Blame Jon Ronson; I appreciate the work of The Skeptical Libertarian, and a Christopher Hitchens-ish attitude of disbelief, but usually I am a little too entranced and entertained by the people who believe in weird things, and what exactly are those weird things. British journalist Jon Ronson’s Them: Adventures With Extremists has him visiting the middle (Randy) Weaver daughter, a cheerful Muslim extremist, the just-as-scary-as-you-would-think Aryan Nations, and the weirdly PR-savvy “new” KKK. He also investigates Bohemian Grove and The Bilderberg group, both times while following Alex Jones, the yelling Texas radio host recently seen yelling at Piers Morgan about guns and trying to have CNN host deported over his views on the second amendment (something both wrong and hilarious). Ronson has the right idea for the immersion reporter, he doesn’t stand around snarking and mocking. He observes and follows and tries to be open-minded as possible, without actually believing in anything (except when he gets a little spooked by a Bilderberg — maybe — security guard), as he looks into these different people who all believe that an elite organization runs the world, be it the New World Order, the Jews, the bankers, Reptillians, the Illuminati, etc.
It’s a fabulous book. I wish I had written it. And people who believe crazy things should not be shunned by all of society. On occasion, they either have buried points about the danger of government power or they’re just God damned entertaining as specimens of human weirdness. Sometimes, as in the cases of the Weavers at Ruby Ridge or the Branch Davidians at Waco, the paranoia of the conspiracy theorist ends up coming true. And again, there is a vital lesson about government power to be found there.
I, and most libertarians, shouldn’t be okay with individuals like Alex Jones. But I am okay with Jones because I don’t take him seriously. Glenn Beck was always the less fringe-y Alex Jones, which I think is worse in many ways because he’s more credible while spouting much bullshit. But then I remember that people take Jones seriously and that is terrible. And as much as I laugh at his rants about “JUSTIN BIEBLER!” someone who makes a career out of government paranoia seeming ridiculous makes…well, government paranoia seem ridiculous. That is not a libertarian goal, nor a libertarian gain.
I have argued that Objectivism is a parody of libertarianism, but Alex Jones is a different sort of parody of my beliefs. Where Objectivism has perpetuated the idea that to be for free markets is to be opposed to charity (the cold, cruel capitalist libertarian), Jones and his ilk spread the notion that to be afraid of the government is to believe everything you read about its malevolent powers (the tin-foil hat-clad libertarian). Where Jones fails, besides in basic critical thinking skills, is that he and all believers of the New World Order, Illuminati, or Bilderberg, attribute an immense amount of competence to government officials. I feel unsettled knowing that for all the bad things we know the government did — MKUltra, The Tuskegee Experiment, NSA, FBI, and CIA spying, anything tailor-made for conspiracy talk — there have got to be at least a few dozen of which we have no idea.
I might even believe in aliens of some kind. I definitely believe in the U.S. government’s potential to go tyrannical. I believe that cops and prosecutors and government officials lie (okay, that’s just true). Hell, the CIA could have been involved in the killing of JFK. I have no doubt there are some aspects of 9/11 that have not been told to the public. On and on, I usually don’t dismiss theories completely.
But Jones and co somehow also forget the most basic of libertarian standbys — “power corrupts.” And so it does. That doesn’t mean every powerful person is in on some perfectly-crafted NWO. The simple premise that people tend to do similarly bad stuff when they are in power seems to not occur to believers of conspiracy theories. It has to be puppetmasters controlling the weather and 12 dudes in a bunker and maybe just space aliens. Never mind the fact that every president believes that he has the right to make a decision that will cause the deaths of innocent people and then he does, or that a government agency with a massive, secret budget and a history of lawlessness might just keep right on doing what it wants. It has to all tie impossibly together.
Conspiracy theorists are usually not even agnostics about “the official story.” They are evangelical about an opposing story, usually a sinister one that falls into a greater scheme of domination and control. As Brian Doherty just wrote on my facebook on this very subject:
Those who would never believe a word of anything from corporate media (except all those words they do believe….), those with the most withering skepticism, have an epistemological standard about “outsider” claims that seems to roughly be: “anything that makes the world seem more sinister and terrifying is true.”
Also, I wonder if the idea of one enemy, even a one-world government-sized one, is comforting. If you ever beat that, you would be free! Daunting, yes, but much less messy than the real world.
I just finished Area 51:An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base by Annie Jacobsen, and am now irritated that I spent so much time on a book that was shoddily researched and edited when it comes to dates of projects and various times of de-classifications. However, even if Jacobsen had been flawless in her reporting on the many aerial and nuclear secrets that dwell within Area 51, her big ta-da! at the end of the book would still throw the previous 360-odd pages into doubt. Jacobsen, you see, is convinced that she discovered the secret of the 1947 UFO (in the literal sense) crash in Roswell, New Mexico.
This, she says, was a crashed experimental aircraft, designed by the Horton Brothers who were some of the Nazi rocket scientists taken by the Soviets after the war (as opposed to the ones America snagged). And the pilots? Who looked oddly like our impression of grays? Let’s let her tell it:
…the children were rumored to have been kidnapped by Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi madman who, at Auschwitz and elsewhere, was known to have performed unspeakable experimental surgical procedures mostly on children, dwarfs, and twins. The engineers learned that just before the war ended, Josef Mengele made a deal with Stalin. Stalin offered Mengele an opportunity to continue work in eugenics. . . . in secret, in the Soviet Union.
Mengele held up his side of the Faustian bargain and provided Stalin with the child-size crew. . . . Mengele never took up residence in the Soviet Union. Instead he lived for four years in Germany under an assumed name and then escaped to South America, where he lived first in Argentina and then in Paraguay, until his death in 1979.
Seems ridiculous, no? The origin of this tale was an unnamed former engineer for EG&G, the shadowy contractors who have worked at Area 51 and the Nevada Test Site for years. These non-aliens and the remains of their craft were taken to Area 51 in the early ’50s. This now-dead individual is not named in Jacobsen’s book, but she claims to have interviewed him and checked his impressive credentials. He goes on to say that one reason the horrible truth about Roswell was never revealed is that “we” were doing the same thing on unconsenting patients, often the mentally handicapped.
In a world of MKUltra and the government giving syphilis to Guatemalans, is it any wonder that people believe in that kind of possibility? It’s just a little farther, just a little worse than what we know the U.S. government has done. So, why is this so ridiculous?
Well, if for no other reason, Jacobsen proves nothing. She uses piece of history: the Horton Brothers’ experimental aircraft designs, Operation Paperclip, Stalin and the U.S.’ investigations into UFO panics, the very existence of a monster like Mengele, early experiments in drones, and, we hope, the word of a real, anonymous person who really did work around Area 51. But instead of a patchwork of truth slapped together to make some impossible craft of an explanation, she decides it all ties together neatly enough to fly like a U-2. And she seems to have no sense that she has done nothing but tell a creepy story. She could be right about it all — though she isn’t — and she still would not have proved it with her certainty.
It’s her use of Occam’s Razor that is so laughable and again familiar in conspiracy theorist cliches. The simplest explanation is impossible Soviet technology piloted by Mengle-made freaks? Not that eye-witnesses are wrong, that people who work in jobs where they cannot even tell their loved ones what they do might get a little weird? That maybe they have a piece of a secret, but not the whole thing, so that they might also be susceptible to the same fears of a ranting Youtuber?
Or that they might just want to tell tales? Or they thought they saw something and they interpreted it wrongly? Or they might just be a God damned liar?
By all means, go, look into it, look at the possibility of the worst that governments can do, but don’t buy it, and don’t expect your readers to buy it when you’re using one unnamed source.
That’s the difference between Jon Ronson and Jacobsen. Ronson tells you straight away that he is crawling into this world of paranoia. He wants to immerse himself in order to observe the humans who posses variations on this particular quirk. But only in the middle of the mysterious moment where his car is being tailed by someone related to Bilderberg (questionable, but, you know, Bilderberg IS powerful people meeting in a room. Security and heavy-handedness is unsurprising, them running all aspects of our existence does not follow) does he become fully credulous for a few minutes. But the task is to tell the stories of the people who believe what they do, nothing more. Jacobsen spends pages telling stories of government secrets, at least appearing to be a well-researched historian, mentioning aliens and such on occasion because the myth is part of the story, and then she switches it up and demands that we be certain that her scoop is proven fact. She’s a cheat. Like all conspiracy theorists, she cannot even admit that just doesn’t know.