Conspiracyphilia and Vigilantism: Dangerous American Obsessions

I noticed two related features of American society when I was last home: a love of conspiracy theories and an approval of vigilante justice. I was appalled to see a "documentary" on the History (or Discovery?) Channel in which there were two explanations put forward for the loss of a squadron of air force planes: 1. The leader got cocky and led his partners astray, as evidenced by the strange things he said, confusion, and disagreement about what to do heard on the radio; or 2. That crystals from the lost city of Atlantis screwed up their navigation instruments and possibly inverted the horizon in order to lead the men astray. There was no conclusion and both stories were represented as equally plausible. This is despite the fact that such crystals have never been found nor is there any real evidence for anything like this. The fact that the second version sounds absurd should demand evidence (though it should not rule it out outright), but this was not given. No doubt most viewers are not fooled... but some may be. The two "theories" are NOT equally plausible to anyone with any sense.

Another example is continued skepticism about the moon landings. Read this for more details on the facts. Here's a quick summary of the most compelling stuff: Signals from the Apollo missions were received all over earth and triangulated by various scientists. One documentary I watched interviewed German scientists who did this. Triangulation allowed them to find out exactly where the craft was in three dimensions and follow its course. It is not possible to fake this. Another great one is some sort of radio array they set up on the moon which can be seen from earth. Setting up is a complex task that back then could only be done by humans. The technology required to send robots to the moon to set it up and do everything else required to pull off the hoax would have been more formidable than actually going there in person (which is what really happened). There's much more, but I won't get into it here. Suffice it to say that I was skeptical of the moon landing until I compared the conspiracy theories with the evidence and found the evidence to be overwhelming. The 9/11 conspiracy theories follow a similar pattern.

The second alarming trend is a desire for vigilante justice (going out and bringing "justice" to someone yourself). My own father went on a rant at one point about how the courts had let some guy off who had murdered two people. He said someone should just go and kill the murderer. Vigilante justice is also a common theme in American movies (where the hero "takes the law into his own hands"). My father, or anyone else not involved in the trial, is significantly less well-informed than the judges and jury at the trial. The idea that someone should be found guilty in the press "because everyone knows he did it" and then executed by some vigilante is frightening. It is also undemocratic, unlawful, and sure to cause more injustice than it fights, as innocent people get killed and emotions rather than reason determine punishments. This is mob rule and it is what exists in a completely barbaric society. Luckily, the fact that you'd be punished yourself for doing it, or perhaps some deeply held norms against it, have so far prevented vigilantism from getting out of control. These two ideas combined are dangerous, however.

America was founded on anti-establishment ideals. We are supposed to question those in power. This is undoubtedly a good thing to question authority. But it is bad when questioning is replace with an assumption that authority is incorrect as soon as one person claims it is, no matter how dubious the claims.

America also has self-reliance as a core ideal. This is also a good thing and is liberating for those who succeed in it. It can also be bad when it leads to an unwillingness to accept the outcomes of a democratic system, including its judiciary.

The result of these two ideas is, for one, a damaging gullibility. Most of the people who believe various conspiracies do so with no further research and no investigation of the other side of the (usually fake) debate. Meanwhile, anti-establishment sentiment, so integral to American culture, leads to an assumption that any large organization (the federal government being the largest of all) is bad until proven otherwise, while smaller organizations and individuals are good until proven otherwise.  

Again, true skepticism would be a good thing. But this is a fake skepticism composed of gullibility about random claims from smaller groups assumed to be innocent victims and an insurmountable skepticism towards larger organizations assumed to be bad. The result is a lot of people all too willing to believe utter nonsense and to justify this by the fact that big, visible organizations are corrupt and have done bad things (while the bad things and corruption of smaller, less visible organizations is ignored or not seen). When strong positive feelings about self-reliance are combined with a natural predisposition toward believing anything someone says that is bad about the government, for example, the solution may seem logical: Take the law into your own hands, question the government's legitimacy, and withdraw from political participation along normal lines (like calling your senator or voting). This perpetuates the cycle by leading to further disengagement and ignorance of the facts.

Mercifully, vigilante justice has not been very common, but it may be only a matter of time. The reason there is due process for criminals and that certain types of evidence, or evidence obtained in certain ways, is excluded in courts is precisely because the judiciary must check executive power. Otherwise, it would be too easy for the police to jail anyone they wanted to (or that they were ordered to). The whole idea behind innocent until proven guilty is that it is better, on the whole, to let a guilty person go free than to lock up (or execute!) an innocent. One highly public case (per year or perhaps even more often) of a man assumed guilty going free is therefore not, by itself, evidence that the courts are not working, and certainly not that they are corrupt. Quite the opposite: If accused people were always convicted, that would be a sign of a corrupt court system!

The shock people expressed about the NSA spying “scandal” highlighted for me how people generally fail to inform themselves about the actions of their government. The extent of information gathering was a surprise, but the fact that it was going on was not—for anyone paying attention. Conspiracy theories contribute to this problem by clouding up debates with nonsense. If people were a bit less gullible and spent less time debating nonsensical conspiracy theories (by “sharing” items without further reading on Facebook, for example), people might be more aware of the real scandals going on around them and be more involved in shaping the government and the world they live in for the better. This is not a gossipy reality TV show. This is just “plain” reality, which is full of real scandals and excitement—again: for anyone paying attention.


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