Category: Critical thinking

More From my Plague Year Journal

6.4 So Tom Cotton is selling a narrative in which New York has fallen into the hands of elite white gangs of leftists, whose leaders drive Mercedes around the city ordering random attacks on minority business owners while its effete liberal mayor insists that the police stand down. Nice scenario for a low-budget post-apocalyptic movie starring some ex-wrestlers, but in reality, the NYPD has been running riot every night and the mayor, who won election as a police reformer, won’t stop weakly defending them. DeBlasio has been under siege from both the left and right for his pandemic response too–there is as big a crisis of leadership in this city as there is in Washington, and it’s frankly hard to understand.

There was a shooting a couple blocks from my house last night. Someone stabbed a policeman in the neck and grabbed his or her gun. Shots were fired and three police and the assailant are in the hospital. No one is saying yet whether he or she was a protester, a looter, antifa, white, black, pro-Trump, or anti, but you can be sure that there will be confident stories that they were all of those things before very long.

If we get to November without riot police or federalized National Guard or Bureau of Prison enforcers shooting bullets into a crowd, I will be amazed. If there is an election, Trump is going to lose it in an unprecedentedly huge way. I can’t imagine how he will leave office without violence–and for every Mattis that can quote the Federalist papers, there are a thousand angry cops. Trump is a cornered animal, and I am afraid the militarization in Washington is a rehearsal for the fall.

6.3 I more and more believe that the conspiracists get all the details wrong, but are right about one thing: that there is indeed a hidden explanation that unifies the seeming randomness of events. The deity that we worship as God is really a demonic ringer; the deep state framed Oswald; Trump is on a crusade to rescue America’s children from pedophiles. Their stories are completely nuts, of course, but they’re grasping at an intimation that things are not what they seem: That our great national experiment–with its melting pot, endless entrepreneurial opportunity, and love of liberty–is a flimsy front. Scratch the surface of most conspiracists’ writings and the hidden power turns out to be Jewish. But the critical race theorists have broken a real code: they’ve seen that America’s liberal humanism is built on a foundation of race supremacism, religious chauvinism, land theft, and chattel slavery. Some of the American dream is real, of course. Ethnicities have melted into the mass over time (very few of us think of people with Slavic features, like Melania Trump, as non-white anymore); anti-Papism is mostly a thing of the past in this once militantly Protestant country. Some Americans really have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, and we have a body of law that gives great deference to individual liberty. There are are real American heroes and role models, though pretty much all of them, like pretty much all heroes and role models everywhere, have feet of clay.

But we also–as most nations do–have a horrific past defined by rape and violence that is not even past. Its unacknowledged omnipresence is what gives Trump his strength; our desire to deny it distorts our thinking to the point that cognitive dissonance (like Freud’s repression) has come to define us. Harold Bloom was thinking of something else when he said that the American religion is Gnosticism, but I tend to think he got it right.

6.1 Call me naive or racist, but I had been under the impression that George Floyd had been caught passing a bad check. It wasn’t until I read about the 911 call this morning that I learned that a store clerk accused him of buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20. You’d think we’d know about it by now if there was a counterfeit bill in that grocery’s cash register, so I’m guessing he was innocent.

I live a couple of doors down from Brooklyn’s very urban Flatbush Avenue. A couple of weeks ago, the guy at the pet food store told me that people try to pass him counterfeit bills almost every day, so I know it does happen. Some of them must get through, which means that if a citizen like me used a $100 bill to buy a big order of cat food, I might end up with one in my wallet. But I’m pretty sure the police would give me the benefit of the doubt if someone caught me trying to pass it.

On a different but related topic, my gut tells me that Trump and Karl Rove (who I would bet big money will end up running his campaign) believe that they have been dealt a winning hand. By pushing the pandemic out of the headlines, the civil unrest in blue cities has given them the opportunity to strike a decisive blow against anarchy and racial identity politics once and for all. I am expecting military deployments, monkey trials, curfews, and states of emergency for the rest of his term.

Whether voters reward Trump for the American carnage is an open question. My hope is that the hunger for normalcy favors Biden and the Democrats, but my gut also tells me that there will be a lot of state violence unleashed right around November 3, with an aim to discouraging voting.

Diane Rehm, Bernie Sanders, Anti-Semitism

So as TPM reported, Diane Rehm sharply questioned Bernie Sanders about his supposed dual Israeli/American citizenship. Some listeners might have heard in this an echo of the familiar trope that goes back to the Protocols (and that last reared its head in national politics during one of Pat Buchanan’s campaigns). Rehm’s embarrassing mea culpa was that it was something she picked up on Facebook.

I’m pretty sure that both the Jews and Bernie Sanders can take care of themselves, but I have to admit that it troubles even a non-Zionist like me that the list she is referring to is most likely this one, which ran on Ken Adachi’s website, where you can also learn about the Illuminati bloodline, Agenda 21, the perils of vaccination, and the perfidy of international Jewry. I’m not saying that Diane Rehm subscribes to any of those theories, but shouldn’t someone with her platform at least know enough about the kinds of theories that travel around the Internet to be skeptical of sites like that?

Luise Rainer, Edward Brooke and Me

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” –David Copperfield

I know I’m not the first person to think of this–Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” says it with much more wit and poignancy than I could ever muster–but what with this being 2015 and all, 31 years since 1984, 14 years after 2001, and the very year, I learned from a TV news program the other day, that 1989’s “Back To the Future II” is set in, I have been a little overwhelmed by the fact that I am living in what science fiction has primed me to think of as the far-off future. I’m not exactly senescent, but I’m far enough past the mid-point of my allotted three-score and ten that “middle-aged” is a euphemism. The narrative arc of my life is way past the point where something big and triumphant could occur to redeem or vindicate it, or send it off in any new direction but down. I’m too married to get the girl and too old to land the big promotion; my children are already out in the world. If I ever was the hero of my own life, its times for heroics came and went without any major fireworks.

Everybody probably feels this way at some point, even bonafide A-listers. Our subjectivity, the fact that we experience the world from the vantage of our own heads, and hence through the lenses of our prejudices, interests, desires, and disappointments, creates the illusion that we are the ultimate subject of whatever production it is our fate to be cast in.

A long time ago I was waiting for a table outside the dining room of a mediocre expense account restaurant when I noticed that the man behind me in line was Robert L. Bernstein, who until just a few years before had been the Chairman and President of Random House. If I’d had any doubt who he was, it was dispelled when he gave his name to the hostess and she impassively checked it off her list. He was wearing an expensive suit, but he didn’t fill it out quite like he did when I’d see him climbing into or out of a limo outside 201 E 50th Street. Seeing him was a little like reading the obituary of a former personage you hadn’t realized was still alive–a Hollywood star of the 1930s; the first black US Senator since Reconstruction. In his mind, though, the world was still revolving around him, because of course it was, right up until he drew his last breath.

Stupid people go through life without realizing how stupid they are, because they are lacking in the smart stuff that would allow them to take the true measure of their capacities; supernumeraries like Rosencrantz and Goldwag believe that they are really stars, even if they are just walk-ons, or more likely still, faceless extras in an unimportant crowd scene.

No matter how humble and self-effacing we try to be, we are all narcissists and conspiracy theorists to one degree or another. It’s how we’re wired.

Hate Wins (for now)

These days half the posts I read on the Internet seem just as nasty and tendentious as the trolls’ comments that unscroll beneath them. Salon’s Britney Cooper cast herself as a victim of over-weaning white male privilege when, “buoyed by his own entitlement, his own sense of white male somebodiness,” a passenger moved her bag off an empty seat on a crowded train, because manhandling a black Rutgers professor’s computer bag is just one short step away from extra-judicial execution. Jezebel’s Anna Merlan peremptorily dismissed Richard Bradley’s early concerns about the Rolling Stone gang-rape story as a “giant ball of shit” (to her credit, she went on the record a few days later and admitted that she had been “dead fucking wrong,” which is something it’s hard to imagine a Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly doing under the same circumstances). But still….These people are supposed to be on my side, which is to say, members of the reality-based community. Why so quick with the ad hominems? Why so ready to demonize? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be fighting against?

Of course their  words weren’t journalism, rough first drafts of history, but real-time advocacy. Advocacy can be high-minded, but as often as not it’s opportunistically prosecutorial. At its worst, it’s sloganeering, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for any of the shades of gray that reality is always colored in.

When a mentally ill misogynist easily obtains an arsenal and uses it to kill a random bunch of men and women in California, one side seizes on it as the apotheosis of rape culture, a continuum that begins with catcalls and ends with rape and murder. When a mentally ill black man easily obtains a handgun and uses it to shoot his girlfriend in Baltimore and then two cops in New York City as revenge for Eric Garner, the other side seizes on it as the end of a slippery slope that begins with voting for Barack Obama (cf Rudy Giuliani).

Of course spree killers often do have ideas and write manifestos about them (Anders Behring Breivik’s was a veritable encyclopedia of The New Hate), but mass murderers are hardly the most useful frame of reference for a discussion of politics, anymore than Hitler are Stalin are. It’s a little like Godwin’s Law: whoever brings them up effectively loses the argument.

Still, both sides do it, and I suppose it’s not an altogether terrible thing. Complacency is a kind of complicity and they both thrive in silence. If the backlash depends on rancor and disruption, progressivism demands a certain amount of creative destruction as well. If you want to change the world, you can’t be diffident; if you want to make an omelet, you’ve got to break a few eggs.

But it’s not my thing, and I feel less and less inclined to engage in it. I’m not good at catchphrases anyway; my preferred mode is the run-on sentence.

My New Year’s resolution for 2015 is to hold my tongue in public until I’m sure I have something to say.

Police brutality in 2014

GarnerPhoto by Alice Peck

Trying to read the faces of the cops encircling Foley Square last night was as useful an exercise as trying to formulate a political philosophy from the slogans being chanted and waved around me on placards would have been. Demonizing all cops is as useless as angelifying them; the same goes for their victims.

The problem isn’t whether this cop or that cop is a racist or this victim or that victim is a good citizen or a thug–it’s whether the criminal justice system is delivering anything remotely equitable, whether the net product of the police is service and safety or oppression and terror.

But of course it’s both. Watching the video of the cops standing over the prostrate body of Eric Garner doing absolutely nothing to help him is horrific. They are swaggering brutes, and they are wearing very different faces than the guys standing around Foley Square last night were–or the Brooklyn beat cop who rang my doorbell 25 years ago to ask me how I was doing and tell me that the guy who’d pistol-whipped me had been arrested and indicted.

Racism is a huge factor in our current crisis, of course, but so are our absurd drug laws. And so is economic inequality. As the unskilled white working class continues to devolve into a virtual underclass, they’ll learn this. Staten Island’s Oxycontin problem is a case in point (“from 2005 to 2011, according to city health statistics, as fatalities from overdosing on drugs decreased citywide, the death rate from opioid overdose on Staten Island nearly quadrupled, leaving it more than three times that of the Bronx”–New York Times).

When I was in college, they taught me that FDR saved capitalism by giving the working class such a big stake in the economy. I suppose that was true up to a point, but racism, xenophobia and cognitive dissonance probably did more.

I wonder if historians will see the rise of the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Alex Jones’s John Birch-style populism, Glenn Beck gold bug-ism, and the post-Ferguson protests as part of a continuum, rather than opposing tendencies.

If I was a Communist, I might see that as a good thing.

How Conspiracy Theorists are Like Canaries in the Mineshaft of the State

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.

Mirror Worlds

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.

Two stories

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.

The United States of Paranoia

I really enjoyed Jesse Walker’s The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. It didn’t teach me a lot about the Illuminati and their ilk (who I knew quite a bit about already), but it was fantastic on the ironic post-modern conspiracism of Paul Krasner, Robert Anton Wilson, the Discordians, and later deconstructive groups like the Church of the SubGenius. Walker tells some terrific stories about fake ex-Satanists and the role they played in (re)popularizing the myths about the Illuminati (specifically John Todd) and he showed how far-reaching Mae Brussell’s influence was. Like Kathy Olmstead in Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11, he has much to say about the post-Watergate revelations about the government’s activities that in some cases beggared the fantasies of the most perfervid conspiracy theorists.

As someone who is fascinated by the weird synchronicities that are present not just in conspiracy theories but in the lives of the people who dream them up (L. Ron Hubbard’s connection to OTO and Aleister Crowley, for example; the fact that Mark Lane was present at Jonestown; the strange death of Jim Keith of Black Helicopters Over America fame), I was blown away to learn that Discordianism’s co-founder Kerry Thornley (aka Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst) served in the Marine Corps with Lee Harvey Oswald and wrote an unpublished novel, The Idle Warriors, about him before the JFK assassination. Whittaker Chambers also inspired a fictional character before he became notorious–Gifford Maxim, in Lionel Trilling’s 1947 novel The Middle of the Journey. Walker is great on the relationship between on-line Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) and 911, Newtown, and Boston Marathon Trutherism–something that I opined about in my recent Salon piece, but that I know nowhere near as much about as Walker does.

Where I take issue with Walker is his mostly tacit assumption that conspiracism is more often than not an admirable expression of a healthy skepticism–that it signals an independent-minded, anti-authoritarian openness to different ways of thinking. For all their antics, the likes of Robert Welch, Henry Ford, Nesta Webster, Milton William Cooper, and Alex Jones are not Absurdists, post-modernists, or even the live-and-let-live libertarians that they are sometimes presumed to be–they have real agendas and their thinking is rigid and dogmatic in the extreme. He underplays the toxicity and the ubiquity of the Protocols and, indeed, the significance of their content. And while I agree with him that liberal watchdog groups like the SPLC and the ADL can be annoyingly humorless and literal-minded, that they are sometimes no less alarmist than their wrong-thinking adversaries are, and that their scare-mongering statistics about hate groups are biased to maximize fund-raising, I vehemently disagree that the connections they draw between conspiracism and programmatic hatreds are paranoid in their own right.

I am a free speech absolutist; I defend anyone’s right to deny the Holocaust, bait gays or women, or defend indefensible propositions about the genetic superiority of one race over another. But I do believe that hateful words have consequences. No, Sarah Palin’s bulls-eye map didn’t directly inspire Jared Lee Loughner to murder 19  people in Tucson. The SPLC’s designation of the Family Research Council as a “hate group” didn’t cause Floyd Corkins to shoot Leonardo Johnson in the arm either. But contempt breeds contempt; it poisons discourse across the board and it can have the effect of normalizing violence. I deplore it and I believe that it needs to be called out–whether it appears on an obscure racist website, in Ron Paul’s ancient newsletters, in a joke that a US Congressman tells at one of his fundraisers, or a plank that finds its way into the Republican platform. The content of a group’s or a person’s beliefs–the texts they refer to, the authorities they cite, the tenets they adhere to–are always relevant, especially if they turn on the immutable evil of an identifiable group of people. This is why I wrote The New Hate, after all.

Walker’s culture criticism is entertaining; he is smart, witty, and knowledgeable about a wide range of esoterica; he made me feel woefully uninformed about things that I’m supposed to be expert in. For the most part, he strikes the right balance between empathy and doubt. “We should be skeptical, yes, of people who might be conspiring against us,” he writes. “But we should also be skeptical–deeply, deeply skeptical–of our fearful, fallible selves.”

Truer words have never been written. Still, he left me with the disquieting feeling that when it comes to the big overbearing hatreds that underlie so much of conspiracy thinking, he is a little bit too skeptical–or too willing to turn a blind eye.

Manufacturing Armageddon


First, I grabbed this picture of Cruz from this very cogent Salon article by Brian Beutler. Doesn’t he look like a silent movie villain? Here’s Beutler’s money quote: “Boehner and other Republican leaders never wanted a government shutdown at all. They know a shutdown hurts people and that the political cost to them will likely be severe. But now they’re in it, they don’t think they can embarrass themselves by folding…It’s a monstrous application of the sunk cost fallacy.”

Or maybe it’s cognitive dissonance. Leon Festinger’s classic WHEN PROPHECY FAILS notes that cultists often redouble their proselytizing activities when their beliefs are publicly disconfirmed–provided that they held them sincerely and, most important, that sufficient social support is available, that they are a part of a community of confirmed true believers.

Second, though it’s usually conspiracists that accuse the government of “manufacturing crises,” this time around it’s the right that’s conjured one, and it’s no “false flag.” The scariest thing, though, is that a lot of them don’t seem to realize what they’re playing with–they actually think this is just political theater. Here’s Michael Reagan:

I don’t care if the United States government goes bankrupt for a few months. It’s no big deal in the long run. Congress will just pass another continuing resolution to fund government.

Then, two months later, when the debt ceiling is raised by Congress, as it always is, everyone who’s owed money by the federal government will be paid retroactively and it will be business as usual until the next debt “crisis.”

I was just on the radio saying how back in the good old days of the nuclear standoff, everybody knew what the worst case scenario was and nobody wanted to test it. When it came down to it with Cuba, both sides backed away from the brink.

But that wasn’t strictly true, even back then. Remember those Reagan era Dr. Strangeloves who argued that tactical nuclear wars were “winnable”–and that civil defense could make it possible to survive a first strike with acceptable casualty levels? Think about that the next time you read about how a default won’t be that bad. God may not play dice with the universe but there are a lot of people who would if they got the chance. And they just might, in a matter of days.

The Boston Bombing and the Restless Ghosts of 9/11

I’ve started a bunch of blog posts since the events in Watertown last week and left all of them unfinished. This story should be red meat for me, what with its Infowars-reading conspirators and its rich cast of Obamaphobe and Islamaphobe exploiters, not to mention how it is playing into the politics of immigration reform–but I have to admit I find it completely depressing.  It feels like everyone in the media is trying to push my buttons; writer after writer is telling me what and how I feel.  The “Boston bombing,” Ron Fournier declared, “Might be Scarier than 9/11.”

Never mind the outlandish conspiracy theories about false flags; pay no attention to the agenda-driven insistence that the bombing was an act of war carried out by international Islam; set aside the outrage at the very idea that its perpetrators might have been troubled jihadist-sympathizers acting on their own. Ignore the predictable but absurd efforts to hold Obama personally responsible for it–as Jeffrey T. Kuhner did, in an op ed in The Washington Times that demanded that he be impeached for his failed “policies of appeasement and multicultural outreach to the Muslim world.” The so-called mainstream press was only a little more skeptical than the Alex Joneses and Ann Coulters of the world; it did as much and more to spread hysteria as they did.

An “M-4 carbine rifle — a weapon similar to ones used by American forces in Afghanistan — [was found] on the boat where the younger suspect was found Friday night in Watertown, Mass,” The New York Times reported the Sunday after Dzokhar was taken into custody. “Two handguns and a BB gun that the authorities believe the brothers used in an earlier shootout with officers in Watertown were also recovered, said one official briefed on the investigation. The authorities said they believe the suspects had fired roughly 80 rounds in that shootout, in which Tamerlan Tsarnaev was fatally wounded.” Note the specificity of what turns out to have been a completely specious leak–80 rounds, a BB gun (what?); “a weapon similar to ones used by American forces in Afghanistan” (aha! blowback!). The brothers, as it turned out, had one gun between them (they tried to steal the MIT officer’s gun after they killed him, but they couldn’t get it out of its holster). The transit cop who was so grievously wounded in the first shootout was very likely struck by friendly fire. Dzokhar was unarmed when he was arrested (though panicked police believed they had exchanged gunfire with him).

All of the usual suspects are grabbing for a piece of this thing, it seems, but there’s a compulsive quality to the exploitation. Watching the talkers on Fox News is a little like watching alcoholics joylessly pretend to be celebrating something.

Glenn Beck tried his darnedest to work up Benghazi levels of fear and loathing with his exclusives on the Saudi student, but the story hasn’t particularly caught fire. James Tracy–the Florida Atlantic University professor who garnered outraged national attention last winter when he declared that the grieving families in Newtown were actors–has dutifully posted “evidence” that purports to show that the explosions were, surprise, a “mass-casualty drill” carried out by actors.  His close analysis of the photographs of the maimed and bleeding victims reveal a host of anomalies, he claims. For example, “the fourth and fifth photos show the man wearing the hoodie garment apparently helping the injured man/amputee with his right leg. Could he be removing this man’s prosthetic?”  Why the charade? Because, “much like 9/11, Oklahoma City, Aurora, and Newtown, an official storyline complete with the execution and/or capture of bad-guy culprits has been forged and vigorously drummed into the public mind….The upshot will be a continued program of more intensified repression at taxpayer expense alongside a corresponding erosion of civil liberties.” First time tragedy, second time farce: the media has mostly yawned at Tracy’s story-telling.

Saturday night, the New York local news was full of breathless stories about the discovery of a piece of landing gear wedged between 51 Park Place and 50 Murray Street. 51 Park Place is the old Burlington Coat Factory, the site of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” which was vigorously protested by Pam Geller, Robert Spencer, Newt Gingrich and other Islamophobic carpetbaggers because it was “sacred ground,” located so near to the WTC that  it was damaged when it was struck by one of the planes’ landing gear.  The fact that a piece of airplane would be found at a building that was known to have been struck by landing gear should be the ultimate dog bites man story. But it’s not. “Was 9/11 landing gear found beside mosque lowered there by opponents of development? Extraordinary claims following stunning find,” reads the headline at the Daily Mail.

“Will all the Leftists and Islamic supremacists who have been insisting since the height of the Ground Zero Mosque controversy that this building was not part of Ground Zero stop the propaganda now that apparently landing gear crashed into this building not once, but twice?” Jihad Watch’s Robert Spencer incoherently demanded–for all the world as if people like me who don’t have a problem with a mosque being located near the site of the World Trade Center have been arguing about geography and not religious freedom.

Reading about the mosque again reminded me of a local story that never made the front pages.

Last year, a serial killer started killing Brooklyn shopkeepers. The first victim was Mohamed Galebi, the 65-year-old owner of a clothing store in Bay Ridge. The second was Isaac Kadare, the 59-year-0ld proprietor of a Bensonhurst discount store. The third was Vahidipour Rahmatollah, 78, who ran a clothing store near where I live.

There was speculation at first that the shops’ addresses had numerological significance. Then of course there was the fact that all three victims were Middle Eastern (though Rahmatollah was an Iranian Jew). When the police arrested the killer, he turned out to be Salvatore Perrone, an Italian American clothing salesman who lived in Staten Island. He knew all the victims and the murder weapon was recovered from his apartment; he admitted to the killings but refused to reveal his motive, because he said he was a secret agent. Then two Italian-speaking detectives stepped in, pretending that they had been sent by Rome to debrief him. He told them that he had acted under orders from the “Italian CIA” and that he was expecting to receive $800,000 for the job. According to the local blog DNA Info, when “Yasmin Rahmatollah, the latest victim’s daughter” was told this, she said that she was “struggling to understand all the information” that was coming out. “Whoever it is must be psychotic,” she said.

Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine that a Middle Eastern serial killer was shooting Italian American store owners. Something tells me there’d be a lot more certainty about motives and the like.

Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan

Another fascinating e mail from Robert Haston, which, again, I am happy to post in its entirety. Haston’s own blog can be found here.

How We Didn’t See the Forest for the Trees – How farm reform can be 100 times more cost effective than more bombs and lives in Afghanistan

No one beats the military in resisting innovations that threaten the status quo. The best place to read this embarrassing history is in military journals. Unfortunately, they typically wait for the last general involved to retire and/or die before hanging the dirty laundry out in the breeze.

General Billy Mitchell proved that the airplane, not the battleship would rule the seas. He was court-martialed but has become posthumously known as the Father of the Air Force. The Air Commando Journal has a great article on how the side firing aerial gunship was suppressed from 1926 to 1965. A renegade cargo pilot fought off the “fighter mafia” and the gunship became an overnight success, saving hundreds of lives in Vietnam.

These are examples of how the military reacts to internal shifts of money and power. We have been giving the military industrial complex 3-4 times the GDP of Afghanistan for a decade. There is no proof of durable progress. Now imagine how they would react to cheap, non-military alternatives that permanently remove the physical cover and concealment that the Taliban rely on. Let’s start with the trees.

Most people think the war is spread across a Texas sized tract of mountainous desert. Open up CNN’s casualty map and see that we take most of our casualties in a few tiny green river valleys. Use Google Maps to zoom all the way in to where those clusters of dots are. The wide portion of the river valley north of Gereshk in Helmand Province is the best example. You see that it is flat, green, and a patchwork of tiny fields and trees.

Those green lines are networks of knee to waist deep irrigation ditches masked by undergrowth and small trees. The ditches do provide a shallow trench network, but without the concealment of the vegetation, they aren’t very useful, particularly against any enemy with even rudimentary air power.

Every fall, the leaves fall off, and the Taliban close up shop. I saw this when I flew 220 medevac missions in Helmand Valley in the spring to fall of 2011. A British Apache Pilot called fall “deer season”, because the dumb ones keep at it for a couple weeks.

Why would a farmer in the desert waste all that water to grow trees? The trees are used primarily for cooking fuel. Meanwhile, the farmers burn off their crop waste. This waste could be compressed into cooking fuel briquettes – a practice that is exploding across India and China.

The cost of buying and fueling these machines is approximately 80 million a year – one thousandth of our war spending. A $10 subsidy for more efficient, locally manufactured cook stoves could cut this tiny sum in half.

This still leaves the ditches. They could be replaced with irrigation tubing at a similarly trivial cost. This would allow them to grow up to twice the crops with the same water. The Taliban hide in the corn, but switching to soybeans in contested areas would also address Afghanistan’s protein deficiency problem.

The Taliban also hide behind the ubiquitous mud walls that surround farm compounds. But these can be replaced with barbed wire. Ideally, these would be lowered and modified into barbed wire topped ramparts that better protect the compound. Ensuring that they have cell phone or radio contact with the authorities would be part of the package.

Each household would have hundreds of feet of clear zone and a defensible perimeter, making it easier for the clans to defend themselves. Countering this would require larger numbers and heavier weaponry. But this makes the Taliban easier to spot – in an area where it is many times easier to spot them.

This would make Afghanistan’s farmland look more and more like California’s Central Valley (shouldn’t this be happening anyway?) which is the sort of place a raccoon has trouble hiding in. This would create new skilled labor jobs in fuel briquette and stove making, irrigation, fencing and home security reconstruction industries.

There has been lots of optimistic talk about Afghanistan’s mineral wealth – which is years away and will go mostly to foreign corporations and the corrupt central government, not the poor farmers. Given that we plan on cutting funds by 90% or more very soon, what is our transition plan? What do we leave behind that makes it easier for the local militias and the Afghan Police and Army?

For those who desire to kill this sort of thing in the crib, here is my put up or shut up offer. It would take a comparatively microscopic amount of money to test this on a small scale. I would suggest starting by bisecting the Upper Gereshk (AKA “Taliban Town”) area.

Right now we have maybe two winters to come up with an alternative before we leave the battlefield to the insurgents for the third time in American history. What better tribute to the soldiers who died on these foreign lands than to leave them as a symbol of what America really stands for – not war, but prosperity and progress.

Robert Haston