Archive for the ‘Conspiracism’ Category


The far Right, corporatist, religious and political lunatic fringe, has an extensive history of fabricating and manufacturing hoaxes to demonise perceived enemies, or competitors.

Mere reality is insufficient to satiate their lust for unbridled power, sociopathic hatreds and extreme paranoia, so that fantasies and fabrications are routinely manufactured to nourish their pornography of paranoia.

Conspiracism, the manufacture of the ‘demonic other’ and group, cultural ‘scapegoats,’ has persistently played a vital and core role, in far Right propaganda.

The grubby, listed hate preacher, Robert Spencer, adored by neo-Nazis, fascists and Catholic/Christian/Jewish extremists, is an intermediate cog in the larger, manufactured Islamophobia Industry machinery, which has been staple cash cow for far Right religious and politicised extremists, hate mongers and fascists preying and profiteering from real and fabricated cultural tensions.

Whilst innumerable examples could be cited, here’s a recent faux ‘news’ ruse, promulgated by the superstitious, Rightist Catholic fanatical loon, Robert Spencer who deludes that despite his lies, disinformation and deception, he is doing ‘the work of god.’

 

Preview Image

 

Daily-Caller-Refugees

Via by Richard Bartholomew

Here’s one I missed from a month ago. From the Daily Caller:

A group of 51 refugees were brutally assaulted outside a night club in Murmansk, Russia, after they groped and molested women at a night club Saturday.

The refugees had previously been ordered to leave Norway for “bad behavior” and tried their luck in Russia. What they didn’t realize when they went out clubbing in Murmansk is that Russians have less tolerance when it comes to sexual assault on local women than other European countries.

…The refugees tried to flee but were quickly captured by the Russians. They then took them out to the street and gave them a beating they will remember. Police arrived to break up the fight but locals report that they threw a few punches at the refugees before arresting 33 of them. Eighteen refugees were in such bad condition they had to be take to the hospital.

As shown above, the story is illustrated with a photograph of a gang of burly men, one of whom has a club, beating up another man, who cowers on the ground.

The source given in the link above is an Italian report from Imola Oggi (without the photo), which in turn cites Fort RussThe Fort Russ article is in English (“translated by Tom Winter”), and states that it “was prepared from material on social network sites.”

However, it followed an earlier report on the same site (“translated by Ollie Richardson”) which has a somewhat different version of the story:

Several refugees from Arab countries were beaten in the middle of the night of Saturday in the city of Polyarnye Zori (Murmansk oblast), reported a FlashNord source in the law enforcement bodies of the region.

The incident occurred in the nightclub Gandvik.

“According to preliminary data, five refugees were beaten in the entertainment establishment. According to witnesses, they behaved insolently and had been pestering local girls,” — said the Agency’s interlocutor.

“Five”. As opposed to “51”. And no reference to any arrests. But there’s more: the original article from FlashNord can be seen here. It was followed up on the same day with a second article, confirming that there may have been a fight outside the nightclub, but that details could not be confirmed from CCTV and it was all over by the time the police arrived.

So, it looks like there was an incident of some kind – but it is far from clear that it was anything more significant than the kind of fight that tends to occur sometimes near venues where young men have been drinking and are perhaps “on the pull”. Were refugees involved? Was the incident provoked by anti-social behaviour towards female clubbers? Nothing in the report confirms any such details (and I can’t find further evidence elsewhere) – and the story of a mass incident involving dozens of arrests appears to have been a fiction.

The photograph used by the Daily Caller doesn’t make much sense: it shows just one man being attacked, and – somewhat crucially – it was taken in middle of the day. The site either didn’t bother – or forgot – to remove the photo’s metadata caption, which identifies it as actually showing Russian Cossacks assaulting a Ukrainian in Sevastopol in 2014. It was published in its correct context in the media at the time (see below).

Did the Daily Caller intend to deceive? Robert Spencer, always eager to spread stories about how Muslims are depraved, appears to have taken it at face value as evidence, as did other right-leaning sites.

Perhaps it was intended merely to be illustrative – but given that the Daily Caller clearly approves of the outcome in their version of the story, such a photo serves to titillate, and perhaps to exhort.

Have we really reached the point where a photo of a bunch thugs beating someone up is to be celebrated because someone has said that it shows a refugee, and has further assured us that the victim did something anti-social and deserves his fate?

Spencer-vs-Mirror

Preview Image


jesus_illuminati-1

Conspiracism

It is very effective to mobilize mass support against a scapegoated enemy by claiming that the enemy is part of a vast insidious conspiracy against the common good. The conspiracist worldview sees secret plots by tiny cabals of evildoers as the major motor powering important historical events; makes irrational leaps of logic in analyzing factual evidence in order to “prove” connections, blames social conflicts on demonized scapegoats, and constructs a closed metaphysical worldview that is highly resistant to criticism.~1

When conspiracist scapegoating occurs, the results can devastate a society, disrupting rational political discourse and creating targets who are harassed and even murdered. Dismissing the conspiracism often found in right-wing populism as irrational extremism, lunatic hysteria, or marginalized radicalism does little to challenge these movements, fails to deal with concrete conflicts and underlying institutional issues, invites government repression, and sacrifices the early targets of the scapegoaters on the altar of denial. An effective response requires a more complex analysis.

The Dynamics of Conspiracism

The dynamic of conspiracist scapegoating is remarkably predictable. Persons who claim special knowledge of a plot warn their fellow citizens about a treacherous subversive conspiracy to attack the common good. What’s more, the conspiracists announce, the plans are nearing completion, so that swift and decisive action is needed to foil the sinister plot. In different historical periods, the names of the scapegoated villains change, but the essentials of this conspiracist worldview remain the same.~2

George Johnson explained that “conspiratorial fantasies are not simply an expression of inchoate fear. There is a shape, an architecture, to the paranoia.” Johnson came up with five rules common to the conspiracist worldview in the United States:~3

“The conspirators are internationalist in their sympathies.

“[N]othing is ever discarded. Right-wing mail order bookstores still sell the Protocols of the Elders of Zion…[and] Proofs of a Conspiracy [from the late 1700’s].

“Seeming enemies are actually secret friends. Through the lens of the conspiracy theorists, capitalists and Communists work hand in hand.

“The takeover by the international godless government will be ignited by the collapse of the economic system.

“It’s all spelled out in the Bible. For those with a fundamentalist bent, the New World Order or One World Government is none other than the international kingdom of the Antichrist, described in the Book of Revelation.

Conspiracism can occur as a characteristic of mass movements, between sectors in an intra-elite power struggle, or as a justification for state agencies to engage in repressive actions. Conspiracist scapegoating is woven deeply into US culture and the process appears not just on the political right but in center and left constituencies as well.~4 There is an entrenched network of conspiracy-mongering information outlets spreading dubious stories about public and private figures and institutions. They use media such as printed matter, the internet, fax trees, radio programs, videotapes and audiotapes.~5


 

If you want to jump out of this article, try these related pages:

The Conspiracism Collection:

The Sucker Punch Collection


ayaan_hirsi_ali_nancy_drew
Exposing Anti-Islam Author Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Latest Deception

One of America’s most prominent Islam bashers has a long history of making things up.


Conspiracy Theorists Aren’t Really Skeptics

The fascinating psychology of people who know the real truth about JFK, UFOs, and 9/11.
Believing in conspiracy theories doesn’t make you any less gullible than people who buy the “official story.”

Photo by Joshua Roberts/AFP/Getty Images

To believe that the U.S. government planned or deliberately allowed the 9/11 attacks, you’d have to posit that President Bush intentionally sacrificed 3,000 Americans. To believe that explosives, not planes, brought down the buildings, you’d have to imagine an operation large enough to plant the devices without anyone getting caught. To insist that the truth remains hidden, you’d have to assume that everyone who has reviewed the attacks and the events leading up to them—the CIA, the Justice Department, the Federal Aviation Administration, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, scientific organizations, peer-reviewed journals, news organizations, the airlines, and local law enforcement agencies in three states—was incompetent, deceived, or part of the cover-up.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

And yet, as Slate’s Jeremy Stahl points out, millions of Americans hold these beliefs. In a Zogby poll taken six years ago, only 64 percent of U.S. adults agreed that the attacks “caught US intelligence and military forces off guard.” More than 30 percent chose a different conclusion: that “certain elements in the US government knew the attacks were coming but consciously let them proceed for various political, military, and economic motives,” or that these government elements “actively planned or assisted some aspects of the attacks.”

How can this be? How can so many people, in the name of skepticism, promote so many absurdities?

The answer is that people who suspect conspiracies aren’t really skeptics. Like the rest of us, they’re selective doubters. They favor a worldview, which they uncritically defend. But their worldview isn’t about God, values, freedom, or equality. It’s about the omnipotence of elites.

Conspiracy chatter was once dismissed as mental illness. But the prevalence of such belief, documented in surveys, has forced scholars to take it more seriously. Conspiracy theory psychology is becoming an empirical field with a broader mission: to understand why so many people embrace this way of interpreting history. As you’d expect, distrust turns out to be an important factor. But it’s not the kind of distrust that cultivates critical thinking.

In 1999 a research team headed by Marina Abalakina-Paap, a psychologist at New Mexico State University, published a study of U.S. college students. The students were asked whether they agreed with statements such as “Underground movements threaten the stability of American society” and “People who see conspiracies behind everything are simply imagining things.” The strongest predictor of general belief in conspiracies, the authors found, was “lack of trust.”

But the survey instrument that was used in the experiment to measure “trust” was more social than intellectual. It asked the students, in various ways, whether they believed that most human beings treat others generously, fairly, and sincerely. It measured faith in people, not in propositions. “People low in trust of others are likely to believe that others are colluding against them,” the authors proposed. This sort of distrust, in other words, favors a certain kind of belief. It makes you more susceptible, not less, to claims of conspiracy.

A decade later, a study of British adults yielded similar results. Viren Swami of the University of Westminster, working with two colleagues, found that beliefs in a 9/11 conspiracy were associated with “political cynicism.” He and his collaborators concluded that “conspiracist ideas are predicted by an alienation from mainstream politics and a questioning of received truths.” But the cynicism scale used in the experiment, drawn from a 1975 survey instrument, featured propositions such as “Most politicians are really willing to be truthful to the voters,” and “Almost all politicians will sell out their ideals or break their promises if it will increase their power.” It didn’t measure general wariness. It measured negative beliefs about the establishment.

The common thread between distrust and cynicism, as defined in these experiments, is a perception of bad character. More broadly, it’s a tendency to focus on intention and agency, rather than randomness or causal complexity. In extreme form, it can become paranoia. In mild form, it’s a common weakness known as the fundamental attribution error—ascribing others’ behavior to personality traits and objectives, forgetting the importance of situational factors and chance. Suspicion, imagination, and fantasy are closely related.

The more you see the world this way—full of malice and planning instead of circumstance and coincidence—the more likely you are to accept conspiracy theories of all kinds. Once you buy into the first theory, with its premises of coordination, efficacy, and secrecy, the next seems that much more plausible.

Many studies and surveys have documented this pattern. Several months ago, Public Policy Polling asked 1,200 registered U.S. voters about various popular theories. Fifty-one percent said a larger conspiracy was behind President Kennedy’s assassination; only 25 percent said Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Compared with respondents who said Oswald acted alone, those who believed in a larger conspiracy were more likely to embrace other conspiracy theories tested in the poll. They were twice as likely to say that a UFO had crashed in Roswell, N.M., in 1947 (32 to 16 percent) and that the CIA had deliberately spread crack cocaine in U.S. cities (22 to 9 percent). Conversely, compared with respondents who didn’t believe in the Roswell incident, those who did were far more likely to say that a conspiracy had killed JFK (74 to 41 percent), that the CIA had distributed crack (27 to 10 percent), that the government “knowingly allowed” the 9/11 attacks (23 to 7 percent), and that the government adds fluoride to our water for sinister reasons (23 to 2 percent).

The appeal of these theories—the simplification of complex events to human agency and evil—overrides not just their cumulative implausibility (which, perversely, becomes cumulative plausibility as you buy into the premise) but also, in many cases, their incompatibility. Consider the 2003 survey in which Gallup asked 471 Americans about JFK’s death. Thirty-seven percent said the Mafia was involved, 34 percent said the CIA was involved, 18 percent blamed Vice President Johnson, 15 percent blamed the Soviets, and 15 percent blamed the Cubans. If you’re doing the math, you’ve figured out by now that many respondents named more than one culprit. In fact, 21 percent blamed two conspiring groups or individuals, and 12 percent blamed three. The CIA, the Mafia, the Cubans—somehow, they were all in on the plot.

Two years ago, psychologists at the University of Kent led by Michael Wood (who blogs at a delightful website on conspiracy psychology), escalated the challenge. They offered U.K. college students five conspiracy theories about Princess Diana: four in which she was deliberately killed, and one in which she faked her death. In a second experiment, they brought up two more theories: that Osama Bin Laden was still alive (contrary to reports of his death in a U.S. raid earlier that year) and that, alternatively, he was already dead before the raid. Sure enough, “The more participants believed that Princess Diana faked her own death, the more they believed that she was murdered.” And “the more participants believed that Osama Bin Laden was already dead when U.S. special forces raided his compound in Pakistan, the more they believed he is still alive.”

Another research group, led by Swami, fabricated conspiracy theories about Red Bull, the energy drink, and showed them to 281 Austrian and German adults. One statement said that a 23-year-old man had died of cerebral hemorrhage caused by the product. Another said the drink’s inventor “pays 10 million Euros each year to keep food controllers quiet.” A third claimed, “The extract ‘testiculus taurus’ found in Red Bull has unknown side effects.” Participants were asked to quantify their level of agreement with each theory, ranging from 1 (completely false) to 9 (completely true). The average score across all the theories was 3.5 among men and 3.9 among women. According to the authors, “the strongest predictor of belief in the entirely fictitious conspiracy theory was belief in other real-world conspiracy theories.”

Clearly, susceptibility to conspiracy theories isn’t a matter of objectively evaluating evidence. It’s more about alienation. People who fall for such theories don’t trust the government or the media. They aim their scrutiny at the official narrative, not at the alternative explanations. In this respect, they’re not so different from the rest of us. Psychologists and political scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that “when processing pro and con information on an issue, people actively denigrate the information with which they disagree while accepting compatible information almost at face value.” Scholars call this pervasive tendency “motivated skepticism.”

Conspiracy believers are the ultimate motivated skeptics. Their curse is that they apply this selective scrutiny not to the left or right, but to the mainstream. They tell themselves that they’re the ones who see the lies, and the rest of us are sheep. But believing that everybody’s lying is just another kind of gullibility.


9/11 Conspiracy Theories: Why Do People Believe In September 11 Conspiracies?

911
A deeper look into why people believe in 9/11 conspiracy theories. Reuters

Why do people believe in 9/11 conspiracy theories? It’s a simple question to ask, but not necessarily an easy one to answer. Some people might scoff at those who believe in the outlandish theories, but experts said there are several underlying causes why conspiracy theorists are compelled to go against official reports from the government and mainstream media. For one, people don’t want to trust the government. The rise of the Internet has also made it easier than ever to spread alternative suspicions about what “really” happened. What’s more, once someone is convinced a conspiracy is truth, it’s very difficult to change their mind.

There are dozens of conspiracy theories surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Some speculate inside traders knew about the attack beforehand. There are people who are convinced that bombs, not airliners, destroyed the Twin Towers. One of the more popular theories states that the U.S. government, not al Qaeda, was behind the attacks.

When people were asked in the 1950s if they could trust the government to do what is right, 75 percent of people said they did, said Robert Alan Goldberg, a history professor at the University of Utah and the author of “Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America.” But there has been a dramatic change since then because of events like the Vietnam War, the Watergate wiretapping scandal and President Bill Clinton’s intern romance. Now, only a small minority of Americans trust the government to do what is right, Goldberg said.

Part of the reason people turn to conspiracy theories has to do with their lack of trust in the government, conspiracy theory expert Tim Melley, an English professor at Miami University in Ohio, said. People are aware of secretive government programs like the CIA and National Security Agency, but most of that knowledge comes from film and fantasy. “It’s often illegal to report on these kinds of activities,” Melley said. “The public is in this strange fantasy world where they know about clandestine activity, but we don’t know about it in the way we know about other things. It’s creates a suspicion about the government.”

There’s been a blur between what is fact and fiction because of Americans’ fascination with media, Goldberg said. “The greatest historians, if you will, are filmmakers,” he said. “When the film blends with the history, the film becomes history.”

The Internet has also helped conspiracy theories win over new followers. “It’s easier to spread untruths,” said Scott Bigelow, a public communication specialist at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

It doesn’t help that people often turn to the Internet for information that backs up their personal views, Goldberg said. “You go on to the internet to seek conformation,” he said. “Your views are amplified and validated.”

A conspiracy theory can help restore order after a seemingly senseless act occurs, said Kathleen Olmsted, a history professor at the University of California Davis. “The theories serve the psychological purpose of helping people to believe that there is order in the universe and that someone is in charge,” she said.

In the end, it’s just too hard to stop believing, Goldberg said.

“They look for confirming information or they interpret information in a confirming way,” he said. “They lose the ability to find the facts that might trip it up and either disguise them, ignore them or argue those facts are planted. Once you believe in a conspiracy theory, the condition is hard to break.”

Follow me on Twitter @mariamzzarella


‘They’ did this!

By James Carroll

President Kenney’s limousine in Dallas, in a footage taken by presidential aide Dave Powers and photographed from a television screen.

Associated Press/Assassination Records Review Board, Dave Powers

President Kennedy’s limousine in Dallas, in footage taken by presidential aide Dave Powers and photographed from a television screen.

That afternoon in 1963, I was in the cellar of a Catholic seminary, a crenellated Gothic building in Washington, D.C. I was seated in the ad-hoc barber’s chair, while an untrained yet officially designated classmate was hacking at my hair, a normal part of the monkish life. Suddenly, one of our fellow seminarians stormed through the doorway to yell the news from Dallas. With a half-finished haircut, I rushed with the others to the common room for its television. A hundred of us were crowded there by the time the usually stolid Walter Cronkite choked up. One by one, we drifted to the chapel.

Across ensuing days, when we weren’t downtown standing on the curbside of Pennsylvania Avenue or in the Capitol grounds, mute witnesses to one funeral march or another, we were planted in front of the television, or on our knees before the tabernacle. Prayer had never come more naturally. I have no memory of that haircut being finished.

I was 20. The day President Kennedy was murdered marked the beginning of my adulthood. It was the first time I realized that hopes can be dashed suddenly and catastrophically — and, soon enough, that even the most vital of questions may go unanswered forever.

That weekend made the nation whole in its grief. Television sealed the bond. Elegantly enacted military obsequies formed one bracket of experience — the riderless horse with boot reversed in its stirrup, muffled drums, a bugle, the bagpipe; the timeless rubrics of Catholic liturgy formed the other — ubiquitous priests, black vestments, the veiled heads of women, power brokers on their knees. Why, if not for this, had suffering defined the essence of Christian faith? In the stately St. Matthew’s Cathedral, such historic figures as Charles de Gaulle, Haile Selassie, and Eamon de Valera filled out the front pews, but my parents were in there, too. Gruff old Cardinal Cushing touched the casket. He spoke for a merciful God by saying simply, “Dear Jack.”

The assassination’s thicket of unresolved ambiguities became a hospitable niche for a profound American insecurity. Who killed the president? The disproportion between the punk Lee Harvey Oswald and the hero Kennedy surely meant that the assassin could not have acted alone. A gut instinct told everyone that Oswald was a mere instrument wielded by a hidden hand, but whose?

In the search for answers, facts lurking below the surface suddenly took on dark significance: Former Marine Lee Harvey Oswald had previously defected to Moscow; the Kennedy administration had locked its sights on Havana again; mobsters had been the Kennedy brothers’ archenemies. When a local man named Jack Ruby — a strip-club owner? really? — found it possible to enter Dallas police headquarters that Sunday and shoot the heavily guarded Oswald at close range, the story took its decisive turn into the realm of the truly deranged.

The connivance of Reds was an obvious theory: Why shouldn’t the demonic Kremlin have begun its openly stated project of burying America by burying the nation’s now universally beloved president? Newly sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson foresaw the problem of an unleashed impulse to lay blame. Johnson, sensing the danger of the question left unanswered, quickly moved to check a coming torrent of paranoid scapegoating. He appointed the Warren Commission, which, ultimately prompting more questions than it answered, would prove to be the disease that called itself the cure.

Soon, everyone knew these plot points: The Texas School Book Depository. Oswald not a drifter, but a calculator. JFK’s autopsy interrupted. Secret Service lapses. Oswald a Communist. No, a right-wing nut. Eyewitness accounts in conflict. The grassy knoll. Contested bullet trajectories. The unlikelihood of three accurate shots in little more than five seconds, especially by a man known for poor marksmanship. Then there was Oswald’s mystery wife — a Red, for sure.

If the first pieces of the story to emerge seemed jagged, they would fit together eventually, wouldn’t they? Less than a year after the assassination, Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the commission findings: Oswald was an unhinged lone gunman, and so was Ruby. Because Oswald was dead, the commission said, it was not “possible to arrive at the complete story” of the murder. The nation would have to live with questions. The president had been killed for nothing larger than an accidental act of insanity. A second such act, the killing of Oswald, cut short society’s capacity to reckon with the full truth of it. When even Robert Kennedy publicly accepted this explanation, who were the rest of us to wonder?

Subsequent news events, though, kept fueling deeper suspicions about the commission’s work. Official lies about Vietnam widened a credibility gap.  Demonstrations became rebellions. When Malcolm X was murdered in 1965, it could seem remote to white America, but the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 was a blow to the nation — and assassination all at once felt familiar. When Robert Kennedy was gunned down two months later, it was no longer possible to rank such perdition as mad accidents of history. We knew it, we knew it: The murder of JFK had started something. Lone gunmen all — yet these killers had to have some deeper significance than purposeless madness, right? Otherwise we would all be mad.

Yet the quest for answers proved even madder. The uncorked New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison launched a sensational JFK assassination investigation in the late 1960s, culminating in the 1969 trial of a businessman named Clay Shaw. By then John Kennedy’s nemesis Richard Nixon was in the White House — from which some Kennedy admirers deduced that a malevolent current was running below the surface of national consciousness, especially when Nixon expanded the war in Vietnam that Americans had been told was ending. In New Orleans, Shaw was quickly acquitted by a unanimous jury, but in that dismally tumultuous year Garrison’s charge that Kennedy was murdered by a conspiracy had unexpected resonance.

Conspiracy books began rolling off the presses — ultimately hundreds of them. After the Pandora’s box of Watergate was thrown open, with revelations of true government criminality, Congress itself returned to the question of President Kennedy’s assassination, with investigations in both the House and Senate. The Warren Commission report was revisited, and now serious inconsistencies, lapses, and even deceptions were exposed. What the American people had been told about Oswald had fallen far short of the full truth.

But rather than restoring public confidence, these revelations further damaged it. Open congressional testimony produced no hard evidence to contradict the Warren commission’s essential conclusion that both Oswald and Ruby had acted alone. But while the Senate and House committees had made many secrets public, others remained sealed, fueling still more conspiracy theories. Those who rejected conspiracy theories out of hand had come to seem naive.

Through the 1980s, Ronald Reagan, for whom destruction of faith in government was a political purpose, cultivated cynicism on the right by demonizing social services, and on the left by pursuing secret wars in Central America. Thus the whole government-hating country was primed for the arrival of Oliver Stone’s 1991 film “JFK.” With Kevin Costner as Garrison, it turned the New Orleans DA from a crackpot self-aggrandizer into a lonely seeker of truth.

In the movie’s centerpiece scene, a long walking sequence shot at the reflecting pool in Washington, a mysterious Pentagon insider, played by Donald Sutherland, explains to Garrison, and by extension the nation, that Kennedy was killed in a carefully orchestrated act of “black ops” involving the US Army, the CIA, the Secret Service, the FBI, and top-level Washington officials — all acting to protect the Cold War national security elite and its military-industrial partners and, especially, to make sure that their much desired war in Vietnam could proceed. An all-too-dovish Kennedy had to be removed, Stone’s film makes clear, because he was a threat to the “establishment.” Dozens, if not hundreds, of conspirators were actively involved in this crime. And they all kept the secret.

It was nonsense. Critics said so. Still, many took the movie as history. Never mind that Stone’s hypothesis, offered up as fact, amounts to a ghastly slander of numerous identifiable people — one of whom, as it happens, was my father. He was the Pentagon’s intelligence chief, a character bound to be at the center of such a plot. Not given to weeping, to put it mildly, Dad had wept that November weekend. He felt the loss of Kennedy more acutely than anyone I knew. By 1991, luckily, Dad was not aware.

Stone’s film resonated, though, because it salved what had by then become an intolerably painful national wound — not the memory of JFK’s death, but our failure to fully explain it. That we’d been invited to regard the assassination merely as a cruel turn of fate was the work of malevolent forces. The government did this to us, Stone’s film explained.

His narrative was a roaring rejection of the contingency of life, of how great consequences can follow from the petty deeds of wholly insignificant individuals acting with weightless motive more or less alone. “JFK” would prove to be the master template for all assassination conspiracy theories, right down to those 50th anniversary books being published this month. Such elaborate fantasies would be nation-destroying if they were true. Yet, ironically, they offer us a rescue of the moral order — an insistence that massive social and political heartbreak must be the result of intentional design.

In their own way, these conspiracy theories prepared the soil in which took root the broad distrust in government that curses the nation to this day. More than that, conspiracy-mindedness undercuts the civic maturity that is necessary for a commonwealth to function responsibly. Every tug in the direction of conspiracy — “they” did this! — is a signal of the test we have been failing. The compulsion to keep asking the question “why?”, replying to every answer with another “why?”, until the final conjuring of a satisfactory explanation is forced, is a mark of childhood. More recent conspiracy theories, from the supposed murder of Vince Foster to “9/11 was an inside job” to insinuations about missing birth certificates, are also rooted in a callow refusal to get real.

Fifty years later, it is hard to convey how most Americans felt— and how I felt — about John F. Kennedy. In his first summer as president, a crisis over Berlin had ignited the lethal nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. Kennedy told us to prepare for war, and we did. In fear, we felt bound to him.

The climax came, of course, not over Berlin but Cuba. During that October in 1962, an unflinching Kennedy dispelled the danger for which he had primed us. When he and Nikita Khrushchev, equally chastened, agreed to a partial nuclear test ban the following summer, we glimpsed the opening — arms-control negotiations — through which a peaceful end of the Cold War would eventually come.

Less than three months later, when the shots rang out at Dallas, it seemed the post-Cuba reprieve from terror had been revoked. In the death of one man, as we felt it, a far more catastrophic fate had shown itself, an armageddon after all. That the fabric of the nation so quickly unraveled seemed somehow unsurprising. And why shouldn’t we have sought ways to put off maturity — by filling in the gaps in the record with grandiose theories whose vast scope reflected the depths of our sorrow?

At some point, though, a grown person has to say, “I do not know, and never will.” That is the reply to life’s most important questions. For me, it was also the terrible lesson of Kennedy’s death.

James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.


Conspiracy theories explain the right                                                    

The conservative mindset is in decline.

Stories of cabals and secret plots provide comfort as its power wanes  

By Arthur Goldwag

Conspiracy theories explain the right

What just happened in Washington?

Ask a true conservative believer, and they’ll tell you that it was the birth of a terrible beauty. They’ll say the GOP’s true leaders, our nation’s future leadership, revealed itself in all its splendid, futile glory—only to be stabbed in the back by a “thundering herd of chicken-hearted Republicans in Name Only (RINOs)  galloping to the Left.”

If you asked me, I would say that we witnessed a recrudescence of a nihilistic tendency that has never been far from the surface in American politics—a conservatism that is as far from the dictionary definition of conservatism as Obama is from being a socialist. Last fall, on the eve of the election, I wrote in Salon that “America is becoming more multicultural, more gay-friendly and more feminist every day. But as every hunter knows, a wounded or cornered quarry is the most dangerous. Even as the white, patriarchal, Christian hegemony declines, its backlash politics become more vicious.” Was it vicious enough to strap a figurative suicide vest to its chest and threaten the U.S. with default? If you had asked me at the time, I would have said no. Little did I know.

Some of the Republican jihadists who pressed for default feel so personally violated by the presence of a black family in the White House that they would just as soon burn it down as reclaim it. And some live in such a bubble of denial—an alternate cognitive universe in which the poor lord it over the rich and white Christians are a persecuted minority, in which a president who was twice elected by an overwhelming popular majority is a pretender, and a law that Congress attempted to overturn more than 40 times was “never debated”—that they have convinced themselves that a default would have actually been a good thing, that it would have restored the U.S. economy to a sound foundation.

It is a triumph not so much of a conspiracy as of conspiracist thinking. As John Judis wrote in The New Republic last week, even “lobbyists I talked to cited….Richard Hofstadter’s essay on ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ to explain the rise of the populist right. It’s the kind of reference you’d expect to read in a New Republic article, but not necessarily in a conversation with a business lobbyist.”

Lest I be accused of falling for a left wing conspiracy theory myself, I want to say a few words about “conspiracy theory” before I continue. “Conspiracy theory” is a loaded and frankly a bad term, one that unfairly besmirches any and all theorizing about conspiracies.

Bracketing all thinking about conspiracies with tall tales and outright delusions about secret societies whose leaders toast each other with blood drunk out of human skulls is unfair and misleading. Some anti-government conspiracy theories—that the Tonkin Gulf Incident didn’t happen as reported, for example, or that the CIA was involved with international dope dealers, are so far from being ridiculous that they turn out to be true. The NSA does have access to your emails. For that matter, a certain amount of toasting with skulls (if not actual blood) has been reliably reported to go on in some quarters.

Still, there are theories and then there are theories. Scientists know the difference between unfalsifiable ones like intelligent design and genuinely scientific ones like evolution. Theories about political conspiracies are harder to put to the test; absence of evidence, as Donald Rumsfeld once said, is not evidence of absence. In fact it’s the whole point.

I do think most people know the difference between a “conspiracy theory” in its pejorative sense—say, that the Fed takes its orders from a secret society of Jewish elders, who cause depressions and wars to further their plan of ruling the world—and its literal sense, such as a serious inquiry into Oswald’s relationship to the CIA.

Still, truth can be stranger than fiction and we need to respect that.

If I were to tell you that a cabal of Congressional Republicans had been quietly working with a roster of little-known political organizations since the last election, many of them funded by a pair of shadowy billionaire brothers, to bring the country to the brink of financial ruin, I’d understand it if you thought I was talking about a conspiracy theory. But really I’d be describing the sausage making that goes on in politics today and the blurry lines between lobbying and influence peddling—and even more than that, about the behavior of people who are so blinded by rage, so driven by their own fever dreams about Obama’s plot to turn the U.S. into a Third-World, multi-racial, socialist, Muslim, atheist paradise, that they would pay any cost to ruin his presidency.

But if there is still any question about what a bad conspiracy theory is, I’d like to submit as Exhibit A one proposed by an anonymous author at the Canadian website Press Core, which was promoted a couple of weeks ago by World Net Daily columnist and Fox News contributor Erik Rush (sometimes known as “the other Rush”) on his radio show. Part of what makes it a classically “bad” conspiracy theory, besides its tendentiousness, is its meanness. It’s like a push poll; its sole purpose is to propagate a meme that demonizes and delegitimizes the president. I think it also provides insight into the mindset that characterizes far-right thinking these days.

The Navy Yard shootings in D.C., this theory goes, was a false flag incident perpetrated by the Obama administration to stop the Navy from arresting the president for treason. The victims of the shooting, who were all NCIS commanders, the story continues, had discovered that Obama was planning an even more horrific false flag—he was going to explode a nuclear device in Washington, D.C., to justify going to war with Syria. Some of this “sounds like a conspiracy theory,” the other Rush admitted, but “a lot of stuff that seemed to some of us like conspiracy theories years ago turned out to be true over the last few months.”

One way to judge a theory is to look at its source. Is it a generally respected news gatherer or a propaganda mill?  Scanning the headlines at Press Core, I couldn’t help noticing another article, this one with the byline Paul W. Kincaid, the site’s editor. The piece reveals that the Vatican, the U.N., and the Third Reich have been working together on a covert and sinister plan to exterminate, and I am quoting now, “as many as 3 billion people through Vatican unholy wars of terror against Muslim and Jewish states, designer diseases, and famine.”

This story really astounded me, because it sees both Jews and Muslims as victims rather than perpetrators. That’s not what you usually read on websites of this kind, trust me. Some of the most virulently anti-Islamic websites today, many of them run by Jews, feature stories that could have been written by 1930s anti-Semites like Elizabeth Dilling or Gerald Burton Winrod, except the word Shariah replaces the word Kehilla, and instead of out-of-context quotes from the Talmud about the necessity of lying to the gentiles they are pulled from the Koran and refer to the supposed doctrine of Tawriya. Of course a major theme at those sites is Obama’s suspicious sympathies toward the Muslim world.

The theories that we file under the unfortunate rubric of conspiracy theories are theories of everything. They have a kind of metaphysical authority, and, in their confidence that everything is ultimately connected, a scope and a moral framework that is almost theological.

Most of all, they are reactive. Conspiracists are people who feel threatened—in their pocketbooks, their status, or both. Conspiracy theories explain what is happening to them and why, assigning blame to an adversary who is consciously and deliberately carrying out an evil intention.

Conspiracists use the word “evil” as a noun as well as an adjective; they believe that their adversaries are literally demonic. Much as a Kabbalist believes that God fashioned the world out of Hebrew letters, many conspiracists believe that their enemies sign the catastrophes that they cause in visual, numeric or symbolic codes.

They look backward nostalgically to what they’ve lost, they look forward with anxious expectation to a bloody reckoning. As a political candidate once said in an unguarded moment, they cling to their guns and their religion.

Conspiracism turns chaotic events into coherent narratives—surprisingly often, one that hews to the storyline of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” an early 20th-century anti-Semitic pastiche that was cut and pasted together by Eastern Orthodox defenders of the absolute monarchy of the Tsar.

Conspiracy theories’ narratives unfold much as the storylines of massive multi-player online games do. They take place in a universe that’s bounded by hard-and-fast rules and peopled by broadly drawn, cartoon-like characters. Whatever happens is either part of the algorithm or something that one of the player gods has intentionally caused to happen.

You see this kind of thinking when you read claims that the Sandy Hook school shooting was staged by “actors,” or that purport to identify the fake blood and prosthetic limbs in the carnage after the Boston Marathon “false flag” bombing. Like the ancient Gnostics, or the characters in “The Matrix” or “The Truman Show,” they believe that God is a Satanic impostor—that the world is a deliberately constructed illusion, the opposite of the place that its designated authority figures purport it to be.

The Left, I freely admit, is not immune to conspiracy theories. If many of the “false flag” claims originate with quasi-Bircher populists like Alex Jones, they resonate in some leftist quarters as well. Communist dialectics and the theory of history that undergirds Premillennial Dispensationalism share some attributes; party propaganda was as filled with paranoid conspiracy theories (some of them true) as anything that the organized right has ever produced. But I do tend to think that the very reactiveness of reactionary thinking predisposes it to conspiracism a bit more. This is why as many extreme ideas resonate within the Republican mainstream as they do.

Conservatives, especially conservative white men of a certain age, many of them living in the states of the Old Dominion and the mountainous West, are feeling beleaguered in this fifth year of the Great Recession. As conservative as his governance has turned out to be in practice, the election of an African American president has tended to exacerbate their feelings of victimization.

Public Policy Polling has issued a couple of surveys on conspiracy theories this year. And belief pretty clearly breaks down along partisan lines:

  • 34 percent of Republicans and 35 percent of Independents believe a global power elite is conspiring to create a New World Order—compared to just 15 percent of Democrats.
  • Fifty-eight percent of Republicans believe global warming is a hoax; 77 percent of Democrats do not.
  • Sixty-two percent of Republicans and 38 percent of Independents believe the Obama administration is “secretly trying to take everyone’s guns away.” Only 14 percent of Democrats agree.
  • Forty-two percent of Republicans believe Shariah law is making its way into U.S. courts, compared to just 12 percent of Democrats.
  • More than twice as many Republican voters (21 percent) as Democrats (9 percent) believe the government is using “false flag incidents” to consolidate its power.
  • Forty-four percent of Republicans and 21 percent of Independents believe that Obama is making plans to stay in office after his second term expires. Only 11 percent of Democrats agree.

Most elected officials who traffic in conspiracy theories are too rich and successful themselves to believe in them; they deploy them opportunistically, to push voters’ emotional buttons. As Michael Tomasky wrote in The Daily Beast last week, “The rage kept the base galvanized….The rich didn’t really share the rage, or most of them. Even the Koch Brothers probably don’t….But all of them have used it. And they have tolerated it, the casual racism, the hatred of gay people, and the rest….because they, the elites, remained in charge. Well, they’re not in charge now. The snarling dog they kept in a pen for decades has just escaped and bitten their hand off.”

Back in the winter of 2012, a couple of weeks before my book “The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right” was published, I was at a party at my sister’s house, and she introduced me to the husband of a friend of hers, a lawyer active in the Democratic party. I told him how conspiratorial memes about the Illuminati have echoed down to us from the 1790s, and how the influence of fringe groups like the John Birch Society extends beyond marginal figures like Alex Jones and Ron Paul and can even be discerned in the GOP’s campaign rhetoric.

He just laughed derisively. “What possible relevance do those nuts have today?” he said. “Nobody cares about them.” Judging from the recent events in Washington, I think it’s safe to say that his complacency was a bit premature.

Arthur Goldwag is the author, most recently, of “The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right”