Thursday, July 31, 2014

Ritual Abuse, Backwards Logic and Conspiracy Theories

I have often spoken of the "backwards logic" of conspiracy theories (cf "False Flag Theories and 9/11", "Backwards Logic", "Maybe Obama Was Born in Gulf Breeze, Florida", "Can Hawaiians Travel Overseas?", "Conspiracies Vs. Conspiracy Theories", "Sleight of Hand" and "Self-Sustaining Beliefs"). I mean by this the tendency of conspiracy theories, after perhaps an initial discovery of some small irregularity  which is later explained away (cf "Mumia, the DaVinci Code, Full Body Scans, and Loose Change - How Conspiracy Theories Arise") to then propose a given conclusion, and seek evidence to fit that conclusion. This is obviously the exact opposite of the process by which true investigation and research is conducted. When seeking truth, we formulate a question, and then gather evidence, drawing upon that evidence to formulate a conclusion. However, conspiracy theorists, having allowed an initial incident to convince them of a "fact", do not accept that their conclusion is wrong when their initial theory is disproved, instead, they cling to their conclusion and begin seeking evidence to support it.

The "birthers" are  perfect example of this. Initially, the birthers pointed to irregularities in images posted of Obama's birth certificate on his web site. In fact, I even posted two essays rather favorably inclined to this investigation, not exactly agreeing with their belief he was ineligible, but saying there might be something to their claims about the image. (See "An Interesting Question" and "A Small Update on the Birth Certificate Controversy".) Later, as evidence mounted, as I saw evidence that legitimate documents shared some of the "irregularities", and as later claims misrepresented the way lossy compression worked in JPEGs and other technical matters, I began to conclude it was a lot of noise about nothing. (See "Birth Certificate Controversy Revisited", "One More Post on the Birth Certificate Controversy", "Really, The Last One on This Topic", "Wrong is Wrong", "A New Take on an Old Topic", "A Brief Follow Up", "Slate Imitates Me, But I Really Don't Mind", "Legislative Intent", "Not A Smoking Gun", "An Impossible Argument to Lose" and "While I am Away... (A Question on "Natural Born")".) However, the birthers were not ready to let it go. Having concluded Obama must be ineligible, they began to look for reasons why he would forge a birth certificate (forgetting the evidence of forgery was weak or nonexistent.) Theories arose about a birth in Kenya, over birth announcements in Hawaii, even some that he had renounced his citizenship in Indonesia (which would not require a fake birth certificate). As time went on, the theories went even farther afield, arguing he was not "natural born" as his father was not a citizen, based on a European text of the 18th century, and a dicta from a debate in congress in the mid 19th century. All of which was made even more laughable as it all arose to explain why  he would forge a birth certificate that it turns out was not forged. As many of theories would not even require forgery, the whole house of cards became ever more removed from reality.

However, for the die hard birthers, it did not matter. They had accepted the backwards logic. They knew Obama was hiding something, something that proved he could not be president. It did not matter that they were initially led to that conclusion by mistaken evidence, they were convinced it was true, and every effort to dismiss their beliefs was just more evidence of a cover up. (The truly absurd part of the whole thing was Obama only posted the birth certificate to dispel earlier, and barely publicized, rumors he was not a citizen. Were it a forgery, he never needed to post it. So the theory is based on the idea Obama intentionally posted damaging evidence to dismiss a claim only a few dozen had heard at most.)

The same pattern exists for many conspiracy theorists. Kennedy assassination theories, 9-11 truthers, all the varied lunacy retailed by the LaRouchers and so on. In each case, evidence may be dismissed, theories my contradict one another (cf "Faulty Logic"), and yet the believers persist, adjusting their evidence, fine tuning their theories, seeking new proofs, every new round peg being tortured into the square hole they are convinced is the truth.

I mention all this because I recently came across some interesting writing about the "Satanic Panic" of the 1980's (see here and here*), as I mentioned in "Orthodoxy Within A Profession". And what struck me about the writing in those reports was that, as evidence was found wanting, or outright contradicted the claims based upon those "repressed memories", the tales, which were supposedly factual accounts of real events, were brazenly changed. In a true display of backwards logic, they were so convinced of the conclusion that they failed to notice that supposed factual accounts were routinely rewritten to eliminate the most current objections. I suppose some might claim they were new memories coming to the surface, but if so, they were the best example ever of conveniently times recall. For example, when claims of infant sacrifices were rebutted by a lack of missing children, suddenly many remembered being forced to work as "breeders" for the cults, who now apparently farmed their own infants for sacrifice. When desecrated graves could not be found as mentioned in countless reports, they were suddenly moved into custom built chambers decorated with coffins and other funereal paraphernalia. When the bodies supposedly used in cannibalism could not be found, the stories were adjusted once again, either to include breeders, or to simply downplay these tales. Time after time, when a claim became impossible to support, the tales changed to work around the uncomfortable facts while still supporting the evidence of ritual abuse.

The reason I bring all this up is that it points out something many forget, maybe not in the case of conspiracy theories, but in political arguments in general. The people putting forth these arguments are, for the most part, sincere. There may be a handful of opportunists, as there always are when the potential for money, power or fame exist, but by and large, those claiming to recall abuse, just like those who believe 9-11 was an "inside job" or that Israel intentionally attacked the USS Liberty (cf "Dismissing Conspiracy Theories"), were all sincere in their beliefs. Though their approach may seem to indicate intentional deception, the reality is, they were likely not trying to deceive anyone. Instead, they had invested a lot in a given belief, and so, when it was threatened, they looked about for proof that the belief, which they found comforting, or revealing, or otherwise important to them ("The Appeal of Conspiracy Theories", "All Conspiracies Great and Small"), was true. If they were deceiving anyone, it was themselves. They wanted so badly to keep believing as they had that they would take the most tenuous evidence and make it fit**.

And the same is true of many more mundane beliefs. Many think those on the left have many ulterior motives for their claims. They want to feel they are on the right side or doing good, they believe they are superior and so on***. And many also ascribe hidden motives, such as a desire to keep minorities in poverty to hold onto their votes and so on. And, again, perhaps some opportunists do think that way, in politics there are usually a few more opportunists than in other fields. But, for the most part, especially among the rank and file, I do not believe these other motives are paramount. What matters to those who believe in the left (or the right, or something else), is to keep that belief viable. Yes, they may often ignore or explain away proof that what they believe is wrong, but I think, like conspiracy theorists, it is often simply backwards logic, an effort to hold onto a cherished belief (sometimes just the belief one was not wrong), which makes them willing to support their position any way they can.

It may not be a truly political point, but it is significant, as it supports a claim I have often made (cf "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord", "The Path of Least Resistance", "Misguided, Deceptive or Evil?", "In Defense of Civil Debate", "A Small Digression", "The Nature of Evil", "Life Without Villains", "Enemies Into Villains", "Rethinking My Earlier Position", "Children's Programming Versus Self-Improvement", "Three Versions of Evil and the Confusion They Cause" and "Tyranny Without Tyrants") that those on the "other side" are not usually the villains and dupes we portray them as, but simply people similar to ourselves who hold beliefs we believe to be incorrect, and thus, people we can reach and persuade to change their minds. Granted, as I suggest above, it may be difficult and take time, but it is possible, and it is important we keep that in mind.

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* Please ignore the somewhat shaky spelling in the case of the second link. At first it made me worry a bit about the validity of the essay, but the contents proved to be much better than the presentation would suggest.

** There are a host of reasons to persist in a mistake. At the most basic level, many of us do not like to admit to being wrong. But more often, such tenacious belief comes from a belief that, at one time, was significant, as it gave the holder some feeling of being important, special, having special insight, or perhaps it explained everything clearly. Whatever the reason, the more important a given belief may be, the more likely the holder will try to find supporting evidence, or twist inappropriate evidence, to provide support.

*** Then again, who wants to admit he is wrong, or does not want to feel he is doing good? Those on the right also believe their political agenda promotes best outcomes, so they too feel they are doing good, which is why I find this claim somewhat silly. Everyone, except a few aspiring dictators, enters politics to "do good" -- it is a source of many problems (cf "Doing Something", ""Doing Something" Revisited", "Doing Something Revisited, Again", "With Good Intentions", "In The Most Favorable Light", "Grow or Die, The Inevitable Expansion of Everything", "The Right People, The Wrong People and "Just Plain Folks"" and "Madmen, Tyrants and Big Government") -- so why would it be surprising those on the left, like those on the right, hold political ideas because they feel doing so is a good thing?


Rethinking My Earlier Position

NOTE: The following twenty one essays are being reproduced as they are cited in my next new post. Most may seem a bit dated, as they deal with the origins and progression of the "birther" controversy, from the first questions about the birth certificate all the way through the argument over the meaning of "natural born". I understand many seeing it pointless to reproduce them, but I would argue otherwise. After all, many still believe these arguments, and so the debate itself is still of interest even today. However, as shall be apparent in my upcoming essay, they also serve another purpose, giving us an unusual insight into the way conspiracy theories evolve, and the backwards logic specific to them. The remaining essays relate to my ongoing argument that we too often see political opposition as an enemy, rather than as misguided individuals we need to persuade, which seems a harmful and self-defeating view. The connection between the two subjects, if not obvious already, will be made clear in my next post, as soon as I add links for all these new reproductions of old posts.

I wrote last night that the left is unique in having to turn their opponents into villains, that they were prone to believing conspiracy theories, not relegating them to the sidelines, and so on. At the time I blamed much of it on the nearly paranoid state that many on the left had been driven by the 2000 election and their conviction that the Republicans were part of some massive conspiracy bent on stealing elections. 

Since then several of my readers have complained that I too readily dismiss complaints about Obama, and, thinking about some of the articles I have read recently, perhaps they are right. It seems that during this election, the right is turning into a mirror of the left. They are starting to turn into the equal of the left in conspiracy theories.

Perhaps I am a bit out of step, some might claim naive. I tend to believe that those on the other side are generally acting in what they think is the best interest of the people. Obviously, some politicians on either side are dishonest, corrupt, and greedy and acting for no other reason than to feather their own nest, but ignoring them, I tend to think that the sincere politicians are driven by a real desire to improve things, at least by their own lights.

Now, on both sides, politicians will engage in expedient acts designed to do nothing but garner votes, but I accept that. If a politician believes he is the best choice, the one who can best run the country, sometimes he needs to do things to stay in office so he can carry out his longer term agenda. But beyond those expediencies, I tend to think politicians are driven by a belief they are making things better for people. Their underlying theories may be wrong, their basic premises may be wrong, but they are still acting for the general welfare, not to enact some conspiratorial agenda for some small group.

But I seem to be in a shrinking group. The right, for some reason, is very open this election cycle to charges of secret agendas and sinister conspiracies. From theories about a secret Islamic connection to questions about forged birth certificates to claims of hidden meanings in his choice of mistakes (57 states mirroring the number of Islamic states, for example) and so on, the right has started to mirror the left. We have yet to become so crazed that we welcome the right wing analogy of the truthers into our ranks, and we still stand up against the more bizarre elements within our party such as Buchanan's affection for Nazis and Islamic extremists, but we definitely are developing more of a taste for conspiracy theory. Nowhere near the fondness for it that the left has shown, but we are heading in that direction.

Perhaps it is because there really is quite a strong network of groups supporting Obama. The largely Soros funded network of organizations and their allies created by the byzantine restrictions of the McCain-Fiengold laws definitely give the impression of a secret conspiracy, except that their agenda is scarcely secret. Soros has made no secret of his desire to "transform America", nor has he been quiet about the agenda of each of his group. 

Or maybe it is because the media has acted as such a strong support group for Obama while claiming impartiality. Or maybe because the media tried to hide damaging connections , such as those to Ayers or Rezko. But that is not evidence there is anything more than simple corruption, or shared beliefs, the press hid those things because they would have played badly with the public. We need postulate nothing more to explain them than that. Yes, the press has been committed to supporting Obama, and yes they have still tried to pretend they are nonpartisan, but that is not a conspiracy, that is simply the outcome of living in a liberal bubble. The press, despite their actions to the contrary, really thinks they are being impartial, that all right thinking people should love Obama. It is yet another symptom of the same thought processes that gave us the "no one I know voted for Nixon" quote. They think liberalism really is moderate, and so they believe endorsing Obama really is impartial*. 

But honestly, I think more than anything, the paranoia of the right is simply a response to the paranoia on the left. In all politics, the two wings seem to mirror one another. If the left charges corruption, the right shows where the left is more corrupt. If the right charges favoritism, the left charges more favoritism. We can even see it in both McCain and Obama charging one another with bringing up irrelevant character issues, while simultaneously running ads attacking one another's character. We are so evenly matched, and so equally entrenched in Washington (and equally corrupt, as well), that we find ourselves engaged in this perpetual stalemate. 

And, worse still, our politicians are so afraid the other side may gain some advantage that we will not let a move from the other side pass without making a counter move.Democrats propose prescription coverage, Republicans must propose their own. Republicans propose Social Security reform, so do the Democrats. Each side must match the other , policy for policy, no matter how poorly the policy fits their ideology. And so we have Republicans proposing ever expanding socialized medicine and a bigger education budget, while Democrats want to bail out Wall Street and give middle class tax cuts.

And now, the right peddling the same paranoia that afflicts the left.

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* To be fair, some are probably aware of how partisan they are being, but think that it is justified because of the importance of the election. But I really do think many believe that Obama is so charismatic that no one could think of him differently than they do. You can see it in the articles ascribing all opposition to racism. Providing they are honest, and they surely sound sincere, thos epeople really think only redneck hicks out in the hinterland are opposed to Obama, and then only because he is "colored". If it sounds absurd, read some of the blogs by left wing media types, you will find a lot of support for this degree of self-delusion.

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POSTSCRIPT

This has nothing to do with the paranoia displayed by Ron Paul and other libertarians. Their paranoia predates the Democrats paranoia. It is more the result of a particularly bad interpretation of libertarianism which sees the government not as a necessity, but as an outright enemy which should be actively fought. As it leads to really absurd beliefs, I tend to avoid libertarians for the most part, since they give a rather bad name to a valid view of government.

POSTSCRIPT II


I wrote a long time ago that we have a tendency to need villains to explain mishaps. In that case it was to explain the oil crisis, but it may also explain all the conspiratorial thinking about Obama as well. As he has repeatedly been decreed a sure thing he is something of a crisis for Republicans, especially when the alternative is McCain who many dislike. So, perhaps, we are prone to looking for secret agendas behind everything, as we are not willing to face the crisis of an Obama presidency without a villain to blame.

POSTSCRIPT III

Looking at old articles, I imagine some will accuse me of conspiratorial thinking in ascribing anti-human sentiments to environmentalists. But that is simply not true. I am ascribing nothing, many of the upper echelons of the eco movement have made no secret of their desire to see man greatly reduced in numbers, involuntarily if necessary. You can't call it a conspiracy when the other side is openly admitting the goals you ascribe to them.


Originally posted in Random Notes on  2008/10/07.

Enemies Into Villains


NOTE: The following twenty one essays are being reproduced as they are cited in my next new post. Most may seem a bit dated, as they deal with the origins and progression of the "birther" controversy, from the first questions about the birth certificate all the way through the argument over the meaning of "natural born". I understand many seeing it pointless to reproduce them, but I would argue otherwise. After all, many still believe these arguments, and so the debate itself is still of interest even today. However, as shall be apparent in my upcoming essay, they also serve another purpose, giving us an unusual insight into the way conspiracy theories evolve, and the backwards logic specific to them. The remaining essays relate to my ongoing argument that we too often see political opposition as an enemy, rather than as misguided individuals we need to persuade, which seems a harmful and self-defeating view. The connection between the two subjects, if not obvious already, will be made clear in my next post, as soon as I add links for all these new reproductions of old posts.

I mentioned before how the left tends to react with such hatred toward Governor Palin. However, at the time, I did not recall how much hatred the left poured into many Republicans, even those who were so far to the left that they should have seemed almost allies. It is a peculiarity of the left, this need to hate your rivals. I can't explain it, but I think I have some general ideas about its cause.

Not that the right is immune. There are some on the right who do the same thing, theorizing that Obama is a secret moslem infiltrator, or even those who oppose McCain and imagine he is some sort of turncoat doing the bidding of secret Democrat masters, but those on the right are a definite minority, and are generally regarded as somewhat daft by their peers. We may call Obama a socialist, but that is because of his far left views, not because we believe he is secretly in the employ of Cuba. And when we charge him with planning to destroy America, few of us mean he wants to do so, just that the plans he thinks best are those which will do the most harm. 

On the other hand, the left accepts the most paranoid ranters into their ranks happily. It is hard to find a left-leaning site which does not posit that any conservative is either stupid, evil, or involved in some conspiracy. From Dick Cheney doing the bidding of Haliburton to the caricature of a near brain dead Dan Quayle, to the many slanders against Governor Palin, to the confused image of Bush as both an evil genius and a complete moron (best characterized by his many nicknames such as "Flyboy Chimpy McBushitler the Decider" which combine the two in an incredibly inconsistent package), the left sees everyone who differs with them as outright villains, or, at best, fools easily duped by the evil around them. 

To the modern left, there is never a simple disagreement, anyone in the other camp is either stupid or evil. And if anyone doubts this, just look at the ease with which they accept both the "Zionist conspiracy" nuts and the "Truthers" who posit either a Bush or Mossad plan behind 9/11. Even a decade ago, the left would have been ashamed to be associated with them, but since the madness of the 2000 election, a very different left has emerged. A paranoid, angry left.

Why?

In an earlier essay I postulated that the left is so angry with their opponents because they draw their identity form their politics, and I think combining that, with the behavior of those on the right who slander the leftists with whom they disagree, we can find an explanation.

Those on the right who argue for conspiracies, or accuse the left of intentionally doing evil, most often are those who can't imagine why anyone would not be a conservative. Often they have very strong beliefs that they see as "common sense". They are rarely very systematic theorists, but instead sort of "gut reaction" conservatives. They just can't imagine being any other way.

And that is probably why they, and the left, can't see any other possibility but that their opponents are idiots or evil. Once you imagine your beliefs are self-evident and that any other belief system is impossible, you have to imagine anyone who disagrees is either intentionally evil, or has been duped by those who are. 

And on the left, there is a second factor. Since the 2000 election, the left has adopted a siege mentality. Convinced they were robbed of the presidency, in every election since they have been watching avidly for additional chicanery, making them instinctively see Republicans as treacherous foes. It has fueled a paranoid mindset, which makes them open to crazy ideas they would have rejected out of hand only 10 years ago. In some ways the 2000 election drove the left a little bit mad.

Now, some will reply that the right is just as paranoid. The talk of a liberal media, or of Soros funded networks is clearly paranoid. However, the difference is notable. the press is provably left leaning, by their own declared political inclinations on survey after survey, and there is more than adequate proof that Soros IS funding massive political networks. On the other hand, there is no proof that Cheney started wars to please Haliburton or that Bush attacked Saddam to get revenge for his father. Or, more simply, to posit Soros is involved in left wing causes is to recognize proven facts not denied by the man himself, while theorizing Bush blew up the twin towers is to engage in behavior that would, at one time, have subjected you to involuntary commitment.

I am sure I will get some responses from the left challenging my point, showing that this person or that said something nasty about Obama or Biden or Pelosi. They may count the number of times I called her "Red Nancy" and say that is equivalent to "Chimpy McFlyboy Hitler Decider the Naked Emperer". But there is a difference. I think Pelosi exceeded her authority, and I think she has very far left views that are harmful to our nation, but I would not sit around and harp on her hair, her appearance, or say "I hate her" or "she makes me sick". I don't fin humor in jokes mocking her. I do not spend time writing satirical diatribes against her.

And that is where I say the elft parts company with the right and the independents. Look at the media, watch Saturday Night Live, or Comedy Central, read liberal editorials or letters to the editor, go to the Huff 'n' Puff or DUmmie land, or Daily Kos. These people actually derive a lot of their amusement from mocking these people. Without Bush and Cheney, they would be left with nothing but Harold and Kumar and a few pen*s jokes. Almost all humor for the past 8 years has been built around an evil Rove and Cheney pulling the strings on an alternately evil and clueless Bush. That is what they think about for a large part of their lives.It isn't even that they are nasty in mocking conservatives, but that they spend so much time doing it, that is disturbing.

Without liberals, my life would continue much the same. Even my blog would continue, as I could spend just as much time critiquing where Republicans fall short, or evaluating differences. But for the left, without a Reagan, A Nixon, a Bush, a Newt, a Quayle, a Cheney or a a Palin to mock, they have a hole they can't fill.

That is where the is a significant difference.

POSTSCRIPT

Actually, I was wrong in one way. The left was not first driven mad by the 2000 election. An earlier generation had been made just as bitter by Watergate. There may have been some distasteful, nasty liberal behavior, especially relating to Vietnam, prior to Watergate, but it was truly Watergate that made an earlier generation of leftists just as paranoid.

Then, during the 80's, the remnants o those paranoid early 70's liberals tried to recapture that earlier nastiness and paranoia during the Regan years, puffing up events such as Iran-Contra or even imagining scandals such as the CIA importation of crack. But at that time it really didn't take. A lot of humor was directed toward Reagan, but it was the ordinary mocking of a president. Even the abuse Quayle took was not as obsessive as the current attacks.

The only time I can compare to the insane obsession the left has with evil politicians is the paranoia the left felt toward Nixon. (Well, in the US. When you get into the paranoid fringes of European politics, this sort of thing happens much more often...)


Originally posted in Random Notes on  2008/10/07.

Life Without Villains


NOTE: The following twenty one essays are being reproduced as they are cited in my next new post. Most may seem a bit dated, as they deal with the origins and progression of the "birther" controversy, from the first questions about the birth certificate all the way through the argument over the meaning of "natural born". I understand many seeing it pointless to reproduce them, but I would argue otherwise. After all, many still believe these arguments, and so the debate itself is still of interest even today. However, as shall be apparent in my upcoming essay, they also serve another purpose, giving us an unusual insight into the way conspiracy theories evolve, and the backwards logic specific to them. The remaining essays relate to my ongoing argument that we too often see political opposition as an enemy, rather than as misguided individuals we need to persuade, which seems a harmful and self-defeating view. The connection between the two subjects, if not obvious already, will be made clear in my next post, as soon as I add links for all these new reproductions of old posts.

I think I have figured out why many will not accept the truth about rising oil prices, it doesn't give them a villain with whom they can be angry. It doesn't even give them a nonhuman antagonist against which we can "struggle". And we always seem to want someone or something to "blame". We may sometimes accept that it is simply nature against which we struggle, and we declare "war" on cancer or AIDS, but we can't stand it when a "problem" has no easy villain.

And that is the problem with the rising oil prices. It looks like a "crisis", people are upset, but the explanation is that demand rose quickly while supply has been largely stagnant. Worse yet, while we can blame to some degree the laws in the US that prevent new drilling, for the most part the lack of supply has no one to blame. Oil fields in Iraq still need repairs, Mexico's fields are aging and corruption is taking its toll, Venezuela is suffering the usual post-socialism decline, but for the most part, the fact is that oil is in short supply because it takes time to get new wells producing, so we will not see increased supply for a while.

But, with such a boring explanation, without a clear villain, people naturally feel a bit disappointed. They just can't accept that oil prices just are high, and may go higher, and that the only cure is time. That doesn't sound right, it gives them no one and nothing against which to rail, so they invent "speculators" and "Big Oil" conspiracies,  whatever they can make up to explain the rise in oil.

It doesn't make sense, but without a villain, people simply will not accept the truth.

POSTSCRIPT

Here, for your convenience, is a partial list of my most recent posts on energy:

G-d Save Us From Simple SolutionsAbsurdities on OilThose Darn SpeculatorsEconomic IlliteracyObama's (Lack of an) Energy PolicyOne Specific IdiocyA Thought on Solar EnergyOil LogicSolving High Food PricesSeveral Convenient UntruthsIt's Not An Energy PolicyA Question for Those Supporting Green Energy

There are many older posts, but I think this hits all the highlights.

POSTSCRIPT II
And, to address those who will mention "speculators", yes, as prices are likely to rise more before they fall, speculators are buying oil. And when it looks like oil will fall, speculators will sell, lowering prices. That is what speculators do, flatten out spikes in prices. But while they get blamed for price increases, they never seem to get credit for lowering prices as the peak nears. But, if you think logically, how else dot hey make money? Just buying and holding oil will not make anyone rich. Only by buying then selling do you make money, and the efforts of speculators, while increasing prices in troughs, also lower prices during spikes. That is hardly a sinister purpose.

Unfortunately, as prices are rising, speculators make an easy scapegoat for those seeking a human villain to blame. But I would point out that, though speculators do cause prices to rise somewhat, do not in themselves start movement. Speculators follow trends, they do not create them. At least successful speculators do. Those who try to start their own trends tend not to be speculators for long, just ask the Hunt Brothers.

Originally posted in Random Notes on  2008/08/15.

A Small Digression


NOTE: The following twenty one essays are being reproduced as they are cited in my next new post. Most may seem a bit dated, as they deal with the origins and progression of the "birther" controversy, from the first questions about the birth certificate all the way through the argument over the meaning of "natural born". I understand many seeing it pointless to reproduce them, but I would argue otherwise. After all, many still believe these arguments, and so the debate itself is still of interest even today. However, as shall be apparent in my upcoming essay, they also serve another purpose, giving us an unusual insight into the way conspiracy theories evolve, and the backwards logic specific to them. The remaining essays relate to my ongoing argument that we too often see political opposition as an enemy, rather than as misguided individuals we need to persuade, which seems a harmful and self-defeating view. The connection between the two subjects, if not obvious already, will be made clear in my next post, as soon as I add links for all these new reproductions of old posts.

I don't normally write about my personal experiences here, but this one has been in my mind for some time now and if I don't share it with someone it will continue to plague me forever, so, though it may only be read by three or four people here, at least the belief that I am sharing it with someone else will allow me to forget about it and move on.

For the last many years, maybe five or six, I have been pretty isolated. I spent time with my wife and my son,  as well as my mother, but beyond that I had few friends. I have never been a person who had huge numbers of friends, but the past few years saw the number shrink from a dozen to zero. Partly it was because of the demands of raising a child, and partly it was because during the early part of my illness, the pain was so bad I really felt like doing very little, not to mention the fear that I was suffering from something fatal, which made me poor company. Beyond that, something in the relationship between my wife and I (what it precisely was, and who was to blame is not relevant) kept me from spending time with others. And so, I was limited to my wife, son and mother for companions. I spoke to other people, coworkers, doctors, and so on, but it was always professional. As far as social interaction, I was living a very circumscribed life.

Well, as my readers know, my wife left me a little more than a year ago, and I find myself even more isolated. And, as isolated people do, I have gotten nostalgic for the past, and, as nostalgic people do in this day and age, I began looking up old friends on the internet. And, one things I have discovered is that my life has become very similar to that of one of my literary heroes. Not in the specific, mine is on a much more humble scale, but still, I think I an feel something akin to what he did at a turning point in his life.

Dostoyevsky started out as a liberal in the 19th century sense. When embarking on his literary career, and during his early success, he was surrounded by like-minded individuals. However, after his arrest, imprisonment and forced conscription, he began to change, becoming much more anti-Western, traditionalist and mystical. Changes which, clearly, would have distanced him from his early friends and supporters. 

And I am discovering now that I went through something similar. In my teens, my politics were very different. At first I was a rather apolitical punk rocker, espousing some ill-defined anarchist beliefs, but largely uninterested in politics. I later drifted into some variation of anarcho-communism for a time, becoming a rather ardent booster of Bakunin and the like. Later, I found the writings of Ayn Rand and began to develop some Objectivist beliefs, but even then I had some misgivings about Rand's cult of personality and her tendency to declare her personal preferences rational necessities, so I was hardly a strong booster, and so drifted back into a relatively apolitical position until my very early twenties when I began to develop into something of a libertarian, which I would remain until, while writing this blog, I began to disagree with some of the tenets of libertarianism ("Why I Am Not A Libertarian"), as well as starting to promote a bit more of a social conservative agenda ("In Defense of Standards", "Cranky Old Man?", "The Right Identity"), though I still believe it should be done without the use of government.("Three Approaches to Social Conservatism", "Government Versus Culture - A Forgotten Distinction", "Shame and Understanding")

However, having changed so radically, I find that I have grown distant from many of my one time friends. When I look up old friends on facebook, inevitably they are activists for the World Wildlife Fund, belong to pro-Obama groups and even promote some extreme"anti-globalization" nonsense. Of course, like Dostoyevsky, it does not help that I was, and remain, something of an artist. I admit my writing has been somewhat neglected, especially since my son has taken up so much of my time, but I still think of myself as an unrecognized writer more than as a computer programmer (my profession, at least as far as employers are concerned). But, as in Dostoyevsky's time most Russian intellectuals were pro-western 19th century liberals (oh, to live in a time when intellectuals held such beliefs!), the artists of today are lockstep liberals (in the modern sense -- see "The Political Spectrum"), and find it hard to imagine an artist holding any other beliefs. ("Contradictory Beliefs and Practices") Though it may sound a bit arrogant of me, I think I understand a bit of what Dostoyevsky may have felt when encountering those he once knew. No matter how certain you are of your beliefs, no matter how much you refuse to hide what you believe, there is something uncomfortable about meeting those you once knew and finding out they think your beliefs are not just wrong, but somehow evil. Sadly, in our current environment, both ends of the spectrum tend to attach far too much moral judgment to political positions. ("Misguided, Deceptive or Evil?", "Tyranny Without Tyrants", "Three Versions of Evil and the Confusion They Cause", "Life Without Villains", "Enemies Into Villains", "Rethinking My Earlier Position")

Sadly, I am pretty certain no amount of nostalgia will even reunite me with some of my old friends. Certainly we could get together and chat, but I know as soon as something political comes up, and it always does, I will not be able to hold my tongue, and I will see that look of horror as they realize that a knuckle-dragging reprobate conservative is among them. It sounds melodramatic, and it is, but the melodrama is very real. I have experienced it myself, and, having seen it, I can attest the melodrama is not in my imagination, but the overreaction of others to a simple political belief.

Whatever happened to the old adage of never discussing politics or religion? If only we continued to hold to such niceties my life would be so much easier. But sadly we have decided to allow our politics to identify us the way our musical tastes did when we were younger (which may be yet another sign of our cultural immaturity -- see "Juvenile Intellectuals"), and so it is all but impossible to remain a political unknown. Until you have declared your political solidarity with others, they seem to see you as slightly suspect. 

With that sad little sign of our times, I will end this little personal indulgence, and promise that the next post for which I find time will be on a more traditional political topic. As well as thank my handful of regular readers for allowing me this little digression.

POSTSCRIPT


Several years ago I argued that the left tended to react with hostility to criticism while the right did not, because the left drew so much of their identity from their politics, while the right did not. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case and the right seems as likely to respond to criticism with hostility as the left. It seems that the left differs only in the speed with which they adopt bad ideas, with the right lagging a few years behind. I had once hoped the left would give up this juvenile trait, come to see political debate as an intellectual pursuit, and allow that the right and left were nothing but competing ideas, signs of a healthy political debate. But, thanks to the right's resentment over the left's dominance of many cultural institutions, it seems the right has decided to become as juvenile as the left.

I grant politics is a serious matter, as bad ideas can have disastrous consequences, and, in some cases, bad people can use it cause much harm. (Though I would argue most often harm is done instead by those thinking they are doing good -- "The Nature of Evil", "Three Versions of Evil and the Confusion They Cause", "The Right People, The Wrong People and "Just Plain Folks"", "Misguided, Deceptive or Evil?") But adopting a position of entrenched hostility does nothing to remedy the harm done by such bad ideas. if anything, it makes it harder to correct, as people begin to attach emotional significance to policy positions, making it harder to abandon bad ideas, even after their proponents see the problems they cause. We need only think of all the wasted effort and heated rhetoric expended over issues such as flag burning to see how these excessive emotions can lead us to waste time and energy fighting over trivialities, and even force each side to embrace positions contrary to their own basic beliefs. No matter how harmful and dangerous politics can be, we still need to approach it as a debate between well-meaning fellow citizens. Otherwise, we begin to undermine the foundation of civil society. Once we see half of our society as hostile evil-doers, it becomes quite difficult to argue even for representative government, much less expansive individual freedoms. (See "In Defense of Civil Debate".)

POSTSCRIPT II

I realize I have argued before ("Clinton and Bush Killed the Center", "The Myth of Polarization") that we have always been polarized politically, and that is true. However, as I wrote in "Political Polarization and Divisive Politics" (as well as "The Angry Right and Conservatives" and "Excessive Claims")  that polarization has gone from having strong, heartfelt debate to a point where we see our political rivals as enemies, which is unusual. Yes, it has happened before. Fringe parties such as communist and anarchists were always viewed with distrust. But to see the other major party as an enemy is unusual No matter how strong the feelings, generally they were seen as mistaken or foolish at worst, not as evil. I can think of only two other times this was the case. In the late 1960's when the radicals took over the Democrats, allowing the party as a whole to be somewhat imbued with the radical belief that Republicans, and even moderate Democrats were not only opponents, but enemies, who meant the average person harm. The other was in the period prior to the civil war, when regional disagreements as well as strong feelings over slavery, centralization and other issues, began to cause a strong division on party lines, made easier as those lines were also regional. Aside from those periods, it is hard to think of a time when each party saw the other as intending to do harm, rather than accidentally causing harm by pursuing bad policies.

Of course, as I argued in "All Life in a Day, or, How Our Mistaken View of History Distorts Our Understanding of Events"  and elsewhere, it is a common trait of juvenile minds to see those who oppose them as "evil", and every struggle of the moment as the most important ever. And just as this immature cataclysmic mindset probably explains the appeal of ecological fear mongering in our time, it also helps explain our particular species of political polarization.

POSTSCRIPT III

I just realized that by adding these semi-political footnotes, I have turned an off-topic personal digression into something almost appropriate for posting in this blog.

Originally posted in Random Notes on  2011/09/16.

In Defense of Civil Debate


NOTE: The following twenty one essays are being reproduced as they are cited in my next new post. Most may seem a bit dated, as they deal with the origins and progression of the "birther" controversy, from the first questions about the birth certificate all the way through the argument over the meaning of "natural born". I understand many seeing it pointless to reproduce them, but I would argue otherwise. After all, many still believe these arguments, and so the debate itself is still of interest even today. However, as shall be apparent in my upcoming essay, they also serve another purpose, giving us an unusual insight into the way conspiracy theories evolve, and the backwards logic specific to them. The remaining essays relate to my ongoing argument that we too often see political opposition as an enemy, rather than as misguided individuals we need to persuade, which seems a harmful and self-defeating view. The connection between the two subjects, if not obvious already, will be made clear in my next post, as soon as I add links for all these new reproductions of old posts.

I have made a practice on my blog of welcoming everyone who comments, and thanking them for their comments, regardless of what those comments contain. Similarly, I have promised to respond to everyone who takes the time to comment, and to give the best response possible. I do make an exception for those who don't seem to be sincere, who simply post slurs or who accuse me of being a shill for the CPAs or the oil industry. However, provided a writer seems to sincerely wish to discuss the issues, I respond as civilly as possible. I may sometimes get a bit heated, but I also always try to maintain some degree of civility.

In the past, this insistence on treating political debate as a civilized undertaking has upset some, here and in the comment sections of other blogs. Some people have objected that it is not proper to "play at being nice" as this is "a matter of life and death". They allege that maintaining this civil tone make sit seem like this is all a game, and we are engaged in detached debate.

I think this difference of perspective comes form one very simple cause. In my mind, when I debate someone, I am trying to convince them. Or, to be more accurate, I am arguing as forcefully as I can for what I believe, and seeing whether my positions or theirs will prove the more durable. Much as it may upset some,  who think it an idle intellectual game, I am still looking for truth. I am trying to show them that my beliefs are correct, while, at the same time, I am also seeing if their beliefs might not prove more consistent than my own. In short, I am not just trying to persuade them, but also testing my ideas each time, to see if they come up short.

However, that does not mean I am engaged solely in trying to find the truth for myself. I am also hoping that the other party might be persuaded to see my side, to find a more accurate understanding through the debate. In general I believe that most people want to know the truth and want to be guided by an accurate understanding of the world. Very rare is the individual who wants to do harm, or wishes to persist in error. Many of us came to conservatism from another belief, and were persuaded ourselves, and so many of those to whom we speak, even those most different from us, are possible future conservatives.

On the other hand, many of those who are so serious about their arguments, who think it is wrong to maintain a civil tone or to admit one may be in error, see themselves as engaged in a public debate, akin to the presidential debates. In their minds they are not looking for truth, they already posses it. Nor is their opponent sincerely seeking after truth, their opponent is an exemplar of an erroneous belief, actively trying to cause harm. In this Manichean political perspective, every debate is a public conflict in the struggle between light and dark, an effort to sway those not yet committed to one side or the other, and every opponent is not mistaken but evil.

And I suppose if one thinks this way it does make sense to be as obnoxious as one can to discredit the opposition. But I am not ready to believe that everyone who does not believe in the same things I do is a complete reprobate beyond redemption. Nor is it a good idea to write off even those farthest to the left. After all, which does more good, to win over a handful of "independents" whose behavior suggests their dedication is as deep as a saucer, if that, and who are likely to change sides again the moment they hear a more eloquent speech, or to win over a former believer from the other side? If you manage to convert the opposition, then you can stop worrying about the middle.

And, if that doesn't convince you that civility may be the way to go, recall that Reagan was himself once a Democrat, and among the ranks of the socialist and communists were once von Hayek and von Mises. Had not someone taken the time to persuade them, perhaps everyone I just mentioned, and many more, including me, would have spent their time and energy arguing for the other side.

POSTSCRIPT
I realize some may find a bit of a jarring disparity between my early talk of finding truth and my later talk of "the other side", but ti is not as strange as it might seem. Yes, I am open to the possibility that my beliefs may be false, at least in some specifics. However, I am also not so blind as to not realize I have tested my beliefs quite extensively, and the chance that the whole structure will be overthrown is small. Given that, then I am probably right in thinking the philosophy of the left will do harm if allowed to continue unchecked. Thus, speaking of the "other side" is not a contradiction of my statement that I am open to alternate philosophies. But until my philosophy proves false, I have to function as if it were true, and so there is, until proved otherwise, an "other side" against which to struggle.

POSTSCRIPT II
For those who are curious, my writing on evil and mistaken beliefs, see the following:
Life Without Villains
Evil and Greed
Enemies Into Villains
Rethinking My Earlier Position
The Nature of Evil
As you can see, my views have evolved somewhat, but even the early posts have quite a bit of truth to them.


Originally posted in Random Notes on  2009/07/01.