Tuesday, August 14, 2018

"Assassination Vacation" and the Reliquary of the Damned

Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation (2005) is part pop-history and part travelogue.  Vowell sets off to visit the places associated with the Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley assassinations, from Ford's Theater to the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, where you can see a piece of Charles Guiteau's brain floating in a jar.  Vowell argues that the almost obsessive devotion to maintaining and visiting these sites is like a secular version of Catholic pilgrimages, that the shards of Lincoln's brain or the ominously vague "Piece of John Wilkes Booth," serve a similar function to the relics of saints.  Overall, I recommend the book, as a good introduction to the aforementioned assassinations in general, and for a wealth of detail on the tangential or minor figures attached to the event. But I have some thoughts of my own regarding her claim about the relic-like nature of the artifacts of assassination, at least regarding the assassin.  

While the fallen leaders and their belongings may possess the qualities of relics, we still have to wonder why there is such a draw towards the killers.  With maybe the exception of Pontius Pilate, there isn't much lasting interest in individuals who kill holy figures.  And yet, Charles Guiteau is nearly as famous as President Garfield, and most Americans can name only one 19th century actor: John Wilkes Booth.  What makes these men so alluring, not ideologically or morally, but nevertheless drawing our attention?  Why do I know more about Leon Czolgosz than every member of McKinley's cabinet?

The power of religious relics lies in their connection to the divine, while historical relics draw their power through their connection to History.  Even if we know this to be ontologically untrue, we can't help but feel that an object's proximity to some great historical moment or personage imbues that object with some essence, preserving some tether across time and space.  We have a sense of History as an actually existing entity.  We see its motive power as "trends and forces" or "great men" or some combination thereof.  In the way that, for a pilgrim, a saint represents a closer connection to the divine forces that they believe underlie our world, a historical figure has a closer connection to natural forces that we believe underlie it.  One cures a leper, the other cures polio.  But assassins are usually the opposite of great men, and the killing is often the only notable thing about them.   They represent an unnatural disturbance of history.

In her book, Vowell describes the assassins as overturning the will of the electorate.  The trends and forces that got the person elected and the future actions of a great man are swept aside by one brief and violent action.  While our society has a prurient interest in crime and violence, the assassin is of a different class from the rest.  We hold Booth and Oswald and James Earl Ray in a different class than Al Capone or Jack the Ripper.  Because an assassin doesn't simply kill a person, they impress their will on history itself.  Booth didn't just murder Lincoln, he switched the tracks of American history. Of course, who knows how society would be different if Capone hadn't existed, or if one of the Zodiac killer's victims would have gone on to prominence.  But while we don't know how Reconstruction would have been different under Lincoln, or whether Robert Kennedy would have won the presidency in 1968, that history would be substantially different if they hadn't been killed is a certainty.  For most assassin's changing history is not just an effect of their actions, but the intent.  And the fact that someone, often a loser or a lunatic, can so drastically affect the world at large, can overturn the will of the electorate, is frightening, because it shows our beliefs in the logic and comprehensibility of history to be unfounded.  Whereas the relics of the great figures connect us to the ebb and flow of history, the assassins' connect us to the chaos, the absurd truth that history is not a river, but countless individual incidents, and that the current we feel is just a post facto generalization, a desire to add order to something that has none.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

On the True Origins of the Conspiracy Theorist

The common explanation for how otherwise reasonable people end up believing in conspiracy theories is straight-forward and easy to empathize with, only having the fault of being completely wrong. According to common wisdom, some people, when faced with a shocking or upsetting act of violence (e.g. the Kennedy assassination, 9/11, any mass shooting), are unable to accept the chaotic violence of the world and buy into a conspiracy theory as a coping mechanism. After all, isn’t it more comforting to pin all the blame on some shadowy organization that we can fight? This is comforting for us non-conspiracy theorists, with the added bonus of being subtly patronizing towards CTs (i.e. conspiracy theorists. I don't feel like typing it a hundred times). This explanation means that, deep down, they realize the same chaos we do, but they’re just really bad at coping, the poor dears. That it doesn’t make sense has been no obstacle to it becoming commonly accepted. The argument that CTs find this conspiracy-haunted world comforting is identical to the claim they make about those of us who don't buy in to their grand conspiracies, that it must be nice to live in a world where individuals are responsible for the bad things they do, and we can trust our institutions, etc. Further, our explanation absolutely fails to address things like, say, 9/11 truthers. 9/11 wasn't a lone wolf assassinating a president or some freak accident. What emotional need is satisfied by shifting the blame from Al-Qaeda to the Illuminati/New World Order/etc.? It's much easier to fight Al-Qaeda than a shadowy secret organization that nobody believes to exist.

The answer to how people come to believe in conspiracy theories is pretty simple: The same way as they come to believe in anything else. Let's take the Kurt Cobain murder conspiracies as an example. When a person is faced with new information, that information must be assimilated. If that information fits in with the things you already know, it's a smooth process. (N.B. I'm using the words "know" and "knowledge" to mean statements that one holds to be true, regardless of their factual accuracy.) This is why there aren't as many conspiracy theories about the deaths of Jimi Hendrix or Amy Winehouse. Even their fans know that they both did drugs and that drugs can have tragic consequences. In regards to Cobain, one of the frequent claims made by those who believe he was murdered is that he wasn't suicidal. They know how suicidal people act, and they know that Cobain wasn't acting that way before his death. When this knowledge is contrasted with the knowledge that Cobain died in the way he did, some piece of knowledge must change so the new information can be assimilated. Maybe suicidal people act differently than I thought they did? Alternatively, the new information must be denied. Cobain didn't commit suicide. A more recent theory is that Cobain faked his death, though the prominent theory is the Courtney Love had him killed. But how do we get from "Kurt didn't seem suicidal" to "Courtney Love had Kurt killed?" The steps are pretty easy to trace. If Kurt didn't commit suicide, then he must have been murdered. One of the earliest theorists was a public access host who got footage from a window outside the crime scene and noticed much less blood than he would expect from a shotgun blast to the head. The host, and those who agreed with him, knew how much blood to expect. Also, if one accepts that Cobain was murdered, someone else must have written the suicide note. After all, the note doesn't look right. Which is to say, it doesn't look the way you'd expect it to. And everyone knew Courtney Love was only in it for the money and didn't really care about Kurt.

My point here is that conspiracy theories and theorists don't start with a full-fledged master plan. To give one more example, consider the various Shakespeare authorship theories. Typically, people just write them off as snobbery, but the reason is a bit more complex. It also shows that the types of things we "know" aren't always as concrete as in the Cobain conspiracy. The lack of contemporary documentation about Shakespeare isn't unusual, as even many Oxfordians, Baconians, and Marlovians will acknowledge. The real problem is that what we do have shows Shakespeare to be, well, boring and occasionally unpleasant. As James Shapiro shows in Contested Will, it was not Shakespeare's class that dismayed early CTs, but the fact that the few things we know about him show his stinginess (e.g. suing a neighbor over a small debt), and that he retired to his estate in Stratford rather than continue writing in the last six years of his life was unacceptable. Everyone knows that the greatest literature in the English language must have been written by an equally great spirit. Even we who accept Shakespeare of Stratford as the author of his plays feel this disappointment, yet it is a disappointment based on our assumptions about the way the world works. Most of the supporting evidence for these conspiracies are based on accepting certain unproven premises (e.g. the sonnets are autobiographical) which can be construed to prove nearly anything, or by misapprehensions (e.g., there are no records that Shakespeare went to grammar school, therefore he did not. However, there are no grammar school records of any of Shakespeare's peers, some of whom went on to attend Oxford). But the reason there are conspiracies about Shakespeare at all is the belief we have about the personal qualities of a great artist.

We can see in the given examples how conspiracy theories arise logically. Logically, if not reasonably. They are logical in the sense that they take a set of given conditions (this is how suicidal people act, this is what a great artist behaves like), and then apply logic. If he didn't kill himself, who wrote the suicide note? If vaccines cause autism, why are doctors saying they don't? If these people standing outside a mass shooting aren't behaving how survivors behave, then who are they? To bring it back to my initial point, what's comforting about believing that your favorite musician's killer is still at large, or that the government is dispersing toxic chemicals from airplane jets?

Conspiracy theories, by their nature, have a tendency to broaden their scope. Let's say you start with the knowledge that the US intelligence agencies are close to omniscient and that middle eastern extremist groups are unsophisticated, and then came to the conclusion that 9/11 was an inside job. On the one hand, this would need to implicate a lot of people not directly associated. If you 'know' how a building would appear when it collapses, and countless structural engineers say differently, then they must be lying. On the other hand, this would tie into other conspiracy theories already held. If you believe that there is a Jewish plot to control the world, you'd find a way to tie 9/11 to that.

Understanding why people believe in conspiracy theories, and how those beliefs develop is important. I hope it's already understood that most conspiracy theorists are not violent or bigots. But as online communities continue to supplant physical ones, we have to take a few things into consideration. First, groups like Stormfront (the white supremacist forum) have a history of trying to recruit from places like reddit's conspiracy page, not because the groups targeted for recruitment are necessarily racist, but because if (as the neo-nazis believe) there are shadowy Jewish groups controlling everything, why not try to make your case to people who already believe there is a shadowy group pulling the strings? Second, many of the views espoused by conspiracy theorists are socially unacceptable. (In the cases where they accuse innocent people, entire ethnic groups, or survivors of tragedies of unspeakable crimes, I'd say this unpopularity is justified.) Online communities are still communities, and fulfill that need. Communities form identities and protect themselves from perceived threats, even if that means protecting bad behavior within a community. Third, there is still a general feeling that online is not real, not just in terms of community but in terms of actions. As such, harassment of people accused of complicity in a conspiracy has become a serious problem, since there are so rarely any actual consequences for the harassers, even when their activities are clearly illegal.

There have always been and will always be conspiracy theories. What needs to be discussed is not how to stop them overall, but how prevent harm to innocent people caught up in them, whether we're talking about the anti-semitic results of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," the careers destroyed by McCarthyism, or the harassment of bereaved parents after a school shooting. On the part of conspiracy communities, the answer is better self-policing, primarily in regards to preventing co-opting by hate groups and, as a community, establishing a clear sense of opprobium for harrassment. On the part of broader society, we need to take online actions seriously. Criminal harrassment and death threats must not be consequence free simply because they are carried out online.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Review: Mr. Holmes (2015)

Director: Bill Condon
Runtime: 104 minutes

I finally got around to watching Mr. Holmes on Netflix. The film, based on Mitch Cullin's 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, focuses on an elderly Sherlock Holmes struggling to come to terms with senility.   Holmes retired from the detective business decades prior to the events of the film, and has decided to write the true account of his last case, the one that drove him from London to a quiet life of beekeeping.  Unfortunately, his memory is fading, and he has trouble remembering details, though he is helped along by the housekeeper's precocious son. 

I've always found Sherlock Holmes fascinating.  Not the character, per se, or even the Doyle stories. I have a soft spot for metafiction and the crossover between pop culture and history (cf. my review of Dan Simmons's The Fifth Heart, where Sherlock Holmes teams up with Henry James), so this seemed right up my alley.  I was underwhelmed. 

Without divulging too much, the central mystery of the film (what were the details of Holmes's last case, and why did it cause him to quit for good) doesn't have a satisfactory resolution.  The resolution is unambiguous, but unconvincing, for while I can understand Holmes's distress, for a man who is routinely involved with murder and espionage, this isn't nearly enough to justify his response.  Meanwhile, Holmes's relationship with the housekeeper's son Roger is touching, but not something that we haven't seen a million times before, even if the acting, from both McKellan as Holmes and Milo Parker as Roger, is above average.

As a Sherlock Holmes story, it's uninteresting.  As a story about aging and mortality, it's sweet but unoriginal.  As a comment on the Sherlock Holmes mythos (of, as the poster says, "the man beyond the myth") it's a real letdown, as it doesn't really add anything except to point out that well-known misconceptions (e.g. the deerstalker) are misconceptions, or to ask "what if Sherlock Holmes were old?" 


Friday, September 29, 2017

Like looking in a mirror...

Just thought I'd share a couple photos that I've taken.  The first is an "American goods" store in Stratford, England.

The second is a "British goods" store from Ventura, California.

I don't have any point to make here.  Our special relationship seems to be going strong (cheerio!)

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Velcro® makes a music video about why you shouldn't say "velcro"

Intellectual property law is complicated.  I can't tell you how many people I've seen spend hours arguing a point about copyright, but who aren't willing to spend the five minutes it takes to learn the basic differences between copyright and trademark. An almost certainly apocryphal rumor holds that there is some employee at Xerox (or Kleenex, or Q-Tips) whose sole function is to search for uses of the brand name as a general term for the product, and send a cease-and-desist letter.  This is because, to maintain a trademark, trademarks must be distinct.  This is why I can't start a laptop manufacturer called "Laptops" and sue everyone.  However, if a term so lapses into general usage, it runs the risk of no longer being distinct enough to be a legal trademark, which leads to often over-zealous protection of trademarks.  To this end, Velcro®  produced a parody(?) music video admonishing the public to not say "velcro" unless they mean "velcro®."

Personally, I take solace in knowing that at some future date a music video of actors pretending to be lawyers singing about IP law may be played in an actual court of law.  God bless America.

Friday, July 14, 2017

A Proposed Taxonomy of Conspiracism

 Not too long ago, I read Jesse Walker’s The United States of Paranoia, which covers conspiracy culture in US political history, ranging from colonial fears of Indian insurrection to 9/11 truthers. Where Walker’s book excelled compared to others I’ve read on the subject is his decision to focus on paranoia as opposed to conspiracism, thereby avoiding the pedantic delimiting of the grey area between the two. His thesis, in simple terms, is that a) paranoid thinking has played a non-neglible role in American history since its beginnings and b) that despite claims by other researchers of the subject (especially Hofstadter), this paranoia is not only prevalent on the fringes. Walker makes a point of refuting claims that it is only during extreme cases that paranoia becomes rampant across the political and social spectrum (e.g. the Satanism scares in the 1980s). While he accomplishes this, he does so at the expense of a useful taxonomy of paranoia/conspiracism. Walker defines five types of paranoia that can be mixed and matched, namely the Enemy Within, the Enemy Outside, the Enemy Below, the Enemy Above, and the Benevolent Conspiracy. Walker’s desire to prove that paranoia is not only on the fringes limits the depth of what is otherwise a fantastic overview of the subject. In the aim of furthering his thesis, Walker created a taxonomy in which the only valid distinction is who is the subject of paranoia, but where the degree of paranoia is irrelevant. So within Walker’s taxonomy, a man who has been investigating the banking industry for decades and considers it completely untrustworthy, an economic populist who distrusts centralized banking as part of a broader political view, and a man who believes that all the banks in the world are owned by the Rothschilds to further a Zionist new world order, would all fall into the same category of paranoia. Walker’s categories are insufficient.

But speaking of conspiracy, rather than paranoia in general, how should a taxonomy be devised? The main goal is to identify useful distinctions. I don’t think there’s a significant distinction between someone who believes the CIA killed Kennedy because he was getting in their way and someone who thinks the FBI killed Kennedy because he was getting in their way, although the belief that he was killed because he was going to publicize the existence of reptilian overlords would be significantly different. I have a tentative taxonomy of conspiracy theories that consists of two factors: scope and perpetrators.

Scope can be broken down into only two categories: limited and open-ended. Every real-world conspiracy theory (from the Tuskegee experiments to Iran-Contra) has fallen into the former category. A limited conspiracy is the use of conspiracy for ultimately non-conspiratorial ends. The moon-landing being faked for the propaganda purposes would fall under this category, because “winning the cold war” isn’t conspiratorial. This is not to say that the ends achieved by a limited conspiracy must be legitimate. Some flat-earthers believe that the reason governments keep the earth’s shape a secret is so they can use the space programs as shell companies to shuffle money around off the books. While hiding funds may be conspiratorial in a legal sense, it isn’t anymore conspiratorial than the claim that “the government doesn’t always want us to know what it does with all its money.” If, however, a flat-earther believes that the governments of the world were hiding the shape of the planet so they could funnel money to create a single world government to enslave us all, then this would be an open-ended conspiracy. People who believe that the contrails from planes are actually chemicals designed to affect the public, tend to fall into the open-ended category, as the purpose of the chemtrails is generally part of a larger, more sinister ploy. Notably, most open-ended conspiracies tend to focus on a new world order, often some form of single world government. Whether this is run by the Illuminati, the Jews, the Jesuits, the Reptilians, Satan, etc. depends largely on when and where the conspiracy arises.

The second taxonomy, perpetrators, can be split into three categories, which I call: Mostly Harmless, Partisan, and Cabal. While I’ve named this “perpetrators,” this is more than just a simple cui bono? As indicated by the first category of perpetrator, the supposed victims of the conspiracy are taken into account. In the first category, even according to the conspiracists, there is little actual harm done. At most, it’s the truth that is harmed, and the deception is itself the greatest evil involved. Who benefits is, I believe, of secondary importance in these examples. Those who believe that the moon landing was faked or that evidence of Bigfoot is being systematically hidden would fall into this category. No one is being seriously harmed by the perpetuation of these conspiracies. Children aren’t being pimped out of a pizza parlor, skyscrapers aren’t being blown up, aliens aren’t taking over the earth.
“Partisan” would refer to cases where there is one large group that benefits at the expense of another. While only a small number of people need be aware of the actual conspiracy, it benefits the entire group. Some of those who believe that the Sandy Hook shooting was a ploy to enact gun control laws would fall into this group. Within this conspiracy, only a small number of people would actually be complicit, but all who advocated for gun control in its wake would benefit. Likewise people who thought that the Bush administration was responsible for 9/11 to aid the popularity of Bush and his party, or that FDR allowed Pearl Harbor to happen to stymie isolationists. It should be noted that many Partisan conspiracies focus on the same events as “Cabal” conspiracies. The main difference between the two is that in the latter, it is only the conspirators who benefit, not everyone on their side. (e.g. people who believe that Sandy Hook was meant to lead to the confiscation of guns and the enslavement of all Americans, regardless of their position on gun control, would fall into the “Cabal” group).

I think the best example of a Cabal conspiracy is the anti-vaxxers. In their view, the medical industry is intentionally giving kids autism. Most people who are pro-vaccine are not part of the conspiracy, but as opposed to liberals who participate in “the war on Christmas,” those who unwittingly aid the conspirators are themselves harmed. The Cabal can also be clandestine. As opposed to something as visible and publicly debated as anti-vaxxers, this could be a Rothschild secretly tightening control on the banking systems, waiting for the right time to strike.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Review: The Code Book by Simon Singh (1999)

I have what is either a very bad habit or a very good habit.  Whenever I come across a reference to a book on a subject I know very little about, I put everything else I want to read aside and read that book instead.  In this case, the subject was cryptography, and the book is Simon Singh's The Code Book.  Covering the history of codemaking and codebreaking from ancient civilizations, through the development of mechanical enciphering (esp. the Enigma machine and Bletchley Park) and up to public key encryption and the possibilities implied by quantum computing.  All of this, with a brief detour into the deciphering of Hieroglyphics and Linear B, is explained in terms that a layman (i.e. me) can understand.

One reason I hesitate to review books like this is my knowledge on the subject is so scarce that I can't really speak to its veracity.  Unlike some non-fiction books (*cough* Freakonomics *cough*), there are no obvious problems that stick out.  This is not a bad thing, but could indicate a very good book or a book that seems very good to someone who doesn't know what they're talking about (i.e. me).  Anyway, assuming Singh's work is as well-researched and accurate as it appears to me, it's a good primer on a subject that will only become more relevant to the average person as time passes.