How To Blow A Dogwhistle

Before we begin, take a quick look at this image:

This hastily scribbled banner was left in the media section of a recent Donald Trump campaign rally in Florida. By some accounts hostility towards reporters at these often chaotic events has reached near hysterical levels. The hot-tempered atmosphere of boos and jeers has been stoked by Mr. Trump throughout his campaign. The candidate has repeatedly picked fights with individual reporters, notoriously mocking a disabled journalist and hurling a protracted string of insults and jibes at a female news anchor who raised his history of derogatory remarks about women. He loudly asserts the media are going beyond mere partisan reporting and are instead actively engaged in a conspiracy to rob him of the election and elect Hillary “lock her up!” Clinton.

There seems little reason to doubt the majority of Mr. Trump’s supporters ascribe to this view in one form or another.

It should be noted that an unusually suspicious and often fevered hatred of the media has become a marked feature of other populist insurrections of recent years: Scottish Nationalists marched under banners calling for the sacking of BBC journalists, and the most devoted of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters on the left view every press outlet to the right of The Canary as part of a ‘propaganda machine’ engaged in manufacturing damaging revelations about the unpopularity and incompetence of Corbyn’s shambolic Labour party. (Such is the fury of the Corbynistas, in fact, that their conspiracy has enlarged, as conspiracies are designed to do when confronted with uncomfortable realities, to include such previously cherished institutions as the BBC, The Guardian and The New Statesman, which are now seen as no different, in essence, to rightwing newspapers like The Times or The “Torygraph”. In the bubble-world of the Corbynistas there is no bad news, only “Tory smears” and “Blairite lies”. The hatred seen among Trump’s base appears similarly indiscriminate, and just as hungry for new scapegoats.)

Thus are the most committed among such movements locked into a pattern whereby every political failure is written off as the fault of people whose job it is to make such failures public.

As we reach the bitter end of the bitterest of American elections, then, a candidate with a demonstrable history of conspiracy mongering is ratcheting up such paranoia in the face of a barrage of accusations about his attitude and past behaviour towards women and some pretty dire polling. Sensing defeat, he’s setting fires all over the house: dropping dark hints that the election might not be just lost but stolen; urging his passionate fan base to be on the lookout for the non-existent phenomenon of voter fraud; painting the press as “sick” and “dishonest”.

This stuff feeds into the febrile atmosphere in which fury at the media thrives: a deep loathing for journalists in general, along with the online hounding of particular reporters, is now a stubborn and aggressive structural component of contemporary political discourse – the background hum of our bitterly divided polities.

But let us take a second look at the image above; a longer look. What else do we see besides an anonymous supporter of Mr. Trump angry enough with the media’s reporting of their hero to compare them to Nazis? There’s an additional hatred embedded here, and the clue lies in this swastika’s vertical axis, which is unmistakably the letter ‘Z’.

What I find perturbing about that is the fact that both the reporter holding the banner and the host back in the studio failed to pick up on this clear visual reference to the antisemitic slur ‘Zionazi’. Nor were they alone. Huffington Post managed to report on the antipathy towards the press corp, and the sense of antisemitism creeping into Mr. Trump’s campaign from the outer fringes, without once noticing the twinning of these elements in the obscene symbolism of this image: “It’s unclear if whoever left the swastika was a neo-Nazi or was calling the media Nazis. Either way, the message was clear: We hate you.”

Hate it may be but it is not indistinct: this is hatred of a particular sort. A Zionazi is not in fact a Nazi but a Jew, who, in a grotesque intellectual and moral inversion, is said to be in service of a global Jewish conspiracy as totalitarian in theory, as genocidal in practise, and as ideologically wicked as National Socialism. It is probably safe to say this particular supporter of Mr. Trump doesn’t just despise the media: he most likely sees the media as Jewish owned and Jewish controlled, pumping out lies to a gullible public in thrall to Jewish gold. I very much doubt that is the only thing he believes about Jews.

Which brings me round to this quote:

Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of US sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends and her donors.

This is candidate Trump at the same Florida rally. In the light of the banner that makes for interesting phrasing, I think you’ll agree. Mr. Trump doesn’t of course say Jew. He doesn’t need to. He knows exactly how to clothe his ugliest thoughts in language slippery enough to be at least defended or simply denied, all the while knowing that the intended audience understands the signalling. (The rambling speech in Pennsylvania where Mr. Trump warned of potential voter fraud “in other communities” was another clumsy example of this same race-baiting rhetorical strategy.)

For large numbers of Mr. Trump’s followers, possibly the majority of Mr. Trump’s followers, phrases like meeting “in secret with international banks” and “global financial powers” probably have no sinister implication outside of the general sense of Clinton being a politician mired in sleaze and corruption.

For a subsection of Trump’s audience though – for the white nationalists and the Pepe-flaunting trolls of the Alt-Right – that kind of talk is instantly understood as meaning perfidious Jewish control of global finance. The language operates in that subculture as code in the same way the words ‘Zionist’ and ‘Zionism’ operate in euphemising so much leftwing antisemitism.

The kind of Trump supporter that make ‘Zionazi’ banners and enjoys bombarding Jewish journalists with Auschwitz taunts on Twitter knows exactly what Trump is getting at here. He was inviting them in from the fringe.


Image via @jacobinism

It’s the “in secret” part that unmasks him: the idea that extended networks of Jewish money men meet behind closed-doors to decide the fate of nations is a classic antisemitic trope going back to at least the Protocols, with earlier versions of the same slander – that Jews and money have a suspect relationship – providing permission for the persecution and murder of Jews for millennia.

As the late Christopher Hitchens used to point out, it is this conspiratorial aspect that makes antisemitism qualitatively distinct to “other forms of racism” (to borrow the phrase Jeremy Corbyn feels compelled to attach to his lukewarm condemnations of Jew-hatred within his own ranks) and it is this tendency to conspiracy that makes antisemitism correspondingly dangerous. There are only 16 million Jews in the world. A thin sliver of the earth’s population. Yet to the paranoid fantasists of Jew-hatred their hand can be detected everywhere, controlling everything. About no other minority is this said.

I’m not arguing Donald Trump is about to unleash a pogrom. The comparisons to Adolf Hitler, for example, are way, way off, both inflating Mr. Trump and inadvertently minimising Hitler at the same time. Mr. Trump isn’t committed to any rigid, murderous ideology. This is populism, folks, not fascism. I’m not even sure the candidate can be properly thought of as an antisemite; he has no personal history of antipathy towards Jewish people, and I doubt therefore he actually believes in shadowy cabals of Jewish bankers.

What I think he is doing, then, is toying with dark rhetoric with a dark history for the ears of dark people for purely cynical reasons, which, when you think about it, is bad enough.

If I was American, I’m not sure how I’d feel about this stinking election. You guys deserve better than this.

Begone demagogue begone!

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What Did You Expect?

Look, I don’t like the bloody thing either. That, though, is why I’ve never put myself forward for a job where I’m expected, on occasion, to sing it. I’m a republican too: you won’t catch me volunteering to sing Her Majesty’s praises. I don’t really go in for the pomp and ceremony that gaudily rivets monarchy to nation. In fact, I despise formal occasions of all kinds. Displays of prestige and power raise my hackles. I’m an egalitarian by instinct.

Nonetheless, if by some kink of fate I happened to find myself at an event memorialising the Battle of Britain, and singing the anthem was part of that ceremony, I’d probably swallow my pride and sing it. I wouldn’t like singing it. I’d feel slightly compromised by doing so, and somewhat uncomfortable, as I do when I sing to a god I don’t believe in at weddings and funerals, but I would do it, and for the same reasons. At a friend’s wedding, you follow the rituals according to their wishes, for their sake. Likewise, at an event marking Our Finest Hour I would sing (or at least mouth) for the occasion, not for Liz.

At the very least I would be keenly aware of how it would look to others if I refused to join in. No matter what my intention, not singing, in defiance of convention, could easily be construed as disrespectful. Not just disrespectful to the institution of monarchy, but to the other participants, and, by extension, the memory of those being honoured by the occasion. There are few things the British are prouder of than their armed forces, and almost nothing they respect more than the generation that beat back fascism. If I was the leader of a political party, particularly one only recently in the job, I’m not sure I’d want to risk making such an impression.

The one thing I could be absolutely certain of, however, is that if I went against my better instincts and stood there in “respectful silence” while all around me were in hearty unison, people would notice. I might think my gesture of defiance was a small one, unworthy of much comment, but I could hardly expect my political opponents to agree with me on that. I’d fully expect them to seize on anything that painted me as ungracious or unpatriotic, especially so if I already had a bit of a reputation for going on Russian television and saying dodgy things about terrorists and Western armed forces. My followers might be loyal enough to think any criticism of me an outrage by definition, but I would know what’s coming, for sure.

I might sincerely want to do politics differently, and I might get cheered by big crowds when I said that. I may be hostile to the media, and my supporters may share in that hostility. But I would have no reason to think that my enemies were obliged to play by my rules. I would be surprised if the rightwing media didn’t rubbish me: that is what they do. I could hardly blame them for kicking the ball if I’ve put it at their feet.

The fact that Jeremy Corbyn apparently needs a spin doctor to tell him all this is precisely why his leadership of the Labour party is guaranteed to be a disaster.

Corbyn is a man who has spent his career on the margins of public life, ensconced in a world of hard left politics where ideological inflexibility is seen as a virtue, and where you are so removed from both mainstream thought and the responsibilities of governing that challenges to your beliefs remain distant, and theoretical.

As Corbyn makes his omnishambolic way into the limelight, it becomes harder to resist the conclusion that here is a small man elevated way above his station by a wave of misplaced hope and idealistic credulity. His natural home is the soapbox and the megaphone; thrust into the responsibilities of leadership he appears woefully ill prepared.

When I see Corbyn’s supporters squealing about the negative coverage he receives, I can’t help but wonder what they were expecting. The press were hardly going to lay down flowers for man with his record and his views.

In the wake of the controversy over the national anthem there was even an online petition: “STOP THE BRITISH MEDIA’S SMEAR CAMPAIGN ON JEREMY CORBYN“. At the time of writing, it has over 16,000 signatures. The people who signed that petition won’t think of themselves as intolerant, but they are demanding the suppression of speech simply because that speech is critical of the Dear Leader. That they probably consider themselves decent, open-minded, liberal people has sinister implications. Who, exactly, is meant to be doing the ‘stopping’ here?

One can already detect in all the cries of “smears” and “smokescreens” the outline of the narrative that will be used to explain away Corbyn’s inevitable failure. It won’t be because his supporters made the wrong choice. It won’t be because their expectations were hopelessly unrealistic. It won’t be because Corbyn is a mediocre man with strange views that are anathema to the British people. No. No. No. It will be down to the ‘establishment’ and the ‘elites’ (words which mean whatever the user wishes them to mean) and their mouthpieces in the wicked media conspiring against him. If Corbyn had been given a fair chance, they will argue, if the papers hadn’t been so mean to Corbyn, then the public would have loved him like they do.

Those upset by the focus on Corbyn not singing the national anthem argue that a small thing has been blown up into a big thing. They’re right: it is of little consequence. What they fail to realise, however, is that small things can speak volumes.

Posted in Media, Politics | Tagged , , ,

Some thoughts on Corbyn and the Labour Party

One for those on the sensible Left who find themselves politically homeless after Jeremy Corbyn’s victory:

“To be this deluded takes real effort, you know.”

The Gerasites

By Citizen Sane (@citizen_sane)

It seems fashionable once more to ask “what was your Kronstadt?” I’ve probably had three epochal political awakenings in my life, three incidents in particular that have made me re-evaluate my world view.

Number 1: Moscow, February 1992. On a college trip to Russia, the collapse of the Soviet Union still a contemporaneous event. We were a coach load of 17 and 18 year old A Level politics students, spending the entire week getting riotously drunk in a place where a champagne cocktail was about the same price as a first class stamp. We were privileged westerners taking a holiday in a bankrupt, crumbling country. You should have seen the department store in Red Square, probably the Russian equivalent of Selfridges: the shelves were practically empty. The locals, even if they had money to spend, couldn’t have spent it on anything worth buying. Different…

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Brief History of a Lie



Never forget how this started: the spontaneous outbreak of peaceful protest. A people brutalised by decades of dictatorship and harsh repressions, in solidarity with the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring, saw a slim chance for freedom, and took it. They – the people – filled ancient cities with chanting, and song. This, the dictatorship could not have.

First, the snipers; the beatings; the mass arrests. Boys as young as ten returned to their families with their bodies pulverised and their genitals burnt off. Never forget how this started: with an act of self-preservation. The people took up arms to protect themselves, their neighborhoods and their families. It was the spirit of resistance, not fanaticism, that drove them.

When the dictatorship saw the rebellion grow, it responded as the logic of Arab fascism insisted it must, by unleashing a relentless and indiscriminate campaign of state terror upon a captive population. For daring to raise their voices, the people were to be mercilessly crushed. So here came the bombs, the airstrikes, the artillery; whole regions reduced to rubble and bones. The vast apparatus of mass killing, mass rape and mass torture gorged itself on the blood of the people.

The dictatorship had an excuse for all this. From the start it insisted it was “fighting terrorism”. This was classic fascist doublethink. The orgy of barbarism was well underway before a significant presence of foreign fighters was in the country. The only power doing any terrorising was the dictatorship.

But the dictatorship had powerful friends – veto-wielding friends – and those friends could protect it and arm it and help propagate the lie. When the jihadis began to arrive in earnest it became easier to believe it. As the number of groups ostensibly fighting the regime proliferated, confusion set in. It became harder to disentangle the motives of these various and often competing factions. Under the pressure of relentless disinformation they began to blend. The language of moral equivalence crept in, and those who rose up against the dictatorship were now judged by the actions of the most psychopathic hijackers of their cause.

Many in the outside world gazed upon this bloodshed and counseled against, as it was said, “getting involved”. For them the regime’s propaganda was intrinsically seductive; if the West said the dictatorship was bad, then the dictatorship’s badness could be questioned, and anyway, even if the dictatorship was bad, the West has done bad things too. The lie produced its own brand of apologetics.

When the dictatorship gassed over a thousand people, it had a growing Western audience for its deceptions. The pornographers of doubt came up with a bold inversion: The people, they said, had gassed themselves in order to gain our sympathy. Proving that no idea is so offensive you won’t get some people to believe it, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist helped the dictatorship embroider this myth in print.

By now many people were struggling to see past the black flag of ISIS. Maybe, they wondered, just maybe, the dictatorship really was fighting terrorism. Perhaps that meant the dictatorship was, in some sense, on our side. Perhaps the dictatorship was not so much murderous as a stabilising force in a chaotic region. The bullish British journalist Peter Oborne, writing from Damascus recently, argued the dictatorship “is fighting in defence of an ancient civilisation.”

That it is possible to contemplate the ruins of Homs and Alepo, let alone the choking faces of Ghouta, and still think that, is testament to the lie’s ability to reorder reality.

For as Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan have shown, the dictatorship did everything in its power to turn the lie into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not only had the dictatorship colluded with ISIS’s forerunner organisation al Qaeda in Iraq, it helped foster their resurgence by releasing an untold number of top Salafi jihadists as part of a 2011 ‘amnesty’. High level defectors from the regime testify that this was a deliberate strategy to destabilise the uprising.

Moreover, far from “fighting terrorism”, studies have shown that the regime has actually spared ISIS in 90 percent of its operations. (ISIS have reciprocated, by targeting the regime in only 18 percent of its attacks.) The dictatorship, in other words, knows its fight is with the people and acts accordingly.

In four years of fighting an estimated 250,000 people have been killed, half of that number civilians, including over 10,000 children. The overwhelming majority of these people – as much as 75 percent – were killed by government forces, who are are reckoned to be responsible for 95 percent of civilian casualties. ISIS’s brutality may capture our imaginations, but it is the dictatorship that owns the lion’s share of this slaughter, and the people, not the terrorists, filling up the graves.

You are free to call that defending civilisation if you so choose, but in doing so you are emptying those words of all useful meaning. You are wallowing in the lie.

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Glavin: This is what it’s come to: Letting Syria die, watching Syrians drown

I learn from this piece by Terry Glavin that the US has taken in a measly 1,500 Syrian refugees in the past four years – a sign of the Obama administration’s cruel indifference to the plight of the Syrian people if ever there was one.

Ottawa Citizen

“The worst part of it is the feeling that we don’t have any allies,” Montreal’s Faisal Alazem, the tireless 32-year-old campaigner for the Syrian-Canadian Council, told me the other day. “That is what people in the Syrian community are feeling.”

There are feelings of deep gratitude for having been welcomed into Canada, Alazem said. But with their homeland being reduced to an apocalyptic nightmare – the barrel-bombing of Aleppo and Homs, the beheadings of university professors, the demolition of Palmyra’s ancient temples – among Syrian Canadians there is also an unquenchable sorrow.

Bashar Assad’s genocidal regime clings to power in Damascus and the jihadist psychopaths of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are ascendant almost everywhere else. The one thing the democratic opposition wanted from the world was a no-fly zone and air-patrolled humanitarian corridors. Even that was too much to ask. There is no going home…

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From The Third Dustbin


via @RobbieTravers and @twlldun

In 2005 the great left-wing intellectual Fred Halliday published a typically rich and fascinating essay about what he termed “The Three Dustbin Theory of History”, which, he argued, “rests on the claim that, despite the receding of the Cold War, we remain, in key respects, prisoners of its legacy and will.”

The last of Halliday’s Cold War hangovers – the “Third Dustbin” – was what he termed “the global protest movement”, which he described as consisting of:

[A] children’s crusade of intellectual demagogues, recycled 1960s bunkeristas with their fellow travellers in literary circles, dreamers and political manipulators, of the old and new lefts, whose claim to moral and analytic superiority too often masks a set of unexamined, and themselves often recycled, platitudes from the Cold War period and, indeed, from the ideology of the communist world.

The ideological “content” of the Third Dustbin was, he said, “familiar enough”:

[A] ritual incantation of ‘no war’ that avoids any substantive engagement with problems of international peace and security, or reflection on how positively to help peoples in zones of conflict; a set of vague, unthought out, uncosted and often dangerous utopian ideas about an alternative world; a pleasing but vapid invocation of global human values and internationalism that blithely ignores the misuses to which that term was put in the 20th century (for example by Stalin or Mao); a complacent attitude, innocent when not indulgent, towards political violence (witness the cult of Che Guevara, a cruel and dangerous man, and the invitees from Northern Ireland, Palestine and Iran, to name but three at the London Social Summit in October). This was a capitulation, that would have shocked their socialist forebears, to nationalist and religious bigots (as in the reception by the supposedly left-wing Mayor of London of Sheikh Yusif al-Qaradawi, the descendant of a line of Muslim fascist thinkers)…And all of this is mixed up with a shallow, repetitive critique of globalisation, in the name of what we are never sure, and a naive, uninformed, analysis of the US.

These are words I have found myself returning to many times in the past few years. Halliday distilled in those few paragraphs what was, and is, intellectually incoherent and morally dubious about certain habits of thought among the contemporary Left.

A decade on, Halliday’s analysis still holds, for what is Corbynmania, if not a Third Dustbin phenomenon?

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Corbyn’s Conspiracists

According to recent polling by YouGov, 28% of Jeremy Corbyn supporters strongly agree with the classically paranoid conspiracy theory formulation “the world is controlled by a secretive elite”. That’s more than one in four, compared to just 13% of the population at large.

The average Jeremy Corbyn supporter, in other words, is more than twice as likely than the rest of the population to view the world through a conspiratorial lens.

Such numbers, if they show us anything, show the extent to which the paranoid style has become the dominant mode of discourse among the political fringes.

Worryingly, they also suggest the close proximity of such discourse to the political mainstream. Corbyn, after all, is on the verge of becoming the leader of Britain’s second largest party, and he will bring the cranks with him.

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to support Jeremy Corbyn, obviously, but if you are on the Left and prone to thinking like a conspiracy theorist, he’s probably your man. If that sounds unfair, consider the fact that grumpy lizard-botherer David Icke has made a video defending Corbyn. He hasn’t made one defending Liz Kendall.

As if to prove the point, the same day I read about this poll I had a surreal exchange with a Facebook friend, one who, until recently, had shown no signs of conspiratorial thinking. No prizes for guessing which prospective Labour leader gets this man’s vote.

My friend was incensed by the news that over 2000 people had died after being declared fit to work by government capability assessments. He wasn’t the only one: the story had appeared on my Facebook feed and Twitter timeline multiple times that day, and most of those posts were heavily critical of the government’s welfare reforms.

It was only when I saw a status comparing Ian Duncan Smith and the Department for Work and Pensions to the Nazis that my eyebrow raised:


Perhaps I’m peculiar, but glib comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis bloody annoy me, firstly because I take history quite seriously, and secondly because it’s never anything that warrants the comparison, like ISIS or Assad, it’s always something that plainly doesn’t, like Angela Merkel or David Cameron. I’ve seen my friend rant and rave about “Tory scum” with the best of them, but I’ve never seen him say anything quite so nutty.

I assumed, initially, that he was comparing the deaths of those benefits claimants with the Nazi’s euthanising of the mentally and physically disabled; a spurious comparison for all kinds of obvious reasons, but one that at least has the benefit of some kind of internal logic. Turns out, when pressed, he had something else in mind:


Contrary to my friend’s assertion, I don’t in fact know how the government “can control what is fed to the public via certain mediums”, because there seems to me to be no plausible sense in which that’s possible. I don’t think that because I’m naive, but because this government “blockdown” [sic] has had no detectable effect whatsoever on my own ability to source information.

Here, for example, are just a few of the times the IDS story appeared on my Facebook feed that day, including one from the pro-Tory Telegraph, and, at the bottom, my friend’s own post about it, just below a status where he suggests those same posts are being “taken down”:





And here is the same story, right there at number five in Facebook’s list of trending topics:


For a government that is taking its cues from Hitler and Goebbels in its attempts to suppress information, leaving the IDS story as one of the top trending topics on Facebook strikes me as a rather amateurish oversight indeed. Some cover up.

My friend makes a rather ostentatious and expletive-flecked display of his hatred for the Tories, as you can see, but he clearly rates them far more highly than I do, as they don’t seem to me to be nearly clever enough or competent enough to pull off the sort of dastardly conspiracy he’s describing. It is all but impossible to square the same DWP that only recently made such an embarrassing bungle of its motivational posters of happy and reformed benefits claimants, with the image of sinister algorithm-fiddling and information suppressing Machiavellians invented by my friend. Ian Duncan Smith may be bald, but that doesn’t make him a Bond villain.

It is telling, I think, that my friend was unwilling, or more likely unable, to describe exactly how the government controls the flow of information, he was simply “certain” that they do.

I’ve seen this kind of thing a lot on social media over the years, and it only seems to be becoming more prevalent. During last year’s Scottish referendum, I repeatedly saw nationalists scream that Facebook was deliberately removing pro-independence posts, and they, too, believed the BBC was colluding with the government against them. I’ve also seen people on the hard Right argue the same thing but from the other direction; for them the BBC is all lies because it’s run by far Left loons pushing some kind of politically correct ‘cultural Marxist’ agenda. Evidence supporting these various, and competing, conspiracies is seldom asked for or given; as with my friend, the strength of their own convictions is enough.

Obviously it is impossible for Facebook and the BBC to be both organs of right-wing propaganda and left-wing propaganda at the same time. One swipe of Occam’s Razor is enough to cleave imagination from reality: What is more probable, that there remains a vast, undetectable conspiracy to prevent the flow of certain types of information (one that, as we have seen, doesn’t actually work), or that certain people on Facebook, ever ready to see the hand of their political enemies at play, have overactive imaginations?

What is especially strange about such notions is that they seem to be increasing in frequency at a time when information has never been freer. It has never been more difficult for governments in an open society to keep secrets, as Wikileaks and Edward Snowden have shown. Similarly, the power of the traditional media to influence what we can and can’t see has never been weaker.

Paranoia is a contagion, and the internet its perfect host. Social media, with its tendency to create self-reinforcing feedback loops of like-minded individuals, encourages group polarisation, cutting people off from challenges to their beliefs. Those at the political margins are more susceptible to paranoid thinking and conspiratorial ideas. Unless guarded against, those ideas can quickly spread to the center. There is no firewall between the crank and the ordinary man; the latter easily tips into the former.

Posted in Conspiracy, Reason, Scepticism | Tagged ,