Friday, March 22, 2013

The Constitutional Convention Does the Right Thing

Alternative History

Alternative histories have an annoying tendency to say "X happened instead of Y, therefore rainbows, puppies and unicorns." A few people, like S.M. Stirling in his Drakian novels, dare to imagine much darker alternative histories. His thesis was "what if history turned out in the worst possible way?" I suspect a lot of alternative histories would have ended up a good deal less rosy than we like to imagine.

The rainbows, puppies and unicorns machine kicked into high gear when James W. Wagner, president of Emory University, praised the 1787 three-fifths compromise, which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person in determining Congressional representation for slave states. Wagner apparently had good intentions, hoping to show how even sharp polarization can be eased by compromise, but detractors of the three-fifths rule weren't having any of it. The three-fifths compromise wasn't inspired. It was one of those clumsy, ugly compromises with evil we sometimes have to make, like allying with the Soviet Union during World War II, backing nasty regimes during the Cold War, paying for a defense attorney for a serial child molester, or pretending that protecting the rights of Charles Manson protects anyone else's rights. So what if we hadn't made it? An outcome like the one below is at least possible.

No Compromise

As discussion of the new, and completely unauthorized, Constitution of the United States proceeded, representation in Congress became a sticking point. Northern states wanted the slave population of the South excluded in determining Congressional representation, on the grounds that slaves had no rights, and therefore they should not be counted toward the voting power of the South. Southern states wanted slaves counted, because they would then have greater strength in Congress. Northerners were convinced the South would have too much power, especially Virginia, the most populous state. Some delegates proposed a partial count, with slaves given one-half or three fifths representation, but those proposals were angrily dismissed. Since there were seven non-slave states and six slave states, the final vote on representation was rammed through. Slaves would not be counted.

When the new Constitution was presented to the states, all the slave states except Delaware quickly voted against ratification. Although Delaware was a slave state, slavery was relatively unimportant there (there were even handfuls of slaves in other northern states, too.) Since nine states had to ratify the Constitution for it to go into effect, the Constitution was dead in the water. Attempts to reconvene the Convention failed when the southern states insisted that the Constitution explicitly preserve slavery.

As 1787 dragged into 1788, the southern states called a convention of their own for the purpose of drafting a constitution. Their Constitution was closely aligned with the original, which most agreed had been a good piece of work, but it did include an explicit protection of slavery and strict prohibitions on the central government regulating internal affairs of the States. The Southern states, except Delaware, which had already ratified the original Constitution, ratified it immediately. They invited the northern states to join but none did. The southern Constitution allowed the ratifying states to convene a convention to declare the Constitution in force, which was done in mid-1788. Since the Southern States adhered to the notion that they were simply reforming the Articles of Confederation, they styled their union the Confederate States of America. The northern states waited until most of the states had ratified the original Constitution, then voted in Congress (still under the Articles of Confederation) to declare the new Constitution in effect. The few stragglers climbed on board by 1790. The US, bound by its obligation to create a separate district for its capital, selected a tract on the Niagara River, with a view toward encouraging settlement inland and commerce on the Great Lakes. The CS chose Charleston, South Carolina for their capital.

One proviso from many of the northern States was that Congress would draft a Bill of Rights to be added to the Constitution. Congress drafted a set of thirteen amendments protecting freedom of religion, speech, the press, the right of due process, and abolishing slavery. Most of the amendments were ratified swiftly, including the abolition of slavery. The handful of northern slaveowners were compensated for their slaves. The southern states had already incorporated a few rights guarantees into the Confederate Constitution, mostly property rights, but specifically permitted individual states to regulate speech and the press as well as set up established churches. Eventually, Confederate states banned all anti-slavery advocacy, as well as publication of anti-slavery literature. They also made escape, and harboring escaped slaves, capital offenses. Kentucky and Virginia militias patrolled the border regions, making escape nearly impossible.

The question arose immediately what to do about the territory west of the Appalachians. Since Virginia extended to the Ohio River (1), the Confederacy claimed all territory south of the Ohio River. There was already an extra-legal state of Franklin west of North Carolina, which was admitted to the Confederacy in 1789. Slave owners settled Kentucky, which was admitted in 1792. The Confederate presence in Kentucky was too strong to challenge, and indeed the United States moved rapidly to encourage settlement north of the Ohio to forestall Confederate expansion northward. With the Ohio forming a western boundary, the Appalachians preventing easy movement in the center, and the Potomac on the east, both countries had eminently defensible borders. Maryland, though part of the CS, recognized uneasily that it would not be defensible if it ever came to blows. On the other hand, Philadelphia was within easy reach of the CS.

Both the US and CS eyed the territory west of the Mississippi. When Napoleon offered to sell the Louisiana Territory, the US and CS entered into a bidding war, to the delighted surprise of Napoleon. With scant knowledge of the geography of the region, Napoleon simply offered the CS everything south of 37 degrees latitude, roughly the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and the US everything to the north. For $5 million each. The CS snapped up the offer with glee, since it gained control of the mouth of the Mississippi. The US realized to its horror that the interior was now landlocked, and took Napoleon up on his offer. The US and CS hammered out a treaty guaranteeing free navigation on the Ohio and Mississippi.

Both the US and CS sent expeditions to map out their new holdings. The US Lewis and Clark Expedition found a route to the Pacific, laying the foundation for a territorial claim extending to the Pacific. The CS sent out an expedition headed by Zebulon Pike, who reported a formidable mountain barrier and no easy route through. The only easy southern routes lay across Spanish territory.

Meanwhile a slave revolt in Haiti embodied all the worst fears of the CS. Even in the US, initial sympathy turned cool as reports of atrocities against white French settlers poured in. In the CS, the fury could only be described as incandescent. Private organizers raised volunteer brigades that offered their services to the French, who cheerfully accepted. CS settlers were better used to heat and humidity than Europeans, and some European troops had already gone over to the Haitian rebels. Pro-slavery Americans would have no such qualms. Over 100,000 volunteers signed up. The pay was paltry, but most were motivated by a belief they would be able to bring back their own slaves, or even acquire a plantation in Haiti.

The Haitians, having been in battle for several years, gave the upstart Confederate volunteers some solid drubbings at first. It was frontiersmen from Franklin and Kentucky, used to fighting Indians, who gave the volunteers some skills, aided by a few officers from the Confederate military academy in Richmond. Once the Confederates could hold their own in battle, the war became one of no quarter on either side. Night raids by masked CS troops massacred entire villages. The Haitians were fighting for survival and the Confederates were driven by a desire to teach blacks once and for all what happened to slaves who dared resist. With no non-slave territory in the CSA, and opposition to slavery suppressed, there was no countervailing public opinion in the CS. Non-CS observers were barred from Haiti, and so the CS press reported Haitian atrocities in gruesome detail, but CS atrocities went unreported. More than half the population of Haiti was wiped out before the exhausted and terrified survivors surrendered. Napoleon had by now decided an American empire was not in the cards, and was also glad to distance himself from CS actions in Haiti, so he ceded Haiti to the CS. Its new masters ruled with an iron fist, determined not to make the same mistakes the French had.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the US fought a naval war with Britain over the right to trade freely with Europe, and mounted a botched invasion of Canada. The CS, on the other hand, openly cheered Great Britain. Most of their trade was with Britain's Caribbean colonies and their new territory of Haiti, many CS traders were cheerfully supplying slaves to Jamaica, and they were delighted to see the US weakened economically. The only thing that saved the US was the fact that, from the British perspective, the War of 1812 was a series of trivial skirmishes on the outer fringe of the wider conflict with Napoleon. At the conclusion of the War, the US and Britain agreed to disarm the Great Lakes and the border with Canada, a surprisingly good ending to a badly run war.

When revolution broke out in Mexico in 1819, the US cheered on their fellow revolutionaries, while the CS was a lot more ambivalent. They already had ambitions in the Caribbean and wanted to see Spain weakened, but were not enthusiastic about a strong, independent Mexico, either. The CS had already purchased Florida from Spain, and, with Spain occupied by Napoleon, the CS occupied Santo Domingo and Puerto Rico in 1814, ostensibly to protect them from the French and British. Cuba was now effectively surrounded by American possessions, but the CS held out reassurances to the slave-holding Cuban elite. Cuba entered into an alliance with the CS, then progressively deeper trade relations, and soon became effectively a CS satellite.

By 1820, the CS had created the new States of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, as well as admitting Santo Domingo. CS settlers coveted the lands of the settled Cherokee, and launched a campaign of terrorism that sent the Cherokee fleeing west beyond the Mississippi. Ostensibly the CS deplored the violence, but turned a blind eye to it, although they did supply military escorts to the refugees. Soon after, CS settlers streamed into Texas, and the enlightened dictator Santa Ana outlawed slavery specifically to discourage them. The enlightened Santa Ana had also managed to provoke rebellions in about half the states of Mexico. In 1836, Texas declared independence and defeated Santa Ana's forces. It immediately petitioned to join the CS and was admitted as a state in 1838. Santa Ana declared war. Instead of mounting an invasion, the CS held a defensive line along the Nueces River while offering volunteers to the breakaway Republic of the Rio Grande and Republic of Zacatecas. The CS plan, as it had worked in Santo Domingo and was working in Cuba, was to achieve economic dominance over its allies and eventually absorb them. The separatist revolts succeeded, leaving Mexico as a rump state with only a narrow waist in the west connecting the settled south with the nearly vacant north. The CS occupied the far north and declared itself owner of a strip between 37 and 42 degrees north, extending indefinitely far west. With almost no settlement or military presence there, Mexico was scarcely in a position to challenge the CS. The US insisted everything north of 37 degrees was theirs by virtue of the Louisiana Purchase, but there had been no US exploration of the territory, whereas the CS had been actively exploring. The CS had little trouble enforcing its claim.

In 1849, gold was discovered in California, which was still part of Mexico. Gold seekers from both the US and CS poured in, the latter with slaves. US settlers had no sympathy for Confederates whose slaves escaped, and openly encouraged them. There were frequent pitched battles between US and CS camps, and any blacks taken in arms against the CS were summarily executed. Both US and CS settlers declared rival Republics of California. Mexican forces in California mostly confined themselves to protecting the Mexican population. At roughly the same time, Mormons fleeing persecution in Illinois settled by the Great Salt Lake and proclaimed the state of Deseret. The CS was scandalized by Mormon polygamy but delighted with the Mormon belief that blacks had inherited the curse of Cain. Since the Mormons were fleeing persecution in the US, their loyalty to the CS was assured. The CS decided polygamy was an internal state matter, and Deseret was admitted to the Confederacy in 1863.

In 1858, gold was discovered near Pike's Peak, triggering the Colorado Gold Rush. Control of both Colorado and California would give the CS control of most of the gold between Mexico and Canada and give them economic dominance. The US decided such a state of affairs could not stand. It declared the CS annexation of Colorado and Deseret to be invalid, and the US-leaning California Republic to be the lawful government of California. US Marines landed in San Francisco and the Army marched south into Colorado. About a quarter of the Marines were lost when pro-CS settlers, using seized Mexican artillery, sank a steamboat taking Marines upriver to Sacramento, and fierce ambushes forced the Army to retreat from Colorado. The CS settlers in the West included large numbers with battle experience in the Caribbean and the Mexican separatist republics. The short California War was a resounding debacle for the US. The US awakened to the shocking reality that they shared a transcontinental border with a totalitarian slave state that was both richer and militarily stronger.

With a vast swath open to slavery, the expansionist drives of the CS were temporarily sated, but the Southwest was too arid for slave-intensive agriculture. Individual adventurers still dreamed of carving out their own states in Latin America and the Caribbean. One of these was William Walker, who led a coup in Nicaragua in 1860 (2). Not only was Nicaragua a fertile territory, it commanded the easiest route across the continent. Although longer than the route across Panama, most of the route across Nicaragua was easily navigable, and the only barrier was a mere 150 foot high range of hills. Walker launched a company to build a canal. Supported by the CS monopoly on gold and inexhaustible slave labor, the canal was completed by 1870, at a cost of 75,000 lives.

One beneficiary of the North American military stalemate was the independent Kingdom of Hawaii. As the 19th century drew to a close, it was obvious that some foreign power would see Hawaii's strategic value and annex it. US and CS settlers both established landholdings in Hawaii, and both eagerly desired annexation, but both the US and CS feared that a conflict over Hawaii might spill over into a general war. So in the Treaty of Honolulu (1892), Hawaii, the US and the CS jointly agreed that Hawaii would remain neutral and the US and CS would protect it from external aggression. So Hawaii remained independent, and the US and CS warily watched each other. The US annexed Midway and the CS annexed several other outlying atolls for naval bases. The CSA had become a bit more refined in its foreign policy and realized that pliant client states could be as useful as actual possessions. Cuba and the Mexican republics began to breathe a bit easier.

Since the CS constitution allowed states to support established churches, most did. These evolved into denominations that emphasized the legitimacy of slavery and social hierarchy, and the importance of obedience to authority. Slaves were kept illiterate and had only a fragmentary knowledge of the Bible, so slave churches preached a random mix of Christianity and folk beliefs. Slave owners encouraged superstitious fear of punishment for disobedience. When Charles Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859, any concern over the non-literal interpretation of Genesis was offset by the ease with which evolution could be used to legitimize slavery. Also, interpreting Genesis figuratively opened the door to figurative interpretations of Christ's social teachings, as well. But the philosopher who really struck a chord in the CSA was Nietzsche, who cited the CSA in his writings as an example of a society evolving toward the ubermensch.

Although in theory the CSA was a democratic republic, the scope of its democracy was limited to white male property owners. Citizenship and free status was limited to full-blooded whites. The CS Congress was prohibited from limiting free speech, but states and local governments had a free hand, so anti-slavery agitation and even journalism were suppressed. Slave revolts generally remained unknown outside the local area. Trial by jury was guaranteed for whites, but slave owners dealt with blacks summarily. The only limitation was that capital offenses (murder, attempted escape, plus pretty much any violent crime against a white) had to be reviewed by a judge and sentence carried out by law enforcement. In practice, slave owners needed do little more than inform the sheriff. Along its long land border west of the Mississippi and its short land frontier in the Appalachians, the CS established a no-mans-land where slaves could be shot on sight. These fortuitously furnished shelter for wildlife. The last surviving flocks of passenger pigeons survived in these strip refuges after being driven to extinction elsewhere (3). Despite radically different ideologies, neither side felt a desire to attack the other, apart from cross-border raids by pro- and anti-slavery hotheads. For all its abhorrence of slavery, the US felt no desire to take control of millions of blacks. Neither the US nor the CS felt any eagerness to assimilate large numbers of hostile whites. 

As the race for colonies intensified in the late 19th century, sentiment in the CSA was unabashedly pro-imperialist. Meanwhile, slavery was coming to be seen as gauche, so the CS "abolished" slavery in 1878, but replaced it with a system of indenture that was every bit as difficult to escape. Mostly the abolition consisted of replacing "slavery" with "indenture" in the laws. It dawned on the CS that indentured servitude had no racial connotations, and could be applied to whites as well as blacks. Increasingly, poor whites in the CS found themselves in virtual slavery. They could buy their way out with a stint in the military, a source of easy manpower for the CS. A large pool of indentured labor also had the advantage, from some points of view, of keeping wages rock bottom.

During World War I, the US favored Britain and France while the CS favored Germany. Neither especially wanted to become embroiled in a European war, so both observed a semi-neutrality where each traded with its preferred partner and fired back in self defense. US volunteers flew aircraft for France, and CS volunteers flew for Germany, and occasionally faced each other in aerial combat. The war ground to an exhausted end in May, 1919. Meanwhile, Russia had dropped out in 1917 and been overtaken by the Bolshevik Revolution. Between its persecution of religion and its attacks on property, Bolshevism whipped the CS into a fury not seen since the slave revolt in Haiti a century earlier. 20,000 CS volunteers went to Russia to fight for the Whites, but only 5,000 returned.

As new armed camps began to coalesce in the 1930's, public opinion in the US favored neutrality, but leaned toward the democracies. In the CS, public opinion favored Japan in its invasion of China. The Japanese were seen as civilized, industrious and disciplined in contrast to the corrupt and moribund Chinese government, and the openly racist Japanese attitude toward China was admired strongly in the CS. When the Nazis came to power in Germany, the CS welcomed them with open arms. To the CS, anti-Semitism was no sin, and indeed was widespread and open in the CS, but the real appeal of the Nazis was their hatred of Bolshevism, and the Nazis in turn approved of CS policies toward blacks. When Germany invaded Poland, and Britain and France unexpectedly declared war, CS diplomats in Germany cautioned the Germans to keep their focus on the East, and allow the Western Sitzkrieg to continue to sitzen. When the US stopped shipments of oil and other strategic materials to Japan in protest of its aggression in China, the CS gleefully continued to send Japan whatever it wanted. When Germany invaded Russia, even though it technically faced a two-front war, it had no real threat in the rear. The US signed an agreement with the Soviet Union to supply food and munitions, and the CS did the same with Germany. The difference was the US convoys ran a gauntlet of German submarines, while the CS convoys were escorted by the German navy. And there was a steady stream of CS ships carrying supplies to Japan. (4)

Not only was Germany well supplied by the CS, but with Britain only formally at war, but not inclined to do anything rash, Germany's infrastructure and industrial plant remained intact. The CS also manufactured armaments for Germany, allowing the CS to copy the most advanced tank designs as well as prototype Messerschmidt jets. By 1944, Russia was reeling and in headlong flight. The Germans decided to hold at the Urals. Meanwhile, Japan saw its opportunity and invaded eastern Russia as far as Lake Baikal (5). Russia's orphan province Alaska, which it had tried a number of times to sell to the US or Canada, was now in danger of invasion by Japan. As Japan gobbled the Aleutians, the US and Canada jointly occupied the rest. The war ended in 1946 with Germany occupying Poland and Russia west of the Urals, Japan occupying eastern Siberia, the Aleutians and southwestern Alaska, and Russia reduced to central Siberia. The former non-Russian Soviet republics became independent. Japan imposed puppet regimes in eastern China and took on a leadership role among the former central Asian Soviet republics, who feared both Russia and China. Japan and Britain vied to assume the role of protector of Tibet. Britain and France reigned supreme in Africa, the Middle East and south Asia.

After the war, the world settled into an armed peace. Neither Nazism, Japanese or British imperialism or CS quasi-slavery were ideologies that lent themselves well to foreign export, and Bolshevism, blamed for Russia's defeat, had been purged from what was left of Russia. Petty dictatorships around the world styled themselves followers of one brand of totalitarianism or the other, depending on personal taste and strategic convenience. The only voices for democracy and human rights were the US, Canada and various countries in Western Europe, including, ironically, Britain and France, which considered themselves as civilizing forces in their colonies. Colonial rule by Britain and France in Africa and Asia was infinitely superior to what the Nazis would have done. But the overwhelming balance of military force in the world favored the totalitarian empires. Both the CS and Germany dreamed of colonizing Africa. They were not pretty dreams.


(1) Virginia originally included present West Virginia, which rejected secession and seceded from secession. West Virginia was admitted as a state in 1863. This and the splitting of Maine from Massachusetts in 1820 are the only two times states have been split in US history.

(2) In our world, Walker ended his days before a Honduran firing squad in 1860. In this alternate timeline, his occupation of Nicaragua took hold. Moreover, with the Caribbean and Central America in the CS sphere of influence, he was able to avoid the fatal mistake of making an enemy of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

(3) Why not? The former East German frontier zone served as an inadvertent wildlife refuge, too.

(4) In this alternative time line, the Japanese, with no oil or strategic materials shortages, see no need to seize oil fields in Burma or Indonesia. With no reason to go to war with Britain, they see no reason to seize Hong Kong or Singapore, and though they're irritated by the US, they have no strategic reason to invade the (still Spanish) Philippines, Wake, or Guam. With Hawaii neutral and protected jointly by the US and CS, there is no Pearl Harbor to attack.

(5) Before our World War II, Japan was divided between a northern plan, to seize eastern Russia, and a southern plan, to seize the oil fields of Burma and Indonesia. In August, 1939, at Khalkin Gol, the most important battle most people have never heard of, the Japanese probed the Russians and got mauled. They then decided on the southern plan, which inevitably meant war with Britain and eventually the US, hence, Pearl Harbor. But in this scenario they don't need the southern plan and by 1944, whatever had happened in 1939, Russia had been bled white.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Roots of our Paranoia

When the White Plains Journal News published the names and addresses of registered gun owners in Rockland and Westchester Counties (the two counties immediately north of New York City straddling the Hudson), gun owners reacted with fury. And although they own guns, and in some cases sizable home arsenals, it's obvious these people are really afraid. Of what? Crime is at its lowest point in decades, and in any case, a handgun is a far more useful defense against crime than a rifle or semi-automatic assault weapon, and you can only shoot two at a time anyway. If you want any kind of accuracy, stick to one and use a two-handed grip. Unless you're a collector, the purpose of owning half a dozen guns is murky at best. Gun rights defenders speak of resisting tyranny, but weapons and tactics that worked in the French and Indian War won't work in the 21st Century. As one observer put it, when the newest model tank crashes through your front door, your high capacity magazine will be just as effective as a legal ten round magazine. When is the last time an armed citizenry in the U.S. successfully mobilized and repelled an invader or put down an abuse of government authority? (1) For all the romanticizing of Lexington and Concord, everything from Bunker Hill onward was mostly European set piece battles. The British pretty much went unmolested in New York City and Philadelphia. When Sherman marched to the sea and Sheridan ravaged the Shenandoah Valley, did they meet much citizen resistance? No, and for a very good reason: the Union army quickly made examples of anyone who tried it. The Union Army is about to burn your farm to prevent you raising crops for the Confederate war effort. You have a gun. They have ten guys with guns, who can call on hundreds more. Your move. For a variety of reasons, we didn't regard Iraqi and Afghan insurgents as criminals. American insurgents can be treated as criminals. The fact that we didn't do so after the Civil War is an illustration of the theological adage "don't confuse mercy with merit."

We romanticize the World War II Resistance movements, and they did some heroic things. The Polish underground got to a crashed V-2 before the Germans, hid it, and smuggled key parts to the British. Resistance movements sabotaged key facilities and smuggled downed pilots to safety. They supplied valuable intelligence. The one thing they did not do effectively was drive the occupiers out, because they were outmanned, outgunned, and faced with an enemy who shot hostages in reprisal. The exceptions illustrate the limitations of an armed citizenry. Partisan movements in the Soviet Union had links to the Soviet military. Partisans in Yugoslavia were also supplied from outside and finally expelled the Germans only after the Soviet Union and Bulgaria invaded Yugoslavia. Partisans liberated Albania at about the same time, in large part because the Germans began a strategic withdrawal. It's axiomatic in asymmetrical warfare that guerrilla movements need outside support to succeed.

Even when there is a breakdown of society, gun owners lay low. The 1992 Rodney King riots would have been a prime opportunity for gun advocates to show what an armed citizenry can do. There are lots of heavily armed gun lovers in Southern California as well as some would-be militias. Why didn't any of them set up armed barricades to stop the rioters, or better yet cleared the riot zone? Probably because they would have faced some criminal charges and lawsuits later on if they'd shot anyone. The most serious believers in guns for defense seem to picture a breakdown of social order deep and long enough that they will not face legal repercussions for their actions (they seem not to realize they will face repercussions from people with more guns, armed friends and better organization). So where do we find situations like that? Somalia, the Congo, Afghanistan, the so-called "failed states." Actually they're not so much failed states as never-were states.

So, I've asked, repeatedly, why people believe the world is full of sinister plots. Here, for example, are two posts I put on Salon on January 21 and 22, 2013:
Monday, Jan 21, 2013 03:43 PM CST
Here's a question I keep asking conspiracy believers with very little result so far. Tell me what you have seen or experienced first-hand that convinces you conspiracies like this exist. Not what somebody told you, not what you read, not things that "don't fit," but actual, personal observation. And for those of you who just completed Psych 1, I'm also not interested in your theories about circumcision or lack of parental warmth. My personal experience is that I pay taxes and I get roads, police and fire protection, military protection, clean water, airports and national parks. Some of you have personal experience that convinces you there are false flag operations and FEMA death camps. So tell us what it is.

Tuesday, Jan 22, 2013 03:21 PM CST
Well, 24 hours and nothing. Par for this course. Let me clarify. No, you weren't there when Sandy Hook or 9/11 or JFK's assassination were plotted. And you didn't build anything for FEMA that looks like a death camp. But there must be SOMEthing in your life that persuades you that the world works this way. What was it? I could see if you had a bad tour in 'Nam and saw rampant faking of battle reports, or got railroaded for a crime you didn't commit. I can definitely see why blacks might be paranoid about whites. But most conspiracy believers are comfortable, middle class whites living in comfort and safety. So just why do you think the world is full of evil plots?
When I copied those, there had still not been any reply. And I've done this quite a few times, and there is never a coherent answer. I've had a fair amount of Bible prophecy babble, but only one attempt at a real response. A guy wrote to tell me he was convinced the Jews controlled the economy because he once had a Jewish acquaintance who told him the Jews controlled the economy, and who was a crooked businessman, as well. Well, I have an acquaintance who once told me a friend of his was approached by the Illuminati about joining, but I don't believe it. Worldwide conspiracies really ought to pre-screen people better than that before trying to recruit them. So why would this guy choose to believe his Jewish acquaintance? Why wouldn't he believe that all businessmen are crooked, something equally well supported by his data?

Most recently, when Scientific American published an on-line article about the roots of paranoia, I posed the question again - and specifically selected the option to be notified when someone replied. So far, there have been zero responses. From the evidence so far, nobody who believes in conspiracies has any first-hand basis for doing so.

There are some people who've been screwed over and who have earned a right to be suspicious. But why would safe, comfortable, privileged and affluent white middle-class people think the world is out to get them? The government may be plotting to take their guns, but it hasn't happened in 236 years of American history, nor is it happening to them or anyone they know, and are we really to believe there are no police officers who would leak a warning if it were to happen? They have absolutely no first-hand experience to base their beliefs on, but they read books, listen to people, and see things on line and choose to believe them. Or they watch videos of 9/11 and choose to believe things don't quite fit. Or they read the Bible and choose to believe there's a demonic conspiracy coming. Why?

This cannot be an enjoyable existence. C.S. Lewis' demon Screwtape observed: "Cowardice, alone of all the vices, is purely painful - horrible to anticipate, horrible to feel, horrible to remember..." (Ch. XXIX)


According to DSM-IV*, characteristics of the paranoid personality disorder include:
  1. excessive sensitivity to setbacks and rebuffs;
  2. tendency to bear grudges persistently, i.e. refusal to forgive insults and injuries or slights;
  3. suspiciousness and a pervasive tendency to distort experience by misconstruing the neutral or friendly actions of others as hostile or contemptuous;
  4. a combative and tenacious sense of personal rights out of keeping with the actual situation;
  5. recurrent suspicions, without justification, regarding sexual fidelity of spouse or sexual partner;
  6. tendency to experience excessive self-importance, manifest in a persistent self-referential attitude;
  7. preoccupation with unsubstantiated conspiratorial explanations of events both immediate to the patient and in the world at large.
Given the behavior of groups like the Taliban, we can say that some cultures as a whole suffer from this disorder, with an extreme fixation on criterion 5. But why do so many Americans? Most have never experienced a moment of real fear, danger, or discomfort in their whole lives. They are safe, prosperous and well fed, but they live in a mental universe where child molesters lurk behind every bush, the medical profession deliberately conceals miraculous drugs from them, the government flies planes into buildings, FEMA builds secret concentration camps all over the place, corporate farms sneak poisons into their food, aircraft dump mind-controlling chemtrails into the air and secret radar installations control the weather.

Well, of course, there's always....

Bad Parenting 

Numerous writers on personality disorders ascribe paranoia to failure to develop a trusting relationship with parents. Certainly we can picture how arbitrary punishment, repeated broken promises and repeated violations of rights can do that.

A parent with obsessive-compulsive or narcissistic behavior might communicate that behavior to children by example. A child with a mother who washes her hands every ten minutes might develop an exaggerated fear of uncleanliness. But parents might also actually encourage the behaviors, either in the belief that they are among the few who really understand the way the world works, or as a means of legitimizing their own thinking. A narcissist might encourage a child to think of himself first. A good example is Hal's father in Shallow Hal, who urges Hal from his deathbed to pursue only beautiful women.  Someone with anti-social behavior might train a child to be an accomplice. Paranoia is especially likely to be passed along because paranoids love conspiracies and recruit other members of their family into the plot. Kids, of course, love having some justification for dismissing what they learn in school or are told by authority.

Nevertheless, bad parenting is often a convenient rationalization for avoiding the unpleasant truth that some people just plain decide to do bad things because they get enjoyment from it or because it offers some advantage. And no matter how faithful a parent is, many promises cannot be kept. Santa cannot bring that expensive new toy because Dad is out of work. That long-awaited trip to the beach can't be taken because of the weather or the car breaks down. Mom can't come to your ballet performance because she's sick. Your puppy dies. Your bike gets stolen. You get a baby sister instead of a brother. So the world offers plenty of reasons for some people to become paranoid. This is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy because paranoia alienates others and reinforces the loneliness of the sufferer, may possibly seem threatening to others and so invite defensive responses, and excessive caution may actually cause rather than prevent mishaps. There is roughly a forty-fold greater likelihood that a gun in the home will be used on a family member rather than an intruder.

Delusional Narcissism

Dr. Keith Ablow published a piece at called "We are raising a generation of deluded narcissists" (January 8, 2013) pointing to social media turning adolescents into faux celebrities. While true, those delusions pale next to someone dismantling a business and then claiming to be a "job creator," laying off workers when the economy slows down and then claiming to "face the risks of the marketplace," doing a routine job for years and expecting steadily inflated salary and job titles, expecting a right to union protection for slacking off or screwing up on the job, or occupying a house for decades and then feeling cheated if the value doesn't soar.

So the delusional narcissists among us conclude they deserve free medical care, free food, free Internet, free housing, free cable TV, the right to do business without regulation, and the right to consumer goods without having to live near the factories that make them. They either deserve it from the government if they're liberal, or they deserve it without having to pay taxes if they're conservative. Even if they admit they should pay for it, they deserve it at a negligible price that doesn't require any sacrifice on their part. The price they pay for necessities should never cut into their ability to buy luxuries. Two hundred years ago, your retirement plan was simple: you got up, went to work, came home, went to bed, got up, went to work.... And then one day you didn't get up and go to work because you were dead. Retirement was a blessing because it meant people could survive without working when they were no longer capable of it. Today's delusional narcissists consider they have a right to sell their home at a huge profit and buy another in a desirable location, or buy an RV and travel. And of course, all that money is theirs to spend without having to save for necessities like health care. When the recession of 2008 kicked in, the media were full of heart-wrenching tales of people who had to give up their dreams of retiring at 55 and keep on working to afford that retirement home on the beach (which will, of course, be covered by public disaster funds when a storm surge washes it away). Those people who can actually retire on generous terms are fortunate. But the delusional narcissist is never "fortunate." He's only getting what he deserves. "Gratitude" is only a word in the dictionary between "grasping" and "greed."

Needless to say, when the delusional narcissist can't have what he considers rightfully his, someone is to blame for it. Medical care is expensive because the doctors and the drug companies are only in it for the profits, not because a heart transplant, something that wasn't even possible 50 years ago, is a staggeringly complex procedure. Something gets lost in the mail, so the fault is those overpaid parasites in the Post Office, who only handle hundreds of millions of pieces of mail a day and charge 46 cents to send it from Key West to Nome, or Puerto Rico to Guam. If the price of gas goes up, it's because the government is interfering with industry or the oil companies are withholding production. The ultimate bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you irony is that people will complain that gas is so expensive, then go to a church that doesn't believe in the science it takes to find oil in the first place. If your electric bill goes up, it's because the government is taxing the private sector or because the oil and utility companies are price gouging. It can't possibly be that oil refineries and power plants are enormous, gigantically expensive operations or that it costs money to get oil and coal out of the ground and ship it hundreds or thousands of miles, or that the people who want the energy don't want to live anywhere near the sites that produce it. Have you priced a box of cereal recently? Outrageous! Of course, somebody has to grow the grain, harvest it, someone else has to ship it, someone else processes it, someone else ships it again to the store, where people put it on shelves and wait patiently at the cash register for you to drop by, at your convenience, not theirs, to buy it. Oh, by the way, the profit margin of a supermarket is about 1%.

Some commentators recently have drawn criticism for noting that mass shooters are almost exclusively white males, but the connection is understandable. If you can't make it as a member of the privileged gender of the privileged ethnic group, you are a loser indeed. You can either resign yourself to it, take a hard look at yourself and figure out what needs changing, or decide that other people are to blame and lash back.

Look around you. You do not deserve anything you see. It is completely a historical accident that you were born in modern times instead of as a Neolithic farmer or medieval peasant, or a gulag prisoner in Stalinist Russia. It is solely a statistical fluke that you were born in a developed country instead of Bangladesh or the Congo. All the prosperity you enjoy is...

Undeserved Prosperity 

Ever go someplace where you were totally out of your league? A gathering where everyone else was way richer, more educated, or more accomplished? Shared experiences, attitudes and behaviors that you had no clue about? Not very comfortable. You don't deserve to be there at all; you're only there because you stumbled in by accident, or sneaked in, or someone way above your station invited you. But you know you don't deserve to be there. As C.S. Lewis described it: "One is conscious of having blundered into a society that one is unfit for" (2). And every moment you're stalked by the specter of somebody spotting you for a phony and calling you out on it.

Now, what if "there" is Earth? You eat food you didn't grow and in many cases have no idea where it came from or what it looks like in nature. You rely on elaborate machines to get you places, but have no idea how they work. If your car stops, you have no idea what went wrong or what to do to fix it. In many cases, there is nothing you personally can do. To travel long distances you get into a big flying tube that leaves you completely at the mercy of other people. Your illnesses are treated by people who speak a language you don't understand and who give you little nondescript pills containing who knows what? Everything in your house connects to outlets in the wall that supply electricity created by processes you don't understand. You are reading this on a device that might as well be populated by fairies for all you know. And when something pops up saying you have a virus or the FBI has caught you downloading illegal material, you don't have a clue what to do.

When I was a child, there were lots of people around who were adults before they saw their first automobile or airplane, who grew up in homes without electricity, running water or indoor plumbing. They're all dead now. As time goes on our ability to get in touch with simpler times fades. By the standards of my high school classmates I wasn't too car-savvy, but I know a heck of a lot more than the average high school kid today knows about cars. Partly that's a Darwinian product of having things go wrong in places where there's no choice except to fix the problem somehow. But to people who live in a world full of stuff they can't control except in the most rudimentary way, what's to stop all those people who do know from suddenly turning on them? Suddenly cutting off the power and water, jacking up the price of food ten or twenty times, or closing the hospitals to them?

Jonathan Edwards' infamous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, pictures the sinner as a loathsome insect, held out of the fire only by the undeserved mercy of God. Most Americans are like that, kept alive and prosperous only through the exertions of people more productive, inventive and generous than they are. The productive view them not so much as loathsome insects, as puppies who will eventually go to the pound if they pee on the rug too often. Forget Wall Street "going Galt." The really terrifying prospect  is that the inventive and creative people will stop creating, or will realize the power they have over everyone else and start demanding to be paid what they are really worth. When you didn't earn a single one of the luxuries you "own" and would be powerless to get them back if they were lost, you're bound to feel insecure.

Hey! I work for a living! Really? So did medieval peasants, and their lifetime productivity could not have gotten them one second of electric light or a bite of chocolate. However hard you work, what you pay for goods and services is only a token of their real worth.

They Don't Trust God (Even if They Don't Believe in Him)

You'd think people who are saved and assured of going to Heaven would be blissfully free from an irrational fear of death. A rational fear of death is looking both ways before crossing the street, wearing seat belts, getting vaccinated, not smoking, and avoiding bad streets after dark. An irrational fear of death is worrying that cell phones will give you a brain tumor, not wearing a seat belt because you're afraid of being trapped in the car, thinking every food additive will kill you, buying a gun because some minorities drove down your street, and thinking the government is plotting to round people up and commit genocide.

Although Christians pretend to trust in God, the God many of them picture is capricious, vicious, and arbitrary. Jonathan Edwards' sermon, mentioned above, is a good illustration. In one of the most infamous passages, he says:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.
Does that describe a deity anyone could trust, much less love or respect? Why would anyone believe that such a deity would spare them regardless of what they did? One could easily picture such a deity casting its most loyal trusting followers into hell just to gloat over their shock, pain and surprise. Surely it is no accident that the people most prone to paranoid conspiracy beliefs often hold paranoid religious beliefs as well. If you believe that the universe is run as malevolently as Edwards describes, of course you'll believe that every event around you is orchestrated by malevolent people and groups for malevolent ends.

The supreme irony is that Muslim extremists will cheerfully commit suicide attacks, secure in the absolute certainty of eternal bliss, whereas Christians in America, who supposedly are saved and certain of entry into heaven, cower in fear at the slightest risk. Ken Murray, a retired physician and medical school professor, wrote in "How Doctors Die" (Saturday Evening Post, March/April 2013) that doctors spend far less on terminal care than most patients. They know what the prognosis is for their illnesses and have no illusions that radical therapy will buy them many more years of vibrant health. Murray refers to much terminal care as "futile care;" intensive care makes sense for a 20-year old injured in an accident or a 40 year old who had an unexpected heart attack. It doesn't make sense for a 70 year old.

Atheists, if anything, are even weirder. If there's no God and no afterlife, then there's absolutely no reason to fear death. You do whatever you can to postpone it (although you can have an amusing philosophical debate over whether it matters. If you completely cease to exist, consciousness and all, when you die, there won't be any you to remember it, and no Cosmic Consciousness to keep score. The second your brain dies, it will make no difference to you that you ever even lived.). In any case, you do not have to fear making the wrong choice in what to believe or what you do, because you are annihilated when you die. So although many non-believers claim to be liberated, they sure don't act it when it comes to irrational fears. They're just as likely to fear fluoridation and believe 9/11 was an inside job as the most rabid religious believers.

A Feeling of Security

Those not inclined to a conspiratorial mind-set might naively think people would be relieved to discover that the world is not a web of evil plots. But start debunking conspiracies, and believers put up fierce resistance. Some of it may be reluctance to face embarrassment at being taken in ("That bikini model I met on line really did want to marry me." "I wouldn't invest so much time reading about the moon landing hoax if it wasn't a real conspiracy.") but it seems to go far deeper than that. Most Christians do not believe in conspiracies and most churches don't preach conspiratorial beliefs. Within a mile of any conspiracy believer are probably half a dozen sane churches that preach a healthy, forgiving version of Christianity, yet many conspiracy believers choose to attend churches that encourage conspiratorial thinking. In fact, quite a few boast that they used to attend a "mainstream" church and left because its message was so "watered down."

Discuss conspiracies with a few true believers and it becomes very evident that they are fiercely determined to hold on to their beliefs. They fight tooth and nail to avoid having their conspiracy beliefs undermined. I have visited the Kennedy assassination site in Dallas. From Oswald's sniper nest, it might be an exaggeration to say Oswald could have thrown a brick and hit Kennedy, or used a flintlock musket, but only barely. So when a friend started in on the JFK conspiracy, I shared my experience. He replied that Oswald couldn't have made that shot because of the crappy scope he used. Even a crappy scope can stay zeroed long enough to make a few shots, and Oswald could have Scotch-taped a toilet paper roll to his rifle for a scope at that fish-in-a-barrel range, but it was obvious that this guy wanted to believe there was a conspiracy, and was determined to go on believing it.

To non-believers in conspiracies, the world is a complex place. Hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes happen randomly. Good people suffer misfortune. Bad people get good fortune. Nobody in New York had a clue when the sun rose on September 11, 2001 what would happen in the next few hours. The only way to keep safe is keep your wits about you and a sense of perspective, and even then, you can just be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many people suffer tragedy, but most do not. There are risks everywhere, but most of them are small and most can be minimized with common sense. Religious believers can put their faith in God. Non-believers can put their faith in rationality.

On the other hand, conspiracy beliefs can bring order to chaos. JFK's assassination and 9-11 weren't just random events that happened principally because they were so outrageous that nobody thought to guard against them. Clearing every window on the parade route in Dallas would have prevented JFK from being shot, and armed sky marshals on every flight would have prevented the 9-11 hijacks. At least as they happened. There's no guarantee Oswald or the 9-11 hijackers might not have come up with a different plan. So unless you imagine every possible bad scenario and put something in place to prevent it, you'll never prevent every mishap. That makes the world a scary place. No, JFK and 9-11 were part of some grand evil scheme. A belief in conspiracies doesn't enable believers to predict events. Generally speaking, their predictions are of impending apocalyptic events like economic collapse, race war or government mass arrests, and those never actually seem to happen. But when there is a catastrophe of some kind, it can be fit into a comprehensible framework.

Like blaming the victim (real victims, not the pseudo-victims our society cranks out on an assembly-line basis), belief in conspiracies creates the illusion of control. A world where any woman can be minding her own business and be raped for no reason is scary, but if she did something to provoke it, then it might have been possible to prevent it. As a fringe benefit, blaming the [real] victim allows the blamer to simultaneously indict whatever behavior she disapproves of, say revealing clothes or a liberated lifestyle. Events like 9-11 are really scary if a bunch of conspirators with minimal logistics can hit on a scheme to cause major carnage, but if it's part of a scheme backed by the Illuminati or the Trilateral Commission or the Bilderberg Group or the Vatican or the Masons or the Stonecutters, then maybe we can prevent future terrorist acts. As an added fringe benefit, breaking up the conspiracy also allows the conspiracy believers to attack whatever social and political movements they happen to disapprove of, since these are inevitably part of the conspiracy to undermine society.

The irony is that conspiracy believers miss the really dangerous conspiracies all around them. People who believe the oil companies are plotting to raise oil prices are blissfully unconcerned about the creationists who deny the very geology that makes it possible even to find oil in the first place. People who think Social Security is all a government control plot don't seem to think there are any risks in letting private firms handle their money. People who claim Big Pharma is charging outrageous prices for medicines never seem to ask why homeopathic remedies, which are essentially distilled water (probably tap water) are so expensive, or who stands to gain by having nutritional supplements unregulated by the FDA. Listen to a talk radio show discussing the plot du jour, then listen to their commercials for fringy medical and nutritional products or off the wall tax avoidance schemes, then ask yourself who really is profiting.


*DSM-V rolls up all the personality disorders into a single heading, and does the same with autism, so there's no longer an Asperger's Syndrome, for example. Apparently many psychologists had difficulty deciding what to do when patients had symptoms that crossed boundaries. I'm a physical scientist and even I have no problem seeing that these phenomena are gradational, and that people might show symptoms across category boundaries.  The changes really don't do much to improve my impression of the intellectual depth of the mental health profession.

(1)  There was the "Battle of Athens" in Tennessee in 1946, where armed citizens besieged a polling place and eventually recovered the ballots from a crooked sheriff. They got away with it only because the state did not call in the National Guard and took no actions later against the rebels.

(2) C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Chapter 3.