Benghazi nuts, anti-vaxxers, birthers: Do they really buy their own nonsense?

Alex Jones fans, Benghazi believers and antivaxxers have real impact. They're wrong, but we need to understand them

Published May 13, 2014 6:53PM (EDT)

Ted Cruz, Jenny McCarthy, Alex Jones                      (AP/Rick Bowmer/Reuters/Fred Prouser/Jim Bourg/Salon)
Ted Cruz, Jenny McCarthy, Alex Jones (AP/Rick Bowmer/Reuters/Fred Prouser/Jim Bourg/Salon)

Why do people believe ridiculous things, in despite of all reason and proofs to the contrary?

There are parents who allow their children to be vaccinated for whooping cough, diphtheria and tetanus, even though those diseases are much less harmful than their supposed cures. Despite mountains of evidence, some Americans refuse to accept that Obama was born in Kenya and that his father was Malcolm X. And don’t get me started on 9/11.

Yes, I’m just trying to get your attention. No, I’m not an Anti-vaxxer, a Birther or a Truther. Unless you’re one of them yourself, you probably think those people are irrational, but they feel exactly the same way about you. And they’re not completely wrong, either.

The fact is, we all view the world through a distorting lens of our own interests, prejudices and presuppositions. Almost every partisan believes his or her own propaganda, which, however outrageous, is likely to contain a kernel or more of truth.

Just as snorers can’t hear themselves snore, the farthest-out claims of even the hardest-core conspiracy theorists don’t sound the least bit unhinged to their own ears. For a partial explanation of why this is so, take a look at this article at Ezra Klein’s Vox, in which Zack Beauchamp applies Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule’s theory of “information cascades” to Republican beliefs about Benghazi. They’re leveraging them for political advantage of course, but that the scandal is genuine they have no doubt. It is a bedrock tenet of GOP faith.

The key word is “faith.” Faith, in the words of the King James version, is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

But whether they are sincere or not, why should anyone care what conspiracy theorists believe?

For one thing, because their ideas — or the emotions that animate their ideas — influence real-world policy-making. As crazy as the far right’s talk about Agenda 21 may be, legislators across the country have taken up arms against it. Most elected Republican officials concede that Obama is a U.S. citizen, but they still regard his presidency as illegitimate. And who knows how far afield yet another Benghazi investigation might roam?

But there’s another less obvious and perhaps even more important reason that we should care, and that is because conspiracists aren’t the only people whose sense of reality is, let us say, highly contingent and adaptable.

History records any number of manmade horrors that beggar even the most paranoid fantasies. And whenever these atrocities have occurred, otherwise sane and high-minded people have not only failed to stop them but have refused to acknowledge that they were even happening. It’s easy enough to deny climate change, whose worst-predicted effects are relatively far off in the future. What about when the bodies are literally stacking up beneath ones’ noses?

In the early 1930s, as part of Stalin’s Five Year Plan, the farms of the Soviet Ukraine were expropriated and their harvests exported for cash, with the wholly predictable result that millions of peasants starved to death. “Foreign communists in the Soviet Union, witnesses to the famine, somehow managed to see starvation not as a national tragedy but as a step forward for humanity,” Timothy Snyder writes in his book "Bloodlands." “The writer Arthur Koestler believed at the time that the starving were ‘enemies of the people who preferred begging to work.’….The basic facts of mass hunger and death, although sometimes reported in the European and American press, never took on the clarity of an undisputed event…. It was controversial to note that starvation was taking place at all.”

Why do people believe the unbelievable, in despite of all reason and proof to the contrary?

It’s no less important to ask, Why do people disbelieve the all-too believable?

That the citizens of totalitarian regimes, like the members of abusive cults or kidnap victims suffering from Stockholm syndrome, can internalize their leaders’ paranoid views has long been established. But denial doesn’t just occur at the margins. As behaviorists like Daniel Ariely have long recognized, human beings are “pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend.”

In his book "The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life," the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers notes this paradoxical feature of human consciousness:

Our sensory systems are organized to give us a detailed and accurate view of reality…. But once this information arrives in our brains, it is often distorted and biased to our conscious minds. We deny the truth to ourselves. We project onto others traits that are in fact true of ourselves—and then attack them! We repress painful memories, create completely false ones, rationalize immoral behavior, act repeatedly to boost positive self-opinion, and show a suite of ego-defense mechanisms. Why?

Trivers’ global theory is that dishonesty is such an important adaptation that we have evolved to be untruthful. And since the most convincing liars don’t even know that they’re lying, natural selection has made us gullible too, especially when it comes to the lies we tell ourselves.

As fundamentally dishonest and as innately credulous as we humans may be, we put great stock in both our sense perceptions and our common sense, which tell us, for example, that the world is flat and the sun moves around it; that anything as complex as a living organism must have been deliberately engineered; that nothing can be in two places at the same time.

The fact that all of these seemingly empirical and self-evident propositions turn out to be untrue exacts a serious toll on a lot of us. We are Homo sapiens after all: we have a deep-seated need to know, to understand. What we don’t understand doesn’t just frustrate us intellectually — it can throw us into an existential quandary.

And life throws up all kinds of things that we don’t understand. This is especially the case when the subject is economics — a realm in which truisms about the relative efficiencies of “free” versus “government controlled” markets and the virtues of surpluses versus deficits hold sway. It is no accident that so many right wing conspiracy theories turn on global theories about banking—or the covert “socialism” of liberals. But mainstream thinkers can be as willfully obtuse as the wildest conspiracists, as Paul Krugman noted in a devastating New York Times op-ed entitled “Why Economics Failed” a few weeks ago. Even policy makers and politicians who know better, he wrote, “have ignored both the textbooks and the lessons of history. And the result has been a vast economic and human catastrophe, with trillions of dollars of productive potential squandered and millions of families placed in dire straits for no good reason.”

Which brings me to cognitive dissonance, the psychological phenomenon that plays as fundamental a role in our public affairs as the enlightened pursuit of happiness was once believed to do. Cognitive dissonance is the term of art for the psychic discomfort we feel when facts come into conflict with our beliefs. To make it more tolerable, we either change our beliefs or deny the facts.

The psychologist Leon Festinger explored the workings of cognitive dissonance in a number of experiments in the 1950s, mostly carried out in laboratories with student volunteers, but most famously in the course of a field study of a flying saucer cult whose leaders had prophesied that the world would end on December 21, 1954. Festinger’s book "When Prophecy Fails," which reads like a novel or the scenario for a bleakly comic movie, describes the various ways that the cultists responded when the prophecy was disconfirmed, shedding a powerful light on why it can be so futile, as he put it, to try “to change a strong conviction, especially if the convinced person has some investment in his belief.”

“Tell him you disagree and he turns away,” he wrote. “Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”

The word “rationalization” doesn’t quite do justice to the phenomenon because it implies that it occurs consciously, and that it involves the use of reason. When we act to reduce cognitive dissonance we do it instinctively and unconsciously.

I think people who care about politics need to acknowledge that a lot of our political ideas are influenced by processes to which the categories and analytical tools of political science, political philosophy and political journalism don’t really apply.

When racists deny that they are haters they are often quite sincere — they believe the hateful things they do not because they wish to give pain to others but because they want to avoid it themselves. Many of us comparatively enlightened souls — even readers of this magazine — do much the same thing ourselves.

We need to recognize that to a greater or lesser degree, we are all susceptible to distorted thinking, especially when we are trying to preserve an untenable view of ourselves, or of the people, causes and ideals we hold dear.

Here’s another passage from "Bloodlands," about Hitler’s "Generalplan Ost," his grand scheme to colonize Central and Eastern Europe after he crushed the USSR, relocating, enslaving or liquidating some 45 million souls.

In Hitler’s view, ‘in the East a similar process will repeat itself for a second time as in the conquest of America.’ As Hitler imagined the future, Germany would deal with the Slavs much as the North Americans had dealt with the Indians. The Volga River in Russia, he once proclaimed, will be Germany’s Mississippi.

Hitler’s take on American history can’t but generate cognitive dissonance. Most Americans prefer to see genocide as a regrettable consequence of America’s rise rather than its foundation, if they acknowledge it at all — much as Zionists violently reject the use of the term “apartheid” to describe Israel’s governance of the occupied territories and the racist policies it enforces within the Green Line. The slave owner Thomas Jefferson, who fathered a brood of slave children with his dead wife’s half sister, was not uniquely hypocritical when he wrote the words “all men are created equal.”

Conspiracy theories about Vatican assassins, FEMA camps, gun grabbers, fiat money, false flags and the like are infuriating to listen to and profoundly offensive if you belong to the religion, race, ethnicity, ideology, or family that is identified as a principle of evil, but the people who believe them are in some ways canaries in the mineshaft of the state. Their very existence tells us that all is not well with the world.

No, AIDS wasn’t created in a laboratory by the CIA to exterminate black people and Michael Jackson wasn’t falsely arrested for pederasty because white people couldn’t bear his success, but American blacks do get arrested and imprisoned at far higher rates than whites and suffer much worse health outcomes, and you’d have to be insane to deny that those inequities are systemic.

No, Queen Elizabeth isn’t a drug dealer, as Lyndon LaRouche has claimed, but the interests of the city of London’s international financiers are not always well-aligned with those of the citizens of Main Street.

The Bilderberg Group might not have a secret plan to rule the world — but the billionaires, corporate executives, and politicians who attend its meetings do wield undue power.

The Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy has been very much in the news over the past several weeks. Setting his racism aside, a lot of his rhetoric comes from the Sovereign Citizen Movement, which uses its eccentric understanding of the foundations of common law to delegitimize the federal government and its banking system. Sovereigns believe that if they dot every “i” and cross every “t,” then the promissory notes and bonds they create on their own behalf will erase their debts, and the presentments, indictments and warrants that they issue from their own courts will be efficacious in real courts. It’s a little like what happens in Harry Potter books, where the spells that wizards cast also work in the Muggle world.

Sovereigns don’t just talk about casting off their chains; they believe they are doing just that, and some of them are quite dangerous — the police know to proceed with caution when they pull over a car without license plates. Yet for all that, the majority of Sovereigns aren’t clinically insane. They are so profoundly disaffected that their alienation has become their creed.

True, they express their frustrations perversely and project them onto the wrong people, but that doesn’t change the fact that they feel utterly disenfranchised by their country and betrayed by its economic system. The fact that their ideas are ahistorical and ill-informed doesn’t negate their perception that unelected elites are running roughshod over them. Though they may pay lip service to free market capitalism, they recognize that the game as it is really played is rigged.

The sovereign citizen I listened to in a tiny meeting room over a grocery store in Queens a couple of weeks ago had some interesting ideas about the Rothschilds, and he was as eager to share the simple home remedies that could have rendered AIDs, diabetes and cancer a distant memory if the medical industry hadn’t suppressed them as he was to explain the law.

Sure, he made himself a broad target. But for all the ridiculousnesses that he peddles on a small scale and that the Glenn Becks, Alex Joneses and Fox Newses of the world have made into profitable industries, for all of their smallmindedness and nastiness, they should make the rest of us feel less comfortable in our complacencies, not more so.

When people with otherwise healthy brains are so determined to reject reason, it’s important that we find out what’s eating them and why. When so many people choose to believe the unbelievable it behooves us to take a closer look at the things that we unquestioningly believe ourselves.

Perhaps, like the fable of the elephant and the blind men, none of us are seeing what’s really there. Stranger things have certainly happened.


By Arthur Goldwag

Arthur Goldwag is the author, most recently, of "The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right"

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