My mom visited last weekend. She is currently renting a room to a housemate, and it seems that the housemate is a bit inclined towards conspiracy theories. One afternoon at lunch, mom told me that the housemate informed her that Barack Obama had just signed an executive order seizing control of all resources in the United States.
Mustering all my logical and rhetorical abilities, I decisively replied: “Uh… what?”
So she said, “It’s hard to argue with her. She did show me the order, and it seemed pretty authentic.” I said “Well, I’m not willing to just dismiss her claims out of hand without seeing what you saw, so let’s take a look at what we can find out.”
Being a self-styled master of Google Fu, and since my trusty Android has a good 4g connection from most places in Austin, I searched for “obama executive order seized”. What I got back was a mish-mash of right wing and conspiracy websites with a variety of apocalyptic language. Infowars.com. Prisonplanet.com. Examiner.com, which I never heard of, but the article in question had a picture of Obama making a scary face with a caption that said “Do what I say or you’ll be sorry!” I asked, “Does that look like objective journalism to you?”
However, I did go deeply enough into the stories to find a name of the document, titled “Executive Order — National Defense Resources Preparedness.” I tried reading it. I started skimming it and reading possibly important paragraphs out loud. However, not being a lawyer or a politician, my eyes started glazing over pretty quickly.
(a) identify requirements for the full spectrum of emergencies, including essential military and civilian demand.
(b) assess on an ongoing basis the capability of the domestic industrial and technological base to satisfy requirements in peacetime and times of national emergency, specifically evaluating the availability of the most critical resource and production sources, including subcontractors and suppliers, materials, skilled labor, and professional and technical personnel;
“This is a declaration of dictatorship?” I asked. “It sounds a lot like what Roosevelt did during World War II to supply armies with equipment. Do you need me to go over this whole thing in detail?”
I switched to another angle; I googled for the name of the order, looking for legitimate news sources explaining the implications. Not a thing turned up that wasn’t yet another paranoia-spun story from blogs and tabloids. I said “I’m not willing to say that the news is totally unbiased, but don’t you think a little thing like Obama seizing control of our national resources would be of some minor interest to even, let’s say, The New York Times?”
Finally, I said “Okay. I’m going to roll up my sleeves and actually take a look at one of the right wing sites. Here’s Hotair.com. Maybe they will explain to me exactly what part of this thing is such a huge threat.” So here’s what we read:
We’re getting a lot of e-mail this weekend about an executive order issued on Friday afternoon by President Obama titled “National Defense Resources Preparedness.” While the timing of the EO is curious — why send it out on a Friday afternoon when an administration is usually trying to sneak bad news past the media? — the general impact of it is negligible. This EO simply updates another EO (12919) that had been in place since June 1994, and amended several times since.
There you have it. Even Hot Air — whose own “About” page proudly boasts about being “right-wing bloggers” accused of “wild and hateful claims” — thinks it’s all a load of, well, hot air.
Case closed, I would like to think. And in case it’s not dead enough, here’s Snopes weighing in on the matter a few days later. This act has been in effect, in some form or another, since the Truman administration. The latest version is at best a minor modification of the one enacted by Clinton. It would make just as little sense to accuse George W. Bush of a military coup because he failed to invalidate it.
The Conspiracy Mindset
I hope this post is not embarrassing to my mother, since it’s not intended to criticize her. My mother is well educated, with a Ph.D in physics, is not generally prone to conspiracy herself, and as a liberal, she’s unlikely to come up with something like this to attack Obama. (You’ll recall, we were setting out to respond to her roommate, but she wasn’t sure how seriously to take this stuff.)
But as Michael Shermer noted in Why People Believe Weird Things, you don’t have to be a fool to find bad ideas seductive. If anything, scientists are used to dealing with people who are nominally honest and transparent about their motives, and can have a hard time in the face of confronting flat out, deliberate lies or elaborate fantasies. Here’s James Randi explaining how someone fooled a bunch of scientists with a simple parlor trick.
So mom asks the logical follow up question, “Why do people come up with this sort of thing?” A fair point, I said, and then I asked if she ever heard of how the country is run by lizard people?
She hadn’t, so I pulled up a few pages on reptilians, including this ridiculous example, tracked down on the spot, about the “Photographic Evidence that Barack Obama is a Human/Reptilian Hybrid“. True story! Crazy, right?
In the Non-Prophets conversation Lynnea and I had with Guy P. Harrison a couple of weeks ago, Guy made an interesting point about different types of popular yet silly beliefs. Guy said that your typical person who believes in ghosts could be described as not thinking enough. If anything, the opposite is true of conspiracy theorists — they think way too much in order to draw connections that aren’t there. I’m reminded of the scene in “A Beautiful Mind” where Russell Crowe as John Nash draws crazy connections all over the blackboard… or more recently, Jon Stewart mocking Glenn Beck’s tendency to do the same thing.
I explain it as follows: People with a certain mindset often feel frustrated about the fact that they don’t have a lot of power in their own lives. The idea that the entire world is controlled by a group of elite people with a deliberate and terrifying agenda is appealing on multiple levels. First, it is makes them feel like it’s not their fault that they aren’t more empowered themselves. Since the malevolent forces are running everything, I can’t become as rich or famous or self-actualized as I’d like, because they don’t want me to.
Second, just “knowing” about the conspiracy is superficially empowering in itself. I may not actually be one of the elite who pulls the levers of power. But by God, I am one of the select few who actually knows and understands the full extent of the conspiracy. All those pathetic sheeple out there are just living in ignorance, and that makes me so much smarter than them. You can see how this would be seductive.
This happened to be a right wing conspiracy theory; but, I told my mom, it doesn’t have to be. It’s just that Obama happens to be the president right now, and he happens to be a Democrat, and so much more of the paranoia is focused on him. Many of the same people who today live in fear of the scary socialist kicking in their doors were at least nominally paranoid of George W. Bush in the mid 2000′s. Here’s Alex Jones railing against the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration. If you listen to David Icke, both Bush and Obama are reptilians, and for good measure, so were Clinton and Bush Senior, and perhaps every other president who was ever elected.
In reality, I don’t think the people who do have power always have the best of intentions. But the way their bad intentions manifest is far more often through a habit of grabbing as much short term advantage as they can, rather than having a long term goal to destroy everything for nefarious purposes. Other people may get screwed over as collateral damage that the actors don’t care about, but enriching yourself by some scheme that just “happens” to steal your new wealth from the pockets of a bunch of other suckers, isn’t done with the goal of destroying the suckers; it’s just a by-product.
In other words, painting your opponents as Dr. Evil tends to be counter productive, in that it obscures their real motivations in favor of letting yourself believe an oddly comforting fiction.