I'm glad that Salon's Arthur Goldwag left the JFK researchers out of this piece
Goldwag addresses a by-now familiar topic: Do the people who espouse crazy ideas -- birtherism, Benghazi-mania -- really, really
believe in what they are saying? A good question. Alas, the author completely drops the ball.
Since he's not a particularly original thinker, Goldwag resorts to the most familiar reference point imaginable. Yep, he drags out Leon Festinger and his theory of cognitive dissonance...
Cognitive dissonance is the term of art for the psychic discomfort we feel when facts come into conflict with our beliefs. To make it more tolerable, we either change our beliefs or deny the facts.
The psychologist Leon Festinger explored the workings of cognitive dissonance in a number of experiments in the 1950s, mostly carried out in laboratories with student volunteers, but most famously in the course of a field study of a flying saucer cult whose leaders had prophesied that the world would end on December 21, 1954. Festinger’s book “When Prophecy Fails,” which reads like a novel or the scenario for a bleakly comic movie, describes the various ways that the cultists responded when the prophecy was disconfirmed, shedding a powerful light on why it can be so futile, as he put it, to try “to change a strong conviction, especially if the convinced person has some investment in his belief.”
If you're new to all this, let me give you some background.
Festinger's reserachers had infiltrated a '50s-era UFO cult headed by a woman he calls Marion Keech. The cult had prophesied the end of the world. Festinger records how everyone regrouped after the world refused to end on the given date.
And now we get to the issue that people like Goldwag -- and Festinger -- never want to discuss. Goldwag says in his headline that he wants to address this question: "Are these people sincere?" But he avoids that very issue by stipulating that the leaders of these movements are in fact operating in good faith.
Festinger operated under the same presumption. It's a common approach -- a common mistake
-- in the field of sociology. (See: J. Gordon Melton
. See: Massimo Introvigne
Unfortunately, you won't get the full story from Festinger's famous book.
"Marion Keech" was actually Dorothy Martin, a.k.a. Sister Thedra. Her group was called The Seekers. After the apocalypse refused to occur, Martin hooked up with a conster named George Hunt Williamson, infamous for writing books which mixed anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and wild tales about flying saucers. Lots of people offered similar concoctions in later years, but Williamson was the first.
Williamson and Martin constructed a yarn about a mystical monastery in the Andes called the Brotherhood of the Seven Rays. It never existed. There are a couple of books about it -- Williamson wrote one
-- but trust me: The whole thing was a myth.
However, Williamson and Martin convinced a lot of people that the thing was real, and that those who studied with the Masters of that brotherhood would become deeply spiritual personages, capable of cosmic deeds and great wisdom.
How do I know all this? Many years ago, I talked to a respected anthropologist (he made me promise never to give the name) who, as a young man, had fallen under the spell of Williamson and Martin. He really believed that the Brotherhood was real. And when Williamson advertised a group expedition to visit the Brotherhood, my source somehow found the funds to make the journey.
He and a couple of dozen other True Believers traveled to a small town in Peru, where Williamson and Martin put them up in a wretched hotel. The young people were told that soon -- very soon -- they would be taken on a journey to the Brotherhood of the Seven Rays.
Of course, the group had pooled their funds and gave all the money to Williamson and Martin.
You can guess the rest. Williamson and Martin skipped town, leaving their naive young marks high and dry in Nowheresville, Peru -- bereft of all monies. Their return trip was, as you might imagine, difficult.
My source told me that he pretty much instantly gave up all belief in the cosmic mumbo-jumbo that Williamson and Martin had spewed. So much for cognitive dissonance. (The incident did, however, spur his interest in anthropology, so some good came out of the episode.)
Dorothy Martin, now known as Sister Thedra, later became a prophetess within a group called the Association of Sananda and Sanat Kumara. J.Z. Knight, a.k.a. Ramtha, was associated with this society, although there may have been a falling out.
When we look at the real
facts, we see the poverty of thought in Goldwag's piece. We see why it is misleading to apply Festinger's theory of "cognitive dissonance" to creatures like Alex Jones.
Martin was a con artist. She knew
what she was doing.
What does her example tell us about Alex Jones? About the birthers? About the Fox Newsers who keep pushing false stories?
As one of Goldwag's readers astutely puts it: "There are the true believers and then there are the opportunists. Jenny
McCarthy is a believer and so is Rand Paul, but The Koch Bros. are
That's the incredibly important point that simple-minded people like Goldwag never want to discuss: We are all subject to manipulation by those who employ the techniques of psychological warfare
. Some people who espouse weird beliefs are simply mistaken -- but others are playing an angle.
In a previous post, we discussed how Paul Linebarger
-- the CIA's early master of psychological warfare -- studied and adapted the tactics of the master con artists. I suspect that he knew all about Dorothy Martin.