Monday, July 27, 2009

Politics and Conspiracy Theories: A Testimony

First, I urge you to watch this clip. There's a small movement afoot in America to try to convince President Obama to release his birth certificate. And apparently, for reasons I'm not quite up to speed on, a "Certificate of Live Birth" doesn't qualify or isn't the same thing as a "Birth Certificate." Anyhow, I'd like you to listen to just about 5 minutes of the discussion where Chris Matthews & his guest, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., talk about conspiracy theorizing in general. Watch...

Boy, that conversation was right on.

There's something dangerous about the mixture of politics & conspiracy theorizing. A seductive danger. Because when you talk politics, you're talking about issues of high importance -- issues beyond yourself. Issues like personal responsibility vs. social responsibility, and national interests vs. international interests, and so on & so forth. Big things; important things. But when you introduce conspiracy theories to the mix, it creates an altogether toxic stew. Because you think that you're talking about something very important & very critical when in fact there is very little evidence to support the reality of the subject matter itself. And people can be moved to do very sad, dangerous things.

I say this from experience.

My Mom was a conspiracy theorist. I'll try to spare you all the details, but I'm going to give you a lot of them. Because you need to know how insidious this way of thinking is. Because bad thinking begets bad life decisions. And I'm here to tell you that conspiracy theories leave a wreck in their wake.

As Mr. Tyrrell said in that clip, my mother was essentially a very bored lady. And about five years ago, she began to be caught up in conspiracy theories about the powers that were: the Bush Administration. My mother became convinced of theories that insisted that the President & his administration had engineered the 9/11 attacks. She made me watch videos & read materials insisting on the validity of this conspiracy. When I tried to show her evidence that contradicted her claim she refused to read it. Needless to say it was a trying experience.

A few other examples:

• She believed that the raised number & intensity of hurricanes from 3-5 years ago was from "the government" manipulating Gulf of Mexico temperatures.

• She believed that the Asian tsunami resulted from government seismic tests run amock.

• She believed in the Illuminati, that the Da Vinci Code was REAL, and that the plot from movie "The Manchurian Candidate" was an imminent threat.

So what? She believed crazy things. What's the big deal?

Well, for one thing, it consumed her life. Mom lived on-line, consuming all kinds of conspiratorial information while neglecting everything else -- including herself. For one thing, she didn't have a mammogram for almost 3 years. Not because she couldn't afford it, but because she didn't care to go get it. And so when she was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer (there is no stage 5) and died 18 months later, we were all left thinking, "What if she'd gotten her mammograms & we had caught this earlier? What if???"

She sent E-mails to friends & family members about everything she was learning about government conspiracies. Yep: my mom was the "crazy aunt." She filled up everyone's E-mail inboxes with mail, guilting people to read her messages, and hurling obscenities at people when they wouldn't. To this day, I have over 3,000 unread E-mails in my Inbox at my Hotmail account from my Mom. I think I leave them there because it's something from my Mom that I can look back on. But everytime I try to look at a couple, they only make me sad because they're full of such meanness & vitriol.

There is one that my sister and I like to laugh at, though. I always would try to resist my Mom's imperatives about reading her messages with as much gentleness & firmness as I could muster. Every once in a while, though, she would goad me into reading one. And I would respond, and list all the issues I had against whatever conspiracy was being pushed. Talk about getting her goat! Oooh, it would fire her up when I was actually right & she was wrong, and she realized it but wouldn't admit it. So this one time, after pretty successfully countering whatever conspiracy claim she was furthering, she wrote back & called me a "mother f****r." Cracks us all up to this day! I guess I left my Mom feeling pretty jobbed after that particular E-mail.

That wasn't it, though. Not only did she spend all of her time on these issues, but just about all her money also. My sister & I have a storage unit and garage full of items to prepare us for the end of the world. Solar panels and batteries to hook up for whenever the power grid goes off line. Buckets upon buckets of vacuum-sealed food for whenever there's a run on grocery stores. At least we got rid of all the gold she had buried under the house. She liquidated all her assets into gold & silver. How dangerous! And of course it only made her more scared, because the black helicopters were out to come get her buried treasure.

If only I were joking.

I've become convinced that the theories my Mom adopted were calculated carefully by one end of the political spectrum to prey on the fearful & instill even more fear against the other side of the political spectrum. My Mom was a Democrat and loathed President Bush. But this theory today about our new President & where he was born is crafted by fearful people on the other side, and that theory is calculated to stir up even more fear about the party now in power.

I understand that these theories can sound enticing. And that they start with reasonable doubt ("Why IS the government trying to take more control???..."). But they really begin to lose touch with reality, and can start to lead to irrational behavior & difficult consequences.

And by the way, it's not just dumb people that are vulnerable. My Mom had a Masters education. I heard a story a few months ago about a man who committed a murder suicide with his son because of a conspiracy theory. That man was a respected licensed financial adviser who was head-deep into some theory about our economy. These theories prey on smart people too, and they make them do very foolish things.

I say all this to warn my friends about pursuing this kind of thinking. Question really hard what you hear from the political voices that appeal to fear. Just for fun, try to play Devil's advocate if you hear a political voice subtly pushing a conspiracy theory. I guarantee you that you'll find holes in those theories that you can peel open and expose.

I just wanted to share what happens to people who say that they're just pursuing "honest questions" & end up doing so to their own detriment. I saw what happened with my Mom when she went down this road. It didn't take her to a better place; in fact, it just left behind a giant mess for her loved ones to deal with when she was gone.