Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Conspiracy theory, again

Let's give HuffPo author Donté Stallworth some credit: He managed to get through an entire article about the dangers of conspiracy theory in America without once making the standard reference to Richard Hofstadter's "Paranoid Style" essay.

God, I hope never to hear that one again.

In particular, I really don't want to hear "You oughtta read Hofstadter" from a young person. You have no idea how galling it is to hear a smirky young twerp recommend that I read an essay which I first read when said smirky young twerp was in diapers.

(At that point, I usually recommend some books which the smirky young twerp hasn't read yet: Thayer's The Farther Shores of Politics is excellent, as are Morris Kominsky's indispensible The Hoaxers and George Johnsons's The Architects of Fear. Never try to take me to school, smirklings: If you read a book a week for the next forty years, you still won't catch up to me.) 

Stallworth tells the story of how he bounced in and out of the conspiracy buff subculture. He makes an attempt to come up with a few genuinely original thoughts about that subculture. For that, he deserves credit.

The problem with most conspiracists is that they think they can think, but they really can't. Like everyone else, they robotically repeat what they are told by Big Media, with but one difference: In their world, Big Media is Alex Jones, not the New York Times or CBS or Fox.

Unfortunately, Stallworth is unduly influenced by a professor named Robert Goldberg, co-director of the Middle East Center at the University of Utah. Goldberg is what happens when one of those smirky young twerps grows up and gets a degree. His message: "Believe everything told to you by the NYT and the government of the United States, or I shall SMIRK at you!" He's like one of the Knights Who Say Ni, except he doesn't say Ni. He smirks.

Stallworth was one of those fools who bought into Loose Change. I'm glad that he recovered from his Bermas-induced brain injury, but the fact that he fell for that nonsense in the first place is both revealing and distressing. Being a crusty old observer of paranoid guff, I smelled the fragrant aroma of horseshit the very instant Loose Change was first unleashed on the world. Yet Stallworth was promoting its virtues as recently as 2009. Yow!

Well, he did have the excuse of youth. Moral of the story: Never trust anyone under forty -- not in these realms.

The big problem here is that Stallworth still can't quite grasp the simple concept that one must gauge the value of any given conspiracy theory in terms of evidence. Instead, like Goldberg and too many others, he frames the question in terms of competing "isms" -- that is, in terms of competing belief systems.

Conspriacism emerged in the late 1980s. Of course, there had been conspira-holics in previous decades, and some of those addicts were rather important figures. (General Walker and Jim Angleton come to mind.) But 1988 was the year the marginal began to go mainstream.

At first it was a form of diversion, like miniature golf or going to the movies. The fellow who runs Rigorous Intuition came up with the useful term "the conspiracy entertainment complex" to describe what I'm talking about.

The first superstar of the conspiracy entertainment complex was a freak named Milton William "Bill" Cooper, who became very popular by peddling horseshit stories about aliens and the JFK assassination, mixed in with a lot of John Birchian psychopathology. He was the (anti-)intellectual father of Alex Jones. (Naturally, Jones hated Cooper.) Cooper discovered that one could fill massive auditoriums with lectures about paranoid twaddle. The conspiracy entertainment complex produced other stars -- Jim Keith, David Hatcher Childress, Kenn Thomas, Adam GoRightly, Alec Hidell -- but none of them had Coop's drawing power, at least not until the advent of Alex Jones.

This new form of entertainment congealed into a belief system in the mid-1990s, when the anti-Clinton militias sprang up. This was not an accident. This was a created phenomenon. (As was the later Tea Party movement.)

Nowadays, conspiracism is framed in terms of conversion narratives. One often hears conspiracy buffs talk about their Saul-en-route-to-Damascus moments. Every time I hear one of these creeps make a reference to "taking the red pill," I want to scream: "The red pill? That again? Look, shithead: If you really did have the ability to think for yourself, you'd be able to come up with your own fucking metaphor."

Dolts who passively repeat any old metaphor handed to them are also likely to accept any old outside-the-mainstream theory that gets handed to them. Similarly, dolts on the street will imbibe any old drug handed to them. It's all the same thing, really.

As long as guys like Stallworth continue to frame the debate as terms of competing isms, our culture is doomed. We don't need a new ism. We need more data and higher standards of evidence combined with a reasonably high tolerance for non-standard viewpoints.

Twenty years ago, I used to say: "God help any country in which people feel they have to choose between the Dan Rather view of reality and the Bill Cooper view of reality." Nowadays, we can plug in different names -- Scott Pelley versus Alex Jones -- but the false dichotomy remains every bit as depressing.

As Stallworth notes, Alex Jones remains the go-to guy for anyone who goes shopping for non-mainstream political ideas. Stallworth doesn't mention the JFK assassination (probably because he hasn't read enough to address the topic intelligently), but he surely knows that if you mention that event to most Americans, the name "Alex Jones" will probably come up during the course of the next ten sentences. That situation infuriates the real JFK researchers, the ones who have spent decades scrutinizing every jot and tittle of the released documents. They don't seem to have a high opinion of Jones, who has contributed exactly nothing to our knowledge of the case, and whose libertarian politics would have made John Kennedy grimace.

(Yes, I know that there are exceptions to every rule. Yes, I know that Professor Peter Dale Scott, the dean of the old-school JFK researchers, has been on Jones' show. Professor Scott has always had a weird affection for the low. He reminds me of one of those eccentric 18th century aristocrats who enjoyed the occasional night in St. Giles, carousing with the bawds and singing obscene songs about the king.)

One of the projects that I'm working on is a book about the "Hoaxlore" of American paranoia. In part, the work will demonstrate that no small part of America's risible "conspiracy culture" has resulted from hoaxes perpetrated by state actors and other powerful interests. In other words, the conspiracy theorists are the conspiracy.

This work may never be completed and published. The long form is difficult for me. But if I ever do finish this work -- and if it garners attention -- I will be a happy man only if the book pisses off both the people who think like Robert Goldberg and the people who think like Alex Jones. The Goldberg-types will place me in the Alex Jones category, while the Jones-types place me in the Goldberg category. And I will smile with contentment.

Advice: Do not be a square peg which other people try to fit into a round hole, and do not be a round peg which other people try to fit into a square hole. Be an entirely new type of peg, neither round nor square -- a peg of irregular and unfathomable shape, a peg designed for a hole the likes of which mankind has never seen before.

In other words: Fuck categories. Fuck isms. All isms are prisons.
Rules for conspiratorialists,

1. Remember the Law of Parsimony. It isn't always true, but generally the simplest explanation is the best.
2. Can the theory be disproven? You may believe that Jesus was an alien, but precisely how do you disprove it? If it is impossible to disprove and any new facts are simply incorporated into your theory, that theory is meaningless.
3. What fact could be presented to make you abandon your theory? If you believe Oswald was innocent, would the discovery of a diary in which he set forth his plan and confessed to the killing change your mind? (Obviously I am not suggesting that such a thing exists, I am demonstrating that there must be some fact that would change your mind).
4. There are anomalies in nature. If the entire theory is built around a minor unexplained fact when the overwhelming evidence is contrary to the theory, the theory is most likely nonsense.
Well said, small j.

I should note that Oswald did leave a diary about the Russian episode. However, it seems to have been composed in only a few sittings. Thus, it hasn't been of much use to either the proponents or opponents of the Warren Commission.

A better example might be E. Howard Hunt's deathbed confession, which some assassination theorists accept at face value, while others view very cautiously.
"Fuck categories"
May I ask :
How do I do this?
Anonymous: Well, in a sense, categories are slots.

Need I go on?
I tend to go with the lone nut theory, but there is no doubt that there are anomalies all over the place and there is no simple explanation for the assassination. The only thing that pushes me in the direction of Oswald's guilt is that Will Fritz says he did it. Fritz had the advantage of years of experience (apparently going back to chasing Bonnie and Clyde)and had actually interviewed Oswald after he was arrested. There are problems with what Fritz says, but he says that Oswald was guilty and that has to carry some weight.
Will Fritz was saying the case against Oswald was "cinched" and beyond doubt at a time (Saturday afternoon) when the DPD had very little to go on other than that Oswald worked in the building and had left (i.e. the alleged murder weapon had not yet even been identified as Hidell's, there were no fingerprints or other evidence, the paraffin test was negative,etc).
As we slowly veer off topic; can you do a full post on Hunt's confession? It's been bugging me for a while and I don't know what to make of it yet. I know he said he was involved but he shifted blame to LBJ if I remember correctly...
Little-j joseph, in the world of crime the law of parsimony only serves the criminal.

Dead man discovered in an alley with his head pounded to a pulp and blood on the wall. Conclusion: suicide by head-pounding. Why investigate the context of the decedent's life at the time? Why invoke unnecessary parties? Parsimony is lazy.

If Oswald's diary were discovered 50 years after the fact the first question would be--was it genuine?

There are anomalies in nature, but an hypothesis that explains all the observables of an event better explains that event than one which only explains some of them.

I couldn't read more than 7 paragraphs in Stallworth's article, after he claimed surfing Youtube was doing research.
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