Archive for April 6th, 2015

Reality Vs. Fantasy

by William Skink

It’s been interesting to watch the attacks roll in lately, sparked by my hasty use of a source tied to the John Birch Society and exacerbated by the calling out of Democrats for being corporate enablers. As one commenter went apoplectic, a quote emerged from the noise, worthy of its own post. It comes from the Hatewatch Blog, an effort of the Southern Poverty Law Center:

A public that loses the ability to separate reality from fantasy will eventually become, one loopy logic leap at a time, a threat to the Constitutional rights of all Americans.

This quote, because of the source, is obviously directed at right-wing sovereign citizen types. But beyond that targeted group, I think a larger question could be posed: how does any American go about the challenging task of separating reality from fantasy?

The task is challenging because Americans have been subjected to very effective methods of propaganda. A writer at Daily Kos a few years back wrote a piece titled In Defense of the Phrase Conspiracy Theory in which the master propagandist, Edward Bernays, is given his proper due:

A really interesting character was Mr. Bernays. He was a double nephew of psychoanalysis pioneer Sigmund Freud. His mother was Sigmund’s sister Anna, and his father was Ely Bernays, brother of Freud’s wife, Martha Bernays. Did you get that? Frued’s sister married his wife’s brother. That union produced the son, Edward.

Born in 1891, when he was just a year old he was brought by his parents from his native Austria to America. It is hard to overestimate his mark on the American social consciousness. Bernays worked for the administration of Woodrow Wilson during World War 1. As part of the Committee on Public Information, he was influential in promoting the idea that America’s war efforts were primarily aimed at “bringing democracy to all of Europe”. That’s right. It was the idea of Bernays to sell warfare as the spreading of democracy, an idea that rules the American thought process to this very day.

To this day, there are plenty of Democrats who believe in the fantasy that American foreign policy is all about spreading Democracy. I guess that’s how they must cope with their team doing the war thing. Bernays was wildly successful in manipulating group think. Sometimes all you have to do is change a few words, and presto! From the link:

Stunned by the degree to which the democracy slogan had swayed the public both at home and abroad, he wondered whether this propaganda model could be employed during peacetime. Due to negative implications surrounding the word propaganda because of its use by the Germans in World War 1, he promoted the term “Public Relations”. According to the BBC interview with Bernays’s daughter Anne, Bernays felt that the public’s democratic judgment was “not to be relied upon” and he feared that “they [the American public] could very easily vote for the wrong man or want the wrong thing, so that they had to be guided from above”. This “guidance” was interpreted by Anne to mean that her father believed in a sort of “enlightened despotism” ideology.

Here is that thought in Bernays’ own words: “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?”

The answer is a resounding yes.

The political duopoly in this country has been astoundingly successful in keeping the pesky public divided and easily conquerable. The Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, can keep the threat to our constitutional rights focused on right-wing extremists while ignoring the much more tangible threat—a Democrat President who can kill an American citizen by drone, sans due process (an executive power that will be passed on to his successor).

Sticking with drones, a Washington Post article last year looked at the accidents occurring with the increase domestic use of drones. Tucked away in that article is this little tidbit:

With the Afghan war waning, Pentagon officials are planning where their drones will go next.

“Assuming the president of the nation decides we’re going to have a very small presence, if any, in Afghanistan after 2014, they’re going to by and large come home,” said Steve Pennington, the Air Force’s director of bases, ranges and airspace.

In an April 2012 report, the Defense Department notified Congress it was planning to base drones at 110 sites in U.S. territory by 2017. A new Pentagon document, obtained by The Post, suggests that ambitions have grown. It states that the military is preparing to fly drones from 144 U.S. locations.

The sites will be used primarily for training. Pentagon officials said they also expect to receive more requests from civil authorities to deploy drones during natural disasters and other emergencies.

Now pair that with this chilling memo, released last year by Federal courts:

A federal appeals court on Monday released a redacted version of the U.S. Justice Department’s memorandum of justification for a 2011 drone attack that killed Anwar al Awlaki, an American-born Islamist preacher suspected of having ties to al Qaeda.

The memo says that because the U.S. government considered al Awlaki to be an “operational leader” of an “enemy force,” it was legal for the Central Intelligence Agency to attack him with a drone even though he was a U.S. citizen.

The memo says the killing was further justified under Congressional authorization for the use of U.S. military force following the Sept. 11, 2001 hijacked-plane attacks.

This justification, as flimsy as it is, could never apply to the other 3 extra-judicial killings, including Anwar al Awlaki’s teenage son.

Four U.S. citizens have been killed with drone strikes by the Obama administration. That is not a fantasy; it’s the reality of the authoritarian creep of the war on terror, which relies on fear and fantasy to keep Americans too scared and docile to realize their constitutional rights are already gone.

Democrat apologists are very uncomfortable with the reality of what the Obama regime has accomplished in 8 years. It’s so much easier to attack messengers than to acknowledge it is they who are enmeshed in the fantastical public relations that frames death and destruction as “humanitarian intervention”. To that end, junk thinking attacking conspiracy theorists is always appreciated, like this article bashing the intellectual character of conspiracy theorists:

Meet Oliver. Like many of his friends, Oliver thinks he is an expert on 9/11. He spends much of his spare time looking at conspiracist websites and his research has convinced him that the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, of 11 September 2001 were an inside job. The aircraft impacts and resulting fires couldn’t have caused the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center to collapse. The only viable explanation, he maintains, is that government agents planted explosives in advance. He realises, of course, that the government blames Al-Qaeda for 9/11 but his predictable response is pure Mandy Rice-Davies: they would say that, wouldn’t they?

Polling evidence suggests that Oliver’s views about 9/11 are by no means unusual. Indeed, peculiar theories about all manner of things are now widespread. There are conspiracy theories about the spread of AIDS, the 1969 Moon landings, UFOs, and the assassination of JFK. Sometimes, conspiracy theories turn out to be right – Watergate really was a conspiracy – but mostly they are bunkum. They are in fact vivid illustrations of a striking truth about human beings: however intelligent and knowledgeable we might be in other ways, many of us still believe the strangest things. You can find people who believe they were abducted by aliens, that the Holocaust never happened, and that cancer can be cured by positive thinking. A 2009 Harris Poll found that between one‑fifth and one‑quarter of Americans believe in reincarnation, astrology and the existence of witches. You name it, and there is probably someone out there who believes it.

You realise, of course, that Oliver’s theory about 9/11 has little going for it, and this might make you wonder why he believes it. The question ‘Why does Oliver believe that 9/11 was an inside job?’ is just a version of a more general question posed by the US skeptic Michael Shermer: why do people believe weird things? The weirder the belief, the stranger it seems that someone can have it. Asking why people believe weird things isn’t like asking why they believe it’s raining as they look out of the window and see the rain pouring down. It’s obvious why people believe it’s raining when they have compelling evidence, but it’s far from obvious why Oliver believes that 9/11 was an inside job when he has access to compelling evidence that it wasn’t an inside job.

I want to argue for something which is controversial, although I believe that it is also intuitive and commonsensical. My claim is this: Oliver believes what he does because that is the kind of thinker he is or, to put it more bluntly, because there is something wrong with how he thinks. The problem with conspiracy theorists is not, as the US legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues, that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal. I want to suggest that this is fundamentally a question of the way they are. Oliver isn’t mad (or at least, he needn’t be). Nevertheless, his beliefs about 9/11 are the result of the peculiarities of his intellectual constitution – in a word, of his intellectual character.

I will conclude this post with my favorite quote from the above article, which is mostly devoid of actual substance. I like it because it just as easily applies to those who believe America is spreading “Democracy” when it destroys other nations as it does the intended target of derision, the conspiracy theorist:

The gullible rarely believe they are gullible and the closed-minded don’t believe they are closed-minded

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