Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Debunking and Rebunking: People Can't Keep Big Secrets

Governments are, as a rule, secretive. We all know this. Though hardly unique, the U.S. government has become pathologically secretive ... those who can decipher the cryptic language of the annual "US Information Security Oversight Office Report" estimate that "the US is producing some 560 million pages of classified information a year." Of course, it ain't cheap: we spend between an estimated $11-$13 billion per year -- not including the (classified, i.e. secret) portions of budgets of the CIA, NSA, Pentagon, etc. -- to maintain classified data. And for that staggering sum, they do seem to manage to keep quite a bit of pertinent information from us plebeians ... at least, if each new revelation is any indication.

Not only that, but they lie to us about what they are keeping from us. Through bitter experience, we have learned that, even if our leaders go on TV and emphatically deny that they are doing something, there's a very good chance that we'll discover that yes, they are in fact doing that exact thing. They prosecute and persecute journalists and whistle-blowers in record numbers, as a matter of standard policy. Some of the world's most famous fugitives and prisoners are guilty primarily (or exclusively) of revealing these secrets, kept from the public for decades or more, many of which reveal the aforementioned bald-faced lies.

And yet, if you've ever looked into government secrecy, deep politics, or those big political events which inspire so much conspiratorial theorizing, you've likely heard -- possibly employed -- the argument that "people can't keep secrets." Especially not big ones, say for instance, vast conspiracies and cover-ups. It's a classic, used far and wide among people who are, quite naturally, skeptical of wild tales about vast shadowy plots unfolding under their very noses.

People are terrible at keeping secrets, the argument goes ... and so "large conspiracies" are doomed from the get-go by a profusion of loose lips. Someone would inevitably talk, and once the cat was out of the bag, the gig would be up -- the conspirators would all go to jail, and that would be that. All neatly wrapped up before the end credits roll.

Thus, any theory which posits the existence of some of kind "vast shadowy plot" must necessarily be false, because the core premise is so obviously absurd -- all of those hundreds or thousands (or hundreds of thousands!) of people needed to pull off something so big couldn't possibly keep quiet forever!

The problem is that reality contradicts this truism almost everywhere we look. If it were true that people couldn't keep secrets, there would be no point to all that classification ... the very concept of  "Security Clearances" and "Non-Disclosure Agreements" rely upon some confidence that a person can go for more than 47 hours without drunkenly blurting out every detail at the corner bar. The very fact that the government is able to issue Top Secret clearances and expect any national security secrets to be kept shows that quite a few people can, indeed, keep secrets -- big ones, in fact.

Likewise, business trade secrets and corporate espionage simply wouldn't exist if people were so tragically bad at keeping secrets as "conventional wisdom" would have us believe. There would be no reason to have anyone sign an NDA if there was no expectation that they would honor it. And of course, organized crime relies strongly on large groups of people being able to keep big and important secrets, often in spite of the Authorities pressuring them to "squeal" -- a big part of why we have "conspiracy laws" to begin with, the FBI couldn't get anyone to squeal on the mob bosses. We've had some success in prosecuting individual mobsters and even breaking up select operations, but the phenomenon continues -- because people can keep big secrets, especially when their life literally depends on it.
Actual mobster

And at risk of belaboring the point, it's worth pointing out that individuals can keep their own personal secrets as well. Some people can conceal their sexual identity to the point that close friends and family are surprised when they "come out" as having a different orientation than they have affected for years. Is this because they kept the secret so amazingly well, that no one in their life had any idea? As we will see, it's nowhere near that simple.

The Secret's Out ... But Who Gives a Shit?

Alright, so like most truisms, "people can't keep big secrets" sounds good as a pithy aphorism or meme, but really doesn't go very far in explaining how the world actually works. If nothing else, it oversimplifies the issue to the point of meaninglessness ... yes, many (but not all) people are bad at keeping secrets ... and yes, many (but not all) otherwise sound conspiracies are blown by the indiscretion of would-be conspirators. Yet somehow, some things -- even important things -- remain secret.

Which brings us to the next property of secrets that makes them deceptively easy to keep ... like any other piece of information, secrets can be denied, ignored, marginalized, falsely "debunked," or otherwise obfuscated, even if they aren't perfectly "kept" by those who know them. Public apathy, media bias, partisan ideology, and other obstructions to information can keep a secret as effectively as locking it away in an underground vault.

One needn't look far for examples. Unless or until a particular "secret" catches the attention of some form of media with great reach (usually broadcast or social), it will languish in obscurity, often in spite of the efforts of some to spread it.

Did you know that Donald Trump is being sued for raping a 12-year-old girl in a case that's palpably linked to a known pedophile ring? Or that Hillary Clinton used her power at the State Department to set up shady arms deals with Clinton Foundation donors? Or that the CIA has admitted that they lied to the Warren Commission to cover-up their relationship with JFK's assassin? Or that a CIA agent gave a deathbed confession (taped by his son) about his part in the assassination? Or that the FBI had foreknowledge of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center? Or that the 9/11 Commission was so convinced that the Pentagon was lying to them that they considered asking the DOJ to open an investigation?

Don't those things all seem important, like they should be part of the discussion when we talk about those people and events? But are they trending on Twitter, or filling up the news chimeras on the 24-hour Blather Networks? Are they even part of the "conventional wisdom" about those topics? No they are not.

Most people are blissfully unaware of the above information[1] -- and vastly more to boot! -- because information doesn't travel perfectly throughout a society, even once it's been "revealed" (i.e. no longer secret). Even with broadcast media and the internet distributing it around the globe instantaneously upon publication ... even with automatic translation services theoretically making it available across language barriers. Between the studious avoidance and/or successful stigmatization of those topics by the mainstream media, the raw deluge of information (including heaping helpings of mis- and disinformation) now available on the Internet, and the general unwillingness of large portions of the public to accept them, they are effectively secret to most people, even though they are reliably documented facts in the public/historical record.

In short, a "secret" must be believed by the hearer in order to be spread, and various forms of information bias make that far from a sure thing. Especially when it comes to controversial secrets, there's a very good chance that, even if "someone talks," many people simply won't hear it.

Moon-Bats and Tinfoil Hats

On top of the tendency for a lot of information to slip between the cracks or get lost in the deluge, because it doesn't hit the zeitgeist in just the right way to make the Evening News or Top Twitter Trends, there is another factor that helps keep spilled secrets from spreading. Most people have the pronounced and demonstrated tendency (which I have bemoaned before) to dismiss out-of-hand things that they don't want to hear, and denounce those who speak of these things as idiots, lunatics, or heretics. (The last not usually literally anymore, but the usage is the same: "Someone who doesn't believe as I do, and whose ideas are therefor dangerous.")

Or, of course, Conspiracy Theorists.

This epistemic gag reflex operates on the same kind of truthiness that the basic premise ("people can't keep secrets") does -- not on rationality or critical analysis, but on intuition and gut reaction. It doesn't feel right that such important things were unknown to you; if they were so important, you should have heard something about them from an authoritative source. Therefor, they must not be true, and anyone asserting them must therefor be lying, misinformed, or crazy. Probably all three, the stupid wingnut.

"Serious Thinkers" lecture us about the mental illnesses and fallacies of thought that cause "otherwise rational people" to "buy into conspiracy theories." It's useless to try and talk to them about their insane beliefs, because they have a deep-seated psychological need to believe in these things. There is no reason to even consider the possibility that anything they say is valid, or even coherent. The only possible answers are condescension, ridicule, shouting them down, having them removed from your presence, or failing all of those, plugging your ears and repeating, "LALALALALALALALA!! I'M NOT LISTENING TO YOU!! LALALALALALALALAA!!"

Longtime "conspiracy researchers"[2] such as myself have learned to accept that most people will respond this way about virtually anything they don't already believe or want to believe[3], right up until it comes to them from a source that they already like and trust. I've written a little about this point in the context of some well-documented (if not well-known) government cover-ups; such moments of dissonance reduction among the general populace tend to present the best opportunity for real movement forward on government transparency (the one and only real cure for conspiracy theories, as well as for the incidental corruption and odd actual conspiracy that might be uncovered), and are coming more and more frequently in the age of the Internet.

And yet, there are still matters of great importance, that come as a surprise to a great many people. Not because they are kept under such tight wraps that not a trace leaks out, but because they are kept quiet enough -- by denial, ridicule, and smug silence -- that they are lost in the din.

Drinking From the Fire-Hose

"The din" being our next important point about the nature of secrets, and the keeping thereof. Information overload: it's such a common understanding these days that it almost goes without saying. So we won't spend too much time on it here -- but it does bear mentioning in this context.

There is such a cacophony of voices, from "sober news outlets" to nakedly partisan echo chambers to fringe ideologues of every stripe. A "secret revelation" that doesn't manage to crack the mainstream media, or blow up on social media, is very likely to go unheard by the majority of people. Even those who might be receptive to it, either because it fits neatly into their pre-existing belief system, or because they're genuinely curious souls, might never chance to come across it in the wilderness of the web.


Take the 28 pages redacted from the Joint Congressional report on the 9/11 attacks. Until they hit the mainstream media a few days ago, the main advocate for their release -- U.S. Senator Bob Graham, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2001, and co-chair of the Joint Congressional investigation which produced the partially-redacted report -- was relegated largely to alternative media. Even with an eminently qualified advocate, these classified pages (and thousands more, according to Sen. Graham) have escaped the attention of the mainstream for a decade and a half.

If you're still curious to test this theory, see how many of the following U.S. government whistle-blowers of the last decade and a half you have heard of (and what they revealed), and how many you have to Google (assuming you're curious enough to do so): Sibel Edmonds, Joe Darby, Russel Tice, Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou, Jeffrey Sterling. This list isn't anywhere near exhaustive, but it's illustrative ... just because someone "blows the whistles" doesn't mean that anyone hears them. Incidental polling demonstrates that many people don't even know who the most famous whistle-blower of modern times is.

So, between public apathy, orthodox thinking, and information overload, it's not hard to understand how it is that "exposed secrets" languish in obscurity, even when someone "blows the whistle." And of course, it's no help that a healthy chunk of "conspiracy theories" are paranoid bunk -- reductionist, reactionary, and/or ideologically-driven excuses to blame the problems of the world on your favorite Bad Guy. Far from justifying or even excusing a hand-wave dismissal of any and all "conspiratorial thinking," however, this makes sorting out the verifiable facts both more difficult, and more important.

Whistle-Blower's Reward

Another important question to consider: what incentives does an individual member of a "vast conspiracy" have to spill the secret, and what incentives does he have to keep it? People respond to individual motivations, not general truisms, so what could motivate someone who was part of a conspiracy? Can they expect to blow the whistle and suddenly be treated as heroes?

To answer these questions realistically, rather than in the abstract, let's examine a few recent cases where a whistle-blower has revealed verifiable wrongdoing that was being kept secret under the auspices of National Security. Edward Snowden is a fugitive; Chelsea (nee Bradley) Manning is in prison, under conditions described by the U.N. as torture; Jeffrey Sterling was prosecuted under the Espionage Act, and had his life destroyed; Sibel Edmonds was slapped with multiple gag orders, fired from the FBI, and threatened. Even Daniel Ellsberg (of Pentagon Papers fame) was charged under the Espionage Act, wiretapped, and allegedly even targeted for "neutralization" (almost certainly assassination) by "former" CIA agents E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy. It was the over-reach of those very agents, breaking into his psychiatrist's office to get dirt with which to discredit him, that eventually turned the trial (and history) in his favor.

So as it turns out, no, whistle-blowers are not treated as heroes -- at least, not for a few decades, and then only if they chanced into incontrovertible evidence of their righteousness. They are persecuted, prosecuted, gagged, and locked up. And that's assuming that they aren't simply ignored, dismissed, and/or ferociously attacked as "conspiracy nuts."

Smoke, Mirrors, and Tradecraft

Back to those 560 million pages of classified material per year, and the annual $11-13 billion spent on keeping their contents secret.We know that the seal isn't perfect, simply from the fact that we are talking about whistle-blowers and what they have revealed. At the same time, we know that the estimated 15,000 documents leaked by Edward Snowden is a tiny drop in that vast ocean of secrets -- less than 0.0001% of just a single year's worth of classified documents. So clearly, the leak is a pinhole, not a gushing torrent, and many, many millions of pages of secrets remain.

In fact, it's the job of counter-intelligence (i.e. "National Security") organizations to do just that: keep secrets. And while they are far from perfect, they have vast resources at their disposal. They have the cover and authority of the government, and indeed use that cover to keep secrets from (and spy on) even the elements of the government who are tasked with overseeing their operations.

A few of the simpler techniques are referred to as Compartmentalization (or Compartmentation), Useful Idiots, and Plausible Deniability. Playing into the natural obstructions to information flow discussed above, counter-intelligence operations use those and other "tradecraft" to make big secrets harder to learn or reveal.

Compartmentalization is basically the old "Need to Know Basis." Each department, agent, or cell knows only what they need in order to accomplish their part of the job, and specifically don't know about the whole plan, who the ringleaders are, etc. This keeps them from asking too many questions, and if they get compromised, they genuinely don't know enough to ruin the rest of the operation or turn in the core conspirators.

It's also quite common for many otherwise honest people to simply fail to see or acknowledge crimes and wrongdoing within their organization or group. They aren't conspirators, per se, because they were never "in on it" ... they're not even consciously participating in the cover-up. They're what are called "Useful Idiots," who simply keep their "institutional blinders" on and repeat the lies that they were told, because they genuinely believe them. The term was originally used (first by Soviet propagandists, and then by Americans and others) to refer to the people who blindly defend their leaders, while refusing to see the atrocities that they commit, but can  just as easily be applied to those who uncritically endorse and repeat cover stories, "official accounts," and propaganda.

And Plausible Deniability, well, we've all seen that in action. At its most infantile, is sounds like, "I don't recall," "That's not my department," "It wasn't my fault," "We can neither confirm nor deny," and so on ... but it also encompasses more sophisticated dodges such as arranging "cover stories" (or "intelligence legends" in the parlance of the trade) for what operatives must do, whether that includes false identities, excuses for international travel, alibis, red herrings, or just good ol' fashioned smoke-and-mirrors misdirection.

We should not be surprised, then, when we find that the organizations whose job it is to lie and keep secrets, have lied to us, and kept secrets from us.

Origin Story

Which brings us to the delightfully ironic cherry perched atop our Kafkaesque sundae of secrecy. If you've heard this argument before, "people can't keep big secrets, so large conspiracies are impossible," it shouldn't surprise you. Again, it's a classic, a common Truism among Conspiracy Debunkers and supporters of the various "official stories."

Even if you've used the argument, you can be forgiven for believing it ... but before you use it again, you should know a little something about its history. In one of those classic twists that Real Life likes to throw at us, the common usage of this argument -- and indeed of the term "conspiracy theorist" as a dismissal of a certain viewpoint -- is apparently the result of a CIA media manipulation (i.e. propaganda) campaign. CIA Document #1035-960, "RE: Concerning Criticism of the Warren Report," was an internal memo (the original was allegedly marked "DESTROY WHEN NO LONGER NEEDED" ...oops...), circulated in 1967 and declassified in 1977, which contains the following directive:

"To employ propaganda assets to [negate] and refute the attacks of the critics. Book reviews and feature articles are particularly appropriate for this purpose. The unclassified attachments to this guidance should provide useful background material for passing to assets. Our ploy should point out, as applicable, that the critics are (I) wedded to theories adopted before the evidence was in, (II) politically interested, (III) financially interested, (IV) hasty and inaccurate in their research, or (V) infatuated with their own theories."

Later, it gives this talking point for those "propaganda assets" to use:

"Conspiracy on the large scale often suggested would be impossible to conceal in the United States, esp. since informants could expect to receive large royalties, etc."

Let the irony soak in for a moment. Along with several other of the most common talking points used by Conspiracy Debunkers, the argument that "people can't keep big secrets, so conspiracies can't be real" was popularized as a CIA propaganda talking point ... and they've kept that fact largely secret (i.e. unknown to the public at large) for a pretty long time, even in spite of the proof being declassified 40 years ago.


[1] I tend to bring them up a lot, so theoretical regular readers would have heard of at least some of them.

[2] Okay, I will own it: I'm a conspiracy theorist. A "card-carrying conspiracy theorist," even.

Oh wait, this is my Erisian Pope card.

[3] On the other hand, it's notoriously easy to get people to believe what they already want to believe, often without any need for evidence.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Debunking and Rebunking: 28 Pages of What, Exactly?

You've probably already heard about them ... at least if you watch 60 Minutes, NBC News, or Fox News, read the New York Times, Washington Post, or AP news feed, or listen to NPR (not to mention scads of international and almost-mainstream online publications that are chiming in) ... so what's the deal with those classified 28 pages of the 9/11 report?

If you, like so many, are at a loss to understand what it means that the government covered up information regarding possible high-level Saudi involvement in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, take heart. There are many, many sources which would be happy to explain ... The Independent (UK) offers Saudi Arabia, 9/11, and what we know about the secret papers that could ignite a diplomatic war ... 9/11 widow Kristen Breitweiser (one of the famous Jersey Girls who were instrumental in the formation of the 9/11 Commission) explains in the Huffington Post that the 9/11 Commission Did Not Exonerate Saudis ... Slate offers a blog entitled Your Guide to the 28 Classified Pages About Saudi Arabia and 9/11 That Obama Might Release ... the Wall Street Journal posted their own Q&A: Explaining 28 Pages, Saudi Arabia, and 9/11 Hijackers ... and (the only one which I personally endorse), Russ Baker of WhoWhatWhy.org published 9/11, the Saudis and Those 28 Pages - A WhoWhatWhy Backgrounder. All are worth a read for the curious, who will no doubt note with interest the similarities, as well as the contradictions, between them.

As someone who reads, thinks, and writes a lot about conspiracies, real and imagined, I feel moved to offer my own humble analysis[1], though it will be somewhat unlike those mentioned above. My focus will be on comparing the overall 9/11 cover-up to similar points and events in the JFK cover-up. This comparison, while not perfect, I think is illustrative of how the government responds to situations in which they have purposely mislead the people, and yet successfully prosecuted a campaign of propaganda to marginalize those who questioned the official story (referred to here and elsewhere as "conspiracy theorists").

The JFK Cover-Up

Short of specific allegations of an "inside job" or other high-level conspiracy to assassinate John F. Kennedy, it is no longer in doubt that the CIA lied to the Warren Commission on several specific points, nor that the FBI investigation of the assassination was almost comically incompetent. For those who still doubt that such a cover-up took place, I present the following overview of its discovery and documentation, sourced from mainstream historical and journalistic accounts, and in particular, documents declassified as result of the Freedom of Information Act and the 1992 JFK Records Act.

Although the Warren Commission to investigate JFK's assassination had its persistent critics from the start, the majority of the public didn't demand another investigation until the Watergate hearings and the subsequent Church Committee hearings revealed that the CIA had lied to the Commission. These lies almost certainly occurred with the complicity and knowledge (if not under the direction) of Warren commissioner and ex-CIA head (fired by JFK after the Bay of Pigs fiasco), Allen Dulles ... and recently declassified internal CIA documents have revealed that then-CIA director John McCone also knew that he was lying under oath, in spite of previous claims that he had been misinformed by his subordinates.

Among the things that they lied about were the assassination programs targeting Castro; the CIA recruitment of Sam Giancana, Johnny Roselli, and other mobsters to assist in the assassination of Castro; Oswald's extensive CIA files, who had been in their sights at least since he served as a radar operator at Atsugi Airbase (where the CIA's U-2 spy planes that made top secret flights over China and the Soviet Union were based), and then rather flamboyantly defected to the Soviet Union (by marching into the American embassy in Moscow to renounce his citizenship, and announcing to them that he intended to give the Russians all military secrets that were known to him); and Oswald's repeated "coincidental" contact with CIA operations and operatives in New Orleans, Dallas, and Mexico City after his repatriation to the United States.

The House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA, 1976) was set up in response to these revelations and resulting public pressure; the conclusion of the HSCA was that the president's death was most likely the "result of a conspiracy," though they couldn't name the conspirators other than "elements" within the Mafia, intelligence community, and Anti-Castro Cuban movement. Several of their most important witnesses (including the above-mentioned mobsters, Sam Giancana and Johnny Roselli, as well as a White Russian oil-man and friend of the Bush family, George de Mohrenschildt) were murdered shortly before they were scheduled to testify. The investigation was shut down by political pressure well before they were able to follow any leads to their conclusion. Watergate fervor had died down by then, and little else was said or done until the early 90s.

Oliver Stone's "JFK" lead to more public pressure, which resulted in the 1992 JFK Records Act, requiring the declassification of all JFK-related material by October 2017. As I write this, it's early 2016, and they still have a whole lot of it classified and redacted (estimated 40,000 with portions redacted, including 3,600 pages never seen by the public at all) ... but the documents released so far fill in the edges of a picture of the CIA's detailed knowledge of Oswald, their efforts to conceal that and other information from both the WC and the HSCA, and to confound investigation into their files about him. Former Army intelligence analyst John Newman even wrote a book about what he considers to be the "Smoking File," which shows that the CIA was watching Oswald in the weeks and days leading up to the assassination, and that they moved and altered records after the assassination to conceal this fact. Even with the deadline for release next year, researchers aren't holding their breath for the government to release the final pages that they claim are relevant to the assassination. The evidence seen by the HSCA, accounting for estimated tens of thousands more pages, remains sealed until 2029, due to a non-disclosure agreement that committee chair Robert Blakey made with the CIA in order to gain access to their files.

"Smoking guns" for a CIA/Mafia conspiracy to kill the president? Nope, not unless it's in those last 40,000 pages ... but so far, no "assassination order" memos or official confessions (not on the Company letterhead, anyway).

But ... absolute proof, from the government's own secret files, of a cover-up. At the very least, a cover-up of "who knew what, and when." If not a smoking gun, then at least a profusion of smoke and mirrors ... and if we have learned anything about the CIA, it's that where there is smoke....

....there is E. Howard Hunt.

The 9/11 Cover-Up

Flash forward a few more years, and a bunch of Saudi nationals crash hijacked planes into buildings, spawning an investigation similar to the Warren Commission, and from there, a host of critics and conspiracy theories.

It took a lot of pressure by the victims' families and the public to even make the 9/11 Commission happen in the first place; the Bush Administration fought the idea at every step, through to its conclusion. Before they caved to the pressure and named Henry Kissinger to chair the commission (an idea that was soundly rejected by the civilized world), there was a separate, joint Congressional investigation into the attacks. This investigation was chaired by Democratic Senator Bob Graham, who was also the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time. One entire chapter (28 pages long) was redacted from their report, allegedly because the information would jeopardize national security. After the Bush Administration's 9/11 Commission, Senator Graham wrote a book about his time as the Senate Intelligence Committee Chair, and spoke a little about the content of the 28 pages -- which he alleged outlined a case that the hijackers received finances and assistance from elements within the Saudi government.

After a little mainstream news coverage at the time, the 28 Pages, and advocacy for their declassification (by Sen. Graham and others, including the "Jersey Girls" and other 9/11 survivors), slipped mostly into obscurity. They popped up in the alternative media every so often, and even a few times in almost-mainstream (mostly lefty) outlets like PBS News Hour and DemocracyNow. Obama had allegedly promised during his campaign to release them, but has yet to do so. They have been moved back into the spotlight recently by legislation that's picking up steam, to allow the 9/11 families to sue the Saudi government for their part in the attacks ... but also supposedly by the tension between the Saudi royals and the Obama administration, which allegedly stems from Obama's dealings with Iran. The Saudis have threatened economic reprisal if the law is passed, although in the past they have said that they welcome the declassification of the 28 pages, so that they could refute the allegations directly.

Speculation about their content is, of course, both rampant and varied. Setting aside the most wild-eyed guesses, one lawmaker who has has read them said, "It challenges you to rethink everything." Phillip Zelikow, 9/11 Commission chief of staff[2], was tasked with following up the information contained therein, and calls it “an agglomeration of preliminary, unvetted reports” concerning Saudi involvement. Sen. Graham, one of the authors, says:
I believe that there is material in the 28 pages and the volume of other documents[3] that would indicate that there was a connection at the highest levels between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the 19 hijackers. I believe that the plot would not have occurred but for the support and protection that the hijackers were receiving primarily from Saudi Arabia.

Setting aside Zelikow's attempts to downplay their importance, the material contained within is sensitive enough for two 8-year administrations, of different political parties, to keep them secret ... and for the Saudis to apparently fear legal repercussions enough to threaten reprisal against the United States.

An HSCA Moment

Particularly astute or paranoid readers have likely already started lining up the similarities between the early years of JFK Cover-ups, and the still-adolescent field of 9/11 Cover-ups. Whatever has triggered the "Watergate Moment" that has brought the idea of 9/11 truth back into the mainstream -- whether the Snowden revelations, the deepening quagmire in the Middle East, or the machinations of shadowy power players, the "Saga of 9/11" has reached a point that is very similar to the public outcry and political clamoring that lead to the formation of the House Select Committee on Assassinations. 

Hindsight being what it is, we can look back and try to figure out what that tells us about this particular revolution of the historical merry-go-round ... will the calls for a new investigation into 9/11 lead to new revelations of duplicity and malfeasance within the government? Almost certainly. If history is any indicator, virtually any serious look into the nuts and bolts of government at that level will reveal previously unimagined depths of corruption and double-dealing. (If you don't believe me, I can happily provide you with some mainstream news and encyclopedia articles that will sour your milk for many breakfasts to come.)

Will it end with all stones being turned over, and the Final Truth being revealed? If history is any guide, not by a longshot. We're still a year away from getting the last of the material that was (or should have been) available to the Warren Commission ... and we're over a decade out from seeing the materials that lead the HSCA to conclude that JFK was killed as the result of a conspiracy. As a Government Cover-up, 9/11 hasn't even shed its training wheels.


[1] I can feign some humility here, because I've already sated myself on gloating about having talked about these things for years.

[2] Author Philip Shenon outlines Zelikow's uncomfortably close ties with the Bush Administration, and formative influence on the commission's findings in, "The Commission."

[3] "We talk about the 28 pages, they are important. But there are thousands of other documents which relate to the role of the Saudis in 9/11, which have also been withheld." -Sen. Graham on CNN

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Debunking and Rebunking: It's Time We Had That Talk, America

My fellow Americans, we need to talk seriously about something that's really uncomfortable for a lot of people ... something that has been with us for a long time, and isn't going away any time soon. Call it the elephant in the room, call it the crazy uncle at the dinner table, call it the corrosive whisper of the lunatic fringe.

It's a part of us, whether we like it or not, and it always has been. It's as American as Apple Pie, the Declaration of Independence, and the Statue of Liberty with an eagle perched on top ... as American as Wounded Knee, the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, and the Phoenix Program.

We need to talk about our Conspiracy Theory problem. And we need to talk like rational adults.

Just the hint of such talk can change the tone of a conversation, the atmosphere in a room or comments section, and the mental and emotional state of anyone in earshot. Otherwise rational people descend into histrionic fugue states, spouting empty talking points and thought-terminating cliches from their favorite website. It's even worse than bringing up the most dreaded Thanksgiving dinner topics -- politics or religion -- because many conspiracy theories include both, in a tangled web of speculation and suspicion. It's a blasphemy against good taste and common sensibility, unspeakable in polite company -- like heckling the preacher in Church, farting loudly and repeatedly in a nice restaurant, or shouting about aliens in a business meeting.

And yet, no matter where we turn, we see these offensive and unsettling theories being peddled and pushed. We're constantly being told that our political system is corrupt, and that a large chunk of our media is hopelessly biased and partisan, spouting propaganda and misinformation. That our economy is being rigged, and that our civil liberties -- along with our very democracy -- are in dire peril. These things aren't happening in a random or scatter-shot way, the theories go, but in a way that reveals a consistent motivating factor -- the corrupt politicians, and the biased media that gives them cover, all answer to the same interests. These powerful special interests rig the economy to pay out in their own favor, and promise pay-offs to those who help them.

The trouble is, we are not only fed these outrageous conspiracy theories by red-faced Info-Warriors, grainy videos on YouTube, or ranting posts on AboveTopSecret ... we are told by well-manicured talking heads, pundits and politicians on mainstream media outlets, accusing their political enemies of various crimes and immoralities. The accused, their allies, and party-aligned pundits will predictably denounce the accusations as "ridiculous conspiracy theories," and often at the same time, launch counter-accusations back at their accusers -- "We aren't the thieves and liars, They are!" The counter-accused invariably counter back, and so it goes.

Less-polished "alternative media" sources, from openly ideological to more journalistic to very nearly self-satirical, tell us similar stories of massive corruption and media bias. Even insiders and academics, who have peered at the inner workings and spent a great deal of time learning and thinking about these things, have their theories. All saying that the U.S. government and mainstream media has been corrupted by a small coalition of powerful interests, conniving and conspiring to thwart democracy for their own purposes.

Meanwhile, we find out by chilling degrees that both parties have been lying to us. At least the ones who even knew they were lying ... the rest either didn't know, and believed the lies themselves, or knew and said nothing, letting the lies stand unchallenged. They lied about spying on us, about spying on our allies, about torturing their prisoners, about their reasons to go to war in our name and with our money, about the ways in which they were prosecuting those wars. About a lot of things really. And for those reasons, and many others -- government gridlock, inflammatory partisan politics, racial injustice, social and economic inequality, general disgust with all those things -- public trust in the government is near record lows.

In such an environment, as has happened many times throughout American history, conspiracy theories flourish. Old ones pop up again, never really having died, and new strains appear, sprouting like mushrooms on mounds of bullshit after a heavy rain. When there is more bullshit -- and pretty much everyone agrees, we are hip-deep in bullshit these days -- there are more theories about it. Theories about where it came from, and what's underneath. And it's really hard to tell at a glance which ones are harmless, which are toxic, and which are perspective-changing.

And so it ever has been. Conspiracy Theory is the great unspoken zeitgeist of America (possibly of all humanity, but we're talking about America right now), the dark and chilling presence in the shadowy cellar and creaking attic of our public consciousness. It has haunted the fringes of our society since the nation's birth, rattling its chains and moaning when the wind kicks up, and occasionally fluttering into the mainstream and causing all sorts of mischief and panic.

From McCarthy and the Red Scare to Geraldo and the Satanic Panic ... from Moon Landing Hoaxers to 9-11 Truthers ... from Masonic Presidents and Founding Fathers (Washington, Franklin, Jackson, and others were Freemasons) to the Anti-Masonic Party that formed to counter their influence (fewer famous members; John Quincy Adams was one) ... from the Confederate plot to kill Lincoln and his immediate presidential successors to the Business Plot to overthrow FDR ... from COINTELPRO (the FBI's campaign of infiltration, harassment, and surveillance against the New Left) to the CIA Family Jewels (a leaked/declassified Pandora's Box of the agency's dirtier deeds, including assassination, media manipulation, and human experimentation) ... from "No Such Agency" (NSA's early nickname, due to the fact that the Agency's creation and existence were classified) to the Snowden Revelations (quasi-legal dragnet surveillance, watch-lists, and massive databases on innocent citizens).

Conspiracy theories -- and actual conspiracies -- are a part of the very fabric of America.

The very fact that you're still reading this blog is pretty suspicious...

Conspiratorial Thinking

So it can't be too surprising that Conspiracy Theory is one of America's favorite pass-times, in a way that transcends boundaries of ideology, race, class, education, and just about any other category that people get put in. It's an unspoken consensus, even if the details of the plot are different: THEY have connived and conspired, politicked and agitated, schemed and campaigned for control. THEY have greased the wheels with money, which THEY seem to have in endless abundance. THEY are very close to getting THEIR way, hence the sad state of the nation and the world, the fraying fabric of society. Only a few brave, enlightened souls know who THEY really are; everyone else lives in sheepish ignorance, enthralled by the pretty lies of All Those Other religions, ideologies, political parties, and schools of thought. (Many of which were created by THEM to enthrall the gullible.)

Don't believe me? Think of a group that's based on a specific belief-system -- a religion, a political party, a social movement, an economic ideology, even a tightly-knit professional community -- and then examine their core beliefs about why things happen the way they do. At the heart, or somewhere pivotally important (check the spleen), you will almost always find a theory (set of beliefs, assumptions, and axioms used to provide explanations for events) about a conspiracy (secret or unspoken collusion between multiple hostile actors, to accomplish something illegal or otherwise nefarious). Literally, and functionally, a conspiracy theory.

[[A note for the Truly Exceptional: Before we proceed, if you are dead certain that your beliefs are absolutely True and Correct, and that they should be excepted from the blanket statements in this essay, please remember that nothing here applies to beliefs that are True and Correct. We can all agree that the vast majority of human beliefs are fallible, based on limited human perspectives, social and cognitive biases, and imperfect understandings ... but True and Correct beliefs are infallible and unassailable, so they may be exempted from all scrutiny and criticism.

[[Of course, if you are really, really confident in your beliefs, you could -- just for fun! -- subject them to the same level of critical scrutiny and standards of judgment as you would apply to someone else's beliefs ... just to prove to yourself that yours really are True and Correct. To show yourself that they are not "above" criticism, but that they can actually stand up under serious scrutiny.

[[But you don't have to on my account.]]

Let's have a quick look at who THEY are -- what sinister interests are behind the Conspiracy Theory at the heart of some popular belief-systems?

Republicans: Easy. George Soros, the disciples of Saul Alinsky, the Liberal Media, the Gay Agenda, the International Communist Conspiracy, the Secularists, Abortionists, Tax-and-Spend Liberals, and Atheists (read: Satanists) are conspiring to ruin the True America of the Glory Days (the 50s and/or the 80s), take away our guns, and force God-fearing conservatives to bankroll a life of leisure and food-stamp lobster for a generation of lazy, entitled immigrants and welfare leeches. Don't forget Climategate! And the War on Christmas! And Hillary's Emails! BENGHAZI BENGHAZI BENGHAZI!!

Democrats: Just as easy. The Koch-topus, Sheldon Adelson, Wall Street, Halliburton, Dick Cheney (and his ventriloquy puppet, Lil' Dubya), and the 1% (or the 0.01%) have purchased our democracy wholesale; Citizens United is the receipt for that purchase. Bush and Rove stole one or two elections, and Rupert Murdoch created the Tea Party just to spite Obama. Speaking of Obama, he would have saved the country and ended poverty by now, but for those obstructionists and racists in Congress. And they hid Bush's military record, and swift-boated Kerry's! And Cheney and Bush are War Criminals!!

Libertarians: The State itself is the Conspiracy ... the Federal Reserve is the root of all evil, public education is indoctrination, and the very concepts of Taxation (morally equivalent to armed robbery) and Social Welfare (Slippery Slope to Hard-Line Stalinism) are toxic to the fundamental human freedom to live and die by the Laws of the Jungle. Anyone who seeks to force you to be part of a collective civilization is a tyrant, conspiring to do various awful things to you. (Q.v. all of history wherein governments exploited or oppressed their people.)

Greens: The Corporatocracy rules the world, and has set the foxes to regulate the hen-houses, making way for the vampiric forces of Global Capitalism to suck the Earth dry for short-term profits. Big Oil is suppressing green energy, Monsanto (who made Agent Orange) is trying to poison us with GMOs, and things like childhood vaccination and dairy pasteurization are being forced on unwilling people who just want to live like we did in the Good Ol Days, when people still died of polio and smallpox. (The latter applies as often to libertarians as to greens.)

Christians: The Conspiracy is an ad hoc coalition of the Muslims, the Satanists, the Secularists, the Atheists, and even many Christians of insufficient faith or incorrect interpretations. (And sometimes the Jews.) All working together, knowingly or unknowingly, under the guidance of the forces of Evil to thwart God. Many, maybe even most, of these poor thralls to darkness don't know what they are doing, but their sinister masters do.

Muslims: The Conspiracy is an ad hoc coalition of the Christians, the Satanists, the Secularists, the Atheists, and even many Muslims of insufficient faith or incorrect interpretations. (And usually the Jews.) All working together, knowingly or unknowingly, under the guidance of the forces of Evil to thwart God. Many, maybe even most, of these poor thralls to darkness don't know what they are doing, but their sinister masters do.

Atheists: The Conspiracy is an ad hoc coalition of the Christians, the Muslims, the New Agers, those wishy-washy Agnostics, and even many atheists of incorrect philosophies or insufficiently vocal advocacy. (And sometimes the Jews.) All working together, knowingly or unknowingly, under the guidance of Religion to thwart Scientific Progress. Many, maybe even most, of these poor thralls to superstition don't know what they are doing, but their fanatical masters do.

Alternative Media: The Mainstream (Corporate) Media is completely beholden to the same interests that own the politicians, and will only run the stories that their corporate sponsors approve of, while suppressing stories that are harmful to the establishment. The internet is the only remaining source of free and accurate information -- as long as you can find the -correct- alternative sources. The rest are total garbage, political hacks, blogosphere wingnuts, and fringe communities given shrill voice on the Web.

Mainstream (Corporate) Media: The Alternative Media is a howling and yammering horde of uninformed, unprofessional, unregulated idiots and crazies, and will work together to make up stories from whole cloth and spread them just to get "clicks," or sometimes to actively undermine the fabric of society. The old media networks are still the only reliable source of professionally produced news -- as long as you can find the -correct- news network. The other networks are political appendages, propaganda organs for That One Party. You know the one.

...and we haven't even gotten to the Real Classics of Conspiracy Theory yet -- the JFKs, the 9-11s, the Pearl Harbors.

The point here is not that "Everything is a Conspiracy," nor even that "Every Theory is a Conspiracy Theory." Those positions not only lack evidence to back them up, but can easily be logically refuted by a single counter-example. (Most propositions which talk about things it terms of "all," "every," "none," "always," or "never" are that way.)

The point is that Conspiratorial Thinking is at the heart (or spleen) of many of our most influential belief-systems, and very often goes unacknowledged by those who are engaging in it. And most importantly, it's not always wrong to suspect secrets and lies behind important events and media narratives.

Conspiracies, Real and Imagined

Most people probably found at least a few things on that list which they don't think of as "conspiracy theories," maybe not even as "conspiracies" at all. For example, it's an accepted belief among many Democrats that George Bush the Younger stole one or both of his elections; conservatives (along with the "mainstream") insist that this is a ridiculous conspiracy theory, and point to all the lawsuits, scrutiny, and investigations that failed to derail two full terms of Bushy goodness. Republicans are still convinced that Hillary did something very wrong while at the State Department, even though they can't seem to figure out what it is after a goofy number of investigations. (And to be honest, they didn't actually seem to be looking that hard.)

And that is exactly the issue at hand ... if someone else believes it and you don't, it's a "Conspiracy Theory" -- dismissed as paranoiac nonsense, total bunk and woo-woo, based on magical thinking and wing-nuttery. When you believe it, even in spite of the "official consensus" (insofar as there is one), it must be something else, because "Conspiracy Theory" implies that it isn't true. (We'll get around to why "conspiracy theory" is a pejorative another time.)

The natural side effect of this is that virtually everyone has their own conspiracy theories, even if they don't think of them as such ... and anyone can accuse anyone else of being a conspiracy theorist, whether or not the accusations are supported by evidence. The claims of logical fallacy, refusal to acknowledge facts, and downright intellectual dishonesty (often followed by cries of "shill!" "sheep!" "wingnut!" and a lot of metaphorical references to sex, anatomy, and excrement) quickly drown out the conversation. And the claims are often true on both sides, especially in controversial issues where there are multiple popular narratives about the subject in question.

Unsurprisingly, this gets nowhere. Everyone plugs their ears and retreats into what they already believed, lobbing talking points back and forth across ideological entrenchments. Your beliefs are baseless conspiracy theories to me, as mine are to you. We have no basis for rational communication.

The term "conspiracy theory" itself has become an epithet, an insult, a haughty and back-handed dismissal of something which "isn't even worth the time to address." It's applied this way to discount a theory out of hand, to marginalize it -- regardless of the evidence which may support the theory, or the honesty of the arguments for out-of-hand dismissal. All in all, the term has become pretty worthless, an obstacle rather than an aid to serious conversation. Which is what we're trying to have.

Thinking About the Unthinkable

Notice that we're not evaluating any particular conspiracy theory (or supposed conspiracy theory) for factual content. (Not yet, anyway.) We are not crafting a blanket defense of conspiratorial thinking (in fact we are criticizing it), nor making a sweeping dismissal of all notions of conspiracies (we're asking for individual consideration).

This approach is unlikely to be popular with those who already have an emotional investment in any particular theory (including the various Official Stories and government accounts), but those aren't the ones who we are primarily addressing. Our main hope is to engage rational, skeptical, empirical thinkers, regardless of their current beliefs and opinions, and have a reasonable, adult conversation about What The Hell Is Going On Here. Once we have a rational conversation going, others will join in, and we can shift the conversation from baseless accusations and reflexive denials to putting together a realistic picture of the world, based on verifiable evidence and logical conclusions.

Because the conversation that's taking place now is worse than useless. At the very same time that we are being told to ignore "conspiracy theories" about massive government overreach (assassination, torture, unchecked surveillance), which too often turn out to be true, we are simultaneously being force-fed other "conspiracy theories" by the mass media (political corruption and cronyism, election-rigging, treason and treachery in the halls of power), and whispered others by academics with alarming sources and citations (deep state politics, censorship, persecution of whistle-blowers, police state tactics). All this, even if we ignore the most well-known Conspiracy Theories (political assassinations, false flag terror events, etc.), being shouted at us from the fringes of cyberspace by voices of questionable credibility.

We need to develop a way to think rationally about the things that we are being told ... to honestly evaluate the evidence (or lack thereof) we are pointed to ... and  to do these things without succumbing to any of the fallacies and pitfalls of conspiratorial thinking. Because if there's one thing that we can all agree upon (based purely on what we say to and about each other in the media), it's that Conspiracies Happen.

Talking About the Unspeakable

This will be our task, then: to do the work of rigorous academic research and debate, in a decidedly non-academic field. This will entail individually examining various "conspiracy theories," not only to catalog the theories themselves, but to document and explore their sources and evidence (such as it is), their assumptions and the foundations (or lack thereof) that support them.

We can't avoid drawing some conclusions, particularly in cases where the available evidence is strong and conclusive. But we will strive to work with consistent standards of scrutiny and judgment, in order to evaluate which “conspiracy theories” are well-supported by credible evidence, and which are the work of propagandists, fantasists, paranoids, and glib opportunists.

We will meet resistance, from within and without. We will have disagreements about what constitutes "evidence." We will be shouted at by ideological partisans of every stripe when we stray too near their sacred cow ... even by those who may have been cheer-leading our criticism of some other tribe's sacred buffalo. We will occasionally descend into staid ideological rigidity, petty ego-driven tribalism, stubborn resistance to new information, and lazy (dismissive, rather than curious) skepticism. But we will strive to recover from these stumblings, and correct the errors and fallacies they create.

To do this, we will mimic academic rigor as best we can in such a chaotic environment. We'll take cues like this one, from Professor Stanley Fish:
"Thus the question [...] is not “Do you hold these views?” (he can hold any views he likes) or “Do you proclaim them in public?” (he has that right no less that the rest of us) or even “Do you surround them with the views of others?”
"Rather, the question should be: “Do you separate yourself from your partisan identity when you [...] teach subject matter — whatever it is — rather than urge political action?”
"[...] The advantage of this way of thinking about the issue is that it outflanks the sloganeering and posturing both sides indulge in..."
We're not teaching, per se, we're researching and debating. But the same axioms apply: Can we separate our personal beliefs and biases from the cataloging and consideration of theories (and evidence) about conspiracies? Can we have a rational, adult conversation in the midst of so much "sloganeering and posturing," shouting, fear-mongering, predictable denials, and widespread dishonesty? Can we apply honest and consistent standards to claims and evidence, including consideration of the sources, and their past records of honesty and accuracy?

Many will not be able to. Many will have no interest or patience or stomach for the endeavor, dismissing the whole enterprise with the wave of a hand. They will cling to their own favorite conspiracy theories, or worse yet deny altogether that sometimes Conspiracies Happen, and then feel frightened and confused when yet more secrets and lies are uncovered.

But more and more people -- reasonablewell-informed people -- suspect that not everything which is dismissed as "conspiracy theory" is pure bunk. Building on that premise, and on the research done by a world rapidly coming online to access unprecedented amounts of information (and corresponding amounts of bullshit), we will look at claims as they are, and not as they are made out to be by those who don't really want to do the work of understanding them.

And if we get "suicided," we will know that we were on to something.

Epilogue: The many, many links to sources provided in this article can be daunting. The point isn't to read them all start to finish and absorb their content as a prerequisite to understanding this essay. The point is to provide examples and citations for the various assertions made here -- that there are indeed such claims and counter-claims flowing freely in the mainstream and partisan media. The articles and sources themselves are best digested with more focused inquiries, which will be (if all goes as planned) forthcoming.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Fence-Sitter's Guide to Throwing Stone from the Sidelines

A Fence-Sitter's Guide to Throwing Stones from the Sideline

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.

"I don't much care where –" said Alice.

"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.

"– so long as I get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation.

"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."

Part 1: The Two Parties Are Not Identical ... But They Have Many Alarming Similarities

In spite of many narratives among American third parties and independent and international media, the two major U.S. political parties are not "the same." There are important differences in culture, conduct, and even brain structure, between the "Liberal/Progressive Left" and the "Conservative/Reactionary Right." Those differences inform the Democratic and Republican parties, and the dynamic between them. They campaign differently, exercise power differently, and thus, different groups and individuals find them compelling for their own reasons.

They have distinct positions on important issues. Within the scope of topics that are acceptable to talk about in politics -- Culture War issues, mostly, and some limited discussions about economics, the environment, etc -- the Democrats and Republicans have stark differences. We all know pretty much where they each stand on gay rights, abortion, immigration, social welfare programs, tax law, global warming, and so on.

Close enough.
There are also important distinctions in how they struggle for power and attempt to govern within the two-party system. Republican politics and leadership are like that beady-eyed bully from a Disney cartoon, aggressively reactionary and stubbornly ignorant, spouting tough-guy rhetoric and demonizing the poor to get their way. If that doesn't work, they drum up scandals, throw political tantrums, and if all else fails, try to play the victim. They're absolutely unashamed in the most brazen hypocrisies, condemning "immoral behavior" even as they're caught in the act, dissembling and tossing up flak until they can mount a counter-accusation -- whether or not it's true.

Democratic politics and leadership are spineless and passive-aggressive, unable to stick to even the most basic tenets of their ideals, flopping limply between abortively talking up social issues, and trying to "out hawk" the war-hawks and "out Free Market" the hardline capitalists. Either way, they can then (correctly) accuse the Right of being irrational and obstructionist, and put out self-pitying press releases and fundraising emails to garner money and support in spite of failing to make much headway (and even backsliding) on their signature issues.

Republicans push harder and harder for policies which further enshrine the privilege[1] of the wealthy, because it's an official plank in the party platform; Democrats make a show of fighting back on certain issues, while quietly stewarding through the ones that fatten their own bank accounts. "Oops, we were distracted! We had to protect Obama from a Lone Nut! Now excuse me, I have some stock dividends to attend..."

Once the new policies are in place, everyone tosses up their hands -- "What are we gonna do? We have to take SuperPAC money, or we'll lose! We have to go to war, we have this open-ended authorization! We have to let Wall Street regulate itself, because who else is gonna? It's all because of that Terrible, Awful, No Good, Very Bad Other Party!"

Neither are the parties homogenous. As in any large group, there are different and conflicting schools of thought, factions and individuals that run counter to the mainstream and deviate from the norm[2]. In both cases, it's important to note that we're talking about features of the overall party culture and leadership, and not of all or even most individuals who vote for, endorse, identify as, or even seek office with the parties. Hopefully we can all agree: generalizations are generally wrong in the details... people are people, all are complex; labels are not people, but are easy to use to dismiss individuals and ideas. Dismissal is not my intention.
Not your run of the mill conservative

And this isn't to say that either side has a monopoly on tough-guy rhetoric, spineless passive-aggression, or sending out god-damned[3] torrents of obnoxious and self-pitying emails demanding more money!! Because $4 BILLION wasn't enough. (Seriously, guys. Elections are over, it's time to stop now. Just give us a little break before you start the machine up again.)

All Evil is on the Other Side

So beneath the gloss of Culture War skirmishes and -ismist[4] rhetoric, we begin to see the alarming similarities between the parties. In spite of anything and everything else they may say, the establishments of both parties push along the politics and policies that will help their donors and themselves ... and often, the very industries and companies that they came from and will return to. The legendary Revolving Door.

But even more fundamentally, both parties fall prey to the same bad habits of thought (and the accompanying obnoxious rhetorical and debate tactics). Both sides are really good at pointing out the flaws in the Other Party, but really bad at admitting or addressing their own. Both can honestly and accurately point to rampant corruption, hypocrisy, irrationality, dishonesty, and cronyism on the Other Side ... and yet be completely, stubbornly, infuriatingly blind to the same things on their own side. With but a few exceptions on either side, not many seem to have the integrity, the backbone, the heuvos[5] to own up to "Our Side's Crap" ... to stop ignoring, denying, equivocating, rationalizing, justify, or blaming ... to level social pressure against friends and allies who step over the line ... to clean up their own house before criticizing anyone else's housekeeping. This failure on both sides drives more and more people to turn their backs on both, to tune out the whole partisan circus

Of course, this is no different from any group based around an ideological or political platform. Rationally, scientifically, we know that these things are partly due to certain kinds of cognitive bias ... like the brain-structures and unconscious reactions that seem to distinguish Left from Right at an unconscious level, these "We vs. They" responses are hardwired into the mammal brain. Pack mentality; Tribalism; Partisanship. Even Nationalism and "Organizational Unity" -- "My Country [Party/Faith/Company/Team], Right or Wrong."

And when these ideologies take hold, new information is evaluated primarily against existing beliefs -- accepted, spun, or rejected according to how well it fits in with what you already think. New information that seems to contradict what you already believe is likely to be unpleasant ... causing cognitive dissonance, sometime referred to on the internet as "butt-hurt." This prompts many to attempt to isolate themselves within "bubbles" -- partisan media and social echo chambers, where everyone already agrees, talks about how much they agree, and how stupid and wrong all those dummies in the Other Party are. Others go crusading against the Other Party, engaging in trench warfare on talk shows and partisan sites, lobbing talking points and bumper-sticker slogans from fortifications of party-line dogma.

Everybody's Drinkin That Cool-Aid

The punchline, of course, is that these things affect both parties. Everyone's drinking their own flavor of Cool-Aid[6], while simultaneously (and correctly) accusing the Other Side of drinking it. Hardcore Obama apologists refuse to concede even well-documented failings and hypocrisies, accusing all critics of "drinking the Racist Right-Wing Cool-Aid" ... while the loudest voices criticizing him from the Right have indeed bought into a narrative rife with implicit (and often explicit) racism, even as they (correctly) point out the big pitcher of "Obama Cult of Personality Cool-Aid" that the Democratic Party is nursing.

But most people already knew all that. That is to say, those who aren't so intoxicated on one flavor or another of Partisan Cool-Aid have some notion that "the System is Broken." Most have at least an inkling that, whether or not the parties are identical, most politicians tend to be cut from similar cloth. Power corrupts, as the aphorism goes, and our personal favorites notwithstanding, we assume that all politicians are corrupt, or at least immanently corruptible.

More precisely, power attracts certain kinds of people to begin with (from well-meaning crusaders to opportunistic sociopaths, but seldom those who don't love the spotlight), and the money-soaked electoral process narrows that down to those who can obtain financial backing. That generally means putting your toes on one Party Line or the other, and singing along with the Party Hymn.

And people of most any ideological leaning will generally agree if you point this out ... and then most of them will turn around and vote for incumbents or turn in "all-red" or "all-blue" ballots, all without the foggiest idea of who the candidates are, and what they actually support in word and in deed -- and most importantly, whether word matches deed with any consistency. "Anyone from My Party must be better than anyone from That Other Party." Cool-Aid, hard-wired partisanship, easily overrides the rational knowledge that someone can join either party and still be a crook, a nutjob, and/or a sleazebag.

You're Either With Us or Against Us

And for the fence-sitter (that is, the person who doesn't want either kind of Cool-Aid), one of the most alarming features of Cool-Aid Cults is their insistence that you must drink theirs. Not only must you refrain from any other flavor -- that's fine, if you don't want any at all -- you have to choke theirs down, or else you "might as well" have been guzzling That Other Flavor.

So wait... if I don't swallow whole the Party Line of the Democrats, if I criticize them or their leaders, that means I'm automatically an Honorary Republican? Not so fast! The Republicans don't want me either, because I criticize their Sacred Cows too! Even the Libertarians don't like how I make fun of Ayn Rand....

And so it goes... we fence-sitters don't feel like it's smart or sane to vote for either of the parties that we can see don't care about us, what we want or think, and have no problem lying to us and/or demonizing us when it's politically convenient to do so. We look for third parties who might actually listen, keep some of their promises (just a few good ones! We have really low expectations at this point) ... and we're told by both big parties that we're "throwing away" our votes. That we're only helping the Other Party win ... a vote for Green is a vote for Republicans! A vote for Libertarian is a vote for Democrats!

Because the Big Two assume that our votes were Theirs to divvy up in the first place -- because They are the only two choices, any third party is just an ideological spoiler, stealing away votes from the Serious Parties. And you're a damned[7] fool for thinking that there might be a better choice than tossing in your lot with the Lesser of Two Evils.

Visual Approximation of what we assume it must look like to you
And of course, there's no clear consensus as to which one is actually less evil. Both sides tell a frantic, adrenaline-tinged story of an Epic Battle Between Good and Evil ... but it's only Black and White if you're looking at the Other Side from within your own camp. From out here, it's all sooty and gray, and neither side is anywhere close to squeaky clean.

Sitters on the Fence, Unite!

This is where people like Russell Brand, Jesse Ventura, and Elizabeth Warren come in. An odd list? Yes -- and that's a good thing, for fence-sitters. Add Bill Moyers, Andrew Napolitano, Cenk Uygur and the Young Turks, Amy Goodman and DemocracyNow!, Russ Baker and WhoWhatWhy, Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill at the Intercept, Matt Taibbi on his own[8], Abby Martin, Lee Camp, Thom Hartman, Max Keiser, and the rest at RT America... and on and on.

I don't presume to speak for any of these people, but none of them are afraid to talk about what they see on both sides -- what's wrong with the system, and not with one party or the other.

I have little doubt that almost everyone who might chance to read this (all three of you) will find someone on that list who they object to being "on the same team with." Fine. An objective person should be able to find at least one person in either major party whom they don't approve of, don't endorse, down right don't like. Think about it... who consistently makes you cringe when they pipe up, because you know they're just going to discredit your cause and give fuel to the opposition?

But diversity of ideas is what we're all about -- it's why we sit way up here, looking down on all the ridiculous squabbling, mud-slinging, and political Kabuki. Sometimes we jump down into it, of course, or at least "throw stones from the sidelines" -- to the eternal frustration of Party-Liners on either side, who will try to shout us down as long as they have the breath to do so. Because we threaten them in a way that the Devil They Know never could.

So if you're a fence-sitter, a Free Thinker who doesn't care for Cool-Aid, if you're even just curious about the fence-sitting lifestyle, take heart: you're in good company. I won't say that we don't have our crazy-ass talking heads, our slogan-parroting nut-birds, our grandstanding demagogues, our own -isms and Cool-Aid Cults... but so do the Big Two. (Come on, everyone just admit it! You'll feel better, once you get past the cognitive dissonance.)

We, on the other hand, have something very important which both of the mainstream U.S. parties quite conspicuously lack: an outside perspective.


[1] From the Latin, Privi = Private, Lege = Law; a law that applies only to some, usually for private gain.

[2] "The normal does not exist. The average does not exist. We know only a very large but probably finite phalanx of discrete space-time events encountered and endured." In less technical language, the Board of the College of Patapsychology offers one million Irish punds [around $700,000 American] to any "normalist" who can exhibit "a normal sunset, an average Beethoven sonata, an ordinary Playmate of the Month, or any thing or event in space-time that qualifies as normal, average or ordinary." -Robert A. Wilson, Discordian Pope, Founder and Akashic Curator of CSICON, the Committee for Surrealist Investigation of Claims of the Normal.

[3] For the record, the god that I would like to damn them is Thor.

[4] "-ismists" are the -ists and follow a particular -ism ... Capitalists, Socialists, Populists, Environmentalists, etc. As a rule, very few politicians are True -ismists, unless you count narcissism; they simply use "-ismist" rhetoric to win votes.

[5] Disclaimer for the Hyper-Sensitive: "heuvos" here is used as a euphemism for testicles, but the word technically means eggs, so women can have them too.

[6] Not the refreshing, trademarked, easy-to-make beverage... No, this is an off-brand, which isn't kool enough to be spelled wrong. Besides, the stuff they used in Jonestown wasn't even Kool-Aid, it was "Flavor Aid."

[7] Damned, this time, by the traditionally very petty and vindictive God of Abraham.

[8] I'm sorry to see Matt leave under less-than-cordial circumstances, but I think it's good that he retains his independence.