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All Reason.com articles with the "Conspiracy" tag.



Published: Fri, 30 Sep 2016 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Fri, 30 Sep 2016 15:30:23 -0400

 



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:

src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/DMH5WgGFxlc" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0">

(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

(image) 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="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Vs5VYOnpMrw" 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 programs, the speeches and the values. He doesn't. Make this a new American Century, the American Strategic Energy Fund. Let's use our logo[...]



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 is right that Democrats did not all get exactly the law they hoped for in Obamacare; the bill was designed as a series of concessions and[...]



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 distraction. Trump himself, not Clinton, was—and remains—the vector for birther bluster. Trump, in other words, has merely traded one birther [...]



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 from clear that the theories are garnering more believers than the critiques, and it certainly can't simply be asserted as fact that they a[...]



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 American University archeologist and anthropologist Dan] Sayers to the place we're going, a 20-acre island occasionally visited by hunter[...]



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 those machines were in fact tampered with during any election. And even if they were, that in itself is unlikely to be enough to swing [...]



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.




Trust in Authority Is Declining—Thank Goodness

Wed, 31 Aug 2016 16:45:00 -0400

Faith in authority has been declining for decades, and not just in the United States. The political scientist Ronald Inglehart, drawing on survey data from dozens of countries, has identified a "downward trend in trust in government" across the industrialized world. Nor is the state the only institution losing support: Inglehart found a broad, cross-cultural movement toward challenging "all kinds of authority, whether religious or secular" and toward exalting "individual autonomy in the pursuit of individual subjective well-being." This, he suggested, was a frequent, foreseeable development when a society modernizes. Having eroded traditional authority, modernity goes on to erode the dominant institutions of modernity itself. This is not a linear, predictable process, and it inevitably has bizarre side effects. When large numbers of people are freed from old certainties, dozens if not hundreds of cults and other substitute certainties will emerge (and, in most cases, quickly dissolve). As G.K. Chesterton is supposed to have said (but didn't), "The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything." The careful skeptic will question not just authority but all the alternatives that hope to feed on that authority's carrion. This is not in itself a good argument against the trend that Inglehart chronicled. The decay of authority has produced enormous social gains, even if it has also opened a space for ideas that are silly at best and lethal at worst. For example: While the revolt against medical authority has made more room for quack remedies and anti-vaccine cranks, it has also given us benefits ranging from the women's health movement to new standards of informed consent. We'd be better off if the revolt went even further, moving us toward a more consumer-driven, human-scale model of care—to borrow Inglehart's words, toward "individual autonomy in the pursuit of individual subjective well-being." With all this in mind, I direct you to Damon Linker's latest column in The Week, headlined "The rise of the American conspiracy theory." Despite the title, the article isn't ultimately about conspiracy theories. (Those have thrived for centuries, and there is no strong evidence that they're on "the rise" relative to earlier eras.) He's writing about the collapse of faith in institutions. Here's an excerpt: We know that greenhouse gases are producing destabilizing changes in the Earth's climate. And that human beings evolved from other species over millions of years. And that Barack Obama is a Christian. And that Hillary Clinton had nothing to do with the death of Vince Foster. Large numbers of Americans deny those and many other assertions. Why? Because the trustworthiness of the authorities that make the claims has been under direct and continuous attack for the past several decades—and because the internet has given a voice to every kook who makes a contrary assertion. What we're left with is a chaos of competing claims, none of which has the authority to dispel the others as untrue. That sounds like a recipe for relativism—and it is, but only (metaphorically speaking) for a moment, as a preparatory stage toward a new form of absolutism. Confronted by the destabilizing swirl of contradictory assertions, many people end up latching onto whichever source of information confirms the beliefs they held before opening their web browser. Instead of relativistic skepticism they're left with some of the most impenetrable dogmas ever affirmed. What was once confined to UFO and Big Foot obsessives has now metastasized into the political mainstream and captured one of the nation's two major parties—with the encouragement of some of its most prominent members. Who's to say that Hillary Clinton isn't suffering from a debilitating illness? Just "go o[...]



Hillary Clinton: The Alt-Right Has 'Effectively Taken Over the Republican Party'

Thu, 25 Aug 2016 17:28:00 -0400

(image) "From the start," Hillary Clinton declared today in Reno, "Donald Trump has built his campaign on prejudice and paranoia. He has taken hate groups mainstream, and [is] helping a radical fringe take over the Republican Party." The speech that followed those words was an extended argument that her opponent is a racist, a conspiracy theorist, and a man temperamentally unfit to be president.

Clinton's campaign had promoted this in advance as an address about "Donald Trump and his advisors' embrace of the disturbing 'alt-right' political philosophy"—the alt-right being an umbrella term for an assortment of racist micro-movements and online subcultures. Yesterday I suggested that making the alt-right the stars of such a speech could only give a signal boost to what is, after all, a rather obscure political faction. But Clinton's comments about that faction took up only about a minute of her remarks. And while that minute was pretty juicy, the alt-right wasn't really the rally's star villain after all.

The star villain was Donald Trump. Everyone else that Clinton brought into the address—the alt-right, Breitbart, Alex Jones, David Duke, Nigel Farage, Vladimir Putin—was there in a supporting role.

Some of Clinton's arguments didn't make a lot of sense. She led her litany, oddly, by quoting Trump's recent remarks about how bad blacks have it in America. ("Poverty. Rejection. Horrible education. No housing. No homes. No ownership. Crime at levels nobody has seen.") Most people would call his comments a clumsy attempt to reassure voters that he cares about the black community's problems, but Clinton declared them "a dog whistle to his most hateful supporters." She also wildly overstated the alt-right's influence, declaring that "the de facto merger between Breitbart and the Trump campaign" means the alt-rightists have "effectively taken over the Republican Party." She was on sturdier ground at other moments, as when she mentioned Trump's habit of retweeting white nationalists or his false claim that he watched thousands of New Jersey Muslims cheer the 9/11 attacks.

Running through all her claims, both the weak ones and the strong ones, was one basic theme: Donald Trump is a bigot and a nut. And while that's an idea you've been hearing ever since the mogul turned reality TV star entered the race, this was as forceful and concentrated an expression of it as I've ever heard emerge from Hillary Clinton's mouth. It's bound to fire up her supporters, and I expect it will help her get out the vote. Whether it also leads a bunch of curious conservatives to Google "alt-right" depends, I suppose, on how much coverage that minute of the speech gets in the next few days.

But the guy who must be really delighted right now is Alex Jones. Hillary Clinton just attacked him by name! His listeners will be hearing clips from this speech til Ragnarok.

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This Week In Cognitive Dissonance

Mon, 22 Aug 2016 10:05:00 -0400

Item #1: A story in today's New York Times, headlined "After Shake-Up by Trump, Clinton Camp Keeps Wary Eye on 'Conspiracy Theories.'" Here's the lede:

(image) It took just a few hours, after Donald J. Trump announced a major staff shake-up last week, for Hillary Clinton's campaign team to settle on a new buzzword.

"He peddles conspiracy theories," her campaign manager, Robby Mook, said of Mr. Trump on MSNBC.

"We hear rehashed conspiracy theories," he added moments later.

"He doubled down on this today," Mr. Mook said, wrapping up, "by appointing someone to lead his campaign who makes these conspiracy theories basically his professional mission."

Robby Mook...hmm. Didn't I see that name somewhere else recently? Oh, right:

Item #2:

Mook said told George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week" that Trump still needs to explain a "web of financial ties" that connects the Republican candidate to Moscow.

"There's a web of financial interests that have not been disclosed," he said. "And there are real questions being raised about whether Donald Trump himself is just a puppet for the Kremlin in this race."

Mook cautioned that the Russian government is still at the "core" of Trump's campaign...

Seems to me that if you're going to dismiss "conspiracy theories" as a category, you might want to refrain from suggesting your rival is a tentacle of the Kremlin. But I'm not a political professional.

(For more on Trumpian conspiracy theories, go here. For more on anti-Trumpian conspiracy theories, go here.)




Voter ID and Rigged Elections

Fri, 12 Aug 2016 13:30:00 -0400

"If the election is rigged, I would not be surprised," Donald Trump told The Washington Post on August 2. "The voter ID situation has turned out to be a very unfair development. We may have people vote 10 times." Trump was reacting to recent federal court decisions that threw out strict voter identification laws in North Carolina, North Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin. The main source of contention in the cases had been the requirement that voters show a government-issued photo ID before being permitted to cast their ballots. Proponents of strict voter ID laws say that they are necessary to prevent voter impersonation, a form of fraud in which individuals cast more than one ballot. Opponents counter that the demand for photo identification is meant to suppress the turnout of minority and poor voters, who are less likely to have such documents. In other words, they say voter ID laws are an attempt to rig elections against those candidates who are more likely to be supported by minorities and poor people. Voter impersonation fraud appears to be almost non-existent. In the wake of 2000's ballot-counting fiasco, the Help America Vote Act of 2002 created the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to improve voting systems and voter access. In 2007, the commission issued its Election Crimes report, which reviewed what data there was and analyzed numerous anecdotes about voter fraud. The report noted that many experts "asserted that impersonation of voters is probably the least frequent type of fraud because it is the most likely type of fraud to be discovered, there are stiff penalties associated with this type of fraud, and it is an inefficient method of influencing an election." The penalties include $10,000 in fines and up to five years in prison. The New York Times reported in 2007 that a five-year Department of Justice crackdown on voter fraud had yielded just 86 convictions. In 2014, Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, reported finding just 31 cases of voter impersonation fraud out of 1 billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014. Politifact calculated in 2015 that you are 13 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to stumble across an instance of in-person voter fraud in Texas. In other words, Trump's allegation is a hallucination. What happens if you look at the question from the other direction? Do strict voter ID laws significantly skew electoral results? The evidence is mixed. For example, a 2013 study by Indiana University law professor Michael Pitts looked at the total number of ballots cast in the 2008 and 2012 Indiana primaries. He also counted the total number of provisional ballots cast and the total number of provisional ballots counted. Ultimately, Pitts finds that provisional ballots resulting from ID problems amounted to a minuscule 0.026 and 0.012 percent of all ballots cast in the 2012 and 2008 primaries respectively. "With the lack of evidence of actual instances of in-person voter fraud, it's quite possible that even though the actual disfranchisement caused by photo identification on the overall electorate is slight, the actual disfranchisement is vastly higher than the amount of in-person voter fraud that would occur," Pitts argues. "From this perspective, one could easily conclude that a photo identification law does much more harm than good." By triggering grassroots anger, strict voter ID requirements may actually mobilize voters among the ethnic and demographic groups allegedly targeted by the new rules, according to a 2016 study in Political Psychology. This argument is bolstered by a 2007 University of Missouri study that found that Indiana's photo ID laws appear to have actually increased Democratic turnout by 2 perce[...]



The Anti-Trump Conspiracy Theories

Fri, 12 Aug 2016 11:45:00 -0400

A lot of ink has been spilled on Donald Trump's affinity for conspiracy theories. Far less attention has been paid to all the anti-Trump conspiracy stories out there. But they exist too, and some of them have been influential; so I wrote an article about them for The Washington Post. Here's an excerpt:

(image) [T]he biggest Trump conspiracy stories are the ones that call the candidate a tentacle of the Kremlin. Half a year ago, this idea was largely limited to the fringes, where it was flogged by folks like Cliff Kincaid, a conservative gadfly who posed such queries as "Is Trump a sleeper agent for Moscow?" The idea started percolating into the mainstream media over the summer. It picked up steam after WikiLeaks' release of the Democratic National Committee's emails, a data dump many blamed on Russian hackers.

Eventually it made its way to the Clinton campaign, which now has a page on its website devoted to the topic, framed in just-asking-questions style: "Why does Trump surround himself with advisers with links to the Kremlin?" "Why do Trump's foreign policy ideas read like a Putin wish list?" "Do Trump's still-secret tax returns show ties to Russian oligarchs?" The whole thing feels like a throwback to the Cold War, though in those days such intimations were usually reserved for candidates on the left. (Not always, though. In 1952, the Democratic pol Averell Harriman called Republican Sen. Robert Taft "the Kremlin's candidate.")

At the core of this idea is a genuine intersection of interests. Trump and Vladimir Putin do have similar views on several issues, and Putin may well be rooting for the Republican. That is not a conspiracy or even in itself a strong argument against Trump—unless you think U.S. foreign policy should be based on doing the opposite of what Putin wants in all circumstances. But it's the starting point. The Putin/Trump theorists jump from there to a plausible-but-unproven possibility (that Russia was behind the exposure of the DNC's emails), and from there to wilder speculations that Trump is a Putinist puppet, based on various "suggestive" "links" between the two.

The piece has more to say about the Putin/Trump allegations, and about some other Trump tales too; it also has some broader thoughts about election conspiracy theories (and bona-fide election conspiracies). You can read the whole thing here. If you want to see what I have to say about Trump's own conspiracy rhetoric, go here. And if you want to buy my book about conspiracy stories (or just poke around in it with Amazon's "look inside" feature), go here.