Powerful Conspiracies & Open Secrets

Why do so many Americans, including the well educated, know so little about how power operates? There is a naivete that dominates the mainstream mind, in how the sociopolitical reality tunnel is mediated by way of corporate media, think tanks, perception management, etc.

The most powerful conspiracies often operate as open secrets. The conspirators, not that they think of themselves that way, don’t worry about exposure because the public is kept in a permanent state of apathetic ignorance. The alternative media and foreign media that investigates and reports on these conspiracies rarely reaches the American audience. Nor do those in domestic corporate media and among the domestic political elite necessarily get much exposure to other views, as they are as trapped in echo chambers and media bubbles as anyone else. It’s a shared condition of mediated reality.

If mainstream media reporting and the political narrative is controlled, then control can be maintained of public perception and opinion. Truth doesn’t matter when truth has been made invisible and irrelevant to most of the targeted population. As long as the official story is repeated enough, few will question it and the few who do will be dismissed as cranks and conspiracy theorists, not that most will even take notice. A news report might occasionally surface, barely touching upon it, only to disappear once again. The very casual and fleeting treatment of the incident communicates and reinforces its insignificance to the audience.

Conspiracies are easy, as long as there is an established system of persuasion and influence. It doesn’t require a secret cabal operating in a dark room. Those in positions of power and authority, including media personalities, live in the same world and share the same vested interests. Like the rest of the population, those in the upper classes come to believe the stories they tell. The first victim of propaganda are the propagandists, as any con man has to first con himself. And humans are talented at rationalizing.

Truth is easily sacrificed, just as easily as it is ignored, even for those who know better. We simultaneously know and don’t know all kinds of things. In a cynical age such as ours, a conspiracy doesn’t seem like a conspiracy when it operates out in the open. We take it as business as usual, the way power always operates. The greatest conspiracy is our collective blindness and silence.

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Daniel Ellsberg’s Advice for How to Stop Current and Future Wars
by Norman Solomon

Daniel Ellsberg has a message that managers of the warfare state don’t want people to hear.

“If you have information that bears on deception or illegality in pursuing wrongful policies or an aggressive war,” he said in a statement released last week, “don’t wait to put that out and think about it, consider acting in a timely way at whatever cost to yourself. … Do what Katharine Gun did.”

If you don’t know what Katharine Gun did, chalk that up to the media power of the war system.

Ellsberg’s video statement went public as this month began, just before the 15th anniversary of the revelation by a British newspaper, the Observer, of a secret NSA memo—thanks to Katharine Gun. At the UK’s intelligence agency GCHQ, about 100 people received the same email memo from the National Security Agency on the last day of January 2003, seven weeks before the invasion of Iraq got underway. Only Katharine Gun, at great personal risk, decided to leak the document.

If more people had taken such risks in early 2003, the Iraq War might have been prevented. If more people were willing to take such risks in 2018, the current military slaughter in several nations, mainly funded by U.S. taxpayers, might be curtailed if not stopped. Blockage of information about past whistleblowing deprives the public of inspiring role models.

That’s the kind of reality George Orwell was referring to when he wrote: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” […]

Katharine Gun foiled that plan. While scarcely reported in the U.S. media (despite cutting-edge news releases produced by my colleagues at the Institute for Public Accuracy beginning in early March of 2003), the revelations published by the Observer caused huge media coverage across much of the globe—and sparked outrage in several countries with seats on the Security Council.

“In the rest of the world, there was great interest in the fact that American intelligence agencies were interfering with their policies of their representatives in the Security Council,” Ellsberg noted. A result was that for some governments on the Security Council at the time, the leak “made it impossible for their representatives to support the U.S. wish to legitimize this clear case of aggression against Iraq. So the U.S. had to give up its plan to get a supporting vote in the UN.” The U.S. and British governments “went ahead anyway, but without the legitimating precedent of an aggressive war that would have had, I think, many consequences later.”

The BBC’s disgraceful attempt at a McCarthyist-style shaping public of perceptions and flouting impartiality rule
by Kitty S. Jones

One source of media bias is a failure to include a perspective, viewpoint or information within a news story that might be objectively regarded as being important. This is important because exclusion of a particular viewpoint or opinion on a subject might be expected to shift the ‘Overton Window’, defining what it is politically acceptable to say. This can happen in such a way that a viewpoint becomes entirely eliminated or marginalised from political discourse. Within academic media theory, there is a line of reasoning that media influence on audiences is not immediate but occurs more through a continual process of repeated arguments – the ‘steady drip’ effect.

A second potential source of bias is ‘bias by selection’. This might entail particular issues or viewpoints being more frequently covered, or certain guests or organisations being more likely to be selected. There are several others, for some of which the BBC has regularly been criticised.

Herman and Chomsky (1988) proposed a propaganda model hypothesising systematic biases of media from structural economic causes. Their proposition is that media ownership by corporations, (and in other media, funding from advertising), the use of official sources, efforts to discredit independent media (“flak”), and “anti-communist“ ideology as the filters that bias news in favour of corporate and partisan political interests.

Politically biased messages may be conveyed via visual cues from the sets as a kind of underhanded reference-dependent framing. A frame defines the packaging of an element of rhetoric in such a way as to encourage certain interpretations and to discourage others. It entails the selection of some aspects of a perceived reality and makes them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation and so on. […]

As Walter Lipman once noted, the news media are a primary source of those “pictures in our heads” about the larger world of public affairs, a world that for most citizens is “out of reach, out of sight, out of mind.” What people know about the world is largely based on what the media decide to show them. More specifically, the result of this mediated view of the world is that the priorities of the media strongly influence the priorities of the public. Elements prominent on the media agenda become prominent in the public mind.

Given the reduction in sophistication and rationality in government rhetoric, media news and current affairs presentation, (and reduction in democratic accountability, for that matter) we don’t currently have a climate that particularly encourages citizens to think critically and for themselves.

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On a related topic, Kitty S. Jones has another piece she just put up. It is about how we are influenced. This is also a bit of an open secret. There has been some leaks about it, along with some investigative reporting. Yet the average American remains uninformed and unaware or else not comprehending or taking seriously the threat.

The fact of the matter is that a conspiracy to influence is as easy to accomplish as anything else. We are surrounded by highly effective conspiracies to influence us, many that operate out in the open and still we rarely notice them. They are the air we breathe in a cynical society such as this. They have become normalized and so we have stopped being shocked by how far the powerful are willing to go.

It would be depressingly naive to dismiss this as the rantings of conspiracy theorists. This is one of the most central concerns of anyone who both understands what democracy is and why it matters. We either want a free society or not. When we find ourselves being kept in the dark, the first thing to do is to turn on a light and look around to see what is going on, no matter how ugly is the reality we see and no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel.

Here is Jones’ most recent post:

Cambridge Analytica, the commodification of voter decision-making and marketisation of democracy
by Kitty S Jones

It’s not such a big inferential leap to conclude that governments are attempting to manage legitimate criticism and opposition while stage-managing our democracy.

I don’t differentiate a great deal between the behavioural insights team at the heart of the Conservative cabinet office, and the dark world of PR and ‘big data’ and ‘strategic communications’ companies like Cambridge Analytica. The political misuse of psychology has been disguised as some kind of technocratic “fix” for a failing neoliberal paradigm, and paraded as neutral “science”.

However, its role as an authoritarian prop for an ideological imposition on the population has always been apparent to some of us, because the bottom line is that it is all about influencing people’s perceptions and decisions, using psychological warfare strategies.

The Conservatives’ behaviour change agenda is designed to align citizen’s perceptions and behaviours with neoliberal ideology and the interests of the state. However, in democratic societies, governments are traditionally elected to reflect and meet public needs. The use of “behaviour change” policy involves the state acting upon individuals, and instructing them how they must be.

Last year, I wrote a detailed article about some of these issues, including discussion of Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in data mining and the political ‘dark’ advertising that is only seen by its intended recipients. This is a much greater cause for concern than “fake news” in the spread of misinformation, because it is invisible to everyone but the person being targeted. This means that the individually tailored messages are not open to public scrutiny, nor are they fact checked.

A further problem is that no-one is monitoring the impact of the tailored messages and the potential to cause harm to individuals. The dark adverts are designed to exploit people’s psychological vulnerabilities, using personality profiling, which is controversial in itself. Intentionally generating and manipulating fear and anxiety to influence political outcomes isn’t a new thing. Despots have been using fear and slightly less subtle types of citizen “behaviour change” programmes for a long time.

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In Kitty S. Jones’ above linked piece, she refers to an article that makes clear the dangerous consequences of covert anti-democratic tactics. This is reminiscent of the bad ol’ days of COINTELPRO, one of the many other proven government conspiracies. If this doesn’t wake you up, you must be deep asleep.

How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations
by Glenn Greenwald

One of the many pressing stories that remains to be told from the Snowden archive is how western intelligence agencies are attempting to manipulate and control online discourse with extreme tactics of deception and reputation-destruction. It’s time to tell a chunk of that story, complete with the relevant documents.

Over the last several weeks, I worked with NBC News to publish a series of articles about “dirty trick” tactics used by GCHQ’s previously secret unit, JTRIG (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group). These were based on four classified GCHQ documents presented to the NSA and the other three partners in the English-speaking “Five Eyes” alliance. Today, we at the Intercept are publishing another new JTRIG document, in full, entitled “The Art of Deception: Training for Online Covert Operations.”

By publishing these stories one by one, our NBC reporting highlighted some of the key, discrete revelations: the monitoring of YouTube and Blogger, the targeting of Anonymous with the very same DDoS attacks they accuse “hacktivists” of using, the use of “honey traps” (luring people into compromising situations using sex) and destructive viruses. But, here, I want to focus and elaborate on the overarching point revealed by all of these documents: namely, that these agencies are attempting to control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse, and in doing so, are compromising the integrity of the internet itself.

Among the core self-identified purposes of JTRIG are two tactics: (1) to inject all sorts of false material onto the internet in order to destroy the reputation of its targets; and (2) to use social sciences and other techniques to manipulate online discourse and activism to generate outcomes it considers desirable. To see how extremist these programs are, just consider the tactics they boast of using to achieve those ends: “false flag operations” (posting material to the internet and falsely attributing it to someone else), fake victim blog posts (pretending to be a victim of the individual whose reputation they want to destroy), and posting “negative information” on various forums. […]

These agencies’ refusal to “comment on intelligence matters” – meaning: talk at all about anything and everything they do – is precisely why whistleblowing is so urgent, the journalism that supports it so clearly in the public interest, and the increasingly unhinged attacks by these agencies so easy to understand. Claims that government agencies are infiltrating online communities and engaging in “false flag operations” to discredit targets are often dismissed as conspiracy theories, but these documents leave no doubt they are doing precisely that.

Whatever else is true, no government should be able to engage in these tactics: what justification is there for having government agencies target people – who have been charged with no crime – for reputation-destruction, infiltrate online political communities, and develop techniques for manipulating online discourse? But to allow those actions with no public knowledge or accountability is particularly unjustifiable.

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Skepticism and Conspiracy

In a post about valid skepticism, Troy David Loy (Troythulu) takes up the issue of conspiracy theories. He was responding to a 2011 post by Steven Novella or rather the comment section. Novella seeks to differentiate between skepticism and cynicism, and he does so by way of the problems of conspiracy theory, what he refers to as conspiracy mongering.

The specific conspiracy theory he uses is of no interest to me, but there are many reasons this topic resonates. Skepticism is all the more important and all the more difficult in a paranoid society, which is inevitable under conditions of fear and anxiety as is found with high inequality and segregation. Even the conspiracy denialists easily end up being paranoid in seeing conspiracy theories everywhere, as if the conspiracy theorists are out to get them, out to destroy their rational world of truth. And no doubt there are destructive along with self-destructive elements in the United States, the paranoia often being justified. It is paranoia all around, paranoia reacting to paranoia (such as the two main parties bickering back and forth about the conspiracy theories involving the FBI, Russia, etc that each prefers in attacking the other side). It’s amusing. Frustrating at times, but amusing.

Let me dig in. Loy writes that, “one of the commenters [Starting Here] tries very hard to prove the very thesis of cynicism the post addresses in a classic and blatant display of the Dunning-Kruger effect, by conspiracy mongering, in dishonestly ignoring or dismissing all counterarguments, attempting to assert intellectual superiority by evading questions and repeating the same talking points using glaring errors in reasoning apparent to nearly everyone else in the thread, and especially obvious to Dr. Novella.”

Maybe so or maybe not. I have little motivation to get involved in that particular debate. It doesn’t seem all that meaningful what happened to Osama bin Laden’s body or the reasons behind it. I just don’t care. Even if there was a conspiracy involved, there are so many more important conspiracies to consider, specifically proven conspiracies. Besides, I would point out that this problem goes both ways. And the two sides feed into each other. No one can doubt that there is conspiracy mongering. But as or more common is conspiracy denialism. Besides, it appears that, in the comment section, there never was an agreement on what was the fundamental issue being debated and so no clear way of determining who ‘won’ the debate.

Anyway, not all conspiracies are mere theories, something I assume both sides would agree upon, the point of disagreement being how common and how well hidden. “I believe in facts about conspiracies,” Julian Assange explained and with insightful common sense added that, “Any time people with power plan in secret, they are conducting a conspiracy. So there are conspiracies everywhere. There are also crazed conspiracy theories. It’s important not to confuse these two. Generally, when there’s enough facts about a conspiracy we simply call this news. . . I’m constantly annoyed that people are distracted by false conspiracies such as 9/11, when all around we provide evidence of real conspiracies, for war or mass financial fraud.” The problem is the conspiracy mongers and conspiracy denialists are fond of obsessing over the extreme possibilities while ignoring what is right in front of their faces, although that could simply the nature of any ideological debate that polarizes people.

The thousands of known and surely thousands more unknown covert operations the US has committed were, by definition, conspiracies and many of them, before being proven as conspiracy facts, were dismissed as conspiracy theories. Every time a corporation from big tobacco to big oil hid information (including their own scientific research, as happened over a period of decades) from the government and the public, it was a conspiracy. The three biggest recent sex scandals (Harvey Weinstein, Larry Nassar, and now Sean Hutchison) involved numerous people covering up the abuse also over a period of decades, often involving institutions and large numbers of complicit actors, even to the point of involving direct efforts to shut down investigations (reminiscent of the Catholic sex abuse cases that might have involved thousands of victims, victimizers, co-conspirators, and colluding authority figures across numerous churches, communities, and countries over a period of generations, probably centuries, and yet the Vatican was able to successfully conspire in keeping it hushed up).

This form of conspiracy, favored by the Vatican and corporations alike, can even take advantage of the legal system to enforce secrecy — as explained by Eviatar Zerubavel:

“Needless to say, although victims certainly benefit from them financially and sometimes also reputationally, it is almost always the perpetrators of those wrongdoings who “insist on inserting confidentiality clauses in [secret] settlements— never the victims.” 27 Furthermore, the fact that the very existence of those settlements is often kept secret actually allows such wrongdoing to continue! Such secrecy implicitly empowers repeat offenders by sanctioning the isolation of their victims from one another, victims who are often unaware that those perpetrators have previously been accused of similar offenses: “The main loser in secret settlements is the public. Consumers are deprived of information they need to protect themselves from unsafe products. Workers are kept in the dark about unsafe working conditions … In 1933 the Johns Manville company settled a lawsuit by 11 employees who had been made sick by asbestos. If that settlement had not been kept secret for 45 years, thousands of other workers might not have contracted respiratory diseases.” 28 Similarly, when such settlements are used, for example, to protect a pedophile priest, his victims are unlikely to know that they are part of a larger general pattern of abuse. Instead, believing that they are alone, they view their own victimization as highly idiosyncratic and may even blame themselves in part for what happened.” (The Elephant in the Room, pp. 42-43)

He followed that up with two quotes from articles on the topic:

“One of the most troubling … aspects of the child sexual abuse scandal now roiling the Roman Catholic Church is the enabling role played by the court system. In case after case, judges have signed off on secret settlements of child-molestation suits, freeing the offending priests to molest again … One Boston judge who sealed court records in a priest molestation case [said] that she might not have done so “if I had been aware of how widespread this issue was.” It was, of course, rulings like hers … that helped hide just how big a problem sex abuse was in the church.”
~Ending Legal Secrecy

“[T]here is palpable unease … about the cumulative effect of so many secret agreements. “I’m ashamed I took their money now,” said Raymond P. Sinibaldi, who won a settlement from the church in 1995 after allegedly being abused by a priest … “I should have … filed a lawsuit and called a press conference to announce it. If we had done that, this problem would have been exposed long ago.””
~Walter V. Robinson, Scores of priests involved in sex abuse cases

It is through entirely legal maneuvers that conspiracies can be covered up or rather the conspiring to cover up itself is the conspiracy. But this doesn’t exclude the use of extralegal, whether or not explicitly illegal, means as well (e.g., Harvey Weinstein hiring former intelligence agents to shut down news stories about his sex abuse). A combination of tactics can allow multiple generations to be victimized while keeping the victims silenced and isolated. It’s a good example of how money is power and how far that power can extend.

Sadly, these kinds of cases happen all the time. We are constantly surrounded by conspiracies. And the ignorance among the public, both in terms of mongering and denialism, is itself pervasive. The ignorance of the other side is no proof of one’s own truth claims. In any given debate, it very well might be that both sides are wrong or else that each side only has part of the truth. Conspiracy theories, in particular, need to be taken on a case by case basis.

I could list dozens of horrendous US covert operations that most Americans still don’t know about and, assuming they would even acknowledge it, would shock them. The human experimentation tests by the US government alone are numerous, including cases where radioactive or poisonous material was spread over US populations. More well known are MKUltra and Tuskegee syphilis experiment, but other example could be included. This is the kind of thing that most Americans at the time and many Americans still today have a hard time believing their own government would do… and yet, in many cases, the government has admitted to them and released documents proving it, albeit sometimes so long after the fact that the key actors are dead.

A great example of a known conspiracy is the CIA orchestration of the 1953 Iranaian coup that was finally proven last year from a declassified document, after more than a half century of conspiracy theories about it. Another example was the assassination of Fred Hampton by local police in cahoots with the FBI, Hampton having been intentionally drugged by an informer right before the raid so that Hampton could be shot in his sleep, a blatant assassination that has yet to be officially acknowledged. One of the darker examples is the CIA involvement in drug trafficking which, when one tenacious journalist tried to reveal it, led to his career being destroyed and contributed to his suicide (discussed further down).

Maybe more disturbing would be such things as FBI’s COINTELPRO (part of a long history of Red Squads; the letter to MLK being a standard tactic similarly used against Black Panthers), CIA’s Operation Mockingbird (only declassified in 2007), CIA’s Operation CHAOS (related to other projects from the Office of Security: Project MERRIMAC, Project 2, Project RESISTANCE, etc; similar to work done by COINTELPRO in targeting domestic individuals and groups), and CIA-related Congress for Cultural Freedom (maybe the largest propaganda program in US history). To push a right-winger into full paranoia, just mention the fact that some Ivy League professors from the past have since been outed as spy masters who worked to promote propagandistic American studies and recruit students as new agents while creating lists of activists and dissenters, not to mention various US citizens in the arts and media (including journalists) who were on the payroll of the CIA.

Certainly, during the Cold War, few were aware what was going on and the corporate media rarely investigated it because that would have been upatriotic and unAmerican. My parents were in college during the height of this activity and they were completely oblivious because, as conspiracies go, they were highly successful operations. They didn’t become public knowledge until recent history. Most Americans alive during that time are still ignorant of those conspiracies and most of the conspirators have taken their secrets to the grave. Similarly, few people know what covert operations the FBI and CIA are involved in these days, although COINTELPRO-style practices have reemerged with the War on Terror such as entrapment being used to incite mentally unstable people toward planning terrorist acts.

Many argue that conspiracies can’t happen because someone will always speak or somehow find out, such as the heroic investigative journalists portrayed in Hollywood movies. That occasionally happens, but not very often. It’s a romantic vision of a fully functioning democratic society, which is to say it is a fantasy, a popular genre in America.

As an interesting twist, conspiracy theories themselves have been used as political weapons. During the Cold War, it wasn’t only common for major governments like the US to be involved in conspiracies. They also would sometimes invent and promote conspiracy theories for various agendas, as part of disinformation campaigns. This could be useful to create doubt, mistrust, paranoia, and outrage in targeted populations. Or else it was used to muddy the water, maybe even to help hide or distract from actual conspiracies. So, sometimes there are real conspiracies behind the conspiring to spread fake conspiracy theories, a tangle of conspiracy actions and theories.

Russia recently conspired to push conspiracy theories along with fake news on social media in order to agitate and divide the American public, along with at times simultaneously promoting rallies and counter-rallies in the same cities. The US has a long history of doing similar things in other countries and maybe in the US as well (it’s not always clear what many known domestic programs and projects were intended to accomplish and to what degree they were successful). Corporations also get involved in this kind of thing such as using front groups and astroturf, as has been well documented typically by way of investigative journalism done in alternative media (a recent example is that of drug companies bribing patient groups with millions of dollars to push opioids).

We are all being manipulated in various ways. It doesn’t take a paranoiac to realize this. Kathryn S. Olmstead, a history professor at UC Davis, concluded that (Real Enemies, pp. 239-240, 2011):

“Citizens of a democracy must be wary of official and alternative conspiracists alike, demanding proof for the theories. Yet Americans should be most skeptical of official theorists, because the most dangerous conspiracies and conspiracy theories flow from the center of American government, not from the margins of society.

“Since the First World War, officials of the U.S. government have encouraged conspiracy theories, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally. They have engaged in conspiracies and used the cloak of national security to hide their actions from the American people. With cool calculation, they have promoted official conspiracy theories, sometimes demonstrably false ones, for their own purposes. They have assaulted civil liberties by spying on their domestic enemies. If antigovernment conspiracy theorists get the details wrong—and they often do—they get the basic issue right: it is the secret actions of the government that are the real enemies of democracy.”

A lot of weird stuff happened over the past century and, as conspiracies are rarely discovered in real time, surely is still going on. No doubt about that. Sometimes, there is good reason behind paranoia. That is the problem. When there is a long history of lies and disinfo, obfuscation and propaganda, it becomes difficult to know the truth and trust claims of truth. And once paranoia has taken hold of a society, it can make public debate almost impossible. That can be seen with recent leaks that showed how closely some in the media were working with political party leaders, going so far as not only to give them debate questions but also to allow them to edit articles before publishing. And without these leaks, we probably never would have learned about any of this

This leaves many of us in a paranoid state of not knowing what hasn’t yet been leaked and may never be leaked, just an occasional peek behind the grand wizard’s curtain. But if such leaked info doesn’t make you paranoid, then maybe you’re not paying attention or you’ve grown cynical, apathetic, and indifferent . The question is what to do with that info once we have it. It would be one thing if this was limited to the fantasies of conspiracy theorists. That isn’t the case, though. Various documents, released and leaked, and various investigations have shown how common are conspiracies in diverse institutions within our society. It is almost a full time job trying to keep up with it all.

There is some press that has helped to uncover this info, but we would know a lot less if not for the rare brave souls who succeed, with everything against them, to force the truth into the light. It’s probably safe to assume that even these leaks barely scratch the surface of what goes on… or at least there is no rational reason to assume the opposite. Of course, that doesn’t justify conspiracy mongering, especially as taken advantage of by right-wing pundits and demagogues. Yet neither does it warrant uninformed and thoughtless dismissals.

If you wait long enough, a few of the worst conspiracies might eventually be exposed — partly because the top secret documents, unless destroyed, sometimes come out one way or another, not always and maybe not usually but sometimes. The problem isn’t that there is a total lack of a free press, but corporate media has as a main motivation to make profit. Having a press that is theoretically free to report the truth is not the same thing as their possessing a moral and legal responsibility, much less a self-interested incentive, to report the truth since the freedom to seek profit is overarching. In the end, there is little profit in exposing dark secrets and ugly truths that will anger powerful actors who can derail your career and do you much wore harm, that is unprofitable other than as superficial infotainment portrayed in a way to not be taken seriously.

In passive complicity, most news reporters simply quote the official statements of governments and corporations. Hard-hitting investigative journalism is rare because it is difficult and expensive, not to mention it might repel certain advertisers who don’t want to be associated with it for various reasons, along with strings being pulled behind the scenes. This leads most news reporting to be safe and bland, the profitable middle ground between competing forces.

No far-fetched speculation is required to explain this. Still, one should keep in mind that most of corporate media has become consolidated into a handful of transnational mega-corporations. These have direct corporate links to other areas, such as their parent companies also owning highly profitable energy and defense corporations, not to mention how these corporation fund various think tanks, lobbyist groups, etc that have have direct ties to politicians and political parties (involving revolving doors where politicians are bribed with lucrative lobbyist positions and corporate hack engineer regulatory capture). Talk about an extreme and blatant conflict of interest, similar to the police investigating the police which unsurprisingly leads to few police ever being prosecuted. By the way, it should be noted that the defense industry is both heavily government-funded often by no-bid contracts and represents the single largest sector of the economy. It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to acknowledge that humans are easily influenced by the incentives, connections, relationships, and life experiences that shape their personal and professional worldviews.

There are many vested interests involved that slant attitudes and actions without need of overt and intentional conspiracy, much of the influence would happen unconsciously and by way of social pressure (especially among peers and close associates), as the desire to fit in is powerful. Also, people in positions of power and authority, both in the public and private sector, tend to live in the same world and to share the same social circles, even living in the same neighborhoods, going to the same churches, sending their kids to the same schools. This biases their thinking, no different than it does for any other group of people. People conspire all the time, often without thinking about it that way, simply because they share the same biases and have an incentive to promote a shared worldview toward shared interests, agendas, and goals.

Most people are simply trying to accomplish what is important to them and don’t always stop to consider how it could be perceived by outsiders. Richard Nixon, for all his own tendencies toward conspiracies and conspiracy theorizing, showed little evidence of being self-aware enough to see clearly his own behavior and actions. Those in positions of power and authority are fallible humans like the rest of us — some might argue even more infallible in how, as studies have shown, those in the upper class have less ability to correctly read the emotions of others and how the highly educated have higher rates of smart idiot effect.

Uncomfortable knowledge doesn’t always get acknowledged easily, even when there are a few journalists investigating it. Consider Gary Webb who, in trying to expose the CIA conspiracy of drug trafficking, was attacked by other journalists working in the mainstream media and his life was made into a living hell. He dared to speak truth to power and that doesn’t always lead to someone being celebrated as heroic. Some of those who attacked him apologized later on after it was proven he was right, but such vindication was too late since he was already dead. It requires immense naivete to believe investigative journalism is easy and that it doesn’t take much effort to prove a conspiracy within mainstream debate.

Ryan Devereaux wrote:

“Looking back on the weeks immediately following the publication of “Dark Alliance,” the document offers a unique window into the CIA’s internal reaction to what it called “a genuine public relations crisis” while revealing just how little the agency ultimately had to do to swiftly extinguish the public outcry. Thanks in part to what author Nicholas Dujmovic, a CIA Directorate of Intelligence staffer at the time of publication, describes as “a ground base of already productive relations with journalists,” the CIA’s Public Affairs officers watched with relief as the largest newspapers in the country rescued the agency from disaster, and, in the process, destroyed the reputation of an aggressive, award-winning reporter.”

And Ryan Grim wrote:

“It did not end well for Webb, however. Major media, led by The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, worked to discredit his story. Under intense pressure, Webb’s top editor abandoned him. Webb was drummed out of journalism. One LA Times reporter recently apologized for his leading role in the assault on Webb, but it came too late. Webb died in 2004 from an apparent suicide. Obituaries referred to his investigation as “discredited.””

Or consider the more recent situation of the Iraq War. Studies have since shown that the Bush administration told 935 proven lies in the run-up to the war. Many in the intelligence agencies, as later was shown, knew these were lies and remained silent. Even when some documents got released to news organizations, the reporting was minimal and superficial. Some reporting was even delayed without explanation or in particular cases, as has since been revealed, at the behest of the government. Whether or not you think of this as conspiracy, it clearly indicates various levels of complicity. There was a push for war and high pressure to justify it.

Jon Schwarz brought up that, “This lie should have been easily caught by the U.S. media, given Kamel’s 1995 CNN interview. Moreover, there were public documents sitting on the IAEA website stating the Kamel had told the agency “all nuclear weapons related activities had effectively ceased” in 1991″ (Trump is Right, Bush Lied). And Robin Andersen writes “one of the most curious media failures regarding coverage of the war in Iraq, about a secret meeting finally brought to the light of day, but not by US media” (Bush, Blair and the Lies That Justified the Illegal Iraq War). Andersen notes that even some media figures admitted that it was extremely odd that this was being ommitted from reporting with one of them, CNN’s Jackie Schechner, observing that it wasn’t for lack of interest as was well covered in the blogosphere. At around the same time, “Washington Post ombud Michael Getler noted that readers had complained about the lack of coverage, though no explanation for the omission was offered.”

The typical American doesn’t look to the blogosphere for breaking news about info involving world-shattering invents such as a war that has led to millions of dead innocents and trillions of dollars of costs. The mainstream (corporate) media remains the primary source of media consumption, but even when readers complained about this the media silence continued. It was far from being a single failure of media. Andersen goes on to write that, “At this point, another opportunity presented itself for thorough coverage of the British documents, yet the American media again missed a chance to expose the falsities that led to war and correct the historical record. The delayed coverage of the memo that finally “burst into the White House” reveals the current complexities of media failures. With the Iraq invasion, we see the reinvention of a war’s history even before it has ended.” But not all of the media was like this. In When Media Goes to War, Anthony DiMaggio makes a useful comparison (p. 41):

“[B]oth the New York Times and Independent closely quote politicians commensurate with their percentage of seats in government. In the United States, the New York Times made significant efforts to split coverage evenly between Democratic and Republican sources, while devoting little attention to antiwar protestors. Similarly, the Independent molds it reporting to reflect the power distribution among the United Kingdom’s three major parties. However, the Independent is twice as likely to quote antiwar protestors than the New York Times, suggesting that the British coverage is less reliant on official sources in dissenting against the war.”

This slanted reporting happened in complete opposition to the largest protest movement in world history and in opposition to the majority of Americans that initially opposed the war (the majority only shifting after near unanimous promotion by the corporate media). The New York Times is as mainstream as it gets in US media. And whatever one may think of it, one is forced to admit that there has never been an opportunity lost by the New York Times to beat the war drum, no matter which party controls Congress and the presidency. The reason even the supposed liberal corporate media has so often been war hungry is a question one must ask, even if one denies all possibility of political conspiracy and corporate conflict of interests. The silence among many in not asking about this speaks volumes.

About influence from above, David Dadge explored how corporate media can be made to fall in line with official doctrine or at least to not speak out against it too loudly (The War in Iraq and why the Media Failed Us, p. 146):

“On the internet, Yellowtimes.org was briefly closed down by its Internet Service Provider (ISP) for showing pictures of American fatalities and there were pressures on Hollywood stars such as Martin Sheen who vigorously protested against the war. Perhaps the worst decision made by a broadcaster was CBS’s decision to hold back on the publication of pictures showing the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of American soldiers. The decision came after the Pentagon warned the broadcaster that such pictures might inflame tensions in Iraq. Given the importance of the story, CBS’s decision was a blatant disregard for objective and independent news reporting.

“While many of these censorious acts were at arm’s length from the government, it is hard not to see them as part of the environment created by the Bush administration. These acts point to a subtle manipulation of the media environment by calling on the public’s patriotism and making commercial enterprises extremely nervous about the impact of unpopular dissent on share prices. The comments by the Bush administration also encouraged a strong conservative media that channeled the public’s displeasure at dissent and unleashed it on the media. As a result, in late 2002 and early 2003, journalists began to feel extremely uncomfortable about taking on the Bush administration.

“The manipulation of the media environment, therefore, contained three vital elements: comments by senior administration officials showing that dissent is unpatriotic; mobilization of the public”s support for those comments; and pressure on journalists from other elements of the media and private commerce to support the administration’s actions. However, adding to these pressures, and perhaps for the first time in the history of the United States, the Bush administration also sharply questioned the media’s role within American society: a tactical decision that further damaged the media’s ability to challenge the government.

“President Bush’s admission to a journalist that he disputes the idea that the media reflects what the public is thinking is prejudicial to the media’s role. Although it is not necessarily wrong to confront the media’s own assumptions about itself, when this comment is seen in conjunction with the comments of other senior Bush administration officials, such as Andrew Card, who is on record as saying he does not believe the media have a check and balance function, it is disturbing. Accepting these comments at face value, it would appear that before and during the Iraq war the Bush administration either sought to use the mainstream media as an information delivery system or simply bypassed them altogether.”

Much of the corporate media has since then offered better reporting as the Iraq War winds down, some journalists even having admitted failure in not challenging the Bush administration, but it’s always easy to see more clearly years later when the fear of dissent has lessened. It reminds me of the corporate media’s failure to fully and honestly report on the stolen 2000 election and the peculiarities of the 2004 election (a conspiracy of silence about the conspiracy itself, based on equal parts open secret and willful ignorance), except the difference being that I’ve yet to hear anyone apologize for this failure. Am I a ‘conspiracy monger’ because my views don’t fall in line with the mainstream narrative fed to the American public by the bipartisan system of power and the plutocratic-owned corporate media?

(See also: News Incorporated ed. by Elliot D. Cohen, Mass Media, Mass Propaganda by Anthony R. Dimaggio, Constructing America’s War Culture ed. by Thomas J. Conroy & Jarice Hanson,  Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy by Douglas Kellner, Whitewashing War  by Christopher R. Leahey, Anatomy of Deceit by Marcy Wheeler, When the Press Fails by W. Lance Bennett, Regina G. Lawrence & Steven Livingston; the kind of books including serious scholarship typically ignored by the conspiracy denialists.)

That is how oppressive groupthink operates, under conditions of national duress exploited by psychopathic and authoritarian power mongers. Social science studies have shown how people become increasingly conservative-minded during times of fear, anxiety, and stress. One study showed that liberals who early on saw repeated footage of the 9/11 attacks were more supportive of Bush’s War on Terror than those who heard about it over the radio (and one might consider that almost anyone working in media would be included in that group of repeated video watchers on 9/11). Many Americans, including within the media, suddenly became uber-patriotic and dissent wasn’t tolerated.

Does anyone remember how oppressive the public atmosphere became during that time? Major media figures were fired for having politically incorrect views in opposing war. Matt Taibbi pointed out that presently “people like Chris Matthews are giving people a hard time about their positions on Iraq. Where was MSNBC on Iraq back in the day? I mean, they were letting go of people like Phil Donahue and Jesse Ventura for having, you know, unpatriotic positions on the Iraq War. Everybody was in on this thing, except for maybe this program and a few other scattered journalists.”

Plus, there has been endless studies showing a wide variety of biases in media, which is part and parcel of the whole manufacturing of consent (with or without any intended conspiracy, as manufacturing consent simply requires a systemic shutting down of debate by how the forum of debate is structured). Even without these biases being proof of conspiracy, it is because of these biases that conspiracies so often can fly under the radar, sometimes for decades, as official narratives too often go unchallenged (e.g., the myths surrounding the Vietnam War). How many journalists are there who are actually brave enough to go through the potentially the career-destroying despair that Gary Webb experienced? Probably not many.

I’m in no way of supporting conspiracy mongers. But I’m well enough informed about proven conspiracies to not fall into the equally ignorant trap of denialism. I’m an agnostic about such things. I don’t affirm or deny what I don’t know, even as I do base my opinions on the evidence and patterns seen in past known cases. If there isn’t always a conspiracy of politics and power, there is most definitely a conspiracy of ignorance in American society (e.g., the propaganda wars over school textbooks). I’m all for skepticism, but skepticism is only as good as the knowledge it is based on and the public debate within which it operates. How many self-identified skeptics of conspiracy theories could honestly claim to be widely read and well informed about the US history of proven conspiracies? What do we do if the Dunning-Kruger effect applies equally to many on both sides of the debate?

In Novella’s comment section, someone going by the username rezistnzisfutl says that, “We all know that there’s funny business that goes on with the government. The same can be said really about any organization out there. I think the point of this article is that skeptics hold out for evidence for whatever is being claimed, while cynics will often assume a lot whether there’s evidence or not. It’s not to say that cynics are necessarily wrong, but typically for skeptics, disbelief or withholding of judgment is the default position until actual legitimate evidence is presented for a claim.” Demonstrating confused thought, he goes on to say that, “It’s more likely that news outlets are more interested in ratings and advertising dollars, than being the lapdogs of the government or corporations.” He is talking as if news outlets were not also corporations, which indicates a bizarre if maybe common psychological disconnect.

He then throws out what he considers to be a clincher: “There are many competing news organization and independent news sources that would jump at the opportunity to blow conspiracies wide open given the chance, if actual evidence of these things surfaced. Those kinds of things would make fortunes and put small orgs on the map.” In that case, show me the immense wealth that Gary Webb accrued. Show me the high life of luxury exhibited by Julia Assange, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, etc. Or show me the fortune made by Raymond Lemme who mysteriously died in investigating the 2000 election in Florida.

In discussing that last one among much else, I offered this thought: “I don’t know what to do with this kind of thing. To most people, this is the territory of conspiracy theorists, ya know crazy paranoiacs. It should, therefore, be dismissed from thought and banished from public debate. The problem is that I’m psychologically incapable of ignoring inconvenient and uncomfortable facts. Call it depressive realism. I just can’t turn away, as if it doesn’t matter.”

Amusingly, the two sides in that comment section debate mostly seem to be talking past one another. On the otherhand, I saw good points made on both sides. In the end, the most reasonable conclusion was made by someone with the username Kobra — he simply stated that, “This conversation is moot because you cannot translate the scientific skeptical model into other domains, like business, or politics.” What does skepticism mean toward systems of power that seek to manipulate our beliefs and doubts about what is true, not to mention ideological and cultural worldviews that bias our thoughts and experiences at fundamental levels of our being?

Both sides assume they are the rational skeptics and those on the other side are the irrational fools. But in being intellectually humble, how do you prove you aren’t the one being an irrational fool or simply misinformed and misguided? How can you know what you don’t know, know that what you think you know isn’t false or partial, and know that there isn’t something else you really should know? We should be skeptical toward skepticism itself.

* * *

3/1/18 – Further thought:

There is one thought that kept bugging me. People assume that conspiracy means total secrecy. In a simplistic sense it does, as conspiracies begin in secrecy. But they don’t always remain in secrecy, not entirely. Conspiracies can continue and be successful even when they are open secrets.

An example of this is the dark money that runs American society. There has been some good investigative reporting on it, published in scholarly books and in the alternative media. Dark Money by Jane Mayer is one example. Another one is Buzzfeed’s in-depth report on how the Koch brothers and Mercer family funneled money to Steve Bannon, Breitbart News, Project Veritas, etc. Both of these probably only scratched the surface of what goes on behind the scenes, as they are just two examples among many.

Typically, such revelations are only briefly reported on in the mainstream news and once again are lost in silence or lost amidst the most recent spectacle in the news cycle. The majority of Americans probably never read about any of it or, if they did, they have forgotten about it. This is how open secrets operate. Most people don’t know and don’t want to know. The number of Americans that follow the news closely is small. Among those who do pay attention, fewer still want to consider any of it in terms of conspiracy. It’s easier to assume that these are exceptions to the norm, just a few bad apples and not an indicator of a larger pattern of wrongdoing.

So, after some partial and momentary exposure, the powerful plutocrats go back to their scheming and nothing changes. The Kochs and Mercers of the world surely have numerous conspiracies going on with money being funneled into all sorts of shell companies, front groups, astroturf, media operations, etc. If you pay attention much to right-wing ‘alternative’ media, you’ll notice how when certain articles come out they will simultaneously appear on dozens of websites and most of those websites, likely all backed with the same funding sources, seem to serve no other purpose than to promote such pieces into newsfeeds, social media, and web search results. Certainly, there is an agenda behind it all.

The conspiratorial attempts to manipulate and influence us are common and mostly it happens in the background. This isn’t some grand insight and doesn’t require much in the way of paranoia, just ordinary awareness of the larger world and a willingness to pay attention. But that is the key issue. Most ignorance on this matter is willful. It’s simply depressing to think about. That is how even government conspiracies that are proven through leaks and admissions rarely break into public awareness and become a permanent part of public knowledge. I mentioned some of them in this post. Those who lived during the period of those major conspiracies didn’t know about them while they were happening and most still don’t know.

The fact of the matter is that most people don’t want to know, which makes it easy for those with devious intentions. As a society, we never seem to learn because the process of becoming better informed can be quite demoralizing. We’d prefer to not think that we live in a society where bad things regularly happen. That is understandable, but that attitude is why bad people are so often able to get away without consequences. Of all the proven conspiracies I’ve mentioned, very few people involved were ever held accountable in legal terms or on a personal level. Without consequences, there is no deterrence.

Instead, most people go on denying that conspiracies happen. Only crazy people think that way.

* * *

From an earlier post:
Conspiracy Theory And Fact

We have voluminous official documentation and other evidence about conspiracies that weren’t known while they were happening, often only becoming verified decades later. Even when evidence shows the official story doesn’t make sense, any alternative explanation is a conspiracy theory by default, until some damning evidence finally comes forth. But even deathbed confessions by insiders (spymasters, covert operation agents, etc) are regularly dismissed for the type of people who get involved in conspiracies are those with reputations of secrecy and deceit.

Probably most of what militaries, alphabet soup agencies, organized crime, corporations, etc does in secret never comes to light. Conspiracies, if successful, are designed to be hard to prove with few paper trails and a surfeit of plausible deniability.

I’m not sure why anyone should find this surprising. It’s not hard to keep a secret, when all involved have a vested interest to keep it secret or who, like soldiers, are trained to be subservient by maintaining silence. Conspirators, in particular, are legally complicit and so have little motive to admit anything. If all else fails, there are endless means to keep people silent, from blackmail to assassinating them (when one pays attention, one finds an amazingly improbable number of alleged conspirators, subpoenaed witnesses, and investigators who end up dying by mysterious accidents and unforeseen suicides).

Take something like the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident—if not a proven false flag operation, then at least a conspiracy to hide the truth. Far from being a minor incident, it justified the US entering into the Vietnam War. It just so happens that those in power had been in the process of looking for an excuse to officially declare war, although illegal covert military operations had been going on for a while. Anyway, it turns out that parts of the official account never happened or not the way it was officially stated, but evidence didn’t finally come out in mainstream reporting until after the war was already over an government documents were only declassified in 2005.

That was decades later! And that was a situation with multiple naval ships and naval crews from multiple countries, and so involved numerous potential eye witnesses. Declassified records show that even US Senators at the time knew the official story was false. Certainly, officials in the other involved governments also had information about what actually happened and didn’t happen. Few conspiracies have ever involved so many.

The Gulf of Tonkin is not much different than the WMDs that got us into the Iraq War. Even the CIA didn’t believe Iraq had WMDs (not unlike when the CIA knew that the Soviet Union posed no threat when politicians were pushing to start the Cold War and not unlike when the CIA knew John F. Kennedy was lying during his presidential campaign about the weaponry the Soviet Union possessed, both incidents of CIA collusion by inaction not known until long after the historical era had passed). Besides, those in the Bush administration knew they were misleading the public in connecting Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 terrorists. It was a conspiracy and one that operated right out in the open, for those who had eyes to see. All it took was a servile mainstream media and a submissive public. Too many people don’t want to know the truth, even when the truth is obvious. That is what can make conspiracies so easy to commit. Most people want to believe whatever they’re told, especially when the person telling it to them is an authority figure.

It’s the same reason the Vatican was able to hush up the sex abuse for decades, as most people simply don’t want to talk about it, what is called a conspiracy of silence. Netflix’s documentary “The Keepers” focuses on a Catholic school where this happened. It goes into great detail about how an offender could sexually abuse so many children while so many people around him remained oblivious or else refused to see. Even most of the victims never talked about it and the few that did were ignored. The one person, a nun, who seriously challenged the conspiracy of silence apparently was murdered. And more damning, there is strong evidence the police were involved in shutting down investigations, because the priest who was molesting children had family ties.

The documentary finally managed to put the pieces together almost a half century later. That is praise for this one tenacious investigator, but it is hardly evidence of a fully functioning free press that it took so long for the depravity of it to be revealed. So, don’t feed me any bullshit about there being no way conspiracies can be kept secret.

Consider another example from the private sector. Recent investigative reporting from an alternative media organization (Inside Climate News) found that Exxon and other major oil/gas corporations knew about man-made climate change since the 1970s.

Numerous people in these corporations, from scientists to upper management, were aware of this knowledge. There were even internal documents showing this knowledge. This was and is a problem that not only has threatened the earth’s biosphere and global population but has also been a national threat to powerful countries like the US. Yet a successful campaign of lies, obfuscation, and disinformation (involving not just PR but also powerful political lobbyist organizations, think tanks, and front groups) lasted for decades apparently without any of the conspirators coming forward to speak out about the conspiracy or, if they did, it never received much MSM news coverage.

According to some, conspiracies like this are highly implausible. Yet these particular implausible conspiracies have been proven true. Conspiracy theorists jumped on the Tonkin story early on as they noticed the unexplained discrepancies. And for a long time many have written about the tactics of oil/gas corporations. But until documents are released or discovered conspiracy theories can be almost impossible to prove as conspiracy facts. The problem is that documents usually only come out after massive private investigation has already indicated conspiracy and long after any involved could be held accountable. Overwhelming proof can take a generation or generations to accumulate. Even so, most of what governments and corporations do in secret is never disclosed by those responsible, as the wealthy and powerful have little incentive do so. The government alone has mountains of top secret documents, only a fraction of which have ever been made public by way of leaks or freedom of information requests.

* * *

Let me finish this post by taking it into a different direction. What makes a conspiracy possible? It’s not just secrecy and corruption but what these represent. It is a culture of distrust dependent on a culture of silence and hence a conspiracy of silence. In this mix, individual and collective shame, fear, and outrage drive a cycle of victimization.

In discussing the Tulsa race war, James S. Hirsch says that speaking of “a “culture of silence” would have been more appropriate than a “conspiracy of silence”” (Riot and Remembrance, p.326). Conspiracies would never happen without silence. As Tim Madigan put it, a “culture of silence” breeds “cultural amnesia” (The Burning). And if you don’t understand the power of silence, it is understandable that conspiracies will seem absurd or else highly improbable.

I would add that this is far from being ancient history nor limited to a single place. There has been a collective amnesia about racial issues all across our society. My grandmother grew up near Tulsa when the race war happened, she spent her young adulthood in a Klan center, and then she eventually moved her own family including my father into a sundown town — yet my father doesn’t recall any discussions in his family about race and racism, a refusal to speak in one generation creating ignorance in the next, a complete silencing such that my father would also move his family to a sundown community with total unawareness, probably because on an unconscious level it felt comfortable to him.

This relates to what some, myself included, refer to as “the perplexing issue of simultaneously knowing and not knowing. The study of ignorance, agnotology, would also be the study of what is hidden, both to public and private awareness. All of this connects to ideas I first came across in the writings of Derrick Jensen, ideas about the victimization cycle, silencing, dissociation, splitting, doubling, etc.”

This is where social science and historical scholarship would aid skeptics in better understanding the world around them — linked to why Kobra was correct in saying that, “This conversation is moot because you cannot translate the scientific skeptical model into other domains, like business, or politics.” The skeptical attitude we need has to go much deeper into what it means to be human, specifically in the kind of society we find ourselves in.

It could be argued that the heart of the issue is shame. Whether or not a conspiracy originates in shame, it creates the conditions for shame which further entrenches the conspiratorial mindset of distrust, fear, and anxiety. And shame has immense power in silencing victmizers and victims alike. That is what happens where trauma ripples outward, leaving silence in its wake. In communities that have experienced some collective trauma, there is a resistance to speaking that will be enforced by social pressure, if not by law. This has been seen in cities that have experienced racial violence, sometimes with the victims expelled from the community as in sundown towns and sometimes with public records expunged of evidence. This can leave a mere residue of the event(s) that occurred, often a mere absence rather than a presence such as all or nearly all of the black population disappearing from one census to the next, but when asked about it few if anyone remembers or will talk. Tulsa was a rare case in eventually having been formally investigated, although not until 1997 which was more than three quarters of a century later.

For whatever reason, the 1990s was the time when the multi-generational shadow of a conspiracy of silence began to lift, the time period in which James W. Loewen wrote his groundbreaking book on sundown towns. Having attended high school in the 1990s, it wasn’t until recent years that I learned that one of the places I grew up in was a sundown suburb, but of course no one talked about it at the time.

The conspiracy of silence can operate in an odd way. It’s a sense of collective guilt, whether or not anyone was actually guilty. Loewen spoke of how, “Recent events in Martinsville, Indiana, provide an eerie example of cognitive dissonance at work” (Sundown Towns, p. 327). It was a known sundown town when a black woman, having transgressed the sundown code of getting out of town before the sun sets, was murdered in 1968: “So most people (correctly) assumed the motive to be rage at Jenkins as a black person for being in the city after dark,” wrote Loewen, continuing that:

“In the aftermath of the murder, NAACP leaders and reporters from outside the town levied criticism at the city’s police department, alleging lack of interest in solving the crime. Martinsville residents responded by appearing to define the situation as “us” against “them,” “them” being outsiders and nonwhites. The community seemed to close ranks behind the murderer and refused to turn him in, whoever he was. “The town became a clam,” said an Indianapolis newspaper reporter.65 Now Martinsville came to see itself not just as a sundown town—it already defined itself as that—but as a community that united in silence to protect the murderer of a black woman who had innocently violated its sundown taboo. To justify this behavior required still more extreme racism, which in turn prompted additional racist behaviors and thus festered further. […]

“Ironically, it turned out that no one from Martinsville murdered Carol Jenkins. On May 8, 2002, police arrested Kenneth Richmond, a 70-year-old who had never lived in Martinsville, based on the eyewitness account of his daughter, who sat in his car and watched while he did it when she was seven years old. Although many people inside as well as outside Martinsville believed its residents had been sheltering the murderer these 34 years, in fact no one in the town had known who did it. No matter: cognitive dissonance kicked in anyway. Again, if situations are defined as real, they are real in their consequences. Because everyone thought the community had closed ranks in defense of the murderer, additional acts of racism in the aftermath seemed all the more appropriate. Today, having intensified its racism for more than three decades in defense of its imagined refusal to turn over the murderer, Martinsville is finding it hard to reverse course.” (p. 328-329)

It was a conspiracy of silence based on nothing other than an imagined shared past that became an imagined shared identity. No one would tell the secret of this horrific crime, going to the grave with it if necessary, but it turns out there was no secret other than a sense of collective guilt. Successful conspiracies always draw people in psychologically, the oppressive sense of secrecy sometimes keeping people from even questioning its validity. Keeping secrets is normal human behavior and humans are quite talented at it. This is why it is so easy for conspiracies to happen, in particular when the stakes are so much higher.

Also, there is usually no one who has any advantage to bring attention to a conspiracy. In towns with history of racial violence or exclusion, it’s rare for anyone to talk and, as they are so common across the country, such places rarely gain much public attention. When a conspiracy of silence becomes a norm within a country, breaking that norm is difficult and can be costly. At the local level, there is more often than not no mention of the history of racism by local historians, historical societies, historical markers, and history books; by local newspapers, chambers of commerce, authority figures, and residents; even professors working in local colleges.

In the sundown town my father grew up in, there was a sundown sign on a road seen coming into town and the sign was there when my father was growing up, but as I said no one talked about it. My grandfather was a respected local minister and was racist, and it seems he played a role like so many others in suppressing this dark reality. This was standard behavior, as Loewen notes: “One might imagine that priests and preachers might chide their congregations about their un-Christian attitude toward people of color, but clergy, like local historians, avoid controversy by not saying anything bad about their town” (p. 199).

People in a town can successfully conspire not to talk about what everyone knows and even the living memory can be quickly suppressed, such as my father’s convenient inability to remember anything out of the ordinary. Well, it wasn’t out of the ordinary, as many communities in Indiana and across the country were sundown towns: “Outside the traditional South—states historically dominated by slavery, where sundown towns are rare—probably a majority of all incorporated places kept out African Americans” (p. 4). It was the social reality that was so pervasive that it didn’t need to be acknowledged — racism was the air everyone breathed.

This ability to suppress dark secrets, even when they are open secrets, is not some magical ability limited to racists in racist towns. This is basic human nature. Any group of people can act this way: churches, sports organizations, corporations, etc — this would be even more true for intelligence agencies that carefully select their employees, highly train them, and enforce protocols of secrecy with severe punishments to those who leak (e.g., almost any other CIA, NSA, etc employee that was as careless with classified documents as was Hillary Clinton would already be in prison).

If intelligence agencies weren’t highly talented at implementing successful conspiracies that rarely were exposed, they would be complete failures at their job. That isn’t to suggest most conspiracies represent hidden evil for most conspiracies are of no grand consequence, simply ordinary covert operations (heck, something as simple as a surprise birthday party is a conspiracy), and even those that are of greater importance probably are by and large well-intentioned according to the purposes and public mandate that officials involved believe themselves to be serving. The entire design of intelligence organizations is conspiracy, to conspire (i.e., covertly plan and enact activities, theoretically in service of national security and law enforcement). If the US government was as incompetent as conspiracy denialists believe, we would have lost World War II the Cold War. It seems too many people like to imagine absurd caricatures of conspiracies and conspiracy theorists.

That isn’t to deny there aren’t conspiracy mongers, even some that fit the caricatures, although I would re-emphasize the point that at least ome conspiracy mongers are likely disinformation agents, agent provocateurs, and controlled opposition. Consider the Breitbart News Network, the single largest and most influential conspiracy mongering operations in the country; it just so happens to have been heavily funded by and serving the interest of the Mercer family, one of the wealthiest and most powerful plutocratic families in the United States and the world. Certainly, the Mercer family pushing conspiracy theories is serving a self-interested political purpose. That is to say the conspiracy mongering obscures the real conspiracy of corporatism, the tight grip big biz has over big gov.

None of this is exactly a shocking revelation to anyone who has paid attention to what American society has become since the Gilded Age. We shouldn’t ignore the actual psychopaths, social dominators, and authoritarians involved. But more importantly, we shouldn’t forget that the potential for secrecy and silence is within us all. Even when people commit wrongdoing in collaboration with others (i.e., conspiracy), they rarely think of themselves as bad people, much less evil conspirators. What is disturbing about some conspiracies is how normal they are, most people simply going through the motions, going along to get along, giving into pressure and doing what is expected, and then of course rationalizing it all in their own mind. Conspiracy is one of the easiest things in the world. Breaking silence and revealing secrets is immensely more difficult. It feels bad to confront what is bad and it is even more challenging to simply acknowledge that there is something that needs to be confronted, especially when the response you will get is to be treated as a troublemaker or even a threat, possibly with harsh consequences following such as ostracism, career destruction, and/or imprisonment.

Conspiracies, once set into motion, can be maintained with little effort for all that is required is to do nothing or to do what one has always done, just keep your head down. And once you have been made into a collaborator or made to perceive yourself that way, immense guilt, shame, and fear will powerfully keep most people in line. Besides, most conspiracies operate by few people knowing all that is involved or to what end, making it all the easier to rationalize one’s actions.

* * *

Riot and Remembrance:
The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy
by James S. Hirsch
pp. 168-171

THE RIOT disappeared from sight. There were no memorials to honor the dead, no public ceremonies to observe an anniversary or express regret. Tulsans, black and white, made no public acknowledgment of the riot. Greenwood’s damaged buildings were evidence of the assault, but in time they too were toppled or rebuilt The riot was not mentioned in Oklahoma’s history books from the 1920s and 1930s, including Oklahoma: A History of the State and Its People, The Story of Oklahoma, Readings in Oklahoma History, Oklahoma: Its Origins and Development, Our Oklahoma, and Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State. Angie Debo was a fearless Oklahoma historian— she was known as a “warrior scholar”— who chronicled how federal government agencies and business interests swindled land from the Indians. In 1943 she published Tulsa: From Creek Town to Oil Capital, but even this popular history made only brief and superficial reference to the riot. The Chronicles of Oklahoma, a quarterly journal on state history published by the Oklahoma Historical Society, has never rim a story on the riot It began publication in 1921.

Efforts to cover up the riot were rare but unmistakable. The most egregious example was the Tribune’s decision to excise from its bound volumes the front-page story of May 31, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator.” Equally irresponsible was the shredding of that day’s editorial page. Years later, scholars discovered that police and state militia documents associated with the riot were also missing.

These efforts to suppress information, however, do not account for the lack of serious scrutiny given the riot. Any scholar, journalist, or interested citizen could piece together the incident through court records, newspaper articles, photographs, and interviews. But such an investigation rarely happened. For most white Tulsans, the disaster was as isolated as Greenwood itself. One of America’s most distinguished historians, Daniel J. Boorstin, grew up in Tulsa and was six years old at the time of the riot. He graduated from Central High School and devoted his professional life to studying history, writing some twenty books and winning a Pulitzer Prize for The Discoverers, about man’s quest to know the world. But Boorstin never wrote about what may have been the greatest race riot in American history, even though his own father might have been a rich source of information. In 1921 Sam Boorstin was the lawyer for the Tulsa Tribune. In an essay about the optimistic ethos of Tulsa in Cleopatra’s Nose (1994), Daniel Boorstin mentioned the city’s “dark shadows— such as the relentless segregation, the brutal race riots of the 1920s, and the Ku Klux Klan. But these were not visible or prominent in my life.” *

The white Tulsans’ response to the riot has been called “a conspiracy of silence” or “a culture of silence.” The subject was certainly ignored in schools, newspapers, and churches. During the middle 1930s, the Tribune ran a daily feature on its editorial page describing what had happened in Tulsa on that date fifteen years earlier; but on the fifteenth anniversary of the riot, the paper ran a series of frivolous items. “Central high school’s crowning social event of the term just closed was the senior prom in the gymnasium with about 200 guests in attendance,” the Tribune dutifully reported. “The grand march was led by Miss Sara Little and Seth Hughes.”

Many whites viewed the riot as one of those inexplicable events, an act of nature. A brief article in the Tulsa World on November 7, 1949, proclaimed the incident as the “top horror of city history . .  . Mass murder of whites and Negroes began on June 1. No one knew then or remembers now how the shooting began.”

But the incident survived as a kind of underground phenomenon, a memory quietly passed along and enhanced by the city’s pioneers at picnics, church suppers, and other gatherings. In time, the riot acquired new shades of meaning: it was viewed as a healing event in the city’s history, a catalyst for progress between the races, and an opportunity for magnanimous outreach.

This revisionism was captured in Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State, written for the Federal Writers’ Project around 1940. (Its reports became the American Guide travel series.) The report said that vigilantes invaded Greenwood and laid it waste by fire, but after two days of martial law, “The whites organized a systematic rehabilitation program for the devastated Negro section and gave generous aid to the Negroes left homeless by the fires. Nationwide publicity of the most lurid sort naturally followed the tragedy, and Tulsa’s whites and Negroes joined in an effort to live down the incident by working diligently— and on the whole successfully— for a better mutual understanding.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Whites not only avoided rehabilitation but were also engaged in systematic discrimination in the 1930s (when the Guide was researched). Most southern and southwestern cities routinely assigned public service jobs to African Americans, but not Tulsa. Eight black policemen patrolled Greenwood, but the city otherwise did not have a single black employee. Tulsa and its private utility companies hired only whites as meter readers in black neighborhoods. Tulsa was also one of the few cities to have only white carriers deliver mail in the black community. The city not only segregated its schools but used different-colored checks to pay white and black teachers. In the federal building, the U.S. government had 425 employees, only 8 of whom were black: 4 men swept the floors during the day, and 4 women scrubbed them at night The Mid-Continent Petroleum Corporation operated the world’s largest inland refinery in Tulsa, employing more than 3,000 people. It had no Negro employees. There were also no Negro Girl Scouts. A director for the organization explained, “If the Negro girls wore Scout uniforms, the white girls would take theirs off.”

Sundown Towns:
A Hidden Dimension Of American Racism

by James W. Loewen
pp. 210-213

Academic historians have long put down what they call “local history,” deploring its shallow boosterism. But silence about sundown towns is hardly confined to local historians; professional historians and social scientists have also failed to notice them. Most Americans—historians and social scientists included—like to dwell on good things. Speaking to a conference of social studies teachers in Indiana, Tim Long, an Indiana teacher, noted how this characteristic can mislead: Today if you ask Hoosiers, “How many of you know of an Underground Railroad site in Indiana?” everyone raises their hands. “How many of you know of a Ku Klux Klan member in Indiana?” Few raise their hands. Yet Indiana had a million KKK members and few abolitionists. The same holds for sundown towns: Indiana had many more sundown towns after 1890 than it had towns that helped escaping slaves before 1860. Furthermore, Indiana’s sundown towns kept out African Americans throughout most of the twentieth century, some of them to this day, while its towns that aided slaves did so for about ten years a century and a half ago. Nevertheless, historians, popular writers, and local historical societies in Indiana have spent far more time researching and writing about Underground Railroad sites than sundown towns. The Underground Railroad shows us at our best. Sundown towns show us at our worst.37 Authors have written entire books on sundown towns without ever mentioning their racial policies.38 I am reminded of the Hindi scene of the elephant in the living room: everyone in the room is too polite to mention the elephant, but nevertheless, it dominates the living room. Some city planners seem particularly oblivious to race. […]

Two anthropologists, Carl Withers and Art Gallaher, each wrote an entire book on Wheatland, Missouri, a sundown town in a sundown county. Gallaher never mentioned race, and Withers’s entire treatment is one sentence in a footnote, “However, no Negroes live now in the county.” Penologist James Jacobs wrote “The Politics of Corrections” about the correctional center in Vienna, Illinois, but even though its subitle focused upon “Town/Prison Relations,” he never mentioned that Vienna was a sundown town, while most of the prisoners were black and Latino. This pattern of evasion continues: most entries on sundown suburbs in the Encyclopedia of Chicago, for instance, published in 2004, do not mention their striking racial composition, let alone explain how it was achieved. […]

Journalists, too, have dropped the ball. We have seen how business interests sometimes stop local newspapers from saying anything bad about a town. Propensities within journalism also minimize coverage of racial exclusion. Occasionally a race riot or a heinous crime relates to sundown towns and has caused the topic to become newsworthy. […]

Reporters for the New Yorker and People covered the 2002 arrest of the man who killed African American Carol Jenkins for being in Martinsville, Indiana, after dark, but the result was to demonize Martinsville as distinctive. As a result, I could not get an official of the Indiana Historical Bureau to address how general sundown towns might be in Indiana; instead, she repeated, “Martinsville is an entity unto itself—a real redneck town.” But Martinsville is not unusual. For the most part, precisely what is so alarming about sundown towns—their astonishing prevalence across the country—is what has made them not newsworthy, except on special occasions. Murders sell newspapers. Chronic social pathology does not.42

Journalism has been called the “first draft of history,” and the lack of coverage of sundown towns in the press, along with the reluctance of local historians to write anything revealing about their towns, has made it easy for professional historians and social scientists to overlook racial exclusion when they write about sundown communities. Most white writers of fiction similarly leave out race. In White Diaspora, Catherine Jurca notes that suburban novelists find the racial composition of their communities “so unremarkable” that they never think about it.43

So far as I can tell, only a handful of books on individual sundown towns has ever seen print, and this is the first general treatment of the topic.44 That is an astounding statement, given the number of sundown towns across the United States and across the decades. Social scientists and historians may also have failed to write about sundown towns because they have trouble thinking to include those who aren’t there. “People find it very difficult to learn that the absence of a feature is informative,” note psychologists Frank Kardes and David Sanbonmatsu. Writers who don’t notice the absence of people of color see nothing to explain and pay the topic no attention at all. Where does the subject even fit? Is this book African American history? Assuredly not—most of the towns it describes have not had even one African American resident for decades. It is white history . . . but “white history” is not a subject heading in college course lists, the Library of Congress catalog, or most people’s minds. Perhaps the new but growing field of “whiteness studies” will provide a home for sundown town research.45

I don’t mean to excuse these omissions. The absence of prior work on sundown towns is troubling. Omitted events usually signify hidden fault lines in our culture. If a given community has not admitted on its landscape to having been a sundown town in the past, that may be partly because it has not yet developed good race relations in the present. It follows that America may not have admitted to having sundown towns in its history books because it has not yet developed good race relations as a society. Optimistically, ending this cover-up now may be both symptom and cause of better race relations.

p. 424

Once we know what happened, we can start to reconcile. Publicizing a town’s racist actions can bring shame upon the community, but recalling and admitting them is the first step in redressing them. In every sundown town live potential allies—people who care about justice and welcome the truth. As a white man said in Corbin, Kentucky, on camera in 1990, “Forgetting just continues the wrong.” “Recovering sundown towns” (or wider metropolitan areas or states) might set up truth and reconciliation commissions modeled after South Africa’s to reveal the important historical facts that underlie their continuing whiteness, reconcile with African Americans in nearby communities, and thus set in motion a new more welcoming atmosphere. 8

The next step after learning and publicizing the truth is an apology, preferably by an official of the sundown town itself. In 2003, Bob Reynolds, mayor of Harrison, Arkansas, which has been all-white ever since it drove out its African Americans in race riots in 1905 and 1909, met with other community leaders to draw up a collective statement addressing the problem. It says in part, “The perception that hangs over our city is the result of two factors: one, unique evils resulting from past events, and two, the silence of the general population toward those events of 1905 and 1909.” The group, “United Christian Leaders,” is trying to change Harrison, and it knows that truth is the starting place. “98 years is long enough to be silent,” said Wayne Kelly, one of the group’s members. George Holcomb, a retiree who is also a reporter for the Harrison Daily Times, supports a grand jury investigation into the race riots: “Get the records, study them, give the people an account of what happened. Who lost property, what they owned, who had it stolen from them and who ended up with it.”

A Language Older Than Words
by Derrick Jensen
p. 4

We don’t stop these atrocities, because we don’t talk about them. We don’t talk about them, because we don’t think about them. We don’t think about them, because they’re too horrific to comprehend. As trauma expert Judith Herman writes, “The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable.”

pp. 262-263

I’m not saying that Dave’s condition as a wage slave is the same as the condition of a woman about to be shot by a Nazi police officer. Nor am I saying that to grow up in a violent household is the same as to be murdered and mutilated by a United States Cavalry trooper. Nor am I saying that the Holocaust is the same as the destruction of indigenous peoples, nor am I saying that clearcuts are the same as rape. To make any of these claims would be absurd. Underlying the different forms of coercion is a unifying factor: Silence. The necessity of silencing victims before, during, and after exploitation or annihilation, and the necessity at these same times of silencing one’s own conscience and ones conscious awareness of relationship is undeniable. These radically different atrocities share mechanisms of silencing;

pp. 346-348

If we have become so inured to the coercion that engulfs, forms, and deforms us that we no longer perceive it for the aberration it is, how much more is this true for our ignorance of the trauma that characterizes our way of life? Salmon are going extinct? Pass the toast, man, I’m hungry. A quarter of a million dead in Iraq? Damnit, I’m gonna be late for work. If coercion is our habitat, then trauma is the food we daily take into our bodies.

I spoke with Dr. Judith Herman, one of the world’s experts on the effects of psychological trauma. I asked her about the relationship between atrocity and silence.

She said, “Atrocities are actions so horrifying they go beyond words. For people who witness or experience atrocities, there is a kind of silencing that comes from not knowing how to put these experiences into speech. At the same time, atrocities are the crimes perpetrators most want to hide. This creates a powerful convergence of interest: no one wants to speak about them. No one wants to remember them. Everyone wants to pretend they didn’t happen.”

I asked her about a line she once wrote: “In order to escape accountability the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting.”

“This is something with which we are all familiar. It seems that the more extreme the crimes, the more determined the efforts to deny the crimes happened. So we have, for example, almost a hundred years after the fact, an active and apparently state-sponsored effort on the part of the Turkish government to deny there was ever an Armenian genocide. We still have a whole industry of Holocaust denial. I just came back from Bosnia where, because there hasn’t been an effective medium for truth-telling and for establishing a record of what happened, you have the nationalist governmental entities continuing to insist that ethnic cleansing didn’t happen, that the various war crimes and atrocities committed in that war simply didn’t occur.”

“How does this happen?”

“On the most blatant level, it’s a matter of denying the crimes took place. Whether it’s genocide, military aggression, rape, wife beating, or child abuse, the same dynamic plays itself out, beginning with an indignant, almost rageful denial, and the suggestion that the person bringing forward the information— whether it’s the victim or another informant— is lying, crazy, malicious, or has been put up to it by someone else. Then of course there are a number of fallback positions to which perpetrators can retreat if the evidence is so overwhelming and irrefutable it cannot be ignored, or rather, suppressed. This, too, is something we re familiar with: the whole raft of predictable rationalizations used to excuse everything from rape to genocide: the victim exaggerates; the victim enjoyed it; the victim provoked or otherwise brought it on herself; the victim wasn’t really harmed; and even if some slight damage has been done, it’s now time to forget the past and get on with our lives: in the interests of preserving peace— or in the case of domestic violence, preserving family harmony— we need to draw a veil over these matters. The incidents should never be discussed, and preferably should be forgotten altogether.”

The Elephant in the Room:
Silence and Denial in Everyday Life

by Eviatar Zerubavel
pp. 13-16

As one might expect, what we ignore or avoid socially is often also ignored or avoided academically, 40 and conspiracies of silence are therefore still a somewhat undertheorized as well as understudied phenomenon. Furthermore, they typically consist of nonoccurrences, which, by definition, are rather difficult to observe. After all, it is much easier to study what people do discuss than what they do not (not to mention the difficulty of telling the difference between simply not talking about something and specifically avoiding it). 41

Yet despite all these difficulties, there have been a number of attempts to study conspiracies of silence. To date, those studies have, without exception, been focally confined to the way we collectively avoid specific topics such as race, homosexuality, the threat of nuclear annihilation, or the Holocaust. But no attempt has yet been made to transcend their specificity in an effort to examine such conspiracies as a general phenomenon. 42 Unfortunately, there is a lack of dialogue between those who study family secrets and those who study state secrets, and feminist writings on silence are virtually oblivious to its nongendered aspects. That naturally prevents us from noticing the strikingly similar manner in which couples, organizations, and even entire nations collectively deny the presence of “elephants” in their midst. Identifying these similarities, however, requires that we ignore the specific contents of conspiracies of silence and focus instead on their formal properties.

The formal features of such conspiracies are revealed when we examine the dynamics of denial at the level of families that ignore a member’s drinking problem as well as of nations that refuse to acknowledge the glaring incompetence of their leaders. […]

“The best way to disrupt moral behavior,” notes political theorist C. Fred Alford, “is not to discuss it and not to discuss not discussing it.” “Don’t talk about ethical issues,” he facetiously proposes, “and don’t talk about our not talking about ethical issues.” 45 As moral beings we cannot keep on non-discussing “undiscussables.” Breaking this insidious cycle of denial calls for an open discussion of the very phenomenon of undiscussability.

pp. 26-27

Furthermore, there are certain things that are never supposed to be discussed, or sometimes even mentioned, at all.

Consider here also the strong taboo, so memorably depicted in films like Prince of the City, Mississippi Burning, In the Heat of the Night, A Few Good Men, Bad Day at Black Rock, or Serpico, against washing one’s community’s “dirty laundry” in public. Particularly noteworthy in this regard are informal codes of silence such as the omerta, the traditional Sicilian code of honor that prohibits Mafia members from “ratting” on fellow members, or the infamous “blue wall of silence” that, ironically enough, similarly prevents police officers from reporting corrupt fellow officers, not to mention the actual secrecy oaths people must take in order to become members of secret societies or underground movements. Equally prohibitive are the “cultures of silence” that prevent oil workers from reporting oil spills and fraternity members from testifying against fellow brothers facing rape charges, and that have led senior tobacco company executives to suppress the findings of studies showing the incontrovertible health risks involved in smoking, and prevented the typically sensationalist, gossipy British and American press from publicizing the imminent abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936, or the sexual indiscretions of President John F. Kennedy. 29

A most effective way to make sure that people would actually stay away from conversational “no-go zones” 30 is to keep the tabooed object nameless, as when Catholic preachers, for example, carefully avoid mentioning sodomy (the “nameless sin”) by name. 31 It is as if refraining from talking about something will ultimately make it virtually unthinkable, as in the famous dystopian world of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where it was practically impossible “to follow a heretical thought further than the perception that it was heretical; beyond that point the necessary words were nonexistent.”

pp. 47-50

It only takes one person to produce speech, but it requires the cooperation of all to produce silence. —Robert E. Pittenger et al.,

The First Five Minutes

The Double Wall of Silence As we approach denial from a sociological rather than a more traditional psychological perspective, we soon realize that it usually involves more than just one person and that we are actually dealing with “co-denial,” a social phenomenon involving more than just individuals. 1 In order to study conspiracies of silence we must first recognize, therefore, that, whether it is only a couple of friends or a large organization, they always involve an entire social system.

Co-denial presupposes mutual avoidance. Only when the proverbial elephant in the room is jointly avoided by everyone around it, indeed, are we actually dealing with a “conspiracy” of silence.

As the foremost expression of co-denial, silence is a collective endeavor, and it involves a collaborative effort on the parts of both the potential generator and recipient of a given piece of information to stay away from it. “Unlike the activity of speech, which does not require more than a single actor, silence demands collaboration.” 2 A conspiracy of silence presupposes discretion on the part of the non-producer of the information as well as inattention on the part of its non-consumers. It is precisely the collaborative efforts of those who avoid mentioning the elephant in the room and those who correspondingly refrain from asking about it that make it a conspiracy. […]

The “equal protection” provided to those who show no evil as well as to those who see no evil is the result of the symmetrical nature of the relations between the opposing social forces underlying conspiracies of silence. Such symmetry is evident even in highly asymmetrical relations, as so perfectly exemplified by the reluctance of both children and parents to discuss sexual matters with one another, the former feeling uncomfortable asking (and later telling) and the latter feeling equally uncomfortable telling (and later asking). Consider also the remarkable symmetry between someone’s wish to keep some atrocity secret and another’s urge to deny its reality even to oneself, as exemplified by the symbiotic relations between the politically incurious Alicia and her ever-evasive husband Roberto in the film The Official Story. Or note the chillingly symmetrical dynamics of silence between the fearsome perpetrators and the fearful witnesses of these atrocities, as exemplified by the Nazis’ efforts to hide the horrors of their concentration camps from nearby residents who in turn willingly turned a blind eye to their existence. 7

By collaboratively seeing and showing, or hearing and speaking, no evil we thus construct a “double wall” of silence, originally theorized by psychologist Dan Bar-On in the context of the relations between former Nazi perpetrators and their children yet, ironically, equally central to the dynamics between their victims and their children. After all, the heavy silence hanging over many Holocaust survivors’ homes is a product of “the interweaving of two kinds of conflicted energy: on the part of the survivor, [the] suppression of telling; on the part of the descendant, [the] fear of finding out.” (As one child of survivors recalls, talking about the Holocaust “was never overtly forbidden. By no means was I or my brother ever shushed when we attempted to steer the conversation [there]. We simply never made such attempts.”) That explains how someone may indeed remain forever unclear as to who actually prevented her mother from telling her how her grandmother was killed: “I don’t know whether the stopping of the conversation was my own doing or hers.” It was most likely both.

pp. 54-57

As we might expect, the likelihood of participating in a conspiracy of silence is greatly affected by one’s proximity to the proverbial elephant. The closer one gets to it, the more pressure one feels to deny its presence. Indeed, it is the people standing in the street and watching the royal procession rather than those who are actually part of it who are the first ones to break through the wall of denial and publicly acknowledge that the emperor has in fact no clothes. 18

Just as significant is the effect of social proximity among those standing around the elephant. After all, the socially “closer” we are, the more we tend to trust, and therefore the less likely we are to refrain from talking more openly with, one another. Formal relations and the social environments that foster them (such as bureaucracy), on the other hand, are more likely to discourage openness and thereby promote silence.

Equally significant is the political “distance” between us. We generally tend to trust our equals more than our superiors. Social systems with particularly hierarchical structures and thus more pronounced power differences therefore produce greater reluctance toward openness and candor.

Yet the one structural factor that most dramatically affects the likelihood of participating in conspiracies of silence is the actual number of conspirators involved. In marked contrast to ordinary secrets, the value of which is a direct function of their exclusivity (that is, of the paucity of people who share them), 19 open secrets actually become more tightly guarded as more, rather than fewer, people are “in the know.” Indeed, the larger the number of participants in the conspiracy, the “heavier” and more “resounding” the silence. Prohibiting strictly one-on-one encounters such as Winston and Julia’s illicit rendezvous in Nineteen Eighty-Four may thus be the most effective way for a dystopian police state to ensure that certain things are never openly discussed.

As famously demonstrated by one of the founding fathers of modern sociology, Georg Simmel, one only needs to compare social interactions among three as opposed to two persons to appreciate the extent to which the dynamics of social interactions are affected by the number of participants involved in them. And indeed, unlike two-person conspiracies of silence, even ones involving only three conspirators already presuppose the potential presence of a new key player in the social organization of denial, namely the silent bystander. […]

Silent bystanders act as enablers because watching others ignore something encourages one to deny its presence. As evident from studies that show how social pressure affects our perception, it is psychologically much more difficult to trust one’s senses and remain convinced that what one sees or hears is actually there when no one else around one seems to notice it. The discrepancy between others’ apparent inability to notice it and one’s own sensory experience creates a sense of ambiguity that further increases the likelihood that one would ultimately succumb to the social pressure and opt for denial. 22

Such pressure is further compounded as the number of silent bystanders increases. […] Moreover, the actual experience of watching several other people ignore the elephant together is significantly different from watching each of them ignore it by himself, because it involves the added impact of observing each of them watch the others ignore it as well! Instead of several isolated individuals in denial, one is thus surrounded by a group of people who are obviously all participating in one and the same conspiracy. Furthermore, moving from two- to three-person, let alone wider, conspiracies of silence involves a significant shift from a strictly interpersonal kind of social pressure to the collective kind we call group pressure, whereby breaking the silence actually violates not only some individuals’ personal sense of comfort, but a collectively sacred social taboo, thereby evoking a heightened sense of fear.

pp. 80-82

Inherently delusional, denial inevitably distorts one’s sense of reality, a problem further exacerbated when others collude in it through their silence. After all, it is hard to remain convinced that one is actually seeing and not just imagining the elephant in the room when no one else seems to acknowledge its presence. […] Lacking a firm basis for authenticating one’s perceptual experience, one may thus come to distrust one’s own senses and, as so chillingly portrayed in the film Gaslight, slowly lose one’s grip on reality.

The fact that no one else around us acknowledges the presence of “elephants” also tends to make them seem more frightening. Indeed, silence is not just a product, but also a major source, of fear (which also explains why it impedes the recovery of persons who have been traumatized). 7 To overcome fear we therefore often need to discuss the undiscussables that help produce it in the first place. 8

As so poignantly portrayed in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” conspiracies of silence always involve some dissonance between what one inwardly experiences and what one outwardly expresses: “‘ What!’ thought the emperor. ‘I can’t see a thing!’ [But] aloud he said, ‘It is very lovely’ … All the councilors, ministers, and men of great importance … saw no more than the emperor had seen [but] they said the same thing that he had said … ‘It is magnificent! Beautiful! Excellent!’ All of their mouths agreed, though none of their eyes had seen anything.” 9 As one can tell from these bitingly satirical descriptions, such dissonance involves the kind of duplicity associated by Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four with “doublethink”: “His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions … knowing them to be contradictory.” 10 Such duplicity presupposes a certain amount of cynicism. As a former Nazi doctor explains the inherently perverse logic of doublethink, “I couldn’t ask [Dr.] Klein ‘Don’t send this man to the gas chamber,’ because I didn’t know that he went to the gas chamber. You see, that was a secret. Everybody [knew] the secret, but it was a secret.” It also requires, however, a certain denial of one’s feelings. Although those Nazi doctors certainly knew that Jews “were not being resettled but killed, and that the ‘Final Solution’ meant killing all of them,” the fact that they could use such inherently anesthetic euphemistic expressions nevertheless meant that “killing … need[ ed] not be experienced … as killing,” and the more they used such language, the deeper they entered the “realm [of] nonfeeling,” increasingly becoming emotionally numb. 11

Needless to say, such denial of one’s feelings is psychologically exhausting. “Don’t think about it,” Harrison tells herself as she tries to ignore her feelings about her incestuous relationship with her father; yet denying those feelings, she slowly comes to realize, “seems to require an enormous effort.” 12

Conspiracies of silence may also trigger feelings of loneliness. The discrepancy between what one actually notices and what others around one acknowledge noticing undermines the quest for intersubjectivity, the very essence of sociality, 13 and often generates a deep sense of isolation. Whereas open communication brings us closer, silence makes us feel more distant from one another. “The word, even the most contradictious word,” notes Thomas Mann, “preserves contact —it is silence which isolates.”

Conspiracy Theory And Fact

“I believe in facts about conspiracies. . . Any time people with power plan in secret, they are conducting a conspiracy. So there are conspiracies everywhere. There are also crazed conspiracy theories. It’s important not to confuse these two. Generally, when there’s enough facts about a conspiracy we simply call this news. . . I’m constantly annoyed that people are distracted by false conspiracies such as 9/11, when all around we provide evidence of real conspiracies, for war or mass financial fraud.”
~ Julian Assange

There is this idea about conspiracy theories. It’s that conspiracies aren’t possible or so rare as to be irrelevant. If conspiracies happened, so the argument goes, there would always be someone who would speak out and so we’d know about them.

It is such a naive view. Despite this mainstream belief, conspiracies happen all the time. And people do speak out about them quite often, whether or not the MSM pays it much attention.

We have voluminous official documentation and other evidence about conspiracies that weren’t known while they were happening, often only becoming verified decades later. Even when evidence shows the official story doesn’t make sense, any alternative explanation is a conspiracy theory by default, until some damning evidence finally comes forth. But even deathbed confessions by insiders (spymasters, covert operation agents, etc) are regularly dismissed for the type of people who get involved in conspiracies are those with reputations of secrecy and deceit.

Probably most of what militaries, alphabet soup agencies, organized crime, corporations, etc does in secret never comes to light. Conspiracies, if successful, are designed to be hard to prove with few paper trails and a surfeit of plausible deniability.

I’m not sure why anyone should find this surprising. It’s not hard to keep a secret, when all involved have a vested interest to keep it secret or who, like soldiers, are trained to be subservient by maintaining silence. Conspirators, in particular, are legally complicit and so have little motive to admit anything. If all else fails, there are endless means to keep people silent, from blackmail to assassinating them (when one pays attention, one finds an amazingly improbable number of alleged conspirators, subpoenaed witnesses, and investigators who end up dying by mysterious accidents and unforeseen suicides).

Take something like the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident—if not a proven false flag operation, then at least a conspiracy to hide the truth. Far from being a minor incident, it justified the US entering into the Vietnam War. It just so happens that those in power had been in the process of looking for an excuse to officially declare war, although illegal covert military operations had been going on for a while. Anyway, it turns out that parts of the official account never happened or not the way it was officially stated, but evidence didn’t finally come out in mainstream reporting until after the war was already over an government documents were only declassified in 2005.

That was decades later! And that was a situation with multiple naval ships and naval crews from multiple countries, and so involved numerous potential eye witnesses. Declassified records show that even US Senators at the time knew the official story was false. Certainly, officials in the other involved governments also had information about what actually happened and didn’t happen. Few conspiracies have ever involved so many.

The Gulf of Tonkin is not much different than the WMDs that got us into the Iraq War. Even the CIA didn’t believe Iraq had WMDs (not unlike when the CIA knew that the Soviet Union posed no threat when politicians were pushing to start the Cold War and not unlike when the CIA knew John F. Kennedy was lying during his presidential campaign about the weaponry the Soviet Union possessed, both incidents of CIA collusion by inaction not known until long after the historical era had passed). Besides, those in the Bush administration knew they were misleading the public in connecting Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 terrorists. It was a conspiracy and one that operated right out in the open, for those who had eyes to see. All it took was a servile mainstream media and a submissive public. Too many people don’t want to know the truth, even when the truth is obvious. That is what can make conspiracies so easy to commit. Most people want to believe whatever they’re told, especially when the person telling it to them is an authority figure.

It’s the same reason the Vatican was able to hush up the sex abuse for decades, as most people simply don’t want to talk about it, what is called a conspiracy of silence. Netflix’s documentary “The Keepers” focuses on a Catholic school where this happened. It goes into great detail about how an offender could sexually abuse so many children while so many people around him remained oblivious or else refused to see. Even most of the victims never talked about it and the few that did were ignored. The one person, a nun, who seriously challenged the conspiracy of silence apparently was murdered. And more damning, there is strong evidence the police were involved in shutting down investigations, because the priest who was molesting children had family ties.

The documentary finally managed to put the pieces together almost a half century later. That is praise for this one tenacious investigator, but it is hardly evidence of a fully functioning free press that it took so long for the depravity of it to be revealed. So, don’t feed me any bullshit about there being no way conspiracies can be kept secret.

Consider another example from the private sector. Recent investigative reporting from an alternative media organization (Inside Climate News) found that Exxon and other major oil/gas corporations knew about man-made climate change since the 1970s.

Numerous people in these corporations, from scientists to upper management, were aware of this knowledge. There were even internal documents showing this knowledge. This was and is a problem that not only has threatened the earth’s biosphere and global population but has also been a national threat to powerful countries like the US. Yet a successful campaign of lies, obfuscation, and disinformation (involving not just PR but also powerful political lobbyist organizations, think tanks, and front groups) lasted for decades apparently without any of the conspirators coming forward to speak out about the conspiracy or, if they did, it never received much MSM news coverage.

According to some, conspiracies like this are highly implausible. Yet these particular implausible conspiracies have been proven true. Conspiracy theorists jumped on the Tonkin story early on as they noticed the unexplained discrepancies. And for a long time many have written about the tactics of oil/gas corporations. But until documents are released or discovered conspiracy theories can be almost impossible to prove as conspiracy facts. The problem is that documents usually only come out after massive private investigation has already indicated conspiracy and long after any involved could be held accountable. Overwhelming proof can take a generation or generations to accumulate. Even so, most of what governments and corporations do in secret is never disclosed by those responsible, as the wealthy and powerful have little incentive do so. The government alone has mountains of top secret documents, only a fraction of which have ever been made public by way of leaks or freedom of information requests.

Yet conspiracies sometimes are open secrets. Governments and corporations do all kinds of things that are proven or strongly suspected, but it isn’t unusual for the corporate media to not report much on it or sometimes even to smear those who do speak out. There is even a history of paid agents in US media promoting official propaganda/spin (e.g., Operation Mockingbird), and we have no rational reason to assume that such illegal operations don’t still happen (similarly, even though FBI COINTELPRO and CIA Operation CHAOS was declared illegal, the tactics used have been brought back with the War on Terror). Sure, in the alternative media, known conspiracies are more well reported. And in other countries, actions and manipulations by powerful foreign interests are often well understood.

Still, the average person in a country like the US remains uninformed and disinformed. Chomsky has explained how this is possible, through the propaganda model of news media—such as superficial, sound bite, spectacle-and-celebrity-obsessed ‘news’ reporting largely replacing long form journalism and investigative journalism.

It isn’t always hard for the average person to find info, if they really want to find it, although sometimes it can be quite difficult—Stephanie Savell, writing about the War on Terror, stated that, “Of course, it’s hardly surprising these days that our government is far from transparent about so many things, but doing original research on the war on terror has brought this into stark relief for me. I was stunned at how difficult it can be to find the most basic information, scattered at so many different websites, often hidden, sometimes impossible to locate.” Even when info is available, few know there is anything to be found and so never look for it, assuming they would want to know which is a big assumption.

Conspiracies proliferate, at times remaining hidden in plain sight, because of the public’s apathy and indifference—if one was feeling uncharitable, it could be described as willful ignorance; not knowing and not wanting to know. People fear acknowledging conspiracies exist more than they fear conspiracies themselves. I find that strange. But I sort of understand the fear. Most people would rather not think that such things go on in the world. To admit to any of this is to no longer be able to deny how bad it is. It’s the same reason it’s taken so long for so many to take climate change seriously. It’s depressing. Yet, by doing nothing, we allow it all to get worse.

Some conspiracies get publicly revealed and widely reported on sooner than others. To mention a few examples, there is Watergate and the Iran-Contra Scandal or, more recently and at a local level, the Michigan officials who altered data to hide the lead toxicity in the water supply. But obviously those in power do such things with the expectation of getting away with them and one might presume based on the experience of more often than not having gotten away with similar conspiracies in the past. From what little we’ve discovered about past actions, those in power have been able to get away with conspiracies that are illegal and immoral to an extreme degree and they do so on a regular basis, stolen elections being minor in comparison.

What I find interesting is how much energy those in the mainstream go to make straw man arguments or else superficial reporting, refusing to even acknowledge all the evidence and plausible explanations. Sure, there are crazy conspiracy theorists, even as there are many proven conspiracies. So, why does the mainstream media rarely bring up the proven conspiracies when talking about conspiracy theories, instead obsessing over silly stories about Area 51, Jewish cabals, and such? Isn’t it newsworthy that conspiracy theorists surprisingly often turn out to be right?

Also, isn’t it interesting that the government itself promotes conspiracy theories as a form of distraction from inconvenient truths? As Kathryn S. Olmsted explained in her scholarly study, “With cool calculation, (the government) has promoted conspiracy theories, sometimes demonstrably false ones, for their own purposes…it is the secret actions of the government that are the real enemies of democracy” (Real Enemies, p. 240).

We’d know a lot less about what goes on in the world without people willing to risk their reputations by investigating possible conspiracies. Along with whistleblowers, their lives can be destroyed by those in power. Seeking the truth used to be what respectable investigative journalists did before news media became a part of big biz entertainment media.

How can we hope to have a functioning democracy when we don’t have an informed public? We live a society that is corrupt to the core. Maybe more than an informed public, what we need at this point is a truth and reconciliation commission.

Culture of Paranoia, Culture of Trust

Paranoia is easy to wave away and laugh about. The craziest of conspiracy theories are known about by almost any American. It is redundant, in respectable company, to even say a conspiracy theory is crazy. But this condescension toward the paranoid misses the fundamental relevance of paranoia.

This country is a paranoid society, I would argue. It goes beyond the radical conspiracists and affects us all. There could be many reasons for this state of affairs. The most obvious one is that we live in a large and diverse country. Few other countries come close to the distance found here between geographic regions and ethnic cultures. Furthermore, the distance between the powerful and powerless is at least as vast and growing vaster. In the space between these distances, there is much room for fantasizing and projection, for fear and mistrust.

I find myself more sympathetic and understanding of paranoia than many people, partly because I have my own paranoid leanings. I came of age reading Robert Anton Wilson and listening to Art Bell on Coast to Coast AM. I tend toward considering all perspectives, even when they seem improbable, if only for amusement and the exercise of my imagination. This isn’t to say I will waste my time trying to make sense of incoherent ramblings or unsupported speculations. Nor does it mean I won’t judge harshly and call bullshit. I’ll look at someone’s evidence and claims, but I will do so critically with utmost intellectual standards.

I take paranoia seriously because it feels like an all too reasonable response to the world we live in. Particular paranoid responses often aren’t plausible or relevant. Sometimes they can lead to harmful beliefs and dangerous behaviors. Still, paranoia taken on its own terms is a useful and maybe a necessary attitude. It simply tells us that there is something that isn’t known and that such is a less-than-optimal situation. So, even when paranoia leads to an invalid conspiracy theory and/or problematic levels of mistrust, the impulse itself shouldn’t be denied or ignored.

Truth often hides in odd places, if we dare to look. But we can’t know what truth that might be until we look for it. When we notice paranoia, we should take very seriously what is provoking it.

There are plenty of issues an American should be paranoid about. Trust needs to be earned, most especially in a supposed democratic society. Yet particular individuals and groups in our society have proven to be questionable in their trustworthiness. We have endless examples of trust being abused and betrayed, often in major ways.

One of the greatest of injustices in this country, of course, is that of racism… or call it racialization, racial bias, institutional racism, racecraft, the New Jim Crow, whatever. Everyone acknowledges the dark past beginning with slavery, but political correctness has made it near impossible to speak openly and honestly about the continuing reality and the enduring repercussions.

From Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness The New Reality of Race in America by John L. Jackson:

“Most commentators don’t emphasize, however, that the stakes of political correctness are located in a slightly different place than our conversations on the matter imply. The culture of political correctness actually generates one of the essential foundations of contemporary racial distrust. Since most Americans aren’t as transparent as Archie Bunker (even when he’s trying to hide his ethnocentrism), PC policies actually lose their ability to cultivate the kinds of good-faith dialogues they are meant to foster. Instead, blacks are stuck in the structural position (vis-à-vis white interlocutors) of their ancestors’ slave masters: they see smiles on white faces and hear kind words spilling from white mouths without the least bit of certainty about whether those gestures are representative of the speakers’ hearts. “The American Negro problem,” wrote Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal in the 1940s, “is a problem in the heart of the American. It is there that the interracial tension has its focus. It is there that the decisive struggle goes on.” And it is there that the search for racial honesty and truth continues today. But not in the same ways that Myrdal emphasized.

“When individuals’ words and some of their actions can no longer be trusted, we look for other seemingly invisible and interior clues about people’s racial positions. We long to look past calculated performances and into the very hearts of men and women. Social analysts should take the features of this need, this search for de cardio racism, seriously—this racism attributed to the hearts of other-than-explicitly racist actors. De cardio racism is imagined to be a kind of hidden or cloaked racism, a racism of euphemism and innuendo, not heels-dug-in pronouncements of innate black inferiority.

“We’re living in a moment when what I’m calling de cardio racism has elbowed out room for itself at the head of America’s political table, right alongside still operative de jure and de facto forms (think of sentencing disparities for possession of crack versus powder cocaine as a contemporary version of the former and our seemingly effortless, self-perpetuating reproductions of residential and educational segregation along racial lines as a twenty-first-century instance of the latter).

“Given this newfangled reckoning of American racism’s potentially cloaked animosities, the white man’s newest burden is hardly lightened by political correctness—just as black people’s deepest racial suspicions are only bolstered by America’s current penchant for dressing up every ideological position (no matter how reactionary or elitist, partisan or self-interested) as simply another better version of egalitarianism.”
(pp. 77-80)

Without genuine public discourse, the silence belies something unspoken and unadmitted.

“As an anthropologist studying how black people talk about race, I’ve heard this silence described many times and in many ways, but one young security guard in Brook – lyn, New York, captured the thrust of the de cardio racism critique most succinctly: “They were sending dogs to maul black kids in the street forty years ago, and all of a sudden there are no racists in America at all.” De cardio racism asks, where did all of yesterday’s racial wolves go, and why do all these sheep seem to be standing around licking their chops?””
(pp. 88-89)

Racism hasn’t disappeared. It has simply mutated into some strange creature, a mind parasite that burrows deep (as the Toxoplasma lies hidden in the brain of rats telling them that they want to run fast in open spaces, that the smell of cat urine is actually a pleasant smell to be sought out). Hidden behind political correctness and post-racial colorblindness, the infestation of this soul-sickening mind-warping racial oppressiveness goes untreated.

“The point isn’t that race is less important now than it was before. It’s just more schizophrenic, more paradoxical. We continue to commit to its social significance on many levels, but we seem to disavow that commitment at one and the same time. Race is real, but it isn’t. It has value, but it doesn’t. It explains social difference, but it couldn’t possibly. This kind of racial doublethink drives us all crazy, makes us so suspicious of one another, and fans the flames of racial paranoia. Nothing is innocent, and one bumps into conspirators everywhere.”
(p. 11)

This isn’t to deny the progress that has been made, but it is to look deeper past the superficial narrative and into the even more intransigent problems.

“The demonization of public racism is clearly a social and moral victory, but it has come at a cost. Political correctness has proven tragically effective at hiding racism, not just healing it. In sacrificing noisy and potentially combative racial discussions for the politeness of political correctness, we face an even more pernicious racism, a racism that’s almost never explicitly declared, except among the closest of confidants. But as the “White Like Me” skit’s lampoon shows, people recognize the fact that racism might be even more effectual under the cover of color blindness and rhetorical silence.”
(p. 91)

The fact that political correctness has become the ultimate defense of racism is one of the saddest results of all. The words of political correctness are invoked like an invisibility spell. With this talismanic use of magical words, all the old racisms simply take new form and in some ways they are more powerful than before. Now they are presented, instead of as belief and bigotry, in the guise of neutral observation or even scientific reality.

We Americans live in a society, not just of vast geographic and cultural divides, but also of vast racial and class divides.

There is no other major developed country in the Western world with equivalent high of rates of economic inequality and no other country anywhere in the world with even close to our high rates of incarceration rates; other high rates of social problems could be added to these two egregious examples. The injustice of this American society is beyond comprehension. Those on the bottom or those threatened with ending up on the bottom have a lot to fear. If you are deemed useless or simply in the way in this society, you will be lucky to fall through the cracks rather than be ground beneath the wheel. And no one in the mainstream media will bother to report on your sad fate. You’ll just be another faceless number or maybe not even that.

It is hard to blame people, under these oppressive conditions, for lashing out at shadows.

“When you wire skepticism and paranoia directly to questions of racial discrimination and inequality (and in a context where economic inequality is rising just as social safety nets are deteriorating precipitously), you then have a perfect storm for severe responses to severe times.”
(p. 200)

The danger in our society isn’t in being paranoid but in not being paranoid enough, especially if you are part of the economic underclass or worse still the racial under-caste. But paranoia speaks of deeper undercurrents still. In a society of fear, the sickening taint of mistrust and doubt seeps into our very pores.

“De cardio racism can even be hidden from the very person who harbors it. They may not even admit racist feelings to themselves. If we were all self-aware and totally self-transparent, every psychotherapist in the country would be begging for bread.”
(p. 237)

Now there is paranoia for you. The monster lurks within the unsuspecting. Look in the mirror, if you dare, and see what may look back.

The more we deny something the more we fear being judged to be in denial. Still, it isn’t just that this judgment may come from others but that we too have suspicions about ours own potential guilt, a sense of past sins and ongoing complicities. Everyone understands that each of us harbors ugly thoughts, cruel grudges, repressed memories, and who knows what else. So much of civilized behavior is pretense, as much to convince ourselves as others. For certain, political correctness isn’t a recent invention. People have been speaking around uncomfortable truths and dangerous ideas for as long as humans could speak.

“The eighteenth-century French philosopher Voltaire once claimed that human beings really only speak to conceal what they truly feel, as much to miscommunicate as anything else. Humans are complicated and dissimulating creatures with the uncanny ability to misrepresent themselves and their deepest inner thoughts, to be purposefully economical with the truth. It could be as harmless as a “little white lie” about how good your child was in the school play or as catastrophic as a governmental cover-up of Watergate-like proportions. And there are few areas of public life where people put these gifts to work as often as they do in the context of discussions about race.”
(pp. 89-90)

It doesn’t even matter if we’d rather not admit to what underlies our own thoughts and motivations. The data points toward the inconvenient knowledge of our all too human tendencies. Research shows a million examples of hidden biases and prejudices, many of them racial.

“Although nobody went on CNN or Fox after the Hurricane Katrina disaster to proclaim that they would like to donate money to white victims instead of black ones, a Washington Post/Stanford University study found that white Americans were willing to provide more financial assistance to white victims than black ones, to the tune of about $1,000 extra a year. And the darker the victim, the less money she would have received, with lighter-skinned blacks benefiting from about $100 more per month than those who couldn’t pass the brown-paper-bag test (i.e., those not lighter than a brown shopping bag). Americans may hardly admit it in public, but they are clearly willing to put their money where their color biases are.”
(p. 88)

I have my doubts that we, as a society and as individuals, would know how to be non-racist, even if we tried. We are the products of our society and are no more capable of being colorblind than Pavlov’s dog could be mute to the sound of the bell.

“If psychologists have shown that people don’t even necessarily know what makes them happy, they may not be able to identify exactly what makes them potentially hateful or discriminatory either. If we can “stumble on happiness,” we might be able to stumble right into prejudice as well.

“The more blatantly racist a society has been in the past, the steeper its climb out of explicit racial discrimination and the harder it is for contemporary citizens to shake fears of de cardio racism. The farther we advance from overt racist doctrines and laws, the more material traces those past sins leave behind, which means all the more surfaces to which contemporary racially charged paranoia might stick.”
(p. 95)

Alleging that our dark nature is to be found in our genes or elsewhere instead of the unconscious hardly alleviates the paranoia. Ours is a society full of people claiming secret sins are hidden away within the hearts, minds and bodies of their neighbors, coworkers and fellow citizens. All white people have hidden racist beliefs and thoughts. All black people (along with other minorities) have hidden inferior genes and culture. And all of society has hidden structures of privilege and oppression, of class warfare and cabals of special interest groups. Endless seething nightmares of paranoia.

The real dark secret is the paranoia itself. We all go on acting normal as these dark visions play out in the background of our daily activities and interactions. It isn’t about proving one’s own preferred paranoia and disproving all others. The paranoia itself always speaks to our shared reality. The question is: What does it signify? What are we really afraid of?

“Rumors about race, racism, and racial distrust are not just fringe beliefs held by a few hard-line crackpots, not even the kinds just mentioned. They define the surreal core of all racial stereotypes and race-based social policy. Race, as a concept, is only useful as a way to ground conspiratorial claims—about research on inherent cognitive differences between social groups or about secret government surveillance technologies. Race is one of the shortcuts we use to convince ourselves that the social differences we see in the world merely reflect more latent and inflexible differences in genes or culture. And racial paranoia is the realization that we are all far too afraid and polite to deal with any of these assumptions head-on.”
(pp. 108-110)

Racial paranoia is just another expression of the return of the repressed. If we don’t deal with an issue at the conscious level, our unconsciousness will find a way to force the issue and command our attention. The central conflict of race itself demands resolution.

“In the early 1970s, psychologist Joseph White penned what is now one of the most classic formulations of black paranoia as a reasonable response to white racism. “Part of the objective condition of black people in this society is that of a paranoid condition,” he writes. “There is, and has been, unwarranted, systematic persecution and exploitation of black people as a group. A black person who is not suspicious of the white culture is pathologically denying certain objective and basic realities of the black experience.””
(p. 189)

There is more to racial paranoia than fear-fueled suspiciousness and dark visions. Very much real social conditions, historical and present, give plentiful evidence for mistrust. How could the average black person in this society not at the very least have some occasional misgivings? Heck, I’m a relatively privileged white male and even I have healthy skepticism about the good intentions of certain people who share this society with me. A bit of paranoia is a perfectly normal response when faced with such deeply entrenched power structures and power disparities.

“What detractors pooh-pooh as irrational racial paranoia might represent an appropriate, if incomplete, response to euphemized forms of racism today.”
(p. 214)

So, what kind of response is needed?

Simply trying to be more reasonable and rational won’t save us. We humans never lack for reasons, never lack for an ability to rationalize and explain away. The surface level of our thoughts and words is just so much distraction. If we seek justice and fairness, there is no way for us to keep an objective distance and keep ourselves clean from the inersubjective muck of it all. It is all too personal for all involved.

“As a society we should never pretend that we have successfully reasoned or legislated our way out of race’s suffocating grasp. Our historical investment in it is too dynamic and affective for that, too irrational and deep-seated. We are being naive if we think that we can sit down and intellectualize ourselves out of its sticky clutches, if we imagine that ending explicit commitments to blatant types of racial discrimination must mean that we are done with racism’s awful legacy for good. It is a trap that scholars fall into as well, assuming that all they have to do is objectively “deconstruct” race, prove it isn’t real in the biological ways that we once thought, and then imagine that by doing so they have somehow inoculated us all against its most hazardous features, dulled its sharpest talons. That isn’t nearly true.”

“We want to believe something very similar about racism and accusations of racism. If we can prove that a particular allegation of racism is unfounded or untrue, we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief and try to move on. That is part of racism’s power. It tricks us into thinking that we can wish it away with a string of logical premises and conclusions, with a singular decree of guilt or innocence. We fantasize about isolating this thing and determining its measurable impact once and for all, especially now that blatant forms of racism have been so thoroughly demonized in mainstream society.”
(pp. 84-85)

Yeah, I’ve lately read a number of books whose authors could be accused of falling into that intellectual trap. I’m not sure it is an entirely fair accusation, but I understand the point. Intellectual analysis of data is just a tool. It is one tool among many and no less useful when needed.

If I had an accusation against the author of this book (John L. Jackson), I might say that he didn’t ground his argument in enough intellectual analysis of data. His argument would have been so much stronger had he been as thorough as, for example, Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow. It was the data-driven strength of Alexander’s presentation that made her book so effective in its impact and hopefully its influence.

I love that Racial Paranoia presents fresh insight and an innovative perspective. So, I wouldn’t judge Jackson too harshly for I understand his purpose. He is making a very important point that maybe no one else is making, at least not in the way he is making it. The only comparable book I’ve come across is Racecraft by Fields and Fields. Both books try to get beyond the standard repeating of data and, in doing so, try to get past the cognitive traps of our own making.

Some have criticized Jackson for what the perceived failure to more fully include the problems of more overt racism, but I especially think that is unfair.

“I do want to argue that racial paranoia isn’t racism, but racism is also still alive and well (even in its more explicit guises). I don’t want to privilege individual psyches over larger structural forces. In fact, I want to argue that a structural transformation in the American racial order created current versions of race-based paranoia. All I suggest is that we not simply reduce accusations of racism to simplistic assessments of truth or falsehood. We shouldn’t just try to vet them for provable accuracy and then go on to something else once we think we’ve shown a particular allegation to be unfounded. Instead, I want to remind us that we now live in a political atmosphere that promotes racial dissimulation and insincerity. The self-conscious parsing of racial speech brings a certain kind of distrust and bad faith into the center of every interracial conversation, even if through the back door and against some people’s best intentions.”
(pp. 195-196)

His point is that taking seriously racial paranoia is a necessary and essential part of our dealing with the more concrete racial problems that confound us.

“We promote racial paranoia when we combine discussions about color blindness with silent acceptance of continued structural differences in racial realities.”
(p. 206)

As such, racial paranoia is a sign of our collective failure. It is proof of how far away we still are from coming to terms with the real issues at hand.

There is a further issue that brings me to my own thoughts on American society. Jackson touches upon this in the following:

“Some critics downplay the significance of Americans’ publicly concealing their racial biases in mixed company, even as some of these same naysayers admit that most blacks and whites don’t have many substantial relationships with one another. In fact, political scientist Robert Putnam argues that Americans who live in diverse communities are more likely to disengage from civic life than those who live in homogenous racial and ethnic enclaves. This just further highlights fellow political scientist Diana Mutz’s persuasive contention that “participatory democracy” (civic engagement, people rolling up their sleeves and taking part in political life) and “deliberative democracy” (substantive discussions about political life) operate at cross-purposes to one another.13 If the lack of racial intimacy breeds distrust, the increase of interracial contact only makes good-faith social dialogue and interaction a casualty of that social mistrust. Social distance can make the heart grow frightened, but it takes more than just passing a diverse array of strangers on the street to allay those fears.”
(pp. 202-203)

I’ve so far spoken only of our culture of paranoia. That is the challenge before us. But what is the antidote? I would suggest that the only force equal to the task would be a culture of trust. The fact that this country has such a culture of paranoia could be interpreted as demonstrating how weak is our culture of trust, but I don’t know if that is actually the case. Conditions supporting each might not be oppositional.

The reason I say this is because the United States, in the studies I’ve seen, measures relatively high as a culture of trust. Not as high, of course, as Germany or Japan. Still, we’re not doing too bad, better than most countries. Besides, one might point out that, if not for a significant culture of paranoia in Germany, the Nazis wouldn’t likely have come to power by scapegoating so many people.

A culture of trust is about social capital. And a culture of paranoia is one possible result of insufficient social capital. But a finer point must be added that there are many kinds of social capital that serve different ends.

That is what Jackson explains in the quote directly above when he says, ““participatory democracy” (civic engagement, people rolling up their sleeves and taking part in political life) and “deliberative democracy” (substantive discussions about political life) operate at cross-purposes to one another.” Maybe so. If so, that is quite a dilemma. I doubt it is a forced option of one or the other, but it could imply a necessary third that bridges the two, a factor of social capital that is of a higher order.

This is shown by yet another study. Children who grow up in multicultural communities tend to become more socially liberal as adults. For a social democracy, the ultimate form of social capital is social liberalism. Without it, social democracy can’t function. Multiculturalism teaches kids how to tolerate and accept, how to cooperate and compromise with those who are different.

As this all shows, it isn’t simply a matter of social capital or its lack. Rather, what is required is a balance of social capital that achieves a particular end. A different blend of social capital would be required in a traditional society than in a modern society. In speaking of cultures of trust, we must consider what kinds of trust toward whom and for what purpose.

A kinship-based society would measure low in these kinds of studies for people in those societies only trust kin, but their trust of kin is very strong. In America, there is less trust (or loyalty) to large extended families. Few Americans could honestly speak of having a traditional clan or a tribe to which they belong. Also, as we aren’t an ethnic nation-state, we don’t have the same kind of patriotism and communitarianism found in the countries that do measure highest as cultures of trust. The Japanese when dealing with other Japanese know that they can make business deals on a handshake for someone’s word is their honor and, when the Japanese fail by their own sense of honor, that means social death and if severe enough a responsibility to commit suicide. We Americans aren’t so honor-bound.

Even so, we Americans have our own variety of trust. Unlike societies of kinship and ethno-nationalism, we are more likely to offer trust to strangers more quickly and with fewer reservations. We are more likely to assume someone is trustworthy until proven otherwise, especially in terms of face-to-face personal interactions.

My dad gave an example of this. His career led him to visit many factories. He remembered visiting a closed-down Japanese factory, but Japanese management were wary about him seeing their operation since he was an outsider, not just an outsider to Japan for he was also an outsider to the company. In visiting American factories, it was more common for management to let him freely wander around factories that were actively being used.

This might relate to a behavioral trait I’ve heard many foreigners observe in Americans. Americans on average are more openly gregarious, quick to help others, go out of our way to make people feel welcome. But to many foreigners this feels superficial. I can only imagine that it is something like how my Midwestern mother felt when interacting with our Southern Belle neighbor in South Carolina, a cordial friendliness that was just a formality. This observation of foreigners seems to show that there are two levels of trust. In everyday interactions, Americans act trustingly. But otherwise, Americans go by the policy that deeper trust needs to be earned. We don’t give someone that deeper trust simply because they share our kinship or our ethnicity.

Racial paranoia seems to operate on that deeper level.

It goes back to slavery, as Jackson explains. Many slave masters weren’t so wealthy that they could sit around sipping iced tea on the veranda. They had to be out there working in the fields with their slaves. Even for wealthier slave masters, their entire lives were intimately entwined with their slaves and, in the more isolated Virginia plantations, this went as far as slaves being part of an extended sense of family. It was the simultaneous closeness and distance between people in a slave society that necessitated trust even as it provoked paranoia. Segregation offers a false portrayal of geographic separation, but the reality is that people lived separate lives while often living next door to one another. Even after slavery, whether as sharecroppers or servants, blacks in the Deep South tended live near the whites they worked for. My Southern Belle neighbor, for example, had a black woman who was her personal servant for years and only lived a few blocks away.

A similar dynamic has happened also between other diverse demographics: ethnic groups, regional populations, etc. This is an immigrant nation and so that has meant diverse people have had to learn to work together, even when there was potential for animosities and inequalities. This has been magnified by the American tendency to move around a lot from region to region. American-style cooperative trust goes hand-in-hand with wary mistrust.

It could be that the paranoid imagination is how societies process divisions and conflicts. As people imagine dark possibilities, they imagine brighter possibilities as well.

Along with being an immigrant nation, the corollary is that this is a dynamic society. There is a constant influx of immigrants and, about every few generations, a new large wave of immigration comes along. This has meant that, unlike traditional societies with established ethnic populations, Americans in general has never been able or particularly interested in trying to remain unchanging.

Like all of modernity, this dynamic instability is taxing on human nature. There is an endless need for negotiating and renegotiating relationships. No seeming certainties go forever unchallenged.

This reminds me of my eternal fascination with boundaries and boundary types. I’ll let this angle bring me into my concluding thoughts.

The reason race is most prone to paranoia is because it isn’t an objective category. It can be almost anything to anyone. This is clearly shown with issues of definition. Even relatively dark-skinned North Africans are technically Caucasians. A large number of American blacks have as many or more European genetics than African genetics. There is a long history of light-skinned blacks passing as whites and also some examples of whites passing as blacks (e.g., John Howard Griffin). Then there are all those ethnic groups that have struggled to fit into American categories: Italians, Irish/Scots-Irish, Eastern Europeans, Jews, etc.

America is one of those places where differences come to die, although some take longer than others, race being one of the more stubborn. There are few ethnic immigrants whose American-born descendants aren’t assimilated within a few generations, often along with marrying across ethnic divides.

As boundaries shift, everything else shifts along with them: social identities, religious practices, communities, etc. And so we as a society shift from what is known to what is unknown, to what has been to what might be. This past century has been a time of the greatest shifts in American history. It shouldn’t be surprising that, when so much is up in the air, paranoia would become rampant. Of the uncertainties of our age, racial identities and categories are among the most challenged. A large part of the population today has few if any ancestors who were in America during slavery or even Jim Crow. The very history behind racial dogma is becoming ever more irrelevant, and so its ideological nature is becoming more obvious.

At the same time, the historical racial divides have been growing as the class divides grow. The racial order that benefits the few is increasingly becoming harmful to the many as those in power become increasingly oppressive in maintaining all aspects of the social order. It is in the interest of those least worthy of trust to discourage the development of a culture of trust.

The only thing that can move all of this forward against such resistance is public dialogue. Even paranoia expressed is more constructive than silence.

Paranoid Denialism, a Strange Brew

I was interacting with some people who don’t believe in anthropogenic global warming (AGW). They are typical specimens. I know I’m wasting my time with them, but I can’t help being fascinated by such strange thinking patterns. When I confront the strange, my response is to analyze.

There are numerous problems with the anti-scientific denialist worldview:

1) In the end, it is an empty rationalization.

The structure of the rationalization is not unique to any particular argument and so could be used to defend any belief system equally as well or rather equally as badly. There either is no substance or what little substance included is inconsequential.

2) It presents no falsifiable hypotheses and won’t accept anyone treating their hypothesis as falsifiable.

Their argument can’t be disproven; then again neither can it be proven. The scientific process with peer review is dismissed out of hand and so no objective standard remains. The argument denies the very evidence that disproves it, but it doesn’t disprove the evidence on a case by case analysis. All peer reviewed research is treated as suspect, unless it fits into the preconceived conclusions.

It is standard confirmation bias, sometimes combined with the smart idiot effect as some of these denialists can spout off a lot of carefully selected factoids. It takes a certain kind of intelligence to defend such a difficult position, especially those who dedicate their lives to it. This is similar to how some apologists can be immensely well educated, sometimes even being academics in biblical studies.

3) The denialist’s worldview forms a self-enclosed and self-reinforcing reality tunnel.

The denialist becomes isolated from any new information being able to challenge what he thinks he already knows. It forms a groupthink where denialists help support eachother’s delusions, giving the appearance of credence by closing the ranks. The denialist groupthink is further assisted by particular well funded organizations and think tanks that hire the ‘experts’ to produce the ‘data’ and arguments to create a semblance of coherence.

4) The essence of the argument is a conspiracy theory.

It’s a paranoid worldview where no one can be trusted, unless they affirm the exact same beliefs. This paranoia plays into their entrapment in a reality tunnel of their own construction. The conspiracy theory, however, only makes sense within the belief system itself. If the person was able to see outside their paranoia, they probably wouldn’t be so paranoid and so the conspiracy theory would no longer be compelling.

The conspiracy theory necessitates a conspiracy larger than anything before in history. The conspiracy would have to include every government in the world and every government agency, every scientific institution both publicly and privately funded, nearly all the scientists in the world, and most of the mainstream media. This would be a conspiracy with millions of participants all colluding together in a massive cooperative effort and doing so almost completely hidden from the view of the public. Considering the vast majority of climatologists and other scientists support AGW, this would include at least hundreds of thousands of scientists alone, many of whom work in the private sector.

Interestingly, research has shown that paranoia is an aspect of a Dark Triad which includes three personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. In the research, perceiving Machiavellianism in others (paranoia and conspiracy theorizing) positively and strongly correlates with admitting to a willingness to act with Machiavellian intentions if given the opportunity. To put it simply, such a person is paranoid because they believe other people are just like them, that other people are equally as untrustworthy and immoral/amoral.

By the way, paranoia shows no correlation with low IQ and so it isn’t an issue of intelligence. Some conspiracy theories are so intricate and complex as to be creations of a genius mind. Conspiracy theorizing is pattern-seeking on steroids.

5) Denialists are holding a double standard.

First, they have a double standard for the assessment and acceptance of evidence. The evidence they accept supports their beliefs and they only accept evidence according to their beliefs. But they wouldn’t accept this being used by others who hold views opposing their own. For example, one of the denialists I was interacting with told me to present a peer reviewed paper proving some particular issue, but simultaneously he was denying the validity of the entire peer review process.

Second, they have a double standard of the rationalization behind what evidence is accepted or excluded. One of the criticisms that denialists often make is that they believe AGW supporters are rationalizing according to a self-enclosed reality tunnel and according to a conspiracy theory about big energy. So, they refuse to allow what they perceive in others what they do themselves. This is, of course, projection for on some level most denialists probably realize their position is weak.

The double standard can be demonstrated by returning to the facet of their rationalization not being unique. The denialist’s arguments could be just as easily turned against them.

Once freed from the constraints of objective evidence and standards, almost any argument could be put forth that couldn’t be disproven (or proven). Also, once we enter the convoluted territory of conspiracy theory, Occam’s Razor can be dismissed as well and we can go to any length to seek a coherent worldview. Many have pointed out that the conspiracy theorist can end up with a worldview that is more coherent than any scientific theory for the conspiracy theorist feels no desire to include conflicting data and interpretations.

I hold out some hope that denialists can be reached, that some of them aren’t beyond all redemption.

That does seem to be the case. Not all denialists are overtly anti-scientific. A few simply are being overly cautious in vetting the consensus of the scientific community, but this doesn’t mean they dismiss it out of hand. In recent years, I’ve heard of several cases of scientists who held strong skepticism toward AGW and were publicly vocal in their skepticism, and yet over time the evidence finally convinced them.

I don’t criticize to make myself feel better. It certainly doesn’t make me feel better to think about the weaknesses and failures of the human mind. I like to think that there is value in trying to understand what makes people tick.

Democracy, Legitimacy, & Consent of the Governed

Here I continue my personal exploration of American conservatism. The topic of this post, the 2012 election, is what all of my recent posts have been building up to. The impetus to my thinking was experiencing the campaign season in stereo with the news media in one ear and my parents in the other. Frustration is the result.

As others have already explained: If America could survive 8 years of Bush without becoming a corporatist plutocracy and outright fascist police state, then America can survive 8 years of Obama without becoming communist. Besides, considering the GOP used to be far to the left of Obama: If as Bircher-inspired Tea Partiers claim Obama is a secret commie and as the Birchers claimed Eisenhower was a secret commie, why did the US government including both parties spend so many decades fighting the commies until the greatest communist nation finally collapsed?

Conservatives think they’ve somehow lost America. I don’t know that they ever had it, but certainly the it they thought they had was never what they thought it was. There is a disconnect that is perplexing. And when perplexed by some issue of conservatism, I consider how such things play out in the thinking and lives of my parents. I do indeed observe this disconnect in them and, although I’m sure it existed in the past, I don’t remember it always being so blatant. What happened?

My family moved to South Carolina and my parents ended up spending a couple of decades there. While there, many things changed, besides just their being surrounded by a more right-wing version of conservatives than is typically found in the Midwest where our family lived prior to that.

The right-wing backlash was going mainstream and becoming empowered during the 1990’s. Like most conservatives, my parents were swept up in the changing atmosphere. But one thing kept my parents going too far right while I was still living down there and in the years immediately following my departure.

For my entire childhood and well into my adulthood, my parents consistently attended very liberal churches, mostly the Unity Church. They, however, began to feel a growing chasm between their own beliefs and the worldview of Unity Church, a growing chasm that wasn’t caused by any changes within the Unity Church. The inner right-winger was awakening within my parents. So, they left the Unity Church and began looking for more conservative churches, finally settling on one that they remained with for their last decade in South Carolina.

This was also the time when my brothers and I were back in the Midwest. And this was the time when Fox News was launched (1996). This left my parents to have no source of liberalism to balance out an increasing influence of right-wing rhetoric. No liberal children, no liberal church, no liberal Midwestern community, no liberal local media.

On top of that, my parents were increasingly associating with a more upper class set of friends, having left behind their poor years when my dad had gone back to school. Furthermore, along with my dad’s business management friends, their new church didn’t seem to have the socioeconomic diversity found in the Unity Church. To clarify why this matters, I should explain that in the Deep South upper class tends to mean very conservative.

This gets at a point that few Americans and fewer conservatives understand. The South isn’t as conservative or as Republican as it seems. The South was a part of the Populist alliance that pushed for many liberal reforms. More importantly, most of the eligible voters in the South lean Democratic. Republicans have maintained power in the South by disenfranchising minorities and the poor, one method being voting laws such as how some Southern states disallow early voting, restrict who can use an absentee ballot, and close polling stations early. Such voter disenfranchisement in certain states causes the majority of eligible voters to not even vote.

There is a stronger class divide in the Deep South which, of course, goes hand in hand with a race divide. Private schools and gated communities (also, majority white conservative suburbs) separate the haves from the have nots. Plus, even churches are divided along the same class and race lines. If like my parents one is an upper class white conservative in the Deep South, it is easy to become disconnected from not only most people in the country but also most people in one’s own community. A similar dynamic plays out in the majority white conservative regions in the rural South.

This is how so many conservatives became so deluded about this being their country. They’ve been surrounded by people who are like them such that they didn’t realize how isolated they had become. The last two presidential elections were a slap to the face for conservatives. They could no longer be oblivious to the larger social changes that were happening all around them. It wasn’t just a change in minorities. The youth, increasingly multicultural and multiracial, were changing as well. Even in some Southern states (including South Carolina), Obama won the youth white vote which is the future adult white vote.

As a leftist, I don’t have the privilege to suffer the type of delusions conservatives indulge in. Even though I know from history that US politics has always been liberal in a general sense (as in having no tradition of traditional conservatism), I also know that the US never has been dominated by left-wingers. I’ve never even lived in a state that would be the radically left-wing equivalent of Deep South states. I don’t romanticize the past and so I don’t have the sense of doom as is more common among those on the right.

My parents think that democracy has become corrupt simply because minorities are growing in numbers, thus diluting the superior white culture that made American great… or something like that. Conservatives used to blame it on the dilution of Christian values; they can’t do that anymore since minorities are more religious than whites. Maybe I’m not being fair in pointing their racialist-tinged worldview, but that is how it looks to an outside observer.

Once again, as a leftist, I know there never has been a golden age of democracy in the US. I’ve been saying for more than a decade that US democracy is problematic at best, often saying this to my parents. But my dad always dismissed my criticisms and argued it was perfectly fine. This was easy for him to say when Republicans had power with gaining Congress in the 1990s and regaining the presidency in the 2000s, less easy now. Only when minorities, women and the youth voted Obama into the presidency twice did my dad all of a sudden think democracy was corrupt.

I find this response disingenuous, certainly considering how morally righteous my parents have expressed themselves.

In 2000, the Republican government in Florida targeted minorities with a voter purge and then when a recount was attempted the Republican majority Supreme Court stopped it. The entire democratic system was thrown to the side by Republicans as if it meant nothing. This is the type of anti-democratic event we’re used to hearing about from third world countries with recent histories of political oppression. And if this had happened in a third world country, there would have been intervention by international organizations.

But this didn’t bother my parents at all. My dad still to this day denies that a full Florida recount was never attempted and that the Supreme Court stopped even the partial recount, even though these are rationally indisputable facts. In typical conservative fashion, he simply denies inconvenient information.

If the entirety of democracy being unconstitutionally undermined doesn’t bother my parents, then what finally convinced them that democracy had failed? It wasn’t just that demographics with traditionally low voting rates now voted in high numbers. They certainly don’t blame themselves for the GOP trying to suppress the vote, thus unintentionally causing greater voter engagement and turnout. No, they blame the Democratic Party.

I should explain my parents’ experience. Since they are retired, they decided to work as poll workers for this past presidential election. That was probably a mistake, considering that they are now living in this city that is dominated by uber-liberal Democrats. That just made Obama’s victory feel even more traumatic.

Two specific things about that poll work experience really hit a nerve.

First, my mom was bothered by how special needs people were not only allowed to vote but brought in by their helpers to vote. They were in a precinct that apparently included the place that houses special needs people with various issues: autism, low IQ, etc. It’s not that ton of these people came in, but the fact that they would be brought in at all made my mom outraged, maybe more upset than I’ve ever seen her in my entire life. I got the feeling that my mom thought this was a covert evil plan to get all the mentally challenged people to help steal the election for Obama.

Second, my dad was bothered by the official representatives of the Democratic Party. There were the typical poll watchers of both parties who are volunteers, but the Obama campaign also had two sharply dressed and knowledgeable professionals who stood there the entire time. They kept track of the names of who had voted and continually checked those names against the list of potential Democratic voters in that precinct. They would then call volunteers who would try to persuade these people to vote. My dad thought this was the “Chicago Machine” in action.

I sort of understand my parents’ general criticisms, but when they get to specifics they sound like conspiracy theorists. They feel that we need election reform. I agree as probably do most Americans, left and right. But too many eligible voters voting isn’t the problem that is undermining democracy and that needs reforming.

There is a big difference between voter reform and voter suppression, a difference that my parents don’t understand. They believe that if people can’t get themselves to the polling station without any help or encouragement, without any absentee ballots or early voting, then they shouldn’t vote (or be allowed to vote?). As the rhetoric goes, voting is a privilege, not a right… well, the constitution happens to disagree with conservatives on this issue.

Besides, conservatives are ignoring the history of voter suppression with roots in racism and classism which in turn has deeper roots in slavery and plutocracy. Ignoring this past isn’t just being historically clueless. It verges on being morally depraved. This is a very dark history, and a history that specifically has privileged people like my parents… how convenient.

So many conservatives don’t seem to understand democracy (or are they playing dumb?). Consent of the governed necessitates that the public (or at least a very large majority) is convinced of the legitimacy of the government. When people are disenfranchised from the political system, it brings into doubt this legitimacy. The act of voting, based on the right and ability to vote, is the most basic expression of the consent of the governed. When the majority doesn’t even vote, epecially because of voter suppression, the cornerstone of democracy is shown to be crumbling. The fight for voter rights and against voter suppression was a fight for democracy, and this fight was hard won.

After the country was founded, only a few percentage of Americans were both eligible to vote and eligible for election to public office. It took almost two centuries for nearly all Americans to get the right to vote. In fact, my parents were already adults when the Voting Rights Act was passed. The history of previous voter suppression is not just within living memory but specifically within the living memory of my parents’ generation. Even so, growing up, my parents were probably oblivious of it.

When I told my mom that she experienced privileges that others didn’t have, she denied this by literally screaming over and over, “I worked hard!” So fucking what!?! Most people work hard, including the poor and minorities, including liberals and civil rights activists, including all the Americans throughout history who’ve experienced voter suppression and other forms of political oppression.

I take democracy very seriously. It’s not that my parents simply dismiss democracy out of hand. Part of it is that, sadly like many other Americans, they lack a fundamental grasp of what democracy is about. Another part is even more basic. They don’t understand democracy because they don’t prioritize it as a value. If my parents were to be honest, they’d have to admit that they put their ideology, their belief system before democracy. What this means is that religion (social conservatism) and capitalism/’meritocracy’ (fiscal conservatism) will always come first, even if that means underming or sacrificing elements of democracy in the process.

My parents are closer to some of the founding fathers. Most of the founding fathers didn’t want democracy, maybe because they didn’t even know what it was. But the problem that the founding fathers faced was that most early Americans did want democracy. Right-wing conservatives now face a similar problem as they find themselves in the minority.

There is very interesting data about American democracy in terms of voting.

This past election inspired high rates of voter turnout which is a heartening thing to see for us lovers of democracy. Actually, voter turnout has been rising for about a decade now, although it hasn’t risen back up to the 1960s level when more than 60% voted.

After the 1960s, the voter turnout continuously dropped until hitting a low point in the 1990s. It was in 1994 that Republicans gained majority in Congress which hadn’t been seen in 4 decades, even with the popular influence they had earlier with Reagan. A sad thing happened in 1996, two years into this Republican majority in Congress, interestingly the same year that Fox News was launched. It was the precise moment when the voter turnout dropped below 50%, voter turnout having barely hovered above 50% during the 1980s. The right-wing had become so loud as to dominate the media narrative. Instead of being energized, voters apparently became demoralized.

In 2000, however, voter turnout became an irrelevant issue since votes literally didn’t count or rather weren’t counted. For a democracy based on consent of the governed, the rise of the right-wing between 1994 and 2000 was a precarious time. Like Obama or not, there is some reassurance in having a president that won the popular vote twice (a rare event) during a time of increasing voter turnout.

For those on the right, this provokes paranoid conspiracy theories. For me as a leftist, this gives me a glimmer of hope.

Far Right’s Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Secessionism & Militias, Paranoia & Violence

I find it hard to comprehend the mindset of some rightwingers. I don’t disagree in principle with many of their values and ideas, but I always sense some hidden motive behind the rhetoric. It’s partly just that rightwingers are more prone to paranoid conspiracy theorizing than those on the left. I’m actually sympathetic to the paranoid state of mind. As they say, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

However, sometimes it seems that the far right has a self-enclosed, self-reinforcing, self-fulfilling way of seeing the world. For example, some rightwingers get all worked up over a talk show host telling them the Feds are going to take their guns away. So, they stock up on guns and start acting suspicious which attracts the attention of the police or FBI. It never ends well for the paranoid rightwinger.

This kind of rightwinger might even be correct about some of their fears, but there is something demented about their being prone towards aggressive self-defense which not unusually leads to self-destructive behaviors. This style of thinking isolates them and makes everyone who is different than them into a potential enemy.

Fear is fine, but fear-mongering just isn’t helpful for the fear-mongerer himself or for anyone else. I mean what benefit does someone like Glenn Beck gain from fear-mongering? To be cynical, many say it’s all just a show and so it comes down to profits. And profitable it is. Beck wasn’t rich before fear-mongering, but since beginning his extremist style of punditry he has become massively wealthy. If he actually believed the nation would collapse or the socialists were going to take over, then what would be the point of his amassing all that wealth?

One element behind my thoughts are the recent talk of secessionism. Even some Republican politicians have openly and directly encouraged secessionist attitudes. Do these politicians actually want a new Civil War? Unlike the first one, a second Civil War would probably be over in days or weeks. And if for some reason the army itself became split in it’s allegiances, we would experience a war that might be more destructive than any war fought in modern history. Could you imagine the country splitting in half with the respective military forces lobbing nukes at each other. It would make the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan look like Disneyland in comparison.

The specific issue that started this line of thought is that some rightwingers are seeking the establishment of state militias. I’m fine with the proposition in the abstract, but the motives seem a bit suspect. When I hear the proponents speak about it, there is a lot of talking around in circles and much that is implied.

It’s all very strange. At the bottom of it all, I sense that some rightwingers feel their being left in the dust of the 21st century and so their itching for a fight. I suppose that, going by the demographics, many of these rightwingers are out of step with where society is heading. It’s just a fact that America is becoming less dominated by whites, by fundamentalists, by the culture wars. A shift is happening in demographics right now that is unlike anything that has happened before in American history.

Ultimately, I wonder how many of these rightwingers take themselves seriously. Are they just posturing? Maybe most of them are just posturing, but definitely some rightwiners are working themselves up and some are seeking ways to organize. What will happen if and when they organize is another issue. But I have no doubts that the authorities (be they police, FBI or maybe even National Guard) will come down hard on some of these groups. Be prepared for the same violent confrontations and bombings we saw from the rightwing militia types in the ’90s. It will be interesting to watch it all play out.

It’s not that I necessarily trust the government more than the average conservative. I just trust the far right fear-mongering machine even less. It’s like these rightwingers have a narrative stuck in their head and their determined to play that narrative out to its inevitable conclusion. Of course, the authorities are more than willing to play their part as well. Personally, I’d prefer a different story to be played out on the national level.




Rightwing Madness

I read many comments online. I always wonder why many rightwingers have a tendency to make extreme statements

Whenever they disagree with someone or something, they say things such as:

  • Obama is the Anti-Christ, a Muslim, a terrorist, a Nazi, Hitler, Stalin, etc.
  • Obama isn’t American. Show me his birth certificate.
  • I hope Obama gets assassinated.
  • Jim Wallis is Satan.
  • Liberals are Communists.
  • Dr. Tiller got what he deserved and Roeder is a hero.
  • Overthrow the government!
  • He is an FBI operative.
  • FEMA will put us in concentration camps.
  • Violent militia groups are just defending their rights.
  • America is a Christian nation and the Founding Fathers meant the govt to be a fundamentalist theocracy.

They’re particularly obsessed with their xenophobia. They constantly live in fear of fags, blacks, and immigrants. They’re blind to their own bigotry and love to allege reverse racism. They conflate beliefs and facts, rhetoric and logic. They think the opinions of anyone else is equal to or greater than the opinion of the consensus of experts. They think they have the right to their own ‘facts’. They just know they’re right and you’re wrong. They often see conspiracies all around them:

  • New World Order
  • Liberal Elites
  • Hidden Communist conspiracy
  • Jewish Cabal
  • Immigrant invasion
  • Black helicopters

It’s not that all conservatives think and act this way, but there is a surprising number who do. More importantly, mainstream conservatives apparently are afraid of their own fringe. Conservative politicians and media personalities rarely criticize the fringe and often instead fan the flames instead. When a Tea Party leader asked about the fringe, he agreed they existed in the party but he thought they had a rightful place in the movement. They welcome the fringe and help give the extremists a voice. It’s not surprising that this filters into the mindset of the average conservative and so that is why you see all these crazy rightwing comments all over the web.

I’m trying not to over-generalize here. I know there are intelligent and rational conservatives. There are some who will criticize the fringe sometimes. I give credit for Bill O’Reilly in that he will on occasion make attempts to distance himself from the crazies and he’ll even sometimes directly criticize them. I just wonder why the ‘normal’ conservatives tend to be so silent. Is it the same reason why average Muslims too rarely speak out against the violence and oppression of Muslim extremists? Is it fear to speak out or is there an element of complicit agreement?

There is always a way to rationalize away or ignore evidence to the contrary. The federal report about rightwing militias is a smear campaign, but when righwing militias start conspiring violence against the government it’s automatically assumed these groups have been innocently framed. ACORN and Climategate are liberal conspiracies and they must be destroyed. The conservative media goes batshit over it and gets the rest of the media to jump on the bandwagon. After organizations and reputations are destroyed, investigations conclude that all involved were innocent. The conservatives use lies and deceit to destroy their enemies, but they don’t care about the truth. Will ACORN and the CRU scientists get vindicated in the media? No, probably not. Scandals get attention, but innocent victims of rightwing hatred don’t make for entertaining news. So, the media waits to get carried away by the next ‘scandal’.

Why is it so rare than anyone gets held responsible for any of this kind of immoral behavior? Yes, Roder gets life in prison and the guy who slandered ACORN ended up in prison as well. But Dr. Tiller can’t be brought back to life and who knows how many women will die or suffer serious health conditions because there is now one less doctor to help them. ACORN is permanently villified in the public eye and the organization is no more. What about all the people that Dr. Tiller and ACORN helped? Why doesn’t the media obsess over the real victims?

I know that, in response, rightwingers will argue that leftwingers are just as bad. They’ll point out a couple examples they once saw in the news. That is fair in that there are extremists of all ideological varieties, but there is a difference that makes a difference. First, I doubt people toting guns and screaming racial slurs wouldn’t feel very welcomed at most liberal protest and I could imagine the politically correct police asking them to leave. Second, the loony left doesn’t get a platform from the “liberal media” in the way that loony right gets a platform from conservative media such as Fox News. All news have agendas, but Fox News takes it to a new level of outright political spin and propaganda. I’m not sure why a media corporation would want to fan the flames of rightwing fear and hatred. I suppose it must be serving some purpose of theirs or of the GOP.

There seems to be a different attitude between the left and the right. On the left, different opinions are embraced as long as they’re respectful. On the right, different opinions aren’t embraced, but as long as your remain within the in-group ideology it doesn’t matter if you voice your opinions respecfully. In fact, rightwingers seem to pride themselves on being disrespectful. Anger, hatred and bigotry are seen as strengthening and consolidating the group. It’s the us vs them attitude. As long as the disrespectful message is directed outside of the group at the enemy, it doesn’t matter what a rightwinger says or how they say it.

Part of why I bring all this up is because I’ve noticed how it’s changed me. I feel unable to let it just roll of me. I’ve never called George W. Bush the Anti-Christ or Glenn Beck the devil, but it has become more common for me to call someone an asshole when someone is being offensive or aggressive, when someone is acting righteous or bigoted. I’ve learned to respond this way because some people don’t seem to understand how mean-spirited their comments are until you confront them in a forceful manner. Why should I respect the opinion of someone who claims Roeder is a hero for committing murder and terrorism? If they want to say they’re against abortion fine, but there is no excuse for what Roeder did. What Roeder did goes against everything our country stands for. Why should liberals try to be understanding towards such hatred and violence? Why shouldn’t stand up for the rights of everyone? For that matter, why shouldn’t it be expected that conservatives should stand up for the rights of everyone?

This isn’t just about my being a liberal. What rightwing extremists are doing and what mainstream conservatives are (implicitly or explicitly) supporting is stupid just from the perspective of strategy. They’re turning a whole generation of youth against the conservative movement. All the shootings and militias are just going to deservedly bring down hard the hammer of the law. In their fear of the government, they’re forcing the hand of the govenment. It’s as if they want a war. The culture war has failed. So, what they couldn’t accomplish through politics they’ll now try to accomplish through violence. I don’t what strategy would work for conservatives trying to get their message out, but what they’re doing right now is not working. Yes, it feels empowering to rant and rave, to fear-monger and use hate speech, to brandish guns at political gatherings. But this sense of empowering is just reactionary, just a shortterm gain. Conservatives were successful in the past because they took the longterm view, but they seem to have forgotten the lesson of their past success.

If you’re a Christian and you don’t like another Christian’s views, don’t call them the Anti-Christ or the Devil. If you’re a libertaraian and you don’t like Democrats being in power, don’t call Obama Hitler or a Commie. If you’re worried about our employment or your economic security, don’t attack immigrants and blame the poor. If you want to make a difference, reach out to others and not just to the small group of people who are just like you.

I realize I’m offering you liberal advice. But guess what? The world has become a liberal place. We no longer live at a time when white Christians monopolize all power. We no longer live at a time when minorities, immigrants and the poor knew their place. It’s just a fact of life. Accept it or not, but the world isn’t going to return to simpler times. Anyways, your idealizing of the past is just a fantasy. It’s time to stop fighting the inevitable. Change happens and there is nothing you can do to stop it. You either join in and work together or else you become obsolete. It’s your choice.

When Obama voices bipartisan values, I don’t know if he actually means it or not. However, people voted him into office because they believed in the message. The young generation that voted Obama into office doesn’t want partisan bickering, doesn’t want angry ranting and fear-mongering. The young generation looks for what we all share in common and they don’t care about parties, they don’t even care about the Tea Party. Many liberals and many conservatives as well were inspired by Obama’s message of hope and change. This is what people want. Obama was voted in by a majority of Americans. He may not be living up to his speeches, but the point is that people want to believe in the vision he spoke of.

Integral… ?

Integral… ?

Posted on Jul 17th, 2008 by Marmalade : Gaia Explorer Marmalade
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Climatology and Conspiracy Theorists

If you’re a person who prefers intelligent analysis over conspiracy theorizing, then check out this blog post about quote mining code

Let me be straight about the facts. 

The e-mails were supposedly stolen by hackers, but all of the e-mails haven’t yet been confirmed as authentic.  There is an investigation in determining their authenticity.  Assuming they’re authentic, the investigation will also determine precisely what was written in what context and what was the intended meaning of the comments (see above linked post for some preliminary analysis).  As such, the scientists in question are innocent until proven guilty.  Libelous attacks by climate change contrarians (what some call ‘denialists’) should be ignored.

Furthermore, I’ve so far seen no evidence that anything stated in the e-mailes contradicts or undermines the entire field of climatology.  The allegations are directed at a small number of scientists and all of the e-mails came from just one organization.  Assuming the allegations are true, it would be conspiracy theorizing to assume that these few scientists have enough control of the entire climatology field to alter all of the data in the world or that there is a secret cabal of climatologists controlling all research and publications. 

It is only fair and rational to ignore the conspiracy theories, but let us consider the implications of the more reasonable allegations against the specific scientists in question.  Even if we dismiss the data from these few scientists, there still is plenty of data from other sources that confirms the exact same conclusions of these scientists.  The consensus of climatologists includes scientists from all over the world including many highly respected scientists.  If anyone plans on trying to attack every climatologist in the world and dismiss all climatology research ever done, I’d love to see them try.

I think it’s time that people look at the facts instead of trying to run away from them.  Just my humble opinion.