The Jade Helm 15 military exercises scheduled for July of this year sparked a huge outrage in Texas and other states of the Southwest US, with fears of “martial law” and “military takeover.” So incensed is the public that the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, called for the Texas State Guard to monitor the exercises.
This is all being pooh-poohed by the mainstream media — even Fox News — as paranoid delusion. I don’t disagree, but I think there’s some depth to this that isn’t going to come out in the mainstream media, especially Fox News.
I grew up in Wyoming, where a high-school friend handed me the 1971 screed, None Dare Call It Conspiracy, by Gary Allen, and introduced me to the frightening, delicious, wacky world of right-wing conspiracy theories.
Psychology professor David LaPorte describes paranoia as being a pathological extreme of the normal human function of “suspiciousness,” the other extreme being naiveté. There is also a “clinical paranoia,” which is a full-blown mental illness, with characteristics that go far beyond extreme suspiciousness.
I’m not as interested in the clinical form of paranoia. Like clinical depression, it’s a tragic brain malfunction that gives its victims little respite, and is simply a terrible thing to endure.
What I find more interesting is the extreme end of suspiciousness that exists within the range of normal human behavior, as exhibited (for example) by Texans over the Jade Helm 15 exercises: the kind of paranoia that gives rise to widespread right-wing conspiracy theories.
I think there is a culturally-transmitted factor that a lot of researchers don’t take into proper account when thinking about the Texas brand of paranoia: culturally-enforced loyalty to shibboleths, which in certain US subcultures takes the form of loyalty to beliefs.
A shibboleth is “a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people.” The term itself has an interesting history. During the early wars of the Hebrews as recorded in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, the word “shibboleth” — which is merely a Hebrew name for a specific part of a plant — was used as a military password, because the people they were up against at the time had an accent that prevented them from pronouncing the word correctly: like asking an American to say the word “perro” (Spanish for “dog”) with the trilled r. Shibboleth has come to mean any distinguishing feature that insiders can use to tell who is a member of the group. Tattoos, hairstyles, clothing, use of certain words or phrases, jewelry, and the like are typical shibboleths.
A great many people in the United States hold their professed beliefs as a shibboleth, particularly in tight, religiously-observant communities. Using beliefs as a shibboleth has an upside, and a downside.
The upside is that joining the group is extremely easy: all you have to do is “profess your faith.” You don’t need to get your foreskin or clitoris cut off, you don’t need to get a tattoo, you don’t even need to cut your hair in a particular way or adopt a special diet. You just need to answer the altar call and “praise Jesus,” so to speak, and you’re in.
The downside is that you have, in certain very specific areas, lost your freedom to think independently of the group.
A classic example is the Creationist/Intelligent Design mess in places like Kansas. The idea that the theory of evolution cannot possibly be true dates back to the mid-1800’s, when Darwin’s theory was first published. The revulsion that certain individuals felt at being in any way related to a “damn, dirty ape” became a part of the Fundamentalist doctrine of the early 1900’s, which has become a shibboleth for many Fundamentalist and Evangelical groups in the US. To embrace the theory of evolution would be to repudiate (in part) the very shibboleth that allows these people to identify themselves.
Asking a member of one of these groups to allow their children to be taught the theory of evolution in school has, for them, much the same impact that asking a decorated combat veteran to allow his child to be taught how to desecrate and burn an American flag, and for pretty much the same reason.
The use of beliefs as shibboleths is so common in the United States that it has spawned a general American belief that everyone is defined by their beliefs. When I tell people that I’m a Druid, the first question they tend to ask is, “What do Druids believe?” The answer is, Druids don’t believe anything: that’s not what being a Druid is about. Conversely, changing my beliefs about anything does not threaten my identification as a Druid. This invariably causes confusion, because so many people do not understand how you can be something without having characteristic beliefs.
The pig-headedness that causes people to cling to their paranoid suspicions in the face of all evidence to the contrary, is often simply loyalty to their shibboleths, and thus their group identity.
Some religious groups, for instance, believe that Democrats are evil incarnate, and that Obama is the Antichrist. It’s part of their identity to believe this. If you try to “educate” them, you are only attacking their identity, and their religion. When Obama fails to sprout horns and wag his forked tail, then retires to the public speaking circuit and vanishes into the ineffable mist of irrelevance surrounding past presidents, Hillary will become the Antichrist. After Hillary, it will be the next high-profile Democrat.
It sounds like mental illness. But it’s really just Crips and Bloods, Dodgers and Yankees, goths and jocks. And that delicious frisson that comes of knowing the inner secret of what is going on.
So there’s a whole subculture out there which holds, as a shibboleth, that the US government wants to take away our guns and enslave us under martial law, because the government has been taken over by Zionists through the United Nations. Members of this subculture are the True Americans who have seen through the lies propagated by the Lame-Stream Media; the rest of us are brainwashed “sheeple” (sheep-people). That this all makes as much sense as a Hobbit basketball team is entirely irrelevant. It doesn’t have to make sense. This is their shibboleth, their pink mohawk haircut and dragon tattoo.
A lot of the true terror they exhibit over something like Jade Helm comes of suddenly confronting what might be an external validation of their professed belief — and they’re invariably caught with their pants down, because they are not actually prepared for what they’ve been claiming (loudly) they are prepared for. In reality, their ammo is old, and far too little for a full-scale war. They only have three months of food in their bunker, not a year, and half of that is past its expiration date. They never got the mold smell out from that last rainstorm, and the short-wave receiver doesn’t work. They aren’t psychologically prepared to lose everything they’ve ever had and become war refugees. Now, the storm is upon them, or at least might be, and they aren’t ready for it.
They aren’t ready because, deep down, they are sensible folk who know perfectly well their belief is just a shibboleth, a thing they buy into to get along with their friends and neighbors. Yes, yes, the apocalypse could come at any moment, but surely not today? I’ve got a deadline to meet, and the boss is in one of his moods. I’ll check the dates on the antibiotics tomorrow. Well, maybe next week, this week Jane has her dance recital. We can’t afford to replace them, anyway, because of the car repairs last month. Maybe next month, when finances aren’t so tight.
Another interesting thing is that their “preparations” are also shibboleths, not practical preparations for the invasion they believe is coming.
Think this through: you believe (really believe) a hostile force is coming to assault your community, and the institutions that are supposed to protect you aren’t going to do so. Furthermore, you believe this hostile force wants something you have — guns, food, conscripts, gasoline, your local limestone quarry, your strategic location, hostages. They aren’t going to burn down your town and move on: they’re going to go door-to-door, round everyone up, and put you all in camps.
Hiding in a bunker and waiting for it to blow over isn’t a reasonable plan. You’re going to have to abandon your ground: perhaps to join some guerilla militia that keeps moving to avoid capture, or perhaps to run to Minnesota to live with your in-laws. Or maybe you’ll give yourself up and hide cigarettes so you can bribe your captors from time to time. You are not going to attend an open town meeting of outraged citizens to demand that the invading army justify its constitutional right to make war on you. That makes no sense at all.
It makes perfect sense, however, if you’re merely trying to determine that they aren’t going to invade this time; that you’ll still have time to inventory those antibiotics and get that short-wave radio working; that your beliefs can remain safely hypothetical, and normal life can go on.
Because people treat their beliefs as shibboleths, they really can’t change their beliefs without abandoning their identity and their community. This makes them appear pig-headed and beyond reasoning, perhaps even clinically paranoid; but in reality, they are merely being loyal to their group.
None of this is to say that these paranoid subcultures aren’t dangerous.
Using fixed beliefs as a shibboleth leads to a huge amount of what is called “cognitive dissonance,” which is a painful mental state that results from trying to embrace two incompatible beliefs at the same time, or to embrace a belief that is in clear conflict with everyday observed reality. Extreme cognitive dissonance is a breeding ground for all kinds of paranoid thinking; it can make you crazy. You don’t need to wade too far into right-wing conspiracy theories to find the crazy.
I also have to wonder how much of the leadership of some of these groups is based in foreign intelligence services, and US counter-intelligence services; or even vice-versa. I’ve read, and find it easy to believe, that a lot of the trolls that appear on various websites are paid (probably not very well-paid) CIA, NSA, MI5, MI6, MOSSAD, whatever-used-to-be-KGB, Chinese, and other intelligence agency contractors, mixed with various big-money corporate contractors, who seed the feeds with “opinions” intended to sway other readers’ opinions. It’s a well-established fact that the FBI infiltrates all kinds of “groups of interest.” It wouldn’t take a lot to start up groups led by foreign intelligence operatives who want to create dangerous groups on US soil, or by domestic counter-intelligence operatives who want to draw out and identify potential malcontents.
The world of conspiracies and those who believe in them is a dark and tangled wood, and once you step inside, it’s easy to get lost. Best to sample them lightly, and as pure fiction. Because if they’re real, you’ll never really know, anyway….