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December 5, 2013 7:27 PM   Subscribe

Skeptics Gone Wild: Navigating America’s Conspiracy Theory Culture
But trying to explain away anyone’s specific conspiracy belief, or conspiratorial thinking in general, misses the point—the point being that there’s no longer anything especially irrational about believing that shadowy actors are subverting American democracy. Think of that CIA dispatch, advocating a propaganda campaign against the suspicious. Picture the president, slumped forward in the back seat of his limousine, a bullet through his neck. As he lays dying something new is being born, a creeping miasma of suspicion that will spread across Dallas, across Texas, across America.

The Truly Paranoid Style in American Politics, with links to lots of examples!
50 Years Of Conspiracy Theories
In the English tradition of mysteries, the screen­writing guru Robert McKee explained a few years ago, “a murder is committed and the investigation drives inward: You know, you’ve got six possible murderers. In the American tradition, a murder is committed, we start to investigate, and it turns out to encompass all of society.” There is inevitably an intrigue that goes all the way to the White House. And conspiracy is not just how the disenfranchised view the powerful; sometimes, it is how the powerful view themselves. Secretary of State John Kerry recently admitted that he has long believed Oswald had not acted alone.
JFK Conspiracy Theories Are Alive and Well, According to Gallup Poll
JFK assassination: CIA and New York Times are still lying to us
Closer Than That: The Assassination Of JFK, 50 Years Later
A Word In Favor Of JFK Conspiracy Theories
The Big Problem With Calling People "Conspiracy Theorists"
The Kennedy Assassination And American Fragility
Even today, as its blunders and omissions and willful blindness have been exposed by 50 years worth of investigations and research by Congress and by critics -- some of the latter, I grant you, a little wilder than others -- the Warren Commission's defenders have employed, as a last line of defense, the idea that the Commission was tasked with tamping down evidence that Castro's Cuba was involved in the crime because, to have informed the public of that back in 1963 would have been to touch off a nuclear war. The problem with that, of course, is that Castro is now 300 years old and the Soviet Union doesn't even exist. Why, then, are there still relevant files locked away in the government's archives? What possible national security concerns can there still be, 50 years later? What is there that we are still too fragile to know?

An Interview With Alex Jones, America’s Leading (and Proudest) Conspiracy Theorist
You don’t reject the term conspiracy theorist?
No. People now learn that that means someone who questions known liars in government and media. So that definitely means what heretics did during the Inquisition. I find myself proud to be listed as a thought criminal against Big Brother.
Conspiracies: Five things they don’t want you to know - "Exploding the myths about the paranoid tales we tell"
Conspiracy Theorists Aren’t Really Skeptics
Clearly, susceptibility to conspiracy theories isn’t a matter of objectively evaluating evidence. It’s more about alienation. People who fall for such theories don’t trust the government or the media. They aim their scrutiny at the official narrative, not at the alternative explanations.
posted by the man of twists and turns (80 comments total) 76 users marked this as a favorite

 
Why So Many Americans Believe Kennedy Assassination Conspiracy Theories
Conspiracy theories are conquering the country, leading us into a dark age of cynicism. Americans are bombarded by a growing barrage of outlandish tales, aided and abetted by a polarizing media, and amplified by the echo chamber of the Internet. While all sides indulge in conspiracy theories, Republicans and conservatives are particularly prone to them. Such inflamed rhetoric divides nations and destroys deliberative democracy.
Actually, there is not much truth in any of the above. Journalists have been quick to proclaim a “new age of conspiracy theories.” The only problem is that “new age” is typically just a synonym for “now.” For example, see 2011, 2010, 2004, 1994, 1991 and 1964. Fortunately, we have a much better sense of where conspiracy theories come from and why so many people believe them.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:31 PM on December 5, 2013 [13 favorites]


I was just reading Conspiracy Act about Richard Belter (the actor), his conspiracy beliefs and embrace of Alex Jones.
posted by graymouser at 7:36 PM on December 5, 2013


My high school history teacher had a sign on his desk. "Lies Agreed Upon", it said.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:48 PM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Lies Agreed Upon", it said.

History tends to be written by the victor (one of my fave maxims).

So with regard to something like JFK then, it seems we've got two options.

A. it happened pretty much as the current consensus stipulates (single bullet, Oswald acting alone etc)

B. whoever "won" that particular day wants us to think it's A

I'm a skeptic to the degree that B makes more sense.
posted by philip-random at 7:56 PM on December 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


The initial link is pretty thought provoking.

As you can find out by popping onto one of Alex Jones's boards or youtube channels, Reddit's conspiracy board, or by delving into the history of conspiracy theory back to say, Nesta Webster, conspiracy theorists are often terrible, terrible people. Or at least, conspiracy theory attracts a lot of the worst people around. Often deeply conservative people who think that all the progress made in the modern age must be a front for evil, because that's all they can understand, or that's what they want it to be. Fascists love them some conspiracy theory. Literal fascists.

BUT. At the same time. There are all these honestly awful things that are done in secret and every so often the news of them comes out, and they're always things that would have been written off as "conspiracy theories" in the day. MK-ULTRA. The Tuskeegee experiments. Ewan Cameron. The fact that the Gulf of Tonkin was a lie. The fact that the Japanese "refusal to surrender" which led to the Bomb being dropped in WWII was a lie. The Business Plot. So many things.

So many real terrible things turn out to be true. But the people who allege terrible things everywhere are themselves often evil, vicious people. (And they're factually wrong about the vast, vast majority of the terrible things they allege. But then every so often they turn out to be right about something -- though often right for completely wrong reasons.)

So... It's complicated trying to figure out what is, or can be, true.

I have to say, back in the early '00s, after Bush stole the election, BAM! planes hit the tower, BAM! we go to war and then we go to war again on obviously false pretenses which everybody in the media smiles and pretends are true, BAM! It got pretty damned easy to believe stories of evil forces orchestrating terrible things for us. Even when Kerry lost, there were some credible tales of dodgy voting machines in Ohio making the difference.

Then Obama gets elected by a comfortable margin despite all the dodgy voting machines owned by Republican companies....

And all the same kind of stories are told, except now instead of a bunch of evil rich white assholes (you know, like the kind that actually run the world) it's now evil Communist Black Muslims controlling everything. All the same shit. Everything Bush did is now retroactively attributed to Obama, and the band plays on.

Hell, it plays even louder. Because now all the old Nesta Webster types, have an Other to fear. Hatred of Blacks and Muslims fits right in with their traditional Anti-Semitism.

So... These are murky, murky waters. It's very difficult for anyone try to find the truth of any allegation of dark dealings without calling those old evil hyenas, out in hordes.
posted by edheil at 7:58 PM on December 5, 2013 [35 favorites]


From the first link:
DeHaven-Smith thinks the phrase “conspiracy theory” itself has made it virtually impossible to talk about high crimes by America’s elite.
He calls it the conspiracy-theory conspiracy theory. “I think the political class has a stake in the legitimacy of the system. They don’t allow these things to be discussed.”


A meta-conspiracy theory!
posted by 445supermag at 8:02 PM on December 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


posted by the man of twists and turns

oh, of course.
posted by mwhybark at 8:05 PM on December 5, 2013 [9 favorites]


A meta-conspiracy theory!

well, yeah. these guys are nothing if not thorough.

Or at least, conspiracy theory attracts a lot of the worst people around. Often deeply conservative people who think that all the progress made in the modern age must be a front for evil, because that's all they can understand, or that's what they want it to be.

hence the most valuable lesson I got from reading a pile of Robert Anton Wilson's stuff back in my 20s. That this stuff is best approached on at least two levels:

1. for the entertainment value, because so much of it ends up being batshit hilarious
2. as a means toward sharpening one's skepticism, and keeping it sharp

Because, as a stoned friend once commented, "We are what we're told ... if we're not careful."
posted by philip-random at 8:13 PM on December 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


As someone who is regularly annoyed by conspiracy theorists for what I think are all the right reasons (the historical use of conspiracy theories history in attacks on minorities, the desire to see more rigorous thinking in the public, the ability of such theories to distract from real discussions, etc.), I still found the first link very powerful, especially in moving beyond the usual "Paranoid Strain" sorts of arguments to intelligent criticism of anti-conspiracy thinking.

This line was great: He looked at me. He half-smiled. “Look,” he said. “I’m not saying they are lizard people. I’m just saying that for all they care about us, they might as well be lizard people.”

Reading that, I am reminded of the recent evidence on UFO sightings during the Cold War, that it may have been government policy to leave the idea of UFOs alive in public because it was useful. We knew there were no UFOs from space and Russia knew there were no UFOs from space, but the Russians also knew that many sightings could actually be of secret flights or classified airplanes. Therefore, any UFO could represent unknown US capabilities that could set Russian defense officials on edge. Not only did encouraging UFO mania cover up real secret flight activity, it also made any sighting of Venus by a farmer in the Ukraine a potential stealth plane that was able to penetrate Soviet airspace.

The non-existence of most conspiracy is a potential tool for real conspiracy, and not just theoretically, it has been done before. That is worth remembering, even for skeptics like me.
posted by blahblahblah at 8:23 PM on December 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


There are a lot of elaborations going on, but what it comes down to is very poor public education in critical thinking.

I think that even skepticism is the wrong stance, because it is inherently a bias. Evidence, weight of opinion, viewing every piece of information against the broader landscape - we undervalue these, and overvalue the exciting energy of believing we are the only ones to perceive the truth.
posted by Miko at 8:24 PM on December 5, 2013 [7 favorites]


But everything happens for a reason, doesn't it?
posted by grounded at 8:31 PM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


The non-existence of most conspiracy is a potential tool for real conspiracy, and not just theoretically, it has been done before. That is worth remembering, even for skeptics like me.

For me, the most important political realization connected to all this is that you don't need a conspiracy. It's all a lot dumber and a lot simpler than people raised on fiction plots and movies wish. No conspiracies are necessary to create vast, complex interrelated networks of harmful entitites. All that's required is rationalized extreme self-interest, in alignment; and we've got plenty of that. You don't need a conspiracy when you have a willing coalition. And once you realize that, it's no longer about reading into a secret plot or figuring anything out. Our problems are visible on the surface. The solution is not being Encylopedia Brown and standing tall above the "sheep," it's actually getting off your ass to engage in change. That's a lot less appealing to the 101st Fighting Keyboardists who are obsessed with conspiracy. That's not sexy, and it's just work.
posted by Miko at 8:35 PM on December 5, 2013 [34 favorites]


“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers.”
posted by Hey Dean Yeager! at 8:43 PM on December 5, 2013 [11 favorites]


I think it's more our capacity for seeing narratives and patterns where none may actually exist. Basically it's the modern version of the impulse that gave us religion. Because "the universe is a random and chaotic place where anything can and frequently does happen" is, frankly, terrifying. But I think even with conspiracy theories, there's something hopeful there.

My favorite Alex Jones rant was one where he was saying The Globalists want to invent superintelligent robots to do all the jobs, then kill all humans and then upload their consciousness to the mainframe and become machine gods. I know, sign me up.

But let us say, that is literally true. However, if that is true, then everything makes sense within that mindset. It can't be that the United States is a tottering and overstretched empire, it must be the globalists. It can't be that despite being constantly on the march (one of my favorite AJ promos says WE'RE ON THE MARCH! THE EMPIRE IS ON THE RUN! followed by an hour of ranting about how we're constantly losing to the globalists), Our Side is losing ground everywhere, it's the globalists, both incompetent and overwhelmingly powerful. And so on.

It imposes an on the chaos and in doing so, says there is something you can do about it. There is a Bad Guy you can fight and named and it's not just the all-crushing gears of an uncaring world. It's about hope, in the end, the hope that you can do something in the face of an ultimately uncaring and unfeeling world.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:45 PM on December 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


Miko - I agree, in part, in that most "conspiracies" are either a) self-interested parties colluding without coordination, because they share an interest or else b) incompetence that people assume must be a conspiracy because it seems unbelievable that powerful entities can act in such stupid ways without a reason. However, I also think a useful reminder in the article is that there are, and have been, real conspiracies, and real secret plots (MK Ultra, Tuskegee, the joint chiefs actually suggesting false flag operations to Kennedy, etc), and that any interest in examining them is hard to sustain because belief in conspiracies de-legitimates serious journalists or scholars.
posted by blahblahblah at 8:49 PM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


It imposes an on the chaos and in doing so, says there is something you can do about it. There is a Bad Guy you can fight a

I would be more inclined to believe this if anyone did do anything about it, but it seems that the more entrenched these perspectives are in a person, they less they actually....do.
posted by Miko at 8:50 PM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


The thing that always gets me is that it's a bit like Pascal's wager. Okay, let's say you're right that it is more likely that something other than the official story happened. That still doesn't make one person's pet theory any more likely than the official story. "There may have been another gunman" does not immediately equal "it was a CIA hit" any more than it equals "it was space aliens". But a lot of the people who put forth this kind of thing make that jump with disturbing ease. I'd be happy to see more people who were like "we should investigate this further!" when confronted with life, but we don't have that, we have people who go, "the government is lying to us and I know this because a guy on the radio told me so."

In which case it really boils down to that they're still believing faithfully in the authoritative pronouncements of someone of dubious motives, they've just changed which one. The credulous will evidently always be with us, and if that's true then so will the people who exploit them.
posted by Sequence at 8:53 PM on December 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


any interest in examining them is hard to sustain

I don't agree, because the difference is that there is plenty of evidence for these events. If interest is hard to sustain, it's because once they're in the realm of establish fact, the frisson disappears. Actual fact is boring. No one gets to play the rebel hero in investigating these real expressions of tightly concentrated power. The excitement lies in them not being mainstream knowledge.

I'd be happy to see more people who were like "we should investigate this further!" when confronted with life

Yeah, exactly. The tendency to rush to judgment is utterly wrong. It is not the activity of a well-educated mind.

The credulous will evidently always be with us, and if that's true then so will the people who exploit them.

That's it in a nutshell.
posted by Miko at 8:54 PM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


If interest is hard to sustain, it's because once they're in the realm of establish fact, the frisson disappears.

Sure, for Internet conspiracy theorists, this is 100% correct. Real life is boring, and they move on.

But, I think the more profound point in the article, which cites Prof. Lance deHaven-Smith on the topic, is that many actual conspiracies are under-examined because they have been tainted by the sense that, as several commentators have stated, seeing conspiracy is the sign of credulity. Not that it isn't, in most cases, but the fact that conspiracy theorists are generally crazy only serves to taint the study of high level malfeasance more.

As an example, I am an academic at a business school, and some of my colleagues are studying the root causes of the subprime bubble. There is great work being done on collective failures of decision making, failure to account for systemic risk, and how previous crises created mindsets that made predicting the collapse very hard for people in the industry. However, if someone were to say that the collapse was in large part due to conspiracy (not that I think it is at all, but some previous financial collapses did have collusion at their heart), they would be laughed at, at least without very, very strong evidence. The idea that you would be laughed at discourages study, even for serious minded people who are deeply skeptical, and even for those with tenure.

This doesn't mean we should encourage belief in conspiracy, or that Alex Jones is anything but a purveyor of lies, but it does suggest that there are true systemic problems in studying real conspiracy, and thus understanding how and why it happens.
posted by blahblahblah at 9:08 PM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


The credulous will evidently always be with us, and if that's true then so will the people who exploit them.

That's it in a nutshell.


Or as an old Polish guy I know puts it (having grown up under communism). "Fools and cynics working in harmony."
posted by philip-random at 9:11 PM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


I like this one myself. It's not relible, but golly it is fun to watch. (It is only four minutes.)
posted by bukvich at 9:11 PM on December 5, 2013


I've told the story of my first exposure to conspiracy theories here before: it was by encountering Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's "Illuminatus!", and finding it by turns hilarious and eerie. There's a lot of entertainment value in whackjob paranoid fantasies, when you view them with the right sort of lens.

Much later on, Wilson co-authored a book called "Everything Is Under Control", which was a big ol' phonebook-sized dictionary of actual (as opposed to satirical) conspiracy theories and their proponents, with URLs provided for their websites. My investigation of those websites, and of the groups and individuals behind them, resulted in less hilarity and more vague depression. Real paranoia isn't all that amusing a phenomenon, and a lot of conspiracy thinking that seemed amusingly funky when leavened with irony turns out to be rooted in some pretty hardcore racism and/or antisemitism when you leave the irony out.

To put it another way: the paranoid style of American far right extremism seemed pretty interesting when it was mainly associated with groups like the John Birch Society, that seemed like the last dying embers of an extinguished, exhausted movement. But all of the political viewpoints of that group have been brought back to life in the modern GOP, and the rhetoric that used to seem comically anachronistic is now being mouthed without a trace of self awareness by the Tea Party crowd. Conspiracy theories are embraced by actual sitting congressmen. It ain't funny any more.
posted by Ipsifendus at 9:13 PM on December 5, 2013 [14 favorites]


There are no conspiracies. Just business opportunities.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:35 PM on December 5, 2013


So on my walk from the train to work every morning, I pass by a stop sign on a very highly-trafficked corner that somebody decorated with an infowars.com sticker. And every time I see it, I chuckle and try to imagine the nut who put it there, and what was going through his (I think that's a fair gender assumption) head when he did it.

How could he stomach even a minute of that garbage? How could he be a fan of it? How could he be so passionate about it that he just had to spread the gospel to others?

But then I read in the first link that Alex Jones has four million viewers. And realized that, aside from sports, almost nothing that I enjoy has an audience that size.

Pretty much everything that seems so natural to me, every reference I take for granted, is a smaller part of the shared experience than Infowars.

What I'm trying to get at here is that I find the arguments about the atomizing effect of the internet leading to conspiratorial mind sets to be way more convincing than the fact that a few conspiracies have actually happened. Ditto with the explanation that conspiracy theories are a response to powerlessness.

It just seems to me that there isn't a need to find a rational answer for the existence of a community of conspiracy theorists that is rooted in anything more than a large echo chamber filled with a sense of powerlessness. It doesn't seem like historical reality plays any role one way or the other.
posted by graphnerd at 9:37 PM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


But all of the political viewpoints of that group have been brought back to life in the modern GOP, and the rhetoric that used to seem comically anachronistic is now being mouthed without a trace of self awareness by the Tea Party crowd. Conspiracy theories are embraced by actual sitting congressmen. It ain't funny any more.

all the more reason to laugh, because as the SubGenius said, "the only thing worth laughing at these days is the fact that nothing's funny anymore."

Always paradox.
posted by philip-random at 9:43 PM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Most conspiracies are openly discussed in Foreign Affairs, but are kind of dull, and Henry Kissinger needs an editor.
posted by benzenedream at 10:11 PM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Let's just go ahead and recognize this new branch of power called the conspirocracy.
posted by telstar at 10:26 PM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Cool word of the day: parapolitics. Covered by the British magazine Lobster, founded in the wake of the JFK assassination.
posted by Apocryphon at 10:26 PM on December 5, 2013


Well here's the thing, graphnerd, Alex Jones knows how to put on a show. He's a compelling storyteller and he really and truly cares. He's not like some of the talk radio guys where it seems like they are cynically playing to the right because that's where the money is. Alex Jones gets to ranting and gets so impassioned mid-rant that he's unable to speak for seconds at a time because he's trying to get so many angry words out. He really, truly believes every word that comes out of his mouth or he's one of the best actors going, but the interviews and profiles like this one make him seem pretty genuine.

And here's the thing about him: He is right a lot of the time and what he's saying makes sense until it doesn't and you're over the cliff with him. It's so common during his shows that the process is pretty much (using my example from before):

"There's an cadre of the wealthy trying to take all the money from the middle class." Maybe a bit hyperbolic but I think evidence bears that out, though I'd say all the money period.

"They want to use that money to build robots to automate our jobs out of existence." I mean this has already pretty much happened.

"And that's because they want to kill all the humans." Uh...

"And upload their consciousness to the mainframe and become machine gods." what. the. fuck.

You don't start in Crazytown. You start in "Well he's kinda angry but that's actually a good point" and it's a slow and steady build to Crazytown, and it's fun to listen to.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:48 PM on December 5, 2013 [10 favorites]


To be certain, you start listening to some Silicon Valley transhumanist libertarian billionaires, and that's straight out of their playbook.
posted by Apocryphon at 10:57 PM on December 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


You don't need a conspiracy when you have a willing coalition.

This.

The fact that given a willing coalition you inevitably get conspiracies is or should be unsurprising; everybody conspires, one way or another, every day. What matters is the degree to which the conspirators' advantage causes damage to non-conspirators, and this depends far less on the fact of conspiracy than on the power and influence available to the conspirators, and therefore on the degree to which power imbalances are structural features of the social order.

This, in turn, depends on the degree to which wealth imbalances are structural features of the social order, since wealth is nothing more nor less than a measure of the degree to which society consents to power.

Wealth and power are naturally self-reinforcing: it takes serious money to make serious money. Therefore, unless there are laws and/or conventions in place that specifically counter such reinforcement, social power imbalance will increase over time.

The United States was initially set up in such a way as to maintain the power of the already powerful, which it continues to do very effectively. The Constitution pays eloquent lip service to egalitarianism while cementing the power of property owners who only needed to collude, not conspire, in order to get their model locked in. That's real power.
posted by flabdablet at 11:05 PM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


From that same lecture, here are some remarks from Noam Chomsky that it's good to bear in mind while considering Alex Jones, though Jones and his ilk might not have been specifically those he was referring to:
People always ought to be skeptical when some view is put forth that makes you passive and resigned and happens to benefit the people who are putting forth the view. That's already initial grounds for skepticism for a reasonable person... It could be true, but you know... you start reaching for your wallet at that particular point. In this case I think it's just not true.
posted by flabdablet at 11:42 PM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Somewhat tangential but too good to miss: Chomsky responds to some guy in a suit.
There were rising standards of living in slave societies. Slaves were much better off in the early 19th Century than in the early 18th Century. Is that an argument for slavery? It's a terrible argument! You can give that argument for any system. In fact you can give that argument for Stalinism.
Blam, blam, blam.
posted by flabdablet at 12:05 AM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Look, I've told you guys before. Everything is explained in the Big Book of Conspiracies. I mean isn't it obvious that Bob Lazar was funneling extra-terrestrial software to the Wackenhut…

I've said too much.
posted by ob1quixote at 12:07 AM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the example given is hilarious, because I actually know people who want to figure out how to get rid of the meat sacks and upload their consciousness. They aren't usually the rich, but it's not like this is totally beyond the pale.
posted by corb at 3:37 AM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


There are no conspiracies. Just business opportunities.

See also:
State Policy Network
ALEC
posted by Thorzdad at 5:06 AM on December 6, 2013


In this youtube link, Chomsky says that FBI files describe an FBI programme of releasing tidbits of information to the media periodically about the assassination of Kennedy just to keep the interest in the conspiracy going as it is better to have people thinking about that than about something they can actually do something about.
posted by devious truculent and unreliable at 5:12 AM on December 6, 2013


many actual conspiracies are under-examined because they have been tainted by the sense that, as several commentators have stated, seeing conspiracy is the sign of credulity

I think this might be partially semantic. People following the events have a pretty good sense of how the industries who engineered the bubble were in bed together. Saying 'they colluded to' is probably enough to get around the knee-jerk response to the word 'conspiracy.' In general, if there is evidence to show, and here there is an abundance, it's clear enough how the relationships worked. It just lacks excitement, because it's real and it's been opened up to at least a little bit of sunlight.

It's a good example because, if anything, this should deeply outrage the general public. Instead, they are choosing to be outraged about more arcane, more fictionized things - and I think that has a lot to do with the aura of sexy secrecy that conspiracy theories have, not with the fact that people can't recognize a true consipiracy when there is one to perceive. As long as they're theories, and few people are really onto them, they've very exciting. As soon as they're reportage, as with the whole credit bubble thing, it gets detailed, gritty, dull, and makes heads hurt. They move on to something with more of an endorphin rush.
posted by Miko at 5:57 AM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


The reason many people believe in conspiracy theories around the Kennedy assassination is that beneath the ever-increasing made-up facts, there was a core of agreed upon facts that point to something-more-is-going-on-here-folks.

Lee Harvey Oswald was killed while in police protection before giving his side of the story.
He was shot by an outsider even though you would imagine him to be the best protected criminal suspect on earth at the moment.
He died from a single shot to the gut, surviving only an hour and a half when most cases a person with immediate medical attention would survive for days.
Oswald lived in Russia for a time.
He had Cuba connections.
Oswald made a hell of a shot (shots). You would think it much more likely that an attempted assassination under his conditions would be unsuccessful.
Ruby had (albeit weak) mob connections.
Ruby was within view of the assassination.

I could go on. From these it is easy to grow a conspiracy theory. You have the shooter, you shoot the shooter. Standard-operating mystery thriller. The Warren Commission, in my opinion, set out with one goal. If there was no conclusive proof against anyone else, it would be labeled as Oswald only.

I believe they did the same thing in the Oklahoma City bombing. I'm not saying there was a conspiracy, I'm not saying Oswald and certainly not saying McVeigh were innocent, but I'm saying the possibility of a conspiracy is consistent with the basic facts. From there, the conjectures go wild.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:10 AM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Out of all of them, this one is my favorite.

"That is one of the myths that Nikola Tesla faked his own death and is now living on an alternate dimension," and it gets better from there.
posted by pashdown at 6:24 AM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Folks interested in this subject matter will undoubtedly enjoy Jesse Walker's new book, The United States of Paranoia; it's a survey of conspiracy theories in American history.
posted by enrevanche at 6:45 AM on December 6, 2013


Most real-life conspiracies are banal and depressing, undertaken to do things like increase market-share. So much of the appeal of the Alex Jones types (and I swear, he has said this almost verbatim but I can't find the link) is that this worldview makes life terribly exciting. YOU are the lone agent who knows about the evil conspiracy that's plotting world domination, YOU and YOU ALONE are tasked with waking the sheeple from their torpor. That's such an appealing narrative that it's become a staple plot of Hollywood.
posted by Ndwright at 7:09 AM on December 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I am particularly fond of this turn of phrase from an article about deception and corruption in the economy:
Let me stipulate: the deception arose gradually, at no stage stemming from any concerted or cynical scheme. There was no grand conspiracy, just accumulating opportunisms.
That's an insight applicable far beyond that article's subject matter. Systems "designed" by a gradual accretion of opportunistic decisions by the actors within them become ridiculously complicated and difficult to navigate, analyze, or change. Sometimes they become entrenched and self-protective. They can, by their nature, function in a way that's difficult to distinguish from a premeditated conspiracy.

Which is not to say that genuine, premeditated conspiracies don't exist. (This last decade has made that common assertion look particularly foolish.) But when we believe we are perceiving one, we're usually wrong.
posted by Western Infidels at 7:18 AM on December 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Miko:
The solution is not being Encylopedia Brown and standing tall above the "sheep," it's actually getting off your ass to engage in change
Oh, God, yes. I want to hug you for this comment.

My father-in-law has always been on the conspiracy side of things, mostly JFK related, but he's been getting deeper and deeper in. The weird thing is that he isn't right wing. His theories sound like someone from Occupy Wall Street who went over the ledge. "Everything is about the people in power getting more money. The Common Core is a distraction, they're just trying to privatize schools to make more money. They're setting this country up to prepare for when we begin rioting..."

As I got into this with him it eventually degraded into a shouting match. I began trying explain that there are people who see these problems and are trying to fight it on the ground. I tried telling him about the Rolling Jubilee as an example and his response was, "why would anyone do that? Someone's making money from it. Don't trust it." His solution to things was to begin arming himself in preparation for the violence that was to come and he refused to believe that anyone could, or would, try and fight back a little at a time. He had given up into an easy fantasy where he didn't have to do anything until it was time to be the big man with a gun as part of some machismo fantasy.

It's was depressing. I had already lost my real father to apocalyptic post millennial dispensationalism and now this.

Ipsifendus:
To put it another way: the paranoid style of American far right extremism seemed pretty interesting when it was mainly associated with groups like the John Birch Society, that seemed like the last dying embers of an extinguished, exhausted movement. But all of the political viewpoints of that group have been brought back to life in the modern GOP, and the rhetoric that used to seem comically anachronistic is now being mouthed without a trace of self awareness by the Tea Party crowd. Conspiracy theories are embraced by actual sitting congressmen. It ain't funny any more.
And this is how it is for me now. Through the nineties and aughts I was big into conspiracy theories and crazy stuff for the entertainment value. I listened to Coast to Coast while stocking shelves on third shift and read all the nuts-o stuff online and in books. But in the last six years or so it stopped being funny.

In the nineties my father used to talk about how Clinton killed Vincent Foster and all that stuff, but it was all in underground newletters and was never discussed in public. It was small and kinda sad and I didn't realize how pervasive it really was. Now I know and it's out in the open and ruining our country and the lives of people I love. And while 9/11 truthers are far more damaging than Roswell truthers it is hard to even take joy from the latter anymore.
posted by charred husk at 7:19 AM on December 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


Western Infidels: But when we believe we are perceiving one, we're usually wrong.

I've tried to make that my MO over the years, and now I don't believe in anything...

It does seem though that in general, choosing a conspiracy theory over the facts (where there are any) happens because it's simply easier to believe the conspiracy theory. Understanding many real-world issues requires homework and thinking. It's interesting that much of the dialog around climate change for example, is driven by this gap and "skeptics" are often accused of "conspiracist ideation". They find it easier to believe in a vast conspiracy of scientists than in the science itself.
posted by sneebler at 7:44 AM on December 6, 2013


101st Fighting Keyboardists - MeFi needs a softball team, so we can have this as our name. Woulds buy a tshirt with this.
posted by theora55 at 8:17 AM on December 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Aside from the obvious connection to types and tropes of mental illness, two things come to mind:

a.) (This is the most important thing to understand!)..The first link is an almost perfect, (perhaps missed by those among us who remain unaware of our unconscious white-middle-class-privilege college degree world-view) enunciation of the most important underlying root-cause of, and condition for, belief in conspiracy theories... the pervasive sense of utter powerlessness, (Marxian alienation ?...) "Might as well have been.." kinda sez it all...

b.) The terribly unfortunate circumstance that those of us who feel most powerless, who suffer from the most alienation.. are also much too often the ones who seek corroboration or support for their fear of what's "behind the scenes", in the meretricious, foolish and irrational pronouncements of the self-appointed experts.
posted by anguspodgorny at 8:29 AM on December 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


"Everything is about the people in power getting more money. The Common Core is a distraction, they're just trying to privatize schools to make more money.

Hmmm. Well, I kind of believe that myself. But I hear what you're saying. It's one thing to rant and rail about it, but another to take some action at whatever level to engage in change. Awareness is not change.

the most important underlying root-cause of, and condition for, belief in conspiracy theories... the pervasive sense of utter powerlessness, (Marxian alienation ?...)

I think you absolutely have it, and that's also, I suspect, why it expresses itself more commonly in the white male demographic - the relative loss of stature as other populations gradually make progress on rights and opportunities.

That was a very insightful comment, anguspodgorny.

101st Fighting Keyboardists - MeFi needs a softball team, so we can have this as our name.

I love it too but I should not take credit. I saw someone else use it and it has stayed in my mind ever since. It's clever.
posted by Miko at 8:36 AM on December 6, 2013


We know, for example, that the Bush administration came to power in a questionable election, lied about Iraq, blew Valerie Plame’s cover and built an illegal worldwide network of kidnapping, detention and torture. And yet the idea that this same administration may have had advance knowledge of 9/11 is, in polite discussion, beyond the pale.

I don't know what this is supposed to mean. There is evidence, often quite conclusive evidence, in favor of the former propositions, whereas the latter has no real evidence behind it other than the widely-known fact that OBL was still interested in attacking the US. (Many people forget that OBL was already on the FBI's Top 10 Most Wanted list before 9/11.)

You might as well notice that lettuce and hamburgers are known as food, but wrenches and tornadoes are not. Does this mean that people don't know what food is? No, it means they know the difference between food and not-food.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:47 AM on December 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


Miko:
Hmmm. Well, I kind of believe that myself. But I hear what you're saying.
Those first two points were to show that he was beginning from a seemingly sensible critique from the left but using it as evidence to support his over the edge conclusions. See Ghostride's comment about how that works.

Also, we can't be the 101st Fighting Keyboardists. That's the name the conservative blogosphere was derisively given while revving up for invading Iraq (and they then turned into a badge of honor). We want to stay far away from that name.
posted by charred husk at 8:53 AM on December 6, 2013


> I think that even skepticism is the wrong stance, because it is inherently a bias. Evidence,
> weight of opinion, viewing every piece of information against the broader landscape - we
> undervalue these, and overvalue the exciting energy of believing we are the only ones to
> perceive the truth.

That second sentence of yours, starting "Evidence...", that's what I always understood that skepticism was. I've never thought that skepticism (as I understood it, i.e. the notion that all truth claims may be examined, even subjected to close scrutiny in the light of both logic and the best empirical evidence you can collect) was the same as a bias toward denial, even though it sure enough does expose all kinds of holes in all kinds of truth claims. The conflation of the two has crept in (IMHO, natch) because the attitude really does very often lead one to the point of having to say "I don't understand this subject well enough to know for certain what's true" or "I seem to see my way to a summary conclusion here, but it's fragile and tentative and might be overturned by a feather--assuming I keep an open mind about it."

Which lands people like me squarely in the "best" camp in the not-complimentary description

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity


and quite often gets us labelled denialists (of one kind or another) by "if you're not with us you're against us" folk of both the right and the left. Who have no shortage of passionate intensity, whether that places them among the worst or not.
posted by jfuller at 9:01 AM on December 6, 2013


We knew there were no UFOs from space

So you've been to space, looked around, and were able to identify all the objects?

Project Sign might be part of the "we" being spoke of and had a different position.
Now Mr. Hynek is claimed to have had this to say about Project BlueBook "Blue Book was a "cover-up" to the extent that the assigned problem was glossed over for one reason or another. In my many years association with Blue Book, I do not recall ever one serious discussion of methodology, of improving the process of data gathering or of techniques of comprehensive interrogation of witnesses."

Space is rather big and people havn't been around all that long. So I'm not sure where this "WE" is getting the idea of "nothing" from space.

My favorite Alex Jones rant was one where he was saying The Globalists want to invent superintelligent robots to do all the jobs

Ole Alex can start off with an irritating grain of truth that he builds his pearls of wisdom on.
Automatic driving cars and humanoid robots == your package is ordered, picked by robots into the robot car that drives it to your place and a robot gets out and delivers it to the door

I'm still waiting for Alex to explain how DMT == machine elf oppressors. Come one Alex, say more!

blah blah not real blah blah theories about conspiracies are wrong

It seems Cracked.com have lists of Conspiacies that have happened. And a few that didn't.

Then you have Russ Tice and his conversations about the NSA - Say, how many of the people who called him "conspiratorial" are still doing such? In a flashback from 2006 one of the "we" of The Blue Speaking of stories that fizzled, what happened to Russell Tice? (Oh look, something that was dismissed in the past turns out to be uncomfortably real.)

How about Lysine price fixing?

The most information in this thread will be walking away with the knowledge of the book Disinformation reviewed here The only people who'd have to change their way of thinking on a topic would be those who believe that no one fibbs.

In closing: If "Conspiracy Theories" bother you, dear reader, so much - what are you doing to have a more open and transparent government beyond voting for some guy who said he was gonna make Government under him the most open and transparent EVR 4 realizies?
posted by rough ashlar at 9:14 AM on December 6, 2013


So you've been to space, looked around, and were able to identify all the objects?

YES. ALL THE OBJECTS ARE DONGS
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:17 AM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


And yet the idea that this same administration may have had advance knowledge of 9/11 is, in polite discussion, beyond the pale.

Another non discussion:

From the end of WWII there was policy put for spending on the military and security state snooping was needed to prevent another surprise attack. And for all that spending over all those years on "game day - 9/11" .... where were all these systems that had been bought and paid for?
posted by rough ashlar at 9:21 AM on December 6, 2013


Just a quick fix to the article and then back to it:
the Texan fear that Santa Anna would take away their liberties slaves

Back to the otherwise excellent article

(Also, the reason why I believe that the assassination of JFK was a perfect storm of fuckups is twofold: the KGB was out there planting conspiracy theories about it very soon after it happened and the CIA couldn't even fucking assassinate Castro, despite trying more than 10 (I can't find an accurate number, but I've heard over 30) times.)
posted by Hactar at 10:11 AM on December 6, 2013


Yeah, many of the less credible conspiracy theories require unproven reserves of competence.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:27 AM on December 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, many of the less credible conspiracy theories require unproven reserves of competence.

So where does that put the NSA events that used to be called 'conspiracy theory'?
posted by rough ashlar at 10:33 AM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Those first two points were to show that he was beginning from a seemingly sensible critique

Oh, OK. I understand how it works, just thought you were saying the whole thing was nuts (in which case I needed a reality check...)

that's what I always understood that skepticism was.


You know, I don't think so. At least as it's used today. I think it's used to mean "distrust and doubt as the default starting point of an investigation." When distrust and doubt are not starting points, really, but conclusions. The marshalling of facts and multiple perspecties is really a better starting point. This is what I meant.

Admittedly, there is a philosophical-term-of-art definition which is more specific, but as I see it used colloquially by people with no philosophical background to speak of, it seems to mean
"interpret information from particular predefined sources with extreme bias as to their truth."
posted by Miko at 10:33 AM on December 6, 2013


what are you doing to have a more open and transparent government beyond voting for some guy who said he was gonna make Government under him the most open and transparent EVR 4 realizies?

Er, because that and believing whole hog in every cockamamie theory are the only two choices?
posted by Miko at 10:40 AM on December 6, 2013


the NSA events that used to be called 'conspiracy theory'?

When were they ever called that? And by whom? The thing about the NSA's reach is that it's been known, as fact, for years - it's not some recent revelation. It's just that certain recent events um, conspired, to make people sit up and take some notice finally.
posted by Miko at 10:43 AM on December 6, 2013


So where does that put the NSA events that used to be called 'conspiracy theory'?

Technical reality. The NSA didn't invent multi-terabyte hard drives that can store multiple years-worth of audio, they just used all the obvious commercially available technology created over the last 20 years by telcos and the entire computer industry. That brought near-universal recording of all traffic within their (enormous) budget.

Given all that, they still don't do shit for predicting terrorism, I would bet most of the analyses are post-hoc fishing expeditions where they are used to prove a known bad guy is REALLY BAD (or find dirt on Eliot Spitzer). If they could actually assemble all that data into usable predictive models the Boston bombings would never have happened.

The most competent stuff they've done is likely inserting complex random number flaws in HRNGs and cryptic backdoors into established protocols.
posted by benzenedream at 11:07 AM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


When were they ever called that? And by whom?

One can start with James Bamford's books.

Or do you need older references?

believing whole hog in every cockamamie theory

Right, cuz such is so binary a choice. (Go on. click the link. You know you want to. It makes discussions about JFK look good.)
posted by rough ashlar at 11:23 AM on December 6, 2013


And elsewhere from past claims: Modern art was CIA 'weapon'

Not sure how effective a 'weapon' it is....perhaps banksy can weigh in?
posted by rough ashlar at 11:27 AM on December 6, 2013


When were they ever called that? And by whom?

One can start with James Bamford's books.


I'm not clear what you're arguing here. James Bamford reported on the NSA's overreach and failures. He wrote about it in mainstream publications and popular books from major publishers. As an investigative reporter, he was very good about using evidence to make his claims. Who was calling James Bamford a mere conspiracy theorist?
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:54 AM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Better examples of true conspiracy theories which had once been dismissed as silly might be the death of Frank Olson and the existence of Colonia Dignidad as a cult run by a weirdo Nazi expat.

In the Olson case, the CIA protected itself in large part by settling with the family. While there was never a firm confirmation that Olson was murdered, it would be difficult to find anyone who seriously believes that he simply killed himself and that was that.

With regard to Colonia Dignidad, everything came to (official) light when the the regimes changed in Chile and the government finally saw fit to perform a raid.

Neither case is all that super famous, outside of certain circles.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:04 PM on December 6, 2013


He was shot by an outsider even though you would imagine him to be the best protected criminal suspect on earth at the moment.

There's a lot of stuff surrounding the assassination that makes it pretty plain that Dallas PD in 1963 did not have a lot of mensa candidates. I mean, we have footage of Dallas PD finding either the rifle or some other key piece of evidence, and we have that footage because some dumbfuck officer invited a tv crew to follow him around in what he assumed was a virgin crime scene.

It doesn't surprise me that much that a department that had already demonstrated a Barney Fife degree of unprofessionalism would then turn around and say "What, that guy who owns the titty bar is here? Let him in! No, he wouldn't have a gun, just let him in."

Oswald made a hell of a shot (shots). You would think it much more likely that an attempted assassination under his conditions would be unsuccessful.

So I have to admit that I've never fired a shot. But when biscotti and I went to the 6th Floor Museum in Dallas, and looked down from the sniper's nest into Dealey Plaza, our mutual reaction was "That's it? Only that far? Shit, I could do that with a little training." It's not even a hundred yards, so I have to think that thousands and thousands of hunters make shots like that, or substantially harder, every deer season.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:16 PM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Relatedly, Twenty Reasons to Believe Oswald Acted Alone also speaks to how our cognitive biases can trick us into conspiracy theorising.
posted by jepler at 12:54 PM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


In my experience, left wing conspiracy theorists and right wing conspiracy theorists have more in common with each other than with the sane parts of their own ideology. It's just that they vote differently (or not at all) once a year.
posted by stoneweaver at 1:40 PM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Discovered via one of the NYMag links:

Sixteen questions on the assassination by Bertrand Russell.
posted by bukvich at 2:03 PM on December 6, 2013


Interesting in that I just watched In the Shadow of the Moon, the Apollo documentary that's a little different because it's almost 100% the experiences of the crews who went to the Moon, wherein they spend almost five minutes debunking Moon-landing conspiracy theories. My impression, though, is that the energy devoted to that corner of the fringe was almost wholly displaced by (mainly) 9/11 trutherism. I don't even hear much about JFK's assassination anymore outside the anniversaries.
posted by dhartung at 2:19 PM on December 6, 2013


I wouldn't say that Bertrand Russell asking questions, or anyone asking questions, constitutes conspiracy theorizing.

Right, cuz such is so binary a choice.

Right....that was my point? I've lost the thread of what you are trying to say.

One of the funny things about this thread is that I'm at work and so about 50% of the links are getting blocked by our firewall.
posted by Miko at 2:24 PM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]



Relatedly, Twenty Reasons to Believe Oswald Acted Alone also speaks to how our cognitive biases can trick us into conspiracy theorising.


... except only one of the twenty really touches on the organized crime connection, and only in passing, which (assuming there was a conspiracy, which I'm not convinced of), has come to strike me as the most likely scenario. Which isn't to say that it was merely another mob hit, only that those guys had serious motive. So yeah, a scenario where certain mob types might involve themselves with certain anti-Castro Cubans and CIA types and military-industrial types, is at least plausible.

This 1978 BBC doc is very interesting in this regard.

I'd be surprised if some of the evidence etc hasn't since been dis-proven (it is thirty-five years later), but the overall gist is something I find hard to just shrug off. Because there were a lot of people with different agendas who wanted JFK dead, who had connections with each other, and with Oswald, and Jack Ruby.
posted by philip-random at 3:38 PM on December 6, 2013


@flabdablet it's good to bear in mind while considering Alex Jones ... some view is put forth that ... happens to benefit the people who are putting forth the view.

When someone "proves" over and over again how questioning the official frame inevitably leads to insane conclusions?

Certainly sows fear, uncertainty and doubt. Got to admit it's more subtle than using Inquisitors. As does the art of creating so much contradictory and/or disorienting "evidence" that people just give up. Like a "plane crater" with no plane, no bodies, no debris ... just a hole. Or a "757 hole" six feet wide. No problem for Masters of Illusion. Then cognitive dissonance just begs for a reassuring story.
posted by Twang at 6:18 PM on December 6, 2013


From jepler's linked article:
But the difference between conspiracy theorists’ fantasies and actual known conspiracies is this: in a conspiracy theory, some powerful organization’s public face hides a dark and terrible secret; its true mission is the opposite of its stated one. By contrast, in every real conspiracy I can think of, the facade was already 90% as terrible as the reality! And the “dark secret” was that the organization was doing precisely what you’d expect it to do, if its members genuinely held the beliefs that they claimed to hold.
Bingo.
posted by flabdablet at 7:24 PM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Certainly sows fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Heh. Yeah, you talk like people are paying attention, and care enough to react with "fear, uncertainty, and doubt." That would be some sort of best-case scenario. The most amusing punchline is that actually, nobody really gives a shit, even when the facts are documented clear as day.
posted by Miko at 7:58 PM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


But all of the political viewpoints of that group have been brought back to life in the modern GOP, and the rhetoric that used to seem comically anachronistic is now being mouthed without a trace of self awareness by the Tea Party crowd. Conspiracy theories are embraced by actual sitting congressmen. It ain't funny any more.

I was just thinking the same thing.

I’m reading the recent KLF book, which is really good so far, and has a lot to do with conspiracy theories, Discordians, along with a hundred other things. Oh, and the KLF. I love the bullshit and the nonsense, but I feel like it’s just not funny anymore when so many people don’t get the joke, or that it is a joke.
posted by bongo_x at 10:02 PM on December 6, 2013




My impression, though, is that the energy devoted to that corner of the fringe was almost wholly displaced by (mainly) 9/11 trutherism. I don't even hear much about JFK's assassination anymore outside the anniversaries.

The interesting thing about the Internet is depending on your interests, you'll find it.

Don't worry, the moon and JFK are still considered hot button issues, with the latest revival of the Moon is China placing a hi-res imaging device in orbit around the moon. Alien moon bases and the US didn't land there will soon make the rounds, or at least claims of China now being in on the coverup if China doesn't support the theories.

Meanwhile the "Grrr! hate conspiracies" people are not working in any way to address the lack of truth being expressed over in http://www.metafilter.com/134661/People-in-power-will-routinely-lie-to-their-population#5326399 The lies of the powerful that have been found out is what fuels theories about further conspiracies - why not chop at the root VS the concern over the existence of theories about conspiracies?
posted by rough ashlar at 3:40 AM on December 11, 2013


Esquire: Alex Jones: Father Knows Best, Updated For The Apocalypse

Salon: Esquire got duped by Alex Jones - "A favorable profile of the conspiracy theorist in the venerable men's mag lets him hide his noxious anti-gay views "
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:56 AM on December 30, 2013


venerable?
posted by benito.strauss at 12:27 PM on December 30, 2013


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