A Way of Seeing Things

Christmas Eve, 1998, was the strange one – sitting quietly in the hospital room in Pittsburgh, with the parents each in their separate beds, each drifting in an out of consciousness – and accepting that. They’d be back at the nursing home in a few weeks, stabilized but even more vague and distant. On the small television, bolted high on the wall, Fred and Ginger danced silently in fake Rio and then in fake London – Turner Classic Movies was showing all their thirties musicals back to back. That didn’t help, but it wasn’t offensive – just meaningless. Now and then it was down to elevators and out to the bone-cold plaza to smoke a pipe and call the brother in Cincinnati and the sister in San Diego and give them updates – no real change and no real crises. They each had their own families and hectic Christmases to manage anyway. I was the one twice-divorced and unattached and available to monitor things – and in the middle of a two-year posting to Canada, to manage the systems shop at a locomotive factory up in London, Ontario, flying back to Los Angeles every other weekend to water the plants and pay the bills, and then flying back east on the Sunday night red-eye, through Pittsburgh each time. It was the standard stop each way and as familiar as any place can be – all three of us grew up there. So that was the place to be now, and later it was grabbing a Christmas Eve hamburger and fries at the hospital and catching some sleep. In the morning there was the chat with the doctors – things were fine, or as fine as one could expect, with no need to worry and no real point in hanging around. So at noon it was the long flight in the nearly empty 757 across America to Los Angeles, and then a drive down to San Diego for a late Christmas dinner and watching my sister’s grandkids play kick-ball in the street in the warm twilight. Eight months later the parents were both gone and everyone flew back to Pittsburgh for the funerals. That odd Christmas Eve alone and silent, watching what couldn’t ever be changed now, was an anomaly.

Everyone must have stories like that however – we all lose our parents. Only the details vary, and the only unexpected thing that happened that night was a row down the hall in another hospital room. It was a full-blown schizophrenic they had admitted and couldn’t subdue – someone shouting about the voices they heard in their head, voices that they were sure were government broadcasts, telling them to do this or that. There was a lot of loud talk about government conspiracies, and soft talk from doctors asking about just what was being said. They seemed to want to know if the voices told this woman that she should go out and kill people, or if she should just hurt herself. That must have been followed by an injection of something or other as things got quiet – but not before the woman explained that she did have a tin-foil hat that allowed her to hear those transmissions, those voices, loud and clear. She wanted to show it to them. She really had one.

That was the only surprise that Christmas Eve. That tin-foil hat thing wasn’t a metaphor at all. People have all sorts of conspiracy theories – they see things no one else sees and hear things no one else hears – and when you tell them to take off that tin-foil hat there’s a basis in medical fact for saying that. That’s good to know. You learn all sorts of things in hospitals.

This is useful to know in the age of conspiracy theories. See Asawin Suebsaeng and Dave Gilson with their Chart of Almost Every Obama Conspiracy Theory Ever – it’s endlessly fascinating and rather pretty, with its interesting and overlapping areas of focus, and it has some wild ones:

Obama is a secret Muslim: This one began right after he took the stage at the 2004 Democratic convention, with chain emails alleging his “true” religious affiliation. The rumor soon found its way onto the popular conservative online forum Free Republic, and took on a whole new life in the years to come. Related: Obama secretly speaks Arabic, attended a madrassa as a kid in Indonesia, referred to “my Muslim faith” in an interview, and was sworn in on a Koran.

Obama married a Pakistani guy: World Net Daily correspondent and conspiracy-monger extraordinaire Jerome Corsi posted a video in which he claimed to have “strong” evidence that Obama was once married to his college roommate from Pakistan. The smoking gun: Photos of the chums in which the future president is “sitting about on the [Pakistani roommate's] lap.” Related: For years Obama wore a gold ring on his left hand. Was it his gay-wedding ring?

Obama is the son of Malcolm X: Because, you know, black people. This charmer popped up on Atlas Shrugged, Pamela Geller’s anti-Muslim website. (Geller is also known for obsessing over Sharia turkeys she believes are destroying Thanksgiving.)

Obama caused the recession – in 1995: According to a recent Daily Caller story, Obama’s efforts to force banks to lend to African Americans in the mid-’90s led to the subprime mortgage crisis that killed the economy in 2008.

Obama wants to confiscate your IRA: Townhall.com sent out a message-ad claiming that Obama wants to seize your retirement account by force.

Obama caused the BP oil spill: Conspiracy-minded radio host Alex Jones promoted the theory that the Deepwater Horizon spill was all part of the administration’s plans of oil nationalization and global government.

Obama was behind the Aurora massacre: In July, Gun Owners of America blasted out a press release claiming that the mass murder at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, was suspiciously timed. “Someone in Washington” was probably behind it, paving the way for Obama-led firearm confiscation and “government genocide.”

Obama the brainwashing hypnotist: As a master of neurolinguistic programming, Obama convinced Americans to vote for him via subliminal messages. Related: Rush Limbaugh pondered if hypnosis was the reason that so many Jewish voters were in the bag for Obama.

Obama’s crack cocaine/gay sex/murder orgy cover-up: In 2008, a small-time conman named Larry Sinclair and his kilt-wearing lawyer held a press conference to tell the world of the future president’s murderous, drug-and-sodomy-fueled crimes.

That’s just a sampling of the thirty or forty such items on the Suebsaeng and Gilson list, with links, if you want all the juicy details. Unfortunately, none of those offering these revelations source their information back to what they heard in their heads when they donned their tin-foil hats, but it’s hard not to think back to the Christmas Eve long ago in Pittsburgh, in that suddenly surreal hospital. Where do they get this stuff?

There must be an alternative explanation for this. The emails keep coming, which is what happens when you’ve had two websites up and running for nine or more years, documenting Hollywood and offering political commentary. Sure, there are the come-ons that offer you ways to increase your readership through search optimization tricks no one else has discovered yet, and scattershot crap like great prices on used forklifts or custom letterhead – but there is also the random political stuff – insider Republican mailing lists, and insider Tea Party mailing lists too, assuming they’re somehow different. There are also urgent mailings about Obama’s next new plot to ruin America – all the stuff on the Suebsaeng and Gilson chart extended and expanded, with some new items now and then. It all goes to the junk-mail folder.

The odd thing is that these have changed since the election. Obama won and there’s not much the conspiracy-minded right can do about that now, so the urgent broadcast email messages from the right have somehow morphed into ads for miracle cures for erectile dysfunction or baldness or incontinence – or reasons you should buy gold or build a porch. The mailing lists didn’t change. Now these folks just want your money – Obama is barely mentioned.

Kevin Drum has noticed this too:

Over the years, I’ve ended up on mailing lists for a variety of liberal and conservative organizations. These are folks who want my money, and I’ve long been intrigued by the difference between the two.

There is, of course, hyperbole on both sides. Liberal pitches, for example, occasionally imply that Republicans want to forcibly impregnate every woman in America or allow Goldman Sachs to run the Treasury Department. But this is the exception, not the rule, and even where there is hyperbole it’s at least firmly grounded in a genuine, concrete issue of some kind. Republicans really would ban abortion if they had the power, and Wall Street really does have way too much influence on American economic policy.

But right-wing pitches are altogether different. I’ll grant you that the stuff I get from official outlets like, say, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, tends to be (barely) on the sane side of things. But by far, most of the mail is from conservative groups that are just flat-out nuts. The United Nations is going to herd us all into urban concentration camps. George Soros plans to destroy the dollar. Obama is turning America into a slave state. The Army will be deputized to go house-to-house searching for guns as soon as Inauguration Day is safely past. Under Obamacare people with the wrong political attitudes will be denied the right to see a doctor. This stuff is simply endless.

But he admits that has shifted, and links to this piece by Rick Perlstein – a long and detailed history of right-wing fundraising. Drum agrees it’s “a toxic blend” of standard get-rich-quick schemes and miracle cures suppressed by “the elites” somehow all mixed in with political come-ons, where you can send money now to prevent the UN takeover of America or whatever. Perlstein says it’s an odd stew:

Back when I was getting emails every day from NewsMax and Townhall, the come-ons were a little bit different.

“Dear Reader, I’m going to tell you something, but you must promise to keep it quiet. You have to understand that the “elite” would not be at all happy with me if they knew what I was about to tell you. That’s why we have to tread carefully. You see, while most people are paying attention to the stock market, the banks, brokerages and big institutions have their money somewhere else… [in] what I call the hidden money mountain… All you have to know is the insider’s code (which I’ll tell you) and you could make an extra $6,000 every single month.”

Soon after reading that, I learned of the “23-Cent Heart Miracle,” the one “Washington, the medical industry, and drug companies REFUSE to tell you about.” (Why would they? They’d just be leaving money on the table: “I was scheduled for open heart surgery when I read about your product,” read one of the testimonials. “I started taking it and now six months have passed and I haven’t had open-heart surgery.”) Then came news of the oilfield in the placenta.

“Dear NewsMax Reader,” this appeal began, leaving no doubt that whatever trust that publication had built with its followers was being rented out wholesale. “Please find below a special message from our sponsor, James Davidson, Editor of Outside the Box. He has some important information to share with you.”

Here’s the information in question: “If you have shied away from profiting from the immense promise of stem cells to treat disease because of moral concern over extracting stem cells from fetal tissue, pay close attention. You can now invest with a clear conscience. An Israeli entrepreneur, Zami Aberman, has discovered ‘an oilfield in the placenta.’ His little company, Pluristem Life Systems (OTCBB: PLRS) has made a discovery which is potentially more valuable than Prudhoe Bay.”

Davidson concluded by proposing the lucky investor purchase a position of 83,000 shares of PLRS for the low, low price of twelve cents each. If you act now, Davidson explained, your $10,000 outlay “could bring you a profit of more than a quarter of a million dollars.”

What the hell is that about? Perlstein explains:

The strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers points up evidence of another successful long march, of tactics designed to corral fleeceable multitudes all in one place – and the formation of a cast of mind that makes it hard for either them or us to discern where the ideological con ended and the money con began.

If you get all the suckers in one place, you take them for all they’re worth, not that this is a good thing:

The New Right’s business model was dishonest in more than its revenue structure. Its very message – the alarmist vision of White Protestant Civilization Besieged that propelled fundraising pitch after fundraising pitch – was confabulatory too… And, in an intersection that is utterly crucial, this same theology of fear is how a certain sort of commercial appeal – a snake-oil-selling one – works as well. This is where the retail political lying practiced by Romney links up with the universe in which 23-cent miracle cures exist (absent the hero’s intervention) just out of reach, thanks to the conspiracy of some powerful cabal – a cabal that, wouldn’t you know it in these late-model hustles, perfectly resembles the ur-villain of the conservative mind: liberals.

In this respect, it’s not really useful or possible to specify a break point where the money game ends and the ideological one begins. They are two facets of the same coin – where the con selling 23-cent miracle cures for heart disease inches inexorably into the one selling miniscule marginal tax rates as the miracle cure for the nation itself. The proof is in the pitches – the come-ons in which the ideological and the transactional share the exact same vocabulary, moral claims, and cast of heroes and villains.

There’s also this:

Dishonesty is demanded by the alarmist fundraising appeal because the real world doesn’t work anything like this. The distance from observable reality is rhetorically required; indeed, that you haven’t quite seen anything resembling any of this in your everyday life is a kind of evidence all by itself. It just goes to show how diabolical the enemy has become. He is unseen; but the redeemer, the hero who tells you the tale, can see the innermost details of the most baleful conspiracies. Trust him. Send him your money. Surrender your will – and the monster shall be banished for good.

This is tin-foil hat territory and Drum adds this:

Rick is suggesting that rank-and-file conservatives simply have a cast of mind that makes them vulnerable to scary, conspiracy-minded sales pitches, and it doesn’t matter much whether the sales pitch is for an investment opportunity to save you from the destruction of the dollar or a political opportunity to save America from the depredations of the UN. And this certainly fits what we know about brain science and ideology: People with a more fearful cast of mind tend to be political conservatives, while people with a more open cast of mind tend to be political liberals.

And then there are the paranoid schizophrenics. Drum thinks someone is moving in that direction:

This explains the fear-based nature of most conservative appeals, but it still doesn’t really explain why so many of those appeals are completely batty. Isn’t it possible to scare people with (relatively speaking) plausible scenarios? The UN doesn’t want to herd us all into cities, but liberals do want to make gasoline more expensive. (It’s true! We do!) Likewise, nobody’s going to confiscate your guns, but there are plenty of liberals who do want to pass an assault weapons ban.

So why the endlessly apocalyptic tone? Is the real stuff simply not scary enough to be effective? Or have conservatives gotten caught up in an arms race that long ago got out of control?

Actually it may be just that, as Perlstein explains:

If the 2012 GOP nominee lied louder than most – and even more astoundingly than he has during his prior campaigns – it’s just because he felt like he had more to prove to his core following. Lying is an initiation into the conservative elite. In this respect, as in so many others, it’s like multilayer marketing: the ones at the top reap the reward – and then they preen, pleased with themselves for mastering the game. Closing the sale, after all, is mainly a question of riding out the lie: showing that you have the skill and the stones to just brazen it out, and the savvy to ratchet up the stakes higher and higher. Sneering at, or ignoring, your earnest high-minded mandarin gatekeepers – “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,” as one Romney aide put it – is another part of closing the deal.

For years now, the story in the mainstream political press has been Romney’s difficulty in convincing conservatives, finally, that he is truly one of them. For these elites, his lying – so dismaying to the opinion-makers at the New York Times, who act like this is something new – is how he has pulled it off once and for all. And at the grassroots, his fluidity with their preferred fables helps them forget why they never trusted the guy in the first place.

Perlstein calls it the Long Con. The arms race in developing useful paranoia has been going on for decades, and now with no enemy left to fight, you use the weapons anyway – to make a buck. There’s no point in letting those massive mailing lists, carefully assembled over all those long years, go to waste, and certainly no point in letting all those outraged and deeply angry people living in their alternative universe settle down into a dull sort of generalized resentment that dissipates into dull indifference. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, even if it’s a disturbed and confused one.

It’s better to keep handing out your custom tin-foil hats. The real ones aren’t all that reliable anyway, and you can make good money until the next election. That’s when you can shift back to the apocalyptic political stuff. Everything will already be in place for that of course. The infrastructure will be there, and politics will once again be like listening to that odd Christmas Eve conversation down the hall in that Pittsburgh hospital long ago.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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