Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The conspiracy theory mentality

Today I ran into a fun post, accompanied by a video, at http://zpolicy.blogspot.com/2009/08/of-conspiracies.html.

Having lived through the "Paul is dead" hoax, the "moon landing is fake" theory, and lots of other strangeness, I find conspiracy theories in general to be often laughable but sometimes pernicious.

I occasionally need to use snopes.com and other sources to explain to my friends why I'm not going to pass on their frantic e-mails about the latest terrible thing "THEY" are doing. (E.g., http://secret-memo.blogspot.com/2009/07/false-claim-about-aclu.html.)

I've also posted on the Obama birth certificate craziness--http://secret-memo.blogspot.com/2009/02/president-obamas-birth-certificate.html. The amazing thing with that conspiracy is that "they" even managed to put an announcement of Obama's birth in a Honolulu paper shortly after his "birth," in anticipation of his run for the presidency--unless all the old Honolulu newspaper archives have been falsified!

What's wrong with the conspiracy theory mentality? Yes, paranoia, fear, distrust. I've even seen conspiracy-prone friends on the verge of psychosis, seeing "signs" everywhere: in license plates, on billboards, on ceilings in the Salt Lake Temple. The conspiracy theory mentality also breeds contention, lack of civility and charity, egomania, violent fantasies, and the breakdown of such mental faculties as insight, wisdom, intelligence, understanding, and rational inquiry and analysis. I believe it shows a lack of genuine trust in God. And it diminishes and destroys such gifts of the Spirit as love, joy, peace, faith, hope, meekness, patience, and brotherly kindness. Come to think of it, it basically takes a wrecking ball to all of the Christlike attributes.

I suspect these are among the reasons LDS Church leaders have warned against this kind of mentality, a mentality to which Church members are sometimes prone. I remember several instances of such warnings, and I read recently in The Mormon Quest for the Presidency (Newell Bringhurst and Craig Foster) of Church efforts during the 1990s to dissuade members who were following the likes of Bo Gritz into various troubling activities: refusing to pay taxes, forming armed militias, accusing Church leaders of "muzzling" President Benson, etc. Bo Gritz, a white supremacist and conspiracy theorist who had joined the Church and who ran for the US presidency, ended up asking to have his name removed from Church records, feeling the Church had gone astray, and went on to take part in the "Fellowship of Eternal Warriors" and other survivalist groups and to warn that America was in "the cusp of Global Corporate Fascism." Another Church member who was excommunicated (and later started his own sect in Manti, Utah) accused the Church of supporting the "New World Order," a favorite target of conspiracy theorists (including Bo Gritz, who believes the United Nations is a front for the New World Order).

In response to some of these conspiracy theorists and other right wing activists of the early 1990s, Elder Boyd K. Packer said the following in his October 1992 General Conference address ("To Be Learned Is Good If . . ."): "There are some among us now who have not been regularly ordained by the heads of the Church and who tell of impending political and economic chaos, the end of the world--something of the 'sky is falling, chicken licken' of the fables. They are misleading members to gather to colonies or cults. Those deceivers say that the Brethren do not know what is going on in the world or that the Brethren approve of their teaching but do not wish to speak of it over the pulpit. Neither is true."

The truth is that, despite involvement by some Latter-day Saints in right-wing movements and conspiracy theorizing, the membership of the Church as a whole--and especially the leadership as a group--have been reasonably mainstream, preferring a rational approach to national and world problems and participation in the normal workings of civil society. The First Presidency has sought a good relationship with ALL recent US Presidents, of both political parties. And for any who may be saying, "But doesn't the Book of Mormon teach conspiracy theories?" I would give as my considered opinion the following: The teachings of that book--about violent bands of robbers, about political corruption, and about spiritual darkness in general--are not only true but are vastly different (especially in tone and spirit) from the typical conspiracy theory mentality. One of the biggest differences is that the Book of Mormon calls on people to repent of their own sins, NOT to become obsessed with other people's sins, especially sins that are supposedly hidden somewhere in the recesses of a bizarre and incredibly complicated conspiratorial design but that, it turns out, are mainly a fantasy projected from the dark chambers of one's own soul.


Saul Goode said...

This is so right on Brother Young! It's hard to believe the fear-mongering that goes on-- especially within the church. You heard of a book by Jack Monnet (think that's his name) called Awakening to Our Awful Situation or somethin like that? Insane. One of my buddies gave it to me to read and it's unbelievable what this guy comes up with.

Love your blogs my man. Keep it comin.

Paul Garns

Garry Wilmore said...

This is one of your best posts, and I agree wholeheartedly with your views. I joined the Church in 1970, and one of the first negative things I noticed about the LDS culture was that so many members were either John Birchers or sympathizers with them. The Birch Society's day has pretty much come and gone, but I still see those attitudes from time to time.

I have a co-worker who is not LDS, but believes in all sorts of crazy conspiracy theories and is constantly trying to educate me, without success, about what "they" are doing. I always tell her that I regard all conspiracy theories with a VERY high degree of skepticism, but she never gives up, and frequently asks me if I have seen this or that expose on YouTube, or wherever. She brought up the bit about Obama supposedly not being native-born, but I cut her short and told her I thought the idea was ridiculous; and that besides, even if he had in fact been born outside the country, his mother was indisputably a U. S. citizen throughout her entire life, which meant Obama was automatically one as well. I suggested that there are many legitimate criticisms one can make of Obama, but his Constitutional eligibility to be President of the United States is not one of them.

And I nearly laughed out loud once when she told me, in a dead-serious and almost sotto-voce tone, that Lee Harvey Oswald had been a CIA operative. (This came up because I had told her I have always believed Oswald acted alone in killing JFK.) I said Oswald was such an obvious and pathetic loser that even the KGB didn't want him when he was in Russia and offered his services to the agency, and that the Soviet government was in fact glad to be rid of him when he finally left the country after 2-1/2 years.

We don't see quite as much of the conspiracy talk in the LDS culture as we used to, but something of its spirit lingers on, especially in the form of the "faith-promoting rumors" that seem constantly to be making the rounds.