Saturday, August 11, 2018

Conspiracy theories

I know the seductive power of conspiracy theories. When I was a kid, I obsessed over the details of the Paul Is Dead conspiracy, that somehow one of the world's most famous people had died and his death had been covered up by finding an almost perfect doppelganger. More than that, for this to be true, an army of people who knew the truth decided to say nothing, though some would leave tantalizing clues that the clever and tenacious would find. Only recently, I've read about similar conspiracy theories from the 21st Century. There are people on the Internet who believe Avril Lavigne died in 2003 and has been replaced by an imperfect twin. This theory is put forward by people who are fans of the original Avril and think the new usurper is besmirching the dead woman's memory, a very close parallel to the McCartney story. There are other theories about celebrities put forward, mainly on YouTube, including an elaborate set of explanations that try to convince people that actress and singer Lea Michele is illiterate.

And then there are fictional conspiracy theories presented as entertainment, though very close to what some people actually believe. In the 1970s, Warren Beatty starred in The Parallax View, a thriller about a shadowy organization who hire patsies to take the fall for assassinations committed by professional hit men. A few years later, Capricorn One postulated about a fake landing on Mars, a story which parallels the popular real world conspiracy theory that the moon landings were fake. In the 1990s, conspiracy as entertainment had its most enduring incarnation in The X-Files. My own modest contribution to conspiracies for fun are the songs Let's Start a Rumour and Illuminati, both songs I performed with my band The Wonders of Science. I'm sorry no recording of Illuminati exists, because it was our best dance song and a true collaboration, with verses written by Michael Dresbach, Travis Hunt and myself. We had all read Robert Anton Wilson and loved the Weekly World News, and the only instruction for the lyrics was to write a story from the point of view of a believer.

I teach for a living, so at some level I have to trust the power of education, but one of the problems with conspiracy theories is that the believers think they are the educated and the great mass of humanity are sad, deluded fools. Once the belief system is set, cognitive dissonance comes forward in full force when confronted by contradictory evidence. Debunking works for some, probably most, but those who are unconvinced by the given evidence become like antibiotic resistant diseases, a more virulent strain. For them, the unbelieving masses are not only ignorant, but probably puppets ruled by evil forces. Conspiracy theories need an enemy at the core of the story who is diabolically clever enough to keep the truth from the masses.

For those who think conspiracy theories are something to be resisted, the 21st Century had made this tougher with always improving technology to doctor sound and images, both still and moving. A popular theory on the right this century was that Obama was born in Kenya, therefore not an American citizen. As we know, this was Donald Trump's entryway into right wing politics. Once the long form birth certificate was produced, the mainstream press reported this as though it was the last word and many birthers were forced to recant, including Trump in a very unconvincing manner. Other birthers, including the pardoned criminal and U.S. Senate hopeful Joe Arpaio, believe the document was photoshopped.

I am still skeptical of conspiracy theories when I hear them. I have to admit that one of my main arguments against their plausibility was how hard it would be to keep a secret with that many people knowing about something, since any one person spilling the beans could ruin the secret. But we have seen secrets kept for years because the press isn't interested enough in the story or it becomes a he said/she said situation.  

The perfect example of press disinterest is the multiple stories of rape by Bill Cosby. He lost a court case and the beans spilled, but the public largely forgot about it, showing signs of cognitive dissonance, rejecting evidence of his villainy for quite a while, believing he had to be like the image we saw in our living rooms for over a decade. Cosby might still be doing his shtick if it wasn't for comedian Hamilton Burress, who got tired of Cosby acting like a moral paragon whose advice had to be obeyed. Burress called Cosby a rapist during his act and it went viral. The general public turned on Cosby bit by bit after this, until it reached some threshold and the view of him as villain became the conventional wisdom.

As for two sided arguments, too often power gets to dictate the narrative to the detriment of the truth. The most obvious example of conventional wisdom turned around is the international pedophile scandals the Catholic Church covered up for decades. When Sinead O'Connor ripped up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live, she was vilified and mocked for this and her side of the story might as well have been non-existent. Sadly for the world, it turns out her conspiracy theory was right and we in the general public had let ourselves be deluded.

But now we have a slowly unwinding scandal with Trump and his associates of many decades, as well as new bedfellows made during the campaign. The details sound like plot points in pulp fiction. The president's personal lawyer couldn't really be a cheap hood, could he? The guy who worked for free as Trump's campaign manager couldn't really have been doing the bidding of foreign governments who gave him secret payments, could he? Could Trump's first national security advisor really have been working for a foreign government while he got top secret U.S. intelligence briefings?

The answer to all three of those questions turn out to be yes, and the evidence comes from legal documents. Reality in 2018 feels like a conspiracy theory, stories almost as implausible as the tales told by Trump's defenders. But even to talk about "competing conspiracy theories" is to play into Trump's hands, a man who has no respect for the truth and wants to drag all of us down to his cynical and stupid level. Trump is a crook, and we knew this clearly before he took the oath of office when he settled a fraud case. But he successfully used divisions among us to make a minority rule party that won the presidency only due to the antiquated and corrupt fraud known as the electoral college.

And so we have come to this place, where the Golden Rule is only applied to people who are "like us", a phrase with multiple bad definitions. People with large platforms sound like characters from the racist screed The Turner Diaries,  telling us Norman Rockwell's ideas are dangerous and un-American. They love American Exceptionalism, they tell us, except for those awkward exceptions when the United States acted in the interest of the downtrodden.

Here we are, young and old, every color, every gender and every creed, asking that The Rule of Law stand for mercy as well as justice for all. We never asked to die on this hill, but now it is here and now we need to be strong.

Here endeth the lesson.

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