In my previous post I talked a bit about the disinformation propagated by the mainstream media, specifically in regards to the Roxana Saberi story . Disinformation is the deliberate propagation of false information (as opposed to misinformation which is unintentionally false). The disinformation in this case is not the reported fact that Saberi was treated unjustly by the Iranians. From the evidence at hand this appears to be true. Rather the disinformation lies in the facts that are left out – namely that our own government has done the same and worse and the indignation directed towards Iran is pure hypocrisy. While there is no hard evidence that the media is deliberately trying to mislead here (and elsewhere), the double standard in reporting is so egregious, it defies logic to believe otherwise.
Unfortunately, there are many otherwise intelligent people who take a great leap of faith from legitimate critiques of media, government and corporations (and their intimate relationships) into the far more murky world of conspiracy theories. More after the break. But first watch this film:
Robert Anton Wilson is the author of the hilarious The Illuminatus! Trilogy, which promoted itself as “a fairy tale for paranoids,” and as Wikipedia notes, “humorously examined American paranoia about conspiracies.” Wilson was strongly influenced by the radical drug-imbued “counter-culture” of the sixties and the Trilogy was written at the height of this period.
The book was heavily influenced by Discordianism, a mock “religion” which basically promotes a skeptical and open-minded attitude towards everything in life, an attitude intelligently described in the video above. There are 5 principles of Discordianism as written in the Principia Discordia and the fifth one is “A Discordian is Prohibited from Believing What he reads” which basically negates the whole book! The book is actually quite funny and available online, and highly recommended reading. Getting back to Anton himself, quoting from the Wikipedia article:
In a 2003 interview with High Times magazine, Wilson described himself as a “Model Agnostic” which he says “consists of never regarding any model or map of the universe with total 100% belief or total 100% denial. Following Korzybski, I put things in probabilities, not absolutes… My only originality lies in applying this zetetic attitude outside the hardest of the hard sciences, physics, to softer sciences and then to non-sciences like politics, ideology, jury verdicts and, of course, conspiracy theory.” More simply, he claims “not to believe anything”, since “belief is the death of intelligence.” He has described his approach as “Maybe Logic.”
Wilson popularized the Discordian word “fnord“ in his Illuminatus Trilogy:
…the interjection “fnord” is given hypnotic power over the unenlightened. Under the Illuminati program, children, while still in grade school, are taught to be unable to consciously see the word “fnord”. For the rest of their lives, every appearance of the word subconsciously generates a feeling of uneasiness and confusion, and prevents rational consideration of the subject. This results in a perpetual low-grade state of fear in the populace. This in turn perpetuates the need for Government, because without fear, people don’t need Government.
In the Shea/Wilson construct, fnords are scattered liberally in the text of newspapers and magazines, causing fear and anxiety in those following current events. However, there are no fnords in the advertisements, encouraging a consumerist society. It is implied in the books that fnord is not the actual word used for this task, but merely a substitute, since most readers would be unable to see the actual word.
His tongue-in-cheek description of the “Illuminati program,” underlies a more serious (and valid) critique about fear as a tool of Government control (a point first illuminated by Machiavelli) and the materialism and consumerism of American society. This critique is even more relevant forty years on, when American society seems to be even more ruled by fear and deeper in the grips of materialism and greed. But Wilson also lambasted the idea that there is some secret society or cabal behind all this. Rather, it is our individual and collective choices as members of society that allows all this to happen. Real change will not come if we only could overthrow the Illuminati. Rather, only if we as individuals open our minds and apply skeptical and rational thought, can we can see through the fnords and hopefully reach some sort of illumination. Here is Wilson making the point in his own words (unfortunately back- grounded by bad psychedelic music):
One of the podcasts I recently started listening to is from disinformation.com a site which describes itself as follows: “Disinformation was designed to be the search service of choice for individuals looking for information on current affairs, politics, new science and the “hidden information” that seldom slips through the cracks of the corporate-owned media conglomerates.” One can easily make the connection between the reference to “hidden information” and the concept of “fnords.” So I find it incredibly jarring that these supposedly open minded, skeptical people, interested in exposing disinformation, can take conspiracy theories so seriously!
In their podcast, they recently reported a story from Arutz 7, the settler movement’s media outlet which claimed that Israeli police broke up a meeting of conspiracy theorists discussing the Rabin assassination. A bit of background here: Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir. Amir was a radical right-wing political activist, who admitted to the fact that he killed Rabin, expressed satisfaction at his death, and justified his actions using the Jewish concept of “rodef” – if someone is running after you (“rodef”) to kill you, then you have the right to kill him in self defense. I have discussed in the past how this same kind of thinking is used to justify killing Arabs. Many settler Rabbis saw Rabin as also falling under this law, and provide Amir with the “religious” justification for his murder. Amir also explicitely stated he wanted to stop the process initiated by the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians. To this day he and his family have no regrets about the murder.
After Amir was caught and convicted the religious Settler movement was roundly attacked by mainstream Israeli society. Amir is a product of this movement, so his actions were seen (correctly in my view) as an outgrowth of their disturbing and fanatical ideology. In response, within the settler movement there quickly grew up an alternative explanation to Rabin’s assassination – a conspiracy theory. According to this theory, Rabin, who was doing poorly in public opinion polls, decided he needed some event to garner sympathy with the public. So he had the Shin Bet hire Amir to fake his assassination. Armed with blanks, Amir waited for Rabin at his car after the peace rally where the events took place. Rabin came to the car, Amir fired the blanks and the security forces pushed the still living Rabin into the car and sped off. However, Shimon Peres, Rabin’s arch political rival, arranged for the unsuspecting Rabin to be killed by the Shin Bet, leaving Amir to take the fall!
Getting back to the disinformation.com podcast, the podcasters noted that the source of the story (about the police breaking up the conference) is “right wing.” They noted that many “claim” that the people behind the conspiracy theory are “right wing.” However, they went on to say that also here in the US conspiracy theories are often discredited by labeling them as “right wing” so “who knows?”
Well I know. While I don’t necessarily find political labels all that useful, there is no doubt Arutz 7 would proudly describe itself as part of the “nationalist right wing” in Israel (their words not mine). And there is no denying the fact that the conspiracy theories around Rabin’s assassination largely originate and are promulgated by that same nationalistic right wing, who seek to absolve themselves for any blame in connection with that event.
Why I am so obssessed with this topic? Because many of the same motivations of conspiracy theorists are what drive me to write this blog: an intense skepticism of the “accepted narrative” of events that happen in the political arena. After all, there is no doubt that quite often governments and politicians deliberately lie to their citizens about the motivations behind their actions. The “accepted” explanation for many events can, with some effort, be seen to be fnords – disinformation. Many media outlets are often complicit in the the spread of this propaganda, either intentionally or through intellectual laziness. It behooves us all therefore, to be discordians – skeptical of everything we read, hear or see (including this blog!).
While conspiracy theory starts with healthy open-minded skepticism, it morphs into something completely different. Today I listened to an interview with Jim Marrs, a best-selling author of many books on various conspiracy theories. He notes how the word conspiracy comes from the Latin word “conspiratio” which literally means to breath the same air together. A theory is just an attempt to explain an event. But in modern usage, conspiracy theory has become a social phenomenon – a world view that explains complex historical or current events by claiming they are the result of hidden and secret manipulations by powerful elite groups (bankers, businessmen, politicians) or powerful beings (often extraterrestrial aliens). The disinformation and misinformation around these events in the mainstream media are a result of the extraordinary power of these elites, who want to hide their activities from the common man. By dint of hard investigative work, the conspiracy theorists have become at least partially privy to some of these secrets and want to expose them to the rest of us unenlightened, close-minded humans.
There are no doubts that conspiracies happen, and happen quite frequently. One of the most famous conspiracies in history is the murder of Julius Caeser. When I moved to Israel there was a bus hijacking by a young Arab that was a harbinger of the first intifada. The hijacker was killed and the Israeli authorities at first claimed that he was killed in the initial assault on the bus by the military. This explanation was exposed as a lie when a photograph came out showing the young man alive and healthy being taken into custody by soldiers. The blame was then shifted to the officer who commanded the operation, Yitzhak Mordehai (who later became the Chief of Staff and a candidate for Prime Minister). Mordehai vehemently denied responsibility and eventually (but not too long after the incident) the truth came out: the hijacker was killed during his interrogation by the Shin Bet. The head of the Shin Bet conspired along with his men to cover up the incident and shift the blame on to Mordehai. Yitzhak Shamir, then Prime Minister was also involved in the conspiracy. And here exactly is the first problem with conspiracies: in order for them to remain secret, everyone involved has to keep quiet until the grave. One of the rules I learned in my university course on organizational behavior is: “there are no secrets in organizations.” It strongly goes against human nature to keep a secret. The more people involved in a conspiracy, the more likely the secret will come out sooner rather than later. Which is why most conspiracies are eventually exposed.
For this reason alone one should be skeptical when conspiracies are proposed as explanations. Conspiracy theorists often start by exposing the many flaws and contradictions in the “official” explanation. What they usually forget is the many flaws and contradictions in their own explanations. For skeptical rationalists (which most conspiracy theorists claim to be) the guiding principle for choosing amongst competing theories is Occam’s Razor: “The simplest explanation for a phenomenon is most likely the correct explanation.” In many cases, there is no doubt that the official explanation is filled with flaws and that something is being covered up. But often the simplest explanation for the cover up is that the officials involved are trying to hide their stupidity and incompetence. Conspiracy theorists just give governments too much credit for competence and intelligence.
The Rabin assassination is a good example. One has to go back in time and remember the ferment in Israel after the Oslo accords. Right wing politicians like Arik Sharon and Bibi Netanyahu were fomenting political turmoil, essentially accusing Rabin of treason. At protest rallies where they spoke, attended mostly by Orthodox settlers, coffins were paraded with Rabin’s name or effigies were shown of Rabin dressed up as an SS officer. The feeling that Rabin might be a target for assassination was quite palpable. I remember a few weeks before the assassination, being at a hotel in Jerusalem waiting for a meeting. I saw Rabin walk in several meters ahead of his body guards and the thought immediately crossed my mind that he wasn’t being protected very well. There is no doubt in my mind that the “official” inquest into the assassination tried to cover up the Shin Bet’s incompetence. It is in this sense that they are complicit in his murder.
By contrast the Amir as dupe/Peres as perpetrator theory is far more complex. One must come up for an explanation of why Amir agreed to get involved in the first place and why he has taken the fall ever since. One must explain how Peres got the Shin Bet and the police (and not just the agent who pulled the trigger, but all those who subsequently investigated the matter) to go along and continue in their silence. One must explain how Peres all of a sudden decided to become a murderer, when in the past he always fought Rabin and others in the ballot box. And the list goes on. By Occam’s razor incompetence wins by a landslide.
One of the justifications for using Occam’s razor as a criterion is the idea of falsifiablity. The Wiki article quotes Karl Popper who argues that only falsifiable theories can be considered scientific:
We prefer simpler theories to more complex ones “because their empirical content is greater; and because they are better testable” (Popper 1992). In other words, a simple theory applies to more cases than a more complex one, and is thus more easily falsifiable.
Most conspiracy theories fail this test. In the Marrs interview I mentioned earlier, he went on at great length to discuss many anomalies about the orbit of the moon. His alternative explanation: the moon is obviously a sophisticated aircraft brought here by extraterrestrial beings who “parked” their vehicle in this obviously weird orbit. To accept this theory I have to believe that there is an advanced civilization of extraterrestrial beings who have the capacity for inter-stellar travel who would for some reason build their vehicle inside some space rock. Moreover, for some reason they decided to travel specifically to our planet. When they got here, they parked but apparently forgot where they parked since the vehicle is still there but there is no sign of them anywhere around here. Occam is rolling over in his grave on this one. And, it would be an understatement to say this theory fails the falsifiability criterion. In other words, instead of illuminating complex issues and events, conspiracy theories get lost in complex webs of irrational thought. Thereby they undermine more intelligent and rational critiques of these topics,
Conspiracy theorist love to talk about the “agenda” behind the official or mainstream explanation for those issues and events. But many of the people involved in the conspiracy theory world have their own agendas. Some of it is about making money. By Marrs own account his book The Alien Agenda is the bestselling book on UFOs in the world. He served as a consultant for Oliver Stone’s movie JFK and his books on the JFK assassination have also been best sellers. His most recent book was commissioned by Bill Irvine, a founder of one of the most popular websites on conspiracy theories. Irvine was also interviewed, and he pointed out how well his site is doing. Obviously conspiracy theory is good business.
Irvine made an interesting analogy. He called conspiracy theories “intellectual porn. ” The point he was trying to make is that just like the sexual kind, conspiracy theory garner lots of “eyeballs” and help push the popularity of the Internet. In other words, like prn sites, conspiracy theory sites can make lots of money on advertising and selling product. In fact Irvine started out working in the world of internet advertising. However, the analogy is apt in a different way. Conspiracy theories are mental masturbation. Like Internet porn, they provide easy and instantaneous pleasure without exerting much effort. By contrast, the real thing requires effort to achieve, but ultimately is much more satisfying.
Many conspiracy theorists have a political agenda of their own as well. Alex Jones, who apparently is quite popular in the conspiracy theory world, pushes the idea (something Marrs also mentions) that Bush was trying to establish a Fourth Reich in America – in other words he was a Nationalist Socialist. Obama by contrast, is a Marxist Socialist. Behind all our Presidents is the Bilderberg Club, a secret society of 130 rich men who pull all the strings and are the real rulers of the world. Their ultimate plan is to create one world government which will take away all our freedoms. Secret society, and yet somehow Jones and his fellow theorists seem to have all the inside dope on exactly what they are planning to do. Apparently their latest plan is to cause the collapse of capitalism as we know it and thereby achieve final world domination.
What I find disturbing in much of the rhetoric of this type of conspiracy theory, is how much it echos pre-war fascist rhetoric (without explicitely mentioning Jews). It is for this reason I imagine many critics associate conspiracy theory with right wing extremism. At the very least, Alex Jones and his ilk are using the exact same tactic that conspiracy theorists criticize the government for – instilling fear in the mind of their listeners. Their media is filled with as many fnords as the official one. To his credit. Marrs has a great sense of humor and at least in the interview I heard, did not seem to play the fear card at all. Alex Jones by contrast, is a fear mongerer of the lowest sort.
I leave the final word to Wilson. (I found his obvious exasperation with the unintelligent interviewer quite amusing):