Magical Conspiracy Thinking

23:58 Thu 15 Nov 2007
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By which I do not mean magickal thinking… I mean thinking that tremendous change can be effected through events, speech or revelations that are talismanic in nature. The idea that if the correct words could just be spoken, or if the truth revealed, that “the people” would rise up/awaken/revolt/vote differently/stop watching television/reject their role as imperialist enablers/cast off their self-accepted shackles/achieve enlightenment/achieve whatever your particular goal for them is. A certain brand of tax evader in the US falls into this category.

They believe that it’s somehow “illegal” for the United States to levy federal income taxes, and think that they are in possession of various legalese-like incantations that will prevail in court (thus, essentially, crippling the government of the United States). When they fail in court, they blame “corrupt” judges, or an incorrect application of the incantations.

I’m not arguing that judges aren’t corrupt, or that the US government might be engaged in all kinds of illegal things (facts show it clearly is). But taxation is so long-established, and such a cornerstone of the government of the country, not to mention fully accepted in respectable American legal circles, that it’s clearly delusional to think that there’s some loophole by which it will be demonstrated to be illegal. Particularly not for the little people (and while a lot of these tax evaders might be well off, they’re still little people in comparison to the truly wealthy and powerful). The truly wealthy and powerful are, in fact, able to get away with all kinds of egregious tax evasion because they have hordes of lawyers who will find the real loopholes in the tax codes. Note, however, that these loopholes generally are extremely technical and specific, and do not threaten the running of the entire government.

That’s tangential to my main point, which is that these tax evaders aim their screeds not merely at the legal apparatus (where they have no chance of success), but also at popular consciousness. Their approach is that if only they could make everyone see that income tax is illegal (for whatever bizarre reason), then everyone would stop paying it and the system would collapse. Here, they’re actually correct in the latter aspect: if everyone stopped paying, the system would collapse. Perhaps for the better, perhaps not… but it would be massive, revolutionary change. However, such a colossal shift in consciousness for hundreds of millions of people is just not going to happen because you’ve discovered archaic wording in some dusty legal document. That’s where the magical thinking part comes in. Just make the people see that only coining money is constitutional, and that paper money isn’t “coins”, and hence isn’t real money, and hence can’t be taxed, and then they’ll rise up themselves! That’s not going to happen. Furthermore, if you’re trying to convince people that the tax system should be overthrown, why not simply convince them on the merits? Argue against it, persuade a majority, and then some shot at overturning it is possible, especially if you covince many who are completely adamant about it. Who needs the weird legalistic stuff then?

The answer is that those who want revelation need it. These people saw the light that the taxes they pay are actually illegal, and they want everyone else to see this light too—and think that they will see it, once presented with “the facts”.

The “9/11 Truth” movement appears to have the same issues (and some others, but I’ll leave those aside for now). I don’t like calling them “conspiracy theorists”, because whatever else can be said about the 9/11 attacks, they were obviously a conspiracy—i.e. a small group operating in secret for the furtherance of their own ends. Unless you believe that the planes flew themselves into the buildings thanks to divine intervention or incredibly freakish and unlikely wind conditions, then your view of the attacks is a “conspiracy theory”.

The “9/11 Truth” people likely believe in a different conspiracy from yours. In my view, that’s reasonable, too. It’s not exactly a completely open set of facts where all interested parties have been willing to publicly share whatever information they have. It’s also not beyond the bounds of plausibility that some nefarious elements within the US Establishment had something to do with the attacks.

Another tangent: the claim that Saddam Hussein was involved was clearly a “conspiracy theory” even less plausible than many of the popular ones floating around—but I never heard it described that way.

The “9/11 Truth” movement appears to believe that if they could just show the people the truth about what happened, the people would realize that they are ruled by an illegitimate elite who have only the elite’s interests at heart and who will commit terrible deeds to advance those interests no matter what the cost to the majority. The thing is, the people (i.e. us, among others) are ruled by such an elite. But you don’t need to minutely examine heat stresses on skyscraper architecture to see that—it’s all out there in the public record already. The Bush Administration lied the nation into an illegal invasion and occupation of a sovereign nation—a naked war of aggression backed up by a thin veneer of bullshit that stank mightily at the time and stinks so badly now that it’s barely ever mentioned (yeah, we’re there to bring democracy now, and to fight terror, and those WMD things were never something to take seriously anyway, just forget we said anything about them). The war of aggression has claimed (conservatively, if one includes non-combat deaths caused by the war, which seems fair) hundreds of thousands of lives, plus hundreds of billions of dollars. If that doesn’t bring about mass popular awakening, what will? Furthermore, wouldn’t energy be better spend fighting that ongoing crime? Again, the appeal of revelation, of the “big secret” being dragged out into the open, seems captivating to so many, possibly because it holds up the illusion of an easy path: just pass along your revelation to enough people and things will change, without that whole difficult process of organizing and resisting.

5 Responses to “Magical Conspiracy Thinking”

  1. Helen Says:

    The “big secret” fallacy is at the heart of Robert Harris’s Fatherland. Which is not a good book in any case, but the idea that the sudden revelation of the Shoah would be enough to influence any country’s policy one whit is frankly ludicrous.

  2. Tadhg Says:

    I vaguely remember reading that book, but since it doesn’t show up on my lists it must have been more than a decade ago. Without getting into its merits, I’m not sure I agree that its sudden revelation would be without impact. The elites wouldn’t care, but there might be overwhelming public outcry, enough to make a difference.

    But perhaps that’s my naive optimism rearing its head. I suspect the historical record supports your case more than mine.

  3. Lev Says:

    A very interesting post, Tadhg. Last night I got into a long argument with a friend who had succumbed to the “9/11 Truth” rhetoric. The meat of his argument was that as the Bush Crime Family is capable of any level of deceit and cunning in their quest for global domination, the idea that it was all a insider operation/controlled demolition/massive coverup/whatever is inherently plausible, and that alternative narratives of the 9/11 events must therefore be credible. This reasoning struck me as utterly fallacious—even if you accept that there might be a motive to falsify the events of 9/11, this argument doesn’t provide evidence that things did indeed take place differently than officially presented. In this regard, 9/11 Truth people are in the same category as UFO buffs, creationists and Holocaust deniers—they all use minor inconsistencies in the official narrative as “evidence” of an alternative view, typically one associated with their weird ideologies. However, all such people cloak their beliefs with an appeal for “reason” and “open-mindedness,” as if all arguments (no matter how absurd) have a place at the table. This is why the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is particularly funny.

  4. Tadhg Says:

    Are you saying there’s something amusing about the Spaghedeity?

    I don’t have a problem believing that the Bushies are morally capable of any level of deceit. That they’re practically capable of any level of deceit is questionable, in the sense that “any level” would mean that they could fool all of the people all of the time about anything. Given the arguments here, that’s not a mere quibble. The same goes for cunning—they might have no moral qualms, but they’re not perfect puppet-masters.

    I think the assertion that the Bush administration, or whatever other cabal (I don’t mean this term dismissively—it’s quite accurate to call the various groups within the White House ‘cabals’) you like, would not balk morally at executing a plan that killed thousands of Americans just to increase their own wealth and power is a perfectly reasonable assertion. I also don’t think that this marks them out as some kind of historical anomaly—the powerful and the power-hungry have committed such acts pretty routinely throughout history.

    This clearly implies, of course, that there are plenty of other groups in the modern world who would also not balk, morally, at similar acts, or the same act. So if it’s credible that they were behind the 9/11 attacks just because they wouldn’t have had moral qualms, then it’s credible that any group on the planet without those qualms was behind the attacks. At that point, you have to start looking at probabilities of involvement… which means examining the available evidence, etc. Where this leads I don’t know, but it obviously doesn’t preclude the mainstream hypothesis that Osama bin Laden’s group were the planners and implementers of the attacks (unless you want to argue that they would have balked, morally, at such an attack… which seems implausible).

    Anyway, I’m sure that there are all kinds of details surrounding the attacks, from embarrassing to incriminating, that have been covered up. As you say, that doesn’t provide proof that some other hypothesis is valid (“secret evidence would prove my argument; evidence has been suppressed therefore there is secret evidence; my argument must be correct” is simply not compelling to me).

    All arguments and hypotheses do have a place at the table. The question is how to weed things out. I have no problem with weeding out absurdity. After that, it seems fine to weed out the unprovable (“the attacks never happened because we all live in a computer simulation and the memories of the towers, and the people in them, were all implanted by our hidden robot overlords”).

    If you seek to prove that the Bush Administration has acted illegally by conspiring to further the wealth and power of their own faction in such a way as to cause terrible death and suffering—you don’t need secret evidence. It’s all out there already, with the War on Iraq (and other things, but that’s the most glaring example). The belief that I was marking as “magical thinking” was not the one you cite (although I agree with you on that too), but the belief that the presumed hidden details would, if exposed, “change everything” and that therefore unearthing that presumed secret evidence is more important than almost anything else.

  5. Lev Says:

    I, for one, welcome our hidden robot overlords. Moreover, I think we’re arguing at cross-purposes here, as we agree that BushCo certainly is morally capable of any degree of wickedness and treachery. I’m merely pointing out that the willingness or even desire to do so should not be taken as evidence that they did it. Especially when OBL himself has gleefully accepted responsibility for 9/11. Of course, you could argue that this doesn’t prove that BushCo didn’t turn a blind eye to the Al Qaeda conspiracy, but until there’s some compelling evidence to support that claim, it cannot be taken seriously.

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