Obama conspiracy theories

I Googled “Obama conspiracy theories” this morning, thinking I might come up with something nutty; instead I found this very thorough site that documents and debunks the nuttiest claims–its name is Obama conspiracy.org.

I added a few items to CULTS last winter when it was in proofs. I thought about writing some lines about what a few prescient journalists had already dubbed “Birtherism,” but I never imagined that people would still be talking about Obama’s birth certificate this fall.  In retrospect, I wish I’d known about Abraham Vereide and the so-called C Street Family–which, though not exactly a cult, a conspiracy, or a secret society, has much in common with all of them; it’s sort of a Protestant version of what Opus Dei is accused of being.  But thanks to Mark Sanford and John Ensign’s embarrassments, the paperback edition of Jeff Sharlet’s THE FAMILY has put them on the national radar in a much bigger way than I ever could have.

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First radio interview

I was on The Washington Times’s syndicated drive-time radio show this morning to promote CULTS, CONSPIRACIES, AND SECRET SOCIETIES. It went pretty much as I feared–if I sounded like a 33 rpm record on 16, they were chattering away at 78. This analogy dates me a little, I guess. Anyway, they were really friendly, if super-caffeinated, and I was torpid and way too abstract. I have to remember to be funny and concrete. But the thing is, I don’t want to sound like I’m just ridiculing conspiracists. It riles them up and it debases me.

I thought it was interesting that the Washington Times, as right-leaning as its politics (and its demographics) must be, was as open to my brand of skepticism as they seemed to be. My guess is that a lot of Republicans worry about the Tin Hat tendencies of their base too.

Death and the Internet

Sometimes when I’m too agitated to sleep but too sleepy to read or write or do anything useful, I log onto my computer and Google the names of people I used to know. It sounds a little creepy, but it’s not as if I wouldn’t have been thinking about them anyway.  Insomnia is an occasion for revisiting old griefs and regrets. If you want to hear the dead scratching on the walls of their tombs, you have to stay up past your bedtime.

Once I Googled an ex-girlfriend and found out how much she and her husband had paid for their house. Her husband, I learned, was the man she’d dumped me for. Despite what she’d said at the time it really was me, not her—whatever her commitment issues might have been, they hadn’t prevented her from staying with my successor for almost thirty years. Tracking his cyber-spoor—books he’d reviewed on Amazon, organizations he’d joined—I could see that he was a man of a sanguine temperament, with a positive, forward-looking turn of mind. He wouldn’t have wasted a minute of his time Googling the likes of me.

One bleary night I found myself thinking about a college roommate who’d recently died. Had I known what fate held in store for him, I’d like to think that I would have told him how much I’ve always regretted saying what I did that time when I was so in my cups. Even after all these years, I’ll be walking down the street or brushing my teeth when I’m suddenly brought up short by the memory of the look on his face when I opened my mouth. I clicked my mouse and entered a website that another one of his college friends—a better one than me—had created in his memory. And there he was: 19 years old, exactly as I remember him.

I went to high school with a musician who came as close to making it as you can without becoming rich or famous. One night, I don’t know why, I typed the name of one of his bands into Google and to my astonishment discovered that fan websites, MP3s, and YouTube videos had popped up like so many mushrooms. I clicked on one of them and saw him, his eyes hidden behind a pair of wrap-around sunglasses, his face achingly young and hopeful. I clicked again and he was in concert in Osaka, Japan, older this time, and grizzled from the road. The singer he was performing with—a bonafide rock-and-roll legend—would die of a heroin overdose that same month. Jamey would follow him a few years later.

I Googled my late father’s father once and found the manifest of the steamship that brought him to this country from Poland at the turn of the last century. I Googled my father’s sister—she killed herself in the 1960s—and found her listed as a member of Erasmus high school’s graduating class of 1931. Letters that my late mother sent to Harpers magazine and The New York Times are archived and can be accessed for a nominal fee.

The great Yugoslavian writer Danilo Kis (he died of cancer in 1989, when he was just in his early fifties) wrote a short story called “The Encyclopedia of the Dead,” about a Mormonesque religious order that documents the lives of ordinary people. Locked overnight in the library that houses the Encyclopedia’s thousands of volumes, its narrator reads about her recently deceased father. Though just a few pages long, his entry recounts in astounding detail not just his vital statistics, but the textures of the landscapes he inhabited and all of his sorrows, disappointments, and joys, rendering him in all his dense and irreducible pathos and particularity. “This,” she concludes, “is the central message of the Encyclopedia’s authors—nothing ever repeats itself in human history; all things that, at first glance, seem to be the same are barely similar; every man is a single star unto himself; everything happens always and never, everything occurs endlessly and never again.”

“In the future,” Andy Warhol famously predicted, “everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” A decade or so later, he emended himself. “I’m bored with that line. I never use it anymore. My new line is, ‘In fifteen minutes everybody will be famous.’” Fifteen minutes later the future is here. And thanks to the indelible traces that we leave on the Internet, some of us achieve a notoriety of the kind, if not the degree, that used to be reserved for the notorious alone. In the small hours of the morning, that can be a source of considerable consolation.

Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies

Cults, Conspiracies and Secret Societies has been out for a few weeks and it has already touched some raw nerves. An angry reviewer on Amazon.com writes “I am not sure which is more frightening, the fringe nuts who think everything is a alien conspiracy, or this guy, who thinks there are no real secrets, or hidden cloaked sinister agendas out there floating through our present.” Another wittily remarks that the book is “one entire flat and tasteless pudding or worse — unpalatable poo. Definitely a read for the bathroom.” I can’t blame them for being so angry; I provoked them by calling their beliefs into question–worse yet, by treating them as a sort of pathology. A sympathetic blog (Curled up with a Good Book.com) calls it “a must have resource for the student of human nature, sociology, or popular culture,” though it predicts that my accuracy and even-handedness won’t be enough to dissuade “members of the included cults from….suing Goldwag for libel.” Gulp. Another blog (Hugh Howey.com) says “it reads like a Grisham novel.” The MSM has been weighing in as well. Michael Shermer called it “a marvelous new book” in Scientific American; I’ve extracted a few more choice blurbs below:

The kind of reference manual that the Internet cannot supplant…..Goldwag keeps the facts straight and gives the rumors — no matter how lurid and entertaining — about as much respect as they deserve.”—The Washington Post

“A messy book about messy ideologies….And here’s the beauty of it….[Goldwag is] such a damn good writer that you don’t really mind….[he] is also one of those rare authors who can write about fringe topics in a way that sounds respectful and fun without him coming across like he’s out of his mind.” –Jackson (Mississippi) Free Press

“Delightful.” –The Weekly Standard

“Goldwag is a colorful writer who makes good use of his material as he aims to explain, rather than debunk or expose, a fascinating diversity of beliefs.”—The Boston Globe

A good friend and fellow writer who is unfortunately incarcerated at the moment wrote to thank me for sending him a copy of Cults. “You’ll be pleased to know,” he related, “that this is actually the 2nd copy of the book to get into MDC [Metropolitan Detention Center]. A…..leader of a China Town gang (tong?) saw me carrying it and pointed out to me that he had it in his footlocker and had just finished reading it. He’d ordered it from BN.com. When he heard I knew the author he made me promise to tell you how much he enjoyed the volume. This is the God’s honest truth!”

Hello everybody

So today it’s been one week since I completed the first draft of my third book, CONSPIRACIES, CULTS, & SECRET SOCIETIES (not the final title). If all goes well, Vintage will publish it next fall. If it goes anything like the last book did, I’ll get a few opportunities to talk about it on the radio and maybe even on TV–to join the great national conversation, as it were, to hoist up my flag and see who salutes. Hopefully between now and then I’ll be able to think up a few all-purpose tidbits that I can quickly deploy to make a memorable impression, because it turns out that most of these interviews go by really quickly. If you’re not careful, you can still be figuratively clearing your throat when they’re already winding you down. You don’t want to waste your opportunities. Sadly, even the smallest media market is likely to yield more listeners than will ever read the book. Here’s a random thought on the subject for today. I remember somewhere in Don DeLillo’s Libra, a character asks David Ferrie what he believes in (or maybe it was if he believed in hypnotism…). Ferrie replies, “I believe in everything.” Somehow I’m going to have to get across the notion that “belief” itself is the issue, that the division between conspiracy theorists and the rest of us isn’t that they believe in one thing and we believe in another, but that they believe and we don’t. Period. Though faith and intellect come from different parts of the brain, they both have intellectual consequences. For a passionately believing religious person, for example (I’m simplifying radically, of course–I know that there are many intelligent, critical-minded believers), the opposite of belief in God is a belief in Satan. For a non-believer, the opposite of faith is secularism. Secularism and Satanism are too different things, but for some believers, they balance the same equations.