Conspiracy Theories Or Reasonable Questions?

As long as humanity has had a toehold on terra firma, we have looked for someone to blame for our woes. Our many problems, which for much of our history were blamed on either the disfavor or caprices of the gods, now are typically blamed on human agents—who are usually part of some cabal out to fool and manipulate us.

Whether we are seeking those behind the JFK assassination, the true story behind 9/11, those UFOs parked in Area 51, or the UN office behind Agenda 21 (perhaps our better conspiracies end with the number 1!), many are convinced that dark forces with malevolent motivations are controlling our world in pursuit of one dastardly agenda or another.

It is, of course, simple human nature to demand a simple explanation for catastrophe. Placating powerful gods at one time consumed those portions of our short and often brutal lives when we were not already engrossed with scratching our meager livings from the earth. Those who claimed to be able to divine and communicate with forces beyond our understanding always were able to win favor, and if some degree of protection from pain or horror might be secured through either ritual or avoiding proscribed behaviors, there would always be a ready audience for such notions. Our compelling interests in avoiding famine, flood, fire, and disease baked a certain degree of easy credulity into humanity’s DNA over the course of many thousands of years, and we must recognize this inheritance is within us all.

Today the thunder of the gods has receded somewhat, and our shamans are typically scientists. Based upon their sage advice, we gulp supplements, avoid bacon and cigarettes, run on treadmills like hamsters, slather on sunscreen, and assiduously attempt to forestall the inevitable deaths of both ourselves and those whom we love by seeking out the secrets to our ever elusive immortality. These behaviors are, by and large, fairly benign and typically work to our benefit. When, for example, is the last time you met someone sporting a large and unsightly goiter—and do most of us even know what this is anymore?

However, the flip side of our credulous belief in the wonders of science as an agent for individual improvement is our bizarre belief in the perfectibility of humanity itself. Hence our willingness to embrace ideas based on the crudest eugenic theories and our obsession with elevating ourselves—while degrading others—based upon what are ultimately the most minute variations in our genes. The hatreds and warfare that have soaked our species in blood now more typically manifest themselves in cartoonish characterizations that are more laughable than dangerous—although ethnic and racial slaughters still pop up around the world with depressing regularity. We obviously still have quite a way to go before we entirely stamp out stupidity.

Recognizing our twin desires to both avoid disaster—and to know who to blame when it befalls us—is necessary if we are to fully understand many of the political and social problems besetting our nation and our world. As our global affairs have become more complex and interdependent, the opportunities for exploitation have multiplied exponentially, and government and multinational corporations—often working hand in glove—have become the golden idols at the center of our lives. Far more powerful, intrusive, and frightening than the supposedly omnipotent gods of old, the power of government and industry to grant stupendous wealth, poison our bodies and minds, destroy our planet, provide uncounted comforts and distractions, take away our property and livelihoods, either greatly extend or savagely shorten our lives, and ultimately control every facet of our existences is unprecedented in human history. Zeus and Apollo were mere amateurs compared to Google and Goldman Sachs.

It should not be much of a surprise that our fear and wonder drives us to anxiously search for patterns and clues to help avoid the wrath of these new and implacable gods—and seek the reasons why they insist on punishing so many of us. Some call them conspiracy theories. More times than we realize, they may be remarkably reasonable questions about our remarkably unreasonable world.

Our grim awareness of the naked and shameless lust for wealth and power that drives so many who now control our lives makes the construction of the conspiracy theories/querulous narratives that animate our discussions all the easier. Understanding the extremist ideologies that undergirded so much of the Cold War, it is easier to imagine whispered instructions from a secretive group ordering the murder of a President. Knowing of the desire of multi-national corporations and their government cronies to secure control of Mideast oil supplies, one need not work too hard to see a stupendous plot to fake a terrorist attack against America in order to justify endless war. Having been kept in the dark about so many secret government military projects, little green men in flying saucers becomes a plausible explanation for so many of those bright lights in the night sky. Observing the never ending violence and drug traffic in our inner cities involving African-Americans, it is little wonder that so many are certain this is being facilitated by the government as part of a genocidal war of extermination.

Given the craven and corrupt behavior that is now so common among government officials and business executives, are we paranoid to believe that our needs come far behind the interests of those in power who are chasing riches and influence? One could, of course, argue that dishonesty and avarice have defined the leaders of every age—why else, after all, would one chase high office in government or business? However, we perhaps have a confluence of circumstances today that heightens the stench that often emanates from the halls of power.

The Information Age has been a boon to the average American citizen—and a bane to those in power. Although political scientists often trace our loss of faith in our leadership back to the twin national traumas of the Vietnam War and Watergate, I suspect the crux of the problem is the more adversarial style of journalism these scandals helped to create and the rise of alternative news sources—first in print and later on through the worldwide web. Just as putting a brighter lightbulb in a room causes one to suddenly notice the stained carpet and peeling paint, so has the variety and visibility of news and opinion targeted to—and now increasingly produced by—the masses led to an enormous range of information that speaks to the fears and concerns of virtually everyone.

Although muckrakers and iconoclasts like Ida Tarbell and I. F. Stone played influential roles in shaping opinion earlier in the 20th century, the 24/7 news and information cycle—and the many to whom cheap and powerful technology has now given an unsanctioned and unrestrained voice—has made it virtually impossible for the crooked and corrupt to fly beneath the radar undetected. This visibility produces a higher degree of accountability, but it also calls the motives and methods of business and government—today’s omnipotent yet mysterious gods—into question on a daily basis.

If this scrutiny produces more “conspiracy theories”, so be it. The rich and the powerful are perfectly able to defend themselves if the suspicions of impropriety are unwarranted. If we are compelled to listen to outlandish notions on occasion—only to have them later debunked—I do not find this too high a price to pay for the ongoing oversight that is now possible. If those in charge want our trust, perhaps they had best conduct themselves in a manner that is above suspicion. If not, we should be free to arrive at our own judgments concerning their veracity and good intentions.


Let Our People Tweet!

In a recent interview, Barack Obama made the following observation regarding the promise—and pitfalls—associated with the rapid growth of the use of social media in our hyper-politicized age: “The question has to do with how do we harness this technology in a way that allows a multiplicity of voices, allows a diversity of views, but doesn’t lead to a Balkanization of society and allows ways of finding common ground.” This is a good question, but it may miss the mark just slightly—as many perfectly reasonable questions sometimes do.

The ever-expanding range of social media—everything from Facebook to Twitter to Snapchat and beyond—has fundamentally changed our political, personal, and social discourse in ways we are still struggling to understand. Who, for example, had heard of “hashtag activism” a scant few years ago or would have foreseen the manner in which a political neophyte could leverage his love of “tweeting” into the highest elected office in our nation?

Politicians, reporters, businesspeople, celebrities, athletes, and others now race to provide their instantaneous reactions—we cannot possibly call it analysis—regarding every twitch in the fabric of our world. No event or statement—no matter how momentous or mundane—seems beyond comment, and YouTube personalities now rake in six and seven figure incomes for sharing (or perhaps oversharing) every aspect of their daily lives. Our planet’s population has become a global network of symbiotic exhibitionists and voyeurs, each dependent upon the other for the peculiar gratifications of either posing or peering. It is sometimes a wonder that anyone finds the time to brush their teeth between checking online, posting, and anxiously waiting for the “likes” to appear.

As a result, privacy is now nearly synonymous with invisibility, which has both individual and cultural consequences we can only begin to today fathom. We should, however, by now recognize the drawbacks inherent in engaging with social media in a manner that slices and dices individuals into ever-smaller subgroups based upon identities, interests, and political leanings. Although shared community can certainly result from, for example, finding Facebook “friends” who are just like you—and actively “unfriending” those who are not—this can easily slip into the Balkanization that concerns Mr. Obama. The myopic view of the world that results from communing exclusively with those who agree with everything you say produces the mental flabbiness and smug certitude that has helped to poison so many of our national conversations. Speaking only to those like ourselves surely separates us from one another—and impedes honest discussion.

However, this being acknowledged, I believe that Mr. Obama neglected to emphasize perhaps the greatest benefit of social media: the removal of mediators and filters that decide how information is transmitted—or whether it is transmitted at all. I am old enough to remember when a mere handful of major networks and newspapers were able to impose a virtual information hegemony upon our nation, which turned them into arbiters, gatekeepers, and kingmakers—and drastically narrowed the range of information and opinions available. Perhaps the most startling—or, for some, terrifying—aspect of last year’s Presidential election was that Donald Trump won without a single endorsement from a major news outlet and slogged on to victory while thumbing his nose at their repeated disparagements. This was, no matter how it might otherwise be spun, a stunning populist victory that would most certainly have been stopped in its tracks by the mainstream media in years past. It will be up to historians to determine the merits of Donald Trump’s presidency, but his success at the ballot box would have been impossible before the advent of social media.

Of course, right now a Trump opponent is rolling his or her eyes at his use—some would say manipulation—of his Twitter account, but it should be remembered that there would be no #MeToo moment or #BlackLivesMatter tidal wave revealing decades of pain and abuse were it not for the enormous power and reach of social media. In both of these instances, the entrenched establishment lost control of the narrative because millions of voices were suddenly able to speak and be heard. This is what most terrifies those in positions of previously unassailable power and influence: The average person can now wield a mighty sword to cut them down to size with just the tip of their finger tapping on a screen.

The nascent effort to combat “fake news” by empowering corporations and government agencies to ferret out information they deem unreliable—or perhaps embarrassing—seems to me to be nothing but a thinly veiled attempt by the establishment to reassert their control over what information is available in order to maintain their crumbling authority. Rumors, gossip, and pettiness have been baked into humanity since the dawn of civilization, but the official lies that have driven disastrous misadventures (we never did find those “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, did we?) are too numerous to enumerate and have caused vastly more damage to our nation and its people.

We are likely much better off with a wild and uncontrollable social media environment that asks uncomfortable questions and attacks complacent assumptions. If people are sometimes insulted and misinformation is occasionally spread, this is a small price to pay for the incredibly free and open discussion that is now possible, and we would be fools indeed to have this wrested away from us because some are more comfortable with the hollow silence that would soon follow.

The common ground we find after free-wheeling debate is a firmer foundation than the shaky consensus forced upon us by stilling voices of dissent. We must, of course, learn how to avoid ad hominem attacks and cruel invective as we discuss difficult and divisive issues, but the Balkanization that so concerns Mr. Obama also might be characterized as the messy and maddening freedom to speak truth to power and challenge a status quo that many find unacceptable. It is normal and healthy for citizens in a democracy to disagree, and those who yearn for the good old days when those who owned the television broadcast licenses or printing presses decided what we would be allowed to hear or say are simply hoping that taking away the voices of the many will protect the power of the few.

No matter how many times experts and insiders assure us that strict social media censorship will produce peace, harmony, or security, don’t believe it for a second. We are much better off with the sloppy cacophony of voices and viewpoints that we have right now, and those who are pushing for more curated conformity and crass control deserve nothing other than a good kick in the pants—on social media.

Has Big Government Killed Compromise?

I was reading a book the other day that discussed the internecine religious conflict that roiled England during the reigns of Henry VIII, Mary I (“Bloody Mary”), and Elizabeth I. Protestants and Catholics, each convinced their own values and doctrinal interpretations were right and good, fought an unyielding battle for control and supremacy over both government and nation, and neither side was the least interested in even the most basic compromises. Each conflict was filled with hatred and every speech—it would be impossible to call them discussions—was colored by apocalyptic visions of the catastrophic outcomes that would certainly result were the beliefs of the opposition allowed to gain ascendancy. It was brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, and region against region as each side scrambled to vanquish their blood enemies, who were, in point of fact, actually their fellow countrymen.

Does any of this sound familiar?

To say that many of the citizens of our nation seem to have a visceral and implacable dislike for one another is stating the obvious. Worse yet, because so many are convinced that those who hold differing beliefs are inherently immoral—or even just plain evil—the possibilities for thoughtful and reasonable conversations between individuals of good will seem fewer and fewer with each passing day. I am thankful that today we restrict our public burnings to social media, but the outcome remains the same: hearts hardened, hatreds stoked, and minds irreversibly closed.

I like to think that reasonable people can come to reasonable compromises regarding the many issues that divide our nation at the present time, but I am beginning to suspect that this may be impossible more often than I would like to believe for a reason some might find unbelievable: the fantastically expanded powers of American government itself.

The questions of governance that now so bedevil us are inextricably tied to foundational issues of family, faith, patriotism, and the balance between rights and responsibilities—each jostling against the other and further complicating the next. Thankfully we can still (most of the time) decide where to put a highway off-ramp. However, now that government has grown to control almost all of our daily activities, we are crashing headlong into the problems inherent in allowing legislators, judges, and bureaucrats—today’s kings and queens—to monitor and control so many deeply personal facets of our lives. Any government that holds absolute power—even if many believe this power is being used for the greater good—creates a lot of problems, and this is where the analogy to Tudor England really takes hold.

Four hundred or so years ago perfectly sane English men and women were willing to imprison, torture, and slaughter one another because government held absolute power over an aspect of their lives as fundamental as their form of worship. Not surprisingly, every conflict was fought to the death—or nearly so—because to lose any battle was to lose every bit of freedom to live according one’s values and choose one’s own life path. American government has now amplified this power to control individual human choice to a degree that perhaps even the Tudor royalty would have found objectionable—and we should not be surprised by the results.

Most of us want government to provide basic services that ensure our health and safety, maintain critical infrastructure, and defend our borders—although even these can be subject to intense debate regarding principles and practices. However, when we inject the nearly limitless powers that government can grant itself into every aspect of our personal behavior and interpersonal interactions, we should not be overly surprised at the divisive results.

Just as the Tudor royalty discovered saving souls and creating a heaven on earth backed by the power of the crown turned out to be a fairly unpopular and ugly business, so do our Washington “royalty’s” many decrees that punish attitudes deemed unacceptable to the elite cause political, cultural, and social discord that fragments our nation and stymies even the most reasonable political compromises. Our leadership could take a lesson from Elizabeth I, the last of the great Tudor monarchs. Her true genius, which transformed her broken and divided nation into a world power, was to abandon state-mandated orthodoxy and tolerate a range of inherently conflicting beliefs during her long and successful reign.

The lesson of human history is clear to any who cares to look: Nations typically flourish when they allow their people to believe as they please with only minimal common sense restraints on their behavior. If you want to understand the root cause of our inability to cooperate, you need only look inside the confines of Washington, D.C. for the answer. A great many Americans would be very pleased if those now occupying that dysfunctional zip code would just leave us alone and focus on delivering those basic services they have neglected while busying themselves with telling everyone how they should think and live.

We’re just fine with figuring it all out for ourselves, thank you. In fact, we’ll probably do a much better job at the fraction of the cost—and with a fraction of the anger. We folks in flyover country are a lot smarter and more sensible than the Washington crowd of social engineers and scolds, and we could probably teach the D.C. royalty a lesson or two—if they ever bothered to listen to what the peasants have to say.

These D.C. Shenanigans Don’t Interest Me

The recent indictment of a prominent Washington political lobbyist, Paul Manafort, is prompting a rapturous response from some. Even though the criminal charges have nothing to do with last year’s election, those who wanted Hillary to win are now convinced that impeachment (Remember that Russian collusion!) is right around the corner. However, there are others who, even if not thrilled with President Trump’s policies or personality, are notably cooler to the idea. Me? With apologies to Rhett Butler—and as much as it pains me to say this—I don’t give a damn.

If you ever needed further proof that Washington, D.C. is a world utterly separate from the one we downtrodden peasants occupy, you need only to listen to the self-important chatter emanating from the banks of the Potomac regarding this non-story about a non-issue that is nonsense.

Given that we already know our federal government is a hopelessly corrupt conglomeration of back scratchers and influence peddlers masquerading as public servants, I am going to guess that I am not the only one who finds it impossible to work up to the target level of outrage. Listening to supposedly sane commentators froth at the mouth concerning the notion that lobbyists might not be the most honest of God’s creations reminds me of Captain Renault in the movie Casablanca fulminating about the doings at Rick’s Cafe: “I am shocked—shocked—to find that gambling is going on in here!”

The outrage machine will, however, continue to grind on for as long as it is good business to do so. Anger and investigations encourage donors to write checks, so that is as good a reason as any to try to gin up a story about an apparently corrupt lobbyist into the latest iteration of “the scandal of the century”. If you read many of the reactions in the media, one notable undercurrent is that these investigations and indictments might—at least temporarily—interfere with the real business of Washington insiders: Making obscene amounts of money by selling access to executive, legislative, judicial, and (most important of all) regulatory power brokers. Working for the public good is just fine—as long as it does not interfere with personal profit.

A short list of what our federal government should be preoccupied with might include right-sizing operations in order to stop driving our nation into ever more catastrophic debt, holding agencies and departments accountable for producing measurable public benefits, devising cost-effective strategies for dealing with our crumbling infrastructure, reforming the cesspool of campaign finance, strengthening our military to meet a host of new and disturbing dangers, and pushing back against the many threats to our rights to privacy and free speech. If you can’t focus on your jobs, just get gone for good—for the good of us all.

If I want to watch stupid people engaging in stupid behavior, I can tune into countless reality television shows where dysfunction is worn like a badge of honor. I (perhaps unreasonably) expect more from my national government—particularly in light of the many problems we face today. Perhaps a few high profile prosecutions will provide some minor temporary benefit that will help to support the illusion that real change in a culture of entrenched corruption is at last at hand, but I strongly suspect that much stronger medicine will be necessary to heal what ails our country. Occasionally sacrificing someone of middling importance on the prosecutorial altar does not absolve our nation’s capitol of its many sins. There is far more to answer for regarding the many messes we are in today due to neglectful—or actively damaging—leadership in Washington.

However, feel free to enjoy the D.C. circus of empty rhetoric and feigned concern if that is to your taste. However, I am certain I am not the only American who just does not care—and wants the whole crowd of crooks and cuckoos out of our lives as soon as possible. I can’t say that many of them will be missed.

Our Intolerantly Tolerant Nation

Since a bitter and divisive Presidential election last year, we have been embroiled in seemingly never-ending bitter and divisive protests regarding healthcare, immigration, court nominations, higher education, law enforcement, public health, gender and identity politics, K-12 education, religious liberty, gun control, free speech, and virtually every other aspect of governmental policies and their many—often unfortunate—intersections with our daily lives.

Now we have a new imbroglio, which this time concerns the behavior of some NFL players during the playing of the national anthem. This issue has been thrust onto center stage—at least for the moment—by President Trump’s blunt comments regarding the parentage of players who participate. This is not the first—nor will it be the last—instance of public protests dividing our nation. We have become shockingly expert at communicating nothing while supposedly making our points clear.

Each separate protest about any particular issue that is important to some group of individuals—given shape and sharpened by single-issue interest groups before being whipped into a merry froth by sensationalistic media outlets chasing eyeballs—has its own fraught history and contentious present. However, many of these matters have a common lineage: a celebration of the individual’s absolute right to self-expression and self-determination. To a degree that is sometimes startling in its scope, we have elevated the all-encompassing but ultimately amorphous concept of “tolerance” to the center of all our decision-making processes. Therefore, any idea, belief, or policy that sets boundaries, presumes judgment, or fails to wholeheartedly endorse the full range of human beliefs and behaviors is subject to attack as being an expression of “hate” against one group or another.

Tolerance is, of course, a fine and reasonable ideal because it provides an often necessary brake on our human tendency to form instant and lasting impressions of people and situations. Those who are quick to judge are many times equally slow to listen, so a commitment to tolerance can help to mediate between our preconceptions and reality, which can many times help to facilitate communication and understanding.

However, “tolerance” can also be used as a bludgeon to silence viewpoints with which we disagree. The assumption that all disagreements are rooted in mindless hatred and ancient bigotries is both an intensely comforting—and exceedingly lazy—approach to the many complexities of human life. It allows for a smug certainty that absolves one from even bothering to consider alternate viewpoints. If we occupy a safe space where our values and behaviors are beyond the reach of discussion or evaluation, we can blithely go through our lives assured that we are right and the rest of the world—or at least that portion that does not share our social media space—is just plain mean and wrong. Beyond this, any attempt to present or argue a contrary viewpoint is, should my interlocutor persist, an assault upon my personhood that empowers me—to assault you right back.

Is it any wonder that civil conversation about any issue seems ever more impossible with each passing day? Even a topic as previously anodyne as the weather is now enveloped in white-hot emotions about the truth and scope of global warming. I find it no surprise that we now spend all of our time peering at our phones and avoiding eye contact. It’s a great way to hide out.

I worry about the many issues that now crop up around campus speech and ask myself how higher education is supposed to thrive when the very act of asking a provocative question can result in the academic equivalent of shunning. I see our two major political parties growing more polarized and wonder how we can ever work together to find reasonable compromises to the many problems besetting our nation and world. I read the increasingly angry screeches that have now become the mainstays of our mainstream media’s analyses and shudder at the apparent absence of any ability to examine an opposing viewpoint without resorting to ad hominem attacks meant to harm rather than elucidate.

However, a commitment to “tolerance” will solve all our difficulties, right?

I increasingly suspect that tolerance—as both a value and strategy—will solve little. The problem becomes obvious when you wade a little deeper into the National Anthem protests in the NFL. On the one hand we are asked to respect the individual rights of players to “take a knee” to bring attention to discriminatory police behavior that targets African-Americans—so let’s be tolerant, people. However, given that this all takes place during the playing of the National Anthem, many patriotic Americans find this form of protest to be intolerably disrespectful to the flag and our nation. Which belief or behavior is more deserving of our tolerance? Do we accept a protest that offends many or back those who demand we show respect for the flag? Who is more deserving of our support in this situation—and a host of many more where our tolerance is loudly demanded? Given that any discussion of values or (gasp!) right and wrong will “privilege” one point of view or another, the only certainty in this situation and others like it is that we will continue to argue—forever.

Tolerance—and the moral relativism it encourages—is all fine and good when confined to a college classroom where we are asking students to open their minds to contrasting viewpoints as an academic exercise, but it fails miserably when it sails out into a nation where actual people might become actually angry when someone insults the actual values that inform their actual lives. If we insist tolerance is our highest value, one person’s morality will always be another’s bigotry, so we are now locked into a cultural cage match with no winners and no losers—only unceasing conflict.

Hence, we have become Protest Nation. Now that the volume of our shouts has superseded our quiet respect for common cultural values and signifiers—flag, faith, and family—that somehow managed to carry us into the middle of the last century, little remains beyond our anger. How very sad. In the course of discovering and celebrating our wondrous individuality over the past fifty years, we have forgotten our most basic responsibility to one another: simple, common courtesy.

As much as I would like to support the individual right to self-expression, I find the NFL player protests to be flawed in concept and pointless in practice. Sometimes you just have to stand for the anthem as a demonstration of national respect. I’m probably not the only person annoyed with virtue-signaling and empty, insulting public posturing. It’s time to stop behaving like self-important brats and rejoin Team USA.

I might not sound tolerant, but I am being honest.