"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Anti-Vaxxers, UFOs, Armageddon, And Other Lunacies–Americans’ Irremediable Gullibility

Not long ago a journalist travelled to Mississippi to do a series of articles on the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians and their participation in the War of 1812 on the side of the United States against the British and the Creeks.  Andrew Jackson beat the British in the decisive Battle of New Orleans, and then complied with Madison’s order to remove all Indian populations from East of the Mississippi; and the Indian settlements around Columbus, Mississippi were abandoned.

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The Choctaws and the Chickasaws had been well-established in eastern Mississippi for centuries and had developed a middle class which was sedentary, entrepreneurial and relatively wealthy.  Archaeological digs have unearthed jewelry and ornamentation which had come from Europe by way of Spanish traders.   Whatever their relative cultural significance and their unquestionable support to the Union, only traces of them remain east of the river.

The journalist was paired with a free-lance writer from the region, a man who had made the Choctaws and Chickasaws his stock in trade, and over the years had published a number of articles on their history, origins, and social structure.  What the journalist and his newspaper did not know was that the writer, when not focusing on the Indians of the Prairie, was pursuing ‘alternative’ theories of indigenous cultures, most notably their alien origins.  

Most important were his investigations on Nazca Indian culture of the Peruvian altiplano that flourished from c. 100 BC to 800 AD.  The Nazca are perhaps best known for their monumental line drawings depicting scenes from their cosmology.  Seen from ground or eye level, the figures are indistinct and indecipherable, but when seen from a thousand feet up are clearly representational.  Since there were no flying ships in this prehistoric period, it was concluded by some that the original Nazca were descended from an alien civilization. 

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More traditional anthropologists dismissed these theories out of hand and suggested that they were nothing more than a primitive culture’s own expression of their existence and culture to the gods. The desert floor on which the drawings were made is covered in a layer of iron oxide-coated pebbles of a deep rust color. The ancient peoples, say these scientists, created their designs by removing the top 12 to 15 inches of rock, revealing the lighter-colored sand below. They likely began with small-scale models and carefully increased the models’ proportions to create the large designs.

Ancient Pre-Columbian civilizations, most notably those in the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico, lived in a mystical world of powerful, intimidating, threatening, all powerful gods.  The gods were immanent in the high mountains circling the valley and in the violent storms that visited it.  An elaborate system of worship including human sacrifice was developed to appease these vengeful gods and to supplicate them.  A cosmology which included both the gods and their human subjects was common.  

As common but far less primitive and savage was the worldview of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  The gods were not abstractions but vital, living, immortal, and immensely powerful beings.  Worship and admiration of the gods and fealty to them  were natural expressions of the ancient world.

Yet the ‘alternate’ anthropologists who studied the Nazca refused to accept any such terrestrial explanations.  They knew that Earth had been visited frequently by alien civilizations, and that the Nazca line drawings were but one obvious example of their visitation.

Sometime between mid-June and early July 1947 a rancher found wreckage on his sizable property in Lincoln County, New Mexico, approximately 75 miles north of Roswell. Several “flying disc” and “flying saucer” stories had already appeared in the national press that summer, leading the rancher to believe the wreckage—which included rubber strips, tinfoil, and thick paper—might be alien in origin.  Official Air Force communiques, quick retractions, and additional information, far from clarifying the situation only added credence to the theory. 

From that point Americans’ credulousness and persistent ability to believe in the impossible took over, and over seventy years later, the belief that alien flying saucers did indeed land in Roswell, is as strong as it ever was.

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President Biden’ has given new currency to UFOs and has supported an investigation into the possibility of alien invasion.  "We take reports of incursions into our air space by any aircraft, identified or unidentified, very seriously," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters when asked about reports of aerial phenomena in the United States’ airspace. "Certainly the president supports ODNI putting together a report."

Although many political observers winced at this press release – nothing in the Trump years had ever matched this and hopes were high that the new President would base his administration on truth, transparency, and good sense – nevertheless, there it was, lunacy out there for everyone to see.

Biden supporters dismissed conservative allegations that Biden’s dementia had gotten far worse and that he was beginning to see things.  His press secretary explained that the President was not endorsing alien theory, just expressing a desire to keep our skies free and clear. 

The late-night comedians had a field day and were as delighted as could be that this somber, pedantic, and hectoring White House had finally shown some life.  Just as ratings were plunging, they increased.  ‘UFOs IN THE WHITE HOUSE!!’  shouted the headlines of a major tabloid.  “THE ALIENS ARE COMING’ said another.

Why is this a surprise?  A recent Reuters poll found that nearly twenty-five percent of the American public believe that Armageddon will come in their lifetimes.  Less often mentioned is Americans’ persistent denial of evolution, cited by nearly one-third of all Americans (Scientific American poll).  Conspiracy theories abound – the landing on the moon never happened, Oswald did not kill Kennedy, and the Trilateral Commission and the International Jewish Conspiracy are the real governors of America.

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Our investigative journalist happened to meet a local freelancer on one of his trips to Mississippi who told him that he was working on a comprehensive investigation into Russian control of America through fluoridation.  The Germans had discovered the mind-bending properties of fluorides during WWII and had planned to use it as a potent weapon to neutralize political opposition once the Nazis had won the war; but the research fell into Russian hands when they conquered Germany and now they were infusing a particularly virulent strain of the compound into the American water supply.  Fluoride, said the freelancer, has the particular property of weakening human will, and soon the entire American population would be complaisant, complacent sheep, duty-bound only to the will of the Russians.

In an article on the origin of conspiracy theories, researchers Viren Swami and Rebecca Coles detailed the sociological and psychological determinants of conspiracy theories.  There are an astounding number of conspiracy theories that abound today; and for just about every current event, there are many who believe that some dark cabal is behind it.

The truth’, the TV show The X-Files told us, ‘is out there’. Millions of people worldwide seem to agree, disbelieving official accounts of important social and political events. In the United States, for example, scholars have noted a steady increase in the number of poll respondents who believe that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone in killing John F. Kennedy.  In the wake of 9/11, commentators highlighted the proliferation of conspiracy theories about the event, with polls suggesting that more than a quarter of respondents believe the US government knew in advance, participated in, or took no action to stop the attacks.

The reasons for the proliferation of conspiracy theories are many. To the extent that conspiracy theories fill a need for certainty, it is thought they may gain more widespread acceptance when establishment or mainstream explanations contain erroneous information, discrepancies, or ambiguities. A conspiracy theory helps explain those ambiguities and provides a convenient alternative to living with uncertainty. Or that the human desire for explanations of all natural phenomena aids the conspiracist in the quest for public acceptance. The world is simply too complex, too unfathomable for the ordinary American to grasp logical theories.

A ‘monological belief system’ allows conspiracy theorists to easily assimilate explanations for new phenomena that would otherwise be difficult to understand or would threaten their existing beliefs. Those, for example, who more strongly endorsed 9/11 conspiracy theories were also more likely to believe in other, seemingly unrelated conspiracy theories. This is perhaps the most insidious aspect of conspiracy theories – once you have adopted one theory on the basis of internalized feelings, selective ‘evidence’, and socio-pathological needs, you easily adopt others.

All of which leads to the flimflammery of anti-vaxxers.  With no proof whatsoever, and basing their conclusions on hearsay, discredited research, and a wild, collective fear of government perversity and secretive manipulation, these 'alternate realists' are refusing to get vaccinated thus slowing herd immunity, putting their families and neighbors at risk, and adding to their subscription to conspiracy theories.

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Anti-vaxxers, however are true Americans.  We have always fallen for the most transparent of tricks, the blandishments of snake oil salesmen, bearded ladies and two-headed freak show babies.  We are lovers of image, the ideal, the absurd, and the sensational.  Increasingly unbound by any national ethos, by Cato the Elder’s moral prescriptions for a responsible citizenry, or Jefferson’s ideas of the Enlightenment rule of just law, we are free to believe whatever.  Every man for himself in this new amoral and illusionary political universe.  Although Biden has emphasized the importance of truth, clarity, transparency, science, and objectivity, his efforts to reform America are vain.  After all, he is part of the problem.

Meanwhile, freed from intellectual discipline and encouraged by the cult of identity and personal worth, the number and type of conspiracy theories increases geometrically.  We have always been a loony, unhinged, and crazy society, but now all bets are off and absolutely anything goes.

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