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Published: Tue, 25 Oct 2016 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Tue, 25 Oct 2016 11:49:42 -0400


Trump's 'Rigged Election' Talk May Backfire

Fri, 21 Oct 2016 13:30:00 -0400

"We've been busing people in to deal with you fucking assholes for 50 years, and we're not going to stop now," the Wisconsin Democratic operative Scott Foval declares in Rigging the Election, a video released this week by the conservative undercover-media activist James O'Keefe. In the video, Foval drunkenly discusses how to pull off a voter impersonation fraud scheme by sending folks with fake IDs to vote in neighboring states. The indiscreet Foval has since lost his job. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump invited O'Keefe to attend the third major party presidential candidate debate in Las Vegas. During the debate, Trump refused to say whether or not he would concede if he lost the vote the November, insinuating that there is a conspiracy to rig the election against him. "The O'Keefe videos will add some evidence to Trump's claims about a rigged election," says Joe Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami. "They will give him some red meat to throw around." When asked how he thinks the public will respond to the O'Keefe videos, the Western Washington University political scientist Todd Donovan replied in an email, "My guess is that the viewers will respond to it through their partisan perspectives. It reinforces pre-existing Republican attitudes; Democrats will see the source and assume it's a hack job of editing." In a prepublication study, "The Effect of Conspiratorial Thinking and Motivated Reasoning on Belief in Election Fraud," Uscinski and his colleagues point out that significant proportions of both major parties believe that electoral fraud is common. "Republicans are especially prone to believing that people are casting ballots they should not, whereas Democrats are more concerned that they are not able to cast ballots," they write. As evidence they cite a national poll taken in July 2012 in which 54 percent of Democrats believed that voter suppression was a major problem compared to 27 percent of Republicans who thought so. On the other hand, 57 percent of Republicans believed that casting illegal ballots was a major problem compared to 38 percent of Democrats who did. "Electoral fraud is a form of conspiracy theory," Uscinski tells me. "And like any other conspiracy theory it is hard to disprove. Evidence that the plot didn't happen actually works in favor of the conspiracy theory: 'Look how hard they're working to cover it up.'" How common is electoral fraud? As Uscinski notes, since the would-be perpetrators do not want their schemes to be detected, voter fraud is by definition hard to measure. Nevertheless, most scholars have concluded that voter fraud, especially voter impersonation fraud of the sort that Foval appeared to be discussing, is rare in American elections. Uscinski thinks scholars probably undercount instances of voter fraud because the undetected successful instances don't get tallied. But he also thinks such frauds are vastly overestimated in the popular imagination. Keeping a national electoral fraud scheme hidden would be exceedingly hard to do, Uscinski points out: It would be a huge coordination problem involving lots of people in very uncertain circumstances with many opportunities for blunders. Donovan agrees. In an email, he writes: "Even if we take at face value the 'description' on the edited video of how to commit fraud, the execution wouldn't be possible. It would require thousands of voters per state (tens of thousands?) to affect these elections. Renting cars in dozens of tates to move voters to dozens of Republican controlled states, where they would have fake addresses to vote under, would require 20,000 people or 200,000 people or even more people with rental cars (or each in a car bought at an auction?) and just as many fake addresses. You would need to convince 200,000 people or more to commit a crime and assume not one would be caught." The video should be treated with due skepticism considering that Foval could be a lying braggart seeking to impress a novice politico with deeds of nefarious derring-do or the video is perhaps edited to advance[...]

Jesse Walker to Speak in Baltimore About Conspiracy Theories and the Election

Thu, 20 Oct 2016 10:15:00 -0400

(image) This Saturday afternoon I'll be giving a talk, at Baltimore's Kol Halev synagogue, called "Fear, Conspiracy, and Presidential Campaigns: Is This Election Different From All Others?" (Since the event is being hosted by a synagogue, we're going with a Passover-flavored title.) Here is Kol Halev's description of the discussion:

Come on Saturday, October 22 at 1:30 p.m. to KHL to hear Jesse Walker, author of the well-received book The United States of Paranoia.

You may believe you're living through a uniquely fraught presidential campaign. But Jesse Walker has done a fascinating job of describing American political paranoia from our inception as colonies to our post-9/11 world.

The talk will be a mix of current events and historical context, and the topics to be covered include Trump's conspiracy theories, the anti-Trumpsters' conspiracy theories, and the clown scare. (No, really. I swear it's relevant.) If you'd like to see this, come to 6200 North Charles Street at 1:30. Don't be confused by the sign outside that says "Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church"; the synagogue meets at a church. (I'm hoping some of the Presbyterians will stop in too.) Admission is free.

The Roger Stone Home Stretch of Election 2016

Wed, 19 Oct 2016 14:45:00 -0400

Though he is too "busy" to find it online for me, former Reasoner Michael C. Moynihan had a segment on Vice News last night in which he attended a JFK conspiracy conference and interviewed an attending Roger Stone, author of (among many other curiosities) The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ. Of course, Stone is no marginalized questions-asker in Election 2016: He has been among the closest advisers to Donald Trump throughout. (Read Anthony Fisher's mini-interview with sharp-dressed man at the Republican National Convention.) Which makes his frequently suggestive observations that much more newsworthy:

With Donald Trump's post-Billy Bush pivot to Full Metal Deplorable, it is, I contend, a Roger Stone finish to an already pretty Stonetastic Trump campaign. The second presidential debate was ripped right out of the pages of his most recent book, The Clintons' War on Women, and God only knows what fresh hell awaits us tonight.

That, more or less, is the topic of this week's rambling, conspiratorial edition of The Fifth Column, your very favorite weekly libertarian podcast. Mentioned along the way: Jesse Walker on voter fraud, James O'Keefe's latest revelations, Hit & Run commenters, Moynihan's terrible accent, the re-re-re-retaking of Mosul, my secret Al Gore 2000 conspiracy, PEN America's attempt to find a Third Way on campus free speech, Kmele Foster's ongoing 2020 presidential campaign, and so very much more. Take a listen:

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Here are the locations at which you can download, interact with, recommend to your friends about, and write reviews of, The Fifth Column: iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play,, @wethefifth, and Facebook.

The Fear of a Rigged Election Is Not New

Tue, 18 Oct 2016 12:45:00 -0400

It's getting harder to maintain any serious suspense about who will win the presidential election, so the focus has started shifting to the day after Election Day. Trump, trailing badly, has taken to preemptively declaring that if he loses, it will be because the game was rigged against him. A new Politico poll shows 41 percent of the voters, and 73 percent of Republicans, saying he may be right. So now the airwaves are full of fears about what could happen if Americans take those charges to heart. Here's CNN, for instance: "His accusations alone, experts say, could inflict long-standing damage on the US political system itself by eroding trust in the probity of the electoral process." The biggest problem with this argument is that we already live in a country where a lot of people don't trust the electoral process. George W. Bush was dogged throughout his presidency by accusations of stealing elections—not just after the messy ending of the 2000 campaign, but after 2004 too, when figures as influential as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and publications as prominent as Vanity Fair and Harper's questioned the count in Ohio. In 2008, John McCain himself warned in the third presidential debate that we might be headed toward "one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy." After Obama won that year, a Public Policy Polling survey showed 52 percent of GOP voters believing that ACORN had stolen the election for him. Four years later, the same firm found 49 percent of Republican voters saying the same thing. You can dispute those particular numbers (it's a good idea to take PPP's polls with several grains of salt), but it's hard to deny that the idea was taken seriously on the right. (Here's a headline from November 2012: "Obama Likely Won Re-Election Through Election Fraud.") Meanwhile, the whole point of the "birther" story was that Obama was constitutionally ineligible to be president even if he did get the most votes. My point isn't to suggest that all those stories are equivalent. They aren't. My point is that we've spent the entire 21st century in a country where a significant segment of whichever party is out of power thinks the president holds office illegitimately. The "probity of the electoral process" has been distrusted for years. Now, obviously it's unusual for the candidate himself to be leading the charge. You occasionally had moments like McCain's comment in 2008 or, more recently, Hillary Clinton's warning that Russia has "maybe" hacked into "some state election systems." But Trump is beating the drum hard in a way that really is unprecedented in recent U.S. history. This has led some pundits to fear that he will keep beating that drum after Election Day, with apocalyptic results. It's one thing for most of the GOP to think they've had the election stolen from them; it's another for the defeated nominee to be egging them on. What happens if we have a rerun of Trump's little meltdown after the Iowa caucuses, when the Donald demanded a do-over rather than accept that Ted Cruz had beaten him? It's an open question. But Trump's ultimate aim after Iowa wasn't really to relitigate the vote; it was to make excuses for a public failure. My impression is that that's what he's up to now: not laying the groundwork for a post-election fight, but finding a way to salve his legendarily fragile ego. Trump certainly isn't acting like a guy who's trying to build a serious argument about electoral irregularities. He's acting like a guy who lashes out at anything in his way, to the point where even a Saturday Night Live sketch is supposed to be evidence that dark forces are rigging the election for Hillary: Watched Saturday Night Live hit job on me.Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 16, 2016 Trump's fan base may find this compelling, but to everyone else he looks like Captain Qu[...]

Newsweek Plays Connect-the-Dots with Putin, Trump, WikiLeaks

Tue, 11 Oct 2016 09:30:00 -0400

Did you hear the one about Newsweek proving that Russia's conspiring with WikiLeaks? Anyone who doubts wikileaks is working w/ Putin: read how my words falsely became those of a Clinton confidante. — Kurt Eichenwald (@kurteichenwald) October 10, 2016 That's Newsweek's Kurt Eichenwald promising a blockbuster and failing to deliver. At the time he sent that tweet, the article he was promoting looked like this. Later the article was updated significantly, changing the focus somewhat; it now looks like this. At neither point did it demonstrate that WikiLeaks has been "working w/ Putin." What it shows is that some people misread an item in WikiLeaks' recent release of Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta's emails. In the message in question, Clinton crony Sidney Blumenthal (described by Eichenwald as "second only to George Soros at the center of conservative conspiracy theories") passed along one of Eichenwald's articles. The Russian news/propaganda outlet Sputnik then published a piece that mistook Eichenwald's words for Blumenthal's, declaring that Clinton's "top confidante" had said the Benghazi attack "was almost certainly preventable" and that criticizing Clinton for this failure "is legitimate." In the updated version of the article, Eichenwald highlights the fact that Donald Trump himself made the same mistake at a rally in Wilkes-Barre yesterday. If that were all there is to the article, I wouldn't blame Eichenwald for writing it. If people were mistaking me for Sidney Blumenthal, I'd be chortling about it too; if one of those people was the Republican presidential nominee, I'd be all over it. But I wouldn't claim that this proves WikiLeaks is an arm of Moscow—or, as Eichenwald puts it in the article, that it is "proof that this act of cyberwar is...being orchestrated by the Russians"—because that "proof" is obviously absent. Some Russians A reporter at a Russian-funded site misread an item in a WikiLeaks document dump. (*) That doesn't demonstrate that the Russians are behind WikiLeaks any more than it demonstrates that they're behind Newsweek. The updated version of the article argues breathlessly that Trump must have gotten the story from Sputnik: "This false story was only reported by the Russian controlled agency (a reference appeared in a Turkish publication, but it was nothing but a link to the Sputnik article). So how did Donald Trump end up advancing the same falsehood put out by Putin's mouthpiece?...Who in the Trump campaign was feeding him falsehoods straight from the Kremlin?" Well, it's certainly possible that someone on the Trump campaign found it in Sputnik. It's in English; it's online; it easily could've popped up in a Google News Alert. A campaign that cites stories from Infowars and the National Enquirer isn't likely to shy away from reading Sputnik too. But Eichenwald's claim that the tale "was only reported by the Russian controlled agency" is not in fact true. As BuzzFeed's Jon Passantino points out, the claim was already circulating in a viral tweet hours before Sputnik picked it up. I realize that "Donald Trump relied on a dicey source and said something inaccurate" is kind of a dog-bites-man story these days. Russian puppetmasters are much more exciting. But a reporter shouldn't claim to have proven something he hasn't. Especially if the result is an article that moves from dismissively invoking "conservative conspiracy theories" to claiming, based on the thinnest reeds, to have exposed a vast Kremlin-directed conspiracy. Postscript, 12:55 a.m.: Eichenwald has updated his article again, in a process that's starting to look like a textbook case of motivated reasoning. Here is one of the new passages: Since Newsweek first broke the story online, some journalists have speculated that the misrepresentation of the email may have merely been an error by an overworked Russian news agency. However, according to a government official with direct knowled[...]

Friday A/V Club: ABC, LSD, and the CIA

Fri, 23 Sep 2016 13:15:00 -0400

(image) Watergate and the other scandals of the '70s sparked a surge in skepticism toward the country's most powerful institutions. Here is an artifact from that era: a 1979 ABC News special called Mission: Mind Control. The hour-long documentary examines the CIA and Army's attempts to master brainwashing and other sorts of behavioral manipulation, included unethical experiments in which unwitting subjects were dosed with psychedelic drugs.

The show occasionally lapses into TV-news goofiness—at one point, as psychedelic imagery flashes on the screen, we're told that what we're watching is "considered by many experts to be the closest illustration of the effects of a hallucinogenic"—but at its core it's a hard-hitting piece of journalism. It was preserved, interestingly, by the National Archives and Records Administration, which did not bother to remove the commercials from the broadcast. So along with a harrowing exposé of official crimes, you get to see Will Rogers Jr. pitching Grape Nuts and a promo for a Geraldo Rivera report on a biker gang (featuring "dope, death, and the Bandidos"). Enjoy:

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(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

The Clown Panic Comes to College

Wed, 21 Sep 2016 10:20:00 -0400

The Great Clown Panic of '16 began in August, you'll recall, when children at an apartment complex in Greenville, South Carolina, claimed to have spotted some malevolent clowns in the woods, sparking city-wide chatter about clown conspiracies. Before long, the delirium was spreading across the Carolinas. In Winston-Salem, two kids claimed that a clown carrying candy had tried to lure them into the forest; not long after that, in nearby Greensboro, a man called 911 to report a clown, who he then supposedly chased into the woods with a machete. ("Officers responding to the call could not find the clown," the local News & Record reported.) The meme had marched into Georgia by mid-September, when two Troup County residents claimed to have seen some clowns trying to lure kids into a van, then confessed that they had made it up and were charged with making a false report. Last week a Georgia girl was arrested for bringing a knife to her middle school. She said she needed it to protect her from the clowns. By then the currents of coulrophobia had flooded into Alabama, where Facebook posts about the clown threat prompted schools across the state to go on lockdown, and where yet more hoaxsters were eventually arrested. Now the Alabama wave has hit the world of higher education. Charles W. Johnson, a Reason contributor, passes along a mass email that the Department of Public Safety and Security sent across the Auburn campus. Here's how it begins: On Monday evening the university and Auburn Police Division received a few reports of people dressed in clown costumes on campus. There were also several social media posts that suggested the same. We have seen similar reports of clown sightings at other universities and towns across the State of Alabama and the Southeast. Auburn Police officers were on patrol and immediately responded to the areas reported but were unable to locate anyone. Auburn Police will continue to patrol our campus and investigate any suspicious activity. We are not aware of any danger or threat to our campus community. We also had a report of students walking around looking for people dressed as clowns. For your safety, we strongly encourage you to leave this job to Auburn Police. Please use good judgment and avoid wearing clown masks, as it could be perceived as a hazard or threat to others. The bulletin goes on to offer information about emergency numbers, the Night Security Shuttle, and other safety services. Amid this cascade of hoaxes, pranks, and schoolyard rumors—and possibly, at some point, a sighting of an actual professional Bozo on his way to a birthday party—there have been exactly zero confirmed cases of harlequins plotting to kidnap or molest children. But you knew that already. Bonus video: This scare may be silly, but I sympathize with anyone who's afraid of clowns in general. When I was little, I'd run screaming from the TV set whenever this film aired on Sesame Street: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0">[...]

It Doesn't Matter Who Started Birtherism; What Matters Is Who Seized It

Tue, 20 Sep 2016 16:40:00 -0400

The most meta debate of the campaign season is the dispute about where birtherism was born. Last week Donald Trump claimed that Hillary Clinton "started the birther controversy." The Clinton camp quickly denied the charge. James Asher, Washington bureau chief at McClatchy back in '08, then said that Clinton advisor Sid Blumenthal had shopped the story to him and that he had then subsequently sent a reporter to Kenya to look into it. Blumenthal issued his own denial. Yesterday the McClatchy reporter who went to Africa confirmed that he'd had the assignment but couldn't confirm whether Blumenthal had anything to do with it. So the facts are now hazy enough that people can believe pretty much whatever they're already inclined to believe, which is just as well since that's the natural state of the partisan mind in the last two months of a campaign anyway. For most of those partisans, the key question here isn't What is true? but Who will win this week's gotcha cycle? Since I don't much care about that, I will get this part of the post out of the way quickly: 1. Whether or not the Clinton campaign played a role in spreading the birther tale, Trump's claim that they "started" the rumor is almost certainly false. The story did get its first big wave of attention when it took hold among some of Hillary's hard-core supporters. But it also circulated early in some of the right's online hangouts. It is unclear where precisely the game of telephone began, though Loren Collins has made a pretty good case that it started with someone misconstruing a hypothetical question in a comment thread at The Volokh Conspiracy, an origin story that appeals to my sense of the absurd. In any event, the Trump campaign tried to back up its assertion about the yarn's origins by pointing to (a) a March 2007 memo from Clinton campaign advisor Mark Penn, which did not in fact bring up birtherism, and (b) a conversation on Morning Joe, which didn't cite any sources. So if your chief interest here is adding yet another item to the list of facts that Trump and his people have gotten wrong, then congratulations: Your collection is now larger. 2. That said, the real point of dispute here isn't who started birtherism; it's who seized it. Trump definitely did. Clinton's campaign may have done so too, depending on how much stock you put in Asher's story (and in older, less-well-sourced rumors). I'm inclined to believe Asher, because Blumenthal has been spreading smeary stories on the Clintons' behalf since the '90s and because he's had a weakness for conspiracy theories since the '70s, if not earlier. But that's just an educated guess. Trump's hands are definitely dirty; with Clinton it's an open question. Or at least it's an open question if it's birtherism itself that you're asking about. But is that really the underlying issue here? Just as the birther rumor served as a stand-in for a bunch of anxieties about alien influence, the debate about that rumor is ultimately about the ways political figures cynically manipulate those anxieties. Human civilization sits atop a vast, roiling reservoir of fear. Politicians of all stripes tap into that resource, and Trump and Clinton both went drilling in the same spot. Look back at that Mark Penn memo. Like I said, it doesn't mention birtherism. What it does do is lay out a plan to exploit the exact anxieties that fed the birther story. Highlighting Obama's "lack of American roots," Penn encouraged Clinton to "give some life to this contrast without turning negative." How? Every speech should contain the line you were born in the middle of America to the middle class in the middle of the last century. And talk about the basic bargain as about the deeply American values you grew up with, learned as a child and that drive you today. Values of fairness, compassion, responsibility, giving back. Let's explicitly own "American" in our pr[...]

The Problem With Obamacare Isn’t That It Was Designed to Fail—It’s That It Was Designed to Pass

Tue, 20 Sep 2016 15:52:00 -0400

Was Obamacare purposely designed to fail in order to pave the way for an even greater government takeover of the health care system? This is an idea I have heard in various forms for years, and it's getting some attention again thanks to an op-ed in The Hill which charges that Obamacare was merely a setup for a far more intrusive policy reform. The piece, by California based doctor Jeffrey Barke, is framed as a response to patients who wonder why the health law's architects didn't see its current problems coming. In response, he wonders: "What if they did? What if ObamaCare was purposely designed to fail?" This is not really a question so much as a way of floating a theory for which he does not have much evidence. He argues that when Obamacare was passed back in 2010, "President Obama and Democrats in Congress wanted to fundamentally revolutionize health care," but that public opposition prevented them from passing a more sweeping bill. Yet "liberals never backed down from the radical healthcare dreams that were dashed by the American people in 2010," he writes. "They simply needed to bide their time and lay the groundwork. That's why they rushed to pass ObamaCare with so little debate, and without a single Republican vote. Its authors purposely designed the law so that it would fail. And when it did, they could return to the American people with the promise that even greater government intervention in healthcare could end the ObamaCare nightmare." This is both an odd reading of the history and a thoroughly unconvincing theory of political change. One the one hand he argues that the law's scope was limited due to public opposition; on the other hand he argues that it was rushed through with little debate. If Democrats could rush through anything they wanted without opposition or debate, why not pass the more sweeping bill he claims they preferred? Especially if the plan was to wait until the law failed and then mount yet another risky political campaign in which they would finally pass the law they wanted to see—but this time without the certainty of control of the White House and majorities and Congress, and with the original law's failure as potentially damaging political context? His idea, basically, is that in 2009 and 2010, Democrats covertly worked together to use their unusual dominance of American government to make the public upset with them by passing a failed law in hopes that the public would give Democrats another chance to pass something even more sweeping later. It is a Rube Goldberg theory of political action that relies on an implausible level of secret coordination in service of a foolish plan of action. The reality is that Obamacare was debated extensively for the better part of a year. Indeed, it is hard to remember another piece of domestic policy legislation that inspired so much debate and discussion. And while critics successfully predicted many of the law's failures (as well, to be sure, as some problems that did not come to fruition), Democrats believed that those problems would either not occur or would not be significant enough to cause the law to fail. Democrats—especially those in leadership—did not believe the law would fail; on the contrary, they believed when the law passed that it would be successful and politically popular. That belief turned out to be incorrect, but all evidence suggests that the belief was sincere at the time. These sorts of unlikely conspiracy theories make for attractive explanations, because they allow one to identify scheming villains with nefarious master plans. In reality, politics, which must account for the converging and diverging interests of many people and parties with very different interests, is far more complex. Indeed, the complexity that results from the interaction of those interests is often the source of policy problems. Barke [...]

Trump’s Latest Birther Press Conference Shows That He’s a Crony Capitalist Nightmare

Fri, 16 Sep 2016 12:39:00 -0400

In March, after winning primary elections in Michigan and Mississippi, Donald Trump delivered a victory speech that was broadcast live on cable news. Trump's victory speech, however, was far from a traditional political victory address. Instead, it was more of an infomercial for Trump-branded products, including Trump-stamped wine, bottled water, golf courses, and steaks. Trump was using his political campaign as an advertising platform for his personal business ventures. In the months since that event, reports have looked into Trump's other business dealings, including possible (but unconfirmed) ties to Russia, as well as the surprising amount of campaign money being spent on Trump-branded enterprises, raising even more questions about whether Trump, if elected president, would be able to separate his political operation from his personal financial interests. Trump's latest event should put to rest any such questions. After announcing that he would hold a press conference this morning in which he would make a major announcement regarding his position about whether or not President Obama was born in the United States. Trump has long been among the most prominent individuals stoking "birther" conspiracy theories by questioning Obama's origins and eligibility for the presidency, including a 2011 stunt in which he made a show of sending investigators to Hawaii to look for the president's birth certificate. "You are not allowed to be a president if you're not born in this country. Right now, I have real doubts," Trump said at the time. Trump's press conference this morning was not a press conference at all. Instead, it was another extended infomercial for his newly opened hotel in Washington, D.C., where the event was held. Trump previewed his remarks by tweeting that he would be "going to the brand new Trump International, Hotel D.C." and opened by touting its grandiosity. "I really believe, I said this would be the best hotel in Washington," he said, before musing that it might even be the greatest hotel in the entire world. After his initial remarks about the greatness of the hotel, however, Trump barely spoke at the event. Instead, he turned over the floor to a group of decorated veterans who touted Trump's presidency. All of this, of course, was broadcast live on cable networks. Trump used the birther controversy to earn himself a half an hour of free advertising for his hotel and his campaign. Only at the very end did he deliver on his promise of an announcement about his position on Obama's place of birth. During the 2008 campaign, he said, Hillary Clinton "started the birther controversy. I finished it." He now says he believes that "President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period." Trump's claim that Clinton started birtherism is a telling and easily refutable lie. Some of Clinton's supporters during the 2008 primary campaign did indulge in birther conspiracies, but not the campaign itself. Trump, in contrast, spent years loudly questioning Obama's origins and eligibility for the presidency even after the matter was definitively settled. His campaign released a statement last night setting up today's remarks, saying that "in 2011, Mr. Trump was finally about to bring this ugly incident to its conclusion by successfully compelling President Obama to release his birth certificate." Obama released his long-form birth certificate in 2011, but his certificate of live birth had been released in 2008. In any case, it's a brazen rewriting of history for Trump's campaign to claim that the issue was settled for Trump after 2011. He continued—repeatedly—to tweet conspiratorial skepticism about Obama's birthplace as late as 2014, and told CNN in July of this year that he would love to continue talking about the issue, but that he doesn't because it would be a distractio[...]

Don't Blame the Internet for Conspiracy Rumors

Tue, 13 Sep 2016 12:30:00 -0400

I have mixed feelings about Zeynep Tufekci's op-ed about conspiracy theories in today's New York Times. On the plus side, she recognizes that such stories aren't simply an irrational invasion from the fever swamps—that when elites are secretive and dishonest, suspicious speculations follow. But her arguments about the internet are much weaker. "I'm originally from Turkey, so I'm used to my Western friends snickering at the prevalence of conspiracy theories in the Middle East," Tufekci writes. "It is frustrating, but the reason for these theories is not a mystery. Elites do practice excessive secrecy. Foreign powers have meddled in the region for decades. Institutions that are supposed to be trusted intermediaries, separating facts from fiction while also challenging the powerful, are few and weak." And the Middle East, obviously, isn't the only place where some or all of that is true: People think that their governments are working against them, or at least not for them, and in some cases this is true. Ruling elites around the world are circling their wagons, and fueling more suspicion and mistrust. Reversing that would be the best defense against baseless paranoia... Since Tufekci's piece is pegged to recent rumors about Hillary Clinton's health, it's worth noting a big reason those long-simmering stories just boomed: Last weekend, Clinton really did try to conceal a health problem. Hide one secret, and people find it easier to believe you're hiding more. It isn't the most significant case of secrecy sparking speculation, but it's a pretty clear-cut example. So that's where Tufekci is right. What I have trouble buying is her argument that "new technologies" are making conspiracy theories more popular: The new, internet-driven financing model for news outlets is great for spreading conspiracy theories. Each story lives or dies by how much attention it attracts. This rewards the outrageous, which can get clicks more easily. However, conspiracy theories can live only to the degree they can find communities to flourish in. That's where social media comes in. Finding a community online has been great for many people—the dissident in Egypt, the gay teenager in a conservative town—but the internet is not Thor's hammer, which only the purest of heart can pick up. Connecting online also works for an anti-vaccination parent or a Sept. 11 truther. Conspiracists can organize online and can push their version of the world into the mainstream. First of all: The profits-through-outrageousness business model did not begin with the internet. It emerges any time you've got a lot of commercial news outlets competing with each other, a fact you can confirm by looking back at the days when every big city had more than two dailies duking it out for readers. Or, hell, by looking at a city where you still have more than two dailies duking it out for readers. Remember this headline from 2002? There was a legitimate story there about Bush being briefed on the threat of domestic Al Qaeda attacks—and there were two giant words that implied he knew those particular attacks were on the way. While I'm sure the Post got a lot of clicks that day, that cover was conceived with newsstand sales in mind. In any event, conspiracy theories have always found "communities to flourish in," circulating in alternative media or via stories transmitted orally. The internet has made many of those communities more visible—now you can watch a rumor spread among people you've never met!—but more visible does not necessarily mean more widely believed. More people may be seeing those stories, but more people are seeing debunkings now too; it is easier than ever to check whether the yarn you just heard is an urban legend. (How I wish that Snopes existed when I was growing up.) It is far fr[...]

The Universal Basic Income: Innovative Social Welfare Reform or Satanic Plot?

Mon, 12 Sep 2016 12:15:00 -0400

(image) The more sour critics of the basic-income movement have occasionally called it a cult, but I didn't think any of them meant that literally. Until now.

Basic-income proposals come in several forms, but the key idea is to center social welfare policy around giving people cash, without attaching conditions that restrict how the money can be spent. GiveDirectly, a U.S.-based charity, has spent several years distributing funds in different East African communities in this anti-bureaucratic manner; one of their aims is to measure the idea's effectiveness. (So far, the results have been positive.) Last month they extended their operations to Homa Bay, a county in Kenya.

There they hit a snag. Elsewhere in Africa, only 5 or 6 percent of the people asked to participate in the program have said no. In Homa Bay County, nearly half turned them down. "As it turns out," Will Le recounts on GiveDirectly's blog, "these challenges have been common for NGOs working in the area. Other development programs focused on HIV, water and sanitation, agricultural development, education, and female empowerment have also faced community resistance."

In Homa Bay County, apparently, the locals are more likely to suspect ulterior motives when someone shows up and says he'll give them something for free. "Potential recipients find it hard to believe that a new organization like GiveDirectly would give roughly a year's salary in cash, unconditionally," Le writes. "As a result, many people have created their own narratives to explain the cash, including rumors that the money is associated with cults or devil worship."

I know virtually nothing about Homa Bay County's culture and history, so I won't speculate about why the people there are more suspicious than in the other communities GiveDirectly has helped. But I can say pretty confidently that it isn't the only place where outsiders bearing gifts won't be trusted, and that any experiments in such transfers' effects will eventually have to take those cultural differences into account. Business Insider reports that GiveDirectly is now thinking about "comparing results across villages where acceptance rates have differed." That's certainly sensible, but a bit of digging into why those rates are different would be wise as well.

(Clarification: While GiveDirectly has plans to launch a full-fledged basic income pilot program, in which members of an entire community receive a long-term income that is enough to live on, the program sparking rumors in Homa Bay County is a more modest set of conditionless cash transfers aimed at the neediest families in the area. I tend to use the phrase basic income loosely—maybe too loosely—as a catchall term that covers a range of related policy ideas; I don't want to conflate these two projects in the process.)

Bonus video: ReasonTV interviewed GiveDirectly co-founder Paul Niehaus last year:

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Anarchy, Swamp, and Utopia

Thu, 08 Sep 2016 15:20:00 -0400

In Seeing Like a State and The Art of Not Being Governed, the anthropologist and political scientist James C. Scott explores the idea of nonstate spaces. In such regions, he writes in Art, "owing largely to geographical obstacles, the state has particular difficulty in establishing and maintaining its authority." Those obstacles can take many shapes—Scott mentions "swamps, marshes, mangrove coasts, deserts, volcanic margins, and even the open sea"—but the result is the same: They become havens "for peoples resisting or fleeing the state." It sounds exotic, and the territory that Art ends up discussing in detail—a vast Asian area known as Zomia—is far from America. But such spaces have appeared here in the United States too. The Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina and Virgina is, as its name suggests, an unforgiving landscape. But it was also a refuge for slaves and for others fleeing authority. Stories have long circulated about maroon colonies in the swamp, but for obvious reasons it's hard to assemble a history of a people who avoided outsiders and didn't leave a written record. There are scattered references in various historical sources, and the swamp people occasionally turn up in works of literature, such as Dred, Harriet Beecher Stowe's follow-up to Uncle Tom's Cabin. The eccentric historian Hugo Prosper Leaming wrote a dissertation on the subject in the '70s, but Leaming was given to speculative fancies—some of his other work has been soundly debunked—and he shouldn't be taken as the last word on anything, fun though he is to read. The swamp eventually turned up in anarchist texts too, such as James Koehnline's prose-poem "The Legend of the Great Dismal Maroons." But Koehnline didn't pretend to be doing anything akin to conventional scholarship. He was sketching out an imaginative secret-history tale of Masonic conspiracies and counter-conspiracies, of utopian autonomous enclaves and a long war for freedom. Here's an excerpt: By 1708 political forces in England had determined that the time had arrived to develop North Carolina as a commercial plantation slavery colony. This necessitated a full-scale war against the old settlers, which was followed by a full-scale war with their allies, the Tuscarora nation. The British declared victory and established their colony. The Maroons never admitted defeat. They retreated to the depths of the Great Dismal Swamp and from their sanctuary waged a 160-year guerrilla war against slavery. In the end, they won. They fought alongside the British under Lord Dunmore in the revolution, because Dunmore promised an end to slavery and gave them uniforms with a special sash that read "Freedom For Slaves". They fought as "Buffalo Soldiers" on the side of the Union in the Civil War, holding all the surrounding territory without army support. In between, they sent out continuous raiding parties to free slaves and discourage slavers. They established an extensive communication system throughout the upper south through a network of plantation preachers and conjuremen and women. The swamp had been considered a holy place by the Indians since time immemorial. It was now doubly so for the slaves and Maroons. It's a great story, but it's more like a William Burroughs or Robert Anton Wilson novel than a social history of the swamp. If you want to look past that romantic vision to see how those liberated slaves actually lived in that harsh marshy world, it won't get you far. But gradually we're learning more. The September issue of Smithsonian reports that archeologists have been exploring the swamp and doing what they can to reconstruct the lives of the people who lived there: In early 2004, one of the refuge biologists strapped on his waders and brought [the A[...]

Hacking the Vote

Fri, 02 Sep 2016 13:30:00 -0400

Lots of voters, especially Republicans, are worried about voter fraud. GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump stoked those fears when he warned supporters, "I'm afraid the election's going to be rigged. I have to be honest." These fears and not-so-subtle efforts to skew voter registration in partisan directions have prompted strict voter ID requirements in several states with the purported aim of preventing the almost non-existent crime of voter impersonation fraud. But a recent Federal Bureau of Investigation "flash alert" suggests that the real threat of voter fraud might come from abroad. Earlier this week, reports surfaced that the FBI has warned election officials in Illinois and Arizona that their voter databases had been penetrated by intruders linked to IP addresses associated with Russian hackers. The hackers managed to download personal data on 200,000 Illinois voters and posted online the username and password of a user with access to the Arizona voter registration database. This cyber-intrusion followed on the now notorious hacks of the Democratic National Committee's dossier on Trump and later its email system. The release of those emails by WikiLeaks showed that DNC officials favored Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders and led to Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz's resignation as Democratic Party chair. The reports of voter registration database hacking provoked Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to send a letter to FBI Director James Comey that claimed "Russia's intent to influence the outcome of our presidential election has been well-documented by numerous news organizations." Reid also suggested that the Russian government might try to target American voting systems to throw the election to Trump. "The prospect of a hostile government actively seeking to undermine our free and fair elections," he wrote, "represents one of the gravest threats to our democracy since the Cold War." There is, of course, more than one way to interfere in an election. It isn't paranoid to worry about a Russian disinformation campaign aimed at confusing Americans. A fascinating and disquieting Rand Corporation review, titled "The Russian 'Firehose of Falsehood' Propaganda Model," finds that "the Russian propaganda model is high-volume and multichannel, and it disseminates messages without regard for the truth. It is also rapid, continuous, and repetitive, and it lacks commitment to consistency." Recent Russian disinformation ranges from hacking an official Ukrainian website to claim a far-right candidate had won that country's 2014 presidential election to a social-media hijack trying to panic Louisiana residents with reports of a chemical plant explosion. But is it actually possible for Russian agents to stuff American ballot boxes? Probably not. America's decentralized electoral system is a significant bulwark against hacking the vote. There are some 8,000 jurisdictions in the U.S., and they use a mix of disparate electronic and paper balloting systems. Hackers trying to influence a national election would have to attack a whole bunch of individual machines, each with different software. On top of that, 75 percent of Americans will vote this year using paper ballots. (Of course, erasing voter registration rolls in key states just before the election would be disruptive, to say the least.) For years, many researchers have been warning that our electronic voting machines are vulnerable. Only last year were the "worst voting machines" in America decertified by the board of elections in my home state of Virginia. (The machines left no paper trail and were so insecure that they could be hacked from the parking lot of the polling place.) Still, there is no evidence that[...]

Friday A/V Club: A Vintage Anti-Hippie Film Strip

Fri, 02 Sep 2016 11:30:00 -0400

(image) "Has man's dream of his children's future ended in a nightmare?" So asks Ken Granger in The Hippies, a lurid film strip from 1967. Granger was a member of the John Birch Society, and he blames the rise of the counterculture on the forces you'd probably expect a '60s conservative to invoke: progressive education, permissive parenting, World Communism. What makes his film interesting on more than a camp level is that he also blames big business, condemning consumerism and conformity in terms a hippie could love.

In the wake of World War II, the film strip declares, Madison Avenue started turning to psychologists for help selling products. The resulting research developed "techniques that could be used to create new desires in people, to change the philosophies of security and saving to the philosophy of spending." Young people in particular were easily manipulated, as a series of music- and fashion-focused youth cultures proved: "The technique of combining music with mass merchandising brought near total control of the purchasing habits of a whole generation."

All it then took (Granger continues) was for Communists to start using the same techniques to sell ideas instead of music. Presto: sex, drugs, and New Left subversion!

Marketers do not, in fact, have such perfect powers of persuasion, and the hippies were not a mesmerized mass of—in Granger's words—"zombie-like vegetables." But it's certainly true that the '60s "counter" culture owed a lot to the mass culture its members were allegedly rejecting. In his kooky way, Granger was noting a truth that many hippie hagiographers prefer to ignore. It's just that he filtered that truth through a paranoid worldview that owed almost as much to John Kenneth Galbraith as it did to Robert Welch.

Needless to say, you can enjoy this on a camp level too. Granger's frightened imagination leads him to all sorts of strange places (inevitably, there are wild sex parties), and he makes several basic errors: mispronouncing everything from "Phil Ochs" to "scabies" and scrambling the names of songs and of at least one organization. There's a pretty good soundtrack too, courtesy of a garage rock band called the Undecided. The credits call it "original music," which makes me wonder if the band's members knew—or cared—that they were recording something for an anti-rock film:

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For a newspaper dispatch from Granger's lecture tour with the film strip, go here. For another paranoid fever dream from the era, go here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.