Berkeley Scholar Doesn’t Admit He Is A Corporate Shill

Climatology denialist Steven F. Hayward had a propaganda piece published in the The Wall Street Journal: Climate Change Has Run Its Course (see archived version). Immediately after it was published, the typical right-wing think tanks, astroturf websites, and corporatist media outlets began pushing the article. A common title in the web results was: Berkeley Scholar Admits “Climate Change Has Run Its Course”. In two days, a Google search showed “about 2,550 results” for the exact wording of that title alone.

It is a highly coordinated and well-funded operation. A single article like that might cost thousands of dollars to promote, which is nothing for plutocrats like the Koch and Mercer families who have so much money they don’t know what to do with it all. Numerous pieces like that are put out and promoted every year, as large numbers of hacks, pundits, trolls, etc are paid to write such pieces or bring the pieces up in their shows and blogs and websites, not to mention public relations and perception management companies that do their magic with bots, fake social media accounts, etc. Hayward himself plays multiple roles within this propaganda machine, not only a writer but also a major figure within multiple key organizations. For example, he is a director of Donors Capital Fund“a group that works with DonorsTrust to give hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to numerous groups questioning mainstream climate science”, from one year alone.

The entire anti-climatology network costs at least millions of dollars a year (as for what could be documented with two specific funding sources, precisely $125 million went to US groups over a particular three year period during the Obama administration; one of the two funding sources was Hayward’s abovementioned Donors Capital Fund; and other research by Drexel University environmental sociologist Robert Brulle found that “In all, 140 foundations funneled $558 million to almost 100 climate denial organizations from 2003 to 2010.”). Most of it is dark money and, as Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said in a speech, “the story of dark money and the story of climate change denial are the same story: two sides of the same coin” — see Whitehouse’s book on the topic and see the investigative work of Jane Mayer, Naomi Oreskes, and Erik Conway. That doesn’t even count the general operational funding for all the organizations and individuals involved with related and overlapping agendas: staffing, lobbying efforts, political campaigns, legal forms of indirect bribery (e.g., donations to politicians’ favored groups), lucrative jobs for retired politicians, astroturf, corporate-friendly research, etc.

About overlapping agendas, Hayward has promoted many other issues besides climatology denialism. An example is his promoting anti-immigrant ideology and in rather extreme forms. In one piece at Power Line, he cited the popular right-wing novel Camp of Saints, a novel that portrays genocidal racism — and that inspired Steve Bannon along with many others on the alt-right. What Hayward predictably doesn’t note is that the refugee crisis is largely being caused by climate change, specifically droughts that turned one of civilization’s bread baskets into a desert. By the way, Power Line was made famous for the defense of Bush against attacks on his military record. And more interestingly, as Power Line is funded by Koch money, one of the Power Line bloggers is a lawyer whose law firm represents Koch Industries. It’s a tangled web of wealth and power. And as Hayward demonstrates, that tangled web is increasingly encroaching within academia as the Kochs have specifically targeted universities with donations tied to demands — “According to IRS tax filing data compiled by Greenpeace, Charles Koch has given over $68 million to over 300 universities from 2005 to 2013.[2] The Center for Public Integrity calculated that the Kochs spent $19.3 million on 163 colleges and universities in 2013 alone” (SourceWatch).

But such costs of millions of dollars are a fraction of a fraction of big energy profits, especially considering the public is giving big energy corporations billions of dollars a year in subsidies. The money spent is a wise investment, at least for the short-term profits of plutocrats. Meanwhile, these big energy corporations see the writing on the wall, as their own scientists had proven the existence and threat of man-made climate change going back to the 1970s. Even so, they will wring every last dollar out of old energy, until they are forced to change. It’s of no concern to their quarterly earnings what devastating catastrophes might happen in the decades to come. Many individuals within the system know the situation is dire, but the system itself doesn’t allow for this to be translated into action. It’s entirely outside of the dominant ideological worldview and its in-built system of incentives and disincentives, the carrot and stick that keeps everyone in line.

The point of all this isn’t public debate about science. Articles like this rarely escape the targeted audience within the echo chamber (the only reason I knew about it was because my conservative father, a regular WSJ reader, shared it with me). The political left has grown weary of the bullshit and rarely bothers to acknowledge the latest propaganda pieces, as it is an endless and thankless and ultimately impossible task to keep up with it all (but some take notice). As for mainstream liberals, they tend to take it all at face value and typically don’t question the immense corruption behind it all because only wacko conspiracy theorists think that way, which leaves the naive liberal class vulnerable to obfuscation and manipulation. And it goes without saying that the comments section below the WSJ article and elsewhere on the web is filled with right-wingers repeating the talking points they learned from previous propaganda pieces — this staged and coordinated groupthink is a big circle jerk, but one supported by immense wealth and power. Meanwhile, Steven Hayward continues to play the role of respectable public intellectual, and there are thousands more right-wing hacks, corporate shills, etc similar to him that pervade the alternative and mainstream media.

This game of rhetoric is subtle and, as with the political parties, it pulls the entire media system far to the right. Even public bastions of supposedly liberal media give more airtime to right-wing sources than left-wing sources (NPR turns to right-wing think tanks between two and four times as often as to liberal think tanks; as for left-wingers, they are either ignored, dismissed, criticized, or attacked). As I often note, the center of the majority opinion of the American public is far to the left of the entire establishment (‘progressivism’ and ‘socialism’ are more popular than the ‘Tea Party’ and, among multiple demographics, more popular than ‘capitalism’), including on many issues to the left of the so-called ‘liberal’ media and the Democratic Party (going by polling data on policy positions, even the average ‘conservative’ is often to the left of the average Democratic politician — let that sink in for a moment). The word ‘mainstream’, as with the word ‘centrist’, becomes rather meaningless; other than as a designation of the site of institutionalized power where plutocratic values are expressed and plutocratic interests represented, where gatekeepers operate and talking heads push their agendas, where the propaganda model is implemented and the public is indoctrinated.

This is a powerful ideological system. It extends into the government itself through placing plutocrats and corporatists into official positions, from stacking the courts to regulatory capture. What pathetic excuse we have for democratic process is so hobbled as to be helpless against this big money onslaught. As an example, Carly Cassella at Science Alert notes that “Lamar Smith, one of the most notorious climate deniers in Congress, is the current chairman of the” House Science, Space and Technology Committee. The official Twitter account tweeted Hayward’s recent WSJ opinion piece. Besides regularly tweeting other denialist propaganda: “All in all, the committee has shared approximately 36 WSJ articles on Twitter since September 2017. Over half of these articles spout climate denial in some form or other.” Talk about ideological religion (it’s similar to the tactics used by fundies in taking over local school boards to push their Creationist and anti-choice beliefs through educational curriculum and textbooks in order to indoctrinate children; and, of course, there has long been overlap between fundamentalism and anti-science ideology as found within numerous organizations and increasingly within government).

To return to the article itself, Hayward writes that: “Scientists who are genuinely worried about the potential for catastrophic climate change ought to be the most outraged at how the left politicized the issue and how the international policy community narrowed the range of acceptable responses. Treating climate change as a planet-scale problem that could be solved only by an international regulatory scheme transformed the issue into a political creed for committed believers. Causes that live by politics, die by politics.”

As one commenter (Susan Marano) responded, “Perhaps the left wouldn’t have “politicized” the issue, if the right, as apologists for, and funded by, the fossil-fuel industry, hadn’t politicized it in the first place – because it implied an existential threat to their businesses.” Of course, Hayward already knows that.

By definition, climate change is a planet-scale problem that requires a planet-scale response, if we are to avoid even worse catastrophes as weather patterns shift with flooding and desertification in new areas and as the number and intensity of severe weather worsens. The fact of the matter is that scientists who are genuinely worried aren’t corporate shills who use rhetoric to dismiss reality. Is this guy stupid or does he simply play a stupid person on right-wing media? Either way, he is insulting the intelligence of his readers, but then again maybe he knows all too well his target audience of Wall Street Journal readers — they apparently take having their intelligence insulted as a badge of honor in the fight against the intellectual elite. This puts the WSJ in an odd position, as it never before aspired to be an anti-elitist or anti-intellectual rag, but much changed when Rupert Murdoch bought the WSJ.

Who does Hayward think he is fooling with this bullshit? Is it merely preaching to the choir? I doubt many of the regular readers are fooled either, even as they enjoy the ideological signalling that confirms their identity politics. Such right-wing pieces are shameless propaganda. And it is well documented that the author is a paid propagandist of big biz. But I just don’t get it. What does anyone have to gain by pushing the biosphere and human civilization toward mass catastrophe? Even big biz will be harmed in the end. What kind of person is willing to destroy a planet and ensure the eventual harm and suffering of their own children and grandchildren in order to gain some temporary wealth for themselves? A sociopath, that is the simplest and scariest answer. In the end, we all live and die by politics, specifically in terms of vast environmental problems, even if externalized costs are not evenly spread across all populations (“About 40 percent of deaths worldwide are caused by water, air and soil pollution” which impacts “3.7 billion people”).

Explain to me how scientific experts who support scientific consensus are ‘cultists’ because “I’m rubber and you’re glue, what bounces off of me sticks to you”. Besides being inanely stupid, that is false equivalency between the two sides. Why shouldn’t we label as science denialists those who deny science? And how does that justify declaring that respectable climatologists are cultists for simply stating scientific facts? Calling a spade a spade in calling a denialist a denialist isn’t unfair name-calling, since it is a objective description. It reminds me of racists who complain about being called racists and demand they be treated as respectable equals. Why should we play their game?

Conservatives seeing everything in terms of religion is nothing new. To their mind, everything on the political left is a cult, as every other religion is a cult. Their complaint isn’t about religion but that there can only be one true religion to rule them all (religiosity as authoritarian dogmatism by way of Social Darwinism) and all else is cultism. It’s similar to how conservatives deny having an ideology for only people they disagree with have ideologies. The labels of ‘cult’ and ‘ideology’ mean the same thing in the conservative mind. It seems like a whole lot of projection considering how hard conservatives push their political and religious ideologies onto others, including their own preferred versions of political correctness. That is what this comes down to, political correctness in defense of right-wing ideology. The right-wing snowflakes have their feelings hurt by words. And since they can’t win on the facts, they will try to make it a fight over language policing.

All of this is in service of denial. And denial is simply the first stage of the grieving process. They deny global warming and climate change is real, although denial has been weakening such that they’ve shifted their position from “it’s not real” to “it’s not that bad”. The next stage is anger when they attack supporters of climatology for blaming humanity in pointing out that the evidence indicates it is anthropogenic. As the scientific evidence grows and the denialist position weakens, they have been moving into this second stage for a while.

Now we are entering the third stage, bargaining. They are increasingly admitting that the climatologists were right in that there is climate change and it is anthropogenic (“I guess we’re adding a new step to the old dance? “The planet isn’t getting warmer, the warming is natural and not man-made, it’ll be easier to adapt than address the human causes…..and if you liberals weren’t so annoying we’d be willing to work on it.” “). But as they continue to quibble and obfuscate the actual science in seeking to blame environmentalists and scientists as cultists, now they want to to negotiate about not being called mean names anymore so that they can save face in their sense of shame at having pushed harmful lies for so many decades. The fourth stage will be depression, followed by the fifth and final stage of acceptance.

We are getting closer to being able to have rational and moral public debate about climatology. The problem is that, even as a few ideological hacks and useful idiots and corporatist cucks for big energy have moved past outright denial, most of them are still peddling more slippery forms of denialism and big energy is still funding propaganda. It’s slow progress, considering big energy companies hid their own climatology research for almost a half century. At this rate, we might not get to full acceptance until later in this century or else until the issue becomes moot once it becomes obvious that we are beyond the point of no return.

In conclusion, here is a fun little disccusion at /r/Politics in response to Hayward’s WSJ propaganda piece:

10390: “They characterize climate change as a movement rather than a threat. They are not listening to the Department of Defense.”

GhostBearBestClanForeign: “What does the DOD know? It’s not like they invented satellite imaging or anything…”

the_geotus: “And it’s not like DOD has any interest to protect Americans …”

puroloco: “Can’t keep the military complex going if we are all dead”

* * *

Further Info:

Steven F. Hayward
DeSmogBlog

Hayward has ties to many conservative think tanks. He has been a senior fellow in environmental studies at at the Pacific Research Institute (PRI), and Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). He is also a director of the Donors Capital Fund (DCF), a group that works with DonorsTrust to give hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to numerous groups questioning mainstream climate science. Hayward is a board member of the Institute for Energy Research (IER). [2][3], [20]

The American Enterprise Institute and Pacific Research Institute are both heavily funded by oil billionaires Koch Industries, and Richard Mellon Scaife.

Steven F. Hayward
Source Watch

Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (www.aei.org) in Washington, D.C., and a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute (www.pacific-research.org) in San Francisco.

Hayward writes frequently on a wide range of issues, including environmentalism, law, economics, and public policy, and has published dozens of articles in scholarly and popular journals. His work has appeared in National ReviewNew York TimesWall Street Journal, Reason, The Weekly StandardPolicy Review, and Chicago Tribune. He is a Weyerhauser Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, an adjunct fellow of the John Ashbrook Center and a former Bradley Fellow at the Heritage FoundationWeaver Fellow of the Intercollegiate Studies InstituteEarhart Fellow, and Olive Garvey Fellow of the Mont Pelerin Society.” — Pacific Research Institute

The American Enterprise Institute and Pacific Research Institute are both heavily funded by oil billionaires Koch Industries, and Richard Mellon Scaife (Gulf Oil).

Koch Bros Tribune Co? Climate change denial in Koch-friendly media
by Connor Gibson, Greenpeace

Steven Hayward, who is affiliated with numerous groups financed by the Kochs as well serving as treasurer and board member to Donors Capital Fund. DCF and sister group Donors Trust hide money from the Kochs and other corporate interests to groups like the Heartland Institute, the Franklin Center, CFACT, Americans for Prosperity, and many other groups connected to Haywardread more on Steven Hayward and the Donors Trust network. Steven Hayward frequently dismisses global warming in the Weekly Standard, the National Review, and Powerline Blog, run by attorney John Hinderaker, whose firm has represented Koch Industries.

Who are these guys? Yet more polluter-funded front groups hit the climate scene
by Pete Altman, NRDC

Just how far out there does the IER get in touting the energy industry line on climate change denial?  In recent weeks, the energy-financed IER has helped tell the, well, dirty lie that “clean energy is a ‘dirty lie.”

IER also did its part to spread around the lies contained in a widely debunked Spanish “study” that falsely suggests green jobs are somehow a bad thing.

Speaking of being out there on denial issues, one of IER’s directors is Steven Hayward with the American Enterprise InstituteHayward was exposed two years ago for offering to pay scientists with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change $10,000 for written critiques of the IPCC’s newest findings.

Factsheet: Steven F. Hayward
Exxon Secrets

5 July, 2006
Co-author of a July 2006 letter sent by AEI to an unknown number of scientists, looking for someone – at a rate of $10,000 for 10,000 words – whose review “thoughtfully explores the limitations of climate model outputs as they pertain to the development of climate policy.”
Source: DeSmogBlog.com (2006)

Meet The Climate Denial Machine
by Jill Fitzsimmons, Media Matters

In 2007, The Guardian reported that the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) was offering scientists and economists $10,000 each to write articles critical of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report on climate change. The Guardian noted that AEI has received substantial funding from ExxonMobil and that former Exxon CEO Lee Raymond — a vocal climate change skeptic — served as AEI’s Vice Chair. AEI criticized the story, saying they merely sought to subject the IPCC report to “serious scrutiny and criticism” but were not doubting the “existence of global warming.”

Nevertheless, AEI scholars have repeatedly downplayed the threat of climate change. Steven Hayward, who writes for National Review, has said that climate concerns are based on “propaganda” and that efforts to reduce emissions are “based on exaggerations and conjecture rather than science.” Former AEI president Christopher DeMuth acknowledged in 2001 that the earth has warmed but claimed “it’s not clear why this happened.” But some other AEI scholars have endorsed a carbon tax to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

15 Most Absurd Comments Right-Wing Media Said About Climate Change in 2015
by Kevin Kalhoefer, Eco Watch

National Review tweeted that a misleading temperature chart published by Powerline’s Steven Hayward was “[t]he only #climatechange chart you need to see.” Hayward wrote that his chart displayed average annual global temperature “with the axis starting not just from zero, but from the lower bound of the actual experienced temperature range of the earth,” and claimed, “[i]f this chart were published on the front page of newspapers the climate change crusaders would be out of business instantly.”

National Review’s tweet was roundly criticized for the chart’s obviously misleading scale (with an appropriately scaled y-axis, the chart shows a demonstrable increase in global temperatures), with Kevin Drum of Mother Jones writing that Hayward’s re-scaled chart was “so phenomenally stupid that I figured it had to be a joke of some kind.” Several Twitter users responded to National Review by jokingly posting examples of similarly misleading charts, including one that the Union of Concerned Scientists described as showing “comfort in the idea that nobody really reads the National Review online.”

ANALYSIS: How The Wall Street Journal Opinion Section Presents Climate Change
Climate Nexus

An analysis of 20 years of the Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages on climate shows a consistent pattern that overwhelmingly ignores the science, champions doubt and denial of both the science and effectiveness of action, and leaves readers misinformed about the consensus of science and of the risks of the threat. […]

Similarly, when the opinion page publishes op-eds by Steve Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), they failed to disclose his AEI affiliation in three of four op-eds. AEI is funded by the fossil fuel industry (and the tobacco industry) with major donations from the Kochs and ExxonMobil. Also undisclosed is the fact that Hayward is Treasurer for the Donors Capital Fund, one of a pair of groups described by The Guardian as “a secretive funding route to channel nearly $120m (£77m) to more than 100 groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change.” According to researcher Robert Brulle, Donors Capital Fund and its sister group Donors Trust are responsible for “about one-quarter of the funding of the climate countermovement.”

Remarkable Editorial Bias on Climate Science at the Wall Street Journal
by Peter Gleick, Forbes

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board has long been understood to be not only antagonistic to the facts of climate science, but hostile. But in a remarkable example of their unabashed bias, on Friday they published an opinion piece that not only repeats many of the flawed and misleading arguments about climate science, but purports to be of special significance because it was signed by 16 “scientists.” […]

The National Academy of Sciences is the nation’s pre-eminent independent scientific organizations. Its members are among the most respected in the world in their fields. Yet the Journal wouldn’t publish this letter, from more than 15 times as many top scientists. Instead they chose to publish an error-filled and misleading piece on climate because some so-called experts aligned with their bias signed it. This may be good politics for them, but it is bad science and it is bad for the nation.

Science magazine – perhaps the nation’s most important journal on scientific issues – published the letter from the NAS members after the Journal turned it down.

Do you have an open mind? Read both, side by side. And understand that every national academy of sciences on the planet agrees with the reality and seriousness of human caused climate change.

The letter signed by 255 National Academy of Sciences members, from Science magazine.

The letter signed by 16 “scientists” in the Wall Street Journal.

How The Wall Street Journal’s Climate Coverage Fails Businesses
by Alexander C. Kaufman. Huffington Post

The Wall Street Journal may want to consider some editorial input from its advertisers.

Such a thing would be journalistic sacrilege. But the full-page that ran last week in the country’s biggest newspaper by circulation — a call from nearly 70 big-name companies for a strong deal to curb greenhouse gas emissions — seems more in touch with scientific reason than much of anything found on the editorial and opinion pages.

Economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote in a blog post that appeared in The Huffington Post on Monday that the job of business leaders is to look ahead and around corners, to see what is coming next.

“Taking The Wall Street Journal editorials as fact would cost the U.S. its global leadership in the era of the high-tech, low-carbon world economy,” he wrote. […]

Major corporate players from an array of sectors have pledged to convert their operations to use 100 percent renewable energy within the next two decades.

Therein lies the most significant change here — big business is behind the deal. That’s what made the 21st Conference of the Parties, or COP21, so different from similar global gatherings in Kyoto in 2001 or Copenhagen in 2009. Corporations realized that the extreme and increasingly unpredictable weather and climate changes that come of global warming were bad for business.

“Serious businesses need serious help with analysis because these are complicated issues,” Sachs, who teaches at Columbia University, told HuffPost by phone on Tuesday. “It has really done a disservice to businesses.” […]

The editorial board’s view sets it apart from just about every major intellectual institution with the exception of one: the Grand Old Party — the only major political party in the world that denies climate change outright or that it’s a problem that should be addressed, according to Eric Roston, the sustainability editor at Bloomberg.

Sincere Bullshit

I didn’t speak out for a long time but hearing the Skinheads speak was like thunder coming to my brain. And I said ‘Sonia this is why you have to speak out for the people who didn’t make it.’

Those are the words of Sonia Warshawski, a Holocaust survivor and subject of a documentary (Big Sonia). Now 92 years old, she was 13 years old when World War II began. Her father and brother were taken away and her young sister escaped while she and her mother were sent to a concentration camp. All of her family was killed except her sister who hid with others in the forest.

It would be shocking to have someone deny that reality, not only because it is so personal but as history goes there are few events more well documented. This is the territory explored by Kurt Andersen in Fantasyland. And as he makes clear, this isn’t a new phenomenon. America has always been this way, a land of dreams, of fantasies and fictions, a vast canvass to project upon. Europeans were looking for utopian societies, Edenic savages, and demonic wilderness in America before they even got here. “But did it matter whether it was authentic or not?”, asks Karl Ove Knausgård (as quoted by Andersen). “Hadn’t this country been built on the promise of avoiding this very question?”

When I hear alt-righters, Trump supporters, and other similar types, I suspect they don’t believe or disbelieve much of what they claim. Most people want to be told a story, specifically a story that makes sense of the world. For some, the Holocaust is too immense to be made sense of and so it must be denied. It isn’t an issue of true or false, rather sincerity or bullshit. In On Bullshit, Harry Frankfurt makes this distinction and explains that sincerity is unconcerned with truth in the world or what is true for others for it is about being true to yourself, being true to your belief system and ideological worldview, true to the story that you tell yourself. It’s about belief disconnected from all else, the cozy and comforting constraints of the moral imagination.

We live in a society overflowing with bullshit, not to say this is a new state of affairs. What has changed, as far as I can tell, is simply we’ve become overly sensitive to it. Travel and media have forced us into contact with more diverse people, cultures, and stories. With so many claims of truth, the war of rhetoric is won through sincerity of belief and story. It is a psychological defense against the onslaught of an overwhelming and dangerous world, as we perceive it in our fear-ridden condition. This phenomenon of bullshit is most blatant among reactionaries. That is because the reactionary by nature is more sensitive, that is what turned them reactionary in the first place. The liberal-minded have more tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, stress and anxiety, but we all have our limits. It’s useful looking at extreme examples, though, for it clarifies the dynamic. So, let me share such an example.

I struggled to make sense of this when I spent a long period visiting the human biodiversity (HBD) blogosphere. As alt-right reactionaries go, racist HBDers present themselves as rational and factually-oriented, as if they were a part of the reality-based community. But it quickly becomes apparent how narrow is their knowledge, how limited their curiosity. It was impossible to have a meaningful debate because I knew the basis of their claims while they didn’t know the basis of mine. Hence, it was a continuous one-sided interaction. HBD ends up being nothing more than a series of just-so stories. The point is that HBDers feel conviction in what they believe or at least act as if they have conviction, a difference that might not make a difference. The point is to make a story feel real by performing the role of a true believer. But it goes beyond this, since they don’t want to be taken as just another group of true believers.

There is one particular HBDer who I had some respect for. She is the cream of the crop among HBDers. And she has a certain amount of intellectual humility or so I thought, until I came to realize that it too was probably a pose to throw off critics. I eventually got the sense that she doesn’t take seriously even her own doubts and hedging, as it is a way of avoiding responsibility for what she promotes. She presents herself as merely speculating, offering morally neutral scientific hypotheses, implying that she can’t be blamed for any consequences of her beliefs in the real world. Others do take her beliefs seriously and she has been a highly influential person. It is because people like her online that we have powerful people like Robert Mercer, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, etc. When I confronted her about this, she defended herself by denying she supports or promotes any specific policy. She pretends to be an apolitical, objective researcher and so she can’t be blamed for what others do. I doubt she believes this nor that she is necessarily lying either. It is irrelevant to the role she plays in being sincere. The story told is the important part and that story takes on a life of its own.

It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around this. Debates and rhetoric are games to be played, but they are serious games to be played with the seriousness of a child playing make-believe. Trump has immense power, but what gives him persuasive influence obviously has nothing to do with truth. Even his own supporters admit that he is a liar and won’t actually do much of anything he promised. That isn’t the point. What Trump does do is tell a story that makes sense of the world, to be a wrecking ball of outrage that smashes against the facade of politics, a better story to replace what came before. It isn’t mere anarchism but the force of declaring something with all sincerity. Trump was raised in the church of Norman Vincent Peale, the famous positive thinking minister. For Trump, he learned from an early age to assert whatever comforting story made himself look good and feel good, no matter the evidence to the contrary and the consequences to others. Then he made sure to surround himself by people who would never contradict him. He is the ultimate confidence man. The con-man has to first con himself.

Let me be clear, though. I want to emphasize that this can be found across the political spectrum. One of the greatest bullshitters who has gained power was Bill Clinton (with the financial support from Trump, by the way). He did more than any other president in United States history to push the political spectrum toward the far right. And having learned from him, Hillary Clinton has always played to the crowd telling them whatever they want to hear. No rational, informed person can take the Clintons seriously in most of what they say. The same goes for Barack Obama, the affable false prophet of hope and change.

The only point that matters to the true believers is that the rhetoric, the stories make them feel good. It is of no concern the millions of people (mostly poor brown people, US citizens and foreigners) oppressed and harmed, imprisoned and killed by the policies promoted and supported by the Clinton Democrats and the Obama administration. Those people simply aren’t real in the moral imagination of the (pseudo-)liberal class. And the moral imagination never has to do with anything so minor as objective facts. All that is required is to be told stories from an authority figure, inspiring speeches about the good that is being done or will be done. People want to be told that they are good people, that they are on the right side of history. Story trumps all else and, in America, story runs deep.

If everyone who claimed to know the Holocaust was real took it seriously, it really never would happen again — yet the reality is that multiple genocides have happened since and these good people have continued to do nothing. Even the Jews in Israel persecute and ghettoize the Palestinians, as happened to them in the buildup toward the Holocaust, with no lesson learned or insight gained. The story of Holocaust, if anything, justifies all else and so the victim becomes the victimizer. But if the majority of Israelis believed their own Holocaust story, they would be overwhelmed with a sense of shame and hypocrisy. A story is to be told and believed, whether to expose or hide the truth.

As people deny the Holocaust, there are also those who deny climate change. But even for those who claim to believe the truth, they don’t act as though they genuinely believe. The majority, when asked by pollsters, state that climate change is real. Yet the looming devastation threatens an unimaginable apocalypse. We don’t have the psychological and cognitive capacity to deal with it and so we don’t. We go on living our lives as though nothing has changed or ever will change. The dominant narrative of our society, that of progress is too powerful for it to be contradicted by mere facts. We know and don’t know, the very soul of our humanity ripped apart in a collective state of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

It’s not about believing in any particular truth claim. The power underlying the moral imagination is belief in belief itself. We seek to ‘will’ our preferred reality into existence. No story gains a hold on the collective psyche without the force of sincerity behind it. We live in a world of bullshit, but utterly sincere bullshit. We tell ourselves what we believe we must. Otherwise, we fear we would fall into despair. And maybe we are right about that. But we need to fall into despair, to admit the dark truths all around us. If there is any possibility of hope, it passes first through darkness.

Driven by fear, our sincerity is insincere, our pose is pretense. Ever more sincerity won’t save us. As Harry Frankfurt puts it, “sincerity itself is bullshit.” We don’t need another inspiring speech, pep talk, or story told with full confidence. What we need is harsh truth and the courageous persistence of those who will speak it.

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.”

Environmentalist Majority

I keep coming back to corporatist politics, centered in Washington and Wall Street, and the corporate media that reports on it. This is what gets called ‘mainstream’. But the reality is that the ideological worldview of concentrated wealth and power is skewed far right compared to the general public, AKA the citizenry… ya know, We the People.

Most Americans are surprisingly far to the left of the plutocratic and kleptocratic establishment. Most Americans support left-wing healthcare reform (single payer or public option), maintaining the Roe vs Wade decision, stronger gun regulations (including among most NRA members), more emphasis on rehabilitation than punishment of criminals, drug legalization or decriminalization, etc. They are definitely to the left of Clinton New Democrats with their corporatist alliance between neoliberalism and neoconservatism. Hillary Clinton, for example, has long had ties to heavily polluting big energy corporations.

Maybe it’s unsurprising to learn that the American public, both left and right, is also to the left on the issue of climate change and global warming. This isn’t the first time I’ve brought up issue of environmentalism and public opinion. Labels don’t mean what they used to, which adds to the confusion. But when you dig down into the actual issues themselves, public opinion becomes irrefutably clear. Even though few look closely at polls and surveys, the awareness of this is slowly trickling out. We might be finally reaching a breaking point in this emerging awareness. The most politicized issues of our time show that the American public supports leftist policies. This includes maybe the most politicized of all issues, climate change and global warming.

Yet as the American public steadily marches to the left, the Republican establishment uses big money to push the ‘mainstream’ toward right-wing extremism and the Democrats pretend that their conservatism represents moderate centrism. The tension can’t be maintained without ripping the country apart. We can only hope that recent events will prove to have been a wake up call, that maybe the majority of Americans are finally realizing they are the majority, not just silent but silenced.

The environmental issues we are facing are larger than any problems Americans have ever before faced. The reality of it hasn’t fully set in, but that will likely change quickly. It appears to have already changed in the younger generations. Still, you don’t even need to look to the younger generations to realize how much has changed. Trump voters are perceived as being among the most right-wing of Americans. Yet on many issues these political right demographics hold rather leftist views and support rather leftist policies. This shows how the entire American public is far to the left of the entire bi-partisan political establishment.

When even Trump voters support these environmental policies, why aren’t Democratic politicians pushing for what is supported by the majority across the political spectrum? Could it be because those Democratic politicians, like Republican politicians, are dependent on the backing and funding of big biz? Related to this, the data shows Americans are confused about climate change. Could that be because corporate propaganda and public relations campaigns, corporate lies and obfuscation, and corporate media has created this confusion?

It is quite telling that, despite all of this confusion and despite not thinking it will personally harm them, most Americans still support taking major actions to deal with the problem — such as more regulations, controls and taxes, along with also greater use of renewable energy. The corporate media seems to be catching on and news reporting is starting to do better coverage, probably because of the corporate media simultaneously being challenged by alternative media that threatens their profit model and being attacked as ‘fake news’ by those like Trump. The conflict is forcing the issue to the surface.

This growing concern among the majority isn’t being primarily driven by self-interest, demographics, ideological worldview, political rhetoric, etc. False equivalency has long dominated public debate, in corporatist politics and corporate media. This is changing. Maybe enough people, including those in power, are realizing that this is not merely a political issue, that there is a real problem that we have to face as a society.

* * *

The ‘Spiral of Silence’ Theory Explains Why People Don’t Speak Up on Things That Matter
By Olga Mecking
New York Magazine

The Spiral Of Silence Keeps People From Speaking Out On The Issues That Matter Most
Curiosity

‘Global warming’ vs ‘climate change’
socomm@cornell

Climate Change
Gallup

Yale Climate Opinion Maps – U.S. 2016
by Peter Howe, Matto Mildenberger, Jennifer Marlon, & Anthony Leiserowitz
Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

Voters Favor Climate-Friendly Candidates
by Geoff Feinberg
Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

Most Clinton, Sanders, Kasich, and Trump Supporters–but not Cruz Supporters–Think Global Warming Is Happening
by Anthony Leiserowitz, Edward Maibach, Connie Roser-Renouf, Geoff Feinberg, & Seth Rosenthal
Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

More than Six in Ten Trump Voters Support Taxing and/or Regulating the Pollution that Causes Global Warming
by Anthony Leiserowitz, Edward Maibach, Connie Roser-Renouf, Matthew Cutler , & Seth Rosenthal
Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

Sanders Supporters Are the Most Likely to Say “Global Warming” Is a Very Important Issue When Deciding Whom to Vote For
by Anthony Leiserowitz, Edward Maibach, Connie Roser-Renouf, Geoff Feinberg, & Seth Rosenthal
Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

Americans Say Schools Should Teach Children About the Causes, Consequences, and Potential Solutions to Global Warming
by Anthony Leiserowitz, Edward Maibach, Connie Roser-Renouf, Seth Rosenthal, & Matthew Cutler
Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

Relatively Few Americans Who Think Global Warming Is Not Happening Think It is a Hoax
Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

Americans Who Think Global Warming Is Not Happening Are Concerned Range of Energy and Environmental Issues
Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

Americans Who Think Global Warming Is Not Happening Favor or Do Not Oppose Policies
Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

2016 Election Memo: It’s The Climate, Stupid!
by Elliott Negin
Moyers & Company

Politicians at Sea
by Marina Schauffler
Natural Choices

70 Percent of Americans Have This Surp
rising View of Global Warming

by Sean Breslin
The Weather Channel

Ready and Organizing: Scientists, and Most Americans, Have Climate Change on Their Minds
by Astrid Caldas
Union of Concerned Scientists

Maps Show Where Americans Care about Climate Change
by Erika Bolstad
Scientific American

Many More Republicans Now Believe in Climate Change
Poll shows a big leap from two years ago
by Evan Lehmann
Scientific American

Half of U.S. Conservatives Say Climate Change Is Real
Trump and Cruz reject global warming, while more Republicans see it as a threat.
by Eric Roston
Bloomberg

Trump doesn’t represent American views on climate change: a visual guide
by John D. Sutter
CNN

Trump supporters don’t like his climate policies
by Dana Nuccitelli
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Did The Pope Change Catholics’ Minds On Climate Change?
by Maggie Koerth-Baker
FiveThirtyEight

Brief exposure to Pope Francis heightens moral beliefs about climate change
by Jonathon P. Schuldt, Adam R. Pearson, Rainer Romero-Canyas, & Dylan Larson-Konar
Pomona College

New poll shows Exxon CEO is closer to public opinion on climate than Trump
by Bill Dawson
Texas Climate News

How Americans Think About Climate Change, in Six Maps
by Nadja Popovich, John Schwartz, & Tatiana Schlossberg
The New York Times

Climate change is a threat – but it won’t hurt me, Americans say
by J.D. Capelouto
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Americans are confused on climate, but support cutting carbon pollution
by Dana Nuccitelli
The Guardian

Well Lookie Here, a Majority of Americans Support Restricting Carbon Pollution from Coal Plants
by Ellie Shechet
Jezebel

Surveys Show Major Gap Between Voters and Their Representatives On Global Warming
by Noa Banayan
Earthjustice

Climate Change Denial ‘a Problem’ for Republicans
by Steve Baragona
VOA News

Climate of Capitulation
by Vivian Thomson
The MIT Press

Conservatives can lead the charge to deal with climate change
by Susan Atkinson
The Pueblo Chieftan

More Words

I’ve written so often about knowledge and ignorance, truth and denialism. My mind ever returns to the topic, because it is impossible to ignore in this media-saturated modern world. There are worthy things to debate and criticize, but it is rare to come across much of worth amidst all the noise, all the opinionating and outrage.

I don’t want to just dismiss it all. I don’t want to ignore it and live blissfully in my own private reality or my own narrow media bubble. I feel compelled to understand the world around me. I actually do care about what makes people tick, not just to better persuade them to my own view, but more importantly to understand humanity itself.

Still, noble aspirations aside, it can be frustrating and I often let it show. Why do we make everything so hard? Why do we fight tooth and nail against being forced to face reality? Humans are strange creatures.

At some point, yet more argument seems pointless. No amount of data and evidence will change anything. We can’t deal with even relatively minor problems. Hope seems like an act of desperation in face of the more immense global challenges. Humanity will change when we are forced to change, when maintaining the status quo becomes impossible.

It is irrational to expect most humans to be rational about almost anything of significance. But that doesn’t mean speaking out doesn’t matter.

I considered offering some detailed thoughts and observations, but I already expressed my self a bit in another post. Instead, I’ll just point to a somewhat random selection of what others have already written, a few books and articles I’ve come across recently—my main focus has been climate change:

Apocalypse Soon: Has Civilization Passed the Environmental Point of No Return?
By Madhusree Mukerjee

It’s the End of the World as We Know It . . . and He Feels Fine
By Daniel Smith

Learning to Die in the Antrhopocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization
By Roy Scranton

Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed – And What it Means for Our Future
By Dale Jamieson

Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World
By Timothy Morton

Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor
By Rob Nixon

The Culture of Make Believe
By Derrick Jensen

The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life
By Eviatar Zerubavel

States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering
By Stanley Cohen

Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life
By Kari Marie Norgaard

Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change
By George Marshall

What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action
by Per EspenStoknes

How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate
By Andrew Hoffman

The Republican War on Science
By Chris Mooney

Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future
By Donald R. Prothero

Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand
By Haydn Washington

Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming
By James Hoggan

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
By Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway

The man who studies the spread of ignorance
By Georgina Kenyon

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate
By Naomi Klein

Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations: Process of Creative Self-Destruction
By Christopher Wright & Daniel Nyberg

Exxon: The Road Not Taken
By Neela Banerjee

Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA
By E.G. Vallianatos

Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil
By Timothy Mitchell

Democracy Inc.: How Members Of Congress Have Cashed In On Their Jobs
By The Washington Post, David S. Fallis, Scott Higham (Author), Dan Keating, & Kimberly Kindy

Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism
By Sheldon S. Wolin

The Science of Politics

Many have noted the odd relationship American conservatives have to science. It isn’t just anti-intellectualism. Nor is it even necessarily a broad attack against all science. It is highly selective and not consistent whatsoever. It is a reactionary attitude and so must be understood in that light.

I regularly interact with a number of conservatives. It gives me a personal sense of what it might mean.

There is a sense behind it that scientists are mere technocrats, puppets of political power. This mindset doesn’t separate science from politics. There is no appreciation that most scientists probably think little about politics while they are focused on the practical issues of doing research and writing papers. Most scientists aren’t trying to make a political argument or to change anything within or through politics. Scientists just have their small corner of expertise that they obsess over.

There is a paranoia in this mindset, typically unacknowledged. There is a suspicion that scientists somehow are an organized political elite conspiring to force their will on the public. In reality, scientists are constantly arguing and fighting with one another. The main politics most scientists are worried about is most often the politics of academia, nothing so grand as control of the government. Science involves more disagreement than anything else.

Getting all scientists to cooperate on some grand conspiracy isn’t likely to ever happen, especially as scientists work within diverse institutions and organizations, public and private, across many countries. They don’t even share a single funding source. Scientists get funding from various government agencies, from various non-profit organizations, and increasingly from corporations. All these different funding sources have different agendas and create different incentives. For example, a lot of climatology research gets funded by big oil because climatology predictions are important in working with big oil rigs out in the ocean.

There is also another even stranger aspect. I get this feeling that some conservatives consider science to almost be unAmerican. I had a conservative tell me that science should have no influence over politics whatsoever. That politics should be about a competition of ideas. a marketplace of ideas if you will, and may the best idea win or profit, as the case may be. That reality is too complex for scientists too understand and so we shouldn’t try to understand that complexity. So, trying to understand is more dangerous than simply embracing our ignorance.

This goes so far as to create its own vision of history. Many conservatives believe that the founders were a wise elite who simply knew the answers. They may have taken up science as a hobby, but it had absolutely nothing to do with their politics. The founders were smart, unlike today’s intellectual liberal elite and scientific technocrats. The founders understood that science had nothing to offer other than the development of technology for the marketplace. That is the only use science has, as a tool of capitalism.

This is a bizarre mentality. It is also historically ungrounded. The founders didn’t separate their interest in science from their interest in politics. They saw both science and politics as the sphere of ideas and experimentation. They didn’t just take someone’s word for something. If they had a question or a debate, it wasn’t unusual for them to test it out and find what would happen. They were very hands-on people. For many of them, politics was just another scientific experiment. The new American system was a hypothesis to be tested, not simply a belief system to be declared and enforced.

This view of science is widespread. This isn’t just an issue of cynical reactionaries, ignorant right-wingers, and scientifically clueless fundies. This worldview also includes middle and upper class conservatives with college education, some even in academia itself. Many of these people are intelligent and informed. Very few of them are overt conspiracy theorists and denialists. Much of what I’ve said here they would dismiss as an outlandish caricature. They are rational and they know they are rational. Their skepticism of science is perfectly sound and based on valid concerns.

When these people on the right speak of science, they are speaking of it as symbolizing something greater in their worldview. It isn’t just science they are speaking of. They fear something that is represented by science. They fear the change and uncertainty that science offers. They distrust scientists challenging their cherished views of present reality in the same way they distrust academic historians revising established historical myths about America. These intellectual elites are undermining the entire world they grew up in, everything they consider great and worthy about this country.

Conservatives aren’t wrong to fear and distrust. Indeed, their world is being threatened. Change is inevitable and no one has a clue about what the end results might be. But they should stop attacking the messenger. Scientists are simply telling us to face reality, to face the future with our eyes wide open.

* * * *

Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries:
The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment
by Tom Shachtman

Science and the Founding Fathers:
Science in the Political Thought of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Madison
by I. Bernard Cohen

The Invention of Air:
A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America
by Steven Johnson

 

 

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.

Intuitive Conservatism & Analytical Liberalism

I had two related thoughts.

First, I was considering the actual meaning of liberalism and conservatism. I noticed someone mention that conservatives rarely are interested in conserving and liberals are rarely interested in liberating. Actually, in the US, liberals are generally more interested in conserving than conservatives, but certainly conservatives aren’t more interested in liberating.

Second, I keep pondering what conservatism actually is about. Liberalism is more straightforward in some ways. Liberals may not put as much priority as left-wingers in liberating people, but liberals aren’t against liberating people. Liberalism more is about an attitude of openness which can express both in a desire to liberate from what is bad or conserve what is good. Conservatism, however, plays out on two levels where symbolism simultaneously represents and hides the deeper issues of meaning and values. For this reason, conservatism often can’t be taken at face-value.

These two thoughts relate in the data I’ve shared before about how most Americans self-identify as conservatives and yet support liberal policies. So, Americans tend to only find conservative principles attractive in the abstract, but what conservatives (and Americans in general) seek to conserve on the practical level are the achievements of the liberal movement, specifically the policies of the Progressive Era of the first half of the 20th century and the policies of Liberal Era around the middle of the 20th century.

How is symbolic thinking so powerful when it doesn’t seem to relate to concrete issues? The tricky part is that for conservatives the concrete conservative issues are the symbolic form of conservative values. So, conservative issues are never concrete even when or especially when they appear to be. For example, the conservative moral order grounded in in the conservative vision of family values is very compelling to many Americans. This gets expressed in concrete issues such as abortion, but when you get down to practical details conservatives don’t directly care about abortion, in terms of the gritty details of factual data. Liberal policies have proven themselves to decrease more abortions by decreasing unwanted pregnancies which is accomplished by better sex education, better availability of contraceptives, better women’s health services, etc. Conservatives won’t agree to liberal practices simply because they are more effective for the issue of abortions is symbolic, not practical.

The power of conservative symbolic thinking is that it conflates the symbolic with the concrete, the subjective with the objective, the metaphorical with the literal. This can be seen in religious fundamentalism where stories are so compelling because they are taken as real, even when there is no evidence of their reality. It is the refusal to submit to objective evidence that gives such symbolic stories their objective-seeming reality.

Liberals, on the other hand, seek to disempower such symbolic-minded conflation. This is why liberals speak more directly. When a liberal speaks about the issue of abortions, they are more genuinely concerned about the practical issue of decreasing abortions, among other concerns. Even religious liberals will tend to more clearly demarcate the symbolic and historical aspects of religion, sometimes even going so far as refusing to apologetically argue over historicity of religious figures. This is why liberals are greater defenders of analytical thinking and the scientific method. This is also why liberals aren’t as effective with political rhetoric. In undoing the conflation, liberals undo the very power of the conflation. Liberals love symbolic thinking taken on its own terms of symbolism such as with art, but symbols only have power as a political force when they become identified with concrete and social realities.

This creates quite the dilemma for liberals. Conservatives can never admit to their own way of symbolic thinking, can never admit that the superficial political issues are mere symbols. Conservatives intuitively understand that their effectiveness as a movement and that the compelling nature of their abstract principles necessitate never admitting this fundamental truth. For many of them, they can’t even admit it to themselves. Symbolic conflation can only work if there is no overt awareness of how it works, at least among average conservatives, although there are cynical conservative leaders (SDOs – Social Dominance Orientation types) who understand this and use it to manipulate the conservative movement (the relationship is very interesting between SDO leaders and Authoritarian followers).

Liberals seek to increase self-awareness, but this very kind of liberal self-awareness is the Achille’s heel of the conservative mind. Conservatives don’t want to question and analyze, not in this psychological introspective sense. They want to take action and create results. There is pragmatism in the conservative method, despite its apparent disregard of pragmatic details that get in the way of political ends.

There is a polar opposition between understanding and effectiveness. Liberals have better psychological understanding which ends up being the very reason they are politically ineffective, although it makes liberals into helpful therapists and service workers. This is a seemingly impossible situation. Liberals put so much emphasis on education and journalism because they understand liberalism can only operate effectively to the degree the conservative method is undermined, by way of undoing the conservative conflation that originates from anti-analytical intuitive thinking. In a world where rhetoric rules over facts, liberals will never win. Liberal ideals can never compete with the power of fundamentalist religion combined with right-wing think tanks. This is a major aspect of the pathetic weakness of liberalism. By its nature, liberalism is incapable of fighting dirty in this way. The moment liberals try to meet conservatives on the playing field of rhetoric, liberals are out-matched. Some liberals like Lakoff are trying to teach liberals to be able to play this kind of game better, but it’s not clear that liberals are capable of coming even close to competing with conservatives on this level.

The only hope liberals have is that which can be found in the younger generations. Kids growing up these days are more well educated relative to past generations, especially about the difference between religion and science. More importantly, kid these days are raised from a young age in the worldview of psychological understanding. Slowly over time, psychology and the social sciences in general have seeped into mainstream culture. This will eventually give liberals the advantage they need, but it isn’t clear that even this advantage will be enough.

I don’t wish to just criticize conservatism, but the conservative style of symbolic conflation is one of the most dangerous issues we face as a society. Liberals need to be criticized as well in that liberals aren’t well-equipped in dealing with the power presented by such conflation. Most liberals can’t even comprehend the conservative mindset or why their rhetoric is so persuasive. Liberals, despite their desire to understand, too often are clueless. Liberal values of mutual understanding are impotent in face of this conservative force that hits below the belt, that hits with an emotional punch that can’t be comprehended rationally. Liberals are barely even coming to terms with the problem, much less figuring out solutions.

In their desperation, liberals just cling tighter to their Enlightenment values. Liberals just don’t undersand why throwing more facts at the problem doesn’t persuade the public, why no matter how strong the scientific consensus a large part of the population will go on denying evolution and global warming. Liberals assume that there eventually has to be a breaking point where facts win over beliefs. This liberal faith in rationality is admirable, but maybe ill-advised. Time will tell.

I should add that in describing conservatives I have a basic sense of respect. They understand one thing about human nature seemingly better than liberals. They may not have a broader understanding, but this one thing they understand very very well.

In being so effective, conservatives could be argued to prove they are correct about human nature. Unlike liberals, conservatives don’t believe humans are primarily rational in this broad sense. Conservatives, instead, believe that humans only act responsibly (in a moral and social sense) for reasons of emotion: fear, shame, guilt, etc. It’s the punishment/reward model of both fundamentalism and capitalism. Conservatives are certainly correct in terms of it being easier to influence and/or manipulate people through negative emotions.

It makes me wonder. What does this say about human nature. Are liberals truly wrong about their faith in Enlightenment values and ideals? If so, where does that leave liberalism? If rationality will continue to fail or continue to not suceed to any great extent, then what value should we place on rationality? Should we all just accept the conservative assumption about human nature?

Anti-Science in Academia?

There is a phenomena I came across again: anti-science.

I wouldn’t feel compelled to write about it again, though, if it didn’t frustrate me so much. The reason I feel frustrated in this moment is because of three different interactions I’ve had this past week or so. What stood out to me is that these interactions weren’t entirely typical in that it demonstrated how widely spread this problem is.

I should first explain that the issue frustrating me isn’t precisely an anti-scientific attitude, but something that nearly approximates it in specific contexts.

Several interactions I had were all well-educated people who have spent much time in academia. I know at least some of them have worked in the capacity of teaching. All of them are typical intellectual types who are well informed about the world and are certainly way above average in IQ. Also, they also seem like people who are more than capable of independent thinking and rational analysis. Basically, they aren’t anti-intellectual and, of course, wouldn’t think of themselves that way. Nonetheless, the doubts they express about certain scientific issues is so strong that it comes close to the doubts expressed by people who are more obviously anti-intellectual.

One commonality is that all of them have spent time outside of the country of their birth, at least one of them having lived significant part of his life in another country. A couple of them even speak another language besides English. So, these are relatively worldly people.

Besides the commonalities, my attention was caught by the fact that they are ideologically and academically quite diverse. Between them all: They run the entire ideological spectrum from left to right. And they include a diversity of academic knowledge and experience. They are even diverse in their religious proclivities or lack thereof.

I should point out that all of these people are intellectually respectable. In fact, I personally respect them for their intellects. It’s because of their general knowledgeablity and rationality that I enjoy discussing issues with them on occasion, although only one of them did I meet directly through such a discussion.

It is for this reason I felt so disheartened by my feeling the need to defend science against people who should know better… or maybe that isn’t quite the right way of saying it. It’s not that I think all of them are wrong in their views per se, except for one of them who I think is obviously wrong about the data. More basically, it’s just frustration at trying to communicate. Science is one of those topics that brings up a lot of ideological baggage which gets in the way, myself included. It seems odd to me that science is so often one of the most polarizing of issues. It makes me aware of how much views on science can diverge when even well educated people can disagree so widely. On top of that, it has become clear to me how much we are divided simply because of the powerful role of media.

These interactions involved a variety of scientific issues, all related to research: psychology of ideologies, IQ testing, global warming, etc. Fundamentally, all of these people felt some variation of mistrust about potential bias in various aspects: the researchers themselves, the limitations of research, the agendas of scientific institutions, how data was being interpreted or reported, etc.

The specifics aren’t all that important. In some cases, the doubts they shared were to some degree within reason. What didn’t seem reasonable to me was how strongly they held onto those doubts, how resistant they were to treat as trustworthy the scientific method and scientific community. Of course, my own biased opinions about science played into my own sense of conflict and frustration. It’s hard to discuss neutrally many of these kinds of issues, especially when they seem very important in how they touch upon many other issues (global warming being a particularly clear example of this).

It seemed to me that they didn’t want give scientists their due. Despite their being well educated, they were all speaking about science as laypeople. As a layperson myself, I tend to want to put more trust in scientific experts until I discover very good reasons to doubt; for certain, I feel annoyed when an entire scientific field is dismissed or devalued without any seeming good reason besides the consensus of that field not fitting the person’s worldview.

More specifically, it seemed that they didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that scientists are more aware of and careful about such potential problems than anyone outside of the scientific fields. I would point out some of these scientific researchers (specifically the soccial scientists) are experts in bias and in some cases experts in the biases of science itself. If you want to know what are the reasonable doubts to have about science, you just need to ask scientists. Science works by trial and error. If there is bias or limitiation to some type of testing, scientists will be the first to point it out and fix the problem. The scientific method is a self-correcting system.

Doubt within the scientific method is essential and necessary. But doubt about the scientific method itself is a direct attack on the very ideal that puts knowledge above belief or opinion. That said, I’m sure none of these people meant to attack such an ideal and probably would see themselves defending it in their own way. It’s  just that it felt like their criticisms weren’t all that helpful coming from the sidelines of science.

Here is my response to all of this:

If we can’t trust that the best experts on bias can deal with potential problems of bias, then we lesser mortals are beyond any hope of non-scientifically dealing with biases. Attempting to dismiss or discredit a particular field of science is the opposite of helpful. As long as even well-educated intellecuals end up undermining science and the scientific method, whether intentionally anti-scientific or not, we are going to have a hard time advancing as a society. Considering the possibility of losing our collective faith in the ideal of knowledge, do most people realize what we would be giving up?

These interactions demonstrate the apparent failure of the non-scientific fields of academia… or maybe just failure of science education in general (I know the science education I received from the public school system was probably a bit lacking). I would imagine that even many of those working in higher education need to be better educated about science. Our entire society needs to be better educated all around, and I have no doubt that the people I speak of would agree with me on that.

My emotional response to these interactions might have less to do with the interactions themselves. Instead, it might just be that these interactions helped clarify my sense of the problem we face. My perception of science being undermined not only saddens me, it makes me fear for our future. This isn’t about any individual person or any individual doubt. We could argue about the specifics endlessly. What I’m pointing out is much more insidious, the undermining of scientific authority itself where any doubt almost automatically trumps even the vast knowledge accumulated by decades of experts, where scientific peer-review and consensus becomes a reason for doubt of expertise instead of a reason for trust… worst still, where the science itself and the scientists who do it seem to get lost in the cloud of conflict and the whole media charade, where we no longer even have a shared set of facts to work from, much less a shared set of values.

The line between questioning doubt and nihilistic denialism may be thinner than many realize. It’s a line that might be easy to cross. As individuals ocassionally going a little too far over the line isn’t necessarily problematic, but if such a crossing is done on a society-wide scale it may not be easily undone. Nothing good can come of this. We seem to be livng in a an era ruled by mistrust that dangerously verges on collective cynicism. We should tread very carefully.

Bashing My Head Against a Brick Wall: Love of Truth or Masochism?

I’ve come to a point of frustration. Let me explain.

A conclusion I’ve flirted with for many years is that humans are fundamentally NOT rational (which isn’t necessarily to say humans are irrational; a better word is ‘arational’). Humans have some minimal capacity for rationality, but I suspect most of what is considered ‘rational’ is too often largely just rationalization. This is no grand insight per se. Still, I’ve resisted it. I want to believe that humans can be persuaded by facts. I want to believe that truth matters. However, I think it ultimately comes down to the fact that people don’t change much once set in their ways (which tends to happen early in life). As such, people don’t usually change their minds even when confronted with new facts and new ways of interpreting the facts. It’s just that people die and new generations come along (with new biases). The best hope one has of changing another’s mind is to meet them when they are a small child. After that point, there is little hope left for any further change.

Debating most people is about as worthwhile as bashing your head against a brick wall. Even worse, the people most interested in ‘debate’ tend to be the very people who are least interested in truth. It’s rather ironic. People tend to seek out debate because they want to ‘prove’ themselves right, not to explore possibilities, not to learn something new. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between. You might bash your skull to a bloody pulp before you find them.

And, no, I’m not excluding myself from my own criticisms. I know from my own experience how challenging it is to try to be ‘rational’ (objective, emotionally neutral, self-critical, aware of cognitive biases, being on guard for logical fallacies, genuinely trying to understand different viewpoints, being fair toward another’s argument, considering all the data instead of cherrypicking, and on and on). It’s hard enough for me to deal with all this within myself. It’s just too much to have to try to deal with it in other’s as well, especially when those others in most cases don’t want to (or don’t have the capacity to) deal with it in themselves. Spending so much time online, I end up interacting with many people who don’t bring out the best in me and who put me in a generally combative, irritable mood. And it’s my fault for being so easily effected. I’m the way I am. People are the way they are. There is nothing that can be done about that. In this post, I merely wish to explain my frustration.

– – –

I’ll give some examples.

I recently wrote about the differences between Southern and Northern cultures. There are two ways of treating these differences. The standard liberal view is that cultures are different with both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ aspects. The standard conservative view is that some cultures are inherently or fundamentally superior. The problem with the conservative view is that conservative states and societies don’t rank well on many factors most people consider worthy (education, health, economic equality, etc). The conservative will often dismiss this data outright or rationalize it away. And, of course, a lot of (most?) conservatives have little interest in conceding to the liberal view of openminded and tolerant multiculturalism. As a liberal, how do I win or how do I find a win/win middle ground of understanding? I often can’t.

When I was writing about the Southern/Northern culture issue, I also brought up the related issue of race and IQ because it’s a favorite discussion of conservatives. As a liberal, I have a bias toward believing in egalitarianism. It bothers me on a fundamental level that conservatives are always seeking to prove others (usually those different than them) are inferior. Nonetheless, I’m inclined to defer to science on these kinds of issues. Facts are more important than my beliefs and preferences. I take it seriously when conservatives reference studies suggesting a correlation between race (i.e., racial genetics) and IQ. Because I take facts so seriously, I’ve researched the subject extensively by looking at all the studies I could find along with meta-analysis of the studies. It’s true there are some studies that suggest a possible correlation between race and IQ. But what these conservatives don’t wish to acknowledge is that there are also many studies showing no correlation between race and IQ and also many studies correlating IQ to many other factors. Simply put, the data is complex and the research is inconclusive. There is no scientific consensus, as far as I can tell.

I find odd this conservative attitude. These conservatives will cite research that supports their preconceived conclusions while ignoring all the research that contradicts their views. They completely ignore the issue of scientific consensus. I’ve found conservatives quite suspicious of scientific consensus. Conservatives like science when it agrees with them, but they realize scientific authority is a two-edged sword. Once you accept scientific consensus, you eliminate your ability to cherrypick the data. As a comparable example, most conservatives utterly despise the fact that most scientists in all fields and vast majority (98% as I recall) climatology experts who are active researchers agree that the data supports the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). It took decades for conservatives to accept global warming was even happening, but seemingly most still don’t accept that humans contribute to global warming. So, despite the strong scientific evidence and strong scientific consensus, conservatives are wary about science when it disagrees with their beliefs. They’ll ignore what most scientists conclude about AGW and instead they’ll find the small minority of studies and scientists who agree with them.

Accordingly, science is just there to be referred to when convenient and ignored when inconvenient. I don’t understand this attitude. I just don’t get it. If the majority of experts agree about something, I won’t be so presumptuous as to claim that I know better nor will I simply cherrypick the data that agrees with me. Why would I do this? What is to be gained by such anti-intellectual tactics?

One last example. I was looking at reviews of some books by Jim Wallis. One reviewer (in reference to God’s Politics if I remember correctly) mentioned the abortion issue. The person was criticizing the ‘moderate’ position that Wallis was proposing. As I understand it, Wallis is against abortions except when they are absolutely necessary (such as to save the mother’s life) and so is against banning abortions entirely. This position is ‘moderate’ in two ways. First, it strikes a balance between the practical and the moral and seeks a middle ground between two extremes (of pro-life and pro-choice). Second, it is the view held by most Americans and so is the ‘center’ of public opinion. The critical reviewer was promoting the common conservative view that abortions are bad and so compromising principles is to let liberals win. In a sense this is true because compromise is a liberal principle but not a conservative principle. Polls show that liberals support and conservative don’t support compromise. Even independents, although more supportive than conservatives, don’t have a majority that supports compromise. So, when Wallis is promoting a ‘moderate’ position he is by default promoting the ‘liberal’ position. Also, on many issues, most Americans hold positions that are ‘liberal’ (even though Americans don’t like to label themselves as ‘liberals’).

It just seems like liberals in America always lose even when they win. The liberal can have facts and public opinion on their side… and, yet, liberals are treated like an elitist minority to be dismissed and distrusted. It’s understandable that conservatives are wary about science considering most scientists identify as ‘liberals’.

– – –

All of this has made me increasingly pessimistic. I grew up among idealistic liberals which rubbed off on me a bit, but I’ve over time become cynical in response. What is the point in bringing up facts and analyzing the data? Those who agree with me probably already know what I know or are at least open to learning. And those who disagree with me probably won’t accept the facts no matter what.

My frustration isn’t entirely limited to those on the right. I often find a simplemindedness in the idealism and egalitarianism on the left. Even so, I rarely find the same radical anti-intellectualism on the left as I described above. Plenty of liberals don’t understand science and misrepresent scientific research, but they tend to do so out of an admiration (albeit a confused admiration). There are, for example, the New Age type liberals who want to turn science into a pseudo-religion about the beauty of nature and the wonder of the universe. It’s well intentioned even if naive. From my view, this liberal simplemindedness is mostly harmless. Liberals generally aren’t interested in trying to use science against some race or culture. This isn’t to say I don’t feel frustrated by the liberal New Age woo, but it doesn’t usually make me angry and it won’t make me lose all hope in humanity. Even if a liberal dismisses out of hand scientific studies suggesting a possible correlation between race and IQ, they do so because of worthy ideals of egalitarianism. Liberals want to make the world better for everyone, not just better for one group. Liberals are correct that many conservatives will use any scientific research, with or without scientific consensus, against those they perceive as ‘other’. Yes, we should be wary of ulterior motives when scientific research is being cited.

It’s hard for me to grapple with my frustration or to fully understand it. It’s my own personal issue (which relates to the depression I’ve experienced for a couple of decades), but it’s obviously not just about me. I’m a liberal in a society that is dominated by a conservative ruling elite. I see the polls showing most Americans agree with liberals like me on many issues, but none of that seems to matter. Those with the most power and those who are loudest aren’t generally the liberals. It’s rare for the majority public opinion to become visible such as with the protests in Wisconsin. The liberal majority is largely a silent majority. Most ‘liberals’ (whether or not they identify themselves as such) are ‘moderates’ and so they aren’t radicals who want force their opinion onto others. Anyway, polls showing what most Americans believe or support is quite likely irrelevant to most conservatives. Either they just know most Americans agree with them (no matter what the polls may show) or else the general masses isn’t to be trusted (any more than the intellectual elite).

I’m just frustrated. I have many non-fiction books that interest me and many posts I’d like to write if I had the time… but what is the point? Time is a precious commodity. I could be spending it on activities less frustrating. Yes, I enjoy learning new things, but the process of learning can be less than enjoyable at times because of those I run into while doing research online. I think I just have to accept that what interests me isn’t what interests most others, including in many cases most other liberals. I can get obsessive when my curiosity is piqued. It’s not unusual for me to spend weeks or months doing research and thinking about some subject before writing about it and it can take equal amount of time to gather my thoughts into the form of a post. After all that, very few people typically will ever read what I write. I largely do it for my own reasons and so this shouldn’t matter, but it does matter. It just makes me feel isolated. Truth matters to me in the same way God matters to a religious believer. Truth is my religion. There I said it. I know it sounds silly. I know most people don’t idealize truth in this way and to this extent. It’s because truth matters to me that I want to communicate my own understanding of truth. I want truth to matter to other people. I want to live in a society that values truth above all else. But that isn’t the world I live in.

Honestly, does truth matter? Why should it matter? Why should anyone care about truth?

My frustration makes me feel cynical, but I don’t want to be a cynic. Still, I do understand the attraction of ‘giving up’. As Thomas Ligotti once wrote, in response to superficial optimists (which can apply to all the superficialities of human society): “Once you understand that, you can spare yourself from suffering excessively at the hands of ‘normal people’, a pestilent confederation of upstanding creatures who in concert keep the conspiracy going by rehashing their patented banalities and watchwords.” I can’t begin to explain how much I sympathize with Liotti’s words, but he presents a conclusion of radical pessimism that goes far beyond even my own frustration. What I like about his advice is that bashing one’s head against a brick wall becomes unnecessary and avoidable once one realizes the brick wall for what it is. The brick wall ain’t going to move, not easily anyway. Even the best of us can only bash our heads against a brick wall for so long. I can’t say I’ve given up on my ideal of truth. I just need to let my fractured skull to mend a bit for the time being. Maybe I should read some fiction.