On Friday we looked at one of the stranger theories promoted by Alex Jones on his radio/Internet broadcast platform, “Infowars.”
Jones — who has been praised, courted, and elevated by his friend President Trump — was one of the loudest promoters of the “Pizzagate” nonsense, which claimed that many prominent Americans belonged to a secret cult of pedophile Satanists abducting children, torturing them sexually and otherwise, then ritually sacrificing them before harvesting their organs. Jones claimed that all of this was happening in secret tunnels beneath normal-seeming pizza parlors all over America.
That was a ridiculously outlandish claim, but not a terribly original one. It’s mainly just reheated Warnkeism — a reworking of older conspiracy nonsense from the Satanic ritual abuse panic of the 1980s which was, itself, just a pop-culture updating of far older immoral moral panics such the witch trials or the ancient blood libel. Assert the existence of an evil other; accuse them of serving Satan and killing babies; bask in the relative righteousness and therefore moral authority opposing such evil affords you, blah blah blah.
Last week Jones added a colorful touch to this basic outline, inviting a guest on his show to promote a new twist on these centuries-old lies. The guest — purported “CIA insider” Robert David Steele — says the child-abducting Satanic baby-killers aren’t just operating in area pizza parlors and day care centers, but that they’re abducting children to be sex slaves and sacrificial victims in a secret colony on Mars.
People don’t really believe this, do they? Yes. Yes they do.
Well … they want to believe it, and they try their hardest to do so. And they’ve all-but completely convinced themselves that they do. If you ask them, “Do you really believe this?” they won’t be lying when they say yes, because they’ve been convinced that being a good person on the side of good requires them to say yes and to dutifully avoid entertaining any thoughts about any of the obvious evidence or scientific/logistical impossibilities that cause the rest of us to gape at their apparent credulity.
But, we protest, how could they believe such malarkey? How could anybody be dumb enough to believe that?
That response, while perfectly understandable, is a mistake. It’s not about being dumb, or even about being ignorant. Believing such things is not a matter of anything intellectual or educational. It’s emotional and, ultimately, ethical.
People believe such things because they have come to need to believe them. They need to believe them because they need to think of themselves as righteous. Or, at least, they need to feel something like what they imagine it must feel like to be able to think of themselves as righteous.
And if that’s what you need to think and what you need to feel, then it won’t matter how smart you are, or how well-educated or well-informed you might be. If you’ve gotten to the point where you need to believe such things, you’ll believe them.
Ben Collins includes a video from Alex Jones’ show in his Daily Beast report on this conspiracy theory (“NASA Denies That It’s Running a Child Slave Colony on Mars”). The segment in that video begins with Jones remarking on the sexual abuse charges recently filed against Catholic Cardinal George Pell in Australia. That’s a real story involving a real and well-documented history of actual cases of the sexual abuse of children. Pell — now serving as a high-ranking official in the Vatican — denies the charges, which have yet to be sorted out by Australia’s court system. But whether he actively helped to cover-up or to facilitate such abuse, or whether he merely failed to prevent it (or failed to try to prevent it), the story is infuriating.
Alex Jones — being Alex Jones — can’t let the horrifying facts of that story speak for themselves, so he quickly rushes to embellish the grounds for outrage, tying the sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic church to his larger conspiracy about a powerful shadow-government run by secret members of a globalist pedophilia-and-Satanic-ritual-abuse cult and darkly suggesting that gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s 2005 suicide was a government assassination to prevent him from revealing that cult’s existence. And then he segues directly to Steele, who quickly “explains” about the secret child-sex-slave colony on Mars.
But all of these deliriously weird details don’t seem to be what’s most important for Jones or for his audience. What’s important to them is that this all gives them the opportunity to express their disapproval of such things — the opportunity to perform that disapproval.
Jones takes a phone call from a listener, and they congratulate one another on their agreement that pedophilia and Satanic human sacrifice are just plain wrong. “This issue about pedophile rings,” the caller says, “it infuriates me. It’s one of my hot-button issues.”
Jones agrees. “I don’t like violence,” he responds, “but I fantasize about jabbing daggers in their eyes, stuff like that. I mean, I’m being honest, I can’t help it. When I think about pedophiles torturing kids, I want to kill.”
That’s a vivid way of expressing his ethical stance, but the basic underlying point is not wrong. Pedophilia is wrong — on any planet. But note that this is not the main point that either Jones or his caller feels compelled to express. Their message here is not “X is bad,” but “I, personally and heroically, disapprove of X.”
The point Jones needs to communicate is not that he, Alex Jones, believes in the existence of a secret pedophilia-and-human-sacrifice cult operating in pizza shops and on Mars. The point he needs to communicate is that he, Alex Jones, believes that the secret pedophilia-and-human-sacrifice cult operating in pizza shops and on Mars is bad.
And, of course, if you don’t agree that such a cult and colony exist, then you cannot agree that they are bad. And what kind of sick, perverted monster must you then be to not agree that such things are bad?
Jones’ lurid fantasies about Hunter S. Thompson, Hillary Clinton, and Mars are not the strangest thing about all of this. The strangest thing — weirder than any Martian conspiracy — is the notion Jones and his caller share that their moral disapproval of pedophilia and the torture of children makes them exceptional.
It’s another version of the Anti-Kitten-Burning Coalition. That’s what I’ve come to call this due to the first time I struggled with trying to understand this strange claim. That occasion, I’m afraid, involved the burning of a kitten.
Just a few miles from the newspaper where I then worked, some messed-up teenagers did something really messed-up. They put a live kitten on a backyard barbecue grill. And they recorded themselves doing it on cell-phone video.
This was stomach-turning and utterly deplorable. The story of what happened to that poor kitten was appalling.
It was also incredibly popular, quickly becoming one of the most-read, most-shared, and most-commented-on stories in the history of our paper. Readers hated that story, and so readers loved that story. They loved hating that story.
And, far more than that, they loved declaring that they hated that story. They loved performing their hatred of that story.
The mass-condemnation of this cruel act — in the thousands of comments online and the scores of letters-to-the-editor received over the following weeks — was in one sense reassuring. It was comforting to receive such confirmation that the people of our community, unanimously, disapproved of cruelly torturing sweet, adorable little kittens.
But it was also unnerving, because nearly all of these condemnations seemed to be made by people who assumed they were saying something exceptional — something brave, controversial, and heroic. Most didn’t confine themselves to merely condemning the teenagers who actually committed this act of kitten-burning, but also harshly condemned the mass of people they somehow imagined approved of it. If any such defenders of kitten-burning existed, none of them was speaking up publicly or expressing such views in the comments on our article, and yet a huge share of the anti-kitten-burning comments being left were phrased as though they were a response to such non-existent defenses.
Many of these anti-kitten-burning declarations expressed this claim of exceptionalism by including a weird sort of apology. “I’m sorry, but I just don’t approve of this.” “I’m sorry, but I just think this is wrong!” I could never figure out who it was they were apologizing to.
I think this apology — which was really an apology for their refusal to apologize — was directed not so much at the people supposedly defending kitten-burning, but at the great mass of society that was failing to congratulate and reward them for their own bold stand against it. And I think that most of these proud denouncers of kitten-burning didn’t see any distinction between those two categories. For them, anyone who failed to praise and reward their bold denunciations was somehow siding against them, and therefore must be siding with the kitten-burners, and therefore must be as irredeemably evil as them. And they’re sorry, but, they just have to say that’s wrong.
The anti-kitten-burning coalition was correct about the evils of kitten-burning, just as Alex Jones and his caller were correct about the evils of pedophilia. Both of those things are bad, evil, deplorable. But recognizing that fact doesn’t make one exceptional. No one is entitled to brownie points for expressing their opposition to kitten-burning. Nor is anyone entitled to special commendation for expressing their moral opposition to pedophilia. Not even if they express that opposition in graphic detail involving the jabbing of daggers into someone’s eyes.
Opposing atrocious cruelty is what makes you humane and human, not super-human. It only means that one is capable of the barest-minimum of basic moral decency. Such elementary level decency doesn’t set one apart from the rest of humanity, or set one up to be rewarded and honored above them. It is simply common decency — so-called because it involves a moral sense that is widely held in common by very nearly everyone else.
This is terribly frustrating by those rushing to perform their disapproval in the hopes that doing so will set them apart from, and above, everyone else. It’s no good finding out you’re just as good as the rest of the community if you’re trying to fulfill your need to think of yourself as better than them.
So what you need, at that point, is something new — something you can condemn without everyone else ruining your moral exceptionalism by condemning it too. And thus you need to find something secret — some occult insight into the behind-the-scenes larger reality of what’s really going on. This makes conspiracy theories attractive. Embracing them will allow you to feel both morally and intellectually superior to others.
In order to set you apart as morally superior, the new horror involved in this conspiracy theory needs to be even worse than the real-world kitten-burning or pedophilia that all the commoners with their common decency are already condemning. And so you’ll need to posit a conspiracy involving some superlative evil — superlatively evil in both intent and consequence.
Thus, with an inevitability and predictability that is almost boring to behold, you will arrive at some variation of Satanic baby-killers. And thus you will wind up demonstrating your exceptional morality by striking a blow against these imagined Satanic baby-killers — by expelling the Jews from England, or trying women as witches, or defunding Planned Parenthood.
A child slave colony on Mars? Do people really believe that nonsense?
Yes they do. Because they need to feel better-than more than they want to be simply good. And that is “a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils” — into people capable of great foolishness and of great harm.