When will America’s Jews–and by America’s Jews I mean its majority of secular, non- or semi-observant Jews, not its rapidly-growing minority of religious fundamentalists, or its even smaller but extremely well-funded micro-minority of political neo-conservatives and professional Zionists–recognize that the separation of church and state is what has assured their safety in the US thus far?
Of course there are anti-Semites in the world (among them many of Israel’s staunchest Evangelical supporters–and a handful of regular commentators at this very tiny, insignificant blog). And yes, it goes without saying that millions of Arabs (and most Gazans) would welcome the destruction of the Jewish state. But its existence (and its devolution into an apartheid fascist pariah state) has provided neither an antidote for anti-Semitism nor a safe-haven from it.
The horrors in Gaza aren’t an anomaly–they’re the naked face of an imperialist ethno-state.
I don’t know what goes on in the heads of American Jews whose Zionism comes from their religion or their right wing political agenda. But the rest of us should be appalled at what’s being done in our names in the Middle East–and terrified at the erosion of church/state separation at home.
I am going to be on HuffPost Live this afternoon to talk about the “Men’s Issues” convention; after that, I would love to retire from commenting on or even thinking about that world.
Not that men don’t have issues to deal with–any group that comprises half of humanity is going to have a host of them. When I hear the horror stories about divorce courts, I’m as appalled as anyone (though I also understand that the vast majority of divorces aren’t like the most contentious ones; that millions of estranged couples do manage to rear their children together). As a father and husband, I get a little tired of seeing clueless husbands and bumbling dads on TV commercials too, though I don’t think it rises to the level of a blood libel.
Beyond that, I will even concede that you can find actual examples of misandry, if you look for them in the writings and chatrooms of the most extreme man-haters. Seek and ye shall find.
But defining feminism by the writings of Valerie Solanas or Andrea Dworkin is exactly like what a white supremacist does when he takes a white-hating passage from the manifestos of a group like the Nation of Islam or the New Black Panthers and presents it as the normative attitude of blacks; or what an anti-Semite does when he culls one of those Jewish supremacist passages from the Talmud and presents them as the normative view of everyone whose mother or father was Jewish. Identifying your adversary as your polar opposite virtually guarantees that you will never be able to make an accommodation with them–which of course is exactly the point. Zionists who believe that not only the Palestinians themselves but anyone who expresses sympathy towards them are Amalek aren’t going to be particularly effective peace makers. Extremism perpetuates and exacerbates extremism.
I keep talking about cognitive dissonance these days, but I think it provides a pretty useful frame for this particular theater of the gender wars. A lot of the debate is as heated as it is because the people who are engaging in it know how un-factual most of their premises are. Men aren’t a persecuted minority; neither is “violation…a synonym for intercourse” (Andrea Dworkin).
When it comes to the fringes, neither side is really fighting about what they say they are–they’re projecting and acting out much deeper hurts: sexual and familial disappointments and dysfunction; the sense of inadequacy and emasculation that accompany economic and status struggles; and so on. The 150 or so attendees of the convention I went to weren’t all monsters by any stretch of the imagination. I didn’t fear for my personal safety. But I daresay most of them weren’t very happy people either.
So I come home from Detroit with two broad theorems and a corollary conclusion:
1) That when the personal is the political, the politics are going to be pretty distorted and the ideology somewhat incoherent;
2) That extremism breeds extremism. If you’re a hammer, all you’re ever going to see are nails.
If you really care about gender equity and empowerment, then the Andrea Dworkins and Paul Elams of the world are mostly a distraction. It’s easy to demonize MRAs, but they don’t do anywhere near the damage to women that, say, the Hobby Lobby has done, or the GOP. They’re easy to hate, but engaging with them is about as useful as it is for LGBT activists to fight with the Westboro Baptist Church.
PS A slightly different version of this piece is now up at the Huffington Post.
As I am getting ready to attend the first A Voice For Men International Conference on Mens Issues here in Detroit, I thought I’d post this article I wrote about Elliot Rodger, the mens rights movement, and a statistical study of male victimization. The people who commissioned it thought that it tried to do too many things at once and declined to publish it; nobody else that I’ve shown it to has had any interest in it either.
I hate that so much of the discourse around sexual violence is as politicized as it is. A lot of the theorizing that goes on, especially but not exclusively on the male side of the equation, is something of a red herring. An awful lot of it is displaced, or not so displaced, rage and resentment. Not that anger isn’t appropriate sometimes, but it is rarely conducive of clear thinking.
Although mens rights people like to portray me as their “ideological enemy,” I’ve yet to publish anything that engages with their movement’s “principles” (whatever those may be–perhaps I’ll find out more today). I’ve attacked their misogyny where I’ve seen it, and I’ve seen a lot of it.
Elliot Rodger, Rape Culture, and A Different Perspective On Male Victimhood
Thanks to Elliot Rodger, misogyny, rape culture, and male entitlement have been getting broad play in the news. The Manosphere – the blogs, message boards, and websites where male combatants in the so-called war between men and women post their thoughts about gender, sex, and Feminism and sell their assorted wares—has come in for some unwelcome attention as well.
The media consensus is that Rodger’s violence and his misogyny were two sides of the same coin.
“Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality,” Rebecca Solnit once wrote, “but it does have a gender.”
But is it always male? “The Sexual Victimization of Men in America: New Data Challenge Old Assumptions” is an important new study, co-written by Lara Stemple, a professor at UCLA Law School and Ilan Meyer, a senior scholar at UCLA Law’s Williams Institute, that offers a different perspective on the gender of rape, sexual abuse, and violence.
But first, Elliot Rodger. That Rodger was a misogynist, there can be no doubt. Like the cliché, Rodger turned to guns to compensate for his sense of impotence. After he bought his first pistol, he recalled in his memoir, he “felt a new sense of power.”
Who’s the alpha male now, bitches? I thought to myself, regarding all of the girls who’ve looked down on me in the past.
Rodger appears to have been a textbook example of a new category of male spree killer that the sociologists Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel identified in a 2010 study as those who commit “suicide by mass murder.” Their hallmark, Kalish and Kimmel wrote, is their aggrieved sense of entitlement.
Aggrieved entitlement inspires revenge against those who have wronged you; it is the compensation for humiliation. Humiliation is emasculation: humiliate someone and you take away his manhood. For many men, humiliation must be avenged, or you cease to be a man. Aggrieved entitlement is a gendered emotion, a fusion of that humiliating loss of manhood and the moral obligation and entitlement to get it back. And its gender is masculine.
But if Rodger was aggrieved, entitled, sexist, virulently racist, explosively violent, and male, he wasn’t a rapist. Some Mens Rights Activists, adherents of a masculinist ideology that purports to expose and fight society’s inbuilt “misandry” (the term they use to signify the obverse of misogyny) see him and his victims (most of them male), as “a sacrifice at the altar of gynocentrism.”
Which isn’t to say that they’ve exactly embraced him. “Elliot Rodger was not a product of the PUA [Pick Up Artist] community and he was not influenced by the MHRM [Men’s Human Rights Movement],” one wrote.
But if only women had only been more sensitive to Rodger’s feelings, he continued, in an unselfconsciously misogynist vein that is disturbingly reminiscent of Rodger’s own writings, if only he had been taught “about the possible dangers of getting involved with women” (divorce, false paternity, depression), he wouldn’t have idealized them as he did. Instead, he would have known that “sex isn’t that much better than masturbation, but just different.”
Naturally, MRAs have taken umbrage at the #YesAllWomen Twitter meme that Rodger’s acts inspired. Far from living in a rape culture, they retort, we are living in a false rape culture, in which men are haunted by the fear that their consensual sexual partners (or even total strangers) will arbitrarily accuse them of a crime that they are powerless to defend themselves against.
In the words of one MRA, “men are just as likely to be falsely accused of rape as women are to be actually raped.” They believe this despite statistics that show that fewer than 10 percent of rapes are reported, that only 37 percent of reported rapes are prosecuted, and that just 18 percent of those prosecutions result in convictions.
Of course MRAs acknowledge that some women do get raped, but an awful lot of them, they say, were asking for it. As Paul Elam, the founder of A Voice for Men, the Manosphere’s most trafficked website, put it, “women who act provocatively; who taunt men sexually, toying with their libidos for personal power and gain, etc., have the same type of responsibility for what happens to them as, say, someone who parks their car in a bad neighborhood with the keys in the ignition.”
“A lot of women,” Elam continued, his signature gallantry on full display, “get pummeled and pumped because they are stupid (and often arrogant) enough to walk through life with the equivalent of a I’M A STUPID, CONNIVING BITCH – PLEASE RAPE ME neon sign glowing above their empty little narcissistic heads.”
Like many other MRAs, Elam misleadingly cites Eugene J. Kanin’s 1994 article “False Rape Allegations” as a “longitudinal study” that proves that between 40 and 50 percent of rape allegations are fraudulent, even though Kanin himself cautioned that the “generalizability” of his findings was limited and should not be extrapolated or applied to other populations (he had looked at 45 allegations that had been determined to be false by the police department of a single Midwestern city over a nine year period).
Most studies estimate that between two and eight percent of rape allegations are false. That’s not a trivial number—especially if you are one of the 4,000 to 10,000 men who are falsely accused in the US each year (267 to 666 of whom may be wrongly convicted)—but it is nowhere near as overwhelming as the anecdotal reports that MRAs endlessly recycle imply.
Still, as aggrieved and menacing as so many MRAs may be, as prone to hyperbole and spittle-spewing fustian when they get up on their soapboxes, it’s important to remember that some of their causes—the treatment of some fathers in some family courts; the abuses, sexual and otherwise, of boys and men in penal and military institutions; the declining levels of academic participation and performance of American males—are deserving of serious attention.
The peer-reviewed report I wrote about at the beginning of this article, for example, appears at first blush to confirm some of the MRA’s claims.
Male victims of sexual assault and rape have historically been under-counted and under-served. As recently as 2012, the Uniform Crime Reporting Program, through which the FBI gathered its statistics, defined a rapist as a person of the opposite sex, disappearing at a stroke the countless perpetrators and victims of same sex rape, many of them male. Rapes that occurred in prisons were swept under the rug. Male and female inmates both experience sexual abuse behind bars, but because men are vastly disproportionately incarcerated, the incidents of male victimization reach into the hundreds of thousands each year.
And female on male violence is no figment of the MRA imagination. Reputable studies show that women are as likely to perpetrate intimate violence as be its victims (though vastly more women are seriously injured by their male partners than vice versa). Still other studies suggest that as many or more mothers abuse their children as fathers do.
But to argue that feminism alone should bear the onus for these and other crimes, and not racism, classism, and homophobia (not to mention such non-gendered sins as wrath, envy, lust, and ignorance, and of course mental illness), is as risible as the notion that testosterone is the root of all evil.
Philosophically speaking, the problem with the MRA analysis isn’t its broad understanding of “male human rights”—it’s the totalizing anti-feminist frame that it imposes on the world. It’s the raw woman-hatred that undergirds so much of its rhetoric.
David Benatar, the head of the philosophy department at the University of Capetown in South Africa, is a much more temperate (and consequently much-less read) writer than Elam and his ilk. In his book The Second Sexism: Discrimination Against Men and Boys, he distinguishes between “egalitarian feminism,” which is “fundamentally concerned with the equality of the sexes” and “partisan feminism,” which is “basically concerned only with the promotion of women’s and girls’ interests….the feminist equivalent of those men’s rights advocates who are interested only in advancing the interests and protecting the rights of males.”
Very much the philosopher, he cautions against ad hominem arguments. “Accusing males of being angry men and antifeminists is both regrettable and unfair for the very same reasons that leveling accusations of ‘man-hater’ at all (female) feminists is regrettable and unfair,” he writes.
This is true. But to call an angry male an angry male or a misogynist a misogynist is also to speak the truth. It’s hard to read one of Paul Elam’s broadsides (“I find you, as a feminist, to be a loathsome, vile piece of human garbage. I find you so pernicious and repugnant that the idea of fucking your shit up gives me an erection”) without wondering if his hatred for feminist ideas doesn’t extend to the whole female gender.
All men aren’t violent; nor are all men—or even all men involved with “mens rights”—misogynists. Eliott Rodger wasn’t created by the Manosphere. But for as unstable and potentially dangerous a character as he was, finding a community that shared his “twisted” (his own word) views of the world can’t but have helped to exacerbate his worst instincts.
MRAs and other denizens of the Manosphere have not, to put it mildly, been their own best advocates.
Which brings me, at long last, to “The Sexual Victimization of Men in America.” Published in the American Journal of Public Health, the report re-examines five national surveys that the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted between 2010 and 2012, and concludes that men and boys have been on the receiving end of much more sexual violence than has previously been acknowledged.
When the definition of rape is expanded to include acts of unwanted sex such as being “made to penetrate,” the numbers of male and female victims reported in one major survey turn out to be nearly equivalent.
“The traditional sexual victimization paradigm,” the report observes, “can obscure sexual abuse perpetrated by women as well as same-sex victimization….one multi-year analysis….found that 46% of male victims reported a female perpetrator. Of [incarcerated] juveniles reporting staff sexual misconduct, 89% were boys reporting abuse by female staff.“ Female inmates, on the other hand, were more likely to be abused by other (presumably female) inmates—another surprising and counterintuitive finding.
When Hanna Rosin covered the study at Slate, many commenters in the Manosphere were startled that the author of The End of Men would have written as sympathetically as she did about a study that appeared to negate the feminist paradigm of malignant patriarchy. Some speculated that she was trying to co-opt the subject of male victimhood so that feminists could take control of the discourse.
But for the most part it’s the MRA analysis and not the feminist one that’s adversarial and zero-sum, that sees every gain for women as a loss for men and vice versa. Malignant patriarchy doesn’t preclude male victimhood—it can even contribute to it, as the report explicitly states.
Treating male sexual victimization as a rare occurrence can impose regressive expectations about masculinity on men and boys…the belief that men are unlikely victims promotes a counterproductive construct of what it means to ‘be a man’…..Expectations about male invincibility are constraining for men and boys; they may also harm women and girls by perpetuating regressive gender norms.
An exclusive focus on female victims similarly reinforces “regressive notions of women’s vulnerability….perpetuat[ing] norms that see women as disempowered.”
Far from anti-feminist, the re-definition of sexual victimization that the report turns on is informed by “feminist principles that emphasize equity, inclusion, and intersectional approaches; the importance of understanding power relations; and the imperative to question gender assumptions.”
I asked the report’s co-author Lara Stemple whether rape and sexual violence can be decoupled from gender. When it comes to counting and reporting its occurrences, she answered, heterosexist and gendered biases can and should be eliminated. If a person experiences violence, law enforcement agencies should take appropriate actions and services should be provided. Rape crisis centers should be well-funded and open to anyone; their staffs should be trained and equipped to offer services to all who need them.
“But you can’t pretend gender doesn’t exist by any stretch,” she emphasized. “Understanding what happens to abused men requires an understanding of gender hierarchies. Male survivors of prison rape are reduced to ‘bitches’—they are forced to assume stereotypically submissive female roles, to do their abusers’ laundry, and so on. Feminist analysis is germane to their condition.” In the words of the report, “masculinized dominance and feminized subordination can take place regardless of the biological sex or sexual orientation of the actors.”
“This is also the case when men are victimized by women,” she continued. “Many men are invested in an ideal of stereotypical masculinity; being hurt by a woman feels emasculating. Feminist analysis and the women’s movement have helped us understand that rape isn’t just about physical power, it’s psychological too.”
Taking a page from the MRAs, I asked her whether it was possible that large numbers of male victims fantasized or were outright lying about their experiences.
“People in general have little incentive to lie in anonymous surveys,” she answered, “but if there is a risk along those lines for men, my guess is they would under-disclose rather than over-disclose. Male survivors are often ashamed, embarrassed, and confused about the abuse, particularly if they experienced a physiological sexual response during the incident, which is not uncommon. Many men take decades to disclose abuse.”
If physical force isn’t a criteria for sexual violence, I asked her, then how does one distinguish between bad behavior and a crime? She admitted that is an ongoing challenge. But she emphasized that just as the feminist movement successfully argued that physical force must not be a requirement for a successful rape charge involving a female victim, the same understanding should be extended to male victims.
For the most part, she added, the at-risk populations for sexual victimization among men tend to be members of marginalized groups. “Prison and jail inmates are disproportionately young, black, Hispanic, low-income, and mentally ill. Self-identified non-heterosexual inmates are 11 times more likely to be victimized than heterosexual prisoners.” The homeless and long-term residents of nursing homes are vulnerable as well.
“Our study should in no way lend support to those who wish to deny the widespread sexual victimization of women,” she emphasized. “The surveys we reviewed consistently find that women still experience sexual victimization far too frequently. The fact that men and boys also experience more widespread sexual victimization than was previously recognized does not and must not negate women’s suffering. After all, compassion is not a finite resource.”
“Sexual violence isn’t exclusively a woman’s issue or a men’s issue,” she concluded. “It’s a human rights issue, with enormous gender implications. We need to have a much better discourse about it.”
I’m not a trained philosopher; I didn’t even take a lot of philosophy courses in college. But I have been thinking a lot about the nexus between epistemology/psychology and political behavior. Not as in “people who believe this or that political proposition are delusional or mentally ill” (though of course that’s sometimes the case), but in the way that our sense of the world is formed partly from our own observations and partly from the value and belief systems that we internalize as we are learning language.
This is why I keep writing about cognitive dissonance. I think we need to understand it as something that doesn’t just happen to some people sometimes under a specific set of circumstances, but as a constant (albeit mostly unrecognized) background feature of consciousness–or at least of our consciousness of public events that we assign values to.
The point isn’t that we are highly emotional and judgmental. It’s that we hold so many of our ideas and values defensively: our core beliefs are inseparable from the anxieties that they call up in us. One of the worst of those anxieties is our suspicion that they’re not really true.
Kierkegaard wrote about Abraham’s leap of faith “by virtue of the absurd”–but how many of our most passionate certainties turn out to be hollow?
The right wing volte face on Bowe Bergdahl is a little shocking in its hypocrisy, but there’s nothing new or different about its passionate intensity. Yes, some of it is basic Swift Boating–but a lot of it has to do with the unraveling of the patriotic post-911 narrative. They are seizing on this story as a counter-narrative in which America didn’t lose the war but Bergdahl and Obama did.
Andrew Sullivan posted a bunch of reader comments on the topic of “deaf culture” today. This one, from a partially deaf person, stood out for me:
The biggest tragedy….was when a deaf couple would have a deaf baby because of a shared genetic defect, and then deliberately choose not to give the helpless baby a cochlear implant so that he or she could grow up deaf. I found it appalling. Language acquisition with a cochlear implant is like all language acquisition – easier for babies and small children than for adolescents or adults. So the parents who deny their babies this opportunity to live a hearing life are making an essentially irreversible decision. To deny that opportunity to one’s own child strikes me as the most foolish sort of pride, and perhaps even spite.
The analogy I’m about to make isn’t completely fair; I know that. Depriving a child of the opportunity to learn oral language instinctively, and thus to communicate in a comparatively unmediated way with the vast majority of the hearing people around them, is hardly the same thing as simply trying to inculcate your own values in your children (which is, after all, what parents are supposed to do)–but they are not completely unalike either. Epistemic closure is a feature of families and polities alike.
As children go out into the world, they begin to see things for themselves–and to develop their own moral frameworks. But as developmental psychologists know, the process of separation and individuation can be traumatic–and I suspect that that trauma reverberates throughout the rest of our adult lives.
A lot of our politics, I think, make more sense as psychological coping mechanisms than they do as politics.
Here, as threatened, is the essay that I carved the Salon piece out of. It’s long, I know, but it makes my point much more explicitly–that we are all conspiracy theorists to one degree or another.
It’s always nice to be read by large numbers of people, but it’s a little frustrating to realize how little of what I’m trying to say gets through. 95 percent of the response was from people who wanted to litigate their cases against vaccines or for a new Benghazi investigation, or to explain why Obama isn’t really an American. I heard from some Zionists too, who insist that Israel is a paradise for its Arab citizens, and then there were all those Infowars people, who accused me of carrying water for the White House (or being a pedophile Communist Jewish banker).
I suppose that simply proves my point.
How Conspiracy Theorists are Like Canaries in the Mineshaft of the State
Why do people believe ridiculous things, in despite of all reason and proofs to the contrary?
There are people, for example, who insist that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii to a white American woman named Stanley Ann Dunham, even though his mother was in fact Jo Ann Newman, aka the fugitive militant Elizabeth Ann Duke. According to the website the Terrible Truth, which documents all this thoroughly, Obama should be called “President X,” and “not just because his so-called life ‘narrative’ teems with deceit, obfuscation, manipulation, lies, contradictions, fake people, composite characters, contrived vignettes…phony relationships…utterly fake family photos [and]….and fraudulent identity documents,” but because his real father was Malcolm X.
There are parents who allow their children to be vaccinated for whooping cough, diphtheria and tetanus, even though the “risks that whooping cough, diphtheria and tetanus pose to health are low compared to the potential, serious dangers reported as a result of this vaccine,” according to Natural News—an Internet magazine that was also way out in front of the mainstream media with its investigation of the theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado in the summer of 2012. The event was stage-managed by the FBI, it reported, to influence the passage of the UN Small Arms Treaty, an international pact that would open the door to the repeal of the Second Amendment. “After all, there’s no quicker way to disarm a nation and take total control over the population than to stage violence, blame it on firearms, then call for leaders to ‘do something!’” one of its many articles on the subject noted.
There are people who believe that 19 Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, armed only with box cutters, hijacked four jetliners on September 11, 2001, crashing three of them into buildings and one into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, even though mountains of evidence prove that the whole operation was planned and executed from within the White House and Pentagon, with the active assistance of Mossad—and that the World Trade Center towers were brought down by explosives, the Pentagon was damaged by a missile, and the crash site in Shanksville, Pennsylvania was a sham.
Yes, I am just trying to get your attention. No, I don’t believe that any of those things are true, and I would imagine that most of you don’t either.
You might think the Birthers, Anti-Vaxxers, and so-called Truthers who do are irrational or deluded, but they would say the same thing about you. The fact is, we don’t all share the same assumptions about the world.
Here are some other notions that sound topsy-turvy to me, but that significant numbers of other people swear to. Some of them would fall under the rubric of “fringe” theories; some are just politics as usual.
- So-called Mens Rights Activists, who believe that men are being systematically victimized by organized feminism, claim that men suffer more from sexual violence than women do. They point to statistics that show that more men than women report being raped (which is in fact true when incidents in prisons are taken into account); some go so far as to argue that “men are just as likely to be falsely accused of rape as women are to be actually raped.”
- Back in 2000, when the World Health Organization ranked the nations of the world on five critical indicators of healthcare quality, the US came in 37th. As reported in the New England Journal of Medicine a follow-up report in 2006 ranked the US “number 1 in terms of health care spending per capita but…39th for infant mortality, 43rd for adult female mortality, 42nd for adult male mortality, and 36th for life expectancy.” A year later, when the Commonwealth Fund compared the US’s healthcare system to those of Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, and the UK, the US scored “last or next-to-last on five dimensions of a high performance health system: quality, access, efficiency, equity, and healthy lives.” For all that, millions of Americans sincerely believe that Obamacare is ruining the best healthcare system in the world.
- The 85 richest individuals in the world have as much money as its three and a half billion poorest put together; half of the planet’s wealth is controlled by one percent of its population. In the US, according to the 2014 Oxfam Report that I am pulling these statistics from, “the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.” Despite compelling evidence of widespread fraud, virtually no high-level financial executives were prosecuted in the wake of the 2008 crisis. From all of this, you might suppose that the world’s super-rich have little to complain about. But a couple of months ago, a billionaire venture capitalist named Tom Perkins penned a letter to the Wall Street Journal comparing what he called “the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the ‘rich’” to “fascist Nazi Germany[‘s] war on its ‘one percent,’ namely its Jews.”
- A 2011 study from the Harvard Business School entitled “Whites See Racism as a Zero-Sum Game that they are Losing” showed that a growing percentage of whites believe that anti-White bias has become “a more serious societal problem than anti-Black bias.” Or as Pat Buchanan put it more bluntly in his book Suicide of a Superpower, thanks to affirmative action, whites are finding out “what it is like to ride in the back of the bus.”
- Though nuclear-armed Israel is a veritable Goliath in the Occupied Territories, it styles itself as David to the rest of the world, “the most challenged and threatened state on the face of the earth,” as its prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it last November.
- Gun owners, the rock star and right wing provocateur Ted Nugent said, are America’s “next Rosa Parks.”
Peering across the ideological divide at people like me, a fascinating website called Deprogramming Liberalism sees a mirror version of its own preferred version of reality. Global warming deniers, the site’s creator insists, are the Galileos and Copernicuses of our day. If “Trayvon Martin had been white,” he argues, “a black Zimmerman would be a hero.”
In a clever feat of rhetorical ju jitsu, he cites “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Richard Hofstadter’s classic analysis of the radical right of a half century ago, to explain what he sees as the deep-seated irrationality of contemporary liberalism. “The key to understanding liberalism is the compulsive paranoia….of evil monsters imagined as out there everywhere,” he writes. “The liberal voluntarily and incrementally gives up the control of directing his own life to a life of indenture so that the monsters can be kept at bay.”
Knowing and Believing are Two Different Things
My point isn’t that one perspective is as good as another (it’s not), or that partisans on opposite sides sometimes draw from the same playbook (which they very often do). It’s that when fundamental markers of status are at stake, people are primed to see evidence of both their own superiority, which justifies their sense of entitlement, and of their persecution, which explains why they’re not getting what they deserve. And they believe their own propaganda, which, however tendentious, is likely to contain as many demonstrable facts as it does half-truths, innuendos, and outright falsehoods. People can believe really crazy things, but just as snorers can’t hear themselves snore, they don’t sound crazy at all to their own ears. Plus, some critical details of their beliefs can usually be proven to be true.
As Hofstadter wrote about the extremist political literature of his day, “one should not be misled by the fantastic conclusions that are so characteristic of this political style into imagining that it is not, so to speak, argued out along factual lines. The very fantastic character of its conclusions leads to heroic strivings for ‘evidence’ to prove that the unbelieveable is the only thing that can be believed.”
The key word is “belief,” which Merriam Webster defines as “a feeling of being sure that someone or something exists or that something is true.” “Feeling” is also very much to the point. To feel that a thing is true requires cognitive capacity, but a belief and a cognition aren’t always the same things. Generally speaking, a cognition is the thought stuff that our brains produce when they process sensory data. A belief, as the King James version puts it, is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Cognitive dissonance is the psychological term for the discomfort one feels when an undeniable fact and a bedrock belief conflict with one another. If the dissonance is painful enough, people will try to resolve it, either by changing or rejecting their belief, or by reframing or reinterpreting the fact to mean something other than what it seems to; by discrediting its proponents as liars; or by simply denying that it exists. If a black president rubs too much against the grain, then find evidence that invalidates his election or better yet, his basic identity. If you don’t see why you should have to pay higher taxes, then equate taxes to genocide. If you resent being called an aggressor, then style yourself a victim—and string together some anecdotes and spurious statistical correlations to prove it. Of course some dissonances are more easily resolved than others.
For example, if I hadn’t realized that Daylight Savings Time began this past March 9th, my view of the world would have been wildly out of synch with my colleagues’ when I showed up late for work Monday morning. Without my knowledge, all of my meetings would have been moved back an hour; my co-workers would have left early for the day without so much as a by-your-leave. You couldn’t blame me if I began to wonder if they were going to a party that I wasn’t invited to, or even if I was the victim of a grand conspiracy. Of course once I made my feelings known, anyone could set me straight by pointing me to an objective time source. Since I had nothing personal at stake in my error, I would reset my watch and my inner and outer worlds would re-converge.
But here’s another scenario. I feel estranged from the people I work with because my supervisor is gay and none of them seem to mind. I watch the 700 Club on TV and listen to Brian Fischer on the radio, so I know that, what with all the diseases they carry, homosexuals not only pose an immediate threat to my health, but that they are actively working to recruit my children to their lifestyle.
It wouldn’t change anything if you brought in a doctor to assure me that homosexuals are no more contagious than anyone else, or showed me an article in a magazine that explained that homosexuals don’t recruit but are born that way, because I know that AIDS is the medical industry’s bread and butter, and that the leftist media is on board with the gay agenda, and so on ad infinitum.
It doesn’t matter that my boss is highly competent and fair-minded, or that the son he is raising with his long-time partner is an Eagle Scout. It’s not the sinner I hate, it’s the sin. And don’t call me a hater, because in this age of doctrinaire political correctness, accusing someone of hating is a form of hate-mongering in and of itself. And my church has had ex-gays come and lecture about how homosexuals can change their lifestyle, so I know that homosexuals are wicked by choice.
I can’t change my beliefs without betraying everything that I hold dear. But if I can change yours, I am doing God’s work.
Conspiracy theories about the government are even more insidious, and not just because the people who hold them tend to have belief systems that are self-enclosed and self-reinforcing, or an intolerance for ambiguity and a high need for cognitive closure (which quite often they do), but because governments actually do lie and do terrible things. Maybe not quite as often or in precisely the same ways that Birthers, Birchers, Anti-vaxxers and the like imagine, but enough that you really can’t just give them the benefit of the doubt. We may never know whether Oswald and Jack Ruby acted alone, but there are good reasons to distrust the narrative that the Warren Commission published. American citizens have been killed by drones without the benefit of due process. Corporations routinely buy politicians and get away with theft and murder. Eisenhower might not have been a communist agent, but for a while during the 1930s and 1940s, there were a fair number in Washington, including Alger Hiss. Bush/Cheney might not have organized the events of 9/11 but they demonstrably lied about them and exploited them in its aftermath.
Just because you’re paranoid, as the saying goes, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t some truly bad actors out there—and some of them are statesmen and soldiers and policemen.
Why conspiracy theory matters
But all of that said, full-blown Conspiracism—a worldview that attributes all of the processes of history to the deliberate machinations of a secret group with an explicit agenda—is rarely a product of doubt, never mind a systematic, principled skepticism. Conspiracists are less notable for the questions they ask than for the unfalsifiable answers they supply—answers that have much more in common with apocalyptic religiosity than they do with practical politics.
So why should we care what they believe? Why read writers like me, who make such a big deal out of such marginal movements and thinkers?
For one thing, because their ideas—or the emotions that animate them—influence real-world policy-making. When US Senator Ted Cruz warns voters that quisling Democrats are on board with a sinister world Communist plan to ban golf courses, he is parroting the John Birch Society’s and Glenn Beck’s and other far right conspiracists’ wildly distorted line on Agenda 21, a UN-generated action plan for sustainable development dating back to 1992. The Birchers have used it as a platform for a successful recruitment and fund-raising campaign which claims that its ultimate aims are to limit the size of our families, seize our homes, relocate us to “pack-‘em and stack ‘em” apartment complexes, end American sovereignty, and institute world Communism. Thanks to their fear-mongering, when small towns make even modest efforts to protect their wetlands or limit sprawl, Tea Partiers are turning out in force to resist them.
When former Assistant Secretary of Defense Frank Gaffney attacks his fellow conservative Grover Norquist as a “stealth jihadist” who has “infiltrated” the Republican party; when US Senator Lindsey Graham says that the Russian seizure of the Crimea began with Benghazi, they aren’t just trolling for attention and pandering to lowest common denominator voters—they are endorsing divisive and destructive lines of thinking that they probably don’t even believe themselves.
But there’s another less obvious and perhaps even more important reason that we should care, and that is because conspiracists aren’t the only people whose sense of reality is, let us say, highly contingent and adapatable.
If the people at the website Infowars are too hasty to read malicious human agency into natural disasters and tragic accidents, attributing earthquakes and hurricanes to supposed super-weapons like HAARP and flu epidemics to chemtrails; if talk show stars like Glenn Beck and Alex Jones demonize whole classes of people, there is an opposite side of the coin that is even more disturbing.
History records any number of manmade horrors that beggar even the most paranoid imaginings. And whenever these atrocities have occurred, otherwise sane and high-minded people have not only failed to stop them, but have refused to acknowledge that they were even happening. It’s easy enough to deny climate change, whose worst-predicted effects are relatively far off in the future. What about when the bodies are literally stacking up beneath ones’ noses?
Believing the unbelievable; disbelieving the all-too-believable
In the early 1930s, as part of Stalin’s Five Year Plan, the farms of the Soviet Ukraine were expropriated and their harvests exported for cash, with the wholly predictable result that millions of peasants starved to death. Though Stalin regarded the kulaks as class enemies who deserved to be liquidated, he “could not allow the possibility that his own policy of collectivization was to blame” for their fates, as Timothy Snyder put it in his book Bloodlands. “Starving Ukrainian peasants, he complained, were….demoralizing other Soviet citizens by their ‘whining.’”
Stalin never personally witnessed the starvations….but comrades in Soviet Ukraine did: they had somehow to reconcile his ideological line to the evidence of their senses. Forced to interpret distended bellies as political opposition, they produced the utterly tortured conclusion that the saboteurs hated socialism so much that they intentionally let their families die…. Young Ukrainian communists in the cities were taught that the starving were enemies of the people ‘who risked their lives to spoil our optimism.’…..
Foreign communists in the Soviet Union, witnesses to the famine, somehow managed to see starvation not as a national tragedy but as a step forward for humanity. The writer Arthur Koestler believed at the time that the starving were ‘enemies of the people who preferred begging to work.’….The basic facts of mass hunger and death, although sometimes reported in the European and American press, never took on the clarity of an undisputed event. Almost no one claimed that Stalin meant to starve Ukrainians to death; even Adolf Hitler preferred to blame the Marxist system. It was controversial to note that starvation was taking place at all.
Why do people believe the unbelievable, in despite of all reason and proof to the contrary?
Why do people disbelieve the all-too believable?
Perhaps it’s our genetic fate. In his book The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers notes this paradoxical feature of human consciousness:
Our sensory systems are organized to give us a detailed and accurate view of reality…. But once this information arrives in our brains, it is often distorted and biased to our conscious minds. We deny the truth to ourselves. We project onto others traits that are in fact true of ourselves—and then attack them! We repress painful memories, create completely false ones, rationalize immoral behavior, act repeatedly to boost positive self-opinion, and show a suite of ego-defense mechanisms. Why?
Trivers’ global theory is that dishonesty is such an important adaptation that we have evolved to be untruthful. “Deception,” he says, “infects all the fundamental relationships in life: parasite and host, predator and prey, plant and animal, male and female, neighbor and neighbor, parent and offspring, and even the relationship of an organism to itself.” And since the most convincing liars don’t even know that they’re lying, natural selection has made us gullible too, especially when it comes to the lies we tell ourselves.
As fundamentally dishonest and as innately credulous as we humans may be, we put great stock in both our sense perceptions and our common sense, which tell us, for example, that the world is flat and the sun moves around it; that anything as complex as a living organism must have been deliberately engineered; that nothing can be in two places at the same time; and that just as people of different races have different physical features, their mental and moral qualities must be measurably different too.
The fact that all of these seemingly empirical and self-evident propositions turn out to be untrue takes a serious toll on a lot of us. We are Homo sapiens after all: we have a deep-seated need to know, to understand. What we don’t understand doesn’t just frustrate us intellectually—it can throw us into an existential quandary. And life throws up all kinds of things that we don’t understand.
Magic and Magical Thinking
Arthur C. Clarke famously remarked that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Many of us are as flummoxed by handheld computers and genetically-engineered salad ingredients as the indigenous peoples of the New World were by their first encounters with European guns. High finance seems a lot like magic to many of us too, what with the money it conjures out of thin air. Bankers are critical nodes in an economic system that is volatile and unequal; they pull the levers that cause unemployment to rise; they profit from warfare no matter which side wins; they squeeze the farmers who feed us and they foreclose the roofs from over our heads. They not only understand why a piece of paper that will buy you a pig one day will barely suffice to buy you a pork chop the next, but they profit from the spread. They are quick with numbers, which not everybody is, and they excel at abstract thinking.
It is no wonder that money lenders would come to be identified with Satan, or, less proximately, with the richest, most powerful representatives of the nation that rejected Christ. In the words of Fritz Springmeier, the author of Satanic Illuminati Bloodlines, “every road leads back to the Rothschilds…Each of the various tenticles [sic] that conspiracy theorists have put forth, –the Jews, the Masons, the Intelligence Communities, the International Bankers, the Prieure de Sion, the Catholics, the Trilateral commission, the CFR, the New Age, the Cults– each ties back to the Rothschild’s power.”
“Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were created and funded by…the Rothschilds,” a much-posted article explains. “It was they who arranged for Hitler to come to power through the Illuminati secret societies in Germany like the Thule Society and the Vril Society which they created through their German networks; it was the Rothschilds who funded Hitler through the Bank of England and other British and American sources like the Rothschild’s Kuhn, Loeb bank, which also funded the Russian Revolution,” the former soccer player, now world-famous lecturer and author David Icke continues. He doesn’t stop with the Jews, I should add. Behind them, he says, lurks a race of shape-shifting reptiles from a distant star system.
Resolving cognitive dissonance
And so, at long last, I return to cognitive dissonance. We believe what we believe because the alternative is just too painful. If mythmaking about a Rothschild-controlled New World Order or a Draco-Reptilian conspiracy provides a more tolerable way of accounting for the world’s injustices than self-criticism would, if vindictive anger is a more satisfying feeling than despair, then some people choose just those alternatives. A writer at the website NoDisinfo blamed the Rothschilds for the non-disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 earlier this spring. “Rothschild’s murderous plots in the Ukraine and, particularly, in Syria are not going according to plan,” he explained, his tone and diction what you might find in an 18th century pamphlet about the Jesuits. “These arch-fraudsters, these venomous fomenters of strife, needed a diversion, a grand distraction. What could achieve this more readily than a massive jumbo jet which disappears into thin air with all ‘passengers’ unaccounted for?”
“How could a 777 simply vanish?” he asks rhetorically. “Where would it go?” Easy: it was all “a Zionist-orchestrated hoax.” Life’s narrative is never absurd.
The psychologist Leon Festinger conducted a number of experiments on cognitive dissonance in the 1950s, mostly in laboratories with student volunteers, but most famously a field study of a flying saucer cult whose leaders had prophesied that a series of apocalyptic events would begin on December 21, 1954. Festinger’s book When Prophecy Fails, which reads like a novel or the scenario for a bleakly comic movie (Preston Miller actually made a movie about another such group, the Taiwanese cult Chen Tao whose members moved to Garland, Texas in 1997; it’s called God’s Land and I highly recommend it) describes the various ways that the cultists responded when the space ships didn’t show up to rescue them from the tribulations that didn’t happen, shedding a powerful light on why it can be so futile, as Festinger put it, to try “to change a strong conviction, especially if the convinced person has some investment in his belief.”
“Tell him you disagree and he turns away,” he wrote. “Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”
“Man’s resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a belief,” he continued.
Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view.
The word “rationalization” doesn’t quite capture the phenomenon that Festinger describes because it implies that it occurs consciously, and that it involves the use of reason. When we act to reduce cognitive dissonance we do it instinctively and unconsciously, prompted by the parts of our brains that deal with pain avoidance. I think people who care about politics need to acknowledge that a lot of our political ideas are formed by processes to which the categories and analytical tools of political science, political philosophy, and political journalism don’t really apply. We believe a lot of the things that we believe not because we want to give pain to others but because we want to avoid it ourselves.
The canary in the mineshaft of the state
The polemics of global conspiracy theorists may imitate the methods and forms of rational discourse, but they are more akin to visionary writings and sermons—they are not written to convince doubters but to fortify the faithful, who interpret them hermeneutically. For all their self-certainty, they reflect a profound sense of alienation from the world as most people see and experience it.
The rest of us might not share or even recognize their feelings, but they are our neighbors and fellow citizens and we live in a polity that purports to derive its legitimacy from the people; at the very least, we need to acknowledge them, even if only to formally repudiate them. But at the same time, we need to recognize that to a greater or lesser degree, we are all susceptible to distorted thinking, especially when we are trying to preserve an untenable view of ourselves, or of the people, causes, and ideals we hold dear. The slave owner (and the father of a brood of slaves by his dead wife’s half-sister) Thomas Jefferson was not uniquely hypocritical when he wrote the words “all men are created equal.”
Here’s another passage from Bloodlands, about Hitler’s Generalplan Ost, his grand scheme to colonize Central and Eastern Europe after he crushed the USSR, relocating, enslaving, or liquidating “eighty to eighty-five percent of the Poles, sixty-five percent of the west Ukrainians, seventy-five percent of the Belarusians….fifty percent of the Czechs,” and of course all of the Jews, some 45 million souls in all. “Colonization,” Snyder wrote, “would make of Germany a continental empire fit to rival the United States, another hardy frontier state based upon exterminatory colonialism and slave labor.”
The East was the Nazi Manifest Destiny. In Hitler’s view, ‘in the East a similar process will repeat itself for a second time as in the conquest of America.’ As Hitler imagined the future, Germany would deal with the Slavs much as the North Americans had dealt with the Indians. The Volga River in Russia, he once proclaimed, will be Germany’s Mississippi.
Hitler’s grisly take on American history is likely to raise the hackles of a lot of patriotic Americans. Most of us prefer to see genocide as a regrettable consequence of America’s rise rather than its foundation, if we acknowledge it at all. I probably sparked a similar dissonance in many listeners with the line I tossed off earlier about Israel playing Goliath in the territories.
Conspiracy theories about Vatican assassins, FEMA camps, gun grabbers, fiat money, false flags and the like are absurd and infuriating to listen to and profoundly offensive if you belong to the religion, race, ethnicity or ideology that is identified as a principle of evil, but the people who believe them are in some ways canaries in the mineshaft of the state. Their mere existence tells us that all is not well in the economic, political, and cultural universes that they inhabit—and perhaps not in ours either.
The Sovereign Citizen Movement, which uses its own eccentric conceptions of the foundations of common law to delegitimize the entire apparatus of the government and the banking system, brings Harry Potter’s Ministry of Magic to mind. Sovereigns believe that if they dot every “i” and cross every “t,” then the promissory notes and bonds they create on their own behalf will erase their debts, and the presentments, indictments, and warrants that they issue from their own courts will be efficacious in real courts, just as wizard’s spells also work in the Muggle world. Sovereigns don’t just talk about casting off their chains; they believe they are doing something about it, and some of them are quite dangerous—the police know to proceed with caution when they pull over vehicles without license plates. Yet for all that, the majority of them aren’t clinically insane—they are just so profoundly disaffected that their alienation has become their creed. The fact that they express their frustrations perversely or project them onto the wrong people doesn’t change the fact that they feel utterly disenfranchised and betrayed by their state—by our state.
AIDS wasn’t created in a laboratory by the CIA to exterminate black people, Michael Jackson wasn’t falsely arrested for pederasty and murdered because white people couldn’t bear his success, but American blacks do get arrested and imprisoned at far higher rates than whites and suffer worse health outcomes and you’d have to be insane to deny that those inequities are systemic.
No, Queen Elizabeth isn’t a drug dealer, as Lyndon LaRouche has claimed, but the interests of the City of London and of international finance at large are not always well-aligned with those of America’s middle class.
The sovereign citizen I listened to in a tiny meeting room over a grocery store in Queens a couple of weeks ago, along with a half-dozen or so interested Libertarians, was just as wrong about the legal remedies he recommended for tax issues (“Deny that they have jurisdiction. Sue everyone who’s trying to prosecute you for being a part of an unlawful, unconstitutional conspiracy and their case will collapse,” he advised) as he was about the health remedies he touted (“super-oxygenated water cures Diabetes, AIDS, and cancer,” he said, “but the medical establishment doesn’t want you to know it”). Oh yes, and the New World Order, whose members belong to the bloodlines of just a handful of families, injected the poison of federal power into the US at its very inception.
I’m not saying that we should accept fantastic conspiracy theories at face value; I certainly don’t. And I’m not suggesting that we grant “equal time” to racism and paranoia. But surely it is a mistake to simply ridicule conspiracists or dismiss them out of hand. They should make us less comfortable in our complacencies, not more so. When people with otherwise healthy brains are so divorced from the consensus that they reject reason itself, it’s important that we find out what’s going on in their world—and that we use the tools of reason to do so, examining the evidence disinterestedly.
When so many people choose to believe the unbelievable it behooves us to take a closer look at the things that we unquestioningly believe ourselves. Perhaps, like the fable of the elephant and the blind men, none of us are seeing what’s really there. Stranger things have certainly happened.
And now here’s this from The Daily Paul, which casts me as a Winston Smith-like functionary for Obama’s Ministry of Truth.
I have no doubt Arthur Goldwag has little trouble sleeping at night. He is either fully oblivious to the real world around him or he believes in his mind the establishment talking points are important enough, for whatever their supposed purpose, to spoon feed to his readers. In either case, the psychology of Goldwag’s paradigm of perception, and of all those who march to his beat, is well worthy of study. We “conspiracy theorists” (for lack of a more meaningful and less hackneyed phrase) who better understand the world for what it really is, would do well to learn from the likes of Aurthur Goldwag and his ilk as we ever attempt to unveil the truth before the apathetic and ignorant. Unlike Goldwag, we understand this is the only way to liberate ourselves from the machinations of darkness and tyranny.
So funny to see my name invoked and mispelled by people who haven’t a clue who I am, or what I write about (though I’ll give this guy credit, he did read my piece).
The commenters at Infowars are the best:
Goldwag? What a joke. A good little mama’s boy, out telling the lies he was taught to tell. Helping mom’s friends and relatives steal and kill. Just like they did to millions of Russians in the early 1900s while proclaiming themselves Marxists who were “for the people.” LIARS
Goldwag… Another jewish supremist trying to cover their evil deeds while trying to discredit opposition as ‘conspiracy nuts’.
I find it very revealing that writer for Salon, Arthur Goldwag must think anyone who reads his story must be brain dead. I am especially amused that Goldwag wants to compare believers in a Benghazi cover-up to those who supported Stalin’s mass starvation of millions of Russians in the 1930’s. How can Glodwag not be aware of his fellow pro-Soviet journalist Walter Duranty, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter.
“Goldwag the Pedophile” would make a great headline on the cover of the National Equirer or NY Times!
Darrell Issa would whip it out and take a piss on Arthur Goldwag… problem is, that gay liberal shill would like it too much.
It really is like turning over a rock.