Thursday, January 24, 2013

Dr. James Tracy and the Paranoid Style in Floridian Academia

Starting December 20th, just one week after the shooting that left 20 children and six adults dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Dr. James Tracy of Florida Atlantic University began offering a version of the events quite different than that seen on the nightly news. On his blog, Tracy has speculated that the Connecticut medical examiner in charge of the case was an impostor, and claimed that there were two to four gunman in addition to accused shooter Adam Lanza. He has written that “compelling geopolitical and diplomatic conditions” suggested those additional shooters were part of an Israeli paramilitary team. In the culmination of these postings, Tracy wrote that he “is left to inquire whether the Sandy Hook shootings ever took place, at least in the way law enforcement authorities and the nation's news media have described,” and suggested that the event was engineered by the Obama administration to help erode civil liberties. Even in its skillfully hedged form, the claim that Sandy Hook didn’t really happen, combined with Tracy’s position as a tenured professor, has made his claims national news.

Tracy has other odd ideas – his blog refers to weather-controlling “chemtrails,” FEMA-run concentration camps, and a shadowy conspiracy aimed at undermining American sovereignty. These echo a shockingly widespread belief in what is known as the New World Order, conceived by adherents as a massive plot to establish a single, oppressive, authoritarian global government. The New World Order is believed to include such groups as (variously) the Illuminati, the Trilateral Commission, and the Rothschild banking family. These groups and others are believed to have orchestrated everything from the Kennedy Assassination, to first contact with space aliens in Area 51, to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Sadly, without the “PhD” after his name, Tracy’s strange beliefs would be unremarkable – the conspiracy industry is big business in America, with figures like Alex Jones, Glenn Beck, and Pat Robertson peddling versions of the “Master Conspiracy” to an eager audience. Of course, it’s all hokum, part of a long tradition of fabricated pseudo-politics that stretches back to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a document showing an international Jewish plan for world domination, but which was really cooked up the Russian secret police in 1903 as a way of whipping up anti-Jewish hysteria. The Protocols were eagerly touted by notorious American Nazis such as Henry Ford, and to this day anti-Semetism remains a major underlying theme of New World Order ideas. But conspiracism crops up in many smaller ways; For instance, when the Pinellas County commission voted in 2011 to remove fluoride from county drinking water, it was partly due to New World Order theories that linked the mineral to government mind-control. But isn’t this the province of some narrow lunatic fringe? Hardly. Dr. Tracy’s strange and hurtful outburst illustrates an important point about conspiracism – very smart, sometimes very accomplished people can be pulled in by strange ideas, and they tend to be very good at defending their conclusions. Tracy’s blog is soberly written and carefully argued, for the most part sticking to the common conspiracist tactic of ‘raising doubts’ about the official narrative, and concluding that the discrepancies must mean there’s a larger, malevolent force at work.

Tracy’s descent into the rabbit hole shows the fine line between the healthy distrust that has driven some of the best of American politics, and a growing plague of conspiracism that threatens to erode the common cause that allows our society to function. There are some very good reasons to be skeptical of both government and the media – for instance, the tragedy on 9/11 really was used as a political tool to institute frightening curbs on American civil liberties, and programs like COINTELPRO and FBI surveillance of Occupy show that the U.S. government sometimes works against its citizens’ freedoms. Skepticism of the media, moreover, is vital to real democracy, and Tracy has published respectable academic work unpacking various forms of media bias and institutional failure. In fact, Tracy’s scholarly work is very similar to my own – we even both got our doctorates from the University of Iowa. Where does healthy skepticism cross the line to destructive conspiracism, and why?

The conspiracist fallacy is an emotional as much as an intellectual one. We live in a world of human imperfection, one in which not just natural disasters, but the failures of individuals and institutions seem constant. Depending on your politics, you’re likely to see various failures as causes of the Sandy Hook tragedy – but only a few of us will be tempted to explain those failures as part of a larger, carefully coordinated agenda. In a strange way, the conspiracist viewpoint is comforting – it transforms the complicated and sad reality of our imperfect world into one in which dark, Machiavellian forces are the source of all suffering. James Tracy and conspiracists like him would rather live in a world ruled by sensible evil, than have to confront senseless tragedy.