I‘ve been posting (for free!) chapters of Polemical Judo, in hope that at least a few of the ideas may percolate through some of you to where they’ll do some good. (Or start fresh with Chapter 1. Or else… actually buy a copy?)
Last time we offered Chapter Six where we discussed some basics of mature conservatism that would be welcome at the negotiating table… if there were any mature conservatives to talk to. Mostly, I listed a vast and depressing rundown of times and issues when they were wrong, wrong and proved utterly wrong by the course of facts.
Here in Chapter Seven we offer ways to deal with conspiracy theories!. And yes, I wrote this before the Kremlin anf KGB inflicted the madness of QAnon upon us, in hope of converting a bilious Phase 8 ot the American Civil War into a hot and murderous phase nine.
But first a bit of news! Ranked Choice Voting is on the ballot in Massachusetts and Alaska this year! We’ve used it in science fiction communities to vote for Hugo and Nebula Awards for decades and while not mathematically perfect, it is a huge, huge leap forward from current plurality-voted politics. Anyone you know in those states should be encouraged to support the move. Especially anyone remotely tempted by third parties, since this would at least give them a chance, while still preventing the worst from winning. (The way Nader and Stein supporters screwed us all in 2000 and 2016.)
And now… from a posting in June 2019 – if you can believe that.
Travel anywhere in the world, visit a bar, pub, barbecue or someone’s house or hut – you’ll find one topic easy to spark: conspiracy. No matter the nation, tribe or ethnicity, folks will quickly rail about some group grudge and how “people like me” are being put upon by conniving adversaries who are simultaneously evil and almost super-naturally clever. The world may be filled with fools who believe the cover story. But my brave and savvy folk see the truth!
Naturally, those foes flatter themselves in exactly the same way, both sides muttering fill-in-the-blanks tales, as if from a giant book of Mad-Libs. Texts from olden times reveal the same pattern. Ah, should humans be known as Homo credens, the credulous ape?
No wonder the age of science seems threatening to many, whose favorite fantasies might shrivel under the light of evidence. I wrote The Transparent Society about how open and reciprocal accountability often reveals what’s true, rather than what feels so satisfying to believe.
Alas, there truly are conspirators in this world, flourishing wherever light doesn’t shine. Moreover, they developed a great technique to distract from their own plots – they help spread a stinging miasma of paranoid ravings that genuine schemes can hide behind! (See it illustrated in this stand-alone scene from Existence.) Indeed, the last thing you will contemplate is that your favorite conspiracy might be part of that distraction fog.
METHODS TO SIFT WHICH PLOTS SEEM PLAUSIBLE
Dip your toe. Any conspiracy theory will suck you into a vortex of evidence and “evidence” along with persuasive rants and incantations. Who has the time? Even for ones that appeal to my ego, my prejudices, or my “side” in contemporary tiffs. Hence, I cope via a set of questions to ask, whenever some folks – especially those who are “like me” – foist their favorite Evil Plot That Only We Can See. Let’s start with an example that may infuriate many of you.
Question number one: Have trustworthy experts already worked the case? Are they accountable, transparent, and themselves scrutinized by a variety of interests? Are they answerable to multiple, separate structures? This is, after all, one reason we set up civil service with a diversity of agencies and chains of command – then augmented that setup with a free and diverse press – then augmented that with a wide range of member-supported NGOs, from Greenpeace to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
(And if you aren’t a dues paying member of a dozen NGOs, each fighting for a future you believe in, then take another look at the hypocrite in the mirror. That method is a lazy person’s cheap route to bragging rights: “I’m at least doing something.” Here’s how.)
Of course, this network of accountability systems is exactly what conspiracy believers claim has failed. Indeed, they hold that such a thing – accountability through competitive openness – is impossible. Certainly Hollywood portrays accountable professionalism to be nonexistent in government. Writers and directors do this often not to promote SoA, but for reasons of lazy plotting that I describe elsewhere. And in so doing, they spread a poison.
To be clear, betrayal by governmental powers belongs way up there on our list of things to watch for! Take the way one man – J. Edgar Hoover – for decades dominated the top layers of U.S. federal criminal investigation, often deciding to pursue or quash cases at whim. Still, we have inarguably the least corrupt institutions in the history of humanity. (If you doubt that, do try slipping a fifty to that cop giving you a ticket.) So, while Mr. Transparency, here extols “sousveillance” and looking-back at power, I am also skeptical toward raving paranoia.
Which is not entirely a symptom of the mad right! Take the lefty “Loose Change” conspiracy theory, about the 9/11 calamity – that the World Trade Center towers were deliberately demolished by explosives planted over the course of months, to distract from the intended target, WTC building #7. Among dozens of ways that theory is loony, explosives leave chemical residues, and the wreckage was sampled not by one agency, but scores of them plus news organizations, NGOs and private citizens. Moreover, there was no lack of available debris to analyze.
Question number one allows you to deal with some, not all, of the most ridiculous purported plots – those presuming there are no competent people in the world. Which brings us to –
Test #2: How many conspirators are needed by this scheme? How perfect a plan and execution? Loose Change is an extremum test case for these questions. It would take dozens, even scores of the most skilled experts in building demolition to plant the required explosives, and others skilled at hiding charges behind walls and in stand pipes, plus dozens more providing security. The entire WTC security staff must be suborned or replaced, but there’s no record of such replacements. (Most died in the disaster.) That’s at least a hundred henchmen, performing a task never done before amid vacuum-tight secrecy and executed with perfection never seen in any government project. Oh, plus another several hundred to perform the bizarre other half of this theory, faking the aircraft hijackings!
Now, you might answer: “I don’t believe in the Loose Change conspiracy! Whereas MY favorite one…” Hm, well, show me even one popular conspiracy theory cult that has analyzed points number one and two? Then of course there’s right wing dizziness such as the mania that swarms over the death of ex-DNC staffer Seth Rich. But we deal with Clinton-Obama tirades in due course.
In Chapter 5 we discussed ravings of a “Deep State” conspiracy among civil servants, FBI agents, the entire intelligence community and much of the senior military officer corps, in cahoots with nearly all the scientists, journalists, teachers and so on… another case where tests #1 and #2 are devastating. Which brings us to –
#3: Why would the conspirators choose to do it? What would convince each and all of them to betray his or her oaths, profession, conscience and country? I’m not saying it doesn’t happen! The Watergate break-ins and cover-ups involved a fair number of moderately (not very) skilled people who did it all for combinations of money, hatred, loyalty-to-a-faction and potential advancement to power.
Let me repeat: I know there are conspiracies! Indeed, it’s laughable to ignore the most blatant one called Fox News, which openly works for a mélange of foreign billionaires, from the Saudis to Russian mafiosi, from Macao casino lords to an Australian deceit mogul. We’ll get to their motives and methods in several chapters. And lest we forget, the left was rife with secret foreign agents and nasty plots, at times in the last century… and may go down that path, yet again.
Still test #3 is a potent one. In our extreme example, none of the “Loose Change” zealots offer a plausible reason why even one skilled person would be remotely tempted to devote immense energy and dedication to performing such a heinous act on behalf of some currency speculators, let along several hundred of our most capable public servants or officers.
Money? Please. That you would assume so speaks more about your inherent corruptibility, than theirs. Which brings us to a really big one –
#4: Why take the risk? Loose Change offers such a great example of every maniacally stupid conspiracy theory trait. And so, ponder a thought that would go through the mind of every skilled conspirator:
These fellows working on this evil plot next to me… any one of them could have recorded our activities and conversations. An hour from now, that fellow over there may spill it all to the FBI and the New York Times. He’ll be a hero, get rewards and speaking gigs and be on talk shows forever, while the rest of us get arrested, tried and then parceled out to prisons where both the inmates and guards will make life hell for traitors and attempted mass murderers.
At which point he’d think: “Maybe… I better be the guy who blabs first.”
Seriously, how do you stop defections? Communists were dedicated, yet we pulled in defectors all the time. ISIS and Al Qaeda are zealous, yet they leaked like sieves. Yes, you can both inspire and terrify your henchmen into mass-uniformity if you run a powerful state like China, Russia, or Saudi Arabia or a narco-kleptocracy, where their families can be crushed at will. But show me how that would work in a Loose Change scenario.
Seth Rich? Seriously? Show me a Democrat who can keep his or her damn mouth shut! Now show me the dozens who would have to be complicit, from local law enforcement to the nearby FBI bureau office, to the victim’s family.
Again, I’m not saying conspiracies don’t happen. But consider, the first thing any conspirator with an IQ above slime-mold does is to establish murder insurance. You do this by setting up delay-drops containing everything you know, to be released in the event anything happens to you. Don’t these people ever watch movies?
Question #4 – is the biggie. As a society we should be making it our top transparency priority to reinforce it, by encouraging, not punishing whistle blowers. Elsewhere (Chapter 5) I describe ways to do this that could be entirely consistent with running a healthy and effective civil service. We should do this via both law and via private foundations that offer what I’ve called “Henchman’s Prizes.”
One urgent example? It has long been blatantly clear that several of the manufacturers of voting machines in the U.S. have suspicious connections to both Russia and the Republican Party. Is it coincidence that in most “blue” states, the voting machines are augmented by paper ballots or receipts that can be hand counted and audited, while most red states have refused that simple confidence and security backup? As of this writing, nothing has been revealed that is prosecutable – just a stench of the sort that propels so many conspiracy theories.
But the stink got overwhelming in August 2019, when voting machines in Texas and Mississippi were caught blatantly switching votes before the voter’s eyes. (See videos of it happening! But don’t worry. They’ll remedy the “blatantly” part and hide it from the voter in the booth.)
Dig this about plausible conspiracies and Question #4. One rich dude might possibly fixvoting machine treason, by offering a $5 million whistleblower prize – plus guaranteed protection and hero status – for the employee of any company who brings forth proof of cheating. If proof doesn’t appear, you don’t pay! (But nevertheless instill fear in those bastards.) If you do wind up paying, you become a hero for saving the nation. How can that not be a win-win?
The easier we make it for henchmen to defect, the fewer of them Blofeld, Dr. Evil and their ilk will be able to hire and trust. And so, we come to –
#5: Who benefits? Oliver Stone slandered LBJ as the obvious beneficiary of JFK’s murder. It sounds movie-plausible, till you realize how desperately Johnson slaved and strived (and aged), aiming to make all of Kennedy’s hopes and plans come true. Alas, that included JFK’s horrific-macho ambitions in Vietnam, but also – on the brighter side – civil rights, the vastly-if-still-partially-successful War on Appalachian Poverty, achievements in space and so on. Is that utter loyalty to every goal consistent with spite and conspiracy to murder? (See Bryan Cranston’s film, All the Way.)
In fact, I’ve never found anyone who palpably benefited from the Kennedy assassination, though revenge is another matter. JFK had haters, ranging from Cuban communists and Cuban anti-communist exiles to the KGB, to the KKK, to the Mafia, to Marilyn Monroe fans… all the way to the armed, dangerously loony, individually motivated and perfectly situated expert marksman Lee Harvey Oswald.
On the other hand, other conspiracies have blatant beneficiaries. Fox News has been a money machine for Rupert Murdoch and his partners (who for many years included Saudi royals). Even more important, it helped sustain the Supply Side “Voodoo” Economics (SSVE) cult long after that madness was scientifically refuted, allowing Murdoch’s pals to raid the US taxpayer time and again, for trillions. Above all, by fomenting culture war – also known as phase 8 of the U.S. civil war (Chapter 14) – Murdoch’s shills have accomplished his top goal: the destruction of U.S. politics as a means for adults to deliberate policy and negotiate solutions across party lines. Gridlock is the goal, along with demolition of any trust between the people and the government that they own. So yes, that conspiracy passes the “who benefits” test.
Note that all five of these questions, so far, are simple and straightforward, and make demands upon the conspiracy ranters, not upon you. Which brings us to –
#6: Who is strenuously keeping things dark? We don’t know for sure (yet) that there was direct collusion between Donald Trump and the Kremlin. But Trump’s absolute refusal to allow any look into his finances, or his behaviors in Moscow, or during half a dozen secret debriefings with foreign despots that lacked any credible U.S. witnesses, show someone who is desperate not to allow light onto those topics.
Now add his obstruction of professional investigations and you have behavior that is certainly far more consistent with a conspiracy than most of the fantasies boiling around.
#7: Is there a devastating rebuttal/answer to the Conspiracy Theory? Is there a short, sharp shock that would tear it to shreds?
We already illustrated this one with a crushing example – when yarn-pinning ravers persuaded millions that George Soros is diabolical meddler so powerful he toppled Eight Foreign Governments! In Chapter 5, I posed a simple question that not a single audience member or Beck-critic ever asked: “Say Glenn, how about naming those foreign regimes that George Soros toppled?”
There’s a reason Beck never said their names. Because doing so would devastate his entire conspiracy narrative beyond all hope of recovery. Take that example to heart. Ponder whether the next conspiracy offered to you has such an Achilles Heel.
#8: Am I doing due diligence by weighing critics of this thing and seeking smart/balanced arbiters? I can almost guarantee you aren’t. Heck, I’m lazy too. Still, I offered a number of ways that our modern fact-arbitrating systems can be improved, not by ensconcing some elites to rule on Truth, but using the competitive/adversarial process we’re already so good at.
I pitched some of these ideas at Facebook headquarters in 2017, when the company was panicking over its role in 2016 election travesties. Alas, soon they were smugly back to assuring “We can handle this top-down, trust us.”
How’s that going for you?
#9: Why should we trust your elites? In Chapter 2, I spoke of the central message in most Hollywood films – Suspicion of Authority, or SoA, which has amplified the conspiracy-antennae, especially in most Americans. The basic difference between a decent, rational liberal and a decent, rational conservative is which group they worry is conspiring to become Big Brother.
Of course, given human history, we ought to conclude that all elites are inherently dangerous. All will be tempted to abuse power, while rationalizing that it is for the greater good. Ideally, we warily guard each other’s backs. Ideally. Our systems were set up by very clever people so that elites will compete with each other! In their rivalry – sometimes called separation of powers – we have found a way to prevent any one of them from becoming an Orwellian monolith.
So yes, examine conspiracy theories! I concoct and promulgate some, in both fiction and nonfiction. And if you’ll have a look at mine, I’ll have a gander at yours. It’s how we managed to stay free. So far.
That synergy breaks down when – amid re-ignited civil war – one side has convinced all its partisans that freedom can be harmed only from one direction. I regularly make efforts to prove I do not have such a fused political spine – that I can turn my head. While I declare – based on mountains of proof – that today’s American right has gone insane, in service to a rising oligarchy bent on re-starting feudalism…
…I often eviscerate shibboleths of a much smaller loony far-left, and urge sane liberals to be wary of those allies. (See Chapter 12 and this: The miracle and compromise of 1947.)
THESE TESTS ARE ONLY A START
Are there real-life, bona fide conspiracies? Of course! Our civilization is threatened by some as we speak. It is to distract from real ones that so many false imbecilities are spewed. These questions won’t eliminate or parse them all. Again, I show some scary places this can lead in my novel Existence.
Over the long run, we must employ experts whose job it is to inspect possible crimes, both investing some trust in the skilled professionalism of our civil servants and striving to increase their diverse accountability, their sense that they live and work under scrutiny and light. Only with this combination of high professionalism and fierce citizen oversight do we stand a chance of navigating a bright but ever foggy era.
 “The idiot plot: why films never show competence.” http://www.davidbrin.com/idiotplot.html
 Red state voting machines caught switching votes on camera. https://www.newsweek.com/touch-screen-voting-devices-are-automatically-changing-votes-mississippi-1456445
“Who benefits” can be extended to plotters who thought they would benefit, but failed. Far more plausible than Oliver Stone’s insipid scenario (based on zero real evidence) that JFK was about to pull out of Vietnam, consider the very opposite, that some U.S. officers saw we were heading into a quagmire and sought to eliminate the uber-macho leader who was plunging us into a devastating mess. Do I believe this? Of course not. But I can concoct paranoid scenarios far better than those going stale on our DVD shelves.
 The stunningly perfect record of Supply Side always being 100% wrong. http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/2010/02/a-primer-on-supply-side-vs-demand-side.html
 The miracle and compromise of 1947. http://www.davidbrin.com/1947.html