Confessions of a Zealot

Ok, I’m going to make some shameful confessions here.  I’m going to fess up to some recent indulgences in conspiratorial thought-crime.  You’re the third person I’ve told about this.  The first person that knew was my conservative friend.  Then I discussed it with a liberal friend a few days later.  Now, I’m going public, and confessing to it all, so that we might learn how conspiracy-mongering can lead us down paths we just kind of want to be true.

First, in my defense, let me first tell you that I’m drawn to all conspiracy theories.  It’s my kind of fun, because it’s controversial, and it’s like solving a mystery, figuring out who’s right and who’s wrong, wasting your advanced degrees to interpret crackpot evidence, and so on.  And I usually find conspiracy arguments irresistible, because they’re so juicy and titillating.  It’s an offer to get in on the ground floor of being right while everyone else is wrong.

And even when they all turn out to be “fake”, it was still worth the effort, especially when they’re well-constructed and intelligent conspiracies.  (Good ones are long-lived, and have a continuous body of research growing around them.)

Let me just tell you right now that I fell for the “Hillary Clinton has late-stage Parkinson Disease” conspiracy theory, at least for a day.  Of course, that day was Sept 11, 2016, when she suffered what looked like a seizure while Secret Service agents hurriedly tried to push her limp body (yet rigid neck) into her campaign van and cart her off the scene.

I’d been primed to believe in some Hillary brain damage, because I’d seen these conspiracy theory videos the month before.  The old ones weren’t convincing at all, but at least I knew there were some “researchers” trying to prove she was hiding something serious from all of us.  Then the Zdenek Gazda cellphone video of her Sept 11 collapse went viral on mainstream news and became the 21st century Zapruder film for a day.

Suddenly, I’m thinking, OMG … Hillary has Parkinson Disease or something.  Then the juicy titillation, “OMG, her campaign is over!”  (I’m not the only one who watches 24 hour news channels kind of hoping for apocalyptic events.)  Ok, I’m not a Hillary supporter, and I’m probably just like the 70% of people polled that don’t like/trust her.  But I think Trump is an idiot, and I don’t plan on voting for anyone in November.

Then I call up my conservative friend, who hates Hillary, and thinks Obama is “the worst president in US history, by far”.  We start feeding each other’s suspicions of the Left, and the Media (the same), and say-anything-do-anything-for-power Hillary Clinton, and before you know it, we arrive at the conclusion that she has some advanced, terminal neurological disease, but she just wants to get into power anyways.  (My friend led the way, since he’d seen a lot of this on Alex Jones’ InfoWars show.)  Of course, we had to dismiss her 90-minute turn-around appearance in front of Chelsea’s NY apartment, but that’s how brain diseases are (certainly it’s more consistent with the symptoms than the purported pneumonia).

So that how it goes.  If you’re suspicious of power/authority, for whatever reasons, and you think you have good reason to know they’re lying on some specific issue, you start filling in the picture with what you really think is going on (i.e., you see conspiracy).  It’s pretty natural.  And it’s probably even more pronounced with issues we care about emotionally, or viscerally.  Our brains are wired to perceive things along left/right political alignments, and we’ll make the facts fit our biases.

I calmed down after that phone call, because it all didn’t really line up with my current obsessions.  But I watched some Alex Jones videos the next day (Sept 12), and enjoyed the entertainment, and seeing him beside himself over the possibility that the Hillary brain disease conspiracy might actually be true!  It was like watching a kid at Christmas, and he give an on-fire performance.  All the over-the-top lines were delivered with a little more gusto than usual, because there was actually a chance he might be right (and more importantly, everyone else was wrong) this time.

When you notice the Alex Jones style, he starts by stating a few facts, then weaves them together in a semi-plausible way, then extrapolates them to new over-the-top cartoonish heights.  And it’s not that he expects to be taken literally, but again, he and his audience want to believe in their characterizations of the other side.  It makes them feel good.  It all doesn’t have to be true, but only some of it has to be true, in a way that proves the other side wrong.

So when Hillary held a press conference a few days later, and resumed her very active campaign, I figured she was as fit as a 69 year old would be under the stress of her office and obligations.  Of course she’s very mentally sharp, and it’s very unlikely that she and her doctors could or would hide a serious condition like PD or brain cancer from the world.  Yet the true believers will still make videos, and continually adjust the story to fit the facts as they see them.  Who knows, they might be right.  After all, Ronald Regan probably did exhibit some Alzheimer’s symptoms in office.

Anyways, I’ll admit to getting carried away with a narrative I want to believe in.  But I’ll also take credit for eventually examining the claims in detail, and separating my biases from the more objective truth.  My point is there’s always two sides to the story, and even though one side might be driven by more by emotion, it’s important to understand their point of view.

(If I have to spell it out, this is why some of the diet gurus you love-to-hate say the things they do.  At heart, they believe most of what they say to have some basis in fact, no matter what the “experts” say.   But it’s really just an extension of their dietary preferences and biases, cherished beliefs, fear and anxiety about gaining weight, and political beliefs.  They’re not trying to con you.  They’re telling you it *has* to be true.)

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