Media Manipulation And Elite Memes: A Real Life “Wag The Dog”

Wag the Dog

Why does the dog wag its tail?
Because the dog is smarter than the tail.
If the tail were smarter, it would wag the dog.

My girlfriend recently had me watch the brilliant movie Wag the Dog, claiming it would be perfect for me. She was right.

In the movie, Robert De Niro is a spin doctor whose job is manipulating the media – in this case, to work with Dustin Hoffman, a Hollywood producer, to create a fake war with Albania in the public’s mind so that people would be distracted from the President’s sex scandal until he could be reelected.

The movie is brilliant. A libertarian (or really any somewhat free-thinking person) who watches it naturally starts to wonder if this sort of thing actually happens. Most people, on the other hand, simply dismiss it as an entertaining but fictional movie, and then move on with their lives.

I have no doubt that media manipulation to the extent portrayed in Wag the Dog happens in some of the worst countries – say, North Korea. Most people would agree. But to suggest that comparable manipulation exists in America or the Western world would likely result in you being labeled a “conspiracy theorist”, and then summarily dismissed as a crank.

To be honest, I don’t think the US government and its lapdog corporate media could pull off a deception of the degree demonstrated in the movie (but hey, I could be wrong). But that doesn’t mean the media doesn’t engage in less extreme forms of manipulation and propaganda. They do – and to great effect.


How The Media Can Be Controlled

At this point, most people would already be calling me a little bit crazy, and would be confused how I can say such things despite America and the rest of the Western world having freedom of speech and an independent media. But this is only nominally true – yes, the Soviet Union had far more stringent controls on the press than we have here, but Western media is hardly “free”.

In fact, there are all sorts of overt, covert, and even perhaps unintentional/indirect ways in which the media isn’t really free or independent (I discuss a bunch of this in an earlier post on why democracy is a utopian idea). In fact, the US was ranked 46th in the world in press freedom in 2014. And when six corporations control over 90% of what you hear, read, and watch in the media, it’s not hard to imagine the mechanisms which would lead to a lack of independence (here’s more on the media market’s consolidation).

In fact, when watching the news, one can’t help but feel like there is very little in the way of differing opinions. It’s so comical that Conan O’Brien has made a whole “thing” of it:

In other words, “the news” is mostly just meant as entertainment, something scripted and made ready to digest for public consumption. The words you listen to on TV news are coming from people higher up in the corporate structure, and passed down, ensuring a uniformity in the message. This need not be intentional or conspiratorial, but it is a side effect none the less.

Since most people would rather hear about celebrity gossip than about crimes perpetrated by their governments, the news delivers what consumers want. Of course, there is some real journalism, but that isn’t the point; most people are not willing to go to the effort to gather information from multiple sources and really understand important issues. As I stated in my democracy post:

“Regardless of how great some reporters might be, if people don’t want to educate themselves, then the media simply will not do the work for them. And when important issues are being covered, it is easier for the journalist to accept a government spokesman’s account rather than doing serious investigation of any complex issues. It’s even easier (and cheaper) to post opinion pieces and interviews, which are making up a larger and larger share of media time.”

There is nothing “wrong” with this per se, though it certainly does provide a filter for journalistic content. The same can be said for advertising, the primary means by which these giant media corporations make their revenue.

Naturally, big sponsors are going to tend to have some influence on the content that is ultimately presented to the public. You wouldn’t expect a newspaper that is largely financed by (or that the parent corporation owns interests in) military contractors or weapons companies to publish content that is against the military or exposes these companies to any kind of negative publicity. And it just so happens to be the case that the federal government is one of the media’s largest advertisers. In 2010, the federal government spent at least $945 million on advertising services, and that doesn’t include numerous related expenses. The cost of media outreach related to Obamacare alone is going to be an estimated $684 million per year, according to government sources. See here for a more balanced overview and discussion of federal spending on advertising.

These filters are very real and influence content, but there are more dark and scary ways that the media can be influenced as well:

Government officials may become angered by overly critical pieces and have the power of coercion to respond (picture Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Daniel Ellsberg, the detention of David Miranda, etc.). If you reveal something too close to the heart of the National Security State, you will be punished. Consider James Risen, who is being coerced by the federal government for refusing to reveal a source for a book he wrote exposing the CIA.

The fact is, potential government sources are highly unlikely to provide information to journalists known to be critical of the government. And who can blame them? People tend not to like publicizing their own failures or being made to look bad.

Since government controls access to critical sources and information, this is a significant point. The government restricts physical access to sources, selectively provides information that highlights the administration’s successes rather than failures, and prescreens reporters’ questions or only allows scripted ones.”

And I’ve only barely scratched the surface of the government’s direct involvement in manipulating the media, where a recent survey found that 64% of journalists believe that they are being spied on by the US government. There is copious evidence that the CIA regularly works to manipulate the media. For starters, there is well documented collusion between the New York Times and the CIA. This isn’t too surprising, however, since they regularly push fabricated evidence in attempts to promote warfare and militarism.

The NYT may be among the worst of news organizations in this regard, but they are hardly alone. Operation Mockingbird, which began in the 1950s, involved (among other things) recruiting journalists to push the CIA’s version of “news”, and you can be sure similar work is being done today. In fact, a well known German journalist claims he published stories written by the CIA under his name, and according to three time Emmy Award winning journalist Amber Lyon, “CNN is routinely paid by the US government and foreign governments to selectively report on certain events. Furthermore, the Obama administration pays CNN for editorial control over some of their content.”

We’ve also recently learned that the CIA was able to successfully pressure the NYT into killing an embarrassing story about a plan to sell faulty schematics for nuclear weapon parts to Iran. And across the pond, Britain has just announced that they have recruited 1500 “Facebook Warriors” to spread disinformation and conduct psy-ops online.

Of course, it is impossible to know the true extent of media manipulation by the CIA, the government, corporate interests, and the global elite. But there is more than enough evidence that it is being done, and more than enough theoretical understanding of how it actually happens. And the effects can be significant. Again, quoting from my democracy post:

“In my opinion the most glaring recent example of the media not informing the populace of important information was with Iceland’s “pots and pans” revolution in 2009-10. The mainstream media in the US was completely silent about this event, and yet it was among the most important world events at the time. This was a peaceful revolution where the government was overthrown, and the fraudulent banksters were thrown in jail. Maybe, just maybe, this was because they didn’t want to give Americans any ideas?”

It is critical to understand that, while ostensibly “free” and “independent”, the media does serve an agenda, and that agenda is rarely to create an informed populace that has an accurate picture of what is going on regarding important events in the world. While we don’t yet have outright censorship in America (although the idea is being bandied around now; the State Department was recently discussing shutting down Russia Today, an English language publication with a pro-Russia bent), the power elite still have an incredible degree of control over the media.


Promoting Elite Memes

Despite all the ways in which the media is influenced by the powers that be, they need not create a fake war in order to have dangerous effects on the public mind. The way these manipulations work are far more subtle than the way it is presented in Wag the Dog. Similar kinds of manipulations may be happening, but it need not be this super-secret, artificial thing. In fact, it is far more effective to promote certain ideas, and create strategic memes that, once promoted, can develop organically.

In short, the strategy of the elite is to promote something akin to Plato’s Noble Lie – to use untruths or omissions to help maintain some form of dominance and social control. Or like Leo Strauss’s “salutary myths”, or ideas that elites must promote to help representative democracy remain stable in times of crisis, including shoring up patriotism, support of the military, and some amount of belligerence in foreign policy.

The elite, therefore, are promoting certain memes, with the intention that they spread throughout society and create a certain general opinion about things, or present a certain view of the world, which has some kind of advantage for them. Note that not all of these things are necessarily lies; in some cases, they can be true or partly true. Sometimes, like with Iceland’s “pots and pans” revolution, it is a deliberate omission, rather than an outright lie. In any case, the idea is to bolster support for some ideas and deflate support for others.

I’ve found The Daily Bell to be a very good resource for helping to understand these elite memes. In most cases, we may not know for sure whether something is an elite meme or not, but objective, reasoned analysis can help uncover some of them and how they are used. Some of the more obvious ones are that Putin is evil, that support of the idea of secession is equivalent to supporting slavery, that government policies are successfully tackling poverty, that everyone should own a house, that libertarians and free-market supporters are “selfish”, that we should be afraid of price deflation, that radical government action is needed to stop global warming or cooling or climate change or peak oil or the population bomb or whatever else.

I don’t intend to get into the details of any given meme here or even discuss the whether they are true or false. That’s not the point. What is worth noting is that a given meme is strategically amplified in the media or through other organs like public education. When these ideas take hold, the meme spreads more organically. A couple of planted stories, carefully timed “leaks”, and a failure to ask the right questions can set the tone of the debate on any kind of issue. I’m not being crazy and paranoid; documents released by Edward Snowden have shown that this is precisely what agencies like the GCHQ and NSA do (by artificially increasing the page view counts for favored web sites, using fake “victims” to discredit those with opinions they don’t like, among other ways).

Once the Ukraine crisis was framed as Russian aggression, that became the dominant narrative. There doesn’t need to be outright censorship – other ideas simply become “kooky” or “conspiracy theories”, and no right-thinking person would believe them anyways. The discussion turns away from who is responsible for what is happening in Ukraine, and towards the US response. It is a matter of how militarily involved we should be – the idea of non-intervention isn’t to be considered in the face of unprovoked Russian aggression! After all, Putin is “the new Hitler”, and we all know how much of a folly appeasement was back in the 30’s.

Similarly, consider the meme of “climate change” or global warming. I am not a scientist, and have no idea whether global warming is actually happening or not (climate change, practically by definition, is of course happening). But you’ll notice that there are many people, equally as clueless about climate science, who claim with absolute certainty that man-made global warming is happening, and governments around the world must take drastic action to stop it by curbing our liberties and impoverishing us. There are enough scientists who don’t think there is man-made global warming to invent the term “deniers” in order to ridicule them, but then we are told that it is “settled science” and that there is a “scientific consensus”. The theory of gravitation is “settled science” (well, as far as science can even be settled at all), and that’s why you don’t hear debate about it. But there is debate about global warming – it’s just that those who don’t think it is happening must be suppressed so that further globalization, centralization, and regulation can be instituted. Man-made global warming may very well be a correct theory, but either way, debate is being intentionally silenced. The elite intervention on this issue has led to the average person being fully convinced of an idea, and then to promote that idea on their own and deride other views as crazy, ultimately creating a “hive mind” response to this issue.

Another tactic used by the powers that be is to take advantage of a sort of Hegelian dialectic. As explained by The Daily Bell:

“Hegel postulated that each stage of human advance – and the course of history itself – was driven by an argument (thesis), a counterargument (anti-thesis) and finally a synthesis of the two into a more advanced argument, at which point the process restarted. For Hegel, the dialectic could explain everything – art, culture, history, even nature.

From our more modern vantage point, Hegel’s dialectic may not seem so persuasive as an explanation of all things – and in fact, it probably is not. But for the elite of his day, and for the monetary elite today, the Hegelian dialectic provides tools for the manipulation of society.

To move the public from point A to point B, one need only find a spokesperson for a certain argument and position him or her as an authority. That person represents Goalpost One. Another spokesperson is positioned on the other side of the argument, to represent Goalpost Two.

Argument A and B can then be used to manipulate a given social discussion. If one wishes, for instance, to promote Idea C, one merely needs to promote the arguments of Goalpost One (that tend to promote Idea C) more effectively than the arguments of Goalpost Two. This forces a slippage of Goalpost Two’s position. Thus both Goalpost One and Goalpost Two advance downfield toward Idea C. Eventually, Goalpost Two occupies Goalpost One’s original position. The “anti-C” argument now occupies the pro-C position. In this manner whole social conversations are shifted from, say, a debate over market freedom vs. socialism to a debate about the degree of socialism that is desirable.”

There used to be debate over whether there ought to be a minimum wage or not. Now it is just a question of how high it should be set. There used to be a debate about whether a central bank should exist or not. Now the question is about whether interest rates should rise 25 basis points or not. There used to be real discussion over what role US military power should play in foreign policy. Now the question is whether we should invade a country on this pretext or that pretext.

These techniques are ridiculously effective, probably more effective than outright censorship. After all, people truly think that they came to their conclusions on their own.

No one can really escape this. Even if you read alternative media or evaluate situations as objectively as possible, the information environment you live in has been corrupted. Even if you believe that certain ideas are being suppressed or amplified, it is hard to figure out exactly how, or what specific effects that has on the debate. If global warming is truly happening, my skepticism, caused by a vague awareness of the way these memes work, will prevent me from accepting that truth. All debate and knowledge becomes corrupted when the integrity of the system has been compromised.



The media does help disseminate some useful information to the public, but primarily serves as a propaganda tool to promote elite memes. While we still enjoy a relatively large degree of freedom of speech in the Western world, the public nature of the debate is being directed by outside forces. The debate maintains a superficial appearance of being organic and natural, but in effect is heavily influenced by the wishes of those who wield the most power in society: government, globalist bankers, the military-industrial complex, and giant corporations.

This use of propaganda is more effective than the overt totalitarianism so prevalent in the 20th century. The manipulation is hidden from the public and typically unconscious to all those in the media other than at the top. As stated in an insightful article by Nicolas J S Davies, the manipulations look more like this:

“The editor or media executive who amplifies government and corporate propaganda and suppresses alternative narratives is not generally doing so on orders from the government, but in the interest of his own career, his company’s success in the corporate oligarchy or “marketplace,” and his responsibility not to provide a platform for radical or “irrelevant” ideas.”

When even those who are promoting these elite memes are unaware that they are doing it, the system has succeeded. There is an illusion of real, honest debate, one that almost everyone has bought into. But the reality is that opinions are being molded to fit the desires of the super-rich and super-powerful.

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Conspiracy Theory In America

conspiracy theories

Let’s say that a man marries a wealthy woman, take out a life insurance policy on his wife, and then a few months later, the woman dies in a freak accident at home. The man then marries another wealthy woman, and several months later, she also dies under similar circumstances.

The account I’ve given you here doesn’t provide any real evidence of anything, but I’m confident that you’ve already formulated in your mind a potential culprit. Who wouldn’t think that the first person to investigate ought to be the husband? In fact, if the police who were investigating these deaths didn’t look into the husband, nearly everyone would consider them woefully incompetent.

This is all quite rational. The evidence is purely circumstantial, of course. There would need to be real evidence that the man was involved before he could be convicted. Regardless, there would be near universal agreement that something suspicious was happening, and the man was likely involved.

This is the exact opposite of the way Americans respond to what are typically called “conspiracy theories”, according to Lance deHaven-Smith, author of the book Conspiracy Theory in America, which is without a doubt the most thought-provoking book I have read in years. Once something has been labeled a conspiracy theory, all rational evaluation of the circumstance in question flies out the window.

In fact, the popular conception of conspiracy theories is that they amount to a kind of impaired thinking, analogous to a mental illness or a superstition. A more accurate definition would be that conspiracy theories are any theory of official wrongdoing that have not yet been substantiated by public officials themselves.

The use of the term “conspiracy theory” is a relatively recent phenomenon. It essentially came into existence in 1964 as a catch-all for disagreements with the Warren Commission report on the JFK assassination – and the popularity of the term has exploded since. According to Global Research:

“A LexisNexis search of news program transcripts for the dates March 1, 2011 to March 1, 2014 reveals 2,469 usages of the “conspiracy theory/theories” term. Probing the surveyed time span reveals CNN (586 transcripts) and MSNBC (382) as the foremost purveyors of the phrase, with Fox News (182) a distant third. The US government’s transcript service, US Federal News, comes in at fourth, suggesting persistent strategic usage of the label at federal government press conferences and similar functions to drive home official positions and dispel challenges to them. Programming on National Public Radio ranks fifth, with 115 instances.”

In what some might consider an ironic twist, the term “conspiracy theory” was popularized by a CIA media infiltration campaign beginning in 1967 that was designed to discredit critics of the Warren Commission and paint them as kooks. While you may not believe me, this is not a controversial point, and the plan was outlined in CIA document 1035-960. And it’s not as though there isn’t a long history of CIA manipulation of the media, which has been thoroughly documented by Carl Bernstein.

In other words, you could say that the origin of the term “conspiracy theory” was in itself a conspiracy!


Conspiracies Are Real

In the minds of the majority of Americans, a conspiracy theory is something so “out there” that it is too wacky to even contemplate, and is beyond the range of normal, polite discourse.

This is odd, because we know for a fact that conspiracies can and do happen: Watergate, Iran-Contra, Fast and Furious, and the systematic lying about the weight of evidence or Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, to name just a few of the confirmed ones.

Since clearly some “conspiracy theories” are true, is it not pure nonsense to dismiss all theories of elite criminality as false?

A common response to this line of argument is that “someone would talk”, meaning that conspiracies can never be kept secret because someone will inevitably spill the beans.

Oftentimes, someone does talk; people just don’t listen. They are too busy accusing them of being a conspiracy theorist! Or someone will talk, but people won’t care. How else can we explain that 49% of Americans believe Edward Snowden to be a traitor, despite his making public conclusive evidence of massive government crimes involving illegal surveillance?

But the idea that “someone would talk”, that it would be impossible for public officials to successfully hide their conspiracy, is fundamentally flawed. After all, the government has been able to keep secrets. For instance, the Manhattan Project, which involved multiple agencies and thousands of people, was somehow kept a secret from the public until Truman used nukes on Japan. Even Truman himself was unaware of the program until a full week after becoming President, despite occupying the office of VP for years!

Not only that, but the Watergate and Iran-Contra conspiracies were only exposed because someone got caught, not because someone talked. Better operational security could have resulted in both of these scandals remaining secret, which ought to make you wonder how many conspiracies have managed to remain under wraps!

And then there are false flag attacks, or covert operations designed to trick people into believing that the operation was perpetrated by a different entity, which are routinely admitted to being used by governments around the world. See here for instances where governments have openly admitted to using false flag attacks…it is disturbing. And those are only instances where people have come forward – again, how many more have gone undiscovered?

In any case, the immediate dismissal of anything considered a “conspiracy theory” is shocking in light of American history. After all, America was literally founded on the conspiracy theory that King George had intended to establish “an absolute tyranny over these states”, as stated in the Declaration of Independence. That’s what the separation of powers was about – if powers were unchecked, they could more easily be abused. Of course, it is worth noting that the colonists lived under far less onerous restrictions than we do in modern America.

Clearly, the way modern Americans interpret the term “conspiracy theory” is massively out of line with reality.


“Conspiracy Theory” and Perceptual Silos

Perceptual Silos

I began this post by describing a situation where on two distinct occasions, a man’s wife dies under suspicious circumstances soon after getting a large life insurance policy, and how most people would respond to the story. It seems clear that most people would draw a connection between the two occasions, and would consider the husband to be the prime suspect.

But when something is dubbed a “conspiracy theory”, most people will tuck it away into what deHaven-Smith calls a “perceptual silo”. In other words, we tend to automatically assume that any “conspiracy theory” is an isolated incident.

For instance, when you think of the Kennedy assassination, you immediately think, specifically, about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The assassination of Robert Kennedy is considered a completely different scenario, despite glaring similarities. They were brothers with similar ideologies, murdered within a few years of each other, who were both political rivals of Richard Nixon and hated by Lyndon Johnson. Both were assassinated while campaigning for president, and both seemed likely to win. These similarities prove nothing, but any elementary investigator should be looking for ways to link the two events together, just as they would for the deaths of the two wives.

Let’s compare this with the events of September 11th, which were closely followed by a series of anthrax attacks across the country. As the anthrax attacks were happening, I recall the public discussion assuming that the attacks on the Twin Towers and the anthrax letters were related, and al-Qaeda being blamed for both. Today, these two events are cognitively disassociated. What happened?

Well, the FBI discovered that the strain of anthrax used in the letters was developed at the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland…by the U.S. Army. Shortly after the anthrax attacks were discovered, the FBI had authorized the destruction of rare anthrax samples at Iowa State University, making it significantly more difficult for scientists to connect the anthrax in the attacks to domestic labs where they were created. These discoveries should have sent alarm bells off in the minds of the public, suggesting that perhaps the U.S. military was in some way connected to the 9/11 attacks. Instead, discussion of the anthrax attacks stopped, and was “sealed off cognitively” as a completely separate and distinct situation. Once investigators found that the anthrax was developed in Maryland, the case was closed, and that was that.

A “conspiracy theory” is an isolated event. When these types of events are related, they are considered organized crime instead. The Mafia may do many of the things that “conspiracy theorists” accuse the government of doing, but they are considered an organization, not a conspiracy. This distinction between conspiracy theory and organized crime creates these perceptual silos. This silo effect makes it far less likely that people will even begin to look for connections between these kinds of events.

That’s not all. To find a connection between two or more “conspiracies” requires one to have an initial suspicion of political elites in the first place. But this very suspicion is one of the primary norms implicit in the negative connotation that the designation of “conspiracy theorist” holds. If you try to find connections between these events, the act of doing this investigation earns you the label of “conspiracy theorist”, entitling everyone else to ignore you, regardless of the strength of the evidence for your claims.


The Dangers and Psychology of the “Conspiracy Theory” Label

Tinfoil Hat

Perceptual silos are but one of the psychological aspects involved in the idea of conspiracy theory. There are other aspects that make the “conspiracy theory” label even more effective at achieving its goal, which we’ll get into in a moment.

First, let’s consider the Martha Mitchell Effect. Martha Mitchell was the wife of Nixon’s Attorney General, and had told her psychiatrist that top White House officials were engaged in illegal activities. Her psychiatrist chalked this up to mental illness – but we know now that Watergate really happened. The Martha Mitchell Effect is the tendency for people (mental health professionals specifically, but it could apply to anyone) to label as “delusional” any claims which they feel are improbable and haven’t taken the time to look at the evidence for. In psychiatry, this can result in misdiagnosing patients as mentally ill, but laypeople tend to go through a similar thought process for “conspiracy theorists”.

And then there is the famous Rosenhan experiment, where a psychologist and other mentally healthy volunteers checked themselves into mental institutions while claiming to be having auditory hallucinations. Once checked in, they all acted normally and claimed to be fine and feeling better. The idea was to see how long these sane people could remain in a mental institution before it was discovered that they were, in fact, sane. The “patients” were never found out, and stayed for an average of 19 days (range: 7 to 52) before being discharged with a diagnosis of schizophrenia in remission. In the end, Rosenhan asked:

“Do the salient characteristics that lead to diagnoses reside in the patients themselves or in the environments and contexts in which observers find them?”

The evidence, of course, points to the latter. And as you can imagine, the label of “conspiracy theorist” has quite a bit in common with the designation of someone as mentally ill. When someone is diagnosed as a “conspiracy theorist”, this tends to say a lot more about the environment, including the person making the diagnosis, than it does about the “conspiracy theorist” himself.

And just as the “patients” were never discovered to be sane regardless of the evidence, the label of “conspiracy theorist” prevents people from registering doubts about public officials, regardless of the evidence.

Perhaps you think this comparison with mental illness is a bit forced. Then you would be forgetting that in the Soviet Union, the regime would denounce anyone who disagreed with the government as crazy and then send them to insane asylums. While the US is not (yet) institutionalizing people for questioning their official narrative of history, the use of the term “conspiracy theory” has a nearly identical effect without directly using coercion.

(As an aside, a resistance to authority is starting to be considered a mental illness in America. The DSM-IV contains Oppositional Defiant Disorder, which according to Wikipedia, can be characterized by “behaviors such as unpopular dissent, non-aggressive resistance, deliberate disobedience to authority, abstaining from widely accepted norms, or refusal to comply with any request in a particular setting.” How long do you think it will be before this kind of diagnosis is used for nefarious purposes?)

In fact, researchers Ginna Husting and Martin Orr found that:

“In a culture of fear, we should expect the rise of new mechanisms of social control to deflect distrust, anxiety, and threat. Relying on the analysis of popular and academic texts, we examine one such mechanism, the label conspiracy theory, and explore how it works in public discourse to “go meta” by sidestepping the examination of evidence. Our findings suggest that authors use the conspiracy theorist label as (1) a routinized strategy of exclusion; (2) a reframing mechanism that deflects questions or concerns about power, corruption, and motive; and (3) an attack upon the personhood and competence of the questioner. This label becomes dangerous machinery at the transpersonal levels of media and academic discourse, symbolically stripping the claimant of the status of reasonable interlocutor—often to avoid the need to account for one’s own action or speech. We argue that this and similar mechanisms simultaneously control the flow of information and symbolically demobilize certain voices and issues in public discourse.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself! The label of “conspiracy theorist” (which, remember, was pushed by the CIA in order to discredit people who questioned the official narrative of the JFK assassination) is used in order to bypass peoples’ rational and objective appraisal of the evidence.

Why Do People Criticize “Conspiracy Theories”?

Criticisms against conspiracy theories and theorists, therefore, are not based on evidence of the theory/theorist being incorrect; rather, they are based primarily on sentimental feelings towards political leaders and institutions. People want to believe the official narrative, because they want to believe that their leaders are generally good people. Deriding “conspiracy theories” is one way to help reduce the cognitive dissonance that would occur if one were to actually look at the evidence.

If sentimental feelings towards their leaders were the only reason why people tend to criticize anything labeled as a conspiracy theory, then I don’t think it would be particularly effective. After all, most people would come around if they were presented with serious evidence of a conspiracy, right?

That’s part of the “beauty” of the conspiracy theory label! A conspiracy denier will lump together all unofficial accounts of the situation in question, and judge the whole group of them by the ones with the least evidence. There is a false dichotomy between the official theory and so-called conspiracy theories. The denier doesn’t look at each theory on its own to evaluate its merit.

For instance, the claim that 9/11 was an inside job or that it was the result of official incompetence are lumped together, despite differing levels of evidence for each, and having very different implications. On a wider scale, the term “conspiracy theory” includes ideas like JFK being assassinated by forces from within the government as well as ideas like the government hiding evidence of extra-terrestrial life. These are wildly different scenarios, yet they are grouped together and dismissed as “conspiracy theory” together. So long as you don’t believe that lizard-like aliens have taken over Dick Cheney’s body, you will also not believe that there is more to 9/11 or the JFK assassination than has been presented officially.

There is also a more “academic” justification for criticizing conspiracy theorists. Cass Sunstein (one of my all-time least favorite public figures, on par even with Paul Krugman!) and Adrian Vermeule wrote a famous paper that alleges that conspiracy theories are “self-sealing”:

“Conspiracy theories generally attribute extraordinary powers to certain agents – to plan, to control others, to maintain secrets, and so forth. Those who believe that those agents have such powers are especially unlikely to give respectful attention to debunkers, who may, after all, be agents or dupes of those who are responsible for the conspiracy in the first instance.”

In other words, conspiracy theorists attribute so much power to those agents involved in the conspiracy that they must also have the power to hide or manipulate any evidence of it. Therefore, a conspiracy theorist will ignore all the evidence of the official narrative, and imagine that this is just propaganda or exactly what the conspirators want us all to believe.

I don’t doubt that this argument is true enough for some people who are dubbed conspiracy theorists, but it is simply false if Sunstein and Vermeule mean to say that this is an inevitable condition. In fact, implicit in this description is just more of the same psychology behind the ridicule of conspiracy theories in the first place. What is assumed in their argument is that conspiracy theories are wrong (they do acknowledge this in the paper, to be fair), and that people who arrive at these conspiratorial conclusions are ignoring evidence. But why must that be the case?

In other words, this argument only works if you start from the assumption that the conspiracy theory is already incorrect. But since the only way to know if any given theory – official or otherwise – is right or wrong, one would need to examine the evidence anyways. But anyone, conspiracy theorist or not, can look at the evidence selectively, perhaps with an eye towards reinforcing a conclusion they’ve already come to. In fact, nearly everyone does – this is called cherry picking or confirmation bias.

Conspiracy Hypocrisy

When you actually start to think about it, the whole modern notion of “conspiracy theory” is incredibly hypocritical.

Anyone who invests a few minutes looking at the evidence in the JFK assassination would come to the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald almost certainly could not have acted alone, and thus that there must be some other explanation – whatever it may be – for the assassination. In fact, a full 61% of Americans believe that others must have been involved, and this is the lowest percentage in decades. Could all of these people just be nutty, raving conspiracy theorists?

In fact, official accounts of most events that have some number of conspiratorial explanations for them are equally implausible, if not more so, than the “conspiracy theories” themselves. Almost always they involve bumbling bureaucrats (well, I guess that is believable!), incompetent intelligence agencies, a wildcard “lone gunman”, or faulty voting machines. You could even regard the official explanations as coincidence theories – and as these coincidences pile up, it becomes ever more likely that there is something deeper and more suspicious afoot.

Conspiracy deniers will ridicule any individual who believes in a conspiracy theory, but they unquestioningly accept institutionalized conspiracy theories. No one was ridiculed during the McCarthy era, when official “wisdom” was that commies had infiltrated every major institution, top government posts, and were taking over the world. And no one was ridiculed for believing that Iraq was somehow behind 9/11. Why not?

There is a very dangerous tendency in America to automatically trust the narrative that the government and mainstream corporate media present. Perhaps I’m just paying better attention now, but I’ve noticed a considerable uptick in this over the past year and a half, and would like to go over just a couple of the more egregious instances where the Obama administration has crafted its own narrative, or “conspiracy theory”, to suit its geopolitical ends.

Remember how in August of 2013, Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad used sarin gas on his own people in the town of Ghouta? This crossed a “red line”, and nearly led to the US intervening in Syria’s civil war in order to oust Assad and save the Syrian freedom fighters. It’s a great story, repeated endlessly in the mainstream media…except that it likely isn’t true (and see here for a more balanced analysis of that piece of investigative journalism), and Obama knew it at the time. According to an MIT study, the rockets that were used as the delivery mechanism could not possibly have come from areas controlled by the Assad regime. Many in the intelligence community doubted the Obama administration’s claims, but this was only discussed in alternative media. You may not believe me – take a look at the evidence and make your own judgment.

It gets worse. The US government has clearly not given up in its goal to topple Assad, and has continued to rely on propaganda and lies to manipulate the American public into supporting this goal. In the summer of 2014, as ISIS began to carve out its “Caliphate” across the Middle East, Obama and the neocons saw their opportunity to further intervene in Syria, but needed to gather public support. How? By inventing the Khorasan group, a fictional group even more brutal and evil than ISIS itself, and claiming that they are planning “imminent” attacks against the US “homeland”. Talk of the Khorasan group was all over the news for a few weeks, long enough for the US to begin launching airstrikes without a declaration of war (of course, nobody cares about such formalities anymore). And then it completely stopped, and nobody has heard of Khorasan since. Then in November, the infamous “Syria hero boy” video went viral. This video depicted a young boy rescuing his sister from a hail of bullets allegedly coming from Assad’s forces. What an evil man, shooting at children! Of course, as you probably know by now, that video was a fake, despite “experts” immediately “verifying the authenticity” of the video.

All of this is just a conspiracy theory created by the US government – crafting an image of Assad and of the terrorists as even worse than they really are – yet very few people are ridiculing the government the way they ridicule individuals accused of “conspiracy theorizing”.

And what about the conspiracy theory that Russia has been agitating in Ukraine, invaded the Crimean peninsula, and shot down the civilian airliner MH17? I’ve been following this one from the beginning, and it’s truly incredible that the US government has managed to get away with developing a conspiracy theory this complex and deceitful, but yet again, it goes largely unquestioned and un-ridiculed. Let’s start with the fact that the “democratic uprising” in February 2014 was a US-orchestrated coup. George Friedman, the head of Stratfor (a massive, private intelligence firm – not a source to take lightly), has even acknowledged that this was “the most blatant coup in history”. In fact, Assistant US Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was caught red handed with her famous “Fuck the EU” call, where she and the US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt discussed who they would be installing as the next Ukrainian leader (listen to recording here and read the transcript here). The government and the media have consistently downplayed the role that neo-Nazi militias have played in the coup and the ensuing bloodbath and ethnic cleansing of Russians in Eastern Ukraine.

Well what about the shooting down of MH17? Wasn’t that done by Russia or Russian-backed “separatists”? The US government and its compliant media immediately made the claim, but (what didn’t make the news) admitted that their evidence was entirely based off YouTube clips and social media posts. As recently as October, the chief investigator of the MH17 incident says there is no conclusive evidence, despite media reports to the contrary. In fact, Western governments and media have made a concerted effort to suppress any evidence that would suggest other, more reasonable explanations. I urge you all to follow the links, look at the evidence, and draw your own conclusions (perhaps different from mine, but without a doubt understanding the conspiracy theory hypocrisy).

And then finally, to round out the Ukraine narrative/conspiracy theory, much has been made of the claim that “Russia has invaded Crimea” (and even Ukraine itself!). Due to a 1997 treaty between Russia and Ukraine, Russia had the “right” to station up to 25,000 troops in Crimea, a number they did not even reach. And predictably, over 90% of Crimeans voted to join Russia and leave Ukraine – something you would expect a group of Russian speaking people in a state that had just banned the Russian language and began ethnic cleansing of Russians. Imagine if there was a vote in the US to ban English – don’t you think at least 90% of Americans would vote against it? If your only sources of information regarding Crimea are statements by the US government and Western media, then everything you know about Crimea is just a conspiracy theory.

Here’s an even more timely example: North Korea’s alleged hacking of Sony. The FBI continues to insist that, without a doubt, it was the North Koreans who hacked Sony. This is pure conspiracy theory, and luckily more people seem to recognize it this time around than with many other examples. There is near-unanimity among security professionals that there simply is no evidence that would implicate North Korea, and it is far more likely the work of a disgruntled Sony employee (see here and here for evidence, plus more all over the internet). Nevertheless, the mainstream media regurgitates everything that the government says unquestioningly, turning the government’s conspiracy theory into a plausible narrative for most of the American public. We may never know who is actually behind the hack (and it could be North Korea), but there can be no question that the US government has taken advantage of the situation to demonize an enemy regime and push for stricter control over the internet.

Despite all this, the US government is never accused of conspiracy theorizing. Not when making over 900 false statements during the lead up to the Iraq war, and not when accusing other governments of committing war crimes and acts of war. No, when the government does it, it’s merely “bad intel”.

The Dangerous Consequences of the “Conspiracy Theory” Label

Conspiracy Theory Dangers

Propaganda has clearly come of age, and this makes the term “conspiracy theory” incredibly dangerous. It’s not just a matter of making it vastly more difficult to find truth (although it certainly does that), but it puts our liberties and our lives in serious danger.

In the Wired article regarding North Korea allegedly hacking Sony linked to above, we can see how the demonization of “conspiracy theorists” may proceed:

“There are some, however, who believe that nothing will satisfy the skeptics.

Richard Bejtlich, chief security strategist for FireEye, the company hired by Sony to help investigate and clean up after the attack, told the Daily Beast: “I don’t expect anything the FBI says will persuade Sony truthers. The issue has more to do with truthers’ lack of trust in government, law enforcement, and the intelligence community. Whatever the FBI says, the truthers will create alternative hypotheses that try to challenge the ‘official story.’ Resistance to authority is embedded in the culture of much of the ‘hacker community,’ and reaction to the government’s stance on Sony attribution is just the latest example.””

In other words, if you don’t believe the government’s claims, that can only be because you are the kind of person who would never believe the government’s claims. Therefore, you are irrational and not worth listening to. Worse still, you are someone who is not just wrong, but you are resistant to authority. Since the government is good and right, you are therefore bad and wrong – and causing trouble.

Once having been designated a “conspiracy theorist”, a person is obviously subject to ridicule and ostracism by the public. More importantly, however, is that this person would be considered subversive. Someone who has an inherent suspicion of the powers that be is naturally going to be a threat to said powers.

It’s not a stretch to imagine the government taking action against these subversive elements, these “conspiracy theorists”. In fact, that’s exactly what Sunstein and Vermeule suggest in their paper:

“…we suggest a distinctive tactic for breaking up the hard core of extremists who supply conspiracy theories: cognitive infiltration of extremist groups, whereby government agents or their allies (acting either virtually or in real space, and either openly or anonymously) will undermine the crippled epistemology of those who subscribe to such theories. They do so by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups, thereby introducing beneficial cognitive diversity.”

In other words, the government ought to conduct psy-ops against those groups of individuals who don’t buy into the official narrative in order to introduce “cognitive diversity” (strange, but doesn’t the idea of cognitive diversity suggest not trying to destroy alternative beliefs?). The absurdity of this idea should be obvious, but I’ll let deHaven-Smith spell it out:

“But what could be more dangerous than thinking it is acceptable to mess with someone else’s thoughts? Sunstein and Vermeule’s hypocrisy is breathtaking. They would have government conspiring against citizens who voice suspicions about government conspiracies, which is to say they would have government do precisely what they want citizens to stop saying the government does. How do Harvard law professors become snared in such Orwellian logic? One can only assume that there must be something bedeviling about the idea of conspiracy theory.”

Some of you may think it disingenuous of me to be crafting an argument merely based on a paper by some academics that nobody cares about. Actually, Cass Sunstein served as the Administrator for the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under Obama for several years. The reason you’ve never heard of this agency is because it exercises its immense powers largely in secret. They basically rewrite huge chunks of government regulations while exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests and with all but the top two officials on staff being completely anonymous. In other words, we ought to take seriously what this guy says. So, where were we? That’s right, “cognitive infiltration”…

“How might this tactic work? Recall that extremist networks and groups, including the groups that purvey conspiracy theories, typically suffer from a kind of crippled epistemology. Hearing only conspiratorial accounts of government behavior, their members become ever more prone to believe and generate such accounts. Informational and reputational cascades, group polarization, and selection effects suggest that the generation of ever-more-extreme views within these groups can be dampened or reversed by the introduction of cognitive diversity. We suggest a role for government efforts, and agents, in introducing such diversity. Government agents (and their allies) might enter chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine percolating conspiracy theories by raising doubts about their factual premises, causal logic or implications for political action.”

Never mind the fact that “conspiracy theorists” have, basically by definition, been exposed to contrary ideas. How can you rail against the official narrative if you don’t even know what the official narrative is?

More importantly, note the repeated references to “conspiracy theorists” being “extremists”. I challenge you, dear reader, to pay special attention to the term “extremist” while you follow the news over the coming months. You will notice that we are less and less fighting a war against “terrorism”, and more and more against “extremism”. That’s because terrorism is fairly limited to Islamic radicals in the public mind, but extremism can take on many forms. For instance, you would be considered an “extremist” if you don’t automatically accept the bogus conspiracy theories that Washington has been churning out.

Many who read this may think I’m just a paranoid, raving loon. But the FBI has already said that their #1 “terrorist” threat are sovereign citizens, and those who talk negatively about Big Government (yes, more so than Islamic fundamentalists). And it is surprisingly easy to be considered an “extremist” or a “potential terrorist” in America today, solely based on your beliefs – as in, a complete lack of violent tendencies is irrelevant. Here is a list of 72 ways someone can be considered an “extremist” according to official US government documents, including:

  • People who talk about individual liberties
  • People who say they “want to make the world a better place”
  • People who fear gun control or weapon confiscation
  • People who complain about bias
  • People who are frustrated with mainstream ideologies
  • Returning veterans
  • People involved in the prepping or survivalist community (perhaps this will soon be expanded to anyone who watches Walking Dead)
  • People who believe in a right to bear arms
  • People who are “anti-nuclear”
  • People who support political movements advocating for increased autonomy

I didn’t include the half-dozen references to “conspiracy theories” that are already on that list. But you should be able to see a pretty clear picture here. Anyone who is opposed to increased centralization of government power is now an “extremist”, which means that they may be a “domestic terrorist”, and thus need to be spied on and “cognitively infiltrated”.

And thanks to documents released by the heroic Edward Snowden, we know that this “cognitive infiltration” is already happening. While these documents pertain to the GCHQ (Britain’s version of the NSA), it is hardly a stretch to imagine that this kind of manipulation is happening on both sides of the Atlantic. What are they doing? Among (many) other things, government spooks are manipulating the results of online polls, artificially inflating page view counts for certain websites, censoring “extremist” material, creating fake “victim” blog posts to destroy peoples’ reputations, spying on people who visit WikiLeaks, hacking email accounts, and planting false flag attacks to discredit those with opinions they do not like.



“Members of informationally and socially isolated groups tend to display a kind of paranoid cognition and become increasingly distrustful or suspicious of the motives of others or of the larger society, falling into a “sinister attribution error.” This error occurs when people feel that they are under pervasive scrutiny, and hence they attribute personalistic motives to outsiders and overestimate the amount of attention they receive. Benign actions that happen to disadvantage the group are taken as purposeful plots, intended to harm. Although these conditions resemble individual-level pathologies, they arise from the social and informational structure of the group, especially those operating in enclosed or closely knit networks, and are not usefully understood as a form of mental illness. The social etiology of such conditions suggests that the appropriate remedy is not individual treatment, but the introduction of cognitive, informational, and social diversity into the isolated networks that supply extremist theories.” – Sunstein and Vermeule

The fact that anyone can suggest this in our current world of constant surveillance, where the FBI/CIA/NSA and other agencies are known to harass, intimidate, infiltrate, and spy on civil rights and anti-war groups, and where even the author is suggesting “cognitive infiltration”, seems absurd on its face.

Nevertheless, this is what we face today. People who seek truth and liberty are marginalized and ridiculed as “conspiracy theorists”, while those who make up absurd lies and push them through their corporate media allies are revered and highly respected.

I would consider Lance deHaven-Smith’s book, Conspiracy Theory in America, an absolute masterpiece. The book presents the theoretical framework that is necessary for fully understanding many of the issues that were raised in this article. It’s only about 200 pages and it’s cheap, so if you have even a passing interest in this subject matter, you should read it.

Implicit in the term “conspiracy theory” is a systematic attempt to discredit anyone who questions existing power structures. This attempt has proven wildly successful over the past 50 years. Those of us who love liberty need to spread the word and counter this psychological manipulation.

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Charlie Hebdo: Terrorist Acts Are Just Criminal Acts, So Let’s Treat Them That Way

Charlie Hebdo

The recent Charlie Hebdo attacks were despicable, and have been rightly denounced by the international community as well as the Muslim community. Unfortunately (and predictably), the reaction to this attack has been the usual response to any act of terrorism: more fear-mongering, and more excuses to restrict our freedom.

On the right, we have people saying we need to shut down our borders, support the troops, give the government more surveillance powers, and eradicate radical Islamic beliefs. On the left, we have people saying that “we’ll never give up our freedom of speech!” all while advocating censorship for the sake of political correctness.

Meanwhile, the US killed hundreds of Muslims in drone strikes in 2014. The media dutifully and falsely reports that nearly all of them are “militants” or “terrorists”, which in this case is defined as a young male who hasn’t been proven to not be a terrorist. We rightly express moral outrage at the attacks in Paris, but refuse to turn that critical eye back on our own government. (See this great article comparing the media coverage of drone strikes to that of the Paris ones).

There are plenty of reasons for this perceptual double standard, but a particularly nefarious one is the term “terrorism” itself. Since 9/11, we’ve been involved in a “war on terror” – a war that, like all other war-on-adjectives (war on drugs, war on poverty, etc.), can never be won. We are endlessly warned of “the terrorist threat”, told that “we will never give in to terrorism”, or that “we don’t negotiate with terrorists.”

There is no doubt that the acts that most in the Western world consider “terrorism” are in fact immoral, barbaric acts. But what is it that makes the act an act of terrorism as opposed to, say, a criminal act, such as any other mass murder? There is little, if any; the term “terrorism” is simply a propaganda device.

When you call a criminal action “terrorism”, it causes a change in peoples’ psyches. Most people tend to interpret a “terrorist act” completely differently from that of an equivalent criminal act that has not been dubbed the same way. It makes people afraid, which is exactly what all parties involved want (except for innocent civilians, of course). A scared population is easy to control.

“Of course the people don’t want war. But after all, it’s the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.” — Herman Göring at the Nuremberg trials

The deaths of a dozen cartoonists and other media personnel is a tragedy, and the perpetrators should be brought to justice. There is a part of me that feels ashamed to “use” their death as an opportunity to get on my soapbox, but it is merely to counter the sadly much more effective way these deaths are being used in the mainstream.

Because this was a “terrorist” act, we will be reminded that “they hate us for our freedom”. There will be no mention of their hating us because we invade their countries, bomb their weddings and funerals, and support their dictatorial regimes, despite them making that clear.

Because “they hate us for our freedom”, we will be told that it is necessary to grant the NSA, FBI, and CIA more latitude to spy on us and torture us. Out one side of the mouth we will be told that we must never give up our freedom of speech to these monsters, and out the other side they will continue to arrest and jail people for having certain opinions.

Of course, all of this is just a repeat of the bitter cycle that has plagued us since 9/11. The end result is a downward spiral into more and more tyranny and aggressive, unjust warfare.

It needs to stop. If we want to defeat “terrorism”, we need to start treating it the same way we treat all criminal acts. We can still express moral outrage over crimes, but most crimes don’t result in us collectively losing our wits.

People respond to crime by taking action in order to minimize their risk of being a victim – buying locks, getting a gun for self-defense, not walking alone late at night. These are common sense behavioral changes that will reduce, but can never eliminate, the risk of being a victim of crime.

With acts of “terrorism”, people get whipped up into a frenzy and demand to eliminate the risk, for instance, by trying to annihilate the ideology of “Islamofascism”. Of course, it is an impossible task to eliminate the risk, and any attempt to do so just tosses cost-benefit analysis out the window. (As an aside, the risk of dying in a terrorist attack is already very, very low).

The fact is, by responding to terrorism the way we have continually done for the past 13 years or so, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy that terrorism works:

“The attacks of September 11 were a spectacular success. Is there any other honest interpretation? They were a success not because of the Americans they killed that day, but because we chose to spend the next decade mired in hopeless, counterproductive global wars that cost us trillions of dollars and killed thousands more Americans and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Terrorists wanted to show the world that we were brutal and unjust, and we did our best to help them do that. Terrorists wanted a war, and we gave them one. And we lost. We lost by giving them the stupid, fearful, angry response that they wanted…

…Our collective insistence on treating terrorist acts as something categorically different than crime—as something harder to understand, something scarier, something perpetrated not by humans but by monsters—feeds the ultimate goals of terrorists. It makes us dumb. It makes us primitive. It is our boogeyman, and no amount of rational talk will drive it out of our minds.”

Precisely. Remember that there was no al-Qaeda presence in Iraq until we toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime. And Juan Cole has some more penetrating analysis, suggesting that al-Qaeda is just trying to “sharpen the contradictions” in France:

“The problem for a terrorist group like al-Qaeda is that its recruitment pool is Muslims, but most Muslims are not interested in terrorism. Most Muslims are not even interested in politics, much less political Islam. France is a country of 66 million, of which about 5 million is of Muslim heritage. But in polling, only a third, less than 2 million, say that they are interested in religion. French Muslims may be the most secular Muslim-heritage population in the world (ex-Soviet ethnic Muslims often also have low rates of belief and observance). Many Muslim immigrants in the post-war period to France came as laborers and were not literate people, and their grandchildren are rather distant from Middle Eastern fundamentalism, pursuing urban cosmopolitan culture such as rap and rai. In Paris, where Muslims tend to be better educated and more religious, the vast majority reject violence and say they are loyal to France.

Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.”

By drawing an arbitrary and false distinction between terrorist acts and acts of crime, we play right into their hands. We are drawn into adopting precisely the policies that lead to more terrorist attacks. These are the very same policies that destroy our civil liberties and cause us to lose the moral high ground by stooping to their level and butchering many more innocent people in aggressive wars.

My condolences go out to the families of those who died in this tragedy, as well as all the rest who will suffer as a consequence of this act.

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A Neoconservative Response to the Senate Torture Report


The Senate has released its report about enhanced interrogation techniques used by the CIA, and predictably, the liberal media is up in arms about the “failure” of these techniques.

Their arguments basically amount to the following:

  1. “Torture” goes against “American values”,
  2. Innocent people were “tortured”, and
  3. These techniques provided no useful intelligence.

Dick Cheney, one of our nation’s leading patriots, has rightly called this “a bunch of hooey”. As anyone who has watched the TV show “24” knows, sometimes you need to use some brutal techniques if you want to save lives.

I intend to respond to each of the three points above and show why they are indeed “hooey”. Let’s start with the first one.

What are “American values”? While different people may have different answers to this question, the ONLY true answer would be those values embodied by our founding document, the Constitution. Most relevant for our purposes is the 8th Amendment, which reads:

“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

Read that again. No “cruel and unusual punishments” can be inflicted upon US citizens. The terrorists that were detained in Guantanamo and other sites were a direct threat to the lives of every patriotic American. It would be cruel and unusual punishment (and thus a violation of the 8th Amendment) to put these Americans at further risk of terrorism by not doing everything in our power to protect them. If that includes torturing terrorists, then we must torture terrorists in order to uphold the Constitution.

Frankly, it boggles the mind how the liberal media can claim to have a monopoly on determining what “American values” are without even consulting our Constitution.

Equally absurd is the idea that innocent people were tortured. Look – the CIA doesn’t just torture anyone. Who would know better whether they were innocent or not than the people who have been interrogating them? The ACLU? The liberal media? Diane Feinstein (D-ISIS)?

But of course, I’m being silly. Everyone knows that so-called “progressives” can read minds, and have super human powers of judgment. That’s how we can know beyond a reasonable doubt that these Muslims are somehow “innocent”.

Anyone with more than half a brain can see that the claim that “innocent” people were tortured is liberal propaganda, pure and simple. It is a claim designed by Barack Hussein Obama in order to divide us and make America look weak in front of our enemies. Our brave law enforcement officers and intelligence agencies don’t simply hurt the innocent – they protect the innocent from the bad guys!

But far and away the most ridiculously absurd of the claims made by liberals is that we didn’t get good intelligence from so-called torture. Where do I even begin with this one?

For starters, people keep calling the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques “torture”. Torture – really? The “rectal feeding” regimen that they had these terrorists on sounds more like some kind of fad diet you’d see in San Francisco than torture.

Then there’s the oh so famous waterboarding. Waterboarding is just simulated drowning. As in, nobody actually drowns! How are people missing out on this crucial fact? It’s hardly different from the first time you learned to swim – not the greatest time in the world to be sure, but you get over it.

And what about sleep deprivation? It’s nothing that Boobus Americanus doesn’t do to themselves so they can catch up on the latest antics of the Kardashian family. And the loud noises? Well, most of these terrorists are young men in their 20s. This is exactly the demographic that loves rocking out to heavy metal anyways – I wouldn’t be surprised if they had requested it themselves, and the kindly CIA interrogators were all too accommodating!

I’m no psychic – I don’t know for a fact what kind of intelligence was gleaned from our enhanced interrogation techniques. Perhaps the liberals are right, perhaps we didn’t get any actionable intelligence, and no lives were saved. But if that’s the case, it is purely due to the incredible restraint shown by the brave men and women who were involved in this program.

Yes, they could have broken out the thumbscrews, the electric shocks, and so on – but they didn’t. The ridiculous constraints put on them by terrorist-lovers like the ACLU stopped them from doing what they needed to do. We were not brutal enough, and the release of this report is only going to make this worse.

If making them stay awake for 180 hours isn’t enough to get good intelligence from these terrorists, then how are more “humane” interrogation techniques supposed to work? The answer isn’t to throw our heroic men and women in uniform under the bus – it’s to give them more latitude to do what needs to be done to keep the rest of us safe. It is their service, their sacrifice, that has kept us alive this long. When 180 hours doesn’t work, let’s try 280 hours!

There is a fact of life that the liberal media never seems to learn. If you want to make an omelet, you’ve got to break some legs.


In case you couldn’t tell, the above was satire. That being said, I’ve seen and heard variants on these arguments by neoconservatives over the past couple weeks. It’s terrifying.

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Stockholm Syndrome and the State


One of the things most baffling to libertarians of the anarcho-capitalist persuasion is just how people can support the state when it is so obviously immoral and against the best interests of the vast majority of people. One would expect, given all the terrible things that government has done, that people would be far more receptive to the idea of shrinking the size and scope of government, but suggestions of this nature are almost universally met with scorn.

Things like propaganda, forced and compulsory education, and media manipulation can certainly explain part of it. But I’ve always noticed that when I attack the state, most people will respond as though I’ve just kicked their inner child in the balls. To most, the state takes on the role of a father figure, a sometimes stern institution that is fundamentally looking after their best interests. Propaganda in and of itself is simply not strong enough to have this kind of thought-stifling effect.

No, there is something more powerful at work here. I believe one large part of this is a kind of psychological defensive mechanism, Stockholm Syndrome, where hostages come to identify with and have generally positive feelings towards their captors. From Wikipedia:

Stockholm syndrome, or capture-bonding, is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending and identifying with them. These feelings are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, who essentially mistake a lack of abuse from their captors for an act of kindness.

The name Stockholm Syndrome comes from an instance in 1973 where two bank robbers held several bank employees hostage in Stockholm. During the standoff, the hostages bonded with their captors, and ultimately ended up defending their actions. In fact, they came to view the police as the ones who were acting dangerously, rather than the robbers who were holding them hostage.

An even more dramatic instance came one year later, with the abduction of Patricia Hearst. At the age of 19, she was kidnapped by a left-wing urban guerrilla movement called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). They locked her in a closet, tortured, and occasionally raped her for several weeks. Just two months after her abduction, she was actively involved with the SLA and committed bank robberies with the organization. Despite opportunities to escape, she did not. For more on Patty Hearst and the implications of her experience, see this.

While Stockholm Syndrome may result in people behaving in seemingly irrational ways, it is actually a perfectly rational response to certain circumstances. When under the power of a dangerous person, there are survival benefits to developing traits that would be pleasing to the captor. A more submissive and less antagonistic attitude may result in more favorable treatment.

A study by Graham et al (1994) suggests four conditions that are necessary for Stockholm Syndrome to appear. As elucidated by Harry Elliot of the Stanford Review:

“Psychological precedent would suggest that four conditions are required for Stockholm Syndrome to develop. First, the criminal must pose a serious threat to the victim. Second, the victim must be isolated from outside influences. Third, the victim must feel completely unable to escape his captivity or to defend himself. Fourth, the victim must feel that some compassion has been shown. This does not entail a bank robber offering burgers and cookies to a hostage, but simply means that captors have not been as aggressive as they theoretically could.”

Michael Huemer adds a fifth condition (a kind of corollary to the third one above): The hostage cannot overpower or defend himself from his captor.

The relationship between a state and its citizens is comparable to that of a hostage and his captors, at least with regards to these conditions. Let’s look at them each individually.


Condition 1: The aggressor poses a serious and credible threat to the victim.

Governments, quite clearly, pose a serious and credible threat to their citizens (as well as citizens of other governments). Consider that the US government possesses enough military might, most obviously in the form of nuclear weapons, to kill everyone on the planet many times over.

Imagine what would have happened if the United States pushed just a little bit harder against Russia in the recent spat in Ukraine. While I hardly expect a massive nuclear war to break out (I would consider that exceedingly unlikely), it is certainly within the realm of possibility. We came dangerously close during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In fact, the US government has already used two nuclear weapons against large civilian populations in Japan.

It’s not as though the whole world needs to be destroyed either. More “mundane” war crimes are committed so often it would be pointless to try and document them. Most of the victims of modern war are civilians. These civilians are not the people who decide to get involved in the war in the first place; regardless of their beliefs, their lives are at the whim of the decisions of the ruling elite.

Moving away from war, there is also the very credible threat of having legal action taken against civilians by the state. For disobeying the law, there are threats such as fines and jail time. Increasingly, outright violence and brutality are used to subdue “criminals”, which includes a huge number of people who have committed victimless “crimes”, or even nothing illegal at all. Much of this enforcement is arbitrary or directed at minorities.


Condition 2: The victim cannot escape.

Escape from a given state is costly. It requires isolating yourself from your family and friends, sacrificing your job, and needing to get used to a different society.

But even then, you are then just the subject of a different state. If a hostage has the ability to escape his captor, only to become the hostage of some other captor, is that really escape?

In the US, it is particularly challenging to extricate yourself from the captors that are the US government. Even moving abroad does not exempt you from being subject to the US tax regime, one of the strictest tax systems in the world. The only other country that does this is Eritrea, a banana republic that garners little sympathy for these evil policies.

In order to cast off the yoke of the IRS, you would need to renounce your US citizenship, which is a surprisingly challenging process. In fact, just recently, the State Department increased the fee for renouncing citizenship from $450 to $2350. This would put that option out of reach for the nation’s poor.


Condition 3: The victim cannot overpower or defend himself from his captor.

Let me start by saying that I believe individuals have immense power to make a difference, and to help fight against the state. If I did not believe this, I wouldn’t be writing this right now.

However, an individual cannot possibly take down the government on their own, and if the state singles you out, it will almost certainly win. It’s nearly impossible to successfully defend yourself against the police, for instance.

Consider Edward Snowden, who revealed some of the most damning evidence yet of how the government abuses its powers and spies on American citizens. The official reaction to this (and even much of the public’s reaction) has been extremely negative. And more than a year since these revelations, he is still stuck living in Moscow, while the American national security state has hardly receded one iota.


Condition 4: The victim perceives some “kindness” (or relative lack of abuse) from his captor.

Most people, even those who are strongly opposed to many government policies, still view the government as their benefactor.

This makes sense, because the state performs numerous functions that could easily be seen as being generous and helping people out. The police still are occasionally used to protect the rights of the innocent from other criminals, and then there are things like welfare, safety regulations, etc., which are “benefits” that people receive from government. These “kindnesses” can dupe people into viewing the state as a positive institution that actually cares for and protects people, like a captor who gives his hostage some food, or a rare liberty.

And in America, the relative freedom that we have compared to certain countries today, as well as the historical record of governments throughout time, is often perceived as a “kindness” (lack of abuse). We are like dogs who are ecstatic after getting upgraded from a five foot leash to a ten foot one.

Of course, this is just for the common people. In a “democratic” system like we have in America, powerful individuals and special interests can secure real (not merely illusory) benefits from the state’s machinery. These people (say, the Morgan and Rockefeller families) would more accurately be considered the captors rather than the hostages. The recent scandal involving Goldman Sachs being exempt from federal regulations should make this fact abundantly clear.


Condition 5: The victim is isolated from the outside world.

This condition is probably the trickiest one to understand with regards to the state. In a place like North Korea, the comparison is obvious. For a relatively free country like America, it is much more difficult to see.

I would not seriously claim that American citizens are isolated from the outside world in the same way that a hostage is. It’s certainly not the case that we can’t travel and interact with people from other cultures and other countries. In this sense, we are most certainly not isolated.

However, since “outsiders” are subject to their own states, they would find themselves largely in the same situation. It would be as though hostages of a given captor have “outside access” to hostages from other captors. Imagine that you’ve been kidnapped, and the only outside interactions you can have are with hostages of some other psychopath, likely experiencing the same kind of Stockholm Syndrome reaction.

From a game theory perspective, it would make sense then for everyone to reinforce this belief (that government is good), even with foreigners. The idea that “the state” is a legitimate entity helps victims to identify with their own particular state. If it were not a legitimate entity, then how could their own state be considered legitimate?

Finally, most people do in fact still get their information from more local sources, particularly within America. The ignorance and lack of experience with other cultures is truly astounding in today’s globalized world. And almost nobody in America actually travels to other countries in a context beyond taking a Caribbean or European vacation. It’s still quite rare (although luckily it is becoming more common) for Americans to actually experience life in a different country or culture. In this more subtle and non-coercive way, Americans are still quite isolated from the outside world.



As you can see, from the perspective of Stockholm Syndrome, the relationship between a state and its citizens is quite similar to that of a captor and his hostages. This makes it far easier for citizens to identify with their government and become emotionally attached to it. In other words, to become patriotic.

As evidence of this identification, think about how people tend to use the word “we” in reference to government actions. Most people don’t say “The US government is bombing ISIS in Syria”, but rather “We are bombing ISIS in Syria”. This is despite the obvious fact that the speaker almost certainly has no connection to the actual action of the bombing. Even little old anarchist me ends up saying things like this quite often.

The phenomenon of Stockholm Syndrome goes a long way in explaining the observed affinity people have for the institution of the state in general, and particularly their own state.

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Terrorism Is A Propaganda Device


If you listen to the Western media and political establishment, you would have likely concluded by now that ISIS/ISIL/IS, the “Islamic State”, is a terrorist organization.

However, this is false.

At least according to the US Department of State’s official definition of “terrorism”: premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.

The members of IS are hardly clandestine. While they have certainly committed numerous atrocities, they have done so openly and without fear of getting “found out”.

Nor are they a subnational group. The Islamic State is, in fact, a state. They have monopolized the use of force (pacified) a particular geographic area. In any reasonable meaning of the term, they have formed a government in northern Iraq and parts of Syria.

Don’t get me wrong. When I say that members of IS are not terrorists, I am not claiming that their actions are morally acceptable. On the contrary, they are a reprehensible group of people who are brutally murdering innocent people.

But they are not terrorists – not by the State Department’s definition, at least. In reality, there are quite a few definitions of terrorism, and surely the Islamic State qualifies for some of them.


What is Terrorism?

But what would it be that makes militants of the Islamic State “terrorists”? Is it that they kill people? Is it that they kill a lot of people? Is it that they are genocidal? Is it that they actively try to sow fear among their enemies? Is it that they try to extract political concessions from their opponents or other nations?

Many people, acting alone or on behalf of many other organizations, kill people. If a man catches his wife cheating and kills her in a crime of passion, nobody calls this terrorism. The man has committed a murder, but he is not a terrorist.

But what about someone who kills a lot of people? Take the various school shootings that have happened over the past few years in America. We tend to call the perpetrators “mass murderers”, which is an accurate term. We would label many of these people as psychopaths, but the term “psychopath” is only occasionally used in reference to terrorists.

Or maybe it is the genocidal aspirations of IS? Is it the fact that they are specifically targeting “infidels” like Christians and the Yazidis? But nobody calls the Nazi regime a “terrorist” one. The Hutus of Rwanda were not “terrorists”. Genocide is a horribly deplorable act, but it is not what constitutes terrorism.

What about the fear they are creating? No, this doesn’t hold either. Machiavelli said that it is better for a prince to be feared than loved, and many politicians to this day heed his advice. Fear is used as a tool all the time, sometimes even with positive intent and effect (such as making a child fearful of talking to strangers in vans who promise puppies and candy).

Is the defining feature of terrorism that the intent is to change the political scene somehow? But almost everyone tries to influence the political scene. By voting, you are trying to influence political outcomes. This doesn’t make you a terrorist. Lobbying organizations exist for the sole purpose of influencing politics. They are not terrorists either. And they often use fear as a tactic toward this end, too.

It seems to me that “terrorism” is something that people simply recognize without it possessing any specific characteristics. This is incredibly problematic, since the term is used in such important ways. The rights of innocent citizens can be taken away instantaneously upon mere suspicion of being a “terrorist”. With so much at stake, ambiguities are unacceptable.


The United States – Terrorist Organization?

The State Department’s definition of terrorism above excludes governments. This is necessary, because once you allow governments to be considered terrorist organizations, you’ve opened up a whole can of worms.

For you see, the government of our very own United States (and all other governments) would become a terrorist organization if we didn’t include that qualification.

Does the United States kill people? Check.

Does the United States commit “mass murder”? Let’s see…three recent wars in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Libya, drone wars in Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan, and so on. Even on US soil, you’ve got Ruby Ridge and Waco. These are just a couple of the big ones from recent years.

In these cases, an unfathomable numbers of casualties have been innocent civilians. In Iraq, by the end of major combat (April 30, 2003), the US killed over 7400 civilians. To date, over 130,000 civilians have died as a direct result of the invasion of Iraq by the US government. Since 2001, between 18,000 and 20,000 Afghani civilians have died as a direct result of the invasion by the US government. While not all of these people were murdered by Americans, it was a predictable consequence of conscious decisions made by US policy makers. Lowball estimates say that over 400 civilians in Pakistan, over 100 in Yemen, and a handful in Somalia, have been slaughtered in drone strikes. The true numbers are likely vastly higher.

Compare that with the Islamic State, which is being blamed for over 5500 civilian casualties in Iraq in the first six months of 2014. And when you consider that Islamic extremists were nonexistent in Iraq until the US government took out Saddam, and how the US government has been providing training and weapons for IS fighters, it is hardly a stretch to say that the US is at least partly responsible for these deaths as well.

What about genocide? Thankfully, the United States government has yet to commit a genocide on the scale of, say, the Holocaust or Rwandan genocide. But that doesn’t make them any less culpable for what was arguably a genocide against the Native Americans. Without a doubt, the Trail of Tears should be considered an act of genocide by any reasonable human being. And, while not a genocide, the forced internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, along with multiple unnecessary nuclear attacks on the Japanese, should count for something.

Does the US government attempt to create fear in its enemies? Duh.

Does it deliberately try to affect political outcomes in other nations? I don’t even know where to begin. Documenting all of the meddling that the US government has done in other nations’ affairs would take volumes upon volumes. This Wikipedia article on covert regime changes is a start, but it hardly scratches the surface.

Beyond all of this, the US government tortures people – just like IS. And the US government offers huge amounts of material support to the Saudi government – the same Saudi government that committed 345 beheadings between 2007 and 2010. How many people has the Islamic State beheaded?


What is Terrorism – Revisited

As we’ve seen, terrorism is a tricky term. We all “know” who the terrorists are, but we can’t seem to pin down any particular meaning. At least not one that is consistent with who we “know” are or are not terrorists. So how did we come to our conclusions of what it means from someone to be a terrorist?

The term “terrorist” is a politically loaded one, and works to garner public opinion against any organization or individual accused of being one. Members of the Afghan resistance were considered “freedom fighters” when they fought against the Soviet Union, but the exact same people are considered terrorists today. Consider how differently Americans think about these people now than they did in the 80s.

The fact is, the US government will label people as “terrorists” in order to demonize them. This is exactly what is happening with the Islamic State today. The goal of the US government is to create terror in Americans in order to support increased domestic spy powers and decrease resistance to war.

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