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