The Internet ate my nephew!

He's a smart kid but he's fallen for a crazy conspiracy site

By Cary Tennis
Published October 9, 2009 11:05AM (UTC)
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Dear Reader,

I almost forgot: I'll be away three days next week at our fall Creative Getaway up at Marconi Conference Center.

So the column will run today (Friday) and Monday, and then will resume on the following Friday.

Wow, it's so beautiful up there on Tomales Bay, I can hardly wait.  A community of amazing people is growing up around these events. I'm looking forward to seeing those who are coming back and those coming for the first time. After all the preparation, it will be good to sink into the experience.


Have a good weekend, and please consider joining us at one of the next upcoming creative getaways.

Dear Cary,

I have a 17-year-old nephew who is a smart kid but a very poor student. He's kind of always been coddled by his mom (my sister), who has made excuses for his inability to comply with the basic requirements of schooling since early elementary school. What may be in part this past, in part his innate stubborn nature and in part a real disability, he has always had a hard time reading and never did well in school.


We used to have in-depth historical and political conversations (I have a B.A. in global history and a J.D., speak several languages, and have lived in many parts of the world), but I got married a couple of years ago and subsequently moved to a nearby state, and our interactions became limited to family functions a few times a year.

Over the last few months, he's gotten sucked into the Internet conspiracy black hole created by some guy named Alex Jones. Jones does an Internet video broadcast alleging all sorts of conspiracies. It's the same litany of shadowy cabals manipulating governments, businesses, etc., that have existed for centuries. Among other things, he's convinced that President Obama is a Nazi (!), Bill Gates is trying to depopulate the world, and fluoride in the water is there to lower IQs.

I can see why it appeals to my nephew -- he doesn't have to read anything, and it allows him to feel like he knows more than all the well-traveled, well-educated adults around him.


What bothers me is the quasi-religious zeal with which he embraces this mix of paranoid half-truths and apocalyptic fantasies. He smugly asserts that any criticism of this Jones is a product of the nefarious dark forces out to discredit the only man intelligent enough and courageous enough to tell the truth. As far as I can find out, Jones is in many ways like the more public purveyor of this nonsense, Glenn Beck, that is, simply some deejay with a high school degree and not much else.

I kind of get the feeling that my nephew's reaction is what 17-year-old young men in 1930s Germany felt like when told that they were in fact part of a master race being manipulated by the international Jewish conspiracy. It's seductive to turn off your brain and let someone else feed you "the truth," which is why there seems to be this evangelical aspect to his obsession.


What can I do, if anything, to rescue my nephew from getting sucked down this black hole? He was spouting stuff about "the Hegelian dialectic" and "neo-Malthusians," which he gleaned from the broadcasts. He was surprised when I walked across the room to my bookshelf and pulled down my college-annotated versions of both Hegel and Malthus. But I don't know that if I spend the time to factually debunk Jones' nonsense point by point that it will break through the "faith" aspect of my nephew's fascination.

Please let me know what I can do to help guide my nephew away from this cultish fear-monger.




Dear Buck,

How can you guide him away from this cultish fear-monger?

I wish I knew. I wish I knew your nephew and how he is going to get through this. I am not an expert on how to raise kids.

But let me share my own experience, and suggest some things that we think we know, those of us who are interested in these things, either professionally or, as in my case, because we write daily about a great variety of human perplexities. I do know that when I was young I was attracted to cults and utopian leaders. I dabbled in a variety of systems that promised ultimately simple answers to complex problems. Though I started out as a brilliant student, I began to fail at high school by the 10th grade. I was restless and angry. I barely graduated. Even now, 40 years later, I still feel like I'm suffocating when I think about it. I hated the artificial hurdles we were being asked to take seriously. I hated the feeling of being imprisoned. I still feel angry about all my time stolen by routine, by technocrats, by authoritarians who seemed to know nothing about what we teenagers were actually feeling.


So his experience is by no means unique.

We know that people at his age are being driven relentlessly by a developmental imperative beyond their control; they experience dramatic acceleration in power, desire and emotion. They try to manage it but it is frightening, and they will reach for a variety of things to acquire a feeling of stability, safety and knowledge. For someone who is smart but does not read, and has very little experience of life, and who is living among sophisticated adults, a system that offers simple explanations will be very attractive.

You say that your nephew "smugly asserts that any criticism of this Jones is a product of the nefarious dark forces out to discredit the only man intelligent enough and courageous enough to tell the truth."

I would not take on the Alex Jones thing as an intellectual problem at all. What is important is what your nephew needs. He is getting something out of this site, but perhaps the whole thing is a red herring. That is, perhaps he feels he must try to compete with the adults in his world in a realm that he is not suited for.


Is this perhaps one of those households where abstract reasoning and knowledge are prized but physical ability is not? What if his gifts lie more in the realm of crafts, outdoor activities, or a trade of some sort?

Frankly, I would try to get your nephew out into the wilderness. I would find out what he wants to do with his hands. Can you take him camping? Can you go on a trip together in the wilderness?

And what about his inner life? He is obviously looking for a system that explains why things are fucked up. He senses malevolence in the world. He knows the world is full of dangers but if he has been coddled by his mother and protected from these dangers then he has no confidence that he can meet these dangers. They become spectral and hideous, full of complex intent. Everyone becomes suspect.

It may do him good to meet some actual dangers and see that the world is full of peril but peril is manageable.


Can you get him out of the computer and into the wild world for a week or so? That's what I would do.

It's a great excuse to go camping.

If you cannot do it, you might look into various wilderness programs for teens, and perhaps sponsor him. It may not be a cure-all, but it is a start.

I do not want to conclude without making explicit that if he has dyslexia or some kind of attention-deficit disorder, those are things that should be diagnosed and treated on their own. If his mother's coddling has prevented him from facing up to these possible problems, that could be adding to his anxiety. So I would definitely, in addition to the camping trip, or wilderness expedition, do what you can to bring to light any organic, diagnosable and treatable conditions he may have. Treating them will not only improve his abilities but give him some confidence that obstacles can be overcome and differences in ability can be compensated for.


Oh, and, well, actually, there's one more thing.

The Alex Jones site has the appeal of stuff that used to be in the backs of comic books. Everything is huge and scary, tailored to the adolescent temperament.

"New Survival Seed Bank Lets You Plant A Full Acre Crisis Garden!"

"Make Powerful Herbal Medicines Secretly in Your Kitchen!"

"5-Day Handgun Course ... and a Free Handgun!"

Yeah. Sign me up.

Write Your Truth.

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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