07 October 2009

The Fringe Around the Center

In the latest issue of The New Republic Michelle Goldberg tags Alex Jones, the conspiracy-mongering radio and internet host, as "the next Glenn Beck," presumably meaning that Jones will be the next mass phenomenon of multimedia extremism. Already, you don't have to go very far in many political discussion threads before someone recommends that you visit one of Jones's websites or watches one of his videos. Rather like an invitation into a cult whose innermost teachings are revealed only much later, you get only vague hints from his followers regarding Jones's storyline. If Goldberg has summarized it correctly, keeping it close to the vest is probably the practical thing to do, like not telling any aspiring Scientologist about the evil aliens until after they've paid a high price. To my knowledge Jones doesn't charge for his gnosis, but the full revelation could be just as disillusioning.

As Goldberg puts it, Jones "purports to reveal a eugenics-obsessed global elite bent on eliminating much of the earth's population and enslaving the rest. Members of a Satanic international network, Jones explains in an ominous voiceover, have been 'steering planetary affairs for hundreds of years. Now, in the final stage, they prepare for open world government.'"

There's nothing new to this, of course, but what's recent is Jones's position as a "truther," one who believes that the U.S. government carried out the September 2001 terrorist attacks on American soil. As a matter of consistency, he seems to believe (as I infer from Goldberg) that the government also bombed the World Trade Center on its own in 1993. He is legitimately non-partisan, believing Clinton, Bush and Obama, from what I tell, to be equally evil. "To him," Goldberg writes, "both Democrats and Republicans are puppets of the same set of rapacious moneymen who have hatched the New World Order conspiracy."

Alex Jones is the funhouse mirror image of those who believe that there is such a thing as an American Bipolarchy, that the shared monopoly of political power between two parties has harmed the country. While I would argue that the Bipolarchy is in part a structural accident, but one that has been exploited consciously for all it's worth by its beneficiaries, Jones seems to see the two parties as conscious agents of some still higher power with an Orwellian agenda of dominance for cruelty's sake. His anger is bound to be tempting to those who are frustrated with two-party politics, and Goldberg notes that he's been patronized by dissident elements on the "left" and "right" alike. She names Dennis Kucinich and Noam Chomsky as leftists who've appeared with Jones, while the great hope of many independents from last year, Rep. Ron Paul, has been a frequent guest.

The main point of Goldberg's article, however, is that elements of the Republican media, who might be expected to curse Jones, and in the past have, for his truther speculations, have grown more tolerant of him as he has inevitably focused his fury on a Democratic administration. He has appeared as a friendly guest on at least one Fox News program, and at least one Republican congressman besides Paul has made an appearance on Jones's own show this year. This is actually small evidence, but one might expect a Republican policy of zero tolerance of Jones because of his slanders of President Bush. The apparent lack of such a policy smacks of opportunism and hypocrisy -- the latter being the sin Republicans most like to attribute to others.

It's a sad fact that Jones's conspiracy mongering is one of the few forces in American politics that seems capable of transcending party differences. His is a debased form of populism that portrays "real" Americans not only threatened by "special interests" but under concerted, deliberate attack by them. One doesn't have to be "left" or "right" to feel profound powerlessness in today's America, or to feel tempted to blame this on a single malevolent and omnipresent power. Americans in particular may have an aversion to feeling controlled that may exacerbate their suspicion of actual powers in the world. But none of that excuses lying. Insanity may excuse itself, but unless Jones wants to confess himself mad such a preponderance of evidence exists to establish the facts of September 2001 that anyone who persists in conspiratorial fantasies must be called out as a liar. No movement against the Bipolarchy should be built on lies, and there should be no place in tea parties or any other independent movement for liars. As for Jones, he is probably not so much the next Glenn Beck as the Father Coughlin of our time.


d.eris said...

"the Father Coughlin of our time"

hmmm, I'm not sure that I would agree. I'm familiar with Jones somewhat because I'm an avid talk radio listener and have done some research into contemporary conspiracy theorizing. Basically, Jones' overarching theory focuses on the Bilderberg Group, the trilateral commission and the council on foreign relations, and he argues that these three groups, with the Bilderbergers at the top, have a disproportionate amount of power and influence over world affairs, and affect policy formation in a wider set of bodies (such as the Davos economic summits, the G8, the Fed and by extension too-big-to-fail corporations/banks etc). This is difficult to prove or disprove: since, for instance, very little is known about the Bilderberg group, the information vacuum lends itself to conspiracy theorizing. Of course, it doesn't help that the professional media show little to no interest in a meeting of world leaders that takes place in almost complete secrecy. The conspiracy portion of his theory is basically that throughout human history powerful families and organizations have manipulated governments and societies for their own ends, and this still goes on today. He makes the case for such claims more like a prosecutor than an historian, showing patterns of behavior and concluding that they continue to be operative today.

As for 9/11, Jones is often less an explicit conspiracy theorist than a skeptic regarding what he calls "the official conspiracy theory" purveyed by the government. Rather than offer alternate theories of 9/11 he often points out holes and inconsistencies in the government's version of the events, and provides a platform for others to provide alternate theories.

Check out one or two of his documentaries. They're free on youtube and are worth a viewing. They aren't bad and are full of tons of information, though you'll disagree with where he ends up going with it. I especially appreciate his pieces against the ongoing construction of the surveillance society.

Samuel Wilson said...

Damon: Before I dive into Jones's world, would you say that Goldberg described his worldview accurately, based on what I've quoted from her or the entire article? She describes someone who can't be taken seriously, except perhaps as a menace. I'm less interested in his traditional obsession with the groups you mention than with his indulgence of irrational skepticism. I see no reason to doubt that Muslim terrorists perpetrated the attacks of September 2001, but many people still seem to think that acknowledging that fact forces them to endorse the American response to those attacks, when that has never been the case. They could have opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq without giving in to craziness, but instead they seemed to assume that the only way to stop the wars was to prove the provocation false. Their insistence on a mythologized reality should make them an unwelcome element, and Jones's indulgence of (if not agreement with) them throws his general credibility into question.

Crhymethinc said...

The same old tired bs. Let me ask you this: Have you ever been invited into a meeting of the local Elks club? Do you know who the members are? Does that mean the local Elks club is attempting world domination? There are any number of "secret organizations" who meet around the world. Many of which have powerful members. Does that mean that they have the ability to control the world and enslave the masses? Do believe that any such group has such abilities is foolishness. The Bilderberger group, et. al. have less an interest in "enslaving the masses" than AIG or Enron or Mobil/Exxon. An the ONLY solution to that problem is to eliminate the corporate business model and replace it with a socialist or communist one (notice the lower case "s" and "c") If the members of these secret organizations were NOT allowed to profit from what they do, they would not be doing it. And just what is to stop Mr. Jones and his listeners to begin their own conspiracy to take power away from the groups you mentioned?

d.eris said...

I'm not sure what to make of the Goldberg piece. I wonder if Jones would call it a "hit job" or not.

There's no question that Jones is way over the top, that's why it makes for such good radio, but the schtick gets old pretty quickly, unless you buy into it, I suppose. The documentaries do contain some pretty good bits and pieces of information, but really they are an eccentric, dystopian fantasy scenario, a "mythologized reality," as you call it. In a way they are not dissimilar to historical novels, in the way they integrate actual hard facts into a larger plot-frame that crosses the line into conspiracy theory.

One of the most interesting effects comes precisely from "diving into Jones' world." I was interested, for instance, in comparing his theory of the "new world order" with some of the more out there Marxist theories of capitalist political economy from the 20th century, to see what kinds of similarities there were, if any.

As for the "irrational skepticism," it's definitely problematic, but it's consistent, which makes it convincing to some, I imagine. I'm not sure, but I think I'd rather people be skeptical to the extreme than gullible in the extreme. The ironic thing is that if someone buys into Jones' theory, they may eventually come around to applying the skepticism it relies on to the theory itself. As Chrymethink intimates.

A good blog on this general topic is Jodi Dean's I Cite posts on conspiracy and complicity. She has written a book and a couple articles on US conspiracy theories, and has a number of blog posts on Jones and related matters.

Samuel Wilson said...

Damon, I appreciate your point about skepticism and gullibility, but only in moderation. Skepticism in the extreme often looks a lot like another form of gullibility, especially if it's based on assumptions that are taken for granted, or on faith, as often seems to be the case in politics.

Crhymethinc said...

I used to believe a lot of that nonsense. The New World Order, the Illuminati, etc. etc. Mainly because, as d.eris points out, they do have a lot of facts. It had not yet occurred to me to look carefully at the lines they were drawing to connect the facts. When I did, the whole thing just disappeared. So I guess most of those conspiracy nuts are in the same place, but unwilling or unable to take that next step and really examine the conspiracy for errors in logic.

Basically, the difference is, we can all agree that 2+2=4 and 3+1=4 and 2+1+1= 4. A conspiracy nut will then assume that any series of numbers added together must also equal 4, especially if Alex Jones or some other talking head tells them it does.