Archive for July, 2015



In 2008 I taught my last class, which I called “The Rhetoric of Conspiracy.” I guess my department was so happy to get rid of me that none of my colleagues lodged a complaint about this offering. The course readily filled with very smart students, and they and I had great fun trying to figure out why conspiracy theories are so fascinating. Students’ projects dealt with the anti-vax movement and the fluoride scare of the 1950s, among other things. One student even tried to figure out if the Dracula story had/has any connection to conspiracist thinking. I gave a demonstration presentation on–what else–9/ll.

We read most of the extant scholarship together and were disappointed to discover that its authors generally followed the influential example of Richard Hofstadter, whose 1964 essay attached the label “paranoid” to conspiracy thinking. IOW, this school of criticism claims that people who forward alternative explanations of historical events are, if not crazy, certainly misguided. (See Cass Sunstein’s Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas [2014)] or Michael Barkun’s A Culture of Conspiracy:  Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America [2013] for typical examples of this pooh-pooh approach).

Scholarly thought about conspiracy seems to have taken a turn of late, however.  I’m currently reading two very interesting studies whose authors situate conspiracy thinking squarely within American history. In The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory (2013), Jesse Walker writes:

“Pundits tend to write off political paranoia as a feature of the fringe, a disorder that occasionally flares up until the sober center can put out the flames. They’re wrong. . . . Conspiracy theories played major roles in conflicts from the Indian Wars during the seventeenth century, to the labor battles of the Gilded Age, from the Civil War to the Cold War, from the American Revolution to the War on Terror. . . . They have been popular not just with dissenters and nonconformists but with individuals and institutions at the center of power. They are not simply a colorful historical byway. They are at the country’s core” (8-9).

That is to say, elites put forward conspiracy theories as regularly as less powerful folks do. However, because of the power differential, the press and scholars treat elite versions of history as truthful accounts. On Walker’s model, though, Dick Cheney’s version of what happened on 9/ll is a conspiracy theory, as is the Warren Commission’s report on the Kennedy assassination. IOW, Walker’s approach levels the playing field such that accounts forwarded by 9/11 truthers and the folks over at CTKA can no longer be dismissed as wacko simply because they dissent from elite versions of those histories. And, given that their analyses are ordinarily more solidly fact-based and carefully researched than are those put forward by elites, they are more compelling, to my mind.

The bulk of Walker’s book is devoted to demonstrating how thoroughgoing is the history of American conspiracy theory. For example, he reviews a plot to murder Andrew Jackson that was widely claimed to have been carried out by a “lone nut.” History shows, however, that the would-be assassin may have colluded with a Senator from Mississippi who hated Jackson’s policies. Sound familiar?

The second new work is called, simply, Conspiracy Theory in America (2013). Here, the author–Lance deHaven-Smith– introduces a new term or tool with which to think about conspiracies: SCAD, which stands for “State Crime Against Democracy” and which is defined as “an attack from within on the political system’s organizing principles” (9). The usefulness of this term is readily apparent: to think about the Kennedy assassination as a SCAD, for example, allows critics to turn their attention away from a purported “lone gunman” and toward those who might have profited from JFK’s death. This approach thus legitimates the consensus that has pretty much emerged from critics of the Warren report, that Kennedy was murdered by the CIA, perhaps in collusion with members of the emerging national security state. The same holds for treating 9/11 as a SCAD:  when one compares Bin Laden’s gains from that event to those that accrued to the Bush administration, the narrative of events that occurred on that awful day begin to look quite different from those maintained in the “official” version.



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The Truth Is Out


Citing a recent poll by CNN, the WaPo tells us that, in general, Americans favor some policy that will legitimate illegal immigrants. However, well over half of Rethugs favor deportation for people who are currently in the country illegally. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2015/07/27/morning-plum-big-majority-of-gop-voters-favors-mass-deportation-poll-finds/.) The Post notes further that Rethug opposition to illegal immigrants is even higher among olds and evangelicals. (Well now there’s a mighty Christian sentiment for ya).

So let’s say these folks manage to elect Walker or some other dingbat conservative to be president, and get him to deport all the brown people. Who’s next? Well, black people, obvs, since they seem disinclined to return to slavery.  Then the gays, because gay secks doesn’t produce offspring. Can’t deport women, sadly, because we need progeny to carry on our good white name. (Except for the feminists, of course–they have to to go). It’ll be hard to gin up a claim that Native Americans don’t belong, but we’ll think of something . . .

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Well, Democrats have actual economic policies or proposals.

Bernie Sanders has proposed a fifteen-dollar minimum wage, and has written/introduced legislation that can enact it (http://thehill.com/regulation/legislation/248517-bernie-sanders-to-push-15-minimum-wage-bill).

Yesterday Hilary Clinton proposed a graduated raise in the capital gains tax, which can garner billions of currently unpaid tax dollars from wealthy citizens (http://www.vox.com/2015/7/20/9005911/hillary-clintons-capital-gains-quarterly-capitalism). (There are plenty of business sites that report her proposal–ie WSJ and Forbes–but most are biased against it.  [Imagine that!]  So I cite instead the very clear explanation at Vox).

What economic proposals have we heard from the Rethugs?  Well, earlier this week Jeb! commented sort of off-hand that he would do away with Medicare. He gave no details, perhaps because his audience went bonkers when he said that.  Since the remark was not altogether clear, the Washington Post helpfully parses for us: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/07/24/wonkbook-jeb-bush-wants-to-phase-out-medicare-heres-what-he-meant/. The upshot of their analysis: either Jeb! was referring to a tweak that will have no financial impact on the future of medicare, or he was alluding to Paul Ryan’s voucher plan, which would kill Medicare.

It would be nice to know which of these Jeb! espouses.

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Rota Fortuna


This lovely image represents the goddess Fortune and her famous wheel. According to mythology, those who ride upon Fortuna’s wheel will garner her gifts but also, inevitably, will be ground underneath it as well.

I hadn’t thought about Fortune’s wheel since graduate school, where I ran across it in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. But the wheel came to mind yesterday as I watched Rethug shills disowning Donald Trump’s latest antics (dissing McCain, outing Graham’s phone number). They professed not to understand how 25% of their base can support him.

Bullshit. Rethugs created Trump’s audience. They’ve been cultivating angry white people for at least a decade, and they are now, like it or not, the party of Clive Bundy. Booman is right on:

“The [Rethug] party . . . doesn’t stand for much anymore beyond being a party of opposition and obstruction that is filled with incredibly angry people who are furious about immigration and despise establishment politicians like John McCain just as much as they loathe elite educational institutions like Harvard. These aren’t rah-rah patriotic Americans because they increasingly fear and hate this country. Science is their enemy, too, which makes them mistrust academics and experts all the more. What they want is vengeance, and the candidate who seems most likely to deliver it is the one they will support.” (http://www.boomantribune.com/)

Colin Powell alluded to the policy of the Pottery Barn when he warned Dick Cheney and W about the inherent danger of invading Iraq:  you break it, you own it. The same holds for the Rethugs:  you created the savages who vote in your primaries, so you own them.

The supposedly clueless snivelers who are now so shocked, shocked! by Trump’s tactics were silent when John Kerry’s war record was attacked and his character smeared. Nary a peep when Trump was pushing his birther schtick against Obama. And if they are so concerned about gentility, where were these defenders of civility when Mitch McConnell used Hilary Clinton’s gender against her earlier this week?

Waylon Jenning’s version of Fortuna’s wheel is “what goes around, comes around.”  Or, to ring some slight changes on the notion–you get what you pay for. And payback is a mother.

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Scyfy‘s Sunday lineup is richly speciated, if nothing else. Today’s movies are:  “Dinoshark,” “Sharktopus,” “Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda,” “Sharktopus v. Whalewolf,” and “Piranhaconda.”

No doubt this trend represents the postmodern taste for pastiche.

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The Deal

This morning I watched Secretary of State John Kerry carefully explain the details of the Iran deal during an appearance on “Morning Joe.” He answered every question put to him directly and in detail. He made very clear that Iran’s desire to possess nuclear arms will be thwarted for a long time (twenty years at least), and after that period sanctions can be imposed once again, if necessary.

Twenty years is a long time in geopolitical terms. One can hope that once that time has elapsed, the powers that be in Iran will be secular rather than religious. Non-religious rulers are less likely to make decisions that endanger lives, given that they do not believe in an afterlife where 72 willing virgins are at hand to succor martyrs.

After Kerry disappeared from view, one of the usual suspects gathered around the table opined that this deal is likely to make allies of Iran and Russia. Then she asked:  “Was it worth it?”

Wha? This deal prevents Iran from developing nuclear capability until 2035. That is something to be celebrated, no matter what other arrangements it might entail or engender. Russia and Iran are no doubt presently in cahoots in some regards, and during the next twenty years Russia will ally with whatever state can further their purposes (which may not be Iran, given the terms of this deal, to which Russia was a party, after all). And where is it written that Russia’s purposes will always differ from those of the United States and Europe? For one thing, the looming global crisis brought on by climate change will surely cause major realignments among international relationships.

IOW, her question was a kneejerk, designed to evoke the specter of a cold-war enemy. Iran and Russia! The Enemy! Be afraid! Be very afraid! Her remark wasn’t journalism–it was politics by commonplace.

It’s downright embarrassing that such an inept response can be made to an important discussion without comment or rejoinder. Sometimes I wonder how people like Kerry and the nuclear physicists who worked so hard on this deal are able to keep their cool in the face of an ignorant press that is more interested in arousing emotions than in clarifying details.

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Nailed It!

Scott Lemieux accurately divines the Rethug argument against the Iran deal:

“But why didn’t Obama take the deal where Iran would dismantle every aspect of its nuclear program and have the current regime step down in favor of a leadership hand-selected by Dick Cheney and Benjamin Netanyahu in exchange for nothing? It would have happened with only a little more strength, resolution, and strong, resolute leadership.”  (http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/)

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