Saturday, September 22, 2018

Cults, conspiracies, and freedom.

“Oh, my God, my child’s thinking is not based in reality!” 

This is a line out of one of the most compelling and harrowing books I’ve read in quite a while. What makes it all the more unsettling is that the book is nonfiction and reading it left me asking some very uncomfortable questions about human nature.

The book is Captive: A Mother’s Crusade to Save Her Daughter from a Terrifying Cult, by the actress Catherine Oxenberg (Dynasty). It details how Oxenberg’s daughter, India, was sucked into the NXIVM sex cult. Run by Keith Raniere, perhaps one of the most repugnant figures in the history cult crimes, the group kept an inner circle of female member as sex slaves, forced them onto starvation diets, and branded them with a hot iron.

NXIVM has been garnering a fair share of media attention over the last year or so because of the utterly bizarre and revolting details of how these women were treated, along with the celebrity connections. Aside from Catherine Oxenberg’s fight to get her daughter out of the cult, another strange twist in the NXIVM story is that Raniere’s second-in-command is alleged to have been Allison Mack, a former actress and one of the leads in the SmallvilleTV show. There were also reports of the cult desperately attempting to recruit Emma Watson into the fold, along with as many other celebrities as they could get their hands on. As Oxenberg details in the book, the actor Callum Blue had attended several NXIVM meetings (and found the group and its tenets absurd), director Mark Vicente had been an active member, as was Emiliano Salinas, son of former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari. NXIVM, apparently, took a page out of the Scientology playbook in its aggressive pursuit of the rich and famous.

I started reading this book soon I after I saw the Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country about the cult run by the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in the 1980s and their plot to try and take over an Oregon county. Had the story of the Rajneeshes been made up for a fictional movie or a novel, it probably would be deemed too strange for the suspension of disbelief. Do check out the documentary (I binge-watched all of its 6 episodes over two days, it was so compelling) for all the details, but the long and short of it is that the Bhagwan’s followers carried out the first and still biggest bioterror attacks on American soil when they spread salmonella in the salad bars of a number of restaurants in the county. They were hoping to sway the county elections and get a majority of their own people elected to the board by keeping all of the anti-Rajneesh voters at home by way of the salmonella. Some 700 people were infected and sickened. 

The common thread between the Rajneesh cult and NXIVM that has me so fascinated was their membership roll of wealthy, well-educated, and successful people. Wild Wild Country excerpts some of the 80s news stories on the Bhagwan’s fleet of 90 Rolls Royces. It also discusses the sprawling compound—almost literally a small city—the Rajneeshes started building in the Oregon wilderness. The price tag for all those Rolls Royces and the construction must obviously have been astronomical, but since their members were among the cream of society (a very large percentage of these people were from the U.S., but some also from Europe, the upper classes of India, and Australia), and they had to sign away all of their bank accounts and assets to the cult, there was no problem for the Bhagwan in making the purchases. Moreover, the members who had been so business-savvy in their former lives also brought their skills to the management of the cult’s financial affairs and they were quite canny in the ongoing investment of all the money. We also see the Bhagwan’s appeal making its way to Hollywood, gaining several members from the entertainment industry. In fact, the Rajneesh movement would gather quite a roster of followers from a wide spectrum of the arts, business, and politics over the years, recruiting adherents who might not necessarily commit to fully immersing themselves in the group, giving up their assets, or moving into the compound. In the 1970s, while its headquarters—or “ashram”—was in India, the actor Terence Stamp (General Zod in the Christopher Reeve Superman films) had been a member. In the early 1980s Arianna Huffington had also been a member.

The reason all of this information troubles me so much, has shaken me to the core of my libertarian being, is that I have such a hard time wrapping my mind around people who willingly give up their individuality, their personal liberties. Where the world has for so long been so full of dictatorial, autocratic regimes—whether the product of political ideologies or religious dogmas—that millions have sought to escape, had risked their lives and the lives of their families to escape, what compels people in some of the most free societies in the world to willingly put themselves under the thumb of a controlling, exploitive cult leader, some guru or what have you? Why have controlling, manipulative cults been so successful in the U.S., a country whose very Constitution was based on libertarian principles? Moreover, how come some of the wealthy, people who are given the added freedom that money can buy, would choose to join something like NXIVM or the Rajneeshes, or any number of other such controlling, coercive organizations? 

Could there be something comforting in the control of the authoritarian state? There are, after all, people old enough to have lived in the former communist-block countries, others who had lived in the former U.S.S.R., who look back fondly upon the days of Stalinist dictatorships. Sure, you might have been watched all the time, told what to say, what to read, what to listen to, what to think, but at least you had someone—no matter how malevolent—watch over you. You didn’t need to worry too much about supporting yourself or managing complex finances since the state gave you everything. You got free schooling, free health care, free daycare, free housing and you might not have needed to worry about going hungry on the just needed to stand in a bread line for five hours to get enough food to sustain you. But hey, at least you got food to sustain you, right? Everyone was equal you see…even if they were equally miserable. But still, not having to think too much and having everything handed out to you if you chose to be a lazy parasite who wants to live off the state has its appeal, doesn’t it?

The more I read of Captive and as I watched Wild Wild Country, the more I also thought of the conspiracy-theory culture. I had often felt that conspiratorial belief systems were a lot like religion. Conspiracy beliefs also seek to explain how unseen forces control everything in the world, how there is some hidden connection between all the random—and often unpleasant and painful—events in the world. Whereas religion attributes causality to an invisible deity, conspiracy theories replace that deity with the Masons, the Illuminati, the “international bankers,” and the New World Order. But conspiracy communities can also behave exactly like cults and all others authoritarian systems. Check out this disturbing, eye-opening account of a German woman’s time inside the world of the conspiracy culture if you don’t believe me. Like cults, like extremist, controlling ideological movements, in the conspiracy culture there is only one way or the highway. Tangible, testable, empirical proof of wild claims is not necessary—no proof is proof enough for the committed conspiracy theorist, since “They,” “Forces,” “The System,” or the “New World Order” has suppressed proof—and dissent within the movement leads to vicious browbeating, harassment, intimidation, and excommunication. 

Life in both cults or the conspiracy culture is one that is ultimate not based on reality. 

Sunday, September 9, 2018

How come no one has killed Alex Jones yet?

I ask this after a recent discussion I had with a friend of mine who insisted that conspiracy theories like the ones about the JFK assassination and 9/11 are somewhat plausible - he "doesn't exactly" believe them, but could imagine that powers within the government would be willing to attempt such plots - and they could be successful because dissenters within the conspiracy could just be killed off. He - as JFK conspiracists often do - pointed to a series of "suspicious" deaths of people connected to the Kennedy assassination.

First of all, let's just clear the air about these deaths. There is nothing suspicious about them and these people who might have "known too much" died years apart and years after the Kennedy murder. For a superb examination and discussion of this, please take the time to read (and it will take you a little while since it's over 1000 pages) the late Vincent Bugliosi's book Reclaiming History about the assassination.

But conspiracy believers are generally big on assassinations. They believe no tangible evidence exists to prove their massive, complicated accusations because whistleblowers have either been killed off or they have been intimidated into silence through death threats.

So how come some conspiracists don't stop for a second and consider why these assassins from the New World Order haven't yet eliminated people like Alex Jones and the rest of his ilk? Why haven't they offed Jones years ago and made it look like an accident (but plant secret clues to the evil deeds the way criminal masterminds do in murder mysteries or in comic books the way the Riddler always does?).

The reason, of course, is because 9/11 conspiracies, "crisis actors," or Qanon conspiracies are exactly like comic books. They're fantasies!

Unfortunate, but not surprising...

I ran across this fascinating article from National Geographic about Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay. Not to be too self-serving, but my immediate reaction was that it's a real-world example of the theme I was trying to deal with in my new novel, CONFIRMATION. People will believe what they want to believe, what is the most convenient to maintain their preexisting belief systems so as never to have to admit they might have been wrong or that they need to change their world views. And they will keep believing no matter what they see right in front of their faces. This phenomenon, of course, has been demonstrated over and over again in decades' wroth of research in psychology as well as in media studies and analyses of people's reactions to persuasive messages.

These unfortunate folks on Tangier Island are watching their home slowly being claimed by the ocean. Some day, perhaps within the next 50 years, the island will no longer exist due to the rising ocean levels and the global climate change that's behind it. Nonetheless, they still cling to the belief that climate change is a hoax and believe in Donald Trump's conspiracy theories about climate science being fraudulent and the handiwork of the Chinese. These people will, no doubt, stick to their belief that climate change is not real until the moment the last of them will be evacuating the island. Then they will probably claim that the rising tides were a punishment from God because of the gays.

So when we scratch out heads at how people can so adamantly believe that the Earth is flat, that we never went to the Moon, that Bush family members blew up the Twin Towers, that crisis actors pretended to get shot in Las Vegas and Parkland, or any number of utterly implausible conspiracy theories, let's take a look at the people of Tangier Island.

Belief, no matter how it might fly in the face of tangible, empirical evidence, is a mighty powerful thing. And it can be incredibly destructive when manipulated by the opportunistic and unscrupulous.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Marco Rubio is THE MAN!!

This is fantastic! Florida Senator Marco Rubio - and fellow University of Miami alumnus - threatened to lay the smackdown on a heckling Alex Jones. Check out the article right here!

Apparently Jones did what he often liked to do in the past, namely go off in public bellowing tantrums and heckling. You know, to warn the American people about what's really going on and how the Illuminati are turning the world into a fascist state. Now, ironically enough, the kerfuffle began because Jones was upset at Rubio criticizing totalitarian states' attempts at censoring the Internet. So Jones started heckling Rubio during a press conference, accusing him of turning a blind eye to the Democrats' crackdown on the Internet. The Democrats? Hmm...right! And Jones apparently has no problems with Donald Trump's recent threats against Google?

Well, but that's just Alex Jones for you...

Anyhow, Jones' harangues eventually prompted Rubio to say, "I'll take care of you myself."

But do check out Jones' whining reply in the article, beseeching the press nearby to see how he has been threatened. Because, you know, the system is trying to silence him so he can't tell the American people what's really going on.

I recently commented that it was a mistake for tech companies like Facebook to ban Jones because they're turning him into the kind of martyr he wants to become. But still, a threat of a good ass-beating by a senator is just too awesome.

Go Canes!

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Foolishness is deadly...

…and it’s apparently contagious, too, spreading absurd belief systems around the world. After seeing a story on NBC news about recent cases of measles in the U.S., I ran across this article about what are purported to be record high numbers across Europe. Now according to the CDC, the number of measles cases in the U.S. is about the same as last year and within the expected range of infections—about 124. 

Europeans, however, are concerned with what they are calling record high numbers in 2018 so far, or around 41,000. This is almost double the numbers from 2017. And the most disturbing statistic, though, is that in 2016 there were 5,273 cases.

The World Health Organization is now calling on European countries to take action on this matter. As well they should, obviously, as the high volume of global travel now makes the spread of diseases so much faster. According to the CDC, many of the American cases of measles can be traced to travel to foreign countries.

But the underlying problem in this matter, according to both the CDC and the WHO, is the growing number of people who are refusing vaccinations. And all of this is still tied to one 20-year-old paper by a discredited and de-licensed British physician named Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield claimed to have found a causal connection between autism and the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine. Although, again, discredited, withdrawn and disowned by Wakefield’s co-authors, the effects of this one paper just don’t want to die. It gave rise to an ever-more aggressive anti-vaccination movement around the world and their elaborate, paranoid conspiracy theories about a dark, sinister collusion between drug companies, scientists, governments, and the media. 

So when a friend of mine recently asked me about why I feel so strongly that conspiracy theorists need to be recast in the popular imagination from principled – if goofy and eccentric – outsider heroes to dangerous cranks and charlatans, I find few better examples for my argument than the vaccination controversy. These numbers out of Europe are a travesty. We are talking about a disease that had been all but eradicated. And now it’s spreading in record numbers around the world! What’s going to be next? The return of small pox? Polio outbreaks? Are we indeed heading back to the Dark Ages in the 21stcentury? Measles is making a comeback and we have regular conventions (around the U.S. at least) dedicated to the belief that the Earth is flat. 

These types of conspiratorial fantasies, this attitude that there is no consensus reality, that each and every person has to right to create their own reality and to reject the notion of empirical facts and truths need to be treated as a dangerous epidemic. Yes, scientists and academic journals need to do their absolute best to present only reliable, well-proven, peer-reviewed data. But the rest of the educational establishment needs to do its part as well in ingraining in students from a very early age that facts matter, that there is a truth with a capital “T,” and not all opinions are equally valid. As the late science fiction author Harlan Ellison once said, “no, you are not entitled to your opinion! You are entitled to your informed opinion.”

I usually start the semesters of my class on conspiracy theories with that quote from Ellison. Hopefully by the end of the class there will be fewer anti-vaxxers, “crisis actor” believers, and 9/11 truthers out there.

So yes, I am after the minds of young people and I’m trying to influence them!!

Monday, September 3, 2018

Many Special Kinds of Crazy...

...are still just crazy. And obnoxious, according to this interesting article. Beliefs in conspiracy theories apparently have some interesting gender divisions. Men seem to be not only more likely to be conspiracy theory believers, but apparently the most overbearing and obnoxious in attacking those they see as the "enemy," those they see as the purveyors of the "big lie." Furthermore, the climate-change-denying conspiracy movement appears to be, according to scientists who've had the unpleasant experience of being contacted by these people, overwhelmingly male and particularly vicious in their correspondence with the academic and scientific community. Female academics are usually the targets of these "mansplaining" conspiracists, getting obnoxious emails refuting climate science. Well, you know, why believe in academics with years of training and presentations of data that had been gathered over decades when you can watch a 10-minute YouTube video that will tell you what's really going on.

But that is not to say that women can't be attracted to a special brand of conspiracy theory all their own. Within the anti-vaccination movement there seems to be quite a large female representation. In general, women also seem to be more likely to buy into conspiracy theories when it relates to the health sciences.

I am glad to see that academic focus on the psychology and sociology of conspiracy beliefs is increasing. Trying to set believers in the bizarre, the illogical, and the absurd straight, trying to educate them can only begin when we understand why so many people choose to reject a consensus reality. We need to understand the social pathology of conspiracy beliefs before those of us in the academic fields can effectively counter them.