I’ve been following the shooting in Arizona for the last few days, and I’m as disgusted as everyone else is, I’m sure. I’m reading with special interest because of how elements of conventional political conspiracy theories appear in the assassin’s truly disjointed and incoherent worldview.
The elements of truly run-of-the-mill conspiracist thought–at least the stuff that appears in Loughner’s youtube videos–are usually encountered as elements of larger, more complete and fleshed-out narratives. These narratives are really quite well developed, often repeated and reprinted verbatim. Elements in Loughner’s ramblings suggest exposure to a certain type of conspiracist thinking, the gold standard conspiracy: “No! I won’t pay a debt with a currency that’s not backed by gold and silver!” In its most general form, this conspiracy theory posits that BAD GUY (pick your favorite demonic Other: the Fed/international bankers/Jews/Illuminati/Boy Scouts) has taken us off of the gold standard in order to impose an easily manipulated fiat currency. In the most popular conspiracy theories, the bad boy is the Federal Reserve, who controls the entire economy, printing money and deflating the value of the paper money in your pocket. (There is far more wrong about this than I can reasonably write about in a quick blog post, but suffice it to say that it is not even the Fed that prints money, rather the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Mega-fail. The Fed can infuse banks’ reserves with cash, but it can also reduce liquidity and does so often.) It’s probably worth mentioning that his statement, “No! I won’t trust in God!” immediately follows his statement about precious metals and that it is at least as much a reference to what is printed on US currency as it is religious expression.
Loughner also has an abiding fear of mind control. Often, this is found on the (super-way-out-there) extremes of conspiratorial thought. Mind control, in conspiracist circles, can range from media control (or just influence) of popular opinion, the softening of the resistance to suggestion through fluoridation, chemtrails or the quality of popular entertainment, to the implantation of subliminal messages in corporate logos and advertisements, to the actual taking over of minds by remote, telepathic or technological means. It includes everything from “political spin” to the belief that one is not thinking one’s own thoughts.
Other signs that Loughner has been influenced by established conspiracy theories include the brief list of favorite reads that includes Animal Farm and Brave New World, Mein Kampf and The Republic, all of which have some authority and currency in white supremacist and far-right separatist circles. Of course, he also includes the Communist Manifesto, which decidedly does not. It occurs to me that if Animal Farm appears on his reading list, he may have picked up notions about how mind control can be achieved through the use of language in Orwell’s other works, including 1984 (consider Newspeak, which is an attempt to limit the types of thoughts it is possible to have) or his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” in which Orwell confronts and criticizes “language as an instrument […] for concealing or preventing thought.” At the same time, I have no confidence that someone with the writing skills like those displayed in his videos or someone whose logic is so jumbled could even be considered a nihilist, since I can’t even be sure that he understood what he had read.
If you look back at Richard Hoffstadter’s classic essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” you see that he attempted to distance the “paranoid style” from clinical paranoia, arguing that the clinically paranoid perceived illusory designs against them personally, while people who participate in paranoid politics perceive threats against a nation and entire way of life. Loughner’s rantings blur these lines. Some of it is especially local and relevant to his life, “The Pima Community College police are unconstitutionally working.” But he also talks about his understanding of the Constitution and other large issues like the currency. Hoffstadter’s essay does not help us much here. I suspect that what happened in Tuscon could be described as the deliberate political act of a disordered mind, but I am at a loss to discern to what degree politics determined his decisions.
In his essay, Hoffstadter tries to make it clear that he does not equate “paranoid” politics with clinical pathology, but the blunt fact remains that the word comes with connotations that may be profitable to explore, and I wonder if there is not some sense in which we could justifiably call conspiratorial political thought pathological. (Of course, that would entail defining “non-pathological” political thought. Yikes!)
FYI, I am going to be bringing back my weekly conspiracy round-up soon. (I tell you, though, I am getting sick of reading about Julian Assange and the damned birds dying off.)
A thoughtful, extended, and ongoing discussion about the role of mental illness is going on at PLoS, at Neuroanthroplogy. Daniel Lende makes excellent points about not presuming that mental illness is the most important issue here. It’s probably the best thing that I have seen on this issue so far.
It seems that according to the Washington Post that Loughner was involved with the message boards at AboveTopSecret, and that the people there also saw that something was demonstrably abnormal, even for that site. My favorite comment at the end of the article was a reply to Loughner: “they faked the moon landing yes .. but the mars rover .. i dont think so.”
Also, for Ken–linking Assange to the bird die-offs: HAARP killed the birds using alien technology, the acquisition of which Assange will disclose in the next group of documents. All of these are real theories.