It’s Still Kool-Aid

Trying to figure out social trends while you are living through them is sort of like being in the eye of a hurricane and trying to predict which way the wind’s blowing.

Since the 2020 elections, media mentions of QAnon have abated. Those of us who shook our heads over gunmen raiding pizza parlors and “patriots” attacking the U.S. Capitol have been inclined to breathe a sigh of relief, assuming that lack of sightings meant diminishing numbers of believers.

Of course, it’s never that simple, as a recent article in the Guardian explained.

QAnon appeared in 2017 and quickly spread through the far right, before beginning to wane in the wake of Joe Biden’s inauguration.

But it hasn’t disappeared entirely, and understanding the conspiracy theory’s rise and fall – and the awful legacy it has left us – reveals a great deal about the modern landscape of partisan paranoia. It also offers some clues on how best to fight back.

QAnon seized the public’s imagination in 2017, exploding from an anonymous forum on one of the internet’s most notorious websites and becoming a popular conspiracy theory. The figure of “Q” first appeared on the message board 4chan – a website where anonymous users posted hardcore pornography and racial slurs – claiming tobe a high-level intelligence officer. (Later Q would move to the equally vile site 8kun.)

QAnon posited a conspiracy by the so-called deep state–composed, in several versions, of Democratic pedophiles who drank children’s blood. (The child trafficking had to involve sexual abuse and ritual murder so that the participants could harvest a chemical “elixir of youth,” called adrenochrome.) The deep state was intent upon undermining the presidency of Donald Trump – but that dastardly effort was being countered by someone called Q and other “patriots.”

I think I hear the music from “Twilight Zone”….

QAnon borrows heavily from the rhetoric of the  End Times–a rhetoric that evidently prompted something  in 1844 called the “Great Disappointment”–so named because thousands of people had prepared themselves for the Second Coming of Christ. It’s also in the apocalyptic fiction of the Left Behind series.

In the days before the 2020 election, a Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that fully half of Trump’s supporters believed that top Democrats were “involved in an elite child sex trafficking ring” and that Trump was working to “dismantle” that same Democrat-led conspiracy. And despite the ludicrous and defamatory nature of the conspiracy theory, Trump seemed to embrace it; during a town hall event in October of 2020, NBC’s Savannah Guthrie repeatedly offered him a chance to denounce the movement and Trump refused.

Speaking of “Great Disappointments,” it became harder to sustain the QAnon fantasy after Trump was removed from office. As one pundit noted, “unleashing the purge of the deep state over Twitter doesn’t really work when he’s not the president any more, and he’s not on Twitter any more.” But..

even as the original storyline “came to a natural end”, there was immediately “the emergence of the stolen election movement, and they found their next thing. It really went really seamlessly from one thing to another.” The movement no longer needed “the codes and the drops and the props and the cryptic stuff”. And without the mystic clues and portents, many of the ideas that first gained strength through Q drops have gone mainstream. They have percolated into the public discourse, embraced by many in the Republican party, and no longer need to involve any actual reference to Q or 4chan.

People who were vulnerable to QAnon idiocy are now part of the MAGA mainstream, and elements of the conspiracy theory have been absorbed into Rightwing talking points.

Last week, the Florida governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis told supporters at a barbecue in New Hampshire: “We’re going to have all of these deep state people, you know, we are going to start slitting throats on day one.”

While such violent rhetoric is primarily directed at Democrats, the article reminds readers that “QAnon, like many other conspiracy theories, traffics heavily in antisemitism: tropes about “puppet masters” controlling everything, along with constant references to George Soros and the Rothschild family.”

Karl Popper coined the term “conspiracy theory” in the 1940s, explaining that it is a quasi-theological outlook.

While a shadowy cabal controlling your every action from behind the scenes may seem terrifying, it offers a narrative and an explanation for the way the world works. And this is what QAnon was and continues to be to its believers: proof that there’s a plan (even if not entirely divine), which in turn gives them hope, and meaning.

As the article concludes, “That’s a far more powerful drug than adrenochrome, and weaning adherents off of it will take real work.”

Calling BS

I think the University of Montana is onto something.

One of the biggest problems facing contemporary societies–not just in the U.S., but worldwide–is propaganda. Disinformation and conspiracy theories and just plain lying are ubiquitous (propaganda today, as Steve Bannon inelegantly put it, is achieved by “flooding the zone with shit”). It matters. As any medical professional will attest, a wrong diagnosis of what ails you will prevent the identification of a remedy to cure you.

The University of Montana has an intriguing approach to that flooded zone; it offers a course titled “Calling Bullshit,” the purpose of which is to examine why it’s so easy to spread misinformation and untruths and why it’s so hard to combat it. It’s an effort to explore “what citizens can do to become better consumers and producers of factual information.”

“The name is definitely provocative, but the class is not about the cussword,” said course instructor Professor Lee Banville, director of UM’s School of Journalism. “It’s about information literacy. People need to be both better sharers of information and better consumers of information.”

Because the subject is indeed serious, Banville chose a more appropriately earnest title when he launched the course in 2021. News Literacy, however, generated about as much excitement from students as one might expect.

“We had about 20 students in the class because, let’s face it, the title was boring,” Banville said. “Calling it B.S., we had 40 students this summer and 102 are enrolled this fall.”

The idea for the class – and its unconventional  title – isn’t entirely original. The University of Washington also sponsors a course titled Calling Bullshit, and its instructors, Professor Carl Bergstrom and Associate Professor Jevin West, wrote a book on the subject with the same title. Their emphasis though is on the misuse of data, Banville said, whereas UM’s looks more at how to spot and debunk misinformation in journalism and social media.

Students have noted that, while the title was provocative, the course content was surprisingly rigorous, imparting skills that will help them navigate our increasingly fraught information environment. The ultimate goal is to educate students to become critical thinkers regardless of where the country leans politically from year to year.

“The title may be a little playful,” Leigh said, “but I can’t think of a better skill set to teach our students than to not take things at face value. It’s valuable really for all consumers of news and media.”

 In the coming semesters, Banville and Leigh would like to expand the number of students who can take the course, but they want to keep class sizes small enough to foster two-way dialogue that respects other points of view.

Teaching such a course requires discussion of the difference between recognizing BS and “calling” it. The latter takes fortitude.

And that title?

Banville said he wanted a course name that “hit” students upside the head, but even he struggled at times with Calling Bullshit.

“When I was filling out the paperwork to start the course, I kept thinking I can’t believe I am submitting this form, and I even used an asterisk in place of the ‘i’ at first,” he recalled. “I was waiting for someone to push back, and no one did.

“Yeah, the name is provocative,” he said, “but information literacy is incredibly important to society and our democracy.”

Several years ago, I bought and thoroughly enjoyed a little book published by Princeton University Press and written by Harry Frankfort, a noted moral philosopher. It was titled “On Bullshit.” In it, Frankfurt explored bullshit and the related concepts of humbug and lying, and distinguished among them.

Courses like this one, that help students develop critical thinking skills, are increasingly important in a world where so much “information” should not be taken at face value. That said, there are people who–for a variety of reasons–are especially vulnerable to so-called “fake news.” One recent study found that some people have an especially difficult time rejecting misinformation.

Asked to rate a fictitious person on a range of character traits, people who scored low on a test of cognitive ability continued to be influenced by damaging information about the person even after they were explicitly told the information was false. The study is significant because it identifies what may be a major risk factor for vulnerability to fake news.

The study found older adults to be especially vulnerable to fake news. Lack of vulnerability  correlated highly with education–presumably, because education helps people develop “meta-cognitive skills.”

Like the ability to call bullshit…..


Threats, Bribes And The GOP

The shocking acquittal of Ken Paxton in Texas despite  what the Washington Post accurately called “mountains of damning evidence” should have been predictable.

Why do I say that? Because we’ve had other signs of the thuggery that has become deliberate Republican strategy. A few weeks ago, Yoel Roth highlighted that strategy in an opinion piece for the New York Times. Roth was formerly the head of “trust and safety” at Twitter–and one of those who made the call to ban Trump from Twitter. He says that nothing prepared him for what followed.

Backed by fans on social media, Mr. Trump publicly attacked me. Two years later, following his acquisition of Twitter and after I resigned my role as the company’s head of trust and safety, Elon Musk added fuel to the fire. I’ve lived with armed guards outside my home and have had to upend my family, go into hiding for months and repeatedly move.

This isn’t a story I relish revisiting. But I’ve learned that what happened to me wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t just personal vindictiveness or “cancel culture.” It was a strategy — one that affects not just targeted individuals like me, but all of us, as it is rapidly changing what we see online.

Roth’s essay detailed a campaign of online harassment that lasted months. Twitter users demanded that he be fired, jailed or killed. And it had the desired effect on those who were watching.

Private individuals — from academic researchers to employees of tech companies — are increasingly the targets of lawsuits, congressional hearings and vicious online attacks. These efforts, staged largely by the right, are having their desired effect: Universities are cutting back on efforts to quantify abusive and misleading information spreading online. Social media companies are shying away from making the kind of difficult decisions my team did when we intervened against Mr. Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. Platforms had finally begun taking these risks seriously only after the 2016 election. Now, faced with the prospect of disproportionate attacks on their employees, companies seem increasingly reluctant to make controversial decisions, letting misinformation and abuse fester in order to avoid provoking public retaliation.

In Texas, those of us following the Paxton impeachment can be forgiven for expecting a conviction–after all, the charges were brought by the Republican-dominated House, the witnesses were all Republican whistleblowers who had worked for Paxton, and the evidence of his corruption was overwhelming.

There are media reports that Republican Senators received very explicit threats of violence if they voted to convict. But according to the Washington Post, those threats were also accompanied by the other part of what we now understand to be standard GOP strategy: bribery.

That the fix was in for the attorney general in the Senate probably should have been apparent back in July. That’s when a campaign finance report revealed that a pro-Paxton political action committee, known as the Defend Texas Liberty PAC, had donated $1 million and made an additional $2 million loan to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who would preside over the impeachment trial.

Yes, you read that right: The person acting as judge took $3 million from the defendant’s deep-pocketed allies. Was it any wonder that only two Republicans in the Senate, where the lieutenant governor serves as president of the chamber, voted to convict?

According to the Texas Monthly, the big money folks who funded the bribe are the same evangelical Texas billionaires who are funding the state’s voucher campaign. Make of that what you will….

The Post article traced the devolution of Texas politics from the relatively genteel, often bipartisan Republicans of the Bush era into the hard-right fanaticism that gave Lone Star voters Ted Cruz and the assortment of corrupt culture warriors who currently run the state.

And now–in the only good news to emerge from this fiasco–the Texas GOP is preparing to eat its own.

Paxton’s far-right forces are now promising all-out warfare on the Republican House members — starting with Speaker Dade Phelan — who tried to remove the attorney general from office. And with Paxton supporter Donald Trump likely to be at the top of the ticket next year, you’d have to give them excellent odds of prevailing.

The rot extends far beyond Texas. So here we are, a good facsimile of a banana republic.

MAGA Republicans are a distinct minority of Americans and they know it–so they are willing to ignore more and more “rules of the game” in order to stay in power.  If vote suppression, dark money and “flooding the zone” prove inadequate to the task, then they’ll move to threats of violence accompanied by outright bribery.

I won’t be surprised if the Texas Speaker wakes up one morning with a horse’s head in his bed…..


Exceeding My Expectations

I recently ran across a cartoon showing a couple of shipwreck survivors heading toward two small islands– one with palm trees, the other with an erupting volcano. One of the castaways asked the other “which one should we choose?”

The 2024 Presidential election in a nutshell. Even someone who found that first island  unappealing would have to be nuts to choose the one spewing volcanic ash. (I still can’t get my head around the millions of presumably uninformed or deranged Americans who cast ballots for volcanic ash in 2020…)

But here’s the thing: lots of people plan to vote Biden because they recognize that a vote for Trump is a vote for certain disaster. That reasoning–while sound–simply ignores the fact that Biden has been a transformative, progressive President. I loved Barack Obama, but fair is fair: Biden has accomplished far more.

I’ve previously shared  my middle son’s observation that Biden is the first person he’s voted for who vastly exceeded his expectations.

I’d attribute the mismatch between performance and public perception to lackluster oratory, except that people voted for Trump, whose pronouncements are word salads showcasing his third-grade vocabulary.

A few pundits have begun to address the persistent lack of recognition of Biden’s considerable governing skills. The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland was one. As he began,

The tragedy of Joe Biden is that people see his age, his frailty and his ailing poll numbers and they miss the bigger story. Which is that his has been a truly consequential presidency, even a transformational one. In less than three years, he has built a record that should unify US progressives, including those on the radical left, and devised an economic model to inspire social democratic parties the world over, including here in Britain.

As Freedland writes, making the case for “Bidenism” isn’t hard.

Top of the list is, characteristically, something that sounds boring but is of enormous significance: the Inflation Reduction Act, passed last year. That seemingly technocratic piece of legislation actually achieves two epochal goals. First, it hastens the day the US makes the break from fossil fuels – by making clean energy not only the morally superior option for both industry and consumers, but the financially superior one too.

It does that through a massive raft of tax breaks, subsidies and incentives all designed to encourage the production of wind turbines, solar panels, ever improving battery technology, geothermal plants and the like, along with tax credits aimed at making electric cars irresistible even to those middle-American consumers more concerned about their wallets than the burning planet.

Those who understand the threat posed by climate change–everyone from environmental activists to Goldman Sachs–has hailed the act as a “gamechanger.”

But the second goal of the legislation is almost as significant. Biden insisted that this surge in green manufacturing would happen inside the US, thereby reviving industrial towns and cities in decline since the 1980s. It is US factories that are getting the subsidies to build all this clean tech – alongside an earlier, huge package of infrastructure spending – restoring jobs to workers who had long been written off.

Bidenomics resurrects Democratic principles discarded by Bill Clinton: an activist state making serious public investments in manufacturing;”muscular regulation” of corporations; and encouragement of unionized labour.

Freedland reminds us that securing passage of this transformative legislation was remarkable, given a Senate then split 50-50 between the parties.

A new book by Franklin Foer, The Last Politician, describes how Biden, whose hands were already full with the Covid pandemic and the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection, was not content simply to be a caretaker manager, troubleshooting crises. Instead, “he set out to transform the country.”

The result is that Biden has “redirected the paradigm” of US economic life in a way that will affect Americans “for a generation”. While Obama and Clinton were “deferential to markets”, says Foer, Biden has reversed “the neoliberal consensus” in place since the Ronald Reagan era.

Biden insists–correctly–that “capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism. It’s exploitation,” and as a result, his administration is resurrecting anti-trust enforcement.  Foer writes that, “As a matter of substance, he is the most transformational president since Reagan.”

Internationally, Biden is credited with bringing stability after the chaos and dictator-coddling of the Trump years and, especially, for building and maintaining a western alliance in support of Ukraine as it defends itself against Russian imperialism. Others admire his handling of China: robust, without crossing the line where a cold war turns hot.

Freedland says Biden campaigned in “reassuring prose,”  but has governed in “radical poetry.”

Age isn’t all negative. Coupled with intellect and experience, it allows time for the development of skills. It allows people like Joe Biden to exceed our expectations.

Intentional Amnesia

I recently saw a cartoon that asked a very telling question: “If ignorance is bliss, why are so many Americans unhappy?”

Good question. Given the extent of Americans’ ignorance–of civics, of science, of history–if ignorance really was bliss, we’d all be on cloud nine….

Ignorance defined as a lack of knowledge is one thing; intentional ignorance is something darker. A lot of what Americans “know” simply isn’t so, and that isn’t due to inadvertence.

It’s intentional.

Jennifer Rubin recently interviewed Robert P. Jones, the chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute. The interview  focused on one of the causes of American “amnesia” about episodes in our national history–and the fact that the perpetuation of  amnesia about the atrocities committed against Black people and Native Americans has been intentional.

Jones began by recounting the omissions in his own Southern Baptist education.

My formative education was in the Jackson Public School system and at my local Baptist church and Mississippi College, both institutions affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. I graduated at the top of my class in both educational institutions and attended Sunday school every week. While I learned at church about the pious lives of early Baptist leaders, I was never taught that the word “Southern” in our denomination’s name was a reference to our forebears’ commitment to making chattel slavery compatible with the gospel. While I learned about Confederate General Robert E. Lee at my high school, home of “the rebels,” I was taught virtually nothing about important civil rights activists such as Medgar Evers, who lived and was gunned down by a White, churchgoing Episcopalian just 9 miles from my childhood home.

My college’s mascot was “the Choctaws,” yet, I was taught nothing about the genocide and forced removal of members of the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Creek tribes from the land on which the college sits. It is a testimony to the power of white supremacy that such histories could remain suppressed with the evidence of the crimes kept so close at hand.

Jones notes that America has struggled with a “fundamental contradiction.” Our philosophical framework is that of a democratic society, but the country was built on a foundation of mass racial violence. The conflict between our ideals and our actions has been “papered over” with what he terms “an audacious religious claim”– the Doctrine of Discovery, the claim “that this nation was intended by God to be a promised land for European Christians.”

When social movements and other voices threaten to expose these contradictions, White Americans have acted powerfully in their defense. After the Civil War, for example, the United Daughters of the Confederacy organized to build their version of American history into granite, bronze and into public school textbooks. More recently, we’ve seen similar reactions following the retreat of White students into Christian segregation academies following school desegregation. And in the wake of the election of our first African American president and the Black Lives Matter movement, we’re experiencing another desperate wave of willful amnesia and historical denial.

Jones insists that confronting this history is in the self-interest of contemporary White Christian churches–churches he characterizes as unhealthy.

Centuries of complicity in violence and oppression, followed by denial and repression, have taken their toll. Across the board, attendance is dramatically declining, seminaries are closing or merging, Christian colleges are struggling, and churches are facing widespread sexual abuse scandals.

Jones counts himself among the Christians who are struggling to keep their faith despite what they recognize as their co-religionists intentional refusal to confront the past.  When Rubin asks him how he is reconciling his current understandings with the church of his youth, he responds:

I’m still thinking, writing, and struggling to hang onto my Christian faith. But it was, ironically, the experience of going to a Southern Baptist seminary that confirmed — for me and many others — that it was not going to be possible to live a life of integrity within the denominational boundaries of my childhood. During those years, it became clear to me that most White evangelical denominations were already in bed with Christian right politics. Even before this led to White evangelicals’ devastating marriage to Donald Trump and the MAGA movement, I knew that was a union I couldn’t be a part of.

I’d never heard of the “Doctrine of Discovery,” but it has clearly influenced a significant part of the culture–and not for the better.

America could use more Christians like Jones and a lot fewer MAGA Christian Nationalists.