Thursday, October 16, 2008

Campaigning via Conspiracy Theory: Ayers, Acorn, and Obama the Alien

I have written quite a bit about conspiracy theories, most of them having to do with urban myths regarding "Satanic Ritual Abuse," alleged inter-generational Satanists who brainwash their followers and sacrifice adults and children to the devil. A major feature of almost all these myths requires the existence of a secret super-cell of Satanists, often said to be world leaders. [Photo at left from ""]

During the 1980s and on into the 1990s, I wrote various articles exploring the Satanist myths. Most of them promulgated by (sigh) my fellow Evangelicals and/or (in the case of the infamous Michelle Remembers) Catholics. I also took part in co-researched and written articles (plus one book, Selling Satan: Mike Warnke and the Evangelical Media), which exposed various "former satanists" and/or "former victims of satanists" as fakes.

And as a result, I realized that questioning everything anyone told me was a pretty good idea. That went double when it came to conspiracy theories, which as incredible stories demanded incredible evidence to verify. Or so my suspicious mind works. Heck, I'm so hard to convince I actually believe John Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald. Alone.

Go with me just a little way on this.

Why, for instance, do we believe conspiracy theories. Or rather, believe some while disbelieving others? After all, by definition, a successful conspiracy has no evidential trail left to follow.

I think we believe conspiracy theories that agree with our own way of seeing, of understanding, and of locating evil. Locating? Yes, this is the single most important feature of a conspiracy theory. Evil must have a location. And, that location must be with other entities, almost always human, who are "other" than I and those closest to me. Commies (Joe McCarthy's insanity, remember?). Blacks (every black man wants to rape a white woman). Even whites... AIDS was designed to eliminate blacks, you know. And so on. There has to be an evil other.

One of the best examples of this is found in the painful, even terrifying novel by Bernard Malamud, The Fixer. A Russian-Jewish peasant finds his life in peril due to the false anti-Semitic myth that Jews often sacrificed babies in secret ceremonies. The novel is, of course, rooted in the reality of what Christians often believed about their Jewish neighbors (and in the reality of violence committed against Jews by such Christians).

Another example of this lies in the current distribution of a rabidly anti-Islamic video 18 million households nationwide (though particularly in "swing states" currently drifting toward Democrat Barack Obama). Radical Islam, the videos claim, has been discovered to have an inside plan to take over America, a plan led by seemingly innocent American leaders. By video's end, one suspects that all Islam is radical, and (by necessity) nearly all American Muslims (as well as Arab Christians) may be "one of them."

And of course playing into this conspiratorial theme above are threads from the Republican Party (via both the McCain/Palin campaign directly and others backing them but not officially connected). "Who is Barack Obama?" one McCain ad asks. "A friend of terrorist Ayers," is the answer, the "Ayers" of course not really being necesssary other than as a cover for running such an unhinged conspiratorial message. That beat goes on as of today via "Robo-calls" (automated calls) by the Republican National Committee:

Hello. I'm calling for John McCain and the RNC because you need to know that Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, whose organization bombed the U.S. capitol, the Pentagon, a judge's home and killed Americans. And Democrats will enact an extreme leftist agenda if they take control of Washington. Barack Obama and his Democratic allies lack the judgment to lead our country. This call was paid for by McCain-Palin 2008 and the Republican National Committee at [of course I deleted the number!].

The above illustrates the thing with conspiracy theories: Most conspiracy theories make no sense!

Break the above quote down, and it becomes a series of unconnected factoids which require the listener's own bias to make cohere into a single unified story.
Obama knows a guy. The guy, when Obama was 8, was involved with the '60s radical group, Weather Underground. The group blew some stuff up and killed two people. Democrats will enact an "an extreme leftist agenda" if they "take control" of Washington. Obama and his terrorist/commie buddies lack the judgement to lead the USA.

Each sentence in itself is independent of the previous one or the next one. The parts do not make one whole, but instead are illogically thrown together. The reader processes them and by so doing experiences either an instinctive "a ha!" moment or (I hope) just as instinctive recoils from the attempt to create fear, and an explanation for that fear, at Obama's expense.

My most riveting moment re the absolute non-rationality of conspiracy theory came while interviewing a parent of one of the children allegedly abused by supposed satanist Ray Buckey (the now-infamous McMartin Preschool case, where both Ray and his mother were found not guilty). Looking very somber, this upper-middle class mother told me about how one child at McMartin was abused by Raymond... who at the time was over 100 miles away from where the abuse occurred.

Startled, I attempted to correct her. "But Ray was 100 miles away... he'd have had to be two places at the same time!"

She nodded understandingly. "Oh, yes. Those Satanists can do anything."

So, apparently, can the Republicans, at least where inventing conspiracy theories are concerned. Consider the latest one involving ACORN, a social activist group with whom I have worked a few times (though years back). The group among other things is known for regularly doing voter registration drives, paying folks to get others signed up to vote. The obvious happens. A small number of hired registrars end up falsifying voter cards, creating voters who do not exist.

So what does the Republican Party say about ACORN... with who their own candidate John McCain has worked in the past?

Allegedly, ACORN is involved in subverting the nation's voting process, despite the fact that non-existent voters can't very well vote. And, should someone show up to attempt voting for them, there is the small matter of signature comparison required by most polling places (all of them in Illinois, for instance).

Meanwhile, the Republican Party is attempting to strip new voters from Ohio's (and other swing states') registration logs. That's no conspiracy. That, for the Republican Party, seems business as usual.

And speaking of business as usual, how about yet another Republican Conspiracy Theory (RCT's we can call 'em) regarding the Democrats having started this financial mess by allowing Freddie Mac to lend to poor borrowers? John McCain's attempt to paint Barack Obama as fomenter of class warfare seems to be the classic case of man pointing one finger at other man while pointing three more back at himself.

Conspiracies in real life inevitably fall apart for the most pedestrian of reasons. A secret may be safe with one human, but once a second, third, or fourth human is included, the conspirators have the devil of a time not leaking it to someone.

Anyway, my favorite conspiracy theory about Barack Obama is that we know so little about him that it won't be until he is elected we find out his real name is Bxqz Oxynana from the planet Xerx, and that he's here to enslave humanity. Turns out Xerxians like nothing better than human beings... lightly toasted with a dab of Zyx spread.

Don't believe it? Disprove it, then!! Remember, beware the Alien Obama! Vote for Obama and we're ALL GONNA DIE!!!!!!!

Uh, pass me the Zyx.


Anonymous said...

Another good piece. Conspiracy theories are attractive by virtue of their very unprovability. Rather like proving the absence of something as proof of its existence, conspiracies thrive in the hot house of uncontested imagination. We know that it is likely many otherwise rational voters may not vote for Barack Obama because he "is a Muslim", "trained in a madrassa", "from Africa", a "close friend of terrorists" and "not one of us." While all of these heavily freighted terms are individually meaningless (and untrue), stringing them together has created an amazingly enduring fiction. So, does the fact that conservative forces continue to promulgate them as true make THIS a conspiracy or just another example of synchronous herd behavour bereft of verity? I'm sure I must have a repressed memory which, when exposed by a deprogrammer, will reveal all.
Carry On,
GOrdon Stephan

Anonymous said...

Wow, you are pretty out of touch---or just opinioniated? Do you ONLY get your information from the Internet?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, John, for sharing your insights into the psychology of conspiracy theory propagandizing. As much as the demonizing of the Other (Barack Obama), what discourages me about this election cycle is the view that the Kingdom will be issued in if the right candidate (John McCain) is elected. Sadly, that's the subtext in conversations among my evangelical acquaintances here in Texas.

Anonymous said...

If you were from Arizona, I'd say you have a sense of Yuma! Your great sense reminds me of a couple of funny pieces (on Google? on Yahoo? on something else?) that are titled "You May Be a Rapture Redneck" and "An Exciting Day at Rapture Bible College." No, they were not written by Tommy Ice. Thanks for your serious/funny stuff. You seldom horse around when you're Trotting!

Len said...

Your blog makes me sick to my stomach as an Evangelical. How could you for even for a split second support Barack Obama and his views on abortion? He and anyone who could support partial birth abortion, let alone abortion in general, is a disgrace. You sir are not a Christian if you truly share the views that you have portrayed here. I live one block south of Jesus People USA and am saddened as to how you add to the problems of the neighborhood and not help them. As the saying from a few years ago goes, What would Jesus do? I think he would vote McCain and he would also try and actually help the people in the community of Uptown and not just continue to feed their addictions.

Jon Trott said...


Glad to meet a neighbor, esp. one located as close as you are to us.

Now, as to my faith being validated by voting for John McCain, or invalidated by voting for Barack Obama, that's bad theology on a number of levels. [1] The nature of how one becomes a Christian. [2] The rather fascinating postulation that how one votes invariably determines her or his spiritual condition. [3] The even more fascinating concept that a vote for the Republicans -- who've killed thousands of Americans and 100s of thousands of Iraqis in a lie-created war, among other crimes -- is somehow a vote for God.

In short, I suggest it is an error to equate heart-felt and head-reasoned choices (esp. those of others) as being automatically "unchristian" simply because they don't agree w/ our choices. (Clear biblical directives are another matter, but in voting I'd say there's significant room for disagreement between earnest Christians!)

You write: "[H]e [Jesus] would also try and actually help the people in the community of Uptown and not just continue to feed their addictions."

Since that apparently isn't a reference to Barack Obama, it must be a reference to JPUSA's work in Uptown. While I'm well aware of our human limitations, I would gently take exception to your comment that our work with the poor could be characterized as you've done. You are, after all, addressing your neighbor. Are you loving your neighbor -- whether you consider me a believer or not -- with the comments you've made here?

Blessings to you.
jon / bluechristian