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Sunday, October 2, 2016


All right, I admit it, I have been sneaking a look at the polls and at the political coverage.  I will leave to others the endless discussion of Trump's disgusting attacks on Alicia Machado.  But this lengthy piece in the Washington Post got me thinking once again about something that has long been on my mind.  The Post piece gives an extended portrait of a Trump supporter who, among other things, believes a wide array of bizarre conspiracy theories.  I am not talking about the claim that Obama was really born in Kenya and spirited into the United States as what might be called a real-life Manchurian candidate, equipped with phony birth notices in Hawaiian newspapers and a name -- Barack Hussein Obama -- designed to appeal to gullible American voters.  After all, some scores of millions of Americans claim to believe that.  I am referring to a number of conspiracies now making the rounds that I had never heard of, such as the claim that Obama is gay, that Michelle is really a man, and that Malia and Sasha are not the children of the Obamas but were kidnapped [I am not kidding -- read the article I linked to above.]

How, one asks, can anyone believe such things?  Now, to be sure, the person featured in the Post article has serious mental issues, but she is not alone in her beliefs.  Think of those millions of clinically normal people who believe that Obama is not an American citizen.  What is going on?

Here are my thoughts, for what they are worth.  The vast majority of those who profess to believe these conspiracy stories are perfectly normal men and women who can navigate the demands of everyday life quite well.  They get up in the morning, make breakfast, send their kids off to school, go to work, hold down averagely demanding jobs with average efficiency, mow their lawns, get their cars serviced, remember birthdays, pay their taxes [unlike their hero, Donald Trump], and do not get more than ordinarily lost when finding their way to the supermarket.

Now, if you tell them that Michelle Obama is a man and that Michelle and Barack kidnapped Sasha and Malia, they will nod sagely and say, "I always knew there was something off about that family."  But if you tell them that their TV set is really a toaster and that their next door neighbor is a gerbil, they will nervously edge toward the door and think of calling 911.

In short, there is a disconnect in them between their averagely rational capacity to negotiate their directly sensed world and their utter inability to grasp and hold even elementary facts about the socio-political [or indeed the scientific and technical] world to which they are connected solely by the system of information transfer on which we all must rely.  After all, I have met Obama only once, at a White House Christmas party to which I was taken, as a guest, by my son, Tobias.  Or at least I was told it was Obama.  How do I really know?  Indeed, how do I know I was in the White House?  It might all have been a Potemkin village.  I have never met a sitting senator in my life, nor a member of the Cabinet.  I think I watched [on television] a man walk on the moon, but then I also think I saw Ewoks on Endor.  What direct evidence do I have that the first was real and the second was not?

Most of us use hand-held phones and such like devices every day, but precious few of us actually know, all the way down to the molecular level, how those things work.  If I tell you that there are tiny men and women in your phone who speak to you when you think you are calling someone, you really are not equipped to demonstrate to me that I must be wrong.

We live in a social and political world that has almost no direct connection to our felt experiences and first-hand knowledge.  Once our belief is shaken in the authority figures who putatively inform us about that world, any conspiracy theories we are offered seem as plausible as the authorized stories sensible educated people are expected to accept.

One of my very favorite philosophical passages comes from the Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes.  In Chapter 6 of Part I, which carries the lovely title, "Of the Interior Beginnings of Voluntary Motions; Commonly Called the Passions; And the Speeches by Which They Are Expressed," Hobbes offers this pair of definitions:  "fear of power invisible, feigned by the mind, or imagined from tales publicly allowed, RELIGION;  not allowed, SUPERSTITION."

There is really nothing more to be said.


howie b said...

So people of average intelligence succumb to magical thinking (which is Freud's word for superstition)?
The only point to stress more, is how such superstitions are motivated by fear and wishful thinking.
Otherwise, well said

Damon P. Suey said...

There's an interesting paper on this that Chomsky likes to cite, but I forget the name. Like you say, an unbelievable amount of seemingly intelligent people buy into these conspiracies, and the paper argues that when you ask someone "Do you think we landed on the moon?", they answer the question "Do you think we landed on the moon?", but that political questions are very different. A lot of people's political identities are tied up with their views on Obama, and we're a polarized nation — you can't be caught supporting Obama (!) if you're a Republican. Essentially, a Democrat feels that she has to support Obama, and a Republican feels that she has to do the opposite, so when you ask someone "Do you think Obama is a secret Muslim?", people aren't able to divorce it from all their other political views/associations/identities. So they end up answering a very different question, something like "Do you like Obama?", or "Are you suspicious of Obama?", or "Are you on our side or Obama's?" And so you get 10% of people answering that Obama is a secret Muslim, even though they don't actually believe it.

At least I hope this is true, because it's a lot more optimistic about the general public's intelligence (if a little more pessimistic about political polarization).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I think that is basically right. Any supposedly factual question about Obama, for example, is a covert question, "which side are you on?" If you ask people, "Do you think Obama is taller than McCain?" a sizable number of anti-Obama people will say NO.

s. wallerstein said...

Lots of people believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin, that Jesus rose from the tomb on the 3rd day after his death, that the wine in the mass becomes the blood of Jesus, that Moses parted the Red Sea by waving his staff (I was told that in Hebrew school and I found it ridiculous even then), etc.

If people can believe all the above and a lot more, why can't they believe that Obama is gay and that Michelle is really a man?

s. wallerstein said...

For those who are interested, Eric Hobsbawm's penultimate book (he died in 2012), How to Change the World, published in 2011, is, in spite of the rather off-putting (for me at least) title, is an excellent history of Marxism, not so much as a philosophy, but as a public doctrine or political actor (insofar as a set of ideas can be an actor) from the time of Marx until slightly after the end of the last century.

Michael Llenos said...
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Anonymous said...

My mother is a non-insane, successful CPA. Not only does she believe Obama is gay and Michelle may be a man, she also thinks Obama is a drug addict and that he had Andrew Breitbart killed.

But....I don't think she truly believes any of this. I think she truly really really despises Obama and has almost no way to express that, to make him suffer, except to subject his name to increasingly insane slander.

It's kind of like the conservative, virtual reality version of liberals watching Elizabeth Warren DESTROY the Wells Fargo CEO. This "destruction" itself is exactly as ineffectual as someone watching it in their house on their computer, but it's the only way people with zero power have of getting back at the powerful people they hate.

Matt said...

The economist and blogger Tyler Cowen, with whom I disagree on nearly everything, suggests that very large parts of people's political behavior (and other behavior) is what he calls "mood affiliation". I think he over-states the idea, but that this story is, to a degree, just an extreme version of that. My take is that it's somehow easier for people to think that they reason they feel really, really uncomfortable with, say, Obama being president is - some sort of obviously nuts story about him being gay and Michelle being a man, rather than that they just don't like the idea of a black man being president, or beyond that, that lots of people having very different beliefs from the ones they hold, and yet they are not being struck down by God, are happy and successful, and so on. I'm actually not 100% sure if I find this scenario less depressing than that people just have utterly nuts factual beliefs, since those could, assumedly, be changed more easily.

The first time I really was struck by something like this was shortly after Bill Clinton was elected president for the first time. My father, who isn't at all dumb and not typically crazy or given to conspiracy theories or the like, and doesn't spend lots of time listen to right-wing talk radio or the like, and who actually personally does significantly more for individual poor people, criminals, and others in bad circumstances than most left-wing people I know (such as, personally give them fairly large amounts of money, personally help them find jobs, or, in quite a few cases, let them live in his house), told me that he thought it was almost certain that Bill Clinton would come out as bi sexual within a year. I remember being shocked - not because I'd care, but because there was just not the slightest bit of evidence for it (beyond not being opening and viciously hostile to gay people.) I think he was just shocked that Clinton had won - he's a more or less typical republican politically, for reasons that are not at all sophisticated. He didn't get it, so there had to be something going on. This is what he latched on to. I lost a bit of respect for him that day, but it's not that unusual.

Finally, I'll add that, to judge from my wife's facebook feed and what I see on blogs, this type of thing is hardly limited to the right. The mild version of it is the idea that Hilary Clinton "stole" the primary election. But, several seemingly non-crazy people I know have now swallowed the whole right-wing view of her, and also believe that, say, she had a low-level DNC staffer, who was pretty clearly killed in a botched robbery, murdered for passing on DNC emails to wikileaks, and other such stuff. Many are now ready to believe she really did murder Vince Foster. I wish this sort of nutty dream theory stuff was limited to the right, but it clearly is not.

Ed Barreras said...
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Ed Barreras said...
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Ed Barreras said...

I would hazard to guess that there's a genetic, hard-wired component to all this. Once, while camping in the Mojave Desert and gazing at the stars, I had an insight. It was that, try as I might, I couldn't *really* wrap my head around the scales of time and distance discussed by astronomers. I know, of course, that stars are billions of light years away, that the universe is some four-and-a-half billion years old, and so on. A normally educated person, I can recite these facts just as I can recite fact about three dimensional solids in my immediate environment. And yet, in terms of what these respective classes of statements correspond to, there could hardly be more of a disconnect. Our minds have been "built" by evolution to handle facts about three-dimensional solids in the immediate environment, but when it comes to the macro- and micro-scopic worlds, we're completely unmoored. It's almost as if I knew the stars were light years away but didn't really *believe* it to be true. My knowledge of that fact was a function of rote learning, and didn't represent true comprehension. This hit me on a visceral level as I lay on that boulder in the desert. The experience was quite awe-inspiring. (And no, I can't say I was one-hundred percent sober through all this.)

Anyway, the point is that the further we get from what you call "our directly sense world," the more rationality slides away and the more room there is for magical thinking to make its way in. Again, this is probably a hard-wired tendency. In his book *Truth and Truthfulness* Bernard Williams relates how the Greeks before Thucydides had a hard time grappling with the ordinary concept of history. Even Herodotus couldn't quite figure out how to square Greek mythology with the idea that the remote past was inhabited by ordinary people, people just like his contemporaries.

Now you would think that for any reasonably educated person nowadays, these instincts toward magical thinking should be easily overcome. But you'd be wrong. For many of our countrymen, the idea of powerful politicians living hundreds of miles away represents a scale too grand for their minds to handle, and so they cling to mythological stories about them.

howie b said...

Here's a suggestion: American voters, for whichever reason, have lost a real interest in policy. What's leftover, isn't really ideology- but it's underpinnings, raw emotion, a very ugly sight for many Americans- hence Palin and now Trump

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

None of it is surprising to the author of "Narrative Time", is it? Given the theses therein, isn't it what he should predict? Or expect?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Andrew, I am a hopeless optimist, expecting the best while knowing that what will happen is the worst!

Joe said...

You might enjoy this piece in the Baffler by Corey Pein, which draws together some of the threads of 'conspiracy theorist' political rhetoric (on the Right and Left) in wide-ranging historical span, with lots of juicy examples (old and new). HIs central point is not unlike yours: questions about 'rationality' aren't the right questions here, because we're dealing with a situation in which people have a lot of justified outrage and a dearth of reliable information.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

The author of "On the Plurality of Actual Worlds", quo vide, expects what he sees, but keeps looking for a way to enhance the syllogism so that it will stop. Alas, the Trumpeters just make me think that the thesis of *that* book is unfortunately confirmed....