Saturday, September 30, 2006

Conspiracy Theories: What's Really Going on There?

I’ve been reading a really interesting book: Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in the United States, by historian Robert Allen Goldberg (Yale U. Press, 2001). I’m trying to figure out what these seemingly mad ideas are so powerful, and so popular. What the Hell is going on there?

Conspiracy theories have popped up many times in history, Goldberg tells us. You might think that it all began with the Jewish plot to take over the (nineteenth century) world, but what about the Antichrist, and the grand-daddy of them all, Satan and all his devils? And in the eighteenth century there was the Adam Weishaupt and the fabulous Bavarian Illuminati. But recent decades do seem to represent something new in history: conspiracy theories have been multiplying like mad. Among them are: JFK was killed by a conspiracy that did not include Oswald (or in which he was “just a patsy”), ditto for RFK/Sirhan and MLK/James Earl Ray. The Oklahoma City bombing was perpetrated by the government – with Timothy MacVeigh as the patsy! The Moon landing took place on a Hollywood sound stage. Marilyn Monroe was murdered, Elvis’s death was faked so he could avoid publicity, Princess Di’s death was faked so she could get away from the paparazzi. Vince Foster was murdered because he knew too much. Then there are Roswell and Area 51. In fact, JFK was killed because, like Foster, he knew too much, but in his case it was about – UFOs! The Elian who was sent back to Cuba was a ringer. And of course, every time a reduction in the supply of petroleum results in an increase in the price of gas at the pump, it isn’t because of some abstruse, hard to understand “law” of supply and demand, it’s because of a conspiracy of oil companies fixing the prices. And, since Golderberg's book was written, the dawn of what may turn out to be the Golden Age of conspiracist lunacy. The WTC towers and the pentagon were hit by cruise missiles, cleverly disguised as passenger planes (which were somehow spirited away and disappeared). Light and telephone poles next to the Pentagon that seem to have been sheared off by a large passenger plane were actually stage props. The cellphone messages from United 93 were fakes concocted by actors. And on it goes.

What do all these ideas have in common? Goldberg points out that they all weave together disparate facts into a consistent, unified structure. They also promise one power: to find the behind-the scenes cause of things feels very empowering.

Also, as Goldberg points out, conspiracists tend overwhelmingly to be male. Joe MacCarthy, Robert Welch, Mark Lane, Louis Farrakhan, Oliver Stone, Fetzer and Barrett. The leading Roswell nut-cases and Area 51 wack-jobs – all men. Conspiracism is a testosterone-rich environment. I would add that this can be partially explained by the fact that conspiracist thinking is a power-grabbing fantasy. This is something that men seem to be more interested in than women.

I would also add, though, that both these functions are filled by real theories. Boyle’s law and the law of supply and demand integrate diverse phenomena and promise to empower us through understanding. But I maintain that conspiracy “theories” are not real theories. What is the difference?

For one thing, real theories mean work. It takes work to understand them. They are abstract, difficult. They always use often use a highly specialized conceptual aparatus, and math symbols that only those who have spent long, boring hours of study can understand. And even after you understand them, they assign you more work. The law of supply and demand means that, if you don’t like gradually rising gas prices, you have to get off your butt and find more sources of fuel. (Damn! That could take years! Let’s just sit here and hate the oil companies some more!)

Of course, once you realize that everything is the fault of Big Oil or the Jews, there is nothing at all that you can do about it. But that is actually liberating: Nothing to do! You’re off the hook! The power rush was from the insight itself, realizing what the real cause was. You’ve penetrated the Veil of Maya. Actually gaining and using real power – that’s just more work!

There is one more huge difference between conspiracism and real theory. Conspiracies make good stories, as Goldberg reminds us. Think how many movies depict conspiracies, from Birth of a Nation through Meet John Doe and and The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May to dozens of current offerings. By contrast, a real theory is a cold minuet of bloodless abstractions. No story there.

In addition, I would point out that a conspiracy theory appeals to a common and pervasive human emotion: namely, hatred. Conspiracies have the two characteristics that separate the Hateful from all other things: they are powerful, and they are very, very bad. If your dominant emotion is a haunting, free floating hatred, and you need something to fasten it to and justify it, try a conspiracy theory! If might be just what you were looking for!

So conspiracy theories are the sort of theory that would naturally appeal to someone who is intellectually lazy, prefers instant gratification, thinks in terms of concrete images instead of abstractions and mathematical symbols, and needs to feel more powerful; someone who is troubled by nasty emotions that do not seem to be appropriate responses to the world that they actually see around them.

So my explanation has to be that conspiracism is so popular because there are a lot of people like that -- or there is a lot of that in people!

Dialogue across Religious Boundaries: Does It Exist?

There is a very thoughtful piece in National Review Online by John Cullinan, a Catholic intellectual. He is commenting on the Pope's meeting with Muslim diplomats last week in the Castel Gandolfo.

(BTW, what a totally cool name: The Castel Gandolfo! Whatever else you might think of Catholicism, it sure as Hell is OLD!!)

Anyway, at the meeting Benedict finally stopped apologizing (thank God!) and tried strengthen dialogue between the Church and Islam. Cullinan comments that there has always been a problem about Catholic/Muslim dialogue. Christians have always had (the possibility of) joint theological inquiry with Jews, who share some of the same heritage. By contrast, Muslims claim that the Quran supersedes the Christian Bible, something the Christians have never said about the Christian New Testament and the Jewish Old Testament. Furthermore, Catholics have always been a) Trinitarian and b) Jesus-centered, which Muslims interpret as a) blasphemous and b) idolatrous.

This is of course more of the we-aren't-dialoguiung-with-you-because-you-can't-talk-to-us stuff, which the Pope was throwing at the Western rationalists. You guys are the problem, not us!

Actually, I see a deeper, much more epidemic sort of problem. Suppose that you are trying to convince me of some opinion of yours, something I myself don't believe (yet). My first reaction will probably be that your evidence isn't really good enough, that it doesn't require me to change my mind. Rarely, if ever, will my reaction be that the stuff you are saying is just not evidence at all, that it is the wrong kind of thing to function as evidence. That's what I would say if you said, eg., "I know the Republicans will lose the next election because it came to me in a dream." Sheesh, what are you saying?!

The thing is, when a dialogue happens across the boundaries between religions, we have this problem all the time. The Muslim's reason will be "I know it's true because the Quran says so!" and the Christian's reason will be "... because the Bible says so!" Each does not recognize the stuff the other side is saying as constituting evidence at all: it's just not the right kind of thing to function as evidence, they think.

On the other hand, in the modern world, this is not true of dialogues between religionists on the one hand and secular rationalists on the other. Fundamentalists deny evolution, but they do not look at the evidence cited by Darwinians (the fossil record, structural similarities between many different organisms, etc.) and say "Sheesh, what are you talking about? It's as if you were citing your dreams as evidence!!" Huh-uh. They know very well that this is evidence, which they must answer somehow. On the other hand, they often do cite evidence which to the non-religionist is just not evidence at all (".. on the seventh day, He rested!").

At this point a Catholic might say: That was just the point that Benedict was making about rationalism, dummy! You guys can't possibly understand us! It's a crippling disability you have, you poor lost souls!

To which I say: Not at all! It's a disability you have as well, when you are trying to reason with Muslims, or believers in any revealed religion fundamentally different from your own. It's a problem that any such religion presents to anyone outside the religion, whether the outsider is religious or not. The problem is the religion itself!

The moral: If Benedict and the Muslims are going to have a dialogue, they can only do it by stepping outside the Christian and Muslim views of the world. Any dialogue between them will have to be carried on in the shared, common language of scientific rationalism. That is one of the beauties of the scientific view of the world, perhaps the greatest: it is meant to be shared and common. It makes mutual understanding possible! Religion, unfortunately, has a certain tendency to block it.

If you combine Benedict's notorius Regensburg speech with his comments at Castel Gandolfo, you get this message: He's giving up on dialogue with Western rationalists, they are hopless cases. He's going to pursue dialogue with the Muslims. After all, he points out, they have plenty in common, like their shared opposition to abortion. He might also have added, their shared loathing of homosexuals. I say that he has it exactly backwards. What makes dialogue possible is not shared prejudices but shared logic. He shares a logic with the rationalists and the Muslims share a logic with the rationalists. Neither religion shares a logic with each other. Each revealed religion is sealed off by its own logic in a schizoid little world of its own.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Now, "Theorist" Has Thanked Wisconsin Republican

I wrote the post just below this one yesterday. Today I checked Kevin Barrett's website and what do I see but the following:

Barrett Thanks Nass, Invites Nass to 9/11 Lecture

Kevin Barrett responded politely and gratefully today to Steve Nass's claim that Barrett is using the University of Wisconsin to get publicity for his 9/11 views.

"Steve Nass has done more to publicize me and my views than anyone," Barrett said. "If it weren't for Nass, most people would never have heard of me or my views."...

And he ought to know!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Conspiracy "Theorist" Should Thank Wisconsin Republicans

Seeing a headilne (a headline!) in today's Wisconsin State Journal, announcing a talk by local conspiracy "theorist" Kevin Barrett, it occurred to me that there is no way he would be getting this invaluable free publicity, if Republicans in the Wisconsin state legislature had not called for his dismissal from the University in July. Thanks a lot, fellas!

In the excellent "Penn and Teller: Bullshit!" episode on conspiracy theories, they show a clip of a "theorist" saying that the WTC towers were destroyed by explosives, and that the crew and passengers of the four planes that somehow disappeared from the face of the earth are all "in the pay of the government." Penn Gillette says at this point, "You know, I hope this asshole runs into a family that lost a loved one on one of those planes, who probably wouldn't take kindly to his theory that Daddy is faking his death." I agree that the more extreme conspiracy "theories" are not merely nutty but a spectacle morally offensive to behold. But attempts to censor them (though supported by law blogger Ann Althouse) are a part of that sorry spectacle: a sad, short-sighted, self-defeating part.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

How the Rioters Proved the Pope Was Wrong

Here’s an additional irony for you. (For the ground-floor layer of irony, see "How About that Pope?" below.) The violent Islamist reaction to the Pope’s speech actually showed in a particularly dramatic way, that what the Pope was saying in the speech was wrong. I’m not referring that any thesis about whether Islam is or is not violent by nature. That wasn’t the main point of the Pope’s speech, as has been point ed out in an excellent editorial in The Times of London.

The main point was given in the conclusion of his talk. As translated by The Times:

“In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion to the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.”

The main point of his talk was to attack -- not some other religion, but -- their common enemy, the Western scientific rationalism that has gradually grown in influence since the Enlightenment. Ah, the irony of it! Here he is, telling us that the Enlightenment rationalists, people like me, cannot engage in a dialogue with other points of view, and the only people who refuse to dialogue with him about these issues, who try to violently shut down the discussion, are certain people who, like him, “supplement” reason with faith.

He is wrong in at least two ways. First, there is the obvious error, which I just pointed out. Second, we Western rationalists can and do enter into dialogue with those we disagree with: I am doing it now! Look Ma, no hands! In addition to that, and most curious of all, is the oddly twisted logic of the above quotation. He says that we rationalists are unable to talk to the denizens of the world's profoundly religious cultures. And what is the reason for this hobbling disability of ours? It is that they perceive our disagreeing with them “as an attack on their most profound convictions.”

Isn't there something obviously wrong with this line of reasoning? Yes, dialogue is blocked by the fact that certain religionists perceive the fact that others think differently as an “attack” on them. But that is not our disability, it is theirs! They are the ones who won’t enter into a dialogue, who still don’t get what a dialogue is and what it is for.

As a matter of fact, the idea of “dialogue” that the Pope is using here is not a Christian or religious idea. It was invented and developed by pagan philosophers and secular humanists. The fact that the Pope is now in favor of a dialogue between cultures represents a sort of progress. His intellectual ancestors spent centuries doing what the rioters are doing now: trying to stop it. I hereby welcome him aboard the liberal bandwagon. But he ought to figure out who the true friends of dialogue are.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Anne Applebaum Does it Again!

Once again, Anne Applebaum has hit the nail on the head. See her current column in the Washington Post. What more need anyone say, on this issue?

(Sad news: I see in another recent column that Anne has left the country [Sniff!] and won't be writing her column so regularly for a while [Sob!]. Something about wanting to live in the same country as her husband. Excuses, excuses!)

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

How About that Pope?

Long, long ago, I started my first real teaching job, at a large state institution in the Chicago area. Almost my first day of class, as I came into the room, one of the students, thinking to strike up a conversation on a topic of can’t-fail, universal interest, said, “Say, how ‘bout them Bears?” He assumed that I, that all the world, would know about the latest adventures of his favorite team. Well, I was new to the midwest and was not sure whether the Bears play baseball, football, or left-handed badminton in the Special Olympics. (I was also not a sports fan. So sue me.)

Anyway, today I am tempted to say: Say, how ‘bout that Pope? I do tend to obsess about certain things, I admit. In case you haven’t heard, that guy is in the news again. Last week he made a speech in Germany, where he criticized Islam as being constitutionally violent, spreading itself by force since the time of Mohamed himself. This sparked vicious violence on the part of some Muslims, who burned churches in the West Bank (apparently not Catholic ones), while others shot a nun in the back in Somalia. For some reason, no one as far as I know has mentioned the obvious irony in this: How dare you call me violent! I’ll kill you for that! Maybe people are so used to this sort of blatant, defiant, in-your-face, fuck-you-asshole irrationality they do not notice it any more. So people who burn churches, and don’t even bother to burn the right kind of church, are not logically consistent. What else is new? I have to admit I almost feel foolish in mentioning it myself.

If you know anything about me, you know what I think is the real issue here. If the Pope takes my advice (unlikely: he has not been returning my calls) he will make this a free speech issue. Whatever arguments there are against what the Pope said, and I am not denying that that they might be weighty ones, his comments were historical and ethical opinions, well within the limits of civilized debate. They are in a completely different universe of discourse from the pure evil of shooting a sixty-five-year-old relief worker in the back.

One thing you will not see here is any of that a-pox-on-both-their-houses, murder-and-arson-are-naughty-but-the-Pope-was-naughty-too kind of talk you see in certain quarters. To say such a thing is to buy into the false premise that there is some moral comparability between an opinion (even an narrow and nasty one) and the use of brute force. You think the Pope is an ignorant bigot? Fine, enlighten him or ignore him. The answer to a stupid argument is a smart argument. It is never, ever a bullet. And it is not a mass demonstration, either, such as the ones that were held in Egypt in response to the Pope’s speech. Demonstrations are not rational arguments. They are meant to intimidate and silence. They are not moves in a dialogue, they are attempts to end the dialogue, to shut it down.

In the near term, the prospects for Christian/Muslim dialogue do not look good. They won’t brighten up very much as long as someone claims a brutal veto-power over what can be said.