‘Audacious in their Conjectures’: Why ‘MemeWatch’ Doesn’t Work

slaying_the_hydra600

Hercules battles the Hydra

Conspiracy theories are in the news again. Actually, it seems like they’re everywhere.

As I was binge-watching “Money Heist” on Netflix the other night, I noticed all the talk on that show about “sticking with the Plan” and “trust the professor” and team loyalty. It had a very “Where We Go One, We Go All” vibe.

And then something suddenly popped into my mind –  a historical precedent to our current political mess. So I rummaged around through my bookshelves and found my copy of Augustine’s “City of God” to look it up.

Augustine of Hippo, in this fifth-century work, was trying to interpret Paul’s prophetic insight into the Last Days in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 – “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way.”

Augustine admitted something astonishing: “I frankly confess I do not know what he means.”

(Such humility is rare, especially from Bible teachers, especially these days, when self-anointed Christian ‘prophets’ have not hesitated to predict mistaken outcomes of Presidential elections. More on that later).

Augustine then relates a number of possible interpretations, and proposes that the Emperor Nero could have been Paul’s prototype for the Antichrist, or the Beast, because his “deeds already seemed to be as the deeds of Antichrist.”

As an aside, he notes the curious continuing belief in a “Nero Redivivus” – perhaps the original political conspiracy theory:

“Others…suppose that [Nero] is not even dead, but that he was concealed that he might be supposed to have been killed, and that he now lives in concealment … and will live until he is revealed in his own time and restored to his kingdom.  But I wonder that men can be so audacious in their conjectures.”

This belief in a returning Nero actually survived for several centuries after his death. Now that’s a sticky conspiracy theory.

‘Trump Redivivus’

After Joe Biden was declared the winner of the Nov. 3, 2020, Presidential election, a sort of  “Trump Redivivus” was hoped for. The first defining date was Dec. 14, when Electoral College votes were required from the states. It was preceded by furious legal maneuvers by Trump’s attorneys to stop the count, but to no avail. When that day came and went, a new scheme was revealed.

In 2018, President Trump had signed an executive order requiring the intelligence services to report any foreign interference 45 days after any election. In 2020 that would be the week after Dec. 14. A meme circulated warning that Trump would use that report in the next few days to begin the “Storm.”:

“This will freeze the money and assets of people and entities to include Facebook, Twitter, the Fake News Corp, AND Chinese U.S. financial accounts. Be prepared to assist the National Guard and the military commands in defense of Our nation. Make sure that you have your weapons at the ready. But DO NOT interfere with the operations of the military. During this time, local law enforcement will have no authority. So, assemble small Patriot teams to patrol and secure your own and surrounding neighbors.”

But none of that happened.

The next chance for a Trump revival was Jan. 6 when Congress would confirm the Electoral College vote.

Many thousands gathered at a rally Trump predicted would be “wild.” Hundreds of his die-hard supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a shocking and violent attempt to “Stop the Steal.” When despite this the Electoral College votes were counted, and Joe Biden was officially confirmed as President-Elect, they did not give up.

After much consternation, another date has now surfaced from Qanon theorists – March 4.

Why that day?

Citing obscure documents like the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1871, which established D.C. as a municipal corporation, Qanon supporters of Trump say the United States itself is not actually run by a Constitution anymore but is now a corporation, secretly controlled by international bankers. Thus any enactment of Congress after 1871 isn’t valid, and parts of the Constitution need not be obeyed.

For those who believe this, the 20th Amendment is not valid. That constitutional amendment moved up the inauguration from its original date of March 4 to Jan. 20. So, the theory goes, when March 4 arrives, Donald Trump can swoop back in and legally say, “I’ve been president all along, I’m taking a second term,” and then the mass arrests and the coming Storm all take place as predicted.

Got it?

[Editor’s Update: Nothing happened March 4 either]

How long this “moving of the goalposts” will continue is only limited by the imagination of the Qanon theorists, who have shown they can indeed be wildly “audacious in their conjectures.” Like Bruce Lee’s maxim, “Be water,” Qanon rationalizations flow freely, rewriting their own rules and evading the restraining hands of reason and truth.

‘Belief Perseverance’

That’s why my “MemeWatch” fact-checking project will never succeed. I did not factor in something social scientists call “belief perseverance.”

This refers to times when people hold tightly to their initial beliefs even when new information directly disproves them.

In other words, even if someone accepts my fact-check as accurate, their beliefs can persevere – in spite of clear evidence to the contrary.

Why? Humans naturally fill in or stretch a broad narrative over their scaffolding of individual facts, whether it’s true or not – a story about why they are right to believe what they believe, a compelling explanation for why something is true and how all the relationships are interconnected and form a whole, seamless garment.

A fact check or a contravening bit of information may knock out one piece of this inner scaffolding, but the narrative will still hold together, supported by other facts and the texture of the narrative itself. Then, a person can go back later and fill in the missing piece of scaffolding, perhaps with some new fact. Even though the scaffolding is becoming rickety, the storyline it supports is still hanging together in the person’s mind, and can be continually repaired.

A similar thing happens in the human eye. We each have a blind spot in our visual field because we lack light receptors at the point where the optic nerve enters. We don’t notice this because our brains fill in the blind spot with information from the surrounding field.

In psychology experiments, even when the participants were told in the end that the original information they were given was false, they continued to be convinced of the narrative they had formed after taking it in during the experiment.

The most interesting part of these findings is that when experimenters directly ask people to write down a defense for their belief, they held onto that initial belief even more than people who never had to explain theirs. Apparently, generating explanations or rationalizations for our beliefs leads us to hold on to them even more firmly,

Scientists also identified a “backfire” effect. Any correction necessarily reinforces the rhetorical framework and the false narrative around it. (You can’t correct someone else’s myth without restating it). At the same time, too many counterarguments can sometimes strengthen people’s faith in a false belief, especially if this threatens their worldview.

Squirrely Facts

My grandson (we’re seeing a lot of him during the pandemic) announced the other day he heard on the TV show “Wild Kratts” that when a squirrel wants to climb down a tree trunk, it can turn its feet backwards. What? That can’t possibly be true! But it is, and it destroyed my whole previous concept about squirrel locomotion. But because my concept of squirrels is not connected to my worldview or to any grand theory, I accepted it easily. Sure, why not.

But what if a fact supporting my conspiracy theory is contradicted? To threaten that fact puts stress on the whole narrative I have heavily invested in, and brings suspicion down on the source of this new, conflicting fact.  Perhaps it’s even part of the conspiracy itself, a lie spread by the enemy!

Encountering resistance seems to fortify the psychological “immune system” of the conspiracy-minded, producing “antibodies” against future attempts at persuasion.

Rather than argue over a particular fact, a different and more fruitful approach may be to listen to each other more closely and ask questions as part of a dialogue: “Why do you believe this? What caused you to arrive where you are in your thinking?” Psychologists call this “motivational interviewing.” It requires a genuine desire to understand people’s motivations. I love this idea, but unfortunately this is impossible to do on social media during a pandemic.

Still, social media is the forum that has evolved for spreading these false theories, so my MemeWatch project will continue, although with much lowered expectations.

There’s another factor – if a person feels included in a community of people who believe the same way, discarding a belief in these false “facts” is even harder to do.

As a young teenager in the early ’60s I would sometimes go with my Dad, a newspaper reporter, when he covered political rallies at Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas. Followers of the American Nazi Party would regularly confront protesters against the Vietnam War. Sometimes Nation of Islam representatives in their bow ties would be passing out copies of  their newspaper, “Muhammed Speaks.” There was also a smattering of local kooky individuals on hand. I would bring some of that literature home, fascinated by the conflicting views and shocked by the often ugly racist conspiracies and fake facts.

If you really wanted to interact with ultra-conservative fringe spokesmen, you could go to the John Birch Society’s American Opinion Bookstore in Oak Lawn. Leftist opinions were spread in the pages of the “Notes from the Underground” free newspaper. But these groups were limited in their ability to recruit, interact and spread their beliefs.

Before the Internet age, conspiracy theorists were often isolated, communicating by circulating books or pamphlets.  But the Qanon faithful reinforce themselves in real time as a community through social media interaction, while using the same venue to spread their version of reality. They can be “super spreaders” with little effort.

The whole Qanon phenomenon is very much like playing a first-person-shooter video game with online friends. Each participant gets to be a hero as they hunt down the bad guys.  It’s fun, and you share special technical knowledge and jargon that others don’t know. You can take Q’s “drops,” riff on them, and add in your own spin. Except with Qanon, the consequences are real and sometimes tragic.

Whac-A-Mole vs The Hydra

The real problem can never be addressed on social media anyway. My hit-and-miss attempts at fact-checking to get to the truth are about as productive as Whac-a-Mole.

What’s really needed is something more serious – an attack on the Hydra. But that’s something people must do on their own.

In Greek mythology, one of Hercules’ 12 labors was to kill the Hydra. According to Robert Graves in “The Greek Myths,” the Hydra “had a prodigious dog-like body, and eight or nine snaky heads, one of them immortal; but some credit it with fifty, or one hundred, or even ten thousand heads.” It was so venomous that its very breath, or the smell of its tracks, could destroy life. A seven-headed version of this dragon-like being also appears in the Book of Revelation.

When one of Hydra’s heads was cut off, two more would grow back. Only when its central, golden or ”immortal” head was cut off could the Hydra be defeated.

The real challenge is not fixing wrong facts on a social media post – they just grow back and multiply like Hydra heads. When one bit of misinformation is debunked, many more spring up to take its place.

Trump advisor Steve Bannon applied this tactic to the political landscape with his maxim: “Flood the zone with sh*t.” Basically he meant “Let a million Hydra heads bloom.”

Chopping off the master Hydra head is the only thing that can end the lure of these attractive but lethal deceptions. But like the Beast in Revelation, it seems to keep recovering from its “deadly head wound” (Revelation 13:3).

But what is this root of personal and social bitterness that is so difficult to find and extract?

Our ‘Evil Inclination’

The Jewish sages called it the “evil inclination.” The New Testament describes it as “the flesh” as opposed to the Spirit. Psychologists name it the “id” – or perhaps it’s the “ego,” or the “super ego,” or maybe all three.  If you want to get theological, call it sin. I just call it “me.”

Left to its own devices, this “evil inclination” is a bottomless pit of self-reference, self-pity, fear, pride, anger, accusation and inordinate desire. We are each affected by it in different ways. It drives some to lawlessness and self-indulgence. Others retreat to a bunker of fear, anger and defensiveness. Often the Hydra can keep us ground down under guilt and shame.  Religious Pharisees resort to self-righteous finger pointing.

But Christians believe it’s what Jesus came to free us from.

Conspiracies play into one version of the Hydra head.

Fear of being scammed or victimized seems to be part of every conspiracy theory belief. There may also be a “vow” involved – “I’ll never be fooled again!” But in trying to enforce that vow, we can be seduced by the very thing we fear.

The Qanon believers I know are smart, educated and of good character. But humans have evolved the propensity to see patterns and make connections in order to survive predators and centuries of tribal warfare. Conspiracy theorists may have an overly developed propensity to perceive threats and connect the dots – whether there’s a real pattern there or not. Combining that with our human “evil inclination” can lead us down some dark paths.

The truth is we are not victims, God is in control and always has been, and real love requires openness and vulnerability. So what is keeping us in a continually defensive stance, distrustful and angry, fearful or hurt and feeling victimized?

The Hydra head represents humanity in its natural state, scrambling to survive. Another New Testament label for it is the Old Man, Adam, masquerading in each of us.  The path back to sanity requires finding it, “revenging the disobedience” as St. Paul says, and then digging deep to recover the concept of truth and love again for ourselves, our congregations and our society.

‘Post-Truth’ and Postmodernism

Our culture has played a part in setting up an environment friendly to Q’s tactics.

The Oxford English Dictionary made “post-truth” the word of the year in 2016, defining it as where “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

British Philosopher A. C. Grayling says the post-truth era is leading to the “corruption of intellectual integrity” and damage to “the whole fabric of democracy.”

It has been exacerbated by social media, where strongly expressed opinion can shout down evidence. Post-modernism, deconstructionism and relativism in philosophy laid the groundwork, claiming that everything is relative, and that each person has his or her own personal “truth.” It has filtered down into our culture to infect even many Christians who would normally resist and decry such a philosophy.

Daniel J. Boorstin, in his 1961 book “The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America” perhaps saw our day: “We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that we can live in them.”

Remember “truthiness?” An article in The Atlantic in 2017 by Kurt Andersen recalled Stephen Colbert’s satirical take on this emerging mindset when he first introduced that term.

Here’s Colbert’s schtick: “Now, I’m sure some of the ‘word police,’ the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s, are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word!’ Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true. Or what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that’s my right. I don’t trust books — they’re all fact, no heart … Face it, folks, we are a divided nation … divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart … Because that’s where the truth comes from, ladies and gentlemen — the gut.”

It was funny then, but not so much now that we’re living it.

But I get it. The world is filled with mysteries and uncertainty. Science can’t even explain the concept of time. Quantum physics questions the basic makeup of our reality. String theory posits a multiverse of up to 11 dimensions. No one knows exactly what “consciousness” is.

And after decades in which Americans fell for pseudoscience, New Age religions and cults, televangelist prosperity gospel claims, UFO abductions, chemtrails and “Chariots of the Gods,” we shouldn’t be surprised that irrational thinking has now taken over large swaths of the political landscape.

Today we find mythical creatures are still causing problems.

Worshipping Q

The most remarkable fact from the Trump years is how a mythical person calling himself Q was able to remove facts and truth from the public square and from all political discourse, and replace them with suspicion and accusation.

From Pizzagate to “the Kraken,” Q’s grand conspiracy theory was able to take over people’s thinking, confuse and divert political discussion into endless loops of vitriol, eventually sucking his followers down into a whirlpool of mindless and unfalsifiable accusations.

Somebody will eventually write a complete evaluation of this whole phenomenon. I want to comment only on how Christians were led down this path, how it resulted in damage to the Gospel and our credibility, and what might be done to salvage something from the experience.

I’m reminded of Paul’s concerns about the church in Colossae, “that no one may delude you with beguiling speech” (Colossians 2:4).

I’ve been searching for a metaphor for Q’s “beguiling speech.”

Maybe it’s Harold Hill, the huckster in “The Music Man” who tricked an Iowa town into buying non-existent band instruments. He first creates an imagined danger – “Pool, right here in River City!” There’s even the song about spreading slander and gossip – “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little.” In the musical, everyone’s hopes are raised, and the town comes together in unity, but in our real-life River City, the “Wells Fargo Wagon” never arrives.

Or possibly it’s the scene in “The Wizard of Oz” when the “man behind the curtain” turns out not to be the Great and Powerful Oz but just a “humbug” and a self-confessed second-rate fortune teller. Except in our real world version, there’s neither confession nor humility.

To be clear, Donald Trump is not the huckster in these metaphors. He appears to be tricked into really believing the narrative along with everyone else. The huckster is Q. And his narrative has been accepted because …it was what people wanted to believe.

During the pandemic and in an election year, with people locked down, isolated, under duress and with plenty of time on their hands, Q-think exploded.

The Covid-19 PanDEMic

First the Qanon theory said that the virus was a Deep-State plot, and that it was no more deadly than the annual flu. After the WHO upgraded COVID-19 to pandemic status and the U.S. announced it was closing its borders to most people from Europe for 30 days, Qanon changed the narrative. Suddenly, the pandemic was something to celebrate because it was a cover for the Trump administration’s secret plan to arrest Deep State agents.

David Hayes, “The Praying Medic” – an influencer in the Qanon community with 300,000 YouTube subscribers – said in a March 14, 2020, livestream that there was no reason to be concerned about COVID-19. Hayes reassured his viewers that they may not be affected by the disease because this was “spiritual warfare” — only those who have not been chosen by God will be affected by the disease.

In his first official “drop” on the topic of COVID-19 on March 23, Q claimed COVID-19 was a Chinese bioweapon, and that the virus release was a joint venture between China and the Democrats to stop Trump’s re-election by destroying the economy.

Some churches began to take a stand against masking and restrictions on large gatherings, ignoring any responsibility for public health. Florida pastor Rodney Howard-Browne preached that the virus was planned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In May, a YouGov poll found that 28 percent of U.S. respondents believed that Bill Gates wants to use vaccines to implant microchips.

Alternately, the coronavirus pandemic was declared a hoax, proven by photos of “empty” hospitals around the country. (As usual, many of these obviously contradictory theories were spread by people at the same time).

Of course, we now know the virus is deadly, and has killed more than 455,000 people. The number of fatalities in just one week now equals all those who died in the previous flu season.

Q has been silent since the election, but his Qanon movement continues. Maybe they don’t really need him anymore.

In a previous post, I emphasized the importance of an agreed upon standard of truth, and how Christians’ cavalier attitude about facts on social media has harmed the spread of the gospel, and marred the very idea of Jesus as Truth.

Under the sway of Qanon conspiracy theories over the last few years, hundreds of Christian ministers and thousands of ordinary church members posted and tweeted out vile accusations that later proved to be unfounded and untrue.

The Q narrative at the end of 2020 began to focus on claims that the Presidential election was rigged, stolen by manipulation of votes through voting machine software.  It merged with a convoluted “Hammer and Scorecard” theory proposed by a former CIA operative (and proven scammer) that included Obama-era supercomputers and eventually a shootout in Frankfurt, Germany, in which CIA director Gina Haspel was killed trying to seize the servers where the election was flipped.  (Don’t worry, none of this was true. Haspel is alive and well, and resigned Jan. 19 so Biden nominee William Burns could take her place).

But Trump was not re-elected. The Storm failed to appear, as did the “Kraken” – the “firehose” of supporting facts to prove a stolen election promised by Trump attorneys Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani.

Then Jan. 6 happened. The bubbling stew of conspiracy accusations boiled over, leading to five deaths, an illegal invasion of the Capitol and an attempt to stop a sitting joint session of Congress from completing its Constitutional duty.

I was sure this would finally “break the spell” of Qanon. For some it did, not so much for others. Christians have continued in the forefront, spreading Q’s doctrines.

Where are the corrections, the retractions and public apologies?

“Thus Sayeth the Lord…”

Many ministers in 2016 saw Donald Trump as anointed by God, divinely assigned to save America and protect religious freedom.

Dozens of ministers posted “prophecies” that Donald Trump would be re-elected in 2020, many reasserting their prediction even in the weeks following the Nov. 3 election.

One of Trump’s spiritual advisors, Paula White, released a video in November prophesying that God has dispatched angels from Africa and South America to help Trump achieve victory.

So, were the angelic hosts beaten back? Did they get lost? Did they fail? Will it all become clear March 4?

Even after the Capitol insurrection, most Qanon followers kept the faith, “Trusting the Plan.”

One example: Brandon Burden, lead pastor at KingdomLife Church in Frisco, Texas, said after the Jan. 6 mob attack at the Capitol, that “prophetic voices” told him Trump would remain president and it’s up to Christians to execute that order. God “said from his desk in heaven, this is my will; Trump will be in office for eight years.”

But… Joe Biden has now been inaugurated, and Donald Trump is no longer President. There was no “Storm.” Nothing panned out. Q has disappeared, hopefully buried like the idol of Dagon under the rubble of his collapsed Philistine temple.

How should Christians respond?

It just so happens that there are passages in the Bible that cover this stuff:

– Deuteronomy 18:20-22 – “But the prophet that shall speak a word presumptuously in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die. And if thou say in thy heart: ‘How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken?’ When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken; the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously, thou shalt not be afraid of him.”

– Exodus 23:1, 7 – “Thou shalt not raise a false report: put not thine hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness… Keep far from a false charge.”

– Leviticus 19:16 – “You must not go about spreading slander …”

Chew on that, and then read it again. Christians who have been following and passing along the Qanon conspiracy posts and tweets are violating these commands of God. Nothing in Q’s predictions ever came to pass. These Christians have been speaking, if you will, in the “name of another god” – Q.

Isn’t some repentance appropriate?

Retractions

Thankfully,  some ministers realized their mistakes and walked back their false prophecies.

One retraction I’ve seen is by Jeremiah Johnson, pastor of GracePoint Church in Georgetown, KY.:

“I do not blame God’s people for insufficient prayer that resulted in Donald Trump’s losing the election, nor do I blame any kind of election fraud. I am simply convinced God Himself removed him and there was nothing that any human being could have done about it. I prophesied inaccurately that he would be re-elected because of the dream I had in October 2020. Perhaps the first two parts were born of the Spirit and the third part was of the flesh — a soulish desire of mine that was not from God. “

Johnson said in response to his retraction he has received thousands of emails calling him a traitor along with multiple death threats. “To my great heartache, I’m convinced parts of the prophetic/charismatic movement are far SICKER than I could have ever dreamed of,” he wrote. “It’s terrifying! It’s full of idolatry!”7

Another retraction came from Kris Vallotton, senior associate leader of Bethel Church in Redding, Calif., who described the experience as “humiliating” days after the election.  He then took his apology down, waiting until “the process” worked itself out. Finally he reposted his apology again Jan. 13.

R. Loren Sanford, senior pastor of Newsong Church and Ministries in Denver, also confessed to a false prophecy about a Trump victory: “I allowed myself to be caught up in a prevailing stream and to be carried along by it. In doing that, I actually compromised what the Lord had already told me years before.”

Many Christians supported President Trump’s attempt to stop the Electoral College vote count. There was even a nationwide “Sound the Horns of Jericho” – a honking of car horns at noon on Jan. 6, meant to mimic the blowing of the shofar at the biblical battle of Jericho.

In that ancient battle, God toppled the walls of Jericho on Israel’s behalf. At the Capitol, though, rioters themselves had to break the glass to get in, and five people died amidst the looting and vandalism.

We sometimes forget that Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

Wouldn’t that make a good slogan to put on a cap?

Of course, it is perfectly legitimate for believers to be involved in politics; to argue for or against policies and legislation that is important to our faith; to support a candidate; to endorse justice and mercy, law and order, in whatever way our conscience and our understanding of scripture directs us.

Everyone should be free to debate solutions, select and vote for representatives and participate as part of our political order.

But to spread slanderous accusations without bothering to validate them shows almost criminal spiritual neglect. It’s a spiritual problem, not a political one, that needs to be addressed. This has been going on for years on social media and has now produced some very bitter fruit. As a Bible teacher I would be remiss in not speaking to it.

Even after the Jan. 6 Capitol assault, Christian “prophets” kept adding to the false narrative.

“Anyone who think this ends tonight is totally mistaken … you are still the president and we need you to stay on the front lines, sir,” self-styled prophet Mario Bramnick, one of Trump’s faith advisers, posted Jan. 7, the day after the Capitol attack.

The 24/7 National Strategic Prayer Call, a 10,000-member Arkansas-based ministry that hosts weekly live prayer calls, told its listeners Jan. 12, “We thank God for exposing and foiling all the plans of the enemy set against [President Trump]. We affirm his lawful election and pray for four more years with Donald Trump as our president!”

The rioters and planners of the Jan. 6 attack were overwhelmingly people who took seriously the kinds of unfounded accusations these ministries were spreading and validating. Many were members of right-wing militias and racist groups that have been tolerated and even welcomed, rather than shunned as they should have been, by Christian Q supporters.

That mob action punctuated the truth of a saying by Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”

After Jan. 6, Lance Wallnau, a self-professed prophet who correctly predicted Trump’s victory in 2016, began to urge his followers to disregard conspiracy theories making the rounds on prophetic sites — such as one about Trump being about to declare martial law. As far as the false predictions, he asked: “Why is it our people are so vulnerable to this stuff?”

Why indeed?

Maybe you don’t care about Christianity or the scriptures or God. There’s still good reason to refrain from spreading lies.

In his Atlantic article, author Kurt Andersen offers the best metaphor against passing on Internet conspiracy memes that I’ve heard. He wonders, would you pass on to your children a half-eaten casserole a stranger handed you on the bus, or give them medicine you got from some lady at the gym rather than from a pharmacy?

That’s what we’re doing when we pass on to others some titillating but dangerous rumor or accusation on the Internet that we neglect to check. It can have dire consequences.

There were predecessors who laid the groundwork for Q.

Alex Jones, on his InfoWars radio show, claimed both President Obama and Hillary Clinton were – literally – demons from hell.

It wasn’t a big step from that to Q’s Ur-conspiracy theory that President Trump is waging a secret war against Satan-worshipping pedophile elites in government, business, the media and Hollywood, and this fight will lead to a day of reckoning – the “Storm” – when prominent people such as former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will be arrested and executed.

And Q is not the source of all current conspiracy theories. Anthony Q. Warner, the suspected Nashville Christmas bomber, may have believed in alien “lizard people” – shape-shifting, blood-sucking reptilian humanoids taking power and influencing events on earth.

But sometimes these theories overlap. A Qanon adherent was accused in 2019 of murdering his own brother because he thought he was one of these “lizard people.” As many as 12 million Americans believed in this lizard people conspiracy according to a 2013 Public Policy Polling survey. It’s safe to assume the number is higher today.

Wisconsin hospital pharmacist Steven R. Brandenburg, who recently pled guilty to sabotaging hundreds of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, told the FBI he believed the pandemic was a hoax. But he also believed “the earth is flat; the sky is not real, rather it is a shield put up by the Government to prevent individuals from seeing God.”

Many of these beliefs – like those that target George Soros or the Rothschilds –  link back to 19th century fear of immigrants and anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish control of world finance. Strange, because many of the Christians who share these theories profess strong support for Jews and the state of Israel.

The latest Qanon theory, launched amid confusion about the failure of the “Storm” to appear, deduces that Joe Biden is really Donald Trump. They’ve switched faces, or we see only a CGI or hologram of some sort. Trump was really sworn in as President, he’s still in charge and will soon arrest the elite pedophile Democrats as promised.

This of course is venturing into the realm of Harry Potter fan fiction, but here we are.

It gets worse.  Americans are now electing people to Congress who are deeply invested in these myths.

Most recently, Qanon supporter Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a freshman Republican from Georgia, was stripped of her committee posts because of her extreme views. She claims there is no evidence that a plane crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11 and says the 2018 California wildfires were ignited by a space laser controlled by a corporate cabal, including the Jewish Rothschild banking firm. She has also noted that it would be “quicker” to remove Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi with “a bullet to the head.”  Some of her other theories – like the unhinged “frazzledrip” conspiracy – are too sick to repeat here. She responds to criticism with tweets laced with faith-language: “His ways are the only ways I care about. How GREAT is our God!”

(Her retractions, coming late and under pressure, lacked any apology and were not believed by most of her Congressional colleagues).

These aren’t just amusing, legitimate “opinions.” They make serious policy debates based on truth, logic or reason impossible.

Courts as the Last Arbiters of Truth

With news media, fact-checkers and politicians widely distrusted as arbiters of truth, the last remaining venue to compare and discern competing versions of reality is in the courts. That’s where the 2020 election fraud cases have been ending up.

The charges pointing to Dominion voting machines and software have never been proven in court despite many attempts.

Recently, Dominion software has begun the process of suing the attorneys and news sources who repeated accusations against the company.

Dominion Voting Systems Inc. is looking for $1.3 billion in damages from attorneys Sidney Powell, accusing her of defamation after claiming in multiple unsuccessful court cases that the company’s machines somehow altered votes from Trump to Biden.

“Powell’s wild accusations are demonstrably false,” the Dominion complaint states. “Powell launched a viral disinformation campaign about Dominion that reached millions of people and caused enormous harm to Dominion.”

Also being sued are MyPillow executive Mike Lindell, Fox News, Rudy Giuliani, Newsmax, One America News and about 15 others.

And the voting technology company Smartmatic just filed a similar $2.7 billion lawsuit against Fox News, Giuliani, Powell and hosts Lou Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo and Jeanine Pirro for intentionally lying about the company.

Scrambling to Disavow

In response, something extraordinary has happened. Some are publicly disavowing their previous false claims.

Fox News in December aired a 2-minute video piece taking back what they had said, admitting it was false.

Fox News’ competitor Newsmax also aired a similar piece, walking back its claims against both Dominion and Smartmatic, admitting they were false.

Of course, others aren’t backing down.

On Feb. 4, MyPillow executive Mike Lindell, a Christian, said he welcomes the lawsuit, and released a two-hour video rehashing voter fraud claims previously made unsuccessfully by Trump’s attorneys. Lindell, for example, claims that 66,000 underage people voted in Georgia, when the number of people under the age of 18 who requested a ballot was actually four, and all of them turned 18 prior to Nov. 3, according to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office. Lindell also claims that 10,000 fake ballots were driven from New York to Pennsylvania, an unfounded claim based on the testimony of a man who believes he’s being haunted by ghosts.

When the Trump-friendly One America Network ran the video, it included an interesting disclaimer: “The statements and claims expressed in this program are presented at this time as opinions only and are not intended to be taken or interpreted by the viewer as established facts.”

Some states are now trying to get Powell and Giuliani as well as Trump attorney Lin Wood disbarred.

Online arguments can be disputed. But truth claims proven or disproven in the justice system tend to stick. Decisions can be appealed, of course. But courts are able to administer prison sentences or fines  for lying, perjury and false accusations. Social media cannot.

It’s sad that Americans have to take each other to court just to get to the truth. But at least we have a backstop, a final recourse – although a harsh one – for separating informational wheat from chaff.

Voter Fraud Investigations

Some of my friends suggest that since millions of Trump supporters feel the election was stolen, perhaps a special counsel or a congressional investigation could put the question to rest and clear the air, but after some reflection I don’t agree.

It’s not unusual for the losers in an election to claim voter fraud. Democrats did the same when George Bush won in 2000 and 2004. Usually there is some fraud occurring somewhere at a local level in every election. And certainly the computerized voting machines are not without their problems.

In fact, Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar (perhaps still suspicious of Trump’s 2016 win and hints of Russian interference) publicly questioned three major election machine vendors — Election Systems & Software, Dominion Voting Systems, and Hart InterCivic — and raised concerns about vulnerabilities and a lack of transparency in the election technology industry. They noted that private equity firms reportedly own or control each of these vendors, which “have long skimped on security in favor of convenience,” leaving voting systems across the country “prone to security problems.”

This was in December 2019, long before Trump attorneys began accusing Dominion and other vendors of purposely swinging the election to Biden after Nov. 3, 2020.

But wait a minute – why would these Democrats want to publicly call attention to problems with the very companies they would later secretly seize control of to subvert the election?

“It doesn’t make sense”  is a phrase conspiracy theorists apparently get to define for themselves.

So why not have an investigation?

Because there has already been an ongoing investigation ever since Trump took office, one that he started.

President Trump complained of election fraud even after the 2016 election that he won, doubting that Hillary Clinton could have won the popular vote. He created a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity in May 2017, charged with investigating these suspicions. The commission met just twice and never issued a report. The documents it did produce uncovered no evidence to support claims of widespread voter fraud.

President Trump then dissolved the commission in 2018 and transferred its work to the Department of Homeland Security, because the DHS would “be able to move faster and more efficiently than a presidential advisory commission,” according to the panel’s vice-chairman Kris Kobach.

The Department of Homeland Security in turn established the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency within the DHS to expand these fraud investigations to Internet threats. And in a final report on the 2020 election, it, along with the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and the National Association of State Election Directors among others, said the 2020 election was the “most secure in American history.”

But that wasn’t all.  The Department of Justice also launched an investigation into voting irregularities in November 2020. Later, at the end of December, U.S. Attorney General William Barr reported that while he was “sure there was fraud in this election,” he had not seen evidence that it was so “systemic or broad-based” that it would change the result, and that he did not intend to appoint a special counsel to investigate allegations of voter fraud.

These were all investigations over four years conducted by officials appointed by Trump himself.

Meanwhile, 60 lawsuits by President Trump’s legal team asserting election fraud were submitted in several swing states, and all but one were rejected by the courts. Almost every example of widespread voter fraud that has come to public attention has lacked any supporting facts.

I’m not sure another fraud investigation would find anything new, or change anyone’s mind.

Paranoid Politics

The other day, while trying to capture our grandson’s escaped hamster (long story), I discovered a used book I’d bought but hadn’t yet read. Turns out it was able to throw some light on all this for me.

In this 1991 book, “The Honey and the Hemlock, ” sociologist Eli Sagan uses ancient Athens as a prism to examine American democracy, and in the process unearths some truths about the dangers of paranoia in the democracies of both societies.

“Democratic society rests on the fundamental assumption of the independence and integrity of other people… [But] the paranoid cannot abide tolerance.”

Democracy is a miracle, Sagan explains, considering our human psychological disabilities.

As an example, Sagan points to November 1980 when Jimmy Carter lost the election to Ronald Reagan, the first instance in 48 years when a sitting president was defeated in an election.  He imagines what might have gone through Carter’s mind. It’s interesting to compare his description to current events.

“The people have spoken,” announced a somber Carter on television, and then there was a long, pregnant pause. One wondered what the pause meant, what primitive agenda Carter might be dealing with in the deep recesses of his mind. One possible scenario suggests itself: I am not going to call out the army; I am not going to declare the election invalid; I am not going to have my opponent assassinated. Instead, I am voluntarily and peacefully going to give up the greatest power a person can hold in this country and place myself in the hands of my enemy, trusting that he will deal responsibly and legally with me.”

Remember, that was written in 1991.

Faith in Other People’s Motives

“In no society previous to democratic polities have a large number of people been able to put their faith in the motives of others,” Sagan continues.

You might say that this trust is a requirement for a functioning democracy.

But in a paranoid society, there is no such thing as the “loyal opposition.” Opponents must be demonized.

“The paranoid position regards all opposition as disloyal and traitorous to the truth. It peoples the world with conspirators and betrayers.” Sagan continues: “We who live in a democratic society and take that democracy for granted do not recognize what a great triumph of the capacity for psychic health is the belief that those who differ from one politically can still be considered loyal to the society.”

“Loyalty, for the paranoid, is always primarily loyalty to a person, the czar, the dictator or the religious leader, not to an abstract image of freedom or tolerance or, most especially, law….[Paranoids] suffer from a xenophobia directed internally into society; security and comfort reside only in a completely homogeneous world.”

There is nothing new under the sun. When political opponents are considered actual demons, cannibals, murderers and traitors, we’ve definitely left the realm of a healthy democracy.

Paranoia is not restricted to conservative politics. Hillary Clinton leaned that direction in 1998, warning of a “vast, right-wing conspiracy” behind accusations against her husband.

Consider an earlier work, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” written in 1966 by Richard Hofstadter.

The worldview that Hofstadter describes can encompass even the wildest “drops” by Q.

“[The politically paranoid] regard a ‘vast’ or ‘gigantic’ conspiracy as the motive force in historical events. History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade. The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms – he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization.”

Especially for Christians, this paranoid thinking is a temptation to be avoided at all costs.

Instead of suspicion, we’re told to look at others with an open heart:

  • Philippians 4:8 – “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

Of course, we believe there is an actual ancient, spiritual “conspiracy” led by a rebellious Satan against God and his Messiah described in the Bible. But we also know God is ultimately in control, the battle is spiritual, and Christ’s kingdom is not of this world.

Facing the brunt of this spiritual conspiracy, Jesus was still able to love his enemies, heal the ear of a soldier arresting Him, forgive and confess that those killing him “know not what they do.” Was this naivete or wisdom?

The Qanon movement is on the verge of becoming an alternate religion. But it is one that regularly makes unsubstantiated accusations and false prophecies. (For instance, we’re still waiting for Hillary Clinton to be arrested accompanied by an outbreak of massive riots nationwide, which Q predicted would happen on Oct. 30, 2017). But for the Qanon faithful, these predictions are articles of faith and thus virtually unfalsifiable.

As Christianity Today explained: “The cabal is Qanon’s version of the Fall — its explanation for what’s wrong with our world. Q is the movement’s John the Baptist. “Drops” are its Scripture. And Trump is its messiah, ostensibly working at great personal cost to defeat the cabal and usher in a new age of American greatness.”

But when a conspiracy theory mutates, like this one has, to devour its own people – like Mike Pence, Supreme Court justices and Republican Senate leadership – labelling them as traitors, and a Florida pastor can say they should be “put up against the wall and shot ,” then we are on the verge of losing completely the trust in other people’s motives that is a requisite for democracy.

What will we do then?

It reminds me when my mom used to quip, “All the world is strange save thee and me, and I’m not too sure about thee.” The conspiracist eventually can trust only himself.

More and more, both political parties seem to be playing a dangerous game of Jenga with our republic.

Jenga comes from a Swahili word for “build,” but the game always ends in destruction. You know how it works. Participants alternate pulling out blocks from inside the structure and placing them on the top.  The tower grows higher but more unstable until it all comes tumbling down.

Our latest political events just continue this instability, and it’s got to stop if our country, our freedoms and our institutions are to continue.  Christianity is not linked to America’s fate – it will survive, just as it survived the fall of the Roman Empire, barbarian invasions and persecutions throughout history. Nations and governments  come and go. But we have a responsibility to the society we live in  – and to God – to be “salt and light” where we are (Matthew 5).

Avoiding a New Dark Age

The split between those having confidence in news media, science, established institutions, reason and coherent thought vs. a paranoid conspiracy mindset seems to be growing wider.

Nothing is set in stone. Many works of classical scholarship, science and literature were lost during the Dark Ages only to be rediscovered in the Renaissance. The 14th century humanist Petrarch expressed his hope that, “this sleep of forgetfulness will not last forever. When the darkness has been dispersed, our descendants can come again in the former pure radiance.”

We’ve walked on the Moon. Are we now heading back into a darker age?

There have been colossal shifts in intellectual authority throughout history. The rise of Christianity stripped pagan religion of its authority. Then the authority of the Catholic church, which stood virtually unchallenged for many more centuries, was called into question by the Reformation. Enlightenment-based science has been ascendant since the 18th century. So far, an atmosphere of free discourse in America has allowed for all ideas to interact and be debated in the public square.

I hope we’re not seeing the beginnings of another historic splintering, a hardening of edges and a gap that would cut off our ability to cooperate for the common good.

Priming the Pump of Democracy

Christians who have become disillusioned with Q’s conspiracy fables are in a unique position to lead the nation back into sanity. After all, we follow a Savior who said to do good to your enemies, to “judge not” and to turn the other cheek.

Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37) was directed at Israel, but it mirrors the situation of our own society now, and we need to “hear the word of the Lord” if we can.

Most would agree America’s social fabric is torn. “Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off and divided.”

Some argue that trying to change the minds of people who are entrenched in conspiracy theories is like “casting pearls before swine” – pointless, and a waste of time.

I hope not.

I am reminded of the old Kingston Trio folk song I learned back in the ’60s – “Desert Pete.”

The lyrics picture a man dying of thirst in the desert who happens upon a hand-pump water well. But a note warns not to drink the bottle of water left beside it. Instead, pour it into the pump, to allow the leather seal to tighten, after which the pump will deliver its thirst-quenching liquid. And then, instead of drinking all the water that comes out, he should leave a bottle for the next traveler.

Can we take a risk in our bone-dry political landscape to offer others the benefit of the doubt; to really listen and try to understand; to trust their motives; to first give something of ourselves, not knowing if it will produce any results?

It’s risky, and it may leave us vulnerable.

But in this folksy, even corny song, the traveler does just that, and leaves a bottle behind to continue the process.

“You’ve got to prime the pump, you must have faith and believe.

You’ve got to give of yourself  ‘fore you’re worthy to receive.

Drink all the water you can hold, wash your face, cool your feet,

Leave the bottle full for others – Thank you kindly, Desert Pete.”

I’m afraid unless we start to do the same, our democracy and our republic will be nothing but a dry skeleton, forgotten in the desert sands of history.

But if we take the risk to cut off the Hydra’s head lurking in our hearts, and then “prime the pump” with trust, we may start to see the sinews, flesh and breath return to American society, and lift us onto our feet once again.

That’s my prayer, anyway.

About Skippy R

Skippy R is retired after toiling as a scribe for a large denominational newspaper in Texas for about 40 years. He's written for The Wittenburg Door and Beliefnet. He lives in Dallas with his wife, Mrs. Skippy, and leads a Bible study in his home. Mostly spends time running after his grandkids. He is -- what are they calling it now? -- a Jesus follower.
This entry was posted in Opinion. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.