Friday, July 31, 2015

The Cure that Causes: Projecting a Mountain of Cascades

In their 2008 paper “Conspiracy Theories,” law professors Cass Sunstein and Adam Vermeule delineated what they felt are the causes of conspiracy beliefs and their dissemination.  They explained the genesis of conspiracism in terms of rumor, preconceived biases against institutions, and “crippled epistemology,” or in other words a rational understanding based on incomplete or faulty data.   The dissemination of these stories they called “cascades.”

The term ‘cascade,’ as used by the authors, describes a phenomenon similar to that of a snowball rolling downhill.  There is a sense of momentum as the story takes hold not in an intellectual or scientific context, but rather within a social one.  As they wrote:
Assume that the group members are announcing their views in sequence.  Each member attends, reasonably enough, to the judgments of others.
The first type of cascade deals with the nature of information itself.  In this example, people aren’t coming to opinions independently, simultaneously or even in an overlapping way (which is most often the case), but stating opinions one at a time in a specified order.  The specific example they offer (see previous post) shows a pattern, in which person A believes in a conspiracy hypothesis, person B remains undecided on that hypothesis, and person C disagrees with the hypothesis.  Because person A speaks first, his opinion influences the others.  If person B is next, the response she would give is 50-50: she could agree, or not agree.  If B agrees, then person C is more likely to change his belief to conform to what now appears to be a unified front consisting of persons A and B.

Vermeule and Sunstein admitted that the illustration they gave of these cascades is overly simplistic, and does not represent the complexity of informational dissemination through conspiracy circles.  So at first blush, one might wonder why they would give it in the first place.  They explained it’s because they want to show something else.  People have varying thresholds of proof needed to adopt a conspiracy explanation.  So in this instance, person A has a presumably lower threshold of proof than B, because he does not need as much information as she to definitively and positively state the existence of a conspiracy.  The evidence presented to person C must meet an even higher standard of proof for him to concur with the conspiracy explanation.

The problem here, as Sunstein and Vermeule described it, is that plurality can actually substitute for information when assessing a conspiracy hypothesis.  In other words, if a lot of one’s peers believe something to be true, he or she can consequently see their own view as faulty, and endorse the prevailing sentiment:
Of course the example is highly stylized and in that sense unrealistic; conspiracy cascades arise through more complex processes, in which diverse thresholds are important. In a standard pattern, the conspiracy theory is initially accepted by people with low thresholds for its acceptance. Sometimes the informational pressure builds, to the point where many people, with somewhat higher thresholds, begin to accept the theory too.
To many, this might seem commonsense.  From our own experiences we have probably known people who keep their mouths shut rather than voice (boldly or meekly) an unpopular opinion.  So even if they disagree, they tacitly affirm the majority view by not countering it. 

Yet ironically, that’s one of the most critical flaws in this notion of informational cascades. If person C sees a plurality within conspiracy researchers, and then believes everyone else is right and he is wrong, then one would have to assume that person C only or overwhelmingly interacts with other conspiracists.  Out of all the conspiracy topics I’ve researched, only two are believed by a majority of the public:  namely the assassination of JFK by someone other than or in addition to Lee Oswald; and the suppression by national governments of UFO information.  Otherwise, conspiracy hypotheses tend to be minority opinions.  So if person C only interacts with other “conspiracy theorists,” that’s going to be the only way he will see that opinion as a plural one.  But in real life, contrary to the prevailing stereotypes, conspiracy researchers exist within other realms of society, be it in their homes, workplaces, geographic community, or cyberspace venues where friends have little interest in conspiracy.  Moreover, the most easily accessible media (e.g. television, radio, print) usually marginalize, ridicule, and in some cases attack conspiracy claims.  

So the idea that a person accepts a conspiracy belief because of the increased number of adherents is problematic when one considers the other non- or anti-conspiracy spheres this person inhabits.  If one is predisposed to change one’s position to fit into group think, you would have to question why this would only happen within outre parapolitical circles, but not with respect to the actual mainstream, where there’s a greater plurality supporting person C’s original belief that no conspiracy occurred.

Vermuele and Sunstein then described the role of reputational “cascades.” Here, person C does not believe the conspiracy hypothesis despite the united front presented by persons A and B.  Instead, person C’s position (i.e., of non-conspiracy) remains unchanged.  He still believes that no-conspiracy has taken place.  He nevertheless declines to address, or perhaps even endorses the viewpoint of A and B because he wishes to maintain good relationships with them, or because he fears their hostility should he openly contradict them. 

Here, it would have been more helpful had Vermuele and Sunstein given specific examples. This is important because I can easily give you other examples where the opposite seems true, starting with Mae Brussell.  Mae wasn’t shy about disagreeing or criticizing anyone else’s conspiracy opinion, even if it came from such a beloved a friend as Paul Krassner (whom she occasionally took to task).  By the same token, she actually recommended the works and opinions of such researchers as Mark Lane and Dick Gregory, both of whom she despised.* In other words, we can see her acceptance of information as indifferent to the original source.  Here, there’s no fear for reputation, or going along to get along.

You can find a much more recent example that strikes closer to home in the infamous ‘Bad’ Guys: UR Doin It Wrong”  thread on Rigorous Intuition.  Here one could see a number of competing ideas and independent actors who clashed over a speculation thrown out by one of forum’s members.  None of them seemed as though they were about to change their beliefs, or for that matter stay mute on the subject.  And that wasn’t atypical of that particular board, and many others where posters expressed a number of disagreements on other topics (although not as vehemently as on the “UR Doin It Wrong” thread).  While there were social casualties resulting from the exchange, with some contributors feeling ostracized from that particular community and departing from it, it did not stop anyone from disagreeing with anybody.  For that matter, it didn’t keep some from pursuing parapolitical topics afterwards.  Simply put, the reasons Sunstein and Vermeule gave for people adopting a particular conspiracy hypothesis in no way occurred here. 

Another problem with the idea of reputational (and for that matter informational) cascades is that it implies a somewhat hierarchical structure, whereby someone can establish the legitimacy of a belief to people who are, for lack of a better word, followers.  Again, more examples would have been helpful, here.  For instance, I would concur with the authors that there are such conspiracists as Lyndon LaRouche, a cult leader who can coerce his disciples to believe, as a component of dogma, that the Tavistock Institute created the Beatles in order to spread communism. While I would concede that someone like LaRouche really exists, I would also have to characterize him as at the fringe of conspiracism.  And it’s somewhat intellectually dishonest to conflate the fringe with the mainstream and present them as qualitatively (and quantitatively) the same thing.

The point here is that conspiracy researchers often have cause to consider themselves (justifiably, or unjustifiably) an “expert” on the conspiracy topics closest to them; subject material addressing the anomalies that they have experienced within their lives.  Consequently, their experiences differ by varying degrees.  That in turn leads to a mild disagreement about a specific event or type of activity.  Most often this is settled by an agree-to-disagree convention, or by a mutual attempt to reconcile informational differences, if possible.  Thus, the structuring and the dissemination of conspiracy stories is not nearly as passive a process as Vermuele and Sunstein depict, where people are simply giving binary yeas or nays to the conspiracy beliefs developed by others.  Rather, there tends to be a much more collaborative effort of construction.**

True, if one looks hard and long enough, he or she could find just about anything.  So I have little doubt that Vermuele and Sunstein could have discovered examples of these cascade effects in actual conspiracy texts, if they tried.  But as I wrote in the previous post, this particular 2008 paper spent considerably more time examining anti-conspiracist literature than it did conspiracy texts.  Had the authors delved more deeply into conspiracy texts, they would have found real life examples, thus negating the need for hypothetical ones.   Had they taken a more objective approach–i.e., had they approached the subject in just about any other way than as a social pathology screaming for a cure–the authors would not only have demonstrated a more thorough understanding of conspiracy research (as opposed to a pop culture cliche of conspiracism), but a deeper knowledge of why it becomes inaccurate, when it is indeed inaccurate.

Of course, what struck me about “Conspiracy Theories” when I first read it was the confident tone it exuded in matters of epistemology, crippled or otherwise.  I mean, imagine reading a scholarly biography of yourself, and realizing that the author not only messed up a few arcane details, but screwed up major life events that they could have easily fact-checked.  Yet, this tome has the language and style of professionalism and erudition, and thus evokes the signifiers of truth.

And that’s when it hit me.  The authors clearly had little understanding about conspiracism.  However, they demonstrated profound insight into information systems and epistemology. The problem is that the views espoused by Sunstein and Vermeule don’t apply nearly as well to conspiracy research as they do academic research. 

Granted, academia doesn’t suffer from some of the intellectual or methodological shortcomings of the conspiracy milieu.  For instance, academics tend not to speculate or extrapolate from results.  More often than not, they state findings only to the extent that they can support with evidence.  And since there is no national security interest in the bulk of academic research, there’s really nothing preventing scholars from exploring a topic or phenomena to an extreme degree. 

Thus, crippled epistemology doesn’t seem to be much of an issue.*** But many outsiders would probably be surprised at the degree to which social interaction guides scholarship.  People form various “schools” of thought, that disagree with each other.  Although there’s quite often some consensus on basic stuff, and important consensus on complex ideas, there’s a lot of debate on myriad issues.  And people often take sides.  As a recovering academic, I saw this not only within my own department, but in other departments at other universities whenever I had a chance to schmooze with former colleagues (and friends).  It’s not that I’m saying that scholars are constantly at each others’ throats.  It’s more the case where one can often see a tribal mentality that on the one hand dispenses knowledge, but on the other hand advocates a position.

It’s in this venue where I can more readily see cascade effects with respect to knowledge dissemination.  Academia has something that conspiracism lacks, namely a hierarchal structure of authority.  While lowly adjunct professors might be in a position to correct or advise a full professor on the subject of the former’s expertise, they don’t have equal standing vis-a-vis the pronouncement of canon.  Likewise, the viewpoint of an advisor can very well influence the viewpoint of doctoral candidates, who might defer to the former’s judgment because they assume the advisor knows more than they do, Moreover, the advisor can provide plurality by citing the current literature written by scholars who believe the same thing (informational cascade).   But even if the candidate refuses to buy into the information given by the advisor, then he or she has considerable pressure to either agree with the information, or keep silent on the matter.  Academic advisors and senior colleagues can give enthusiastic recommendations.  They can also give tepid recommendations or none at all.  Senior faculty, in particular, can write positive peer reviews, which usually translate to promotions (and better yet) more money.  Because it’s a hierarchical structure, it’s important for the student or junior faculty member to remain in the good graces of people above her or him.  There’s thus incentive to affirm beliefs or observations that the junior does not hold (reputational cascade).
Or to put this in terms of vulgar, easy-to-digest psychobabble, much of “Conspiracy Theories” reads like the psychological projection of academia’s shortcomings onto the workings of conspiracy culture, which obviously has its own set of issues with respect to accuracy (or inaccuracy).

To be honest, I cannot fathom why two highly esteemed intellectuals would write or even think of publishing the first half of this paper, flawed on so many levels as it is.  I would have expected my peers and supervisors to rake me over coals had I turned in something that faulty.  But after reading it as many times as I have, I get this vague sense that the authors just didn’t care that much about exploring the creation and dissemination of conspiracy stories.  Worse, I dread that this first half served only as a cynical pretense to justify the remaining part of the paper.                           
*Specifically, Mae said, “I hate their guts.”  Lane and Gregory held a mutual opinion of Brussell.

**Granted, collaboration could itself lead to inaccuracy.  But note, the process described by the authors does not square with typical conspiracism practice. 

***Of course, there are exceptions, especially in the humanities where informational gaps can result from destroyed texts, linguistic and cultural misunderstandings/interpretations, or because of the obscurity of a source.  Hard sciences tend to have more epistemological gaps of the national security kind if the research has to do with martial technology, as one grindhouse actress could tell you.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Watch This Space

I've been meaning to get out a new blog before the month ended, but the 30th came up before I realized.  I'll be back to work soon.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Cure that Causes

A man thought his wife was having an affair, but he couldn’t prove it.  So he took off work one day, to follow her around.  He tailed her leaving the house mid-morning.  She arrived at a bar, where she began talking to a gentleman.  They then left together in his car, and drove to a nearby motel.  The husband could see them in the window hugging, and kissing and taking off their clothes.
But just then, at that critical moment, someone turned out the lights and closed the curtains.  So he never knew for sure.
–old joke told to me by an old dude.

A couple of years ago, I cited a 2008 paper written by law Professors Adrian Vermeule (Harvard) and Cass Sunstein (University of Chicago–currently at Harvard).  Simply titled “Conspiracy Theories,” it generally examined parapolitical stories in two contexts.  They first gave an explanation for why they both exist and persist.  They then proposed action to stop what they considered “harmful” conspiracy theories. 

Vermeule and Sunstein break down the causes of ‘conspiracy theory’ as (1) “informational cascades,” (2) “reputational cascades” and (3) “crippled epistemologies.”* According to the authors, Informational cascades come about because of the dissemination of information in a more or less linear fashion.  Because of the linear nature, subsequent examiners will tend to follow the lead of an opinion that someone else–presumably a leader or someone with cache within the social division–has stated earlier if they are uncertain or unknowledgeable about the facts.  They write:
Andrews is the first to speak.  He suggests that the event was caused by a conspiracy of powerful people.  Barnes now knows Andrews’s judgment; she should certainly go along with Andrew’s account if she agrees independently with him.  But if her independent judgment is otherwise, she would—if she trusts Andrews no more and no less than she trusts herself—be indifferent about what to do, and she might simply flip a coin. 

Now turn to a third person, Charleton.  Suppose that both Andrews and Barnes have endorsed the conspiracy theory, but that Charleton’s own view, based on limited information, suggests that they are probably wrong.  In that event, Charleton might well ignore what he knows and follow Andrews and Barnes.
Reputational cascades occur for a similar reason.  Unlike informational cascades, however, the reputational cascade occurs even when people know both the facts and their own opinions.  Yet they will defer both in order not to undermine the reputation of the group, and/or their reputation within the group.  As Vermeule and Sunstein explain:
In a reputational cascade, people think that they know what is right, or what is likely to be right, but they nonetheless go along with the crowd in order to maintain the good opinion of others.  Suppose that Albert suggests that the Central Intelligence Agency was responsible for the assassination of President Kennedy, and that Barbara concurs with Albert, not because she actually thinks that Albert is right, but because she does not wish to seem, to Albert, to be some kind of dupe.  If Albert and Barbara say that the CIA was responsible for the assassination of President Kennedy, Cynthia might not contradict them publicly and might even appear to share their judgment -- not because she believes that judgment to be correct, but because she does not want to face their hostility or lose their good opinion.
Crippled epistemologies, according to the authors, are the cornerstone of conspiracy-theory building.  They assert that personal acceptance, or tolerance, of conspiracy hypotheses does not result from narcissism, paranoia, delusions or other pathologies.  They’re instead caused by a paucity of direct knowledge.  The lack of direct knowledge leads the individual to accept what others (depending on their credibility, one would guess) state as true or direct knowledge.  And, frankly, the little information that one receives via this route is almost always inaccurate.  Thus, an individual doesn’t believe or consider possible a conspiracy belief because he or she is irrational.  Rather, the belief stems from ignorance.
In some domains, people suffer from a ‘crippled epistemology,’ in the sense that they know very few things, and what they know is wrong...Many extremists fall in this category; their extremism stems not from irrationality, but from the fact that they have little (relevant) information, and their extremist views are supported by what little they know....Conspiracy theorizing often has the same feature. Those who believe that Israel was responsible for the attacks of 9/11, or that the Central Intelligence Agency killed President Kennedy, may well be responding quite rationally to the informational signals that they receive.
When “Conspiracy Theories” first came out in 2008, it received quite a bit of attention from parapolitical circles and others whom the professors might deem conspiracy theorists.  Most of this reaction has been rather hostile, naturally.  But the attention (and hostility) increased the following year when President Barack Obama nominated, and Congress confirmed, Prof. Sunstein to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

Most of the vitriol exhibited by detractors was itself understandable, but highly emotional.  The outrage has primarily centered on the second part of that paper, namely the one that proposes a cure for online conspiracism.** But I have an even deeper alarm for the first section, for it really missed the mark on why conspiracy thinking occurs. 

Let’s start with the notion of “crippled epistemology.”  There’s a bit of truth in what Profs. Sunstein and Vermeule are saying here.  Quite frankly, conspiracy researchers would have to admit (as I often do) that we are not working with a complete set of data.  To sum up the main reason in two words: government secrecy.  To sum it up in one word: classification.***  We simply cannot know “all the facts” because, quite frankly, government authorities routinely withhold information from the public, oftentimes only affirming or confirming information that is politically convenient, or in some other way consistent with policy agendas. 

The first problem here is that the authors seem to imply that if the conspiracy researcher/believer/considerer knew the “real truth,” then they would not support a conspiracy hypothesis.  Common sense tells us that people do not tend to hide neutral or flattering information.  On the other hand, they’re quite quick to hide embarrassing or self-incriminating information.  So in this context, one justifiably wonders why the authors would automatically assume that all hidden information validates a non-conspiracy explanation.  More to the point, the authors have given us no empirical reason to declare that what little Suzie Q. Citizen knows is wrong, or mostly wrong.

Moreover, gaps in information don’t simply negate the information that’s there.  As the joke quoted above illustrates, we often have not only enough information to reasonably induce something untoward has happened, but enough to make a non-conspiracy hypothesis extremely implausible.  The JFK Assassination is one such instance where eyewitness and forensic evidence compellingly excludes the most cited culprit as the President’s actual murderer. 

Second, the reality is that between those who automatically nix the idea of conspiracy and those who don’t, the latter usually have more information that’s (ironically) contained in official or reputable sources.  The former often tends to accept what’s offered by established news outlets (e.g. CBS Evening News, New York Times) with little question.  And for most that is the extent of their knowledge.  (After all, if one feels no reason to distrust the government agents and media corporations, why look for conspiracy?)  Conspiracy researchers tend to know the mainstream, official or quasi-official stories as well as additional information supplied by witnesses, public documents and other informants of varying credibility.  So, while Profs. Sunstein and Vermeule are correct in pointing out that those who engage in conspiracy research often do not have not have complete knowledge of their subjects, they fail to address the even more ‘crippled epistemology’ (does anyone else see that term as pejorative, or emotionally provocative?) of non-conspiracists.

Third, I would agree that sometimes zealously believed conspiracy theories can be wildly inaccurate.  Yet, this isn’t caused, as the authors state, by a rational understanding of false or incomplete information.  As I summarized in several of the preceding posts, using anti-Semitism as an example, when conspiracy hypotheses go off the rails its often because of such irrational human traits as prejudice.  Bigotry, hatred, fear and other highly emotional states, to some degree, filter out the information that one can perceive.  While this would seem to affirm the idea of crippled epistemology, note two things: (1) this doesn’t really reflect the core of conspiracy research, and (2) filtering doesn’t necessarily leave one with a knowledge deficit.  What it does instead is lead to a more deliberate ordering of data that can in turn lead to inaccurate or seriously flawed conclusions. 

Fourth, when one takes even a perfunctory look at conspiracy stories, she or he will often have at the center, or close to it, someone who claims direct knowledge of the events.  In some cases (e.g. MPD Det. Ed Reddit in the MLK assassination; NYPD Det. Lt. Arthur O’Connor in the murder of John Lennon) we can confirm that those offering this direct knowledge have the legitimate standing and basis for doing so. 

Taking a close look at what Profs. Vermeule and Sunstein have written, one comes to a rather fascinating irony.  Judging from their footnotes, one can see citations to copious journalistic and academic sources.  On the other hand, we see considerably fewer references to actual conspiracy texts, most of them in the first few pages when the authors give their definition of ‘conspiracy theory.’  One therefore gets the impression that the authors are far more versed in anti-conspiracist arguments in commercial and professional literature than in conspiracism itself.  What they consequently describe is a rather cartoonish view of conspiracy and those who consider conspiracy explanations, one that anyone who actually knows the subject would see as grossly inaccurate.  While the authors can tell us what such persons as Mark Lane, Dr. Alan Cantwell and William Pepper generally have to say, one has less confidence that they have actually read or honestly critiqued the arguments of these authors.

In short, when it comes to talking about the subject of conspiracy, Profs. Vermeule and Sunstein seem to exhibit a crippled epistemology on the subject.  To those of us who have examined conspiracy, the authors don’t appear to know very much about conspiracy research or conspiracy researchers.  The entire examination of crippled epistemology thus reads as a psychological projection. 

But that’s not the only part of the paper that reads as psychological projection. 

*To put it simply, ‘epistemology’ is the study of knowledges, or meta-knowledge, if you will.

**We’ll get to the proposal in a couple of posts. 

***While legitimate national security purposes do account for some official secrets, they most likely don't account for the amount engendered by political security.  Other reasons for not having access to information would include privacy concerns (sometimes the public doesn't have legitimate reason to know something), or the physical deterioration of media. 

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Wednesday, April 01, 2015

The Year in Paranoia

Jim Bunting, a former reporter for one of Cincinnati's thriving local papers, The Knottinhaur Times, has now given up all pretense of journalism and embarked upon a new career writing clickbait.  Although that sort of thing usually annoys me, I recently found one post that I just had to share.

Countdown of the Year’s Top 10 Paranoid News Stories

Got your tinfoil suit ready?  Here’s a list of last year’s best conspiracy/paranormal/bizarre reports from all over the country. 

10.  First the National Security Agency said that they didn’t collect information from, on or about law-abiding American citizens.  Then they claimed that they only collected metadata of law-abiding American citizens.  Now, they claim that they’re not selling the personal information of loyal citizens to third-party vendors for extra funding and the occasional kickback.

In an unrelated item, the most popular car among NSA senior officials: the Maserati GranTurismo MC.

9.  CIA spokesperson Will Getzsche denied that the recent changes in the Smith-Mundt Act will lead to disinformation and harassment campaigns against dissidents, conspiracy buffs and liberals.  In order to clear up any misunderstandings, the Agency has taken to social media to explain the necessity of updating the law passed by Congress in 1948.  You can find their Twitter feed at:


8.  On 1 January 2015, FBI spokesperson Collette Rousseau called a press conference to announce that she always wears a blouse and skirt while on the job, and denied that her attire had anything to do with celebrating J. Edgar Hoover’s 120th birthday.  She declined comment on why her male colleagues were also wearing skirts and blouses (along with two-inch pumps and matching accessories). 

7.  The Association of All-American Psychics (AAAP) issued a statement declaring that the Anti-Christ is alive and living in Florida.

Former Governor Jeb Bush was unavailable for comment.

6.  According to host Sarah Koenig, Season 2 of Serial will focus on the JFK assassination.  The podcast will feature top-level physicists, engineers and other experts to explain the scientific reality of magic bullets.  Executive producer Ira Glass hopes to prove that President Kennedy was actually slain outside of a west-Dallas Best Buy by Adnan Syed, who acted alone.

5.  In recent news of the dead, former Clubbo country-and-western artist Sandee Saunders teamed up with Robert Palmer and John Lennon to record a new CD titled Rockin’ after Rigor Mortis.   In a publicity blitz the week before its release, Palmer once again confirmed that he was Linus van Pelt of Peanuts fame.  He also expressed dismay about the comic strip’s decision to secretly replace him with a double.  Lennon and Saunders agreed to put “clues” in Rockin’ after Rigor Mortis to alert astute listeners about the “Faux-Linus” (or Flinus, for short).

4.  NASA dispelled rumors of a massive UFO invasion, last July.  The Agency offered irrefutable proof that the flying saucers reported by thousands of eyewitnesses were actually flying cups.

3.  North Korean intelligence officials concluded, after a year of combing through the material they hacked from Sony Pictures, that none of the company’s films and television shows were worth watching.  Moderators at Rotten Tomatoes responded, saying “We’ve known that for years.”

2.  Department of Homeland Security spokesperson Nge Kotcher stated that the nation’s Fusion Centers will monitor all conspiracy lists of eleven or more.

1.  Breaking news!  Marilyn Monroe is alive and living in Chris Christie!

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Monday, March 23, 2015

The Protocol of the Protocols

I used to drive an old friend of mine –and by old, I mean someone who was actually a beatnik – to the Veteran’s Administration in South Orange, NJ.  He (let’s call him K.) required constant medical care for injuries he suffered during the Korean War.  Once, we were on needles and pins when these ancient war wounds, suffered over fifty years earlier, came close to doing him in.*

If you asked him to talk about his most defining experience in the military, it wouldn’t be the mortar blast that continues to plague him to this second.  Rather, it was an incident in basic training.  He woke up in the middle of the night, and saw the soldier in the next bunk staring intensely at him. 

“What’s wrong?” asked K.

“You’re Jewish, ain’t ya?” asked the stranger.

“Yeah, so what?”

“We learned that Jews have horns, tails and cloven hooves,” he explained.  “That they come out when you’re asleep.”

“Oh,” K. responded in his best deadpan.   “We don’t show them to the goyim.”

Before he had joined the Army, K. had come across whispered gossip concerning blood libel, But a guy staying up all night because he really thought my friend would turn into Beelzebub?  That struck me as utterly daft.  I mean, we’re talking about 1951, for crying out loud.  You’d think that people wouldn’t be so ignorant by the mid-Twentieth Century. 

As it turns out, much of that same ignorance persists well into the Twenty-First Century.  After the events of 11 September 2001, and the subsequent attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, the anti-American sentiment espoused by some Middle East Muslims became almost inextricably linked to anti-Israeli rage.  This led to the belief that Jews were manipulating the US to commit atrocity after atrocity against innocent Muslims. 

This anger found expression in the re-emergence of a nineteenth-century literary tract.   It’s original author had written it as a joke, a sharp commentary on political power and corruption, Later authors would plagiarize the initial satire and present it to the public as fact.  Although discredited and thoroughly debunked over the years, it has once again become a universally revered text for those who hate Jews.

According to many sources, among them the Holocaust Museum “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion made its first appearance as such sometime between 1897 and 1903.  Its author, Pyotr Rachovsky, served as the chief of foreign intelligence in the Okhrana, one of the most brutal spy agencies that ever existed.  The book purported to be the actual minutes of a meeting of an 1897 international Jewish congress that met in Russia.  Supposedly, these elders met to discuss their plans for taking over the world. 

Rachovsky stole the bulk of his material from other sources, among them Hermann Goedsche’s  1868 novel Biarritz.  Admittedly fiction, this book contained a chapter titled “At the Jewish Cemetery at Prague,” in which twelve elders, each representing a Hebrew tribe, meet in a graveyard to discuss plans for global dominion.  Goedsche in turn ripped off several other sources.  The first was the 1848 Alexandre Dumas Sr. novel Joseph Balsamo.   The second was an 1797 letter circulated by a French Jesuit, Abbe Barruel, who blamed the French Revolution on a Masonic conspiracy, and nebulously connected the subsequent political tolerance of Jews by Napoleon III to the plot.**

The third source is one that also heavily influenced Rachovsky, and is considered by virtual consensus to be the most direct ancestor of the Protocols.  Satirist Maurice Joly wrote The Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu in 1864 to poke fun at the stupidity of realpolitik.  One can easily notice parallels between the Joly novel and Rachovsky’s work.  In fact, some passages are almost verbatim.  For example, the following, appears in the Joly work:
Like the god Vishnu, my press will have a hundred arms, and these arms will give their hands to all the different shades of opinion throughout the country.
This corresponds to the following passage from “Protocols”:
These newspapers, like the Indian god Vishnu, will be possessed of hundreds of hands, each of which will be feeling the pulse of varying public opinion.
The Joly book didn’t mention Jews at all.  It instead consisted of a dialogue between the title characters.  The machinations discussed wasn't attributed to Jews, but to power in general.  In that light, one can see Joly as insightful with respect to how the ruling class sees the rest of us.  And in some ways the story’s reminiscent of Antonio Gramsci’s analyses of power.  The problem here is that in his retelling of Joly’s novel, Goedsche replaced the abstract notion of scheming aristocracy with a specific Jewish plot.  Yet, Goedsche didn’t claim that the work reported an actuality.  That was done by Rachovsky, who depicted these tales as real sometime around the turn-of-the Twentieth Century. 
From there, a number of Russian papers began to report on or serialize the tract, in each instance characterizing it as fact; as if this 1897 Jewish congress on world domination actually happened.  

As you probably have surmised by now, the malleable nature of the villains’ identities became one of the more horrific attributes of “Protocols.”  This was a point not lost on Dr. Umberto Eco (Humanities, University of Bologna), who in his 1988 novel Foucault’s Pendulum noted that someone had arbitrarily introduced Jews as the masterminds behind Joly’s tongue-in-cheek plot, most likely to divert attention from real conspirators.***

The malleability doesn’t end there, either.  While the main focus in the “Protocols” has been the international Jewish conspiracy since 1903, copious textual changes have cropped up over the years, each demonizing various political outliers as useful idiots, or harbingers of the plot’s success.  Indeed, most versions of the “Protocols” one can find on the web bear little resemblance to the direct 1920 English translation done by Victor Marsden.**** For example, one passage that one finds in online editions:
The people who make up society (voters) are lame-brained numskulls who never achieve anything.  They spend their time following astrology charts and football.  They obviously can’t think logically.
“The Protocols” as originally written and translated by Marsden don’t actually contain the character string “lame-brained numskulls.”  There aren’t any references to astrology or football, either.  Obviously, this is a means by which writers have “updated” the cultural context of the original.  But in doing so, they clearly changed it.  Likewise, some items that can loosely translate as the same thing, can become even further distorted by the addition of editorial comments that don’t appear in the original.  For example, the above cite quotes the “Protocols” as saying:
3.  People are basically evil by nature.  The bad people in this world far outnumber the good.  So the best form of government is not one that holds reasoned discussions with its people, but one that uses tyranny.
The original says:
It must be noted that men with bad instincts are more in number than the good, and therefore the best results in governing them are attained by violence and terrorization, and not by academic discussion.
Note that the original doesn’t have bulleted or numbered points, as do the later editions.  Second, the addition of the line “People are basically evil by nature” is an extrapolation that again doesn’t appear in the original.  Also, you’ll find the term ‘academic discussion’ replaced by ‘reasoned discussions,” which is especially meaningful when you realize that many who hold these beliefs today are at the core anti-intellectual.  In the US and Europe, they tend to also be quite right-wing, and use the “Protocols” to rally a bigoted political base to support neo-conservative agendas.

And it gets worse.  A passage in the original, “This task [of crushing benign, caring monarchies and other autocracies]  is infected with the idea of freedom, so-called liberalism,” often appears as “using liberalism,” or in some cases “using socialism,” or “using leftism” as a means of weakening a population.  Here, the implication is stark.  Such writers deliberately omit the extent to which the original equates liberalism (a despised concept among contemporary “Protocols” fans) to freedom (a principle they highly cherished).  In doing so, propagators of this tract can create boogeymen out of people they see as ideological enemies.

That’s not to imply that the original is any less insidious.  At the same time, it does show just how reactionary, adaptive and manipulated this text is.

The degree to which “Protocols” has influenced contemporary conspiracy culture is small, but (admittedly) significant.  A minuscule sampling of researchers will actually refer to such thing as ZOG (Zionist Occupational Government), or the “Jewish banking conspiracy.  More will refer to anti-Semitic in more coded, generic ways such as “The Israel Lobby,” “The Rothchilds,” or “The Illuminati/Masonic conspiracy.”  And some will broadly deny that the vast majority of Jews have anything to do with the “International Jewish Plot,”  but they believe in that plot all the same.

The reason why I brought this topic up is several-fold.  For starters, it’s an invalid argument that can gum up any legitimate queries by dumbing down the underlying mechanics of power to a highly isolated group of meanies.  Second, it’s useful in rationalizing the bigotry that many have held against Jews for (literally) millennia.   

Third, it ironically negates a core belief within anti-conspiracism.

*Relax.  He’s fine at the moment.  That reminds me, I have to get back to him on our fantasy baseball league..

**In a 1993 paper titled “Commentary on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” Dr. Daniel Keren points out that the bulk of French royalty and nobility were themselves Freemasons at the time of the Revolution. 

***And no, Eco isn’t serious about there being actual conspirators.  He just wanted to show how identities in such tracts can change back and forth to whomever one hates.

**** As I said in the previous post, I really don’t want to link to these sites, many of which are supported by Klan, fundamentalist Christian and Nazi groups and leaders.  But in order to verify the comparison, you can find the one alluded to in the above passage here

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Friday, February 13, 2015

The Ugly Side of Conspiracism, Pt. II

I had a hard time getting the words out of my mouth.  The sentiment I had to convey was crude and filthy, not to mention incredibly stupid. 

“They didn’t hire you, Q., because you’re Jewish.”

I expected her to share my indignation.  I expected her to blow her lid, spew venom, possibly at me for exposing her to that sort of naked bigotry.  Instead, I got a sharp pain in my ear as this ferocious cackle erupted from Q.’s lungs.  This wasn’t a nervous, ironic or weak laugh, mind you, but a real honest-to-goodness guffaw.

“I wondered why they were being so nice to me,” she said, still tee-heeing.  “They didn’t know.  I certainly wasn’t going to tell them.”

Her response almost surprised me as much as that of the VP from Arschloch AG.    Nevertheless, I felt the need to apologize to her, and profusely. 

As soon as she could catch her breath, she interrupted my extended mea culpa to say, “Listen, X.  Right now, as we speak, I’m painting this bedroom in my summer cottage.  When I finish with that, I’m going sailing.  And right now those are the only important things on my mind.  I’ve got fifteen-million in the bank.  I don’t need the job.  I just thought it would be fun to do, if they let me do it....You don’t have to worry about anything, and thanks for the call.”

Mainstream discourse on conspiracism, or in popular parlance “conspiracy theory,” often focuses on the anti-Semitic element associated with it.  While I can confidently say that such ideas and writers are hardly at the core of conspiracy research, and can readily point out that anti-Jewish hate has existed for millennia, I would nevertheless have to acknowledge that there exists within conspiracy culture a strain that is profoundly bigoted.  Moreover, I can find numerous examples of this.* 

And it’s here where we have to consider that not all conspiracy suspicions are equal.  We don’t have to accept that if shadowy forces murdered President Kennedy, Senator Kennedy and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, then Jews are in some diabolical plot to seize control of the world.

We don’t have to think long and hard to understand that the notion of a grand Jewish conspiracy isn’t just immoral, but idiotic as well.  A conspiracy of that apparent magnitude would implode under its own weight.  I’d reckon that if every Jew in this world were part of some diabolical plot, a whole lot of them would have blown the whistle by now.  Kids, for instance, always get into their parents’ business, and usually have some success doing so.  When they grow into rebellious adolescents, which they invariably do, why don’t they all, or at least a significant number of them, reveal who-knows-how-many family secrets?  You’d figure that the Refuseniks, Israeli conscientious objectors who took a principled stand against their nation’s government, would have the temerity to spill the beans on some grand Jewish plot, had it existed, for they certainly demonstrated their (1) bravery, and (2) passion for social justice. In short, there’s just too many sources for a leak in a system that wide.**

More important, the example of my acquaintance, Q., offers a much clearer picture of how power actually operates, and who really wields it.  Far from being in a position to control the institutions of power, Jews have been consciously, unabashedly rooted out of positions that would allow them the amount of influence alleged in these conspiracy stories.  And this runs counter to what many people have always heard about Jews and industrial power.  While one can name prominent Jews–especially those executives engaged with the media industry–one can point out many instances where their once proprietary companies were bought out by multinational conglomerates.  One can also note the instances where Jewish executives were brought in to helm firms through treacherous waters, only to be let go when the crises ended.***

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there are some who persist to fixate on cabalistic mysticism, myopically focus on the Rothschilds as the power behind everything, or blame all contemporary woes on Zionist manipulation.  As the Anti-Defamation League notes, blaming Jews for the evils committed by power is hardly new.  In an essay titled “Jewish ‘Control’ of the Federal Reserve: A Classic Anti-Semitic Myth,” they write:
For centuries, anti-Semitic propaganda has demonized the Jew as a conspiratorial, manipulative outsider, often with powers and designs of world domination. From the Middle Ages through the Holocaust, fabricated accusations against Jews as poisoners and corrupters have led to horrendous suffering for the Jewish people.

In more recent years, the anti-Semitic notion that ‘the Jews’ dominate and command the U.S. Federal Reserve System and in effect control the world’s money has surfaced across the extremist spectrum. Contemporary economic anxieties and distrust of government have given new life to this timeworn myth.
While anti-Semitism has  flourished for literally millennia, a specific strain of it is relatively newer, its origins lying in the circulation of nineteenth-century hate propaganda that has found a new and devoted following in cyberspace.
*There are some, for example, who believe that Jacqueline Kennedy assassinated her husband, John.  Why do they say this?  Because she was a Jew, according to them.  Never mind the fact that she was Roman Catholic; her mother’s Jewish ancestors made her Jewish, and thus somehow destined to murder the President of the United States, according to these people. 

I could also point you to many who believe in the “Rothchild International Banking Conspiracy.”   But I don’t feel like giving any of these sites a link.  You’ll just have to Google them for yourselves.  

**True, you can find some people who claim to be Jewish, and who claim to be privy to such plots on Youtube

The above link will take you to a RationalSkepticism post about a woman (somewhat resembling Et in Arcadia Ego Eve), who says she’s a scion of the famous Rotschild (or Rothchild) family, and who endeavors to whistleblow on the great family conspiracy.  Yet, one has to have severe doubts that this woman is actually Jewish, let alone the descendant of such a prominent family, thus rendering her revelations highly dubious to say the least.

Often, you will find in such diatribes, that a specific family (Rothchilds) becomes the focus of anti-Semitism.  Thus one can see rants against the Rothchilds in particular, and against Jews in general, as virtually the same.  In other words, for the hater, the Rothchilds come to represent the entirety of the Judaic diaspora. 

***In his 1990 book Hit Men, Frederic Dannen related one such instance: Former Columbia Records CEO Dick Asher was asked to take charge of PolyGram, a failing record label then owned by the Dutch-based Philips NV.  Dannen pointed out that once Asher steered PolyGram back to solvency, the parent company quietly let him go.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The X-Spot: Year Nine

You know, I started this blog by accident. Then I said I'd only do it for five years. And as the rest of the modern world has turned to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other more civilized forms of social media, I realize I should have quit when I said I would. The blogosphere takes on more and more characteristics of the ghost town.

That's all well and good, seeing that everything changes. And after dealing with a couple of subjects that press hot-buttons in all the people who care about them, I was content to spend the past year doing nothing but vamping on a topic that's fun to talk about, but of no real significance--at least not yet.

Then, in late-summer, anything I wrote here took a backseat to the drama unfolding with my health. Once again, thank you all for the e-mails, the snail mail, the telephone calls and just the well wishes. They meant more than I can express.

For the record, I'm doing great, and should live to be a little old X, some day.

As I said to our friend Ray in the previous post, I'm still blogging, just very slowly. I guess I'm too stubborn to stop. And while I eventually reopened another Twitter account, this URL seems more like my home on the Web.
Home, home on the Web,
Where the trolls and the sock puppets play.
Where always is heard
A discouraging word,
So you watch everything that you say.
As you can probably tell from the previous post, I'm embarking on yet another series, one I've been meaning to write for some time. I don't know how contentious it will be, although to me it's a very serious topic.

Read for yourself whatever you wish to of this next series, or if you're new to this page, series past. And I wish you all a very happy new fiscal year.

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