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Thursday, April 28, 2011

America the Mad

(The birthers keep spewing new variants of their insanity. This essay is a discursive, wide-ranging response. Unfortunately, this piece has grown beyond my ability to finish in one day; I may return to this theme tomorrow.)

When did I first become interested in conspiracy theories? A long time ago in a (San Fernando) Valley far, far away.

When I was a tyke in the '60s, one of my Mom's friends possessed a copy of a weird, slim volume called Were We Controlled?, which claims that Lee Harvey Oswald was hypnotized. I read much of it but didn't believe it. That volume crossed the boggle threshold of a nine-year-old.

As the 1970s wore on, I read up on JFK lore -- not obsessively, but to a fair degree. Three facts became clear: 1. This event had a genuinely important mystery lurking behind it; 2. Some assassination books (like David Lifton's Best Evidence) seemed iffy; and 3. Some books in this genre were pure crap.

Much, much later in life it became clear that the James Jesus Angleton faction within the intelligence community killed Kennedy. ("I don't know who shot John," Mother declared with a preternaturally straight face.) There's a lot of evidence to support that view, but you won't find it easily.

The assassination debates no longer seem worth following. Why bother? The case is beyond the point of rescue. The controversy has been commandeered by deceivers and fanatics.

By "deceivers," I mean guys like Gerry Posner and Vince Bugliosi. This blog contributed to Gerry's downfall -- and Cannonfire will happily perform the same service for good old Vince, if the opportunity arises.

By "fanatics," I mean anti-Semites like Michael Collins Piper, right-wing wackos like Alex Jones, and ill-educated fools like John Hankey (who may have the excuse of youth). He's the guy who made a viral video called JFK 2, a popular work which blames the assassination -- and damned near everything else that has ever gone wrong in American history -- on the Bush family. That movie is demolished here and here.

All of which brings us to the great problem.

During the 1970s, while reading up on Kennedy lore, I also stumbled across its ideological converse: Right wing conspiracy literature. The John Birch Society version of reality. That material seemed far less dangerous at that time than it does now, because it was relegated to the political fringe and seemed likely to stay there.

Basically, we're talking about anti-Jewish paranoia with the Jews cut out. In the 1970s, the example of Nazi Germany was nearer, and undisguised anti-Semitic conspiracy theories revolted most Americans. Post-war fascists, being a clever lot, decided to gull a new generation by pouring the old brew into new bottles with misleading labels. Instead of brazenly shouting "Jews control the world!" the new conspiracists would cross out the word "Jews" and substitute a more polite term -- usually "international bankers." Or "cosmopolitans." Or "communism." Or "freemasons." Or "Illuminati." Or "aliens."

Ah yes. "Aliens." That euphemism proved particularly useful in the 1988-1998 period, the decade of UFO chic.

In that era, the man who did more than anyone else to hook the American public on paranoia was a rotund alcoholic named Milton William Cooper. You might call him the "voice in the wilderness" who paved the way for Alex Jones; naturally, the two men hated each other. Coop's genius move was to trade on the two meanings of the word "alien."

He spoke to massive audiences about the "alien" threat to our planet. At first, he intimated that his villains were extraterrestrial. As his lectures wore on, he revealed that the "aliens" were completely materialistic, that they controlled all the banks, that they controlled the media, and that they had "interbred" with the Rothschild family. A book called The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion gave the inside scoop on the alien conspiracy. Just to underline his point, Coop told his listeners that the evil aliens all had big noses. Fortunately, the "big nose" aliens had a natural enemy -- a race of benevolent star-farers known as "the blondes," who were the saviors of humanity.

I think you get the picture.

Alas, Cooper's audience did not. No matter how thuddingly obvious the metaphor, thousands of ninnies across this land actually thought that when Cooper said "aliens," he meant creatures from another planet.

Yes, skulls really do achieve that level of thickness.

The Cooper madness taught me the dangers of conspiracy theory. Let's put the matter candidly: Kids coming of age in the 1990s were just plain fucking stupid, much stupider than their parents were.

In the days before the internet, I collected reactionary conspiracy codswallop much as other people collect comic books or trading cards. Does anyone else out there recall the broadsides from an entity called Cosmic Awareness Speaks? The ravings of a memorably-named madman named Dr. Peter Beter? Did you know that Lyndon LaRouche used to write very different material under the name Lyn Marcus? The gonzo propaganda mills churned out tons of literature, and it was all very bizarre. And weirdly charming.

After a while (around the time of the Oklahoma City bombing) the charm began to wear off. The anti-Clinton crazies turned my stomach. The true believers who kept making excuses for Cooper revolted me. The militia maniacs scared the shit out of me. The literature of conspiracy wasn't fun anymore.

Yet it kept coming. And coming and coming. What we may call the Alex Jones weltanschauung has become the "official" unofficial view of political reality. This view informs many programs on The History Channel. It's all over Fox News. It's all over the radio.

We may call this ideology "conspiracism." As I like to say, all isms are prisons.

But is ideology is the right word? We might do better to speak of it as a religion. People who become immersed in conspiracism describe conversion experiences -- always a dangerous sign. They refer to "taking the red pill" -- a metaphor derived from the film The Matrix.

We've become a nation of pill-poppers. Paranoia is our smack.

The Republican party keeps this monkey on our collective back by selling nonstop conspiracism. They don't traffic in JFK theories (obviously) and they steer clear of overtly anti-Semitic notions (usually); otherwise, conspiracism is how they attain and maintain power. I'm not sure if the GOP adopted this strategy disingenuously (the 1996 election taught them that it pays to sell inchoate fear), or if genuine paranoids have taken over the Republican leadership.

The GOP became the conspiracy party as an inevitable result of being the Jesus party. Conspiracism is the secret ally of fundamentalist Christianity. We see this alliance in the publications of Tim LaHaye (who popularized paranoia about the Illuminati), Hal Lindsey, Jack Chick and William Schnoebelen. We see it in such works as Pat Robertson's The New World Order. We see it whenever creationists argue that all of the world's scientists have plotted to deceive the faithful. We see it whenever an evangelist scries hidden Satanic messages into pop tunes, Disney movies or Harry Potter books.

Similarly, as this video demonstrates, the deniers of global warming rely on John Birchian conspiracy theory to explain why the vast majority of scientists believe that human activity can change the world's climate.

Back in the mid-1990s, I often told friends that the world was heading toward a dangerous dichotomy. Soon, the citizenry would be given only two choices: The Dan Rather version of reality and the Willis Carto version of reality. And that would be it. No third choice.

Forget the great dissenters of the 1960s; it will be as if the '60s never happened. If you are a dissenter, you go into the Carto camp: That's your home. If you support the Establishment view, you go into the Dan Rather camp: That's your home. Those are your choices. There are no other camps.

Fifteen years later, the names have changed but the false dichotomy remains the same. You can plug in other names. Katie Couric and Alex Jones will do. Or perhaps David Broder and Glenn Beck.

The larger point is this: The conspiracists have commandeered the great American tradition of maverick thought. Either you accept every word in the New York Times (even when the grey lady prints crap from someone like Judy Miller), or you can listen to the ravings of loons like Sharron Angle and Michelle Bachmann. You can side with America the Bad or with America the Mad.

Since both the Becks and the Broders accept some form of neo-liberal economic ideology, rebellion is a mirage. There is no genuine alternative in this country; samisdat writers and the mainstream pundits will lead you to the same place. Conspiracism is itself a conspiracy: It functions as a device to co-opt the alienated and the angry.

Many Americans sense that something has gone seriously wrong. They understand that lies forced us into the Iraq war. They became infuriated by the decision to bail out Wall Street. They know that they have been screwed over by the financial elites and by their purchased legislators.

Those same elites understand that all potential rebels need to be channeled away from left-wing solutions. Conspiracism sidetracks the oppressed into a form of "dissent" that can only strengthen the oppressors.

The conspiracy theorists are the conspiracy.

(More soon.)
Comments:
I just don't think we've ever been the same since the X Files.
 
"Conspiracism sidetracks the oppressed into a form of "dissent" that can only strengthen the oppressors."

RAmen. I am getting tired of agreeing with you so much on the big picture, you so often voice what I have thought or think. So I'm left to muddle in the ultimately unimportant but entertaining stuff:

So which oppressor gains with the James Jesus angle? I think to have certainty with James Jesus is extending, I know that you don't know. Still the man was a font of biblical quotes and mafia contacts. I really liked Matt Damon's work in The Good Shepherd. Have you ever met up with EJ Epstein? Seems like you guys really have so many overlapping interests with diverging beliefs as to have a fabulously entertaining conversation. That is a podcast I would pay to listen to if you ever expand your humble web empire.
 
For the contemporary version of Dan Rather in your dichotomy, I'd have to go with Jon Stewart.
 
This is one of the several bits of collateral damage created by the Nader fiasco of '00 -- not only did he deliver the Bush43 era, but permanently stained his own reputation. Nader had been the go-to guy for a type of Washington-centric anti-corporate populism, in the tradition of Izzy Stone and Galbraith. When the banks blew a hole in the global economy, there was no Nader-type political infrastructure (aside from a few hardscrabble industrial unions) to combat the reigning neo-corporatists.
 
-> stupid, STUPIDITY !
When the arms of CRITIC become
INeffective, maybe one should
(dialectically) switch to a
critic of ARMS.
Besides, Kant said something like,
"First build good categories, then
You may read whatever You're up to.
You will always take a profit from it."(this quote by memory).
Take a look at the history of
philosophy. It were EXACTLY the inconsistencies of the bible that
tied up most peoples minds.
Because no brain bothers about the
evident. But wrestles with inconsistencies until solved.
Problem is: When they contradict experience. (even the most fanatic
"behaviorist gives up his ideology, once hitting a mailbox with his head).
The theologists still are ruling.
But the path has long been beaten.
Hegel,Feuerbach,Marx.
"All bloggers (for that sake) of all times have one in common:
They have interpretated history differntly.
-But its about MAKING it." (capitals added).

Todays rulers have understood this.
They have heard "the signals"and are ACTING.Creating SMOKE.
Why not us?
Preemptive counterevolution is their parole. Theirs is no need
to "conspiracy".
All they need is preventing
organisation, which is easily done
by distraction.Its in the tecs
of illusionism.
Very simple,really.
But strategically not viable.
The human mind is impossible to be
bugged infinetly. Being bugged is
contrary to the economy -of the brain,as well.
 
Anon: That was some sort of avant-garde poem...right? Please tell me that it was.

elmo: Jon Stewart? No way.

That was the problem, twenty years ago. We didn't have anyone doing the Jon Stewart role.
 
Joseph:

When the UN's black helicopters land in your back yard and the jackbooted ATF thugs kick in your door and drag you off to one of the secret FEMA camps in Area 51, I hope you take the time to post a quick apology to all the nice folks you slander as crazies just because they tried to warn you.

OTOH - You'll feel much better once they install the implant in your head.

I know I did.
 
Someone once said, "Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad".

Harry
 
What anon said, I think!
 
Joseph : "Please tell me that it was."
-> How could I (or :ANYone) dare to even thinking
of contradicting You ?
Having visited Your humble blog ever since the Bush-bulge,
I anticipate Your most probable reaction.
So take it for whatever makes You happier than You are.
Jon Stewart ? I looked him up in wikipedia.
Seems like a great guy for me.
Got some clips of him in my collection.
What was ""THE" problem twenty Years ago" -I can't really
follow, first I'm not an american, second I wasted very little
time in front of television screens during the last forty years or so.
Not that I'm against it. It just bores me.
Also I was through with being fash-cinated by life-sucking
fantastical "literature" VERY early on.

Your blog is on my reading list, because I can USE it as a window
into the average contemporary american mind-set.(Set-mind?)

Don't get me wrong : I appreciate it for THAT.

You and the commenters are serving me well,as well, in
picking up some american language.

Oh, thanks,myiq2xu.
You really helped me, giving it an other try, finding a RAPPORT
with Joseph.
But bringing in "Area 51" was possibly not such a good idea.-You now,
that sounds ALEXIAN- and I was through with him and his ilk as soon
as I'met him (on ze internez)

And whilst I'm at it, Harry, over here in Europe, and possibly in
most parts of the world, americans, if not considered dangerous, are
taken exactly for that.(mad)

I myself are not so crude in my judgement and try always to
bridge the gap.

Thanks for Your patience.
 
"And whilst I'm at it, Harry, over here in Europe, and possibly in
most parts of the world, americans, if not considered dangerous, are
taken exactly for that.(mad)

I myself are not so crude in my judgement and try always to
bridge the gap.

Thanks for Your patience."

I myself am not so American. I consider myself British, cos thats where I was brought up but I was an immigrant there too.

Thats makes me a guest in the country as well as a guest on this blog so I should hope I wasn't being rude.

I used that Greek expression not cos I think Americans are mad but because the Greeks used it in very specific contexts. The Sophocles play Ajax for example.

There is a pattern in Greek tragedy, usually involving the elements of hubris, madness, and eventual self-destruction. I am a pretentious fool, but the situation in America today reminds me of Greek tragedy in having all three elements. While I doubt the country will self-destruct, its leaders seem happy to get very close to the cliff edge.

All for what little its worth.

Harry
 
Harry : I then was not so sure, how You meant it..
No, I know.
Yes, its tragic, they have no choice.
Seems to be true : History repeats itself..first as a tragedy, and then as a farce."
Thing is, "tragedy" was thater, katharsis, relief, warning, so as the (greek) people would NOT have to experience it in relity.
No, the theater is one of war.
There is only ONE religion left,
it is as much ideal as it is material. It is "Satanic" in the
only sense of the term that makes
sense.
Thats why the ("christian")right can use it. They ARE right.
But also wrong.
Because where is "the capital" heading ? To ever irrationally abstract higher numbers. Im-materialising nature. Dis-solving, liquidating reality. Materialising
"nothingness", HELL, potential human nature. Natural humans.
I found my religion in believing
firmly, stubbornly, in humans being able to be(come) humane.
Have no other choice.
(thank You, Josef.)
 
shit,
"No, I know" ->NOW, Iknow.
"thater" -> theatre
"relity" -> reality
 
"Similarly, as this video demonstrates, the deniers of global warming rely on John Birchian conspiracy theory to explain why the vast majority of scientists believe that human activity can change the world's climate."

Steady on! What's this appeal to the views of the vast majority of scientists? They have their opinions controlled through a well-oiled propaganda-pyramid like almost everyone else. Bernays explains the principles involved very well.

I also know that almost every fucking public service cut I have to suffer, every extra depreciation in the quality of my life, is justified using propaganda as being ever so "green". And that all the mouthpieces, the opinion makers in society, applaud this fucking shit like a bunch of green-painted cheerleaders. In oh-so-serious voices. Fuck 'em!

Just like anti-fascism, anti-conspiracism (detail-junkieist or otherwise) can be a distraction or con too. You talk well of the setting up of false alternatives, but pro-greenism (for want of a better word) versus conspiracist loonyism is just another case of it. It's a mindfuck. But of course we shouldn't trust fucking scientists or any other hierarchical 'authority' figures.

And what's with this word, "denier"? It's a propaganda word. The climate's always changed. It can't be stopped from changing. The idea that 'we' can stop the climate changing is fucking insane. A total mobilisation - all hands to the pumps - do everything Sir says - Sir loves you. This idea sells the notion of 'we' in an almost totally alienated society, becoming ever more lie-filled and technofascist. I 'deny' it. Not because I follow this expert or that dissident expert out on the sidelines, but from more general and historical considerations. That doesn't put me in the same box as those who deny the massacres committed by the German Nazis when my grandparents were a decade younger than I am now.
 
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