyscrapers in Manhattan on 9/11/2001 were due to a plot by our government, not by Islamic fanatics.
In the 1940’s when the U.S. was forced to get into World War II by a Japanese attack on American ships in Hawaii, many conspiracy theorists believed that FDR, the president, “had deliberately engineered or facilitated the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor.”  Interestingly, FDR, unlike many Americans, did believe that war with Germany was inevitable and necessary, so the conspiracy theory was built on a tiny sliver of truth.
4. Do conspiracy theorists believe the world is as it superficially appears?
No.
One common thread with the conspiracy theorists, says Jonathan Kay, author of Among The Truthers, is the belief that the path of history is controlled in secret by a small group of influential, fantastically wealthy people; that this power structure is murderous and morally corrupt; and that the political world we inhabit is fundamentally illusory.”
Truthers commonly use the term “awake” to describe their embrace of conspiracist mythology–implying that their previous life comprised an artificial dream state.
This raises several interesting points.  I’m the kind of person who usually believes what he sees in mainstream sources.  but says Jonathan:
Just about every conspiracy theorist I interviewed was very proud to tell me that they trust nothing they are told–and subject every claim to the most exacting scrutiny.  This sounds intellectually noble–but in practice, it leads to a kind of nihilism, since there is no fact, historical event, or scientific phenomenon whose truth cannot, in some way, be brought into question by an inventive mind on the hunt for niggling “anomalies.”
It could be argued that being a contrarian is sometimes good.  You don’t accept uncritically what you are told.  The strange thing though is that they end up accepting ideas that seem crazy.
5. Are conspiracy theorists mentally ill?
Jonathan Kay, who has interviewed many “truthers” does not accuse them of being mentally ill.  He writes: “”one of the great ironies of the Truth movement is that its activists typically hold their meetings in large, unsecured locations such as college auditoriums–even as they insist that government agents will stop at nothing to protect their conspiracy for world domination from discovery.  Truly disturbed conspiracy theorists, on the other hand, can’t sustain that firewall.”
But this is a strange point to make.  If you believe something, then you should believe all its implications.  Why is it sane to believe something, but not up to the point where it might seriously disrupt your life? Surely, either it is true, or it isn’t?
6. Do conspiracy theorists see design where most people do not?
In some cases they dismiss the idea that “accidents happen”.  Jonathan Kay illustrates with an example:
Surely, the death of Princess Diana could not be blamed on the drunk chauffeur who slammed Dodi Fayed’s Mercedes into a concrete pillar; the act must have been orchestrated by M16 in order to prevent the People’s Princess from marrying a Muslim.
  (Dodi Fayed’s father came up with that theory).
7. Do the theorists deny agency and will to the people who WE think are in charge?
They often have the idea of puppets.  “a conventional New Order conspiracy theorist sees Barack Obama and George W. Bush as puppets for some shady petro-industrial cabal.”  Conspiracy theorists like to draw flowcharts in tree form because they point to a lone puppet-master on top of a hierarchy.
8. Since they distrust people to the extent of attributing truly evil motives to them, do they conversely trust others who really have bad motives?
(Republican) Donald Trump said this on the George W. Administration and the Iraq war:
“They lied,” Trump said during the CBS News GOP presidential debate. “They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none. And they knew there were none. There were no weapons of mass destruction.”
Is interesting though that this statement did not hurt Trump.  In fact I recall military people in South Carolina saying that Trump’s anti-war views were the reason they were voting for him.  I can understand being against the Iraq war, but I can’t understand believing that Bush deliberately lied, getting lots of people killed in the process, just to get hold of oil fields (which by the way we don’t have control over now anyway).
On the other hand, Trump trusts Vladimir Putin of Russia, who presides over a country without free speech, and whose administration engages in much anti-American propaganda.   A final irony with Trump is that he says we should have taken the oil fields for ourselves.  “War for oil” is one of the accusations (in my view, unfair) that was made against the leaders who took us to war in that country.
9. Are conspiracy theories ever true?
We have to  define our terms.  Are three criminals conspiring to rob a bank a conspiracy? Certainly they fit the idea of a group of people using subterfuge to achieve a goal.  Is a group of military officers who frame a Jewish officer (as in France’s Dreyfus case) – a conspiracy?
Certainly deception and hidden agendas do exist and sometimes we learn about them:
Classics professor (and farmer) Victor Davis Hanson says this:
Do we remember Jonathan Gruber, the conceited MIT professor and architect of Obamacare, who bragged that he had hoodwinked a supposedly far dumber America in order to ram the Affordable Care Act down its collective throat — while he was paid nearly $300,000 to talk the bill through Congress as a contract analyst for the Department of Health and Human Services? After President Obama had assured the American people that they could keep their doctors and their health plans, while seeing their premium costs decrease, Gruber high-fived that voters were too stupid to figure out how they had been misled: “This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO did not score the mandate as taxes,” Gruber crowed. “If CBO scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies. Okay, so it’s written to do that. . . . Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really critical for the thing to pass.
and Israeli columnist Caroline Glick reminds us that:
Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes fooled the public with the myth of Iranian “moderates” locked in a struggle with “extremists”.  This narrative was invented, to “eliminate a source of structural tension between [the US and Iran] which would create the space for America to disentangle itself from its established system of alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey.
So the element of deception, an element in all conspiracy theories, is present here.  If we want to be charitable, we might believe that Obama and Rhodes saved us from foreign entanglements that could only lead to war, or that the world is better off without what Obama has called American “meddling” and that Obamacare was a noble effort to get health care to everyone.  But the downside is that if you lie to the public, they lose any trust in government, and this feeds conspiracy theorists.
Imagine you are a citizen of Russia or Iran or Cuba. You are told how wonderful your leaders are, and how flawed the United States is. If you suddenly ‘awaken’ and realize that you are being told lies about America, and you re-interpret your whole society, are you being paranoid? Or are you being remarkably perceptive? One woman who broke away from Islamism, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, says she was in a “mental cage” for years. So the strange irony is that societies that encourage conspiracy theories about the USA can fit the template themselves.
One group that I don’t see conspiracy theorists talking much about is the criminal population.  You would think they would, because criminals habitually deceive in order to achieve nefarious goals.  Organized crime outfits can use the latest technology versus law enforcement or versus victims, and they can work in tandem with terrorists, or with dictators.
If you believe in criminal conspiracies then, unlike the truthers, you are not attributing bad motives to good people,  or good motives to bad people.

Understanding motives correctly is crucial in avoiding conspiracy theories.  And if you get the motives of one set of actors completely wrong, the rest of your worldview will distort itself around that.

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