Although I cannot neatly catagorize it, I have gained insight from Malcolm Gladwell’s sparkling podcast, Revisionist History. Gladwell, a writer who stoked tremendous controversy in such books as Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), Blink, the Power of Thinking without Thinking (2007), and The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000), found success within popular markets, and some criticism among academics, who occasionally complain that he has distorted scientific findings by dumbing-down these tenets in presenting them to a general audience. Often, this takes the form of relying heavily on anecdotal evidence, that doesn’t always fit neatly with the scientific finding in question. And in a few instances, further research contradicted some of his claims.*
And yes, I think that some of the criticism leveled against Gladwell is valid. And while I wouldn’t recommend any of the above books, I would highly recommend the podcast, despite the fact that it’s derived from the same formula: the practical application of various socio-psychological research in viewing either past or the present day issues.
The point here is that although he seems to have a knack for over-reaching conclusions, the research he presents is valid and fascinating in its own right, and I feel compelled to give kudos to him for exposing me to it. And Gladwell’s contrarian take on conventional wisdom fascinates me. While I often have found myself at odds with Gladwell, I must admit that his counterintuitive, yet well reasoned arguments, merit careful consideration. To borrow from Dave Emory, I simply consider them food for thought and grounds for further research.
And it’s with this in mind that I want to look at one of the scientific issues raised by Gladwell in his first podcast. It’s the concept of moral licensing.**
Although a number of supporting studies appeared decades earlier, research in this area formally began at the turn of current century, in large part due to the research of Dr. Benoît Monin (Princeton, Stanford) began in 2001. Along with Drs. Daniel Effron (London Business School) and Anna Merritt, he published a 2010 paper titled “Moral Self-Licensing: When Being Good Frees Us to Be Bad,” in which the authors described the concept as the personal or cultural forbearance to engage in otherwise immoral behavior based on a prior record of good deeds.
Past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic, behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral.
The first example Gladwell used to illustrate this: the career of British artist Lady Elizabeth Thompson Butler. In 1874, she submitted a painting titled “Roll Call” to the Royal Academy of the Arts. In local exhibitions, the masterpiece had taken the country by storm.
Figure 1. Roll Call (click to enlarge)
In case you’re wondering, the nineteenth-century art world didn’t recognize contributions made by female artists. In fact, “Roll Call” became the first female work accepted by the Royal Academy. One could argue (quite easily) that the exclusion of women from the art world stemmed from sexism. On the other hand, the men populating the Academy in 1873 could counter-argue that no woman has ever met the very high standards the Academy explicitly laid out. So the following year, when they encountered a painting that clearly surpassed those standards, they were compelled to take it. Otherwise, they would have been guilty of hypocrisy, a moral failing.
If you think that this opened the door for Thompson, or women artists in general, then you’d be disappointed. The Academy denied her entrance into their ranks by two votes later in 1874, and wouldn’t consider it further. The committee likewise snubbed subsequent paintings by Lady Butler.
Had the Academy not accepted “Roll Call,” then critics could fairly say that it did so solely because of the gender of its artist. But afterwards, if they claimed later works simply not worthy (the evaluation of art is highly subjective, after all), then they could point to “Roll Call” as proof that they didn’t discriminate on gender grounds. In other words, their one-time acceptance of Thompson allowed them to bar her and future artists without having to admit their animosity to women.
Gladwell leaves the subject of moral licensing here.**** But in truth the concept is much deeper and touches a number of aspects of life, including consumer and lifestyle choices in addition to its implications vis-a-vis tokenism and gender/racial/sexual-orientation prejudice.
In aforementioned paper, a review of numerous empirical studies establishing the state of the science, Drs. Merritt, Effron and Monin outline the two mechanisms behind moral licensing. The first they call “moral credits.” One can think of this in crass terms as having a moral bank account – a good deed done in the past (a deposit, if you will), can be used later to pay for a naughty one (withdrawal) . Here, the person committing a transgression understands that he or she is doing wrong, but simply excusing it by pointing to something they did right, in effect canceling out the wicked deed. Everything evens out in the end.
The second mechanism, which they call “moral credentials,” is in many respects more pernicious and subtler. Here, the actor does not perceive her or his moral transgressions as such. Instead, such a person would look back upon their history of good deeds, confirm to themselves that they are indeed a moral person, and see the transgression more in terms of a judgment call that’s consistent with the actor’s values and previous decisions.
In popular discourse, we can see examples of both moral credits and moral credentials just about everyday. We can see the latter in such statements as “Some of my best friends are Jews,” proceeded or followed by a statement that is blatantly anti-Semitic. In this instance, the fact that he or she has Jewish friends establishes, in the speaker’s mind, their lack of bigotry. Therefore, the speaker contextualizes the offensive utterance in terms of past behavior, and thus denies its immorality to him/herself and to others.
In her 1945 book Our Inner Conflicts, psychoanalyst Karen Horney gave an example of moral credits, when noting that neurotically aggressive personality types (i.e., those who would most readily become bullies), tend to be quite polite, even generous:
Just as the compliant type clings to the belief that people are ‘nice’, and is continually baffled by evidence to the contrary, so the aggressive type takes it for granted that everyone is hostile, and refuses to admit that they are not. To him life is a struggle of all against all, and the devil take the hindmost. Such exceptions as he allows are made reluctantly and with reservation. His attitude is sometimes quite apparent, but more often it is covered over with a veneer of suave politeness, fair-mindedness and good fellowship.
This passage from Horney brings up a number of questions addressed by Merrit, Effron and Monin in “Moral Self-Licensing.” For starters, when we engage in moral licensing, are we trying to justify our actions to others, or to ourselves? How successful are we at it, and under what circumstances?
In regards to the first question, we obviously don’t want people around us to think that we are immoral. So naturally we engage in moral licensing because we fret about how others view us, what the authors call “self-presentational strategy.” Yet citing a 2006 study, they came to the realization that people also engage in moral licensing even when there’s no one around to watch.*****
Research suggests that licensing is not merely a self-presentational strategy – instead, it seems to reassure the self that subsequent behavior is legitimate. Monin and Miller...showed that licensing occurred even when the audience who observed the morally dubious behavior knew nothing of the prior, licensing behavior, suggesting that self-image played a role in the phenomenon...present more direct evidence by showing that individuals who imagined doing something altruistic rated themselves higher on items such as ‘I am compassionate’ or ‘I am helpful,’ and that this change in self-perception mediated whether participants then felt licensed to prefer a frivolous product.
So how good is moral licensing at helping us get away with bad behavior? Depends.
In a 2001 study, Drs. Monin and Dale Miller (Princeton) examined racial and gender attitudes in hiring choices.****** Given the resume of five applicants, respondents had to choose which candidate to hire. Each of the resumes contained a photograph of the applicant, one of which was either an African American male, or a Euro-American female. The rest were white males. The researchers skewed the resumes so that either the black or female candidate was undeniably better suited for the position. In this case, 83% of the respondents chose to hire the “star” candidate.
This is analogous to the Thompson example where the decision to employ a white male could only be reasonably construed as prejudiced, and thus immoral. Yet, part two of the study seemed to show that the willingness not to hire a white male gave license to express racist and sexist sentiment. In the follow-up, participants discussed the viability of candidates based on race within a specific scenario: a police department was so racist that its only black cop left; it’s now one officer short, and thus needs to hire a replacement. The researchers posed the question whether the position was better suited for a white or black candidate. As expected, the 83% of candidates who chose the African American or the white woman were more likely to say that a white male candidate was better suited for the job than a black one, whereas the 17% who refused to pick the star candidate in the previous scenario were more likely to say that race shouldn’t be a factor in the selection of a replacement.
Here, we can see that most of the respondents (who were, incidentally, primarily white) selected the outlier candidate when his or her superiority was quite obvious (the authors seemed rather puzzled that 17% still chose a white male candidate). This indicates that when the line between right and wrong is clear, most will do what they see as right. But when the decision became more morally ambiguous – i.e., when the respondent could reasonably or not point to factors other than race in defense of their action – the more likely we are to license our current behavior/decision based upon our previous behavior, and the more likely we are to get away with it.
Of course, even that depends on whom the actor interacts with when engaging in moral licensing. If you begin a sentence with, “Now I have nothing against gays, but...” the licensed statement that follows might very well work with people who are not homosexual. If the recipient of the message is part of the LGBT community, however, they could very well interpret the licensing act in the opposite way. As Merritt, Effron and Monin explained:
This study examined Black and White participants’ reactions to a White target who made a potentially offensive claim about African-Americans, varying whether he preceded his statement with the disclaimer, ‘I’m not racist or anything, but…. ‘ When this preamble was added, White participants thought the speaker was marginally less racist, but Black participants thought he was significantly more racist.*******
There are many more facets of this concept that I don’t have space to go into here. But in short, we can see moral licensing as this mechanism that allows us not only to commit immoral behaviors without fear of judgment, but also to negotiate between what we want, and what we know we shouldn’t rightfully have. It’s a dynamic that is as flexible and persuasive as the individual actors engaged in it at the moment. Moreover, it’s universal. Drs. Merritt, Effron and Monin would tell you that it’s not even bad all the time. They argued, for example, that moral licensing allows for doctors to perform triage in combat zones.
On a much larger scale, I ponder the implications of this research as perceived by Gladwell. In all the years we’ve covered and looked into pretty violent historical events, I’m often at a loss to understand how people can treat others so callously, or so cruelly. The possibility that this lay in a mechanism that touches everyone puts this into a clearer perspective. So when we talk about such things as racism, especially as it exists in the Americas (note: plural), we’re talking about (1) dominion that is (2) enjoyed by majority society to the (3) disadvantage of minority society. Obviously, the desire to maintain this dominion runs counter to American ideals of virtue, freedom, fair-play, Christian charity and morality. Yet, the desire for dominion still remains.
In the past, and in the present, some have resorted (and still resort) to violent action to defend that dominion. But this then runs further afoul of what both majority and minority society would deem just, or acceptable. So one can see the advantages of, say, moral licensing over violence; hence it’s pervasiveness. And because it’s rooted in a mechanism that’s intrinsic to the human being, I can thus get a better handle on this cruelty for the machinery exists within me too.
*For instance, in Tipping Point, he wrote that the advancement of ideas “...is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular set of social gifts.” He divided these into three categories: connectors (people who network among many different social circles, and thus can bridge the gap between groups), mavens (people adept at introducing ideas and information), and salesmen (people with the charisma to promote the idea). Gladwell estimated that such people account for about 80% of the trafficking of ideas independently of mass media.
Several years later, research conducted by Dr. Duncan Watts (Sociology, Columbia) seemed to contradict this. In 2003, Watts successfully reproduced the results of Dr. Stanley Milgram’s (Social Psychology, City University of New York Graduate Center). Small World study, popularly known as the Six Degrees of Separation study. In Watts’ recreation, 61,000 participants managed to communicate an idea to eighteen targeted individuals through an average of six intermediaries. But only 5% of those relaying these messages met the criterion of either a connector, maven or salesman – considerably short of the 80% Gladwell’s hypothesis would have estimated.
**Sometimes referred to as “self-licensing.”
***Personal and Personality Psychology Compass, 4/5: pp. 344-57.
****Gladwell gave another example along the same lines, namely the tenure of The Honorable Julia Gillard, the first female Prime Minister of Australia (2010-2013). Gillard faced explicitly misogynist abuse while PM from political opposition that disguised that sexism with vague criticism supposedly about other things.
*****Drs. Uzma Kahn (Marketing, Carnegie Mellon) and Ravi Dharm (Marketing, Yale) ”Licensing Effect in Consumer Choice,” Journal of Marketing Research, 43/2 (May): pp. 259-66.
******”Moral Credentials and the Expression of Prejudice,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81/1:pp 33-43.
*******The study in question, “I’m not racist but....I’m a Racist,” was in the form of a poster by Alexander Czopp, presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Tampa FL, 2009.
We mostly deal with history on this page. While most people think of history as simply the past -- something done with, over, with no legitimate impact on the present – I would see it more in terms of a game recap. If you’re in the sixth inning of a baseball game, your strategy on what to do heavily depends on a continuing evaluation of history. For starters, the score, reflective of what occurred in past innings, can determine if you bunt a runner into scoring position or if you risk the double play by swinging away. Your decisions also rest in the past performance of a hitter or pitcher (the main stats), the past performance of a hitter or pitcher against a specific opponent, stadium or game condition (known in baseball as the “splits”), and history of all the games played up to that point.
Our only guide to the present and future is our past. Sure, the past is often misleading – especially when distorted by such things as passion. But it’s the most reliable guide we have. And such writers as Ray Bradbury and George Orwell articulated in many ways the latter’s statement that those who control the past, control the future.
It’s with this in mind that I offer below a few history podcasts that I have found interesting over these past two years. These are by no means exhaustive of the fascinating podcasts one can find. But these contain certain items that will be of import to the upcoming series.
Producer/writer/researcher and host Karina Longworth’s podcast centers on the history of Hollywood and the movie industry with rather lengthy series on specific themes. A couple of these involve X-Spot material, the first examining Charles Manson’s impact on late-1960s films.
The second, which more directly ties to the upcoming series, consists of a magnificent twelve-part chronicle of the HUAC/McCarthyism probe into the movie industry. Especially important is an episode that discusses the relationship and careers of two celebrities of that time, Lena Horne and Paul Robeson. While Longworth marbles its main themes throughout the series, this episode succinctly summarizes the very tight connection between communism and African American civil rights during the 1930s.
Obviously, one need not be a communist to support African-American civil rights. But the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) had made it a cornerstone of its public relations during the Great Depression, culminating with its political and legal support of the wrongly accused Scottsboro Boys. This would come to haunt Horne, Robeson, and a number of civil-rights activists during the 1950s as anti-black politicians and organizations exploited these earlier ties (which had mostly dissolved by that time) to cloak virulently racist agendas in the guise of anti-communism. Not surprisingly, Lena and Paul became targets of derision and subsequently blacklisted, despite the fact that neither were communists.*
Drs. Ed Ayers (University of Richmond), Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh (University of Virginia), host this podcast, which takes an academic look at a number of historical topics in sometimes surprisingly insightful ways. For one thing, the show features a wide diversity of breadth that encompasses the history of gay, non-white and female Americans not as token asides (although one can find specific episodes devoted to topics along those lines). Rather, their depiction of the US, since the Seventeenth Century, often takes a look at how events and conditions affected disparate individuals, groups and organizations. We also get to hear from their guests who offer an immense array of scholarly insight, and (IMHO) just as important, a wide range of demographic, personal and ideological diversity.
There are a number of episodes that will have some bearing on this series. But the one that I want to single out, “Grassy Knolls,” deals with the history of conspiracism. Although critical, the episode takes an unexpectedly fair look at the roles conspiracy and social paranoia have played in the development of the nation.
Currently hosted by Tracy Wilson and Holly Frey, this show exists within the constellation of Stuff, a network of podcasts highlighting arcane information. If you click on its sidebar, you can see that the homepage links to a number of sister shows that cover a number of different topics.
I once recommended this show to a cyberfriend, who sent me a nasty e-mail saying she couldn’t listen to more than five-minutes of it. She apparently found the hosts to be smug, arrogant, or perhaps superficially omniscient, and shallow in its coverage of historical events and context.
That’s hardly an endorsement. But I write the above to warn the reader that this podcast might not be everyone’s cup of tea (if any podcast can make that claim).
To be fair, the podcast has its strengths in that it offers a decent survey on a limited number of history topics. Think of it more as a sonic version of Wikipedia, one that only contains a few score entries.
Several episodes of importance for the current topic here consist of a two-part series on the topic of redlining, and another two-part series on the life of civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin. The first series relates the cultural, legal and economic conventions that supported racial discrimination and segregation in the US; this occurred not only the southeastern portion of the country, but nearly equally throughout the nation. The second spotlights the career of an intellectual whom authorities incarcerated twice for being (a) black and (b) gay on a sunny day. One of his most important contributions consisted of his role in helping to plan the historical 1963 march on Washington, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King would give the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Just as interesting were his later ties to the Central Intelligence Agency, and the neo-conservative movement that swept Ronald Reagan into the Oval Office in 1980.
*Many continue to list Robeson as a communist. He was actually a socialist, who had many communists friends. He refused to name or denounce them during his Judiciary Committee testimony (he invoked the Fifth Amendment). He also refused to denounce the Soviet Union.
The health crisis I suffered back in September of 2014 forced me into a few lifestyle changes. For whatever reason, I’ve more or less stuck with them since. Call it habit.
Among other things, I’m required to exercise daily. I’ve thus taken to hiking six miles a day. While this has had its downside – the wearing out of shoes, the occasional injury, etc – it’s had one extremely large upside. I’ve gotten used to downloading a boatload of podcasts to accompany me on the journey.
The podcasts can be informative, naturally. They can just as often be mis-informative (this is the Internet, after all). More important, they have opened me up to a lot of diverse takes on some of the subjects I’ve pursued on The X-Spot, and some of the subjects I still wish to cover. Most, however, don’t have direct bearing on conspiracy stories. Instead they shed light on a lot of secondary topics brought up by conspiracy research.
Whether you enjoy podcasts or not, I’d like to share a select few that will have some bearing on the upcoming series. I’ll be separating some of these into categories over the next few posts, You might want to check out a few.
Out of all the genres of non-fiction that I read (and I mostly read non-fiction), my least favorite is the true crime genre. The stories typically offer very shallow coverage of what are often complex events. There’s a distinct right-wing law-and-order viewpoint of crime that tends to focus on the real (or alleged) pathology of the real (or alleged) culprit instead of on the complexities of human relationships that lead to violence. These consequently give us more presentation of story than evidence. And when you read about particular cases in other sources, you’ll find that the establishment of guilt is nowhere as certain as what a writer depicts it to be (which really becomes noticeable when a conviction is overturned after publication). Moreover, the victims usually serve only as props, with little understanding of who they are or their overall importance in society. Simply put, true crime stories usually contain biases that are absolute, and generally boil down to a single narrative: people who are somehow different, or who have not completely assimilated into society are not just dangerous, but evil.
On the other hand, I consume a lot of true crime books, television shows, and as of late, podcasts. While the genre itself has shortcomings that make my eyes roll, it does yield information about investigation methodology, police and prosecutorial procedure, and public reaction to facts. In short, true crime stories give us a baseline for what to expect in crimes, investigations and adjudications on an everyday level. So when you’re looking at cases with higher profiles, you can compare what authorities have done or not done with respect to their typical approach.
Co-created by Eric Mennel, NPR alums Lauren Spoher and host Phoebe Judge, this show looks at a number of issues involving a wide range of transgressions, from diverse points of views. Depending on the episode, you can hear extensive interviews with victims, the wrongfully accused, the guilty, and the families of each.
This series, created by host Mike Boudet, often suffers from one of the most irksome qualities of true crime: namely an exclusionary examination of the presumed pathology of the accused or perpetrator, sometimes to the point of taking armchair psychoanalysis to the extreme. His signature opening, promising to present a “...show that will reveal that the worst monsters are real,” misses the point that monsters neither exist, nor do they commit crimes. People do. Thus, the complexity of human interaction that so enriches Criminal is comparatively absent here.
Be that as it may, Sword and Scale has its laudable points. While it often wallows in the cheap and sensational aspects of a story, it doesn’t always. And Boudet and his staff (Heather Sutfin, Robert Walsh, and Jesus Rodriguez) routinely do yeoman’s service to ferret out information, and provide the listener with primary textual sources, including 911 calls and recordings of actual courtroom proceedings, with considerable context. And unlike many true crime producers/authors Boudet will address the nature of justice, and the frustrating plight of the wrongfully accused. And to his credit he has allowed space for skeptical (in the good and proper sense) examination of conspiracy stories, such as in his interview with Johnny Gosch’s mom, Noreen.
Like The X-Spot, Sword and Scale often contains graphically violent verbal descriptions, and is thus not suitable for children or the sensitive. It nevertheless gives a good deal of easy-to-understand information about both criminal activity and criminal investigation.
The now-familiar plink-plink of the piano has come to signify one of the most widely celebrated true crime narratives in recent memory.
And for excellent reason. Serial is about as good as true crime gets, and is very different in its scope, approach and outlook from other products of that genre, which in no small part explains a lot of its massive popularity. Whereas the genre typically features a smug certainty, producers Julie Snyder, Dana Chiwis, Emily Condon and host Sarah Koenig were anything but confident that they knew what happened on the night of 13 January 1999.
It’s this uncertainty that allows us a better grasp of a particular case. Very few things or events in this world are cut-and-dry, black-or-white. So while Koenig, her staff or we cannot completely dismiss the thought that Adnan Syed murdered his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, we can nevertheless concede that there were numerous, reasonable doubts that should have exonerated him in the first trial, among them the glaring mistake in the analysis of cell phone records, and the shakiness of the star witness for the prosecution. Exacerbating this lack of evidence was the manipulation of said witness (and other witnesses) by police and later prosecutors, the ineffectiveness of his primary counsel because of health reasons, and the overt anti-Muslim prejudice espoused by an early prosecutor, and (at least) one member of the jury.
For me, one of the key moments occurred during a conversation between Koenig and her private investigator, a former police detective, during which she blurted, “Aren’t all facts happy facts?” When her PI explained to her the policeman’s job more or less as serving the narrative by the prosecution that it should give everyone pause to think that such could lead to inaccuracy. And this is something that we see in both wild-eyed conspiracy tales and tone-deaf debunkers of conspiracy hypothesis–the exclusion of facts that give depth to, context to, support or prove an opposing viewpoint.
The second season of Serial, which focuses on the plight of US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, is in many respects superior to the effort of season 1, but has not enjoyed the latter's wild popularity. If you haven't heard it, check it out.
We’ve explored here a number of parapolitcal topics over the past ten years. In each, the purpose wasn’t so much to prove, or disprove the specific conspiracy explanations of an event. Rather, the purpose was to clarify the issues involved.
The term “conspiracy theory” is misleading. There are few theoretical issues (in the academic sense) within conspiracy culture. One could more accurately call it speculative journalism or history. Mae Brussell, Alex Constantine, John Judge, David Emery and many others have devoted their lives and careers to finding out the hidden information, the lacunae, which riddle many official narratives. Most of this darkness comes about through deliberate and systemic efforts to keep information out of the hands of the public, whether through dint of official secrecy (i.e., classification) or through the propagation of comfortable stories to the exclusion and ridicule of others.
Much of the press and academia presently use the term “conspiracy theory” as a pejorative. Given some of the racist, nativistic and anti-Semitic ideation at the fringes of conspiracy culture-- a facet which gets a lion’s share of public attention--one can see why many good and intelligent people would understandably have a knee-jerk disdain (and sometimes disgust) for any explanation smacking of conspiracy. Yet this reaction is primarily an emotional one, not a rational one.
We like to see ourselves as reasonable, wise, and autonomous thinkers who can judge a story or issue solely on its merits. But it’s difficult to maintain objectivity if authorities of all stripes and flavors have deemed an entire line of inquiry “wild-eyed crazy” (pathological), “moronically oversimplified” (unintelligent), or “profoundly ignorant” (held by the un- or under-educated who don’t know how the “real world” works).
One finds great challenge in merely posing a conspiracy question within the media or academia without experiencing some degree of backlash--which sometimes includes the termination of employment and the resultant hardship to the professional involved and his/her family.* But the social sanctions against looking into possible conspiracy are usually much more subtle, entailing such things as glass ceilings, personal mockery, derision, mild harassment, but most critically ostracization. And no one wants to be “that guy” or “that gal” who’s “duped” by a lot of kooky stuff.
Conspiracy is hardly a kooky subject. On any given business day there’s some prosecutor somewhere in the USA who’s putting away a defendant on a conspiracy charge. Conspiracy, after all, is simply the agreement by two or more parties to perform an illicit act. There’s an inherent difficulty in proving conspiracy to a reasonable doubt standard because one has to show that the agreement took place.** Yet, it’s possible to do this when one has access to the necessary resources.
The assumption that conspiracies never occur within circles of authority might possibly stem from stereotypical notions of criminality. It’s common to see crime as part and parcel of a particular class or type of people, who often occupy society’s lowest rungs. In the popular mind, those who are well-educated, or from good families, or have high income (especially if they aren’t African American) are often not seen as criminals, even when everyone stipulates that they have committed a crime.*** Although we might laughingly joke that professionals lie (and in the case of attorneys cheat), we still don't tend to view these instances as criminal activity. And even when there is a provable criminal act among elected officials, or wealthy corporate types we tend to see it as an aberration, or not serious to begin with. Indeed, the prosecution of white collar crime is comparatively lax, despite the fact that it victimizes far more of us, and for far more money than street crime.
After delving into this subject for as long as I have (almost twenty years now), it’s very curious (and often frustrating) to me that when evidence merely suggests conspiracy within lower elements of society, many will tend to shrug their shoulders and say something to the effect of “So what?” or “That makes sense. They couldn’t have done it by themselves.” But if there’s evidence that strongly suggests that those who have power over our lives might have colluded in criminal activity, many people will go out of their way to believe otherwise. This is something noted by others as well.****
So the story eventually becomes only partly about the event itself. Understanding also requires attention to why there is widespread belief in the non-conspiracy explanation even if it is irrational or implausible. There remain those informational gaps, and the speculation that covers them up, of course, but there’s often enough of the puzzle exposed to render non-conspiracy explanations highly doubtful, in an objective sense. And given that the missing information is often held by those accused of conspiring, commonsense would tell us that people do not tend to hide that which proves their innocence.
Some things eventually dawned on me.
At this time I feel compelled to digress to the topic of institutional betrayal at some length. But in the interest of brevity, let’s table that thought, at least for awhile. Instead lets start with an idea that everyone can agree on: namely, no one likes to get flim-flammed. Con artists realize not only this, but something much deeper, something critical to their success. You see, only about 7% of victims ever report the crime to begin with. The reason’s obvious. The admission that we’ve been taken usually elicits a far harsher judgment against us than it does the perpetrator. Friends, family and strangers who know about the theft will often ask something along the lines of “How could you be so f-ing stupid [or greedy, or needy, or lustful, or naive, or gullible or fill-in-blank]?”
There are usually many times during a con where red flags arise. The victim might have varying degrees of alarm about one turn of events or another. But a skillful grifter knows that in deceiving a mark, the mark is often a willing ally. The more deeply one invests in the con, the more impetus there is to find a reason--any reason--to believe that the false hope they actually purchased is in fact not false. Otherwise, they would have to admit to themselves that they are either f-ing stupid, or greedy, or needy, or lustful, or naive, or gullible or fill-in-blank. The confidence gamer is consequently quite aware that the victim will believe any lie that makes sense. They won’t question it. They won’t look into it further. In fact, victims, upon seeing problems within a con’s structure, often will not pull out of a fishy venture, or find some other way to mitigate risk. In fact, they’ll often double-down on the con, investing even more resources into it.*****
When it comes to institutional skullduggery, and our stake within it, there’s likewise the tendency to see something is wrong with an official view. Like the con, the signs and evidence of conspiracy are abundant, and foreboding. And for the same reason as the mark, many have a personal stake in the integrity of the institution’s promise, and thus will have compelling reason to believe anything other than that which would force them to admit that something untoward has happened. It should therefore come as little surprise that there are those who have made a cottage industry of promoting the stories that reassure us that criminal activity--especially of the coordinated kind-- has not occurred within officialdom.
Likewise, the degree to which some have bought into the notion that conspiracy explains everything are also prone to this type of reasoning. This is especially true in organizations like Lyndon LaRouche’s, where conspiracy is intertwined with dogma and a spiritual or quasi-spiritual belief. In either case, the investment in the conspiracy or anti-conspiracy point of view is so large, and the personal stakes for adherents so great that objectivity and facts cease to matter. Each side has skin in the game, and each will desperately dig in to defend these beliefs, so long as they have enough of a narrative or reason to continue believing.
Yet, there’s a fundamental difference between the con man and the institution when it comes to perpetuating a falsity. The institution has far more ubiquity, power, authority and resources than the swindler. The cheat cannot, to a large extent, legally forbid public disclosure of proof. Institutions can. And even if not legal, the institution can still have a better chance of getting away with it, and for a much longer time. In the case of governmental malfeasance the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the government is the only body legally authorized to investigate itself. Furthermore, institutions, through public relations, can enlist great public support for their version of events. All it takes is a willingness for large enough sectors of society to buy repeatedly the explanatory fictions that it provides.
The available tools of institutional deception include a number of items. For starters, there’s the power of the term “conspiracy theory” itself to steer discourse in predictable, and thus controllable directions.****** Another would be the development of straw men, or in other words citing (or perhaps creating) weak or tangential arguments that one can easily tear apart.
The most effective means for doing this consists of propagating texts that are emotionally gripping, and extremely well written. They read or come off as novels or dramatic works. And they all serve to strengthen the official or dominant line. Often these accounts have much in common with the most entertaining conspiracy tales in that they are very long on narrative, and very short on facts or evidence. And what little proof there is usually lies out of context, is often debunked by more compelling evidence, and sometimes made up out of whole cloth.
Before I conclude this post, I’d like to point out that when we talk about “official versions” we often should clarify what we mean. There is the “official story,” the story that becomes the dominant narrative because it is deemed true by police, courts or other official bodies. There are, what I like to call, “quasi-official” stories in which there is a dominant narrative, that is contrary to official findings. Often this occurs when public understanding about a topic comes chiefly from a pop culture source, such as a movie or TV show that takes dramatic license with the people involved, the context and the events. And then, there are stories where there are two or more official findings. As you would expect, these versions are often at odds with each other.
So, it’s with this in mind that I approach the next series to appear here on The X-Spot. It’s a story where the evidence for conspiracy is quite strong, and the evidence of non-conspiracy quite weak. It’s also an instance where there are three distinct official findings, two of which involve conspiracy explanations.
As you might expect, the two conspiracy explanations have, to date, received comparatively little discourse in mainstream venues.
And that prompts us to examine why that’s the case. It also compels us to wonder why the non-conspiracy finding has become the dominant narrative.
With one exception, the above were fired for either taking a conspiracy position, or for simply giving serious consideration to a conspiracy hypothesis. Harvard attempted to fire Dr. Mack because of his research into the possibility of alien abduction, but could not because of his tenure and exemplary record of research and publication.
**For a good example of a criminal conspiracy and the difficult FBI investigation that finally proved it, check out “The Fix Is In”, episode 168 of This American Life.
***I saw this on the local news a few weeks back. Despite the fact that everyone, including the culprit and his family, stipulated that he took a gun to school and shot up four (fortunately surviving) classmates, the shooter’s mom nevertheless declared that he “wasn’t a cold-blooded criminal.”
Well, since humans are by definition warm-blooded, and are really the only species capable of committing crimes (according to current law–past law is a different story), then that would seem to be true of all people who transgress.
Less flippantly, one is a criminal because he or she executes a criminal act. Note here that the mother’s concept of “criminal” had nothing to do with criminal activity, but rather a certain designation of person. You can probably take a good guess at the type of individual she would see as a true “cold-blooded criminal.”
****Researcher Lisa Pease has often made the observation that many good people simply “cannot wrap their heads around” the notion of conspiracy.
*****An excellent example: record-breaking swindler Bernie Madoff told the New York Times that the banks and hedge fund managers who invested, or encouraged others to invest in him, had to know that something was wrong:
In asserting the complicity of others, Mr. Madoff pointed to the ‘willful blindness’ of many banks and hedge funds who dealt with his investment advisory business and their failure to examine discrepancies between his regulatory filings and other information available to them.
They had to know,’ Mr. Madoff said. ‘But the attitude was sort of, ‘If you’re doing something wrong, we don’t want to know.’‘
In other words, these institutions and professionals knew that they had bought into a very dangerous venture. Yet, they invested even more money (one, up to $38 mil) despite these misgivings.
******In one example, Michael Hastings, an award-winning reporter for BuzzFeed and Rolling Stone, disclosed via e-mail to friends and colleagues, sixteen hours before his death, that he was under pressure and surveillance by Intel because of he was then working on a story about DCIA John Brennan. This was after he had written a well respected expose on NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal. Within a day after the fiery automobile collision that claimed Hastings’ life, a number of mainstream outlets were already using the term “conspiracy theory,” to describe potential dissenting opinions that could arrive in the future, after the public received all the facts. This effectively discredited any questions concerning a possible connection.
Granted, Hastings' death could have resulted from a car crash and nothing more (the official story). Yet, if someone writes that he is under pressure from the CIA and FBI, and then dies hours later, I see little imprudence in asking questions (of for that matter exploring it) about a possible connection between his demise, and pressure bought about by two institutions, whose relationship with the writer was evidently antagonistic.
I haven’t done a good old-fashioned series for the past three years.
The reasons for this are numerous. It’s not that I’ve run out of things to write about. In fact, I’ve got quite a few things that I really want to weigh in on.
Truth is, The last two major series took a lot out of me. They were contentious and stressful. I used to brag that my life is boring, but it used to be kinda weird. Yet, in writing about the False Memory Syndrome Foundation and Theremy, my online life began to get weird too, with old intrigues from my past coming out of the blue to haunt me, and new ones rearing their ugly heads. Even the Paul-Is-Dead series, which I considered at the time as little more than vamping, presented an element of high strangeness. As a younger man, I could tolerate riding that turbulent wave. In fact, I could enjoy it a bit. Now, however, it just gets on my nerves. I’d honestly rather kick back, pour a Diet Coke, and listen to the Reds game on the radio after a day at the office.
Then too, things have changed here in meatspace. I’ve been writing for other people for so long, it’s more of a chore to write the things I really feel driven to write about. And after the cancer scare, I’ve undergone some major lifestyle changes that require daily attention that can take anywhere between three to five hours.
In the meantime, I’ve spent a good deal of time researching a number of topics, writing fiction and thinking about the future of this blog. I’m currently considering turning it into a podcast, and have recently corresponded with Panoply and other networks to assess the viability of doing so.
The time has also given me ample opportunity to reflect on the blog itself. I’ve been fielding e-mail comments and questions on previous posts and series from diverse sources – from crackpots to scholars (assuming disparity). This has given me an opportunity to add to my knowledge on these subjects, and I thank those of you who’ve firmed up what were once merely speculations, given substantive observations, alerted me to updates, challenged my contentions, and given me encouragement.
At the same time, when looking back at all this stuff that I’ve put here over the past ten years, I began to wonder how I did all of this.
No matter. Whether I want to or not, I reckon it’s time to get off the sideline and back into the game. I don’t care if blogging is passe. It’s a medium I’ve come to know, and I should be exploiting it as long as Google affords me this space.
So in a month or so, I’ll be embarking on a new series. And it’s a big one. I’m waiting to get some resources from Amazon, so I’ll be going slowly at first. But I intend to post at least once a week come August.
I’m telling you this for two reasons: (1) it’s the end of the month, and I’ve got to post something; and (2) now that I tell you that I will do it, then I will most likely force myself to do it, despite the fact that I’d rather be sipping Diet Coke and listening to Marty and the Cowboy.
An Open Secret tells the story of a number of child actors who became victimized by a fairly sophisticated pedophile ring, which operated under the aegis of movie industry titans, and indifferent investors from as far as Wall Street.
Included are interviews with Todd Bridges and Corey Feldman. But their stories are hardly the ones Berg chose to focus on. Even more compelling were the ones of children who just didn’t make it, and paid permanent consequences for the experience.
What raised the ire of many following this story was the movie’s lack of distribution, and Hollywood’s resistance to promoting the film. As David Robb explained in a 8 May 2015 post for Deadline Hollywood:
The ad line for An Open Secret, the new documentary about the sexual abuse of child actors, is ‘The Movie Hollywood Doesn’t Want You to See.’ After talking to the film’s producers, it’s easy to see why. Executive producer Gabe Hoffman wouldn’t name names, but said, ‘We went to everybody and anybody at all the biggest companies and got turndowns everywhere.’
Consequently, the film received extremely brief runs in New York, Seattle, Denver and LA. Unless you lived near one of those metropolises at the time, you’ve probably never heard of it, let alone gotten the chance to see it.
After finally getting a look at it, I can tell you that the information is eye-opening, the narrative's emotionally gripping, the approach sober and rational, and the pace perfect stride-for-stride. Amazingly, Berg managed to get through this topic without pandering to the salacious or the prurient. While it’s clear that she is only sympathetic to the victims and their families, she neither judges nor condemns the accused (only one of which gives her an interview).
I’d have been more than willing to shell out twelve bucks to see it, in a theatre no less. But I’ll take it as I can get it, stuck as I am in the Midwest. I don’t know how long the YouTube thing will last. But I highly recommend viewing the film there or anywhere else you can find it, if for no other reason than to watch a skilled master ply her craft.
Ten years ago today, I correctly identified the late-rock star Robert Palmer as Linus Van Pelt, of Peanuts fame. But within the past twenty-four hours, I've come across solid evidence proving the true identity of another iconic animated character.
It's all in the below video. But you have to watch it closely to see the signs.