Conspiracy Theories Are Everywhere. We Are Doomed!
What makes us so sure *any* of us think critically about the ideas we consume?
The Middle East looked pretty damned stupid to me, in the weeks and months after 9/11.
The media spotlighted just how pervasive conspiracy theories were for the Islamic world, especially regarding Jews. Big surprise, that’s where the ‘Jews were behind 9/11’ story crawled out.
Ha ha ha! Those Muslims looked so stupid! I know Americans believe some dumb shit, but we don’t believe shit THAT dumb!
Down the rabbit holes
I had a contentious conversation with a friend recently. Sam has always been an interesting conversationalist, more liberal than I, but customarily able to defend himself, with only occasional mild tinges of conspiracy thinking.
In recent years, he’s begun to go down some rabbit holes. He thinks Building 7 near the WTC was brought down by explosives on 9/11 rather than having caught fire from falling debris. He thinks Jeffrey Epstein might have been up to worse than trafficking young women because he saw a photo of a backhoe on his property. “What was that backhoe doing there?” he demanded.
“I don’t know, maybe he was building a swimming pool or something?”
Sam suspected they were looking for bodies.
“Whose? Women associated with him?” I hadn’t heard this allegation before but I hadn’t followed the Epstein saga that closely.
“What else could it be?”
“Backhoes are designed for construction. The most likely explanation is he was building something.” But, you know, I couldn’t say it wasn’t a search for bodies. “Are there any allegations of young women associated with him who’ve disappeared?”
It was a perfectly sound question. Maybe there were suspicions Epstein had disappeared women, or the people around him.
But Sam started yelling. “That question is OFFENSIVE! It’s OFFENSIVE! And I don’t want to talk about this anymore!”
“It’s a perfectly legitimate question!” I protested. “I don’t know if he’s been accused of this or not. I’m asking: Are there allegations Epstein might have done this, or overseen it? Are there girls or women in his orbit who’ve gone missing?”
He got angrier, didn’t answer the question and changed the subject, for the second time that evening, the first over Building 7. For reasons for which I am unclear, 9/11 conspiracy theorists are obsessed with completely unnecessary explosives.
The image flashed through my mind of an angry little boy upending the checkerboard.
The next day I researched Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged murder rampage (zero allegations, not even conspiracy theories), Building 7, and ‘why people believe in conspiracy theories’.
While I was doing this, I was re-thinking my now ten-year friendship with Sam. I love him dearly, but in the last few years he’s gotten more easily triggered and prone to losing his temper. We’ve mixed it up a few times in the last few years, including sometimes over my behavior which was more hurtful to him than I realized.
I was careful how I spoke to him that evening. I kept in mind some of his complaints about me and worked to make sure I didn’t repeat those mistakes.
But I hadn’t asked offensive questions. I’d asked questions he couldn’t answer.
There is such a thing as conspiracy
There are genuine conspiracies, however loosely defined and perhaps collectively unconscious. Sam’s biggest conspiracy theory has a loose basis - how much the ‘1%’ control the world. Financial elites for certain have more power and pull than the rest of us, and we’re worse off for it. But Sam thinks it’s hopeless to fight them because they ‘control everything’.
“Who shares the blame in allowing financial elites this much power?” I pointed out. “Who voted for them? For the politicians who support them? Who votes against their own interests over and over?” I was thinking of those gullible What’s The Matter With Kansas? Republican voters and more recent MAGAs, since liberals are less inclined to vote for guys like Trump or Bush. But to be fair, we Democrats and liberals voted for Barack Obama, who was forced to pay his dues for all the money he accepted from Big Finance by going easy on them during the Big Financial Collapse. The Clintons like their Big Money too.
“You can’t say that! That’s blaming the victims!” Sam replied.
“No, that’s acknowledging who allowed them to come to power,” I pointed out. “Voters. Maybe not you and I specifically, but others who voted for rich or paid-for politicians. They’re complicit. We’re all complicit. We’re all collaborators.”
It’s hard to read Kurt Andersen’s excellent history and analysis (Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America) of how the Republican Party allied with increasingly conservative voices, powerful financial interests and later the far-right to take over and control large parts of the government, business, the economy and political discourse. Much of it started with the Reagan Revolution, undercover and happening in places most don’t see, like academia and the legal profession.
But Americans voted for it. Famously, in a 1984 landslide election.
“It’s blaming the victims,” he insisted.
“The voters are accountable. Whether they vote or not. We have to demand better than we’re getting. We have to stop settling.” I wasn’t at all sure Sam voted at all, but I didn’t ask.
The ‘1%’ has been ordering and reshaping the world, not so much to screw the rest of us as to benefit themselves. If you want to pull agenda-driven conspiracy theory into it, what they are aware of is they’re destroying society and the environment and making plans to remove themselves and leave the mess for us. There’s a new book about it.
Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires by Douglas Rushkoff
Still, the 1% looms larger between Sam’s ears than my own. We disagree on how much control they have over the rest of us, and how much responsibility we share. He buys into a powerlessness that I don’t.
Conspiracy theorists want answers, like we all do. But sometimes the truth is more boring, or it doesn’t feed their need to feel ‘special’, keyed into ‘the truth’ that the rest of us ‘sheeple’ ignore because we have too much faith in the ‘lamesteam media’.
Well, I do consult the ‘lamestream’ media more than Alex Jones, but I check my sources with Media Bias Fact Check to gauge reliability. I also like Snopes, Politifact, and AP’s & Reuters’s Fact Checks.
When I deal with conspiracy theorists like Sam, these are the four responses I offer to their common faulty logic:
1) ‘Connecting the dots’
Dot patterns aren’t evidence, merely the suggestion something might be going on.
But you have to have proof. Sam confused ‘connecting the dots’ with ‘evidence’. When I’d ask for evidence he’d respond, “Don’t you think it’s weird that—” followed up with something like People said they heard explosions coming from Building 7 yet no one can find these people, and acoustics experts have determined such demolitions would have been heard by everyone in the neighborhood, not just one or two witnesses no one can find.
2) Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence
If there’s no evidence to support the theory, discard it.
Or put it on the back burner in case something new turns up. If anyone finds corpses on Jeffrey Epstein’s property, I’m happy to listen (and then Google). Holding my judgement on the still-highly questionable ‘lab leak in Wuhan’ explanation for the COVID pandemic.
3) The more people who are in on the conspiracy, the less likely it will remain a secret
Look, Bill Clinton couldn’t even cover up a sexual affair and initially, only two people knew about it.
Then his mistress blabbed to someone she thought was her friend and that ended in an impeachment.
It would take considerably more conspirators - like, in the thousands - to engineer 9/11 within the American government. Do you think Bin Laden pulled it off in two weeks with twelve goat herders in a cave? He did not. His conspiracy was years in the making and even then the future terrorists left clues and hints something was up, but fortunately for them George Bush relentlessly failed to pay attention.
There is no way someone ‘inside the job’ wouldn’t have sung for CNN by now. Probably several someones, each racing to be the first to publish their book. Had there been any evidence 9/11 was an ‘inside job’, putting the suspects in front of lawyers under oath would have revealed everything including where Jimmy Hoffa is buried.
Exhibit A: People spilling their guts for the Jan 6th committee. Exhibit B: Etc. etc. Fox News’s lies machine.
We know about real conspiracies. Watergate. Iran-contra. The plot to kill Margaret Thatcher. The plot to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer. The plot to overthrow a fair federal election, conducted in plain sight on social media.
You can’t keep real conspiracies secret. The truth always comes out. The more people who are in on it, the faster we find out.
4) What’s the motivation?
What’s the point? What makes all this worthwhile?
If George Bush had wanted to start a war with the Middle East for oil, couldn’t he have just invaded a country that hadn’t attacked us—oh, yeah, he did that, didn’t he. Except his first war was in Afghanistan, a country which has so little oil they don’t even make the top 100 oil producers. So his Grand Plan, apparently, was destroying the financial center of the United States with a ridiculous amount of needless roundabout complexity including an initial invasion of an oil-scarce country, and then finally Iraq, and I’m unclear how much oil we actually took from it.
Then there are those pernicious alien bodies stored in a top-secret military facility somewhere.
There’s no way generations of military officers could know about this and not tell a soul. Even Mark Felt, ‘Deepthroat’, revealed his identity just before his death. Some dying general, somewhere, would have said, “The American people have a right to know about this. The aliens are in a meat freezer at Cape Kennedy!” And then kacked it.
Why? Why, Sam?
No one wants to think they believe something untrue, even though we all get hornswoggled sometimes. We all tend to forget whatever critical thinking skills we have when we’re emotionally bound to a belief that would harm our self-image if we acknowledged the unthinkable: We were wrong.
According to a Scientific American article, there are a number of psychological factors that incline people toward conspiracy thinking. These include:
Frightening global events. Research consistently shows how much anxiety fuels conspiracy thinking, especially when coupled with feelings of disenfranchisement. Conspiracy theories can alleviate those feelings if one believes in a mysterious ‘they’ behind it all. Then one need not contemplate the evil of fellow human beings, random events, or whether one is personally or collectively responsible for driving any of it
Political power. If your side isn’t in power you might be more inclined to theories about the other one (this goes for everyone)
Control. The more or less control you feel over your life feeds whether you buy into conspiracy theories, or how much
Feelings of rejection. Feeling like an ‘outsider’. The more isolated one becomes, the fewer avenues of logical thinking can penetrate, especially when one is in government-mandated lockdown and one’s primary companion is social media.
The article describes a ‘conspiratorial double whammy’ when personal alienation and anxiety combine with a sense society or the future is in jeopardy (the Wokes vs the MAGAs)
Conspiracy theories might be mostly harmless, like freeze-dried aliens, but believing stuff without any facts or evidence behind it can incline one to believe crazier ideas like a stolen election. We’re watching the unfolding timeline of Fox News and how its willful, ratings-driven agenda to draw back their factphobic audience drove the violence on Jan. 6.
We can’t vote intelligently, if we vote at all, if we can’t comprehend real-world explanations. We put ourselves and our families at risk when we believe anonymous strangers and an idiotic president over medical experts when the latter tell us to get vaccinated against a killer virus rather than consume horse de-wormer.
How can you behave like a responsible citizen, if you really believe liberals are baby-eating Satan worshippers? How are you hurting the country if you encourage distrust of the government by promoting ludicrous alternative explanations for a nationally traumatic historic event?
Unproven, fear- and anxiety-based beliefs have real-world consequences. Bill Maher traces it uncomfortably for many back to religious belief, and it’s hard not to acknowledge he’s got a bastard of a big point. Plenty of carte-blanche religious beliefs are bugshit insane if you look at them with, you know, a critical eye.
QAnon plays into peoples’ brains because it’s based on, and ergo specifically feeds into, religious belief.
The lie the rest of us tell ourselves is that ‘religious belief’ requires a belief in gods and afterlives. And that we’re, ergo, immune.
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