Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Why I Don’t Believe in Conspiracy Theories

I recently asked conspiracy believers to relate any personal, first hand evidence they had to justify believing, say, that their own government would fly airliners into buildings. Not what they read or heard, but what they actually saw. It would be really fascinating to discover what, exactly, leads conspiracy believers to draw the conclusions they do. And after asking the same question in many different places, I have not found a single person who can give me first-hand evidence, nor anyone who can actually articulate how they came to believe in conspiracies.

Well, fair’s fair. Let me tell you why I don’t believe in conspiracy theories.

They Lie

Back when I was in high school, I spent a lot of time browsing the science section of my local library. I discovered there were two kinds of books. There were the ordinary science books about stars, rocks, cells, and so on. Then there were far more exotic books about great catastrophes, close encounters between earth and other planets, and so on. And all the exotic books described heartbreaking tales of how the Scientific Establishment suppressed any unorthodox ideas. It made me really angry.

Then I went to college and started learning some real science, and I discovered that in every single case, those exotic theories were pure rubbish. Generally, the ideas in those books were so trivially easy to refute that no real scientist would waste his time on them. The ideas weren’t being suppressed at all. They were just irrelevant to real science. All those persecution accounts were lies. Lies told specifically to get the reader angry and on the side of the author. If I’d been angry before, finding out I’d been lied to and manipulated made me ten times angrier.

It was also about this time I discovered Martin Gardner’s classic “Fads and Fallacies,” where I first learned just how widespread the intellectual counterculture was. I developed an interest in crank theories as a scientific and social phenomenon, and I quickly noticed a pattern. Crank theories, almost without exception, have a paranoid tone and accuse some evil “Establishment” of conspiring to suppress their revolutionary ideas. This was the late Sixties, and I also noticed that some kinds of crank writings, specifically occult writings, held a lot of appeal for the radical counterculture of the day, which was also pretty paranoid (not entirely without reason). That turns out not to be coincidence.

This was also about the time that plate tectonics was revolutionizing geology, and the more entrenched it became in mainstream geology, the more strident its opponents became and the more likely they were to accuse mainstream scientists of ulterior motives and unfair treatment. One prominent hard-line opponent was editor of a leading journal, and he simply waived quality control when it came to anti-plate tectonic papers. It is safe to say that, under his aegis, that journal published some of the worst junk ever published in an otherwise mainstream scientific journal. And the tone was scarcely distinguishable from crank literature.

I concluded that a belief in conspiracies and a paranoid outlook are the single most reliable indicators of the crank, whether it’s astrology, creationism, dowsing, UFO’s, Bigfoot, or the Apollo moon landing hoax. In almost every case, the claims are false, intended to agitate the reader, lash out at authority, and justify the crank’s ideas in his own eyes. Lashing out at authority is a major element in most conspiracy beliefs.

Real Conspiracies Have Sensible Goals

The world is full of real conspiracies: drug cartels, terrorist organizations, organized crime, financial scams, malware creators. And for the most part, they’re rational. What they want is very clear. Mostly it’s money. Drug cartels want to control drug traffic and keep out rivals. Organized crime and financial scams want to siphon money out of the economy either by direct extortion or by fraud. Terrorists want to bring down a regime or seize power. Nobody pretends ISIS or the Cosa Nostra are actually fronts for fracking or imposing global socialism or confiscating Americans’ guns.

Two of the most massive secret operations in history were the Manhattan Project and the cover operations for D-Day. They managed to maintain secrecy because the people in charge were extremely rational and committed. True, they kept their subordinates highly compartmentalized, so that while everyone, friend and foe alike, knew something was afoot, and even in a general way what it was, very few people knew the big picture. But the fact that the entire group was highly committed meant that, even if information did leak to lower levels, it had a good chance of stopping there. (Military secrecy has one advantage. It doesn’t have to deceive everybody, just the guy at the top. There were numerous leaks of Germany’s plan to invade Russia in 1941, some very accurate. Stalin refused to believe them. Likewise, even after the Allied landings in Normandy, Hitler refused to believe that was the main attack.)

Real Conspiracies Use Sensible Methods

One of the most infamous real conspiracies was the Tuskeegee Experiments, where black syphilis patients were systematically denied proper medical care to allow doctors to observe the long term effects of syphilis. But the goal is easy to see: gather medical data (using flatly immoral methods). And the means to that end was fairly straightforward. The experimenters went to considerable lengths to track the subjects and intervene to prevent them getting proper care. But the methods were wholly ordinary: telephone calls and letters. Nobody has ever alleged a plot to topple American society by spreading syphilis, or trying to breed a new super-bug, or that the experimenters recruited psychics to track the subjects.

Bogus conspiracies, on the other hand, use Rube Goldberg methods to achieve objectives that any sane person could accomplish far more easily. (For those not old enough to remember Rube Goldberg, think of those insanely complicated domino-toppling or mechanical videos on YouTube.) For example, there are anti-fluoridationists who accuse the aluminum industry of promoting fluoridation as a means of disposing of waste fluoride. The aluminum industry is the single largest consumer of fluorine, so why would it “dispose” of something it uses in vast quantities? Actually, the aluminum industry recycles its fluorine. And the amount of fluorine used in drinking water is trivial compared to the amount used in smelting aluminum. It’s like accusing the lumber industry of promoting the sale of hamsters so they can sell wood shavings, or the silver industry of pushing sugar so they could sell silver for dental fillings. It's interesting that none of them accuse the electronics industry, which also uses a lot of fluorine in the refining of silicon.

So, sure, there was a gunman up on the grassy knoll in Dallas. All your top assassins pick vantage points out in the open where people will be milling around and they can’t be sure someone won’t be behind them or get their picture, or block their getaway route. (Oswald, in contrast, picked a hidden perch with escape routes.) We faked the moon landings by building 400-foot tall rockets that launched in full view of thousands of people. And, despite our rivalry with the Soviet Union, we somehow convinced them not to release telemetry data that would reveal the fakery. And the government brought down WTC 7 several hours after the Twin Towers, even though there were no people inside and no advantage to be gained by wrecking an empty building. The Sandy Hook school massacre was completely imaginary. We just picked two dozen families, created imaginary children for them, plus imaginary friends. It’s not like there aren’t a lot of people pushing for gun control already. And if the government wanted to spray us with mind control chemicals, you’d think they could come up with something a little more subtle than leaving long white streaks in the sky. Like maybe putting chemicals in the water that make rainbows in the sunlight (Yes, that is a real thing on YouTube).

Real Conspiracies Leak

Watergate broke when a night watchman noticed that latches on the office door of the Democratic National Committee had been taped so the door would not lock. You'd think someone like Gordon Liddy could train his minions to pick locks. Police arrested five burglars who had cash traceable to a slush fund operated by the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Security at every level was laughable, allowing investigators to follow the links right up to the White House. And this was an operation run by well trained people with access to enormous power. And it leaked like a sieve.

Iran-Contra was blown when an Iranian opposed to dealing with the U.S. leaked the story to a Lebanese newspaper.

In contrast, imaginary conspiracies are vast and air-tight. None of the astronauts in the Apollo Program has confirmed the hoax theory of the moon landings, let alone any of the thousands of people who built the rockets and landers. The Trilateral Commission, the Jews, the Freemasons, the Bilderberg Group, the Stonecutters, all control the global economy in secret. To which one critic of conspiracy theories said, “Great; let’s have people in control that can get things done.”

But any hobbyist with a computer can ferret out the conspiracy. Supposedly, dozens of witnesses to the JFK assassination have been hunted down and killed, most after they told the FBI everything they knew. If I thought there were really a conspiracy that ruthless, I’d paddle a canoe up the remotest headwaters of the Amazon and hide, not blog about it. A lot of conspiracy belief seems to be a Walter Mitty fantasy of a lone David bringing down a Goliath.

Their Logic is Just Plain Lousy

I can’t really do much better than this response to Cracked’s article, “5 Reasons Conspiracy Theories Are Destroying the World.”
Manhattan Project
Asbestos from the 1930s to the 1960s
Lead poisoning
Tuskegee experiments
Iran Contra
Cigarettes (defended by the AMA at one point)
Mercury Poisoning
All of these were once conspiracy theories, and all of them have been proven true. OF COURSE there are some conspiracy theories that are batshit insane. But have just one iota of appreciation for history, and maybe take the smugness down a notch.
First of all, there is the vast leap of logic. “Tuskegee experiments, therefore 9/11 was an inside job.” “MK-Ultra, therefore the Apollo landings were a hoax.” “Iran-Contra, therefore Sandy Hook was a false flag attack.” The “therefore’s” need a little more work.

Then, observe the attempt to salvage respectability. “OF COURSE there are some conspiracy theories that are batshit insane….” (and since I acknowledge that, therefore my conspiracy beliefs must be legitimate.) To see the fallacy here, just replace “conspiracy” with something else. “OF COURSE there are some racist theories that are batshit insane….” (but mine aren’t). “OF COURSE there are some extremists that are batshit insane….” (but not me).

No, the real issue is this. Since so many conspiracy theories are demonstrably, trivially unworkable and wrong, prove that yours is an exception to the pattern.

And then of course, we have the “unanswered questions” fallacy. How do you explain how fires can bring down steel frame skyscrapers? (Well, heat weakens steel and thermal expansion stresses and breaks joints.) How do you explain that shadows on Apollo pictures point in different directions? (It’s called perspective.) How do you explain how a mediocre shot like Oswald hit Kennedy? (Because if you visit the site, it’s apparent he could practically have hit Kennedy with a brick from where he was.) Most of the time, there are answers - simple ones - but the conspiracy theorist rejects them. But even if they have a real unanswered question, all that proves is that something is unanswered. And note, by the way, they never agree that their unanswered questions prove that they’re wrong.

seiroehT ycaripsnoC

One of the more interesting tactics by some conspiracy theorists is to flip the label around and accuse their critics of believing in conspiracy theories. A few of the replies to the Cracked article are typical.
“The fact that twenty people with box cutters can simultaneously hijack aircraft and hit 80% (sic) of their targets is a conspiracy theory in itself.”
Well, yes it is. The difference between the hijacker conspiracy theory and the idea that the Twin Towers were brought down by explosives is there’s supporting evidence for the hijacker theory.
“The term “conspiracy theorist” was coined by the CIA in order to influence public opinion and discredit investigation into government misconduct.”
“Conspiracy theorist” is an inherently self-explanatory term. That’s kind of like saying the term “salt shaker” was invented by the Morton Salt Company to encourage people to use salt.
“The most recent poll showed that the majority of Americans no longer believe the conspiracy theory that a species emitting only 3% of the world’s supply of a poor heat-trapping gas are magically cooling the planet… I mean heating the planet…. or wait, I mean causing the weather to change now.”
Now that one is so wonderfully weird I hardly know where to begin with it. Psst, buddy, wanna burn some hydrocarbons and change the climate? Nobody is conspiring to emit CO2. We have people conspiring to deny that it has an effect. Simply saying CO2 affects climate is no more a conspiracy theory than saying that dogs have fleas. But I think this guy simply thinks that if he can apply the label “conspiracy theory” to something he disagrees with, that magically puts the two belief systems on the same level.

I Just Don't See any Evidence

This goes way beyond any shortcomings I see in the theories themselves. I just plain don't see any evidence that the Government would fly aircraft into buildings or stage a massive counterfeit lunar program. I see lots of stupidity and garden-variety corruption, stupidity of a class that would crash any super-secret conspiracy. What I do see is the roads are decent, airplanes get where they're supposed to go without colliding all the time (we go years on end between fatal aircraft accidents these days), the drinking water is safe (Flint Michigan is a scandal precisely because it's an exception, caused by laziness and garden variety corruption), and the mail gets delivered. If you want a real sinister conspiracy, look into the efforts to drive the Postal Service into bankruptcy. When I use a Government printed map, what I find on the ground is what I see on the map. If I served 20 years in uniform, they said I'd get a pension when I turned sixty. The magic day came, and darned if the pension didn't start coming.

I flat-out have never had a personal experience that suggests to me there are vast conspiracies afoot. If you believe in them, you must have had some personal experience or observation that persuades you to believe that way. So what was it? Because I've asked and asked, and as far as I can tell so far, not a single conspiracy believer has any personal experience to justify their beliefs. Comments are enabled for this post. Let's hear it.

And if you don't have any personal observations or experiences, but it's all what you've read, or heard, or how "it all fits together," there must be something that's convinced you that's how the world works. What was it? I've asked this question many times and so far not a single response. As far as I can tell, not a single conspiracy believer has any first-hand experience to justify his beliefs.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

It's Not Guns, or Sex. It's Entitlement.

On May 23, 2014, Elliot Rodger killed six people near the University of California, Santa Barbara. What made his case unusual was that he came from a highly affluent background and left detailed video and written manifestos explaining his actions. He was angry because women refused to swoon at his wonderfulness. Ironically, four of his six victims were male. That probably makes sense because he pictured them as unfairly getting all the action.

I like that posters are using the "entitlement" label about this case because that's what the problem really is. Arthur Chu (the Jeopardy guy) had another good one over at Daily Beast. It's not guns, because every home in Switzerland has a military rifle and we don't see this in Switzerland. And it's not sexual frustration, egged on by hyper-sexualized media. Porn is far more available in Europe and we don't see this in Europe. It's the feeling "I'm entitled, and if I don't get it, someone has to pay."

Forget welfare recipients. They may have a sense of entitlement, but they're small potatoes. The problem is the sense of entitlement everywhere else. Like the people who do lackluster work but think they're entitled to a good job, and who harass people who actually do do a good job. The people who merely occupy a house for thirty years and think they're entitled to sell it for a huge profit.

We see it whenever there's a story about a bank making a huge error in someone's favor and then wanting the money back. All the enraged comments about how the recipient is "entitled" to the money. Or someone finds a large amount of money and turns it in, and all kinds of anger is directed against him for being so dumb. See, they'd keep the money if they were in that position, and by turning it in, the finder is offending their sense of entitlement.

Of course that bikini model I met on line wants to date me. Of course that Nigerian prince wants to share money with me. Because I'm entitled to have wonderful things fall into my lap.

There's a story about a guy who prayed desperately to win the lottery, but he didn't win that week. Next week he prayed again, even more fervently. No go. Finally, on his last legs, he beseeched God from the depths of his heart. Again no luck. So he cried out "God, I've prayed to you and trusted you, and you let me down. Why?" And God answered: "Work with me on this, pal. Buy a ticket."

That's why nerds take so much flak. Here you have a whole school full of people who think they're entitled to coast and blow off their courses, and nerds ruin it all by taking things seriously.

It's been a persistent thread throughout U.S. history. We're entitled to all that land. We're entitled to find gold and plunder resources and clear-cut and dump our waste in the rivers. Cliven Bundy is entitled to graze his cows on public land for free. In fact, he's entitled to take your public land because he's entitled, that's all. But you can bet he'll shoot at you if you trespass on HIS land, because he's entitled to. We're entitled to wear our guns in public. We're entitled to have more rights and privileges than that other group. Then there are people who think they're entitled to carry a gun and go out and interrogate people who are just walking down their street. Or stop some other driver for violating their concept of road etiquette. Or correct other people's kids. Or go ballistic on teachers or police when their kids are lawfully corrected. I have a right to kill people if I get "disrespected."

Elliott Rodgers is newsworthy only because he killed six people, but it happens in onesies and twosies all the time, every time some guy can't deal with the fact that he's not entitled to own his ex body and soul, or his girl friend comes to her senses and wants to get out. For at least 50 years people have been warning about an emphasis on rights without responsibility. You get a culture of entitlement.

Why Are Both Political Parties Indistinguishable?

Possibility 1: You're a Shallow Thinker

You really don't see any difference between George W. Bush and John Kerry or Al Gore? You really didn't see any difference between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale or Jimmy Carter? You really thought Bill Clinton and Bob Dole were pretty much the same? Would Hubert Humphrey or George McGovern have been as politically able to open relations with China as Richard Nixon? Would the Civil Rights era or the Vietnam War have run the same course if Barry Goldwater had been elected in 1964 instead of Lyndon Johnson? If you answer "yes" to any of the above, do us all a favor on election day and stay home.

Not seeing a difference between Democrats and Republicans is like thinking Limburger cheese and a chocolate malt are pretty much the same because they're both dairy products, or filet mignon is pretty much like liverwurst because they're both meat.

Possibility 2: You Belong to the Lunatic Fringe

The other reason some people see the two parties as identical is they're out on the planet Mongo, so far from earth that even huge differences shrink to the vanishing point. These folks are so far removed from reality that they expect things that no rational political system can offer.

Leftists: buy a clue. We are not going to seize the wealth of the top 10% of the population and pass it out among everybody else. First, it wouldn't go all that far. Second, once it was spent, there would be no more. See Chile, 1974 for additional information, or take notes during Zimbabwe 2007-. We are not going to cure poverty by printing a million dollars for everybody. See Germany, 1923 for details. We are not going to disband the FBI, the CIA, the Armed Forces, or the police, and we are not going to open the prisons.

Rightists: get real. We are not going to pay off the national debt by selling poor people to be ground up for cat food. We are not going to divvy up the national parks for vacation homes, and even if we did, do you think you'd stand a chance of getting anything? We are not going to declare your particular cult (not denomination, cult) the State religion or round up the particular group you think are enemies of the State. We are not going to abolish taxes or go back to gold coins. So if you wonder why none of those ideas ever get a fair hearing, it's because they already have, and they flunk the most elementary common sense tests. Occasionally somebody in Washington thinks of one of those ideas, but once the pink rabbits go away, the shakes stop and the hangover quiets down to a dull throb, they get over it.

And you folks out in the weird antipodean realm where right and left meet, I have news for you. You will never convince a court that the government has no power to collect taxes. You will never convince anyone that you are a sovereign citizen not bound by the law. Regardless of your citizenship, if you are on a country's territory, you are bound by its laws. Everywhere on Earth. Even Antarctica, because every country with a presence in Antarctica has laws enabling it to prosecute crimes committed there. Go ahead. Post a YouTube video of you kicking a penguin and see how fast someone turns up at your door with a warrant.

There's a broad consensus about a lot of things in American society. We need paved roads and schools and some sort of plan so old people and the handicapped can survive. We need people to make sure foods are clean and airplanes don't collide and toxins don't get dumped in the rivers and radio stations don't try blasting each other off the air on the same frequency. Politics in America is played between the 30-yard lines. If you want to suit up and wait in the parking lot for someone to throw you a long pass, lotsa luck. There are a lot of dumb voters, but there are enough sensible ones to keep a lot of ideas where they belong - on the lunatic fringe.

I am never going to vote for the kind of candidate than many non-voters seem to want, and neither are any of the other voters I know, Democratic or Republican. So if you want a radical alternative to the candidates now running, you raise money, collect signatures and get them elected. It is not my job to fix your dissatisfaction with the system.

Treason of the Intellectuals, Volume 3

Treason of the Intellectuals

Treason of the Intellectuals was the title of a 1928 book by Julien Benda, originally published in French as La Trahison des Clercs. The term Clerc has an obvious similarity to the word cleric, and Benda used it in the sense of people who devoted their lives to ideas and thought, without necessarily being concerned with practical applications. Benda was distressed at the way intellectuals of the early 20th Century had been increasingly seduced by the appeal of power, and by the possibility that men of ideas might have a real role in shaping human events. Some devoted their energies to justifying nationalism, others to fanning class rivalry. One group would soon furnish an intellectual basis for fascism, the other had already been swept up by early Marxism, dazzled by the Russian Revolution. Benda presciently warned that if these political passions were not reined in, mankind was "heading for the greatest and most perfect war the world has ever known."

Society and intellectuals had been jointly responsible for this process. Particularly in Germany, universities had been redefined as institutions for producing skilled scientists and engineers, and the increasing success of science and technology in producing practical results had led to a shift from a belief in knowledge as good in itself to knowledge as good for practical purposes. Universities discovered that people who doled out money grudgingly for abstract knowledge were quite happy to spend money for knowledge with practical uses. The intellectuals of whom Benda wrote had aspirations of being philosopher-kings. Not philosopher-kings in the ancient sense, kings who used the insights of philosophy to rule more wisely and justly, but philosophers who also happened to be kings and who would be able to use the power of the state to advance their own philosophical agendas (and presumably quash opposing views).

Volume II: Marxism

Volume II, of course, would be a study of the way Western intellectuals prostituted themselves to Communism during the Stalinist era and the Cold War. Innumerable books on this subject have been written. Most of those of Cold War vintage were derided as mere anti-Communist hysteria or, ironically, "anti-intellectual." Norman Podhoretz' Breaking Ranks is a recent account of how one former radical came to be disillusioned.

When I was growing up (some people argue that using the term "growing up" in any context involving me is a contradiction in terms, but never mind) in the 1950's, I got a fairly standard view of the horrors of Communism. By the mid 1960's, I had come to regard a lot of that information as mere propaganda. Then, early in my college career at Berkeley (1965-69, no less) I got a revelation. I was browsing in the library stacks and came across a section on Soviet history. I discovered that everything I had been taught to regard as propaganda was in fact true, and moreover, the documentation was massive and easy to find. Then I read Aleksander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago and discovered that what I had been told in the 1950's wasn't the whole truth. The reality was far worse. Only the most massive and willful denial of reality could have accounted for the mind-set of Western intellectuals.

The Soviet Union is gone, and while nominal Communism lingers in Cuba, China, Vietnam and North Korea, Communism as a global magnet for intellectuals is gone. One preposterous claim, seriously advanced by some intellectuals, is that they played a role in the downfall of Communism, when in fact they obstructed and ridiculed opposition to Communism at every turn. But surely the most wonderful irony is that the CIA set up front foundations during the Cold War to fund leftist intellectuals and thereby provide an alternative to Marxism. Bertrand Russell, the archetypical anti-Western Cold War intellectual, was actually covertly subsidized by the CIA. I love it. Russell, to me, symbolizes everything that made the Twentieth Century a scientific golden age and a philosophical desert, a thinker whose reputation was based solely on his own hype machine. With his colossal ego, he never for a moment suspected that his funding was anything other than richly deserved. The irony is beautiful.

Volume III: Islamic Fascism

But a new magnet for intellectuals is emerging: radical Islam. It's not that intellectuals are likely to embrace radical Islam themselves anytime soon - for one thing, the requirement of believing in God would deter many of them. But what they can do is obstruct efforts to combat radical Islam and terrorism, undermine support for Israel, stress the "legitimate grievances" of radical Islamists, and lend moral support to the "legitimacy" of radical Islamic movements.

This is a phenomenon at first glance so baffling it cries out for explanation. Both fascism and Marxism censored, harassed, and imprisoned intellectuals, but they also gave lip service to intellectualism. Russia and Germany both had great universities. Both fascism and Marxism appealed to their respective nations' cultural heritage in support of their ideologies. Our mental picture of fascism is now mostly colored by images of Nazi book burnings and bad art, but before World War II fascism was quite successful at passing itself off as a blend of socialism and nationalism.

Marxism in particular offered an intellectual framework that many intellectuals bought into. Marxism presented a facade of support for culture and science, paid intellectuals highly and created huge academic institutions. True, intellectuals in the Soviet Union were well paid mostly in comparison to the general poverty of everyone else rather than in real terms, the economy was so decrepit that the money couldn't purchase much of value, and a lot of the academic institutions were second-rate in comparison to any American community college, but at least the Soviet Union could put forth an illusion of fostering intellectual inquiry. (I once sent a letter to the Soviet Embassy inquiring about films on the Soviet space program. This was after word-processors had become universal in American offices. I got a reply - a couple of years later - typed on a manual machine that looked as if Lenin had typed his high school term papers on it, and the embassy was still using the same ribbon.)

But radical Islam is openly hostile to intellectual inquiry. Iran under the Ayatollahs banned music. In the United States, the work Piss Christ ignited a fierce debate - not over whether such work should be allowed, but whether it should be publicly supported. In parts of the Islamic world, dissident works invite not debate over public funding, but death sentences. Fascism and Marxism at least offered the illusion that they supported intellectual inquiry. Radical Islam offers intellectuals nothing.  It openly aims to destroy all intellectual life except for a barren form of Koranic pseudo-scholarship. So why aren't Western intellectuals whole-heartedly behind any and all diplomatic and military attempts to combat radical Islam?

Hatred of Democracy

When we try to discover what fascism, Marxism, and radical Islam have in common, the field shrinks to a single common theme: hatred of democracy. Despite all the calls for "Power to the People" from radical intellectuals, the reality is that no societies have ever empowered so many people to such a degree as Western democracies.

The problem is that people in democratic societies usually end up using that empowerment to make choices that intellectuals hate. How can we reconcile the fact that the masses, whom intellectuals profess to support, keep making wrong choices? I've got it - they've been duped somehow. Those aren't their real values; they've been brainwashed into a "false consciousness" by society. If they were completely free to choose, they'd make the "right" choices. But of course we have to eliminate all the distractions that interfere with the process: no moral or religious indoctrination, no advertising or superficial amusements, no status symbols, no politically incorrect humor. "False consciousness" is a perfect way of professing support for the masses while simultaneously depriving them of any power to choose; a device for being an elitist while pretending not to be.

The post-Soviet version of "false consciousness" is "internalized oppression." If you're a woman who opposes abortion, a black with middle class values, or a person with a lousy job who nevertheless believes in hard work, those aren't your real values. You've internalized the values of the white male power elite and allowed yourself to become their tool. You don't really know what you believe. When the enlightened elite want your opinion, they'll tell you what it is.

Democracy confronts radical intellectuals with a threat more dangerous than any censor, secret police, or religious fatwa - irrelevance. An intellectual working on behalf of a totalitarian regime can imagine himself as an agent of sweeping social change. If he ends up in a labor camp or facing a firing squad he can at least console himself that his work was so seminal that the only way the regime could cope with it was to silence him. He made a difference. A radical intellectual in a democracy, on the other hand, finds the vast majority ignoring him. They never heard of him. His most outrageous works go unknown or are the butt of jokes. He watches in impotent rage as the masses ignore art films and go to summer blockbusters. Worse yet, things that are noticed get co-opted, watered down and trivialized. Works that are supposed to shake the System to the core are bought by fat cats to decorate corporate headquarters or stashed in bank vaults as investments. Fashions that scream defiance of everything the society holds dear end up being the next generation's Trick or Treat costumes. Protest songs end up being played on elevators twenty years later. Eric Hoffer, the longeshoreman-philosopher, nailed it perfectly:
The fact is that up to now a free society has not been good for the intellectual. It has neither accorded him a superior status to sustain his confidence nor made it easy for him to acquire an unquestioned sense of social usefulness. For he derives his sense of usefulness mainly from directing, instructing, and planning- from minding other people's business- and is bound to feel superfluous and neglected where people believe themselves competent to manage individual and communal affairs, and are impatient of supervision and regulation. A free society is as much a threat to the intellectual's sense of worth as an automated economy is to the workingman's sense of worth. Any social order that can function with a minimum of leadership will be anathema to the intellectual.
We can see the hatred of democracy most clearly in criticisms of the economic world. We hear that the automobile creates pollution and urban sprawl. Megastores undercut local merchants and produce armies of low-paid workers. Agribusiness drives family farms out of business and puts agriculture in the hands of corporations. (Actually what is driving the family farm out of business is the family farm - people in Western societies have been moving off farms for the last 800 years.) Aquaculture results in marine pollution and mixing of cultivated fish with wild populations. Every single innovation that provides the masses with more freedom or material goods is a target for intellectual disdain. You'd think people who are concerned with poverty would be delighted by more abundant and cheaper consumer goods, or that people who are concerned about hunger would be thrilled with cheap, abundant food. Exactly the opposite. You'd think that people who are concerned about the dichotomy between rich and poor countries would be ecstatic over globalization and the spread of jobs to underdeveloped countries. Surely people who are concerned about peace would glory in seeing the leaders of the industrialized world meet to discuss how to better integrate their economies. Yet every economic summit is besieged by protestors railing against globalization.

One recent target of opponents of globalization is outsourcing of jobs to Third World countries. This creates real suffering for displaced American workers. But for years, we have heard how grossly unfair it is that the U.S. has such a disproportionate share of the world's wealth and consumes so much of the world's resources. Now the rest of the world is catching up. Jobs, opportunities, and wages are moving into less developed countries, and those countries are increasingly competing with the U.S. for markets and resources. What did you think it would be like, people?

Most of these folks simultaneously demand government programs to alleviate poverty and hunger, mass transit so the poor can get to where the good jobs are, and international aid to the Third World. In short they want structured, paternalistic programs that address needs defined by the intellectual elite. They are bitterly opposed to innovations that merely give the masses more goods, food, or money and leave the decision making to individuals.

  • First, the money has to be taken by force from the wealthy. Voluntary contributions don't count. Taxation at a level that the wealthy will consent to doesn't count. Any approach that recognizes the wealthy as having rights is unsatisfactory. Even worse is any recognition of philanthropy and the idea that some of the wealthy have social consciences.
  • Second, the programs can only address needs defined by the intellectual elite. We won't provide cheaper cars; we'll force people to use mass transit. One volunteer aid group once did a study of Third World needs, concluded that one of the most pressing needs in Third World countries was transportation, then excluded automobiles from consideration because they felt that automobiles had a negative effect. When mass transit doesn't work in the low-density U.S., we'll try to compel people to live in higher density housing.
  • Finally, the distribution of resources cannot have anything to do with individual responsibility. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." In other words, if you're smart and industrious we expect you to work for no reward.
One of the best examples of paternalism is the story of Victor Gruen, father of the American shopping mall. Gruen envisioned recreating the central plazas of European cities where people would gather, interact, linger and socialize. Gruen finally returned to Austria, depressed at how the idea had turned out in practice, and died in 1980. He apparently never figured out that Americans spend most of the day working and the people who have the time to linger in malls are exactly the sorts of people most likely to deter others from coming to malls. But even more, it never occurred to Gruen, or to all the other people who propose European style solutions to American problems, that if Americans wanted to live like Europeans, they would already be living like Europeans. Gruen's story leaves me uncertain whether to pity his naivete, or feel anger at his arrogance. What gave Gruen the right to decide that Americans need a European lifestyle?

Here's a radical idea. If our cities are plagued by flight of the middle class to the suburbs, why not return control of the cities to the middle class?

The Time Ghetto

There's no more effective social filter than time. By the late 19th century, tourism was becoming well enough established that even the middle classes could engage in it, and it was to the advantage of railroad and steamship companies to foster this development, just as airlines do now. So how to separate yourself from the rabble? Well, a shopkeeper might be able to afford a round trip to Europe, but not a six-month tour. Only the really rich could afford to travel for six months at a stretch. It's significant that so much intellectual disdain is targeted against any innovation that gives the masses more time. You can always create more goods, food, or wealth, but there are only 24 hours in a day. Uh-oh. It turns out you can create more time. You do the routine tasks faster so you have more time to spend doing what you want, or you drive prices down so people need to work less time to buy things, and have more leisure to enjoy them. So it's not surprising that virtually everything that translates into time saving is fair game for the elitists.

Trashing Tourism

If you want world peace and understanding, I can't think of a better way to do it than to have floods of people visiting other parts of the world. Even given the worst stereotypes of tourists, some people at least go places, learn things, and leave money behind. People on the other end get money, learn things about their own culture as guides, learn other languages, and learn about other cultures by being exposed to them. There has probably been no single greater force for peace in Europe since World War II  than the fact that millions of Americans have lived in Germany with the U.S. Armed Forces and millions of Germans had first-hand contact with Americans. I'm not talking about the troop strength, just the ordinary day to day human contact.

If you have some excess wealth to spend, it's hard to come up with a more constructive use for it than tourism. So it's natural that tourism would be abhorrent to the intellectual elite. It gobbles up land for airports, clogs the skies with aircraft, increases pollution, increases pressure on sensitive sites, and so on. All of that perfectly true.

See, travel was just fine when only The Right Sort Of People had the time to engage in it; when it took several days by train or ship to get anywhere and when it was so expensive that only the Enlightened could aspire to it. But now all the riff-raff are doing it.

First Class on the Titanic

The dream world that anti-democratic elitists inhabit is the first-class deck on the Titanic, where people of breeding admire and subsidize the intellectual elites. Old money only, thank you, none of that tacky nouveau riche behavior. Not the real first class deck (Leonardo DiCaprio's announcement that he was an artist drew sneers from most of his table mates, and that would likely have been true in reality as well) but one that exists only in nostalgic fantasy. Truth is there has never been a society that supported intellectuals better than ours. Tycho Brahe may have had a lavish court, but he was born into the nobility to begin with. If you were a peasant with a brain in the Middle Ages, you might have gotten a break in the priesthood but that was your only chance. In terms of number of people and level of support, nothing in history even begins to approach how Western societies support intellectuals.