The dangerous rise of the gullible American cynic
In 1996, when I was working in government, a colleague remarked on the then-fresh tragedy in which TWA Flight 800 exploded over the waters off Long Island. His “sources” had reason to know that Islamic terrorists had shot it down it with a missile.
The subsequent investigation was one of the most extensive in the history of accident reconstruction. The plane parts were salvaged from the ocean floor, rebuilt, and examined. Various hypotheses as to the cause of the explosion—including terrorism—were eliminated one by one.
The overwhelmingly likely cause was deterioration of the Kapton insulation of the wiring that passed through the center fuel tank. It was such a significant safety issue that this wiring had to be replaced on many older airliners, while earlier airline accidents were reinvestigated in light of the discovery.
None of this impressed my colleague, who fell for one of the first major internet hoaxes. It had to be a missile; the accident investigation was a sham. Never mind that it involved thousands of people from multiple, often rival federal agencies, local coroners, private-sector forensics experts, and Navy divers; somehow, they all got their stories straight and coordinated a perfect coverup that is still in operation a quarter century later.
He had similar views on the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica, Bosnia. It either never happened, was vastly overstated, or the Bosnian Muslims had somehow done it to their own people to provoke Western intervention. There was no shortage of brutality on all sides in this Balkan ethno-religious civil war, but the Srebrenica incident was so outsized, so obvious, and left so much evidence that its existence, and the fact that Bosnian Serbs had perpetrated it, could hardly be rationally denied.
A quarter of a century later, bodies are still being discovered at or near the site—and Bosnian Serbs have concocted a whole martyrology about how it never happened and that they, the Serbs, are being victimized by shadowy globalist forces.
Fast forward to 2014. To all appearances, Russian or Russian-sponsored forces using a mobile Buk9 surface-to-air missile shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 flying over eastern Ukraine. The Flight 17 incident was likely the accidental downing of a civil airliner mistaken for a Ukrainian military transport by Russian-sponsored separatist forces; it could have been settled with an admission of error and financial restitution.
Instead, Russia stonewalled an investigation, spread a fog of defamatory disinformation, and vetoed a UN resolution to create an investigative tribunal. Angry relatives of the victims are in no doubt about Russia’s culpability. Nevertheless, my now-former colleague was in no doubt that this was a false-flag operation: a Ukrainian jet deliberately shot down the aircraft to blame it on the Russians and provoke intervention. Never mind that the Dutch accident reconstruction concluded the damage was characteristic of a Russian surface-to-air missile and that both satellite photography and eyewitnesses on the ground detected a Russian missile battery moving into the launch area before the incident.
All through this period, I had thought that this person was an individual, isolated person with crazy ideas and an axe to grind. But now, in 2022, there are tens of millions of them; they vote, swing elections, make policy, impact the health of every one of us by their medical decisions and social behavior; and they are, many of them, heavily armed.
There has been much debate about the causes of this derangement. Income inequality? Social media? The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine? The rise of the Religious Right? The American creed of rugged individualism? It is probably all those things and more. There is rarely a single cause of mass social behavior, nor is there an arbitrary cutoff date when searching for causes: religious extremism goes back to Plymouth Rock. Rugged individualism in the service of overweening greed dates to 1607, when the ne’er-do-well sons of the English petty gentry hove to inside the Virginia Capes in search of gold, real estate, and their destiny as would-be great men.
My former colleague Jim was an unusually pure specimen of this American syndrome, as lack of education or cultural deprivation could not be held responsible for his condition. But he was merely one example of a social epidemic I call gullible cynicism: the ability to be dismissive, disbelieving, and paranoiacally suspicious, while simultaneously being astoundingly naïve and accepting of the flimsiest fabrication not only at face value, but with a reverential embrace.
Hence the tragic-comic episode of the Covid-19 pandemic, when countless people posited an airtight conspiracy of microbiologists; public health officials at the federal, state, and local levels; hospitals with all their staff; coroners; and the entire media, in order to perpetrate a hoax. Incredibly, their professional counterparts all over the world were pulling off the same deception in perfect coordination with America. Yet these same paranoid cynics would credulously believe some nameless internet blogger recommending horse de-wormer as a sovereign remedy for Covid-19 (assuming they believed the virus even existed).
In a similarly breathtaking display of gullible cynicism, people with the same mindset as the Covid-19 deniers still refuse to accept the evidence of what occurred on national television and in front of thousands of eyewitnesses on January 6, 2021. The mob that constructed a gallows and stormed the Capitol consisted of innocent tourists. Or they were antifa trying to discredit honest patriots (half of all Republicans believe that). Or they were FBI provocateurs. Never mind that 315 Capitol rioters have pleaded guilty thus far, and their bios all match the profiles of Trump supporters. That, too, is no doubt part of the conspiracy.
At present we are going through a particularly nasty flare-up of this syndrome. But it is not unknown throughout history and in other lands. George Orwell commented on this kind of mental state 76 years ago:
"To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle. . . . In private life most people are fairly realistic. When one is making out one’s weekly budget, two and two invariably make four. Politics, on the other hand, is a sort of sub-atomic or non-Euclidean world where it is quite easy for the part to be greater than the whole or for two objects to be in the same place simultaneously. Hence the contradictions and absurdities . . . all finally traceable to a secret belief that one’s political opinions, unlike the weekly budget, will not have to be tested against solid reality.”
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