Saturday, December 06, 2008

You don't believe them, do you?

"One of the tendencies of the conspiracy notion, the whole appeal, is that a lot of the information the believer has is secret or special...The real evidence is out there, [and] you can give them all this evidence, but they'll have convenient ways to discredit [it]."

- Evan Harrington, associate professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, quoted in Salon

For anyone outside of Toronto: the Taste of the Danforth is a street festival held in a predominantly Greek area of town once every summer. Traffic is shut down and every business and restaurant drags their wares onto the street for a weekend. Depending on the weather, the heat, the crowds and your own interpretation of the term 'fun,' it's either heaven or hell to navigate.

Last year, it was heaven. It was friendly, there was an alarming amount of good and cheap food to wander along with (and a surprising amount of Sushi for a Greek area) and there were a lot of local bands ranging from Bouzouki (of course) to bar rock to Samba. You couldn't walk 10 paces without being urged to buy something, eat something, drink something, or take a pamphlet to support a local cause. And at Danforth and Broadview, beside the Samba band (Brazilian restaurant), the stage with bellydancers (my wife's school) and the crisping lamb on a spit (I think three Greek places hosted it together) was a long 9/11 was an Inside Job banner held by some of the faithful.

The crowd looked fairly indifferent - one or two people called them out on it and asked for details, they were pleasantly referred to a website that you can Google on your own time - and it was a public place, so they were entitled to hold up whatever banner they wanted. But I didn't think that there was a lot of dignity involved in it - a bunch of conspiracy-minded souls taking advantage of concentrated crowds to suggest that the US government was behind 9/11 at a street festival with free tapas and dancers and cheap souvlaki.

This was called 'expanding awareness' rather than 'generating web traffic' and maybe they were refused access to the CNE so Taste of the Danforth was a close second. Maybe they got the attention of 5% of the crowd. Maybe they debated the semantics of jet fuel fires and the melting point of steel with a few cranky engineers. Maybe it just felt good to stand around on a hot day and go home feeling like the world was a little changed due to their efforts.

They weren't around this year, or I didn't see them. The same people could come back with the same banners and different theories this time around, while still claiming the same mantle of truth-teller. If their evidence changes, well, that's just fine. A good conspiracy theory is based on rock-hard truth that changes because the truth is never the same, of course. The conspiracy part - the one nobody knows about but them - is a delicious morsel that transmogrifies. If last year the planes were piloted by CIA operatives and this year they were radio-controlled by black ops, it's because that morsel has given so much more. It'll change again. It can be whatever you want it to be.


Norman Wilner recently pointed out that President Obama is a US citizen, that he was born in Hawaii which has confirmed that he's a US citizen and therefore he can't be removed from the office of the President of the United States for (you guessed it) not being a US citizen. It doesn't matter to those who consider themselves in the know, and the subset of Average Joes who want to believe otherwise are going to do so. Let's assume just for a minute that not all of these Average Joes are necessarily bred-in-the-bone Republicans (although the numbers appear to veer in that direction), let's say that some of them have just latched-on to the story and won't let go. It's overloaded a silicon chip inside their head and any evidence to the contrary has been fabricated just to make them mad and they want to tell you about it.

Or maybe not tell you about it. They'll probably tell me about it. I don't know if I look nonthreatening, easily led, or simply don't wear an iPod often enough to avoid the kind of people who talk to strangers on the subway and tell me about what's really happening. Here's a quick summing-up of the latest- Stephane Dion is a communist and a junkie (he's so thin), Bush and Harper are buying up real estate in South America in anticipation of the coming dissolution of North America (I hear Rio's rather pretty), the Poverty Industry (food banks, apparently) is trying to take the food out of my mouth through high taxes and the mafia (which was never explained). One guy pointed at a poster and said "I've never trusted triangles," with a frown. I didn't question it further.

I didn't - don't - believe any of these stories and noticed that all of the people telling me were not conspiciously wearing tinfoil hats, exactly. They looked prepared (all had pamphlets, including the born-again triangle guy) and could all probably handle a day job without a second look. They just had a thing they couldn't let go of. They weren't as scary as the bookstore owner who told me about the RCMP's interment camps in Northern Ontario that were waiting for Clinton to annex Canada and mark everyone's right-hands with tattoos like in the Bible and like the Nazis did to the Jews, and while we were on the topic, what if less than 6 million died? Of course, it's wrong if even one person died, but there were some people (i.e. Jews) who might be milking it and did I want to see some of the literature he had to prove that maybe...

I left. This guy scared me for the nonsense he was spouting and for the fact he was running a bookstore that catered to churches (it's since gone out of business). And his particular line was a grab-bag of black helicopters, evil bankers, biblical prophecy, and old fashioned anti-Semitism disguised behind a desire for decent accounting.

I haven't seen a lot of that face-to-face. I worked one summer with a woman who told me that since the Jews ran the newspapers, they'd censor the news (she was speaking about the Toronto Sun at the time, of all things). And a guy in a coffee shop once asked me what my heritage was: the code was pretty unsubtle. I told him I was a German Jew to see what he'd do.

This was not a smart move on my part (I was around 26yrs old at the time and it struck me as a valid means of discourse). It encouraged conversation with a undesirable and, not being Jewish and having almost no working knowledge of German, I had no idea what I was supposed to say next. The guy shrugged and retreated, and I think it was Norman who winced later and said "You really didn't have to take that tack..."


Let's go back to the tinfoil derby people. I put most them in the 'odd, but mostly out of my universe' crowd. I'd rather run into somebody who believes there are secret underground tunnels beneath Toronto (click here and scroll down) that potentially house grey reptilian aliens than be sat down by a 9/11 truth person who has specially refined photos (i.e. photoshopped) that reveal the secret explosions which took down the towers. I take the alien people less seriously. I have fewer concerns about aliens from below than I do about the basics of physics being ignored via a rather flexible timeline and indeterminate case of characters.

It comes down to this: eventually, anyone wearing a tinfoil hat will enourage you to put one on. You can try to talk to them, discover a common point of reference, agree to disagree on certain points and schedule later debates. And at some point, they're going to insist that you put on the hat they've made especially for you as protection from the forces their hat protects them from.

You have a choice. You can look carefully at the chapeau and decide whether it's tinfoil or not. If you don't put it on, you're going to lose whatever dialogue is possible between yourself and the kind who feel that the Reynolds Wrap beanie is de rigeur. And if you put it on...then you're wearing a tinfoil hat. Full stop.

I don't care that Canada is a cold country. Maybe its a sign of age, but whenever I'm asked to sit down and discuss some issue in detail, I am more and more inclined to insist that one takes off one's hat at the table. At least you stay on the same level.

Better yet - don't accept every seat at the table that's offered to you.

And watch out for those triangles.


Anonymous said...

I don't understand what The Taste of the Danforth has to do with 9/11??? I think you're a bit incoherent in your ramblings.

Mike D. said...

I don't understand what the Taste of the Danforth had to do with 9/11 either. It's sort of the point.

As for incoherence, hey. I've gotten worse.

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