A few thoughts on conspiracy theories…

October 6, 2017 Leave a comment

(originally a Facebook post)

So, conspiracy theories. Some random thoughts.

1. Conspiracy theorists are religious, not scientific. Conspiracy theorists start from the premises that authorities always lie, and, therefore, that whatever stories authorities tell are told to conceal a deeper truth. Assuming this to be true, they seek evidence to support their assumption, which tends to lead to cherry-picking, ignoring opposing evidence, and any number of rather desperate logical maneuvers. One of the things that makes conspiracy theory so compelling and so easy is that it always rests on a circular argument: as soon as contradictory evidence emerges and proves difficult to ignore or explain away, the conspiracy theorist can always retort, “that’s exactly what They want you to think,” thus introducing a new level of the rabbit hole. (The best science—and I’m no expert on the philosophy or sociology of science, so forgive my naïveté—on the other hand, is about disproving hypotheses, even, or especially, one’s own, in a transparent effort to test a theory’s merit.)

In other words, conspiracy theories tend to exploit the fact that most certainty is not 100% certainty in order to plant the seeds of doubt. Then, once a full-grown conspiracy theory develops, it’s virtually impossible to disprove because the conspiracy theorist will simply reject evidence presented, using conspiracy theories to discredit the source. Because conspiracy theories are not subject to falsifiability, they are, at best, pseudoscience or, more aptly, a kind of secular religion.

2. Conspiracy theories have their bases in the unacknowledged ignorance of the conspiracy theorists in so far as they begin with something that the would-be theorist finds implausible or extraordinary. Examples include the moon landing, and recent acts of violence including the mass murder in Las Vegas and the earlier mass murder in a church in Charleston. Conspiracy theorists—not understanding how humans could travel to the moon or back, how an individual could set up a killing spree like the one in Las Vegas, or the ways in which racist terrorism has always been a reality of American society and how it informed the killer’s actions in that church—find these events to be extraordinary. In the case of the moon landing, they’re right: landing a space ship on the moon and then flying it back into space and returning the astronauts to Earth is remarkable and unusual. But sometimes extraordinary things happen, either by phenomenal luck or by unfathomable skill and effort—or sometimes both. In contrast, there is nothing particularly extraordinary about the murders in Las Vegas and Charleston because America is partly defined by the bitter, cowardly violence of fragile white males whose egos are threatened by some existential danger—real or imagined—and who therefore lash out in violence against their neighbors.

Recognizing that extraordinary events happen, or that some events that seem extraordinary are not (because one’s knowledge is so limited that plausible happenings appear implausible) would prevent many conspiracy theories from developing in the first place, like the rampant speculation that the Las Vegas and Charleston terrorist attacks were actually false flag missions orchestrated by some shadowy power brokers to allow the government to take away Americans’ guns (if only) or to drive a wedge between black people and white people (as if such a wedge didn’t already exist).

Instead, supposedly extraordinary events with supposedly implausible explanations inspire conspiracy theorists to explode into action, with predictable results, or lack thereof.

3. Conspiracy theorists constantly confuse plausibility with certainty, believing that if an alternative explanation (aligned with the conspiracy theorist’s preconceived notions about what They are up to in secret) can be imagined and supported plausibility, it must be true.

4. Conspiracy theorists believe that everyone they disagree with has ulterior motives that warp their statements and tarnish their motives, but everyone they agree with is pure of motive and utterly honest in all of their assertions. So, on one hand, government sources—from PR stooges to scientific agencies—are always lying, and academic scientists are always blinded by their conventional biases and/or corporate (or government) backing. On the other hand, anyone with the capacity to post a video on YouTube is in special possession of true knowledge. The more “alternative” the source, the more “real” and honest it is.

This is a slightly grown up version of the belief that, as long as you’re the only person (you think) that likes a particular band, that band is so cool, but as soon as other people come to like the band, the band members are sell-outs, and you have so moved on to the next obscure band.

In reality, the YouTube video maker has an agenda, too, and this agenda is as likely to distort his/her “truth” as anyone else’s agenda is likely to distort theirs (and perhaps more, since they’ve often abandoned the standards and criteria for accuracy, validity, and merit that inform more rigorous institutions of knowledge construction).

5. Conspiracy theories are ultimately about establishing and maintaining an illusion of power and control over one’s environment. The world is a complicated place, people are honest and dishonest, our leaders do horrible things sometimes and then sometimes they don’t, and there’s a lot that we don’t know because it’s not yet knowable (rather than because They don’t want you to know). This can be frightening or destabilizing. Mythologies are comfortable, so we turn to religion, ideology, science, and conspiracy theories to discover and even create the myths that make sense to us and which allow us to gain and then assert our own authority, that is, to exert influence on the huge, unsettling world, rather than always feeling like we’re drowning in its unknowability. But I find that not knowing is a more honest stance and a less destructive one than a certainty based on lies and bad evidence. I’ve never met a conspiracy theorist willing to entertain the slightest possibility that there were limits to his/her knowledge let alone that he/she might be wrong about all or part of his/her elaborate theories.

6. Conspiracy theories feed fear, and fear leads to a desire to “protect” oneself from all threats—real or imagined—and this defensive stance tends to lead to violence.

One other point I’d add, but it would take research that I don’t have time for right now is that…

7. Sooner or later, conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists tend to embody virulently racist beliefs. I don’t know why this would be true, since there’s nothing automatically racist about the thinking that supports conspiracy theories. Maybe it has to do with the fact that some of the most extensive and destructive conspiracy theories of the last 2000 years have been brutally anti-Semitic. Take, for example, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fabricated texts that fueled outrageous lies about Jews and was used by Nazis to support extermination of Jews and by right-wing Americans to power the Red Scare. It would be hard to list or calculate the damage done by the Protocols, but it seems that similar thinking penetrates into many contemporary conspiracy theories, where They become people of a certain ethnicity, or perhaps people who use racist attitudes to further other nefarious purposes. In any event, the gap between conspiracy and racism is frequently narrow.

Oh, and…

8. Conspiracy theories are sustained by a subculture that forms around conspiracy theory. Once an individual makes the decision to reject “official” sources of information and conventional narratives of history, science, and such, s/he needs new sources of information. Even if a conspiracy theorist starts in isolation, s/he will eventually find a subculture built around a specific conspiracy theory or a tendency to see conspiracies everywhere. Shows like The X Files like fun of this subculture, depicting them as hapless (but often right) nerds in an RV filled with electronics and zines. Now, though, a conspiracy theorists need only a computer with access to Reddit and YouTube to find more people like themselves. This subculture then becomes self-reinforcing by trading theories, discussing theories, shoring up holes in theories, and discovering or creating informations sources that “prove” the theories. By rejecting the wider world of information and critique that exists outside the subculture, conspiracy theory becomes its own world with its own standards of reason, logic, and evidence. Moreover, like all subcultures, the one around conspiracy theories provides a system of social capital that allows any one conspiracy theory to gain status by posting more, arguing better, being more radically hostile to official stories and storytellers, presenting pseudo-evidence, etc. Thus, the community becomes ever more extreme by rewarding exceptionally oppositional thinkers and ideas, and by refusing any outside evidence that could undermine the thinking of community members or at least instill a note of humility in their conclusions about reality.

Finally, have fun with this: https://youtu.be/BNpmJVa10PU.

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Emergency Stress Relief Musical Diversion Activity!!!!!

May 4, 2017 Leave a comment

The instructions are simple, but the activity can be curiously difficult.

STEP ONE: Shuffle your music player (unless it’s a turntable).
STEP TWO: Post the first line of lyrics from the first 20 songs that play.

STEP THREE: Then your friends get to guess the songs (and artists, for bonus points). But if they use the Internet to get the answers, they will go to Hell. At some point.

(I’m not going to include any first lines that contain the title of the song.)
It’s not easy—my iPhone was somewhat perverse (not perverted) this morning. Whoever gets the most song titles correct wins…A ZILLION DOLLARS!!!*
Here goes….
1. Jack’s dad was mad at Jack 
2. I know it doesn’t seem that way / But maybe it’s the perfect day.
3. Look for me, Young B / Cruisin’ down the westside high way
4. Essil on (…maybe)
5. I’m the son of rage and love
6. If man is the father the son / is the center of the earth / In the middle of the universe…
7. Safe on the interstate
8. I was born by the river, in a little tent
9. There’s power in a factory, power in the land
10. This sh*t is wicked on these mean streets
11. We are the G O Ds / And we came to rock the spot
12. The twitchin’ impulses to speak your mind
13. Feel the funk blast
14. I’m wearing fur pajamas
15. Here’s a hymn to welcome in the day
16. Visualizing the realism of life and actuality
17. I apologize / I seem to have arrived home / with items in my bag / from your house
18. I see you girlfriend / I got so lucky with you
19. Come on, although ya try to discredit / Ya still never edit

20. Darlin’ don’t walk out on me / tryin’ to teach me a lesson

* Eventually, but at a later date, Lichtenstein will be sending you, in some form, your well-earned reward.

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Images of War

April 10, 2017 Leave a comment

I was thinking this morning, while I made the waffles. (Yes, waffles take this long to make.)

It should be impossible to make a war movie that’s rated G, PG, PG-13, or maybe even R. I don’t mean there should be a rule or a law prohibiting that. I mean that if you’re going to show even a semi-serious depiction of war, the least graphic images in it should be similar to that footage we saw last week of children and adults dying in Assad’s chemical attacks. After all, as horrific and terrifying as they were, those images showed bodies intact. Bodies destroyed by conventional weapons (like the kind we’ve been using around the world for decades and in Syria for years) have not been judged to be prime-time friendly by American media companies. In fact, when those images are shown by outlets like Al-Jazeera, they’re often labeled propaganda by American critics. 

When we make audience-pleasing war movies, we’re lying. And this isn’t a silly little lie to skate past the MPAA raters. It’s a bold, heinous, and perhaps strategic lie that lets politicians like Barack Obama and Donald Trump drop bombs with popular reactions ranging from apathy and ignorance (for Obama) to outright praise (for Trump). 

What would happen if, on both our movie screens and on our favorite news shows, we saw what our military intervention (such a brisk, clean, dignified phrase) really looked like on the receiving end? Would we be less (or more?) likely to favor violent “solutions” to the world’s problems? 

That’s not a new question, of course. But it came up again for me recently when our current president claimed that his horror at seeing video of poison-gassed Syrians led directly to his decision to bomb that Syrian airstrip. This raises so many questions. Many have asked, for instance, if he feels such compassion for Syrian victims of violence, shouldn’t he change his stance on refugees as radically as he quickly changed his stance on military action in the region? I also wonder, though, if he’d seen a steady stream of bloody dismemberment and slaughter (i.e. what’s really been happening in the Syrian civil war and elsewhere) for the last several years, would this have evoked human feelings in him long ago? And what policy implications might this have had? I mean, he could have read about this in so many places, but he’s said himself that he prefers short passages of text and more pictures and video. In this, he isn’t that different from millions of Americans, which is why images matter now more than they have since the rise of mass literacy centuries ago. 

Which leads me back to my opening point. What if our media, from blockbusters to cable news, devoted itself to serving up honest depictions of war’s incalculable human costs—images that no person should see, let alone the PG and PG-13 audiences that are now served what amounts to sanitized pro-war propaganda, even when the intent is to question the morality of war? Would public opinion be different? Would the chattering pundit class change their nationalistic tune? Would our politicians re-double diplomatic and political efforts to stave off the so-called “last resort” of war? Would our State Department budget (proposed 2018 budget $37.6 billion) look a little more like our Pentagon budget (proposed 2018 budget $639 billion)? 

Eh, probably not. I need to eat these waffles. 

#52FilmsByWomen: The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

August 14, 2016 Leave a comment

Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker is a suspenseful thriller with noir and Western elements. When creepy tough-guy and serial murderer Emmet Myers (William Talman) hitches a ride with two vacationing regular Joes, it’s not a matter of whether he’ll kill them but when.

The interplay between the film’s three major characters really worked to heighten the suspense. Although there were other elements that worked to ratchet up the tension (like the cops closing in on Myers and his victims), not much else was needed. With two hostages, it was never certain that both would survive. Plus, as Myers himself points out late in the film, either man could have saved himself if he hadn’t decided to be a true friend to the other. This provides a moral foil versus Myers himself, who would never do such a thing. 

As with most films in the noir style, the camera work here is brilliant, especially the play with shadows and light. The characters are often sliding into the concealment of darkness or exposed to the blinding light of Mexico’s desert sun. The contrast works as a metaphor for the characters’ risk of discovery in addition to establishing a kind of visual rhythm of light and darkness.

One final observation: this might be the first mid-century film I’ve seen that didn’t play in awful, demeaning stereotypes of Mexicans. Here, the police are competent and principled, the citizens are kind but not fawning, and there are no layabouts in sombreros to be seen. It was a refreshing surprise. 

In all, a fine bit of suspense for my Sunday afternoon—it kept me far more engaged than many contemporary thrillers I could mention. 

9 of 10 stars

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52 Films by Women: Citizenfour (2014)

August 14, 2016 Leave a comment

image culled fromhttp://truthinmedia.com/documents-cia-flew-rendition-flight-in-attempt-capture-snowden/

Citizenfour probably doesn’t require much summary: it tells the story of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks (aided by journalist Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras) and shows the beginning of the US government’s chilling response to his disclosures. In the grand patriot-vs-traitor debate on Snowden, this film falls firmly in the “patriot” camp, even while it also captures Snowden’s tendency to self-aggrandize on occasion.

I appreciated this film, although I kept waiting for it to get somewhere it never seemed to get. Even I’m not sure what I mean by that. In any event, the documentary ends abruptly, while many important processes around Snowden’s actions are incomplete. I was surprised when the closing credits started! 

I will say that this film piqued my interest in Snowden’s story, which I confess I’d allowed myself to absorb passively as it’s unfolded over the past few years. I feel now that he and his revelations deserve a closer look. 

7.5 of 10 stars

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52 Films by Women: Take the Pledge

August 10, 2016 Leave a comment

Women in Film is challenging movie lovers to watch 52 films by women over the course of a year—one movie a week. Tonight, I decided to take the pledge. 

After browsing through the lists on the WIF site—and after eliminating the relatively small number of movies I’d already seen—I chose the following films to watch…if I can find them!

If you have any suggested edits to the list—movies I should add, subtract—please share.

52 Films by Women Directors

American Psycho, 2000

The Angel at My Table, 1990

The Apple, 1998

Appropriate Behavior, 2014

The Arch, 1970 

The Ascent, 1977

The Babadook, 2014

Beau Travail, 2000

Beyond the Lights, 2014

Boat People, 1982

Bright Star, 2009

My Brilliant Career, 1994

Butter on the Latch, 2013

Celia, 1989

Chilly Scenes of Winter, 1979

Cleo from 5 to 7, 1962

Citizenfour, 2014

Daisies, 1966

Dogfight, 1991

Dreams of a Life, 2011

An Education, 2009

Enough Said, 2013

Eve’s Bayou, 1997

Fat Girl, 2001

Fish Tank, 2009

Gas Food Lodging, 1992

Girlfriends, 1978

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, 2014

Grace of My Heart, 1996

Harlan County, USA, 1976

The Headless Woman, 2008

The Hitch-Hiker, 1953

I for India, 2005

Jean Dielman, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, 1975

The Loneliest Planet, 2011

Lourdes, 2009

Love & Basketball, 2000

Me and You and Everyone We Know, 2005

Morvern Callar, 2002

Near Dark, 1987

Obvious Child, 2014

One. Two. One, 2011

Orlando, 1992

Pariah, 2011

Persepolis, 2007

Ratcatcher, 1999

Ravenous, 1999

Rocks in My Pockets, 2014

The Second Awakening of Christa Klages, 1978

Selma, 2014

Seven Beauties, 1975

Sister, 2012

The Square, 2013

Stories We Tell, 2012

Sweetie, 1989

Thirteen, 2003

Tomboy, 2011

Vagabond, 1985

Wadjda, 2012

Wanda, 1970

Wendy & Lucy, 2008

We Need to Talk about Kevin, 2011

Winter’s Bone, 2010

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Deafening Silence: White Silence and Alton Sterling

July 7, 2016 Leave a comment

Worth reading.

What will I do today to work toward justice?

Form Follows Function

I want to start by being very specific about who I am talking to; this post is meant for people who look like me, those of us with white skin.

Many of you woke up this morning and heard the news about Alton Sterling, the 37 year old man who was shot and killed by the police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The sickening feeling in your stomach probably hit you hard as you watched the cell phone footage of a police officer charging and tackling Sterling to the ground. You knew what was coming next. And, within seconds you saw it: the police officer mounts Sterling like a UFC fighter. There is no confrontation. No struggle. Sterling is subdued and then another officer yells “Gun. Gun.” The officer on top of Sterling pulls his gun and within seconds fires multiple rounds killing Alton Sterling.

This morning my Facebook feed…

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