Saturday, March 26, 2016

In Praise of Conspiracy Theories

Do you believe in conspiracy theories?

No, of course not. You're a rational person. You have no time for such nonsense. Only fools and lunatics believe that sort of trash.

Except ... don't you believe that the 11 September attacks were carried out by an international conspiracy of Muslim radicals? I mean, sure, it's a lot more plausible than any of the alternatives, but it's hard to get around the fact that the official story of what happened is a conspiracy.

Now you're probably saying, "Yeah, but when we talk about 'conspiracy theories,' we aren't talking about conspiracies that have been absolutely proven through incontrovertible evidence. 'Conspiracy theory' refers specifically to crank theories that aren't backed up by fact."

And that's a fair point. The evidence for Abraham Lincoln being assassinated by a conspiracy of Confederate sympathizers is qualitatively better than any evidence that's ever been put forth for a JFK assassination conspiracy. The two might technically be conspiracy theories, but in the same way that Special Relativity and Phlogiston are both scientific theories. Being the same class of ideas doesn't mean they're equally plausible.

The problem is, by treating "conspiracy theory" as a pejorative, we end up tainting all conspiracies regardless of plausibility. Once someone classifies something as a conspiracy, people stop taking it seriously and dismiss anyone who advocates it as a nutjob.

A prime example of this is the NSA. Edward Snowden's revelations should've come as no surprise to anyone who's paying attention. James Bamford published The Puzzle Palace in 1983, revealing the existence of the NSA and its activities to the world, but, being the height of Reagan re-escalating the Cold War, the idea of an omniscient US intelligence agency was comforting to most people, and the suggestions that the NSA was less than benign fell mostly on deaf ears.

Mostly. Lots of people did latch on to the idea, and in certain circles the idea that the NSA was a powerful, Big Brother style agency took hold. My father was one of those people. He worked in crypto systems for the Army, and he had enough dealings with the NSA to make him paranoid as hell. Twenty years before the Snowden leaks, my father swore up and down that the NSA monitored every phone call in the US and had decryption technology far in excess of what civilian encryption could defend against. But of course such ideas sound like crazy conspiracy talk. It's the sort of thing Frohike brings up to show that he's even more out there than Mulder. And so anyone who talked about NSA surveillance was dismissed as paranoid without any examination of the evidence (and keep in mind, Bamford wrote several followups to The Puzzle Palace, revealing more details of the NSA's activities). Only when Snowden's leaks appeared on the front page of the Washington Post did people actually take NSA surveillance seriously.

Even obviously outlandish conspiracies can't be thrown away without consideration. Take UFO conspiracies. Even though the fundamental ideas behind such conspiracies are obvious non-sense, that doesn't mean everything the theorists turn up is non-sense. The existence of a secret military base at Groom Lake, Nevada is well established fact now, regardless of the fact that the first people to publicize its existence were UFO nuts who thought the government was storing aliens there.

A more pertinent example of why it's problematic to associate all conspiracy theories with unsound minds comes from the 1992 presidential race. That's the year when Ross Perot ran as a third party candidate. Halfway through the campaign he dropped out, claiming that Republican operatives were planning to disrupt his daughter's wedding. In the modern political climate, such a claim probably wouldn't strike anyone as outlandish, but in the more staid atmosphere of the early '90s, Perot's assertion came off as deranged and paranoid, and even when he rejoined the race a few months later, he never recovered.

But the best example is one that's with us today. Why does the Drug War exist? Decades of propaganda would have you believe it's to protect the country from drug fiends who, if they aren't thrown in prison, would break into your house and steal your TV to pay for their crack addiction. But anyone who's looked into the origins of the Drug War comes to a very different conclusion -- see Radley Balko's Rise of the Warrior Cop and Rick Perlstein's Nixonland for instance.

In 1968 Nixon established the groundwork for the Southern Strategy by promising to restore "law and order" to America -- a thinly veiled code for cracking down on hippies and blacks, who many white voters saw as threatening the country's social fabric (i.e., white Christian supremacy). To fulfill this promise, Nixon latched onto drugs, taking a social problem that should've been met with programs to combat addiction, and turning it into an excuse for a law enforcement crackdown targeting political radicals and minority neighborhoods.

The radicals buckled under quickly, and by the time Reagan became President political figures of all stripes were mouthing the "drugs are bad, m'kay" mantra. But the crackdown on minority neighborhoods continued, and continues even today. The police force now acts as an occupying army in black and Hispanic areas, stopping people on the street for little reason, conducting midnight raids on homes, and operating under loose rules of engagement that would never be tolerated in predominantly white, middle class areas. (As Balko points out in his book, modern American police forces are exactly the sort of standing army the Colonists complained about in the Declaration of Independence.)

And yet, when you lay out the facts, it sounds like just another conspiracy theory. I mean, the government is engaged in a long term plot to suppress minorities through a trumped up and selectively enforced drug war? Preposterous. That's why so many people were shocked this week when an old interview with John Ehrlichman resurfaced which affirms the entire conspiracy.

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

So here then is the issue -- when we treat "conspiracy theory" as a synonym for "bunk," we end up tainting anything that takes the form of a conspiracy theory, regardless of its merits, and in doing so we allow real injustices -- NSA surveillance, a racist Drug War -- to exist free of scrutiny or criticism. That's not to say we have to take every conspiracy seriously, but a kneejerk dismissal of something simply for being a conspiracy is dangerous.

Friday, March 11, 2016

This Wouldn't Happen If She Asked Hermione for Help

In advance of the new Harry Potter spin-off films, J.K. Rowling has released a brief history of wizardry in North America. The essays are each the length of a middle schooler's research paper, and about as well researched. Now certainly we should allow Rowling some creative license and recognize that her target audience isn't necessarily adult (though even someone who read The Deathly Hallows at the age of six would be a high school sophomore by now), but nonetheless you cannot simplify history without creating a false narrative of the present.

Rowling's main problem is monolithism -- the tendency to treat groups as undifferentiated masses rather than agglomerations of individuals who happen to have some common trait. This is a common failing in humans. We see it in political discussion all the time -- the Democratic and Republican parties aren't unitary entities full of people who all believe the exact same things; both parties have factions with ideals that overlap just enough for them to work together, and every faction has individuals who may agree on the broad strokes of many issues, but can hold wildly divergent views on other things. We see it in society, when people act like every black guy in a hoody with baggy jeans is a gangbanger looking to rob a convenience store. And of course we see it all the time in SF where alien races and foreign cultures are usually defined by one or two points, and everyone within that culture fits those points, even if it makes no sense. (Come on, the Klingons have to have shoe makers, hairstylists and computer programmers; they can't all be warriors.)

We see this in Rowling's first essay, where she covers all of native culture in a few paragraphs with only a vague attempt to differentiate different cultural groups.
In the Native American community, some witches and wizards were accepted and even lauded within their tribes, gaining reputations for healing as medicine men, or outstanding hunters. However, others were stigmatised for their beliefs, often on the basis that they were possessed by malevolent spirits.
Notice first the broad catchall, "the Native American community" as though the Inuit and Seminole were any more aware of each other than the Medieval Irish and Japanese. She does allow some variation by talking about how some groups were more accepting of magic users than others, but that's just vague handwaving with no connection to actual cultures that existed in North America.

Rowling doubles down on the problem in the next paragraph:
The legend of the Native American ‘skin walker’ – an evil witch or wizard that can transform into an animal at will – has its basis in fact. A legend grew up around the Native American Animagi, that they had sacrificed close family members to gain their powers of transformation.
This is a standard problem with bad writing about indigenous peoples -- rather than doing research, the writer relies upon half-remembered bits and pieces she read once even though she doesn't have any context for them. Rowling presents the skinwalker as a generic Native American belief rather than a specifically Navajo variation on the shapeshifter myths found the world over. We see this all the time in fiction, usually crafted to fit the preconceived notions of the audience who like to envision non-European cultures as mystical and in touch with the Earth. All Australian aborigines believe the same new agey version of the Dreamtime. All Native Americans go on vision quests in smoke holes, which always involve spirit animals (invariably a wolf, coyote or eagle; never a prairie dog or buffalo). What Rowling does isn't quite as insulting as what the writers of Star Trek: Voyager did to poor Chakotay, but she only has a few hundred words.

Certainly Rowling did something similar with European wizards in the main series, with Eastern Europeans all going to Durmstrang and being a bunch of gloomy gusses, while Western Europeans attend Beauxbatons. But Eastern and Western Europe are much smaller geographic units than all of North America. It'd be absurd to suggest that all ancient European wizards were druids, or practiced Delphic rites, but that's what Rowling does for North America.

The second essay, covering the colonial period, doesn't get much better.
Not only had conflict developed between the immigrants and the Native American population, which struck a blow at the unity of the magical community, their religious beliefs made them deeply intolerant of any trace of magic. The Puritans were happy to accuse each other of occult activity on the slenderest evidence, and New World witches and wizards were right to be extremely wary of them.
Anyone who went to school in Virginia is gnashing their teeth after reading that paragraph. Pop culture, with its focus on the Pilgrims, Mayflower and the first Thanksgiving, has largely erased the fact that the first permanent English colony in the Americas was Jamestown in Virginia, and it wasn't settled by a bunch of religious fanatics. (Well, they'd be religious fanatics by modern standards, but they were middle-of-the-roaders in the 17th Century.) This erasure is so great that if you asked people where Pocahontas was from, they'd probably say Massachusetts. This is an old issue, going back at least to the 1930s, but there's really no excuse in the age of Wikipedia for an author to reduce Colonial America to the Puritans.

At least the main text doesn't claim that the Puritans burned witches, however the promotional video released for the project does just that: Okay, writers, would you please stop with this bullshit. Under the Common Law, the penalty for witchcraft was hanging. Everyone convicted at Salem was hanged (though Giles Corey famously died under torture while refusing to confess). The same is true for the handful of other witch trials that took place in the Thirteen Colonies, and indeed England as well.

Burning at the stake was a punishment under the Common Law, but it was reserved for petty treason. Whereas high treason is the betrayal of someone to whom you owe a natural fealty -- i.e., God or your sovereign -- petty treason is the betrayal of someone you owe loyalty to by way of an oath, typically a servant against his master or wife against her husband (marriage being a special class of servitude in the pre-modern world). All the recorded cases of burning at the stake in British North America involve rebellious slaves, or one case of a woman murdering her husband.

And this is a far, far more horrific truth. In the mindset of the 17th Century, witches were engaged in active conspiracy with Satan against the human race. They were subverting God's work on Earth in the hope of bringing about the rule of the devil. And under the Common Law they were hanged -- horrific, yes, but not unreasonable if you accept the basic premise. But a slave fighting for his freedom against the people who kept him in chains -- that warranted one of the most torturous, horrific deaths imaginable. Even worse: Witch trials ended within the British Empire in 1735 when Parliament redefined witchcraft as a kind of charlatanry punishable by only a year in prison, but burning remained a punishment for slaves in America for another century, well past the Revolutionary War and establishment of the United States.

It's time we stop perpetuating this myth of witch burnings at Salem and face up to the truth of who actually was executed that way.