Sound the alarmists

Cartoon by Bruce Plante, Tulsa World.

Cartoon by Bruce Plante, Tulsa World.

Politics, especially in an election year, remind me an awful lot of conspiracy theories. Full of dystopian visions and disinformation, many of the ads we’re seeing now (even on our computers … we just can’t escape!) are hard for cynics like me to take seriously.

Yes, there are an awful lot of things it’s hard for me to take seriously … that is, if I want to maintain my grasp on sanity.

I firmly believe in hoping for the best and preparing for the worst, but so many of the absolute-worst-case-scenario stories floating around strain the bounds of logic and reality.

tinfoilhat_farkPlus, I just can’t rock the tinfoil hat.

Yes, there are and have been actual conspiracies out there (Watergate, anyone?), but few match the outrageousness of many of the alarmist theories that went viral long before Al Gore invented the Internet (you knew he did that, right?). Shape-shifting alien lizards taking over the world? Sure! Nazis using fluoride to pacify Jews in the ghetto? OK, fine. The U.S. government assassinating counter-culture entertainers? Uhhhh … OK …

An especially rabid conspiracy theorist can see connections between completely unrelated things and construct an amazingly intricate story that, if it were just a tiny bit more outlandish, could possibly land him a multimillion-dollar movie deal. Of course, any failure of said movie at the box office would be the result of a massive conspiracy, most likely engineered by the guv’mint (dang feds!). There’s no such thing as coincidence, of course.

Cartoon by Nick Anderson, Houston Chronicle.

Cartoon by Nick Anderson, Houston Chronicle.

About a year ago, Public Policy Polling surveyed 790 registered voters on various conspiracy theories, and found that Republicans were more likely than other partisans to believe theories such as Barack Obama plotting to take away guns, Muslims implementing Sharia law in the U.S., or the government allowing aliens (the extraterrestrial sort, in this instance) to take over.

Cartoon by David Horsey, Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Cartoon by David Horsey, Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Everyone surprised by that, please raise your hands.

Even though only one of the theories (the belief that with enough money one could get away with murder) pulled in a majority of survey participants as believers, the partisan breakdown (and gender breakdown in some instances) was striking on most of the government-related questions. But then, that’s probably because of that vast left-wing conspiracy (dang lefties!).

Never trust someone who’s not obsessively paranoid about absolutely everything.

What many of these theories have in common—besides a lot of paranoia and dystopia—are a lot of participants and years (sometimes centuries) of secrecy. However, as Laura Maguire of Philosophy Talk observed, “if the purported conspiracy is wide-reaching and involves many people over many years, and if no good evidence has ever come to light about it, chances are it’s probably not true.”

I’m inclined to agree … unless that conspiracy has been so effective that it’s completely blocked all reliable evidence. That could happen, right? Especially those government-led conspiracies, since government is nothing if not effective. And we know how well bureaucrats keep secrets …

I’ve despaired over the years that I’ve been unable to construct an unbelievably believable conspiracy theory—I just can’t get that balance of lunacy, anger and truthiness right.

Based on what I’ve seen lately, though, I’m starting to believe that the theory itself isn’t the key—it’s the urgency behind the message. Therefore, I’ve decided that any time I have a theory about the government or why Paul was barefoot on the Abbey Road album cover, I’ll implement these handy-dandy tips.

• Put random words in ALL CAPS (but not the whole text … that’d be crazy) so THAT people know just HOW important this really IS.

• Use lots(!!!!!!!!) of exclamation points because we know all reliable theorists indicate the veracity of their statements by how much exclamatory punctuation they use!!!!!!!!!!

Serious is evil, right?  Image from The Associated Press.

Serious is evil, right?
Image from The Associated Press.

• Blame Obama, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney or Eric Holder, not because of any actual evidence, but based purely on partisan alliances, the less proof the better. The GOP campaign theme this election, for example, seems to be all Obama, all the time. They’d save money if they just made one 30-second ad featuring an evil-looking Obama and his name intoned over ominous music. It doesn’t matter where or what race we’re talking about; it’s pretty much an Obama-palooza.

• Invoke the UN, Agenda 21, New World Order, global warming, autism, Nazis, communists and gun control either singly or all together. Bonus points for working in the moon landing. Super-secret bonus points for making conspiracists’ heads explode.

Go ahead ... he's used to it by now. Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1805.

Go ahead … he’s used to it by now.
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1805.

• Employ quotes from the founding fathers, though they don’t have to be real. Just make something up; nobody checks those things. And might as well make up voting records for candidates, too; no one checks those either (because obviously the clerks who record the votes are in on the conspiracy).

• Cite studies that have been debunked, even by the original author. Someone’s obviously trying to cover up something.

• Claim persecution any time someone brings up things like “facts.” What’s that? Obviously a conspiracy.

Could it work? Eh, doesn’t really matter … I’ll say it did, and that’s all that matters; seems to be what all these guys do.

***

 On a personal note, many thanks to those who’ve expressed condolences to my family and me after the death of my nephew. The outpouring of well wishes (and jokes—you guys know me so well now) has been both touching and humbling, and we appreciate the positive thoughts more than you can possibly know. I wish I could hug each one of you. (OK, maybe a few not so much, but you know what I mean.)

In addition to letting those you love know you love them, I would also encourage support of such groups as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The reasons people commit suicide are varied, but concern and support from a friend or family member can make a difference for someone considering that step.

And for those who know about my crazy cat, Luke, yes, he had a little health scare last weekend, and has been preliminarily diagnosed with renal insufficiency. He goes back for more blood work in a week and a half, and we’ll see where we stand. He is, though, feeling better after a stressful weekend, so much so that he bit me not long after I gave him his pill Monday. And now I’m on antibiotics again. That boy … 😀


For those of you who don’t have access to either the print edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette or the online material behind the paywall, here (finally) is last week’s director’s cut column.

***

Sometimes it’s very hard for me to contain the snarkasm (that’d be snark plus sarcasm). Several missives received recently have induced critical mass, and thus, it’s become necessary to bleed some off.

Just a reminder, kids: This is sarcasm. Do not try this at home.

***

Please, by all means, we don’t get enough letters that sound like campaign ads, complete with all their half-truths and complete untruths. Good thing we don’t fact-check, huh? Oh, wait a minute …

Run ... it's the Kochtopus! Image by Brett Ryder, from The Economist.

Run … it’s the Kochtopus!
Image by Brett Ryder, from The Economist.

Thank you so much for your insistence that John Brummett is always talking about the outrageous campaign donations made by Koch Industries, which, as you say, are only a fraction of what all those evil Democratic groups are spending. It shouldn’t matter that he’s noted that very fact, or that he’s written repeatedly about the Koch brothers (not Koch Industries, mentioned only once or twice) and the various groups they founded and fund which dwarf even those Democratic groups in their reach and size. It’s a loophole, right? Except that it’s not. Darn reality.

(Again, I remind you, this is sarcasm.)

You're right! Alex Jones IS a reliable source! Image found on Media Matters.

You’re right! Alex Jones IS a reliable source!
Image found on Media Matters.

Why, thank you for your expert analysis on the latest to-do perpetrated by that evil president/governor/mayor/fill-in-the-blank. Very convenient how the vagueness of the analysis dovetails with key points in the current conspiracy theories that are not borne out by the evidence available, or that we can’t find the “experts” you cite, or that the analysis you offer isn’t even in your area of expertise. But then, what are facts? That truth thing is overrated, isn’t it? It’s not like there are political axes to grind.

Thank you for the umpteen emails and phone calls concerning the same letter sent over and over again. Most people would understand that not everything we get can be printed, but a lucky few are blessed with the knowledge that harassment is the best way to get your point of view out there. We don’t get enough of that here. Thanks again, really. Please, sir, may I have another?

No, there aren't "Obamastations" giving free gas to minorities and the poor. Image from satirical news site The Daily Currant.

No, there aren’t “Obamastations” giving free gas to minorities and the poor.
Image from satirical news site The Daily Currant.

Gosh, you’ve really done a public service with your forwarding of that hysterical viral email about evil Democrats/flu shots/Ebola/fluoride and Nazis/fill-in-the-blank. Without your help, those now widely debunked myths couldn’t get out there.

Give yourself a big pat on the back. Ignore the “kick me” sign someone put there … just like you ignored all those fact checks. Fact-checkers are, after all, part of the vast liberal media conspiracy, what with that reality thing and its liberal bias.

(Still sarcasm.)

***

So that was sarcasm, but this is not. Many of the myths about political figures, religion and diseases continue their trek around the world because not enough people are truly skeptical enough to check out claims in viral emails before sending them on to everyone in their address books. That by itself is a dangerous thing to do, and only spreads disinformation (much more than the infectious diseases that feature in some of those emails).

Whether it’s a politician’s deliberately incomplete defense over something done or not done, or an email warning of a terrible computer virus that is itself a virus or promising a big payoff, we should all look askance at something that looks or sounds too good to be true or that is belied by the evidence. I know I’ve said this many times before, but it just can’t be repeated enough. As one of the taglines for The X-Files said, trust no one.

Yes, some science-fiction does actually have valuable lessons for us. Like William Shatner can’t not overact.

There's no toilet paper????? Image found on thelazygeeks.com.

There’s no toilet paper?????
Image found on thelazygeeks.com.

***

A sad note to end on: Longtime Voices letter-writer Verla Sweere died late last month at the age of 81. Those who remember her letters know she didn’t really pull any punches, a trait I will truly miss.

And just Monday evening, I found out that my nephew David killed himself. Had I not written most of this already, you might well be reading a rerun this week.

When someone we love dies, we often find ourselves re-evaluating our lives, as I did with my grandparents’ and dad’s deaths. Now with Verla’s death (who I didn’t know personally but whose straightforward ways I admired), I find myself vowing to not mince words, but to still be polite, just as she was.

And because of David, I remind myself that it’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help, and to never forget to let the people you love know that you love them. There’s a lesson for all of us here.

Whether we’re willing to pay attention to that lesson is up to us.

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