The letter bombs that Cesar Sayoc Jr is alleged to have sent immediately spawned false flag conspiracy theories. Right wingers said they were not really sent to intimidate Democrats, instead they were part of a Democrat plot to paint Republicans as terrorists. The problem with such theories is that they could just as easily generate further theories. So perhaps it wasn’t Democrats who planted the bombs to paint right wingers as extremists. Maybe it was right wingers who planted the bombs so that Democrats would be blamed for planting the bombs. The Republicans therefore planted the bombs as a kind of false flag on a false flag. They, to chase one’s tale further you could say, “No, the Democrats planted the bombs so that it would seem that the Republicans planted the bombs in order to blame the Democrats for a false flag when really the truth was that…”
You get the idea.
Kevin Roose at the New York Times writes here about the rise of conspiracy theories in America. When (what seem to be) fake bombs were sent to leading Democrats the Republican pundits weighed almost instantly with false flag conspiracy theories
Within hours of the first bomb’s discovery, conservative media figures were openly speculating about the true motives behind the campaign. Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and other high-profile commentators flocked to an alternative narrative that could explain the targeted threats to top Democrats without blaming those Democrats’ political opponents.
“Republicans just don’t do this kind of thing,” Mr. Limbaugh said on his radio show.
The number of such theories is growing and their dissemination is global and rapid because of social media.
“The process by which something gets called a false flag has accelerated,” said Anna Merlan, the author of “Republic of Lies,” a coming book about conspiracy theories. “People who make a living conspiracy-peddling are in an arms race with each other, so there’s a rush to stake out that territory and start spinning their narratives about what happened.”
Conspiracy theorists who might once have resorted to handing out subway pamphlets and shouting from street corners have found hungry, durable audiences on cable news shows and social networks. And false flag philosophy — the idea that powerful groups stage threats and tragic events to advance their agendas — is now a bizarrely common element of national news stories.
“The reason we’re seeing more false flag narratives is not that there are necessarily more of them, but that they’re more visible,” Ms. Merlan said. “It’s much easier for a casual news consumer to see them on Twitter.”
The article is worth reading, but like most mainstream media content, it doesn’t really dig deeply enough. I’m interested in conspiracy theories, but I’m more interested in the mentality behind them and the cultural pressures that create a hothouse environment for them to proliferate.
I wrote this article about Americans’ love of conspiracy theories some time ago and made these observations:
Conspiracy theories are a waste of time because they are internally self contradictory.
They are internally self contradictory because they are based on an underlying assumption that things are not what they seem, and that there is a conspiracy to cover the truth and project a lie. However, if things are not what they seem, then the conspiracy theory is also not what it seems. Once you enter the twilight zone of the conspiracy theorist everyone is a probably liar and every theory is just as credible as the next one. That has to include the conspiracy theorist as well, for isn’t the conspiracy theorist actually cooking up a conspiracy of sorts himself?
Then we get into the tail-chasing madness in which the conspiracy theorists are all conspiring to dish out a false version of the truth. In other words, conspiracy theorists become conspirators.
They chase their tails in a kind of nail biting, wild eyed introspection which follows the irrational logic of insanity: You start with the conspiracy theory. If there is no evidence for the official line it proves that ‘they’ are lying. If there is evidence, then it must be a fake. If there is incontrovertible scientific evidence it proves how very good ‘they’ are at covering up. If there are eyewitnesses it shows how easily people can be bought.
Conspiracy theorists tiptoe through quicksand. All evidence is suspect. All witnesses gullible dupes. All authority is involved in the massive cover up.
Conspiracy theorists evidence a special kind of insanity, so why are they taken so seriously and why are they becoming mainstream?
Firstly, the problem with conspiracy theories is nothing new. To cook up a story to blame the other guy –whether it is true or not–is part of the way we’re wired. It’s part of something called “original sin”. The story of the Garden of Eden teaches us that right at the very beginning of all things our first parents were shifting the blame.
“Adam did you eat of the fruit I told you not to eat?”
“The woman you gave me made me do it!”
“The serpent tempted me. He made me do it. It’s his fault. It’s a conspiracy!”
It is part of our human condition to blame someone else and if we need a neat theory about secrets and lies that makes it so much easier.
But there is another factor also, and that is the society in which we live. If you hadn’t noticed, within the last fifty years every authority structure we once had in place has been destroyed. The Bible? Modernist scholars and clergy have told us it is simply a collection of ancient fairy tales and outdated opinions. The Church? It’s worm eaten with financial sleaze, political corruption and sex scandals. Academia? A bunch of biased intellectuals driving a political agenda. The police and law enforcement? Corrupted with bribes, scandals and violence. The media? Not even a pretense of objective reporting. It’s all propaganda from one side or the other. Politicians? We won’t even go there.
What does all this mean? It means we are increasingly a race of lost sheep. We have no sure guides or mentors. Everybody makes up their own truth. Relativism rules. All of us are dancing on quicksand
This leads to a kind of corporate paranoia in which somebody somewhere has to be blamed for what is wrong, and conspiracy theories seem to give some structure, order and meaning in the chaos.
Now here is where it finally leads and why I find it most interesting and most terrifying: Pope Benedict spoke about the “dictatorship of relativism” but when you follow the logic through we can see that relativism will ultimately lead to real dictatorship.
Here’s why: people cannot live in a culture of relativistic chaos for very long. They need an authority figure. They need someone to follow and a creed in which to believe. They need a shepherd and a father.
I find it interesting that the lawyer of Cesar Sayoc Jr –the suspected mail bomber–said in this article “He found a father in Trump.”
Miami lawyer Ronald Lowy made the comments on CNN while discussing the arrest of Sayoc, someone he said he had represented in past casesand whom he described as a “sick individual” who seemed “lost” and needed help.
“He was looking for anything, and he found a father in Trump,” Lowy said, noting that the man’s father “abandoned him as a child” and “he was trying to create an identity.”
Now you might get all excited and thrilled by the huge rallies for Trump, but they give me the creeps because I am not seeing genuine political enthusiasm. I’m seeing a nation of Cesar Sayocs looking for a father, looking for a leader, looking for a savior, looking for a guide and this is the perfect environment for a dictatorship to develop.
If you’re a Trump fan you don’t need to hit me with your red ball cap. I’m not saying Trump is Hitler, and don’t make the mistake of thinking that because I am wary of Trump that I think the Democrats are wonderful.
I’m simply observing our society and our corporate mood. I’m also listening to history. The dictatorships that arose in Europe in the middle of the last century did so in an environment of societal chaos, fear and radical transition. Europe had just come through two centuries of revolution and upheaval culminating in the disastrous first world war. People were desperate for order, structure and someone to lead them into unity, prosperity and peace.
Conspiracy theories are part of this greater mix, and witnessing their growth and rabid popularity is enough to cause concern and caution.
As a conservative I’m happy to endorse some of the good decisions Trump is making, but I can approve of some of his policies and decisions without jumping on the bandwagon.
Besides….I suspect there is a secret cabal of right wing fanatics who are about to kidnap my family and hold them ransom until I put on my red MAGA cap…
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You are so right about people desperately needing someone to follow, to simplify things for them, to be their father. If they lack it in childhood, they crave it even more so as adults. Too bad that real patriarchy has been allowed to be re-defined as tyranny. The anarchy which results tends to lead to real tyranny. When I was a child, one of the things which my father tried to instill in me was a hearty distrust of the mob mentality which can sweep one away in an adulatory crowd screaming slogans. Or swaying to music, even. I never even screamed for rock stars.
I gather that you and I react the same way to President Trump. I pray that he has been experiencing some conversion of heart as he has aged. He has done some things right,and has tried to do more. He had the great advantage of not belonging to a political party that touts abortion. However, his manners and history leave much to be desired, and he is most definitely not God. But, then, no politician, or leader, or office holder, or boss, is. You could have deflected some criticism (and perhaps drawn more) by pointing out the adulation accorded to Mr. Obama. (They even promoted him in our local public elementary school.) And I knew a very sweet lady who was moved to tears at the mention of Bernie Sanders’ name.
Keep up the good work. I’m enjoying (if that’s the word) your “Triumphs and Tragedies” series, although it’s turned up even more unsavory bits of Church history than I knew about.