All posts by meanderer007

The Blue Sky is Pink

 

226,000 Americans have died of Covid-19. Yesterday, the US reached a record high of coronavirus cases per 7-day average of nearly 70,000 new cases of Covid-19 per day. Yet astonishingly, the same day from the White House Department of Science and Technology, a list was issued of first term accomplishments of the Trump administration. One of the listed “accomplishments” was “ending the Covid-19 pandemic.”

 

As Dr. Jonathan Reiner said, “This was mission accomplished right? We had 73,000 new cases today. We have been averaging over the week 70,000 new cases per day. In the last week more than half a million people contracted this virus…Our death toll now is approaching 1,000 per day. So we’re spiking the ball. Congratulations Mr. President it’s over.” Can you imagine saying “ending” the Covid pandemic is an accomplishment?

I recently heard a commentator say that if Trump approached some of his supporters staring at a beautiful blue sky and he said it was pink, they would believe him. They actually would. They believe him. They believe him with theological devotion.

I wonder how the millions of people who work in health care in the US feel about this. They have been working incredibly hard non-stop for about 9 months or so and it is now getting worse! How do they feel?

As Dr. Reiner said, “As we are in the midst of a giant wave, to hear the White House basically laud the completion of a mission well done when we are basically being swamped is outrageous.” It is actually worse than outrageous. Whatever that is.

This is where believing crazy stuff gets us.

Trafficking in Conspiracy

 

This year 2020 CNN had a special report on the conspiracy theories of the president of the United States. That might seem incredible, but it’s true. It was hosted by Fareed Zakaria who asked the main question right at the outset of the show, “Why does the President of the United States of America live in a world of dark sinister conspiracies?” As one pundit explained, “He gravitates instinctively to conspiratorial understandings of the world.” Or as another said, “the world actually makes sense if you look behind a curtain. There are dark malevolent forces behind the curtain.” As Zakaria said, “behind that curtain he sees political enemies”

Trump  said Joseph Biden and his son were corrupt. Hillary Clinton was a total liar. The election (that he won in 2016) was rigged. It was, as Jeffrey Goldberg said, “it’s all totally nuts. This is the first time I have the fear that a sitting president won’t leave if he loses a free and fair election.”

Fareed Zakaria said “the subject is urgent because the conspiracy theories circulating now are dangerous and the president of the United States is trafficking in them.”

It seems impossible; it is not. The President of the United States with the largest combined intelligence services in the world by a landslide, turns instead to the Internet and Fox News and other unreliable sources for information he relies on to govern the richest and most powerful country in the world. I think he does that because that dark world of conspiracy theories is the world in which he thrives. That is deeply troubling; that is scary.

Some think ‘the adults in the room’ will save us. Trump has already demonstrated over and over again, that the adults are either sycophants or weak or are not adults. We have no protection from anyone.

Some think the constitutional system of checks and balances will protect America and the world. Again, Trump has demonstrated over and over again that he can effortlessly fly over those checks and balances. We have no protection from them either. Even far away in Canada.

Frankly, we are naked to the world in front of the most dangerous man in the world. And that is no conspiracy theory.

As Zakaria said,

“When Donald Trump tells us elections are rigged, Obamagate is the biggest scandal in history, some know these ideas are wholly false, but others are less certain, especially when they hear a story full of details that seems to explain everything. Polls show that up to 50% of Americans have believed at least one of these conspiracy theories. This is a story about just how destructive they have become. Not just to the people they target, but also to the very foundations of our democracy.”

I have said this many times, but I will repeat it. I actually don’t care about Trump. He is hopeless. What I do care about, is that millions of Americans, and Canadians, support Trump. I keep asking how can that be?

Liars and Bullshitters

I still remember the first time I ever saw Donald Trump on television. I had heard of him before but I had never paid any attention to him. I believe, this was some time after his unsuccessful attempt to win the Republican nomination for president. He appeared on a national television talk show and told the audience that he had absolute proof that President Obama was born outside the United States, thus making his recent elections illegitimate. He claimed to have proof and said he would reveal it soon. I was quite surprised, never really have paid attention to what I later learned was the birther conspiracy theory.

Because, at the time I knew so little about Trump I took his claims seriously. I wondered what would happen when Trump revealed the truth. After all, Obama was already president.

Of course Trump never appeared with the truth. He promised that the day of revelation would come soon. Of course, that day, like the day he promised to reveal his income tax returns, also never arrived.

By then I realized Trump was not a liar he was a bullshitter.  By that I mean someone who did not just fail to tell the truth (that’s a liar). He didn’t care about the truth at all. Whether a statement he made was true or false never makes any difference to him. All that matters is whether or not a statement is convenient to him at the time. He is truly indifferent to the truth. That is a bullshitter.

 

Truth and Conspiracy Theories

 

I have a theory about conspiracy theories.

America is so filled with conspiracy theories it is difficult to decide where to start and where to end. They are ubiquitous. They are literally everywhere.

I have been trying to explain why in my opinion that is so. I believe it is because of their particular devotion to believing without evidence. That devotion has been around so long many don’t even see. Many people think it is normal to believe wild theories without evidence.

Here is a theory I endorse: the more unlikely a statement, the stronger the evidence we should demand before we believe it. The weaker the evidence in support of a theory the more suspect we should be about it. For example, if someone says Barack Obama was born outside the United States that is a statement that is hard to believe, but it is not so outrageous that it could not be true. I would require some evidence though, because it is not obviously true. If you say that Barack Obama is part of an international conspiracy of elite pedophiles that are attacking very young children to kill them and drink their blood that is a pretty wild statement. Such a statement requires deep evidence to be believed. Nothing else will do.

Yet to a lot of people such a statement about Obama is made and it is believed. It does not matter how outrageous it is, if it sort of fits in with their own world-view they believe it without any evidence at all. These believers live in a world of conspiracy theories and they find the current world very congenial. They fit in. Increasingly, those who demand evidence don’t belong in this new world. Increasingly, the new world is a world of make-believe or FantasyLand. According to a recent study, 25% of Americans believe Qanon theories while another 24% are not sure about them! What is there to be unsure of?

Believing crazy theories without evidence is good evidence of not cherishing truth. A country that is soaked in conspiracy theories without evidence is a country that does not respect the truth. That is a country where truth is dying.

What is Conspiracy Theory?

A conspiracy is the activity of a group of people acting in concert to accomplish a heinous act. Bad things happen. They always will. Sometimes they come about because of a conspiracy of bad actors to bring them about. Sometimes one person does it alone. Then there is no conspiracy. I am not talking about such a conspiracy.

For example, in the 2016 federal election for president in the United States there was a conspiracy, spear-headed by President Vladimir Putin of Russia and those who worked with him to interfere, illegally and immorally in the American presidential election to discredit Hillary Clinton and favor Donald Trump. They conspired in secret but the evidence is overwhelming. The Mueller inquiry clearly and unequivocally determined this to be the case. A joint non-partisan intelligence report reached the same conclusion.

This is not the type of conspiracy I am talking about. The reason this is not what I am talking about is that the belief in the conspiracy was reasonable and backed up by a mountain of evidence.

 

The type of conspiracy theory I am talking about now is the paranoid or unreasonable belief in a conspiracy. The key is the lack of reasons to support the belief. In such a case, the evidence does not support the belief in the conspiracy. The belief in the conspiracy is thus not justified. It is a paranoid belief in other words because it is based on an unreasonable fear.

Fears are important. Fears can be bad and they can be good. If a fear is based on evidence it is a justified fear and we should pay attention to it. Reasonable fears should not be ignored. For example, when scientific evidence is overwhelming that the climate will change dramatically unless we change our ways, we should follow the evidence. When 97% of the scientists or more say that irreparable damage to the environment and our society will result from our failure to act, we should pay attention unless we have an even better reason to do otherwise.

Reasonable fears can protect us from harm. Unreasonable fears can cause us harm. We need to know how to distinguish them. That is not always easy to do. For a while, that was hard to do with evidence about climate change. For a long time now the evidence has mounted to such an extent that it is no longer reasonable to ignore. Reasonable fears can lead us out of danger. These are good fears. Unreasonable fears can lead us into danger.

Unreasonable fears should be ditched. The sooner the better. Sometimes that is hard to do. I have an unreasonable fear of heights. That is a called a phobia because it is unreasonable. All of us know that when we are in high places where we might fall down, we must be careful. That is a reasonable fear. Sometimes the fear is above and beyond all the evidence. That is the type I have. That is a phobia. I am not proud of it, but there is nothing I can do about. I know when I am in a glass elevator there is nothing to fear, but I can’t stop being afraid. My fear is not based on reasons. That is why I can’t reason my way out of it. I wish I could. That fear sometimes is debilitating.

Recently Republican supporters had a garden party at the White House to meet and greet the Republican nominated candidate for the Supreme Court. It was held outdoors, but the attendees did not practice social distancing and most of them did not wear masks. A significant number of those in attendance contracted Covid-19 after that event. The event may have been a super spreader event of the Covid-19 virus. That was dangerous and unwise on the part of the reckless attendees. It may have caused president Trump or others to get the coronavirus. A reasonable fear of the disease could have led a number of those in attendance to take reasonable precautions.

A current conspiracy theory is being promulgated by QAnon, and others, that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Tom Hanks, George Soros, and other elite liberals are all part of a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles that drink the blood of babies. They also believe that Donald Trump is the saviour who will protect the innocent children from this conspiracy. This theory is about as absurd as a theory can get, but many people believe it entirely without evidence. This is the type of conspiracy theory I want to talk about.

When it comes to conspiracies we need to be able to detect the reasonable theories from the unreasonable ones. That means we have to carefully analyze and sift through the evidence in support of theories or that might contradict the theories. To do that we must exercise our critical thinking or reason. That is our best tool for this purpose. Not faith in the promulgator of the theory. We are entitled to take into consideration the reputation of the proponents of a theory, but only to a limited extent. Even experts can be wrong. It is much more important to look at the evidence and the analysis and reach a conclusion. Sometimes we can’t do that. Then we should look at all the evidence we can and consult as many experts as possible and reach a tentative decision about the theory, and be prepared to discard or amend it as soon as the evidence leads us to do so.

 

Foundational Conspiracy

 

We have all noticed by now that the world is filled with conspiracies. It really is scary and strange out there. I have been trying to figure out why that is the case.

Anna Merlan in her book, Republic of Lies: American conspiracy theorists and their surprising rise to power reminds us, that conspiracies, particularly in the United States have been around forever. Particularly they have been around since the United States was founded. This is what she said,

The Trump era has merely focused our attention back on to something that has reappeared with reliable persistence: the conspiratorial thinking and dark suspicions that have never fully left us.”

I didn’t realize this but there were conspiracies among white settlers of North America who speculated that North American Indians, as they were mistakenly called, were literally in league with the devil. They thought the natives were conspiring with the devil in order to enlist demons to help them drive out these invaders.  It was a crazy theory.

Now Native Americans one the other hand had good reason to be desperate for help, but enlisting the devil was unlikely to be very helpful. They are the ones who would have rational fears about the invaders. Mysterious diseases accompanied them and indigenous people around North America were dying in incredible numbers. To the inhabitants it was incomprehensible. But it was the invaders that had the most conspiracy theories.

I have actually thought that fear has been one of the driving aspects of conspiracies. Richard Hofstadter in his book The Paranoid Style in American Politics said that paranoia was the foundation of conspiracy. Those are unreasonable fears. A good friend of mine, who actually knows some history, warned me to be careful about Hofstadter even though he won 2 Pulitzer prizes. He said his books have been challenged by historians for their lack of accuracy. But I believe Hofstadter is right on this point at least. Paranoia is an unreasonable fear. Sometimes it springs from a guilty conscience.

According to Merlan,

“The elements of suspicion were present long before the 2016 election, quietly shaping the way large numbers of people see the government, the media and the nature of what’s true and trustworthy.

And for all of our bogus suspicions, there are those that have been given credence by the government itself. We have seen a sizeable number of real conspiracies revealed over the past half century, from Watergate to recently declassified evidence of secret CIA programmes, to the fact that elements within the Russian government really did conspire to interfere with US elections. There is a perpetual tug between conspiracy theorists and actual conspiracies, between things that are genuinely not believable and truths that are so outlandish they can be hard, at first, to believe.”

 

I don’t have data to support this theory, but I think, the United States has been particularly susceptible to conspiracy theories. Right now we see them all around us, each one weirder than the one before. Whether that is true or not I wonder why so many conspiracy theories flourish in that country. What is there about that country, even more than many other countries, that leads them to believe crazy stuff? Why are they so eager to embrace conspiracy theories?

I have a theory too. (I just admit I have no data to support it) I think it is because they have a guilty conscience. After all genocide of Native American Indians, as they call them, and slavery, both lie at the foundation of that country. That is enough to generate a lot guilt and fear. Those are two pretty good bases for conspiracies. Don’t you think? Maybe that is why they have such a devotion to wild theories .

 

Inventing America: Dreamers and Doers

 

As I write this during the American election campaign you may notice things are getting crazier and crazier in the good old USA. Why is that? That is the issue I have been trying to explore.

 

The Puritans started to call themselves Pilgrims. According to Kurt Andersen, they saw themselves as “extremists of a better social station—talked themselves into leaving England and creating their own American religious utopia.

The Puritan were interesting fanatics. Of course which fanatics are not interesting? For one thing they did not cross the ocean to improve their economic well being. They had dreams of ideas! When you think about it that was amazing. Remember all the hardships they had to endure for their ideas! They wanted to create a New World. What did that New World entail? They wanted a theocracy where they could banish those evil Catholics that had persecuted them in England. They also wanted to banish Church of England clergy, for they were not better than the Papists in their eyes. They wanted religious freedom where everybody could be just like them.

John Winthrop was their first leader and he created a great myth that was constantly revived by leaders like Saint Ronald Reagan. He said in his famous sermon, “We are as a city upon a hill endlessly happy.” Saint Ronald Reagan used this mythology to enhance his claim to Sainthood. It worked. Yet, many Americans have forgotten that this means they must be better than everyone else, not that they are better than everyone else.

As Andersen said about the Puritans,

“If one has enough belief in the supernatural plan, if one’s personal faith is strong enough, false prophecies are just unfortunate miscalculations that don’t falsify anything. If you’re fanatical enough about enacting and enforcing your fiction, it becomes indistinguishable from nonfiction.”

FantasyLand was born and America is living the dream. Or is it the nightmare? The Puritans wanted a place where no one would knock them for their crazy ideas. That was America. They created America—a place where crazy ideas came home to thrive. Anderson called them “the most literal-minded fantasists ever.” The world they created was truly FantasyLand for adults. For both good and ill.

Now its time to look to see what  they created.

Puritans: The First Extremists

 

Many of us who know and love America as I do, have been perplexed by the all out mania of their extremism. Americans do nothing halfway. It is all in or all out. No medium in between. That may be a product of their birth.

The first settlers to the New World found fertile ground for their extreme beliefs and ultimately for the imposition of those beliefs on others. Many were fleeing religious persecution in Europe so that they could impose religious persecution on others in that new world. Kurt Andersen in his book FantasyLand described early American religiosity this way:

“Yet unlike Roman Catholicism, with its old global hierarchy and supreme leader, the new Protestant Christianity was by its nature fractious and unstable, invented almost within living memory by uncompromising rebels who couldn’t abide interpretations and rules issued by expert super clergy. It was an innovative new religion successful at a time when innovations were transforming the rest of Europe’s cultures and economies. Protestantism was thus part of an exciting tide of novelty, along with the printing press, global trade, the Renaissance, the beginnings of modern science, and the Enlightenment. It’s unique selling proposition was radical. When official leaders lose their way, pious anybodies can and must decide the new improved truth on their own—that is, by reading Scripture, each individual determines the correct meaning of Christian fantasies. The Protestants’ founding commitment to fierce, decentralized, do-it-yourself truth-finding and spiritual purity led to the continuous generation of self-righteous sectarian spin-offs.”

I was born and raised in Steinbach. We had Mennonites and even more radical Pentecostals. Wild and whacky beliefs were in the air we breathed. In America the first extremists were the Puritans who built a society in the New World in their own image. They were given that name by the established Christians. It was not a complement. Many of them were Calvinists. They were nothing if not true believers. They came to establish a world of true believers. They wanted to be separate from the established Church of England. Soon they wanted to separate from England itself. First they tried the Netherlands but there was too much heresy there too so they sailed to the New World.  As Anderson said, “Ferociously believing every miracle and myth wasn’t enough.”

Steinbach was not that different. The Mennonites wanted to keep themselves separate and apart “from the world.”

As Andersen said,

“What really distinguished the Puritans from the mainstream were matters of personality, demeanor. To be a Puritan was to embody uncompromising zeal. (They were analogous to certain American political zealots today, who more than disagreeing with their Establishment’s ideas just can’t stand their reasonable-seeming manner. Moreover, a good Christian life, the Puritans believed, was one consumed by Christianity…In other words, America was founded by a nutty religious cult.”

They were sort of like Mennonites on steroids.

The natives the Puritans found in the New World did not matter. Those people were just not civilized. The people who mattered were the religious zealots. As Andersen described it, “The myth we’ve constructed says that the first nonnative new Americans who mattered were the idealists, the hyper-religious people seeking freedom to believe and act out their passionate, elaborate, all-consuming fantasies.”

And America has been hyper-religious ever since. And it shows. Welcome to FantasyLand.

 

Searching for gold or God

 

Not all of the first visitors to the New World were searching for Gold. Some of them searched for God or souls. Many of them were devout and fervid in pursuit of their targets. As Kurt Andersen said in his book FantasyLand, “For the imminent next wave of English would-be Americans, however, propagating a particular set of Christian superstitions, omens and divine judgments were more than just lip-service cover for dreams of easy wealth. For them, the prospect of colonization was all about the export of their supernatural fantasies to the New World.”

Like Martin Luther King Jr. 5 centuries later the newcomers had a dream. As Andersen said,

“America began as a fever dream, a myth, a happy delusion, a fantasy. In fact, it began as multiple fantasies, each embraced around 1600 by people so convinced of their thrilling, wishful fictions that most of them abandoned everything—friends, families, jobs, good sense, England, the known world—to enact their dreams or die trying. A lot of them died trying.

The first English people in the New World imagined themselves as heroic can-do characters in exciting adventures. They were self-fictionalizing extremists who abandoned everything familiar because of their blazing beliefs, their long-shot hopes and dreams, their please-be-true fantasies.”

 

Is it any wonder that America has been the most hospital place on earth for crazy beliefs? Is it any surprise that the country currently is laced with delusional thinking? This is the home of fantasyland.

A Home for the gullible

 

Much like the Spaniards further south many of the first English colonists in North America were looking for gold and they were not very successful. Yet that enterprise established an important principle. As Kurt Andersen described it in his book FantasyLand, “It also established a theme we’ll encounter again and again: around some plausible bit of reality, Americans leap to concoct wishful (or terrified) fictions they ardently believe to be true.” And they believed fervently without evidence. That was the key and that was the problem. This after all was the land of faith—robust belief without evidence.

Sir Walter Raleigh was one of the dreamers looking for gold, but also failed to find it. He eventually sailed to South America where his chances were better but again he failed. But he did not fail at selling fantasy. It is much harder to fail at that in England where many had dreams of getting rich in the New World or people already in the New World who wanted to believe. And evidence or the lack of it was no obstacle to belief.

Raleigh published a book filled with anecdotes that worked to amplify the dreams and make them real. As Andersen said,

“Raleigh helped invent the kind of elaborate pseudo-empiricism that in the centuries to come would become a permanent feature of Fantasyland testimonials—about religion, about quack science, about conspiracy, about whatever was being urgently sold.”

As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his magisterial Democracy in America in 1835,

“The entire man is …to be seen in the cradle of the child. The growth of nations presents something analogous to this; they all bear some marks of their origin. If we were able to go back…we should discover…the primal cause of the prejudices, the habits, the ruling passions, and in short, all that constitutes what is called the national character.”

Tocqueville was an astute observer of America. He also pointed out “It was…gold-seekers who were sent to Virginia. No noble thought or conception above gain presided over the foundation of the new settlements.” Of course most of those gold seekers died, but that did not stop those who brought them to the New World lying about it in the Old World. After all there was money to be made off those suckers. Even though no gold had been found and even though 2/3 of the first hundred gold seekers promptly died, the captain who brought them returned to England claiming to have found “gold showing mountains.” Andersen described those early visitors from England as people who “tended to be the more wide-eyed and desperately wishful.” These were the American ancestors.

 These were the people who shaped the new world of America. Professor Walter McDougall in his book America, Freedom Just Around the Corner described the newcomers this way: “Most of the 120,000 indentured servants and adventurers who sailed to the [South] in the seventeenth century, did not know what lay ahead but were taken in by the propaganda of the sponsors.” In other words, they were duped.

 Historian Daniel Boorstin described it somewhat more charitably than I do. He said, “American civilization [has] been shaped by the fact that there was a kind of natural selection here of those people who were willing to believe in advertising.” Andersen concluded, “Western civilization’s first great advertising campaign was created in order to inspire enough dreamers and suckers to create America.”

 The new world was built on fraud and it has continued that ignoble tradition ever since. And the gullible believed, because they wanted to believe. Evidence was irrelevant.

That was what the New World was like, and in many ways the New World has never varied much from its origins. It continues to shape and even haunt that new world.