Sunday, October 14, 2012

Our Political Climate: Elvis Clones, Area 51 and the Necronomicon

In the days of my misspent youth, I was fascinated with conspiracy theories. My first, and favorite, was of course, Area 51 and the Roswell UFO crash. After all, I was a child of the seventies and space was on every kid’s brain. UFOs and governmental cover-ups found their way into all of the popular television shows of the day. Where do you think Mork and Mindy came from?

I was too young to hear about the faked moon landing conspiracy theory that eventually found its way into that great O.J. Simpson vehicle, Capricorn One. It’s probably just as well. Whatever marginal entertainment value the idea of a faked space program contained, there was just too much facts, evidence, and truth to give it much credence.  I think that’s part of what makes a good conspiracy theory. There has to be a lot of interesting coincidences, or incidents that can’t be explained, or questions that have no answers, in order to be really compelling.

 Case in point: The JFK assassination. Consider that with all of the declassified documents now available, with all of testimony, the eyewitness accounts, the two separate investigations...with all of that, and we STILL don’t know who assassinated JFK. We probably never will. Those secrets have undoubtedly gone to some people’s graves and if anyone still alive knows what went down, they are likely going to die with those secrets behind their lips.

I mean, I think I know what happened, and I’m sure you do, too. We’ve all got our ideas, but we really don’t know. We can talk about it for days, and never get anywhere. There are people walking around convinced that Oswald acted alone. I find that incredible, but hey, it’s no more out there than “the mob did it,” or “rogue elements in the CIA,” or “the Russkies,” or the “Area 51 aliens.” As conspiracy theories go, The JFK assassination can hold a lot of stuff without breaking.

As I got older and became more interested in history and writing, other great conspiracy theories caught my attention and held my imagination. The insane notion that Elvis faked his own death drove me to create a number of stories with a handful of other writers called “Tales of the Elvis Clones.” Just for fun, I threw a bunch of other conspiracy theory tropes in there, as well.

One of the most interesting conspiracy theories involves the alleged existence of H.P. Lovecraft’s fictitious book, The Necronomicon. Despite letters written in Lovecraft’s own hand that state the book, the mythology around it, and all of his cosmic monsters are made up, or based on other fiction authors’ works as an homage, there are people walking the Earth, trying to find a copy of the book. That’s the beauty of that particular bit of book hoax lore: it can’t be disproven. That’s right, when you show those people Lovecraft’s letters, they reply, “Well, he HAD to write that, now, didn’t he? He didn’t want other people to know the truth.”

When you start applying that kind of logic to questions, then anything is possible, now, isn’t it?  Nothing has to make sense, because it can all be explained away. “Well, that’s part of the cover-up.” “No, see, they WANT to make it confusing.”

I find it very interesting that when it comes to these kinds of conspiracies, believers won’t listen to anyone close to the material. They’ve been corrupted, see. They can’t be trusted. For example, “There’s no WAY Lisa Marie Presley is going to tell you the truth about her father’s faked death. The reason? She’s in on it, man.” You see how that works? For answers, they always turn to complete and total strangers, outsiders, all possessing secret knowledge that only a few people are privy to.

I still run across new conspiracy theories from time to time. The most recent one, a retread of the old faked moon landings story, alleges that the landings were faked by none other than the famous director Stanley Kubrick. It’s one of the most imaginative theories I’ve ever seen, and provided you turn your brain completely off, it’s seems really plausible. I don’t buy it, of course, but studying it as a plot unto itself, it’s genius-level machinations. It was while I was researching conspiracy theories recently that I came across this article this article from Psychology Today, talking about the thinking behind conspiracy theories. While it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, it nevertheless struck a real chord with what’s going on politically right now.

One of the main reasons why some people gravitate towards conspiracy theories is that they feel, consciously or unconsciously, as if they have no control in their life, over larger events, etc.  Buying into a conspiracy theory gives that person control in the form of secret knowledge that other people don’t have. It makes them feel like an insider, someone in the know. And it further separates people into “us,” or those of us who know what’s really going on, and “them,” or the clueless masses, the people who just don’t “get it,” or the folks who are perpetrating the deception.

This kind of person can be a lot of fun at parties, especially if you wind them up and let them spin around in a corner, telling you all about the Lizard Men who are secretly controlling us with their infernal magic. It can be really entertaining, because ultimately, what’s the harm? If someone thinks that Paul McCartney died and was replaced to avoid the mass suicide of all of his fans, well, that doesn’t invalidate “Hey, Jude” as one of the great rock songs of the 20th century. Nor does it alienate anyone with that kind of thinking, except maybe Paul McCartney himself.

I’m no stranger to conspiracy theories. I can recognize them on sight. I can also tell from the way a person talks that they are in the land of “I know something you don’t know.” And that’s what really worries me about a large number of people connected to the Republican party.  This kind of thinking is terribly divisive and potentially dangerous, and it stifles actual conversations about real things that actually matter.

This may come as a shock to many of you, but it’s possible to have a political discussion without invoking God, Jesus, or secret conspiracies designed to keep people in the dark. I have them all the time, and with people I don’t necessarily agree with. Polite, informed discussions actually help me a great deal, because I get to sort of “test out” my thinking on people and make adjustments based on the feedback I get. This used to be something that everyone did, instinctively, when talking about larger, more complicated issues. That doesn’t happen so much anymore.

What troubles me most about the way in which political thought is framed these days is that it’s reactionary, emotional, and depending on who is in the White House, charged with moral outrage. And when you drop a conspiracy or two into the mix, like the idea that President Obama is not really an American citizen (although these same people would have loved, excused, and even championed Arnold Schwarzenegger if he made a bid for the Presidency), then you move the language of the discussion into fundamentalist rhetoric.

One of my favorite quotes goes like this: “It is impossible to reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into.” That means, there are no facts that can be presented, no new information to discuss, and no way to change a person’s mind, if they’ve already made it up—and especially in a day and age when changing your mind, admitting a mistake, or simply saying, “I was wrong,” is considered some sort of weakness.  Think about it: when is the last time someone in the media spotlight willingly admitted a mistake or apologized when it wasn’t mandated by the court? Hugh Grant’s public apology on television for his dalliance with a prostitute is the only thing that comes to mind. I can’t think of a single politician or political figure that has had to apologize for anything in the past decade. Can you? I’m willing to be wrong about this (see what I did, right there?)?

More and more I find myself unable to engage a number of Tea Party activists and Romney supporters in conversation because they don’t want to talk about things like economic policy or balancing the budget. All they can talk about is “taking the country back,” as if it had been kidnapped, or worse, voting for Romney lest we be plunged into “a thousand years of darkness.” Et tu, Chuck Norris?

This week, when the unemployment numbers came out, the fact that they were lower than last month caused rampant speculation among the Republican talking heads that the democrats “cooked the books” and manipulated the numbers in their favor. Then Joe Biden went on the offensive in the vice-presidential debates and rather theatrically gave an answer for every charge that Paul Ryan leveled at the administration.  The republican reaction? Biden was rude. He lied. He cut off Ryan and never let him talk.

These two new talking points have been folded into the ongoing Republican narrative, and especially the former talking point has been added to the idea that there is a secret cabal running a shadow cabinet to insert a secret Muslim into the White House and drive our society down into a socialist ruin that will trigger the zombie apocalypse and the End of Days, bringing Jesus Christ back to Earth to do battle with Satan on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial while the unwashed sinners and heathens who believed all of those other religions fight amongst themselves in a blasted dystopia from which there is no escape.

Really? All this because President Obama’s birth certificate doesn’t look like yours? His driver’s license doesn’t look like mine, either. You want to work that into the narrative?

Now, what just happened is this: most of the people who were planning on voting for Romney this November have clicked off. There’s nothing more to learn, here. I’m the enemy. Tainted. Corrupted. I don’t want to do my own research. I’m a tool of the liberal media machine. I’m what’s wrong with this country.

I’m sorry Joe Biden’s answers weren’t answers the republicans wanted to hear. I’m sorry he accused Paul Ryan of stretching the truth, if not outright lying. But those answers, those talking points, are just as valid as anything that comes out of Romney or Ryan’s mouths. To suggest that there’s a vast conspiracy behind it all is simply laughable.  It’s laughable in that it presumes that the Democrats are willing to break laws and do things that the Republican party would never, ever do in order to win an election *cough*WATERGATE*cough*. 

It’s terribly disingenuous to suggest that some people in politics are paragons of virtue and the party opposite them is lined with criminals and ne’er-do-wells. If you want to say that both parties are capable of malfeasance, then I’ll take that point all day. But this black-hat, white-hat, we’re the good guys and they are lying heathens is just ludicrous.

“But Mark, you’re ignoring the facts!” What facts? Whose facts? There are no discernable facts to be found in either political party’s narrative. It's just empty storytelling with some buzzwords thrown in. One group says that the president is pulling over seven hundred billion dollars out of Medicare and the other group says “Nuh uh, we are not.” Who’s right? How do you know? Has ANYONE read the documents that specify these budget line items? I know I haven’t. Have you? Has anyone you know?

I guess it’s actually easier to just go along with whatever narrative works best for you, because it’s already been laid out in nice, neat chunks that are easy to digest. Buet even with all of that in place, common sense has to kick in at some point, right? Even if you’re just trying to rationalize the facts. Sure, some of the backwards masking on the Beatles albums sounds like, well, something. But isn’t it just as likely that John Lennon was putting those weird messages in to screw with Paul? They had a contentious relationship, after all. Couldn’t that explain why Paul’s always doing something different than the others on the album covers—because he wanted to? Right? Isn’t that much simpler answer equally, if not more plausible?

I wish I knew if this was an outgrowth of a more serious condition in this country, or part of the Republican party’s presentational plan all along. If it’s part of a more worrisome condition—the fact that so many of us feel powerless, like we’ve lost our control on things—then I would agree with that premise completely. I think the answer to that lies in actively taking the reins on our politicians and having them serve again at our bidding, rather than their own. That’s a valid goal, a worthwhile talking point, and I’ll have that discussion with someone all day long.

But if this conspiracy theory nonsense is actually part of the Republican party’s campaign strategy (or the co-opted Tea Party’s strategy), then I would urge the real republicans who are out there, silent and conflicted about all of this, to step up and re-take control of the party and get rid of the fringe fundamentalists who are currently in control. I never thought I’d say this, but I really miss Richard Nixon. I’d vote for him in a second if he were around today. There are members of the Republican party I would love to see in a higher office. Buddy Roemer is a republican and even a banker, and yet, I’d vote for him in a presidential election in a heartbeat. Of course, when you read his platform, and what he wants to do in Washington, you’ll realize he’ll never be on the National ticket. It’s just like how Ron Paul was laughingly dismissed, when in fact, every time he talked, more people were willing to listen to him instead of Romney. Where is he now?

Reasoned arguments, clearly stated, based on facts and figures, with a logical conclusion, do not need to be dressed up and sold as something else to the American public. I sincerely hope that this conspiracy theory nonsense is more of an organic, if not coincidental, reaction to our collective loss of control and not a deliberate set of tactics. If you’re feeling disenfranchised, like your voice has been stifled, that you don’t have a say in your community development, or anything else along those lines, then here’s my prescription for you: turn off your television and figure out a way to get involved on a local level. Fix what you perceive to be broken in your own back yard first. Find a church that feeds your soul and step back away from hatred and absolutes. It’s still American outside. And you can and do still matter.  But, like most good things that are worthwhile, you have to do it for yourself.

The biggest conspiracy has always been the fact that there is no conspiracy. Nobody's out to get you. Nobody gives a shit whether you live or die. There, you feel better now?
 –Dennis Miller


Jim Hague said...

I don't take Ron Paul seriously because, well, the man's a homophobic, misogynist, racist nutbag who's way too fond of tearing away social safety and returning to the gold standard. That he was shut out of the GOP platform, in violation of their rules, is nothing short of shameful. Give the man his platform and let him make a fool of himself, says I.

Roemer...I could not vote for in good conscience based on his anti-abortion stance alone, and his propagation of the myth that Federal funds are used for abortions. His positions on the budget and the environment are likewise vile and misleading. Likewise gay marriage. He supports Paul Ryan's ruinous attack on healthcare and Medicare/Medicade. He supports the use of torture on prisoners. He supports things like the racially-motivated Arizona anti-immigration laws. His tax policy ideas are laughable. He's anti-union.

Barring his take on campaign finance, nuclear non-proliferation, and a handful of other issues, the guy's a GOP hard-right poster boy.

(Info from: )

And I do in fact read things like the GAO and Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, for what that's worth. The Democrats have somewhat cooked the books, but that's no different than when the GOP claims unemployment is down; they simply wait for people to drop off the rolls. No tu quoque needed there, because both sides really do engage in it.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

Here's the thing: despite my own personal lean, I'm willing to argue and discuss points with the other side. This is how things were. Now-- and I do feel one side is much worse about this than the other, but still-- there is a habit, even when talking rationally and calmly, to be all, "Well, Team MyPolitics made some cogent points about the state of our economy, while Team OtherPolitics breathed lies from a lake of fire."

Anonymous said...

Mark, I'll have you know that Elvis DID fake his death. He's currently holed up in the Roy Orbison Celebrity Rehab Clinic and Retreat in Sheepdip, Wyoming. Every morning, he starts the day out on the small arms range with John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, and Selena, before going ultralight flying with Buddy Holly and Stevie Ray Vaughan (with Randy Rhoads in the control tower and Rick Nelson as flight crew). The rest of his days are spent in swimming lessons with Dennis Love and cooking classes with Karen Carpenter, as well as some charm school lessons with Sid Vicious and G.G. Allin. The best part of his day, besides his producing anti-drug PSAs with Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, has to be his barber shop quartet sessions with Joey Ramone, Jimi Hendrix, and Andy Gibb. So do your research. *ducking*

Mark Finn said...

*golf clap* Nicely done, sir. Nicely done!

Unknown said...

The collision of several sociological, neurological, and technological factors are significant contributors to the problem. Neurologically, the human brain has a strong tendency to find patterns in random data that aren't actually there. There also exist cognitive biases that make it difficult for people to accept and process information that undermines an already-held belief. These are well-known cognitive biases that can be overcome, but require both the awareness that bias exists and a certain amount of instruction in critical thinking.

And that instruction is sadly lacking in our school systems. Children are not taught to think critically: to examine their biases, to evaluate sources of information, and to distinguish a challenge to one's knowledge from a challenge to one's character. (That last is especially important.) For that matter, the ability to debate honestly is relegated to an optional part of the curriculum, if it exists at all.

Finally, the rise of the internet has changed the pattern of media consumption in the US. It's become ridiculously easy to consume only content that agrees with you. Further, corporatized news media ensure that the majority of "mainstream" news that reaches the user is sanitized at best and egregious "infotainment" at worst.

So this is what I see, all-too-depressingly often, on both ends of the political spectrum: RandomInternetCommenter holds belief X very strongly, regardless of its factual validity. RIC's media intake comes from a very limited list of sources that are, to an objective observer, well-known to propagate falsehoods in support of Belief X; however, RIC does not possess either the skills or the desire to address this bias. (RIC often exhibits other signs of poor education, including but not limited to egregious spelling and grammar errors.) Because of this, RIC engages in lazy arguments--appeal to authority is a common one--and often simply ignore or avoid questions that challenge them or make them uncomfortable. RIC is nonetheless passionate in the defense of their beliefs, even to the point of personal attacks; after all, in their perception, challenging their beliefs is a personal attack on them, and they're simply responding "in kind".

RIC doesn't understand why people respond so poorly to them, or how anyone can believe something different to them.

I see how the problems intersect; I just have no idea how to correct them. I don't even know how to engage with someone like RIC; I've tried appeals to shared values, I've tried "I'm part of group X, and I don't believe what you think I do, here is what I do believe."