The truth is, he’s out there: Blink 182 lead singer Tom DeLonge really wants to tell the Hillary Clinton about UFOs

Published: Salon (October 11, 2016)

Blink 182 is well-known for their use of toilet humor, but who knew they were gazing into the stars as well as the sewers?

Former lead singer Tom DeLonge wanted to introduce HIllary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, to some “very interesting” sources on UFOs, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.DeLonge was referring to either military personnel or other former government officials, which isn’t in itself surprising.

Prominent state officials from astronaut Buzz Aldrin to former President Jimmy Carter have claimed to see UFOs in the past. That said, they may not always do this in total seriousness, as indicated by this tweet sent out by one of President Barack Obama’s senior advisers in February 2015:

1. Finally, my biggest failure of 2014: Once again not securing the of the UFO files. cc:@NYTimesDowd

Here is the bigger question: Why does the erstwhile Blink 182 frontman have a direct line to the Clinton campaign in the first place? Could he be to a future Clinton administration what Elvis Presley was for Richard Nixon: an addled celebrity who believes his connection to power gives him real influence? In 46 years, will there be a tongue-in-cheek comedy celebrating DeLonge’s quirky interactions with an awkward President Clinton?

A fanciful thought, perhaps, but President Obama is already cornering the grand space fantasies with his earlier announcement of an impending American mission to Mars. That leaves us to speculate about the less likely fantasies, such as DeLonge being the key to the world finally learning the truth about our planet’s extraterrestrial visitors.

A deep dive into the alt-right’s greatest YouTube hits

Published: The Daily Dot (September 7, 2016)

When Hillary Clinton pointed out the connection between Donald Trump and the alt-right, she wasn’t talking about an ordinary political movement.

As the Daily Dot’s Amrita Khalid notes, the alt-right is a “younger, ballsier rejection of the GOP establishment and political correctness as a whole—think the Tea Party meets Pepe the Frog.” But it’s also perennially attacked as a hub for white nationalism. “For the alt-right, ‘Make America White Again’ is not an ironic dismissal of Trump’s campaign slogan,” she concludes.

In order to better understand this movement, I spent a night diving into the world of YouTube videos that either outright support or are in notable ways sympathetic to alt-right causes. While there, I learned about the distinctive style that allows them to flourish online.

We can start with Richard Spencer, the prominent white nationalist who coined the term “alt-right.” In a December 2015video about his reasons for doing this, Spencer traced the lineage of mainstream conservatism from the Barry Goldwater campaign to the presidency of George W. Bush. The alt-right, he argued, exists outside of that continuum. They’re comprised of “people who have liberated themselves from the left-right dialectic” and “grasp the utter uselessness of mainstream conservatives, particularly in this hyper-racialized world in which we live.” They admire Donald Trump because “he has attacked and humiliated a lot of the same things that I used to hate and still hate.”

This mainly means establishment conservatives, whom Spencer tellingly dismisses with the epithet “cuckservative.” (This is aporn-sourced term for conservatives who are allowing themselves to be metaphorically cuckolded for not being conservative enough.) Most importantly, Spencer closes by insisting that the left has become the establishment and that the alt-right is, in fact, the truly rebellious movement at this time.

Then there is Paul Joseph Watson, whose popular YouTube channel is perhaps best known for disseminating debunked conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton’s health. That said, Watson’s videos also cover a broad range of topics embraced by the alt-right, denouncing Islam, Black Lives Matter, transgendered rights activists, and feminists with gleefully inflammatory language. Like Spencer, Watson attempts to legitimize the alt-right’s brand of conservatism by arguing that it is in fact the “new counter-culture.” While Spencer attempts to give off a scholarly air, however, Watson strives to persuade through sheer entertainment value.

His videos flaunt their lack of political correctness with humor and their host’s defiant tone, both intended to make them more convincing to viewers who mistake shock value for truth-telling. This is best exemplified in “I Love My White Male Privilege,”during which Watson sarcastically contrasts the notion of “white male privilege” with a series of “facts” on subjects ranging from the slave trade and colonialism to Islam, rape culture, and men’s rights issues. It’s hard to look away during this screed, whatever else you may say about it.

Finally we have Carl Benjamin (aka Sargon of Akkad), a YouTuber who rose to prominence during Gamergate, an antifeminist backlash among a segment of video game fans. Although he doesn’t consider himself part of the alt-right, Benjamin’s videos also focus on attacking favorite alt-right targets like (again) feminism, Islam, Black Lives Matter, and the overall notion of straight white male privilege.

All of this is done in the deliberately provocative, anti-PC tone that is generally characteristic of alt-right rhetoric. Because Benjamin has talked with many of the alt-rightists who constitute his fan base, his video “An Honest Look at the Alt Right” is particularly illuminating. Although he criticizes the alt-right for collectivist and authoritarian thinking, he argues that they’re reacting to a comparable amount of racism from the left.

“By framing the argument as the progressive left advocating for minorities against whites, they [the social justice left] have set the stage for a group to become the antagonist for this position—which is precisely what the alt-right is,” Benjamin argues, later adding that “the progressive left have used liberal guilt to advance an agenda that is focused largely around racism and advocacy against whites.”

This brings us to the two reasons why there is an audience for pundits who identify with or are sympathetic to the alt-right.

The first, of course, is the straightforward political explanation. As heterosexual white men lose the privileged position from which they’ve benefited for most of Western history, far-right movements inevitably pop up to feed off of their grievances. Similarly, because we’ve become more sensitive to the concerns of women and minorities, it is less culturally acceptable to express views that marginalize these groups. That’s why the alt-right pundits think of themselves as representing a culture that fights against the liberal status quo. From the point of view of those invested in maintaining certain privileges, a cultural consensus which strives toward diversity is a hostile status quo.

While it remains to be seen whether the alt-right will help elect Trump, I suspect the provocateurs themselves will always have an audience online. So long as there are people who embrace the Internet’s potential for uninhibited self-expression, we will have performers who entertain us by transgressing against our most sacred political taboos. It’s always an interesting show, regardless of whether you agree with its message—and that’s the key to its persistence.

It’s why Spencer, Watson, and Benjamin never tiptoe around the fact that they’re slaying sacred cows. They revel in what they’re doing because they know that’s what their fans want to see. Sometimes the provocateurs of the world happen to be right, and sometimes they’re dead wrong, but either way they’re a perfect match for YouTube.

Jill Stein and Donald Trump are both linked to a dangerous anti-vaccine myth that just won’t die

Published: Quartz (August 3, 2016)

Green Party candidate Jill Stein likes to present herself as a pro-science, more idealistic alternative to Hillary Clinton. Stein has so far managed to stay out of the media maelstrom, but a series of troubling comments are making headlines for all the wrong reasons. One of Stein’s most problematic opinions resurfaced this week when her campaign deleted a tweet in which she claimed there is “no evidence that autism is caused by vaccines.” (The Tweet was eventually replaced with one that qualified her position as “I’m not aware of evidence linking autism with vaccines.”) Although she hasn’t gone quite as far as Donald Trump—the Republican nominee has openly suggested that vaccines cause autism—Stein’s statements are at best irresponsible and misinformed. They are also baffling, given that the Green Party likes to tout its pro-science credentials.

In some ways, Stein’s anti-vaccination comments are more insidious than Trump’s—at least Trump has made his position clear. During a Reddit AMA in May, Stein claimed that she distrusted vaccines because “regulatory agencies are routinely packed with corporate lobbyists and CEOs. So the foxes are guarding the chicken coop as usual in the US. So who wouldn’t be skeptical?” This line is blatantly misleading. As Stein (who is herself a medical doctor) ought to know, most of the people who sit on the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee are scientists and public health experts. Nevertheless, she reiterated this statement during a July 29 interview with The Washington Post, arguing that although “vaccines are an invaluable medication” they need to be “approved by a regulatory board that people can trust.”

She later added that when she was a medical doctor, “there were concerns among physicians about what the vaccination schedule meant, the toxic substances like mercury which used to be rampant in vaccines. There were real questions that needed to be addressed. I think some of them at least have been addressed. I don’t know if all of them have been addressed.”

The problem here is that in fact, researchers have spent a long time answering the “questions” Stein mentions. The academic article that helped spark the most recent iteration of the anti-vaxxer movement in 1998 has been conclusively discredited, and 10 of the paper’s 12 co-authors have since retracted their support. Subsequent studies have repeatedly found no correlation between vaccines and autism, and have confined that vaccines given to adults and children are safe with rare exceptions.

Similarly, there is no evidence that the recommended schedule of vaccines can cause other diseases later in childhood or that vaccines overwhelm a baby’s immune system. Although there is evidence that the MMR and MMRV shots have been linked to febrile (fever-caused) seizures, the episodes do not cause any long-term health effects. More importantly, such seizures are twice as likely to happen if a child’s vaccination schedule is delayed.

What are clear, however, is the anti-vaccine movement’s consequences. Unvaccinated children have caused outbreaks of diseases that would have otherwise been preventable, including the mumps and whooping cough. An unvaccinated child was also tied to the worst US measles epidemic in twenty years. “A substantial proportion of the US measles cases in the era after elimination were intentionally unvaccinated,” wrote researchers at Emory University and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health earlier in 2016. “The phenomenon of vaccine refusal was associated with an increased risk for measles among people who refuse vaccines and among fully vaccinated individuals. Although pertussis resurgence has been attributed to waning immunity and other factors, vaccine refusal was still associated with an increased risk for pertussis in some populations.”

And then there’s the anti-vaccine movement’s offensive undertones. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome who has written extensively about our culture’s evolving attitudes toward autism, I am deeply disturbed by the ease with which spectrum personalities are dismissed and belittled by anti-vaxxers. One of the main goals of the socially active autistic community is to explain why having the high-functioning version of this condition, as millions of Americans do, is not a disability, nor is it inherently debilitating. While social intolerance toward non-neurotypical behaviors can make life difficult for autistic people, high-functioning autism itself is neither healthy nor unhealthy. It is simply a difference in neurological structure.

In the future, the notion that high-functioning autistic people need to be “treated” or “prevented” will likely be viewed with the same contempt that we currently direct towards those who think you cure homosexuality. Unfortunately, people like Jill Stein are helping to keep this reality out of reach. So long as a large section of our population continue to view autism as a “disease” or a “glitch” caused by corrupt doctors or medical boards, autism will remain stigmatized.

In light of the stakes involved here, Stein must unambiguously denounce the idea that vaccines cause autism. If she will not do this, she must admit that she is, in fact, part of the anti-vaxxer conspiracy movement. Stein is running on a platform that champions economic and social injustice, and has told voters that she deserves to be taken just as seriously as her more mainstream rivals. Should she refuse to repudiate her vaccine comments, however,  progressives need to accept the fact that their Green Party candidate is not serious about contesting this election.

The ‘Paranoid Style’ of Alex Jones: Why the right-wing ‘Jade Helm’ insanity won’t go away – and why that’s extremely scary

Published: Salon (July 8, 2015)

Brace yourself: After months of frantic conspiracy theorizing, Operation Jade Helm is finally underway next week.

One week from today, one of the largest military training exercises in history — dubbed “Operation Jade Helm 15″ — will occur across seven southwestern states. According to Bastrop County Republican Party Chairman Albert Ellison, there is good reason for Texans to worry that Obama is secretly planning to use this event as an opportunity to take over the state, a conspiracy theory popularized by right-wing radio host Alex Jones earlier this year. “In the minds of some, he was raised by communists and mentored by terrorists,” reported Ellison to The Washington Post on Saturday, later adding “Obama has really painted a portrait in the minds of many conservatives that he is capable of this sort of thing.”

Make no mistake about it: Though it’s tempting to dismiss this type of hysteria as self-evidently absurd, it is dangerous — and needs to be called out as such.
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To truly understand what’s going on here — what, indeed, has been occurring since Obama first took office — one can start by looking at Richard Hofstadter’s classic 1964 article, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”:

“I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression ‘paranoid style’ I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”

Although Hofstadter’s essay studied this phenomenon from colonial conspiracy theories about the Illuminati to McCarthysim and Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, the so-called “paranoid style” that has permeated the conservative movement during the Obama era is noteworthy in three ways:

1. It is fueled by racism.

Back in 2010, former Republican political advisor John Avlon coined the term “white minority politics” to refer to the anxiety “that President Obama represents the rise of a multicultural elite and the rise of a non-white majority in America.” The following year, a study led by Eric Hehman of the University of Delaware in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that respondents who specifically ranked Obama lower in “Americanism” were also more likely to possess racial prejudices.

“Due to prevailing norms of equality, most Whites attempt to avoid appearing biased in their evaluations of Blacks, in part because of a genuine desire to live up to their egalitarian standards, but also because of concern regarding social censure,” the report observed, making it necessary for latent racist attitudes to be expressed through rhetoric that doesn’t result in stigma — such as, say, claiming that Obama is ineligible to be president because he wasn’t born in this country, or is secretly a Muslim. Because these positions implicitly assert that Obama isn’t a “real American” like the 42 presidents who preceded him, this particular use of the paranoid style is uniquely designed to validate racially biased opinions.

2. It is consistent with a long tradition of right-wing paranoia in response to liberal presidencies… but this time, the purveyors of paranoia have more power than ever before.

There is nothing new about a liberal president being accused of covert Communism: Franklin D. Roosevelt was charged on a regular basis with attempting to destroy the free enterprise system through his New Deal programs, John F. Kennedy’s policies on everything from desegregation to American-Cuban relations were used to mobilize right-wingers against his perceived “treason,” and Bill Clinton spent most of his presidency fending off trumped up investigations thanks to the efforts of well-financed right-wing activists. As a scientific paper last year by John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska explained, extreme conservatives are more likely to be driven by a “negativity bias” that makes them hypersensitive to perceived threats in their environment. This in turn means that they are more likely to react to programs and proposals with which they might have reasonable disagreements as if they were existential threats instead of simply bad policies.
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Yet while this tendency has existed for decades (long enough that, if nothing else, it’s remarkable how so many conservatives haven’t noticed the pattern), Republicans during the Obama era have been unusually beholden to their party’s own extremist elements. As a result, this round of right-wing paranoia against a liberal president has managed to significantly corrode our political institutions, from Congress’s unprecedented obstructionism to our various debt ceiling crises. Even worse…

3. There have been violent repercussions.

Back in 2009, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report (which was subsequently leaked) warning that “the threat posed by lone wolves and small [domestic] terrorist cells is more pronounced than in past years” thanks to the election of the first black president, the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse, and the fact that any liberal initiatives proposed by President Obama on hot button issues (e.g., gun control, abortion, immigration) would naturally provoke significant backlash. Although the report was initially met with such outrage that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ultimately apologized for it, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported “explosive growth” in right-wing extremism after Obama’s election, from the number of Patriot organizations (which rose from 149 in 2008 to an all-time high of 1,360 by the end of Obama’s first term) to the white supremacist web forum Stormfront (which saw its membership increase from under 100,000 to more than 300,000 within a similar period). There have also been numerous acts of domestic terrorism over the last five-and-a-half years perpetrated by individuals who specifically cited the fact of Obama’s presidency as at least part of their motivation, including:

• The shooting of three black immigrants (two fatally) in Brockton, MA on the day after Obama’s inauguration, which was intended as part of a larger series of attacks against African Americans, Hispanics, and Jews;

• The shooting of four police officers (three fatally) by an openly anti-Semitic pro-gun activist;
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• The shooting of two police officers (both fatally) by a man who was “severely disturbed” by Obama’s election;

• The fatal shooting of a security guard at the National Holocaust Museum by a white supremacist who claimed “Obama was created by Jews”;

• The fatal shooting of a man at a gun range by an anti-government extremist who wanted to steal the victim’s AR-15 to foment a coup against the Obama administration;

• The murder of a former GI and his teenage girlfriend by a right-wing militia that had been planning a killing spree which would culminate in a plot to assassinate Obama;

• The murder of four people in a multi-state killing spree by a pair of white supremacists who aimed to “reclaim our country”;

• Shooting at a Jewish Community Center that killed three people by a white supremacist who openly advocated assassinating Obama;

• The ambush and killing of two police officers in Las Vegas by anti-government radicals who wrote that Obama was “baiting the next civil war” with his gun control proposals.

Just to be clear: That’s a total of 20 people who were murdered by right-wing radicals who specifically mentioned Obama’s presidency as at least part of their motivation for killing — many of whom also hoped to kill the president himself.

None of this is intended to impugn the majority of conservatives, who criticize Obama based on his actual words and policies rather than the claims of the politically paranoid. In fact, the best possible outcome for American democracy would be one in which virtually all conservatives and liberals debate the important issues facing our country in a civil manner that focuses on real issues instead of hysterical fairy tales. Until that happens, however, the paranoid rhetoric coming from political leaders like Chairman Albert Ellison is incredibly alarming. Since the start of the Obama era, the paranoid style has been used to reinforce racial biases, undermine our government’s ability to perform its most basic functions, and even justify acts of violence. It’s time for us to identify that type of thinking for what it is — irrational, hateful, and dangerous to our republic.

Ted Cruz’s birthplace matters – but not for the reason you think

Published: Daily Dot (March 24, 2015), Salon (March 26, 2015), Interview with CBC – Edmonton (March 26, 2015)

It’s the hypocrisy, stupid.

Much mirth has already been derived from Ted Cruz’s announcement that he is running for president in 2016; Twitter users were sharpening their rhetorical knives with cutting hashtags in preparation for his official declaration, while pundits from Jamelle Bouie of Slate to Donny Deutsch of MSNBC’s Morning Joe have gone on record to proclaim that Cruz is unelectable.

While these various observations may be valid, not enough attention has been paid to a far more important point. The fact that Cruz’s candidacy is being taken seriously at all speaks to a pervasive hypocrisy among Republican conservatives. After all, as anyone with a heartbeat from 2009 to 2012 no doubt recalls, one of the most popular right-wing claims about President Obama is that he wasn’t actually born in this country. At the height of “birtherism” in 2011, a poll found that more than half of likely 2012 Republican primary voters (51 percent) believed Obama was foreign-born and thus ineligible for the presidency, while more than one-fifth (21 percent) were “not sure” about the matter. As recently as last year, only 34 percent of Republicans could bring themselves to openly admit that their president had indeed been born in Honolulu.

Yet here we are. As the 2016 election looms ahead of us, the first declared Republican candidate—a man whom political handicappers readily acknowledge will depend on Tea Party support, who played a large role in fueling birtherism—makes no bones about the fact that he was born in Calgary, a city in Canada.

And nary a peep of protest can be heard from the right.

Before we continue on to deconstruct the long, inglorious history of right-wing double standards, let us dispel any notion that Cruz’s place of birth disqualifies him for the presidency. Although Section 1 of Article 2 in the Constitution indeed states that only “a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President,” Section 301(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act automatically extends naturalized citizenship to anyone born of an American citizen. Because Cruz’s mother, Eleanor Wilson, was born in Delaware, the senator from Texas without question passes Constitutional muster.

Of course, not even the Obama-era birthers seemed to question that the president’s mother, Ann Dunham, was born in Kansas. Even if their most far-fetched conspiracy theories about Barack Obama entering first this world in his father’s native Kenya were true, they wouldn’t matter any more than if Cruz had been born in his father’s native Cuba. Legally speaking, birtherism was as much of a non-issue from the get-go for Obama as it is now for Cruz.

Hence why words like “hypocrisy” come into play.

However, this is hardly the first example of Republican double standards. The pages of recent American political history are littered with examples of brazen conservative duplicity that match or even exceed the current birtherian farce. In the 1950s and 1960s, two presidential aspirants were attacked by conservatives as unfit for the White House because they were divorcees—first a liberal Democrat, Adlai Stevenson, and then a liberal Republican, Nelson Rockefeller—but when Ronald Reagan earned the Republican nomination in 1980, the fact that he would be (and eventually became) the first divorcee president was implicitly forgiven.

More recently, the same Republicans who chanted “flip-flop” at their party’s 2004 national convention because Democratic candidate John Kerry had switched positions on the Iraq war had no qualms about nominating Mitt Romney in 2012, despite his myriad flip-flops on issues ranging from health-care reform and abortion to gay rights.

There is even something of a pre-Cruz precedent for birther-related double standards: After all, the first Republican to challenge Obama for the presidency was John McCain, whose birth certificate has him entering this world in the Panama Canal Zone. That situation isn’t precisely analogous to the one with Cruz—the Panama Canal Zone was owned by the United States at the time McCain was born there—but it’s hard to imagine Obama getting away with the same rationale if he had been born, say, at the American embassy in Kenya.

Of course, there is a simple reason why these hypocrisies are so prevalent. When conservatives lambasted the divorces of Stevenson and Rockefeller, the anti-war positions of Kerry, or the birthplace of Obama, what they were really attacking was the cultural ethos each of those candidates seemed to represent in their minds. Because Stevenson and Rockefeller were outspokenly liberal on domestic issues, social conservatives were quick to jump on their unsuccessful marriages as proof that they were fundamentally immoral individuals. Similarly, because Kerry rose to national prominence as a heroic Vietnam War veteran who spoke out against the war to the Senate after returning home, it was inevitable that the post-9/11 GOP would find a way to attack his patriotism and steadfastness.

With Obama and birtherism, meanwhile, the underlying issue has always been a racial one. As a 2011 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology put it, “the influence of racial prejudice in contemporary U.S. society is typically manifested in subtle, indirect forms of bias. Due to prevailing norms of equality, most whites attempt to avoid appearing biased in their evaluations of blacks, in part because of a genuine desire to live up to their egalitarian standards, but also because of concern regarding social censure.”

Consequently, conservatives who felt that an African American was somehow inherently illegitimate as a president couldn’t comfortably declare as much in the open political market. By focusing on a conspiracy theory that cast the president as quite literally un-American—regardless of how self-evidently absurd that conspiracy theory might be—they could tap into their emotional distrust of America’s first black president without seeming overtly racist.

By contrast, Ted Cruz is solidly conservative on racial issues. Despite being of partially Latino heritage, he is a well-known admirer of racial reactionaries like Jesse Helms and has taken right-wing positions on racially charged issues like immigration reform and affirmative action. Just as Reagan’s moral character was never questioned because he was a social conservative, and Romney’s flip-flopping wasn’t held against him because Republicans took his patriotism for granted, so too does Cruz benefit from not being perceived as a threat by conservatives susceptible to the delusional beliefs GOP operative John Avlon has aptly dubbed “white minority politics.”

The double standard on Ted Cruz’s citizenship status is only the latest entry in this disgraceful chapter of American history, but at least we can console ourselves with one fact: No matter where he was born, Cruz stands absolutely no chance of actually winning.

Why We Want To Believe Conspiracy Theories

Published: Good Men Project (March 5, 2015)

Matthew Rozsa holds conspiracy theorists to the same standard of skepticism that they claim to use.

___

Maybe it was my mistake. After all, what kind of person expects to hear intelligent political analysis from two drunks in an alley?

Granted, it was the alley adjacent to my house, and while I was nowhere near as inebriated as my two new acquaintances, I was buzzing from a couple of beers myself. Even so, I was taken aback as I heard one of my companions declare, “You know what the problem is? The world is run by the media, the Jews, the banks, college elitists … All of ’em!”

While most of their theories involve abstract entities with whom they’ll have no interaction, the mere fact that the conspiracy theorist has (in his or her own mind) struck upon a truth that lies beyond mainstream acceptance immediately puts them in a class above the mass of humanity.

While it was enormously satisfying to point out that I fell into 75% of the groups he had just denounced and savor the awkwardness that ensued, I couldn’t help but wonder how pervasive such conspiratorial mindsets really are. In the couple of years that have passed since that memory, I discovered that they are quite common indeed—in fact, many of my closest friends and loved ones have, when pressed, admitted to believing some manner of conspiracy theory: Some argue that Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, or the September 11th attacks were orchestrated through secret and sinister means; others believe that the Illuminati, the Masons, or the Bilderberg Group are pulling the proverbial strings; still others have insisted that President Obama wasn’t born in this country or that the Newtown shootings and Boston Marathon bombing were faked by the state so it could confiscate Americans’ guns.

The list of crazy ideas that I have encountered since I undertook my personal social experiment is too various to be comprehensively encompassed in a single 1000 word op-ed. But the two main reasons why so many people are attracted to them are, in my opinion, relatively straightforward.

♦◊♦

“The answer is that people who suspect conspiracies aren’t really skeptics,” writes William Saletan of Slate. “Like the rest of us, they’re selective doubters. They favor a worldview, which they uncritically defend. But their worldview isn’t about God, values, freedom, or equality. It’s about the omnipotence of elites.”

Saletan isn’t the first pundit to make these observations, but he is one of the most succinct. While conspiracy theorists will differ wildly as to which group of elites they believe to be running the show, the one thread that binds all of them together is their unwavering conviction that “the truth” can best be discovered by exposing a cabal of shady bad guys to the world. It is a mindset that—for all the intellectual self-glorification indulged by its practitioners—is very simplistic. Instead of accepting that the triumphs and tragedies of modern life are labyrinthine in complexity, they instead cut through the Gordian knot of facts with that single blunt assumption about reality. The groups that they cast in the role of villain(s) vary depending on their biases, but the logical structure they follow is always the same: They start with the predisposition to believe in a conspiracy and work backwards from there.

In addition to this, there is something empowering about belief in a conspiracy theory. This observation has struck me every time I have spoken with a conspiracy theorist, since all of them— again, regardless of the exact content of their views—presented their ideas with an undeniable air of smugness. Self-righteousness certainly played a role, of course, but there was also something deeper at play. Because our individual lives are so dramatically impacted by a confluence of external forces—national and international, political and economic, social and cultural—over which we not only have no control but also even lack a direct relationship, it is very frustrating to contemplate that our fates may be entirely out of our hands. Several centuries ago, when the vast majority of humanity was confined to small villages that rarely receive contact with or information from the outside world, our abilities to draw a one-to-one connection between our lives and the external forces that influenced them was much greater. In this era that is post-industrial, globalized, and digitized, we can no longer easily do this.

The conspiracy theorist, however, has found a way of beating that dilemma. While most of their theories involve abstract entities with whom they’ll have no interaction, the mere fact that the conspiracy theorist has (in his or her own mind) struck upon a truth that lies beyond mainstream acceptance immediately puts them in a class above the mass of humanity. They may not have the power to change their own lives, true, but they are blessed with the illusion of power in at least being able to comprehend something that others around them do not. Even when they strive to convert others to their point-of-view, the end game is less that of spreading truth than of increasing their own power by accumulating acolytes. What they present to the world as an objective mindset is in reality a selective, self-serving skepticism. Returning to Saletan:

Susceptibility to conspiracy theories isn’t a matter of objectively evaluating evidence. It’s more about alienation. People who fall for such theories don’t trust the government or the media. They aim their scrutiny at the official narrative, not at the alternative explanations.

♦◊♦

The mistake made by conspiracy theorists isn’t that they assume sinister plots exist which need to be exposed, but rather that they don’t apply the same level of cynicism and scrutiny to themselves that they insist be used to counter official explanations.

The worst part of this is that conspiracy theorists aren’t always wrong. There are real conspiracies out there, dangerous ones, from the setting of the Reichstag fire to the NSA’s spying. The mistake made by conspiracy theorists isn’t that they assume sinister plots exist which need to be exposed, but rather that they don’t apply the same level of cynicism and scrutiny to themselves that they insist be used to counter official explanations. In choosing to feel empowered at the expense of conventional narratives, they are no less sheepish than those who accept conventional narratives over alternative points-of-view.

Pic: Flickr – KentuckyHIstory/”Conspiracy Theorists”

Anti-vaxxers shouldn’t use my autism to justify their bad choices

Published: Quartz (February 18, 2015)

I still remember the first article I ever wrote about growing up with Asperger’s Syndrome. It was compelled (I’m reluctant to say inspired) by some of the controversial reports that circulated after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting claiming gunman Adam Lanza had an autism spectrum disorder. Two years later, confusion and misinformation about autism continues to thrive, most recently as part of the ongoing debate over mandatory vaccinations in the United States. While the debate has been become a highly polarized, not to mention politicized, topic of discussion, the question I hear the most from readers is one that those engaged in the debate rarely address: When anti-vaccination activists blame inoculations for childhood autism, what message are they sending to the autistic community?

The most obvious message of course is that they haven’t done their research. If they had, they would know that popular arguments connecting autism to vaccination can almost all be traced back to a discredited paper by British medical researcher Andrew Wakefield in 1998. That said, while the existential perils of the anti-vaccination movement threaten autistics and non-autistics alike (see the recent measles outbreak), autistics have had to watch as their condition is once again characterized as a shameful burden. Although there are many individuals with severe forms of autism (e.g., non-verbal, pointedly anti-social, etc.), there are millions of others who are able to lead functional and even happy lives. When anti-vaccination advocates act like their condition is a scourge, they reinforce stereotypes that make it harder for them to take pride in who they are.

I realize it may seem strange to take pride in being autistic, but I’m not alone in this assertion. Indeed, there are already many activists encouraging individuals on the spectrum to do exactly that. In an interview about the PBS documentary “Neurotypical” (a reference to the term used by many autistics to refer to non-autistics), director Adam Larsen explained how “many folks with Aspergers and autism, they don’t want to be cured. They’re very comfortable with their way of thinking and their way of being.” Meanwhile websites like the Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical are going one step further by satirizing the notion that neurotypicals, known by some as NTs, should be viewed as the norm. “When in groups NTs are socially and behaviorally rigid, and frequently insist upon the performance of dysfunctional, destructive, and even impossible rituals as a way of maintaining group identity,” the website explains in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. “NTs find it difficult to communicate directly, and have a much higher incidence of lying as compared to persons on the autistic spectrum.”

If the above description seems harsh, it’s only because this type of judgmental language is actually a direct and purposeful reflection of how autistic people are regularly perceived by the rest of society. Autistics often struggle with basic social skills like interpreting nonverbal cues or implicitly understanding widely-recognized rules of etiquette, meaning they are far too often branded as rude or antisocial by those around them. Similarly, because autistics tend to have highly specialized interests and idiosyncratic personality traits, they tend to experience disproportionate adversity when trying to develop meaningful interpersonal connections, instead encountering isolation, rejection, and outright hostility throughout their lives. Just as experts point out that autistics are capable of leading happy and successful lives if given the right opportunities and support, so too will autistics tell me tell you that the biggest obstacle we face is lack of understanding from neurotypicals.

 “Many folks with Aspergers and autism, they don’t want to be cured. They’re very comfortable with their way of thinking and their way of being.”  

As our culture gradually develops a more sophisticated awareness of the human mind, it becomes increasingly possible that autism will one day be viewed in the same way that the enlightened world is starting to perceive homosexuality today – that is, as an innocuous stamp of a person’s individual biology, on par with one’s fingerprint designs or eye color. Considering that we’re already preparing for an impending ‘autism tsunami’ (thanks to the growing number of autistic children and adults who are able to receive an official diagnosis), such a paradigmatic shift in our cultural perspective couldn’t come at a better time

None of this is intended to diminish the concerns of parents who want what’s best for their children. “Like many expectant mothers, I felt quite vulnerable when I was pregnant,” wrote social pundit Liskula Cohen, a close friend and frequent collaborator who is pro-vaccination. “Consequently, when a friend who’d had triplets told me that she blamed vaccines for causing one of her daughters to became autistic while her two sisters did not, I became afraid.” An ex-girlfriend echoed these thoughts in her response to a recent article in which I argued for mandatory vaccinations, pointing out that I wasn’t taking being sensitive “the weight of making the decision for your child.”

Because these parental concerns are valid, the “anti-vaxxers” who inflame them are guilty of more than simply endangering innocent lives. That’s why, when hold up autism as a dysfunction to be feared and mourned, they insult all of us on the spectrum. Everyone – neurotypical and autistic alike – deserves better.

3 Reasons Obama should make it illegal not to vaccinate your children

Published: Daily Dot (February 5, 2015)

“The science is, you know, pretty indisputable.”

Those were President Obama’s words in an interview with NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie earlier this week during which he urged parents to get their children vaccinated. While it’s tempting to praise the president for standing on the side of science, he has been inexcusably reluctant to fulfill his constitutional responsibility to protect the general welfare—in this case, preventing a potential epidemic by making school vaccinations mandatory. “He was clear that we don’t need a new law,” explained White House Press Secretary Joshua Earnest on Tuesday, “we need people to exercise common sense.”

If the Obama administration is sincere in their call for common sense, then it’s important to review the three reasons why basic logic requires them to make school vaccines necessary and put down the Internet anti-vaccination movement once and for all.

1) It will save lives.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), there were 644 documented cases of the measles in 2014, by far the largest number since records on measles elimination were first recorded in this country. This year is shaping up to be even worse; as of January 30th, 102 documented cases of the measles have been reported across 14 states, with most being traced back to an outbreak in Disneyland.

While the measles statistics are sobering on their own, they pale in comparison to the numbers detailing the illness and death caused by the anti-vaccination crusaders. Between 2007 (when the movement started to become popular) and January 24 of this year, there have been 145,382 confirmed instances in which a patient was diagnosed with an illness that would have been prevented by vaccination. Over that same period of time, 6,382 of those patients died.

In light of this data, it makes perfect sense that a California father recently wrote a letter to his school asking that unvaccinated children be banned from attending to protect his 6-year-old son, who has leukemia and would thus be especially vulnerable to getting sick. Just as Carl Krawitt is doing his duty as a parent, so too must Obama do his duty as a president. After all, he is responsible for not merely one life, but more than 300,000,000.

2) It will strike a blow in favor of science.

The belief that vaccines cause autism is based on a paper published in 1998 by Andrew Wakefield, a British medical researcher who (not coincidentally) had filed a patent for a new vaccine one year earlier. His findings were discredited almost as soon as they were published, with a subsequent investigation revealing that Wakefield had manipulated his data and reached his conclusions “dishonestly and irresponsibly.” Since then, 10 of the 13 scientists who contributed to Wakefield’s paper have withdrawn their work.

While facts like these should theoretically consign a given belief system to its rightful place in the ash heap of bad ideas, we live in a time when science itself is under attack. The debate over mandatory vaccination is certainly a powerful example of this. According to a Pew Research Study released last week, only 13 percent of scientists believe parents should be allowed to decide not to vaccinate their children, despite 30 percent of the general public holding that opinion. That said, there are plenty of other fronts on which the war against science is being fought. For example, although 97 percent of scientists agree that global warming is man-made, fewer than half of Americans believe the same thing. Similarly, while 98 percent of scientists accept evolution as a fact, only 65 percent of the public feels the same way.

In other words, the “common sense” that Obama’s press secretary urged Americans to follow is nowhere near widely spread enough. Even worse, like climate change denialism, the Internet anti-vaccination movement is using its ignorance to cause tangible harm to innocent people. Ignoring urgent scientific facts comes at a terrible price, something that Obama almost certainly already knows. Now is the time for him to do something about it.

3) Politically speaking, it’s the smart thing to do.

According to a poll taken last August, 76 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of Republicans support mandatory vaccinations. While both of those figures are far too low, they at least reveal that substantial majorities in both parties understand the importance of preventing epidemic outbreaks of preventable diseases. As news stories like the measles outbreak continue to spread, it’s unlikely that those figures will fall anytime soon, putting Obama in a political win-win should he call for mandatory vaccination: If the Republican Congress backs him, he’ll be able to claim credit for a meaningful achievement, and if they don’t, he can allow them to bear the onus of responsibility.

Not surprisingly, even those Republicans that initially attempted to pander to their party’s fringe on this issue were soon forced to backpedal after realizing the imprudence of their decision: After initially supporting “some measure of choice” for parents, Chris Christie has been reduced to insisting he was only saying that “different states require different degrees of vaccination,” while Rand Paul—who at first claimed to have heard of “many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children, who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines”—now claims to be “annoyed that people were trying to depict me as someone who doesn’t think vaccines were a good idea.”

While Obama isn’t guilty of transparent flip-flopping on the level of Paul or Christie, his unwillingness to do what 86 percent of scientists insist he must and require vaccinations leaves him vulnerable to the charge of waffling. The fact that his administration plans on cutting $50 million from an immunization program could exacerbate this perception (even though the cuts are only a reflection of the Affordable Care Act picking up those costs).

Last week, an obscure letter by acclaimed children’s author on the subject of vaccinations Roald Dahl went viral. After recalling the death of his young daughter in heartbreaking detail, Dahl memorably wrote, “It really is almost a crime to allow your child to go unimmunised [sic].” As hundreds continue to die and thousands get sick from preventable diseases, Obama is under a moral as well as political obligation to learn from Dahl’s observation. We owe our children, and the world, nothing less.