On November 6, 2017, Frank Pomeroy, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas suffered an almost unimaginable loss: his fourteen-year-old daughter, Annabelle, along with 25 other church members, was killed when Devin P. Kelly opened fire during Sunday services.
What happened to him afterwards is almost as unimaginable. He and his congregation became the target of conspiracy theorists who insisted that the massacre never happened and was instead a “false flag” operation staged by the Department of Homeland Security. The people behind the theory told Pomeroy that Annabelle “never existed” and demanded to see a copy of her birth certificate.
The perpetrators were arrested and charged with making terroristic threats and possession of marijuana. (They admit the latter but deny the former.) Sadly, there are plenty more where they came from. Alex Jones of Infowars infamy, notoriously claimed that the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut was also a “false flag” and that no one actually died there. He made similar claims about the Las Vegas shootings.
More recently, in the aftermath of the massacre in Parkland, Florida, the internet, especially social media, was filled with nonsense about “crisis actors,” and, yes, “false flag” operations. The cretins who persecuted the people in Sutherland Springs offered a $100,000 “for proof of death in any of the listed staged events” at Parkland. (Someone, please pull the plug on Twitter now, before Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy” becomes a documentary!)
It’s easy to dismiss these people as “kooks” and their ideas as “fringe,” except that while the former may be true, the latter isn’t as true as we would like to believe. Half of all Americans surveyed believe that the government is concealing what it knows about the 9/11 attacks and the JFK assassination, approximately one-third say the same thing about plans for one-world government, the origins of the AIDS epidemic, and President Obama’s birth certificate. And around one quarter say the government is hiding the truth about the moon landings and the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
Nor is this a recent phenomenon. In 1964, the historian Richard Hofstadter published a now-classic essay entitled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” The immediate occasion for the essay was Senator Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. But as Hofstadter made clear at the outset, the “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that he calls “the paranoid style,” is “not necessarily right-wing.”
In his words, “The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.”
The Illuminati, Freemasons, and Jesuits are just a few of the groups who were, at different points in our history, regarded as mortal threats to our country’s survival. (The Anti-Masonic Party even elected members to Congress.) People talked about the “international gold ring” in the 1890s in almost the exact same way as Joseph McCarthy talked about communist infiltrators in the American government in the 1950s.
This raises an obvious question: What makes Americans so susceptible to conspiracy theories? What makes many of us so impervious to facts?
Kurt Andersen, a novelist and the host of Studio 360, is certain that religion, in particular, conservative Protestantism, has a lot to do with it. His history of American irrationality, “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire,” begins with Martin Luther. For Andersen, Luther’s contributions to America’s “Fantasyland” was his insistence that “every individual Christian believer could and should read and interpret Scripture for him- or herself,” and that “Having a particular set of beliefs was all that mattered” with regards to salvation,
Andersen, a self-described “liberal atheist,” isn’t a theologian or a historian — he’s a polemicist. He tells readers at the start of the book that “You’re not going to agree with me about all the various mental habits and beliefs and behaviors I classify here as imaginary or fantastical . . . As I pass by fish in barrels, I will often shoot them.” He’s true to his word.
He’s also an equal opportunity offender. As hard as he is on conservative Protestantism from the Puritans through Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement, he is just as hard on the 1960s counter-culture, the Esalen Institute, New-Age beliefs, and, well, just about any “lifestyle” phenomenon that originated in California.
According to Andersen, “America was created by people resistant to reality checks and convinced they had special access to the truth, a place founded to enact grand fantasies.” The combination of our “ultra-individualism” and our predilection for “epic dreams” and “sometimes epic fantasies,” aided by the “new era of information,” has brought us to a moment in which a man with an AR-15 could shoot up a D.C. pizza shop because he had read that it was part of a human-trafficking ring run by Hillary Clinton and John Podesta.
“Before the internet,” Andersen tells us, “crackpots were mostly isolated, and surely had a harder time remaining convinced of their alternate realities. Now their devoutly believed opinions are all over the airwaves and the web, just like actual news. Now all of the fantasies look real.”
The place where “all the fantasies look real” is the subject of “Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump” by David Neiwert, a journalist who has made a career of exposing right-wing extremism.
Despite the subtitle, the 2016 elections, the Trump administration, and even the “alt-right” play a relatively small part in Neiwert’s narrative. It’s about “an alternative universe that has a powerful resemblance to our own, except that it’s a completely different America, the nation its residents have concocted and reconfigured in their imaginations.”
In this “alternative universe,” the “Alt-America” of the book’s title, “suppositions take the place of facts, and conspiracy theories become concrete realities.” While its denizens “live alongside us in our universe . . . their perception of that universe places them in a different world altogether, one scarcely recognizable to those outside it.”
It’s an America where the “New World Order . . . is plotting to enslave all of mankind in a world government that permits no freedom,” and whose “many tentacles can be glimpsed daily in news events,” including the election of Kenyan Muslim as president of the United States.
It’s an America where “Oath Keepers,” comprised of “currently serving military, reserves, National Guard, peace officers, firefighters, and veterans,” pledge to not obey orders that would assist in the implementation of the New World Order, especially the rounding up and forcibly disarming American citizens.
For Neiwert, “Alt-America” is not some harmless eccentricity. In 2008, Jim David Adkisson, a full-time resident of “Alt-America,” opened fire on a Unitarian-Universalist Church in Tennessee, killing two and wounding eight more. He told investigators that he “targeted the church ‘because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country.’”
Once again, there are plenty more where Adkisson came from. According to Neiwert, since 2008, a large majority of domestic terrorism has been committed by residents of “Alt-America,” e.g. Dylann Roof.
The other way “Alt-America” isn’t harmless is that its “ideas” have escaped the alternate universe and entered, if not mainstream discourse, a not-too-distant suburb. Case in point: In 2015, the U.S. Military conducted a series of joint exercises called Jade Helm 15. It involved 1200 troops, drawn mostly from the Army along with a few Navy SEALS and some Air Force special forces operators, and took place mostly in Texas.
It’s stated purpose was “to improve the Special Operations Forces’ capability as part of the National Security Strategy.” That’s not how the aforementioned Alex Jones and other conspiracy theorists saw it. To them, Jade Helm 15 was preparation for occupying parts of the United States and disarming its citizens. They invoked the specter of ice cream trucks as portable morgues, and using Wal-Mart stores as “as processing locations or possibly to control the food supply in poorer areas.”
Phrases like “Texas Takeover” and “Preparation for martial law” were commonplace. So commonplace that, according to one poll, “one-third of Republicans [believed] the Jade Helm 15 conspiracy theory that ‘the government is trying to take over Texas,’ and another 28 percent of GOP voters haven’t made up their minds yet about the matter.”
This was nonsense, of course. Nevertheless, Texas governor Jim Abbott ordered the Texas National Guard to monitor the exercise. Other Texas politicians hopped on the top strand of barbed wire and said things like while “I have no reason to doubt [the Pentagon’s] assurances . . . I understand the reason for concern and uncertainty.”
It’s difficult to decide whether this is condescension, cowardice, cynicism, or a combination of these. Whatever it is, it’s not healthy to indulge people in their darkest fantasies. I’m concerned and uncertain about a lot of things, and most of these fears are baseless. My friends don’t indulge, much less encourage, my gift of catastrophism — they lovingly tell me that I’m being ridiculous.
While I believe that Andersen is largely wrong about the role religion, especially Christianity, plays in the creation of what he calls “Fantasyland,” if I’m honest I have to admit that there’s a soupçon of truth to what he says.
Christians — not the Christian faith — have contributed to the building and maintenance of America the Delusional. We also have a great deal to contribute to its demolition — a demolition that avoids the excesses of absurd credulity and caustic skepticism. That will be the subject of my next column.
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