Thursday, March 20, 2008


Beastly sent me an email this morning and it got me thinking about something.

How do you create a society that is manifestly mental ill?

Take the Nazis for example: Up until the 1930's Germany was a civilized and relatively stable culture. Oh, sure they had a military tradition and history of attempted conquest, but so did a lot of European countries in those days. Then Hitler and his band of raving psychopaths came along and in less than a decade they had infected the majority of the population with the stark staring crazies. Literally, Germany went insane. Like the movie, 28 Days Later, the insanity spread throughout the whole population. When people do what the Nazis did - that's clinical insanity, on a grand scale. And the Nazis weren't the only ones: Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, Lenin, Idi Amin, all the way back to the Inquisition. How does that happen? How does a whole society just go off the deep end?

Take the Jihadists for example: When you are willing to commit suicide by flying an airplane into a building, that's crazy. Sane people don't do things like that. When you see strapping twenty pounds of C4 to your chest as the only way to talk to your God and as a way to strike back at your perceived enemies, well, that's the clinical definition of batshit bonkers. Sane people don't commit mass murder, psychopaths commit mass murder. But the average person isn't a psychopath, so how do you turn the average person into a homicidal maniac with no sense of self preservation, and do it on commericial scale? How does this happen?

Take Timothy McVeigh for example: When a decorated combat veteran concludes that it is morally correct to murder 168 people in order to make a political statement - that's the classic definition of a psychopath. But, he managed to infect at least one other, Terry Nichols, and possibly more with his insanity. A rather large number of white supremacists and survivalists see him today as a hero, but they were already crazy. How does that happen?

And speaking of McVeigh, take the Branch Davidians and their standoff at Waco: I can understand David Koresh going insane, and he was manifestly bug-eating crazy, but how does a raving lunatic like that manage to convince hundreds of others that he is Jesus Christ reborn. When you believe that kind of thing, when you believe it so strongly that you're willing to commit murder and suicide, when you're willing to burn your own children alive, when you think that those actions are justified because one obviously crazy man says it's the right thing to do - well, you're crazy too. How does that happen? How did Charlie Manson pull it off? Or Marshal Applewhite. Or Fred Phelps? Or Jim Jones? How does this happen?

How do you create Holocaust deniers? Moon Landing Hoax and Face on Mars Conspiracy believers? How do you create people who believe that we were doing Africans a favor when we took them from their homes and put them in chains in the American South? How do you create a group, a large group, of people who truly believe that they are regularly abducted by gray skinned, bug eyed aliens? How do you take otherwise normal folks and convince them that a sick half-ass hack science fiction writer was the greatest mind in the history of the human race, and that alien ghosts live in your head because he said so? I could go on with the examples here, but you get the idea. The question I keep asking is, how does this happen? How does one one crazy bastard infect people who are otherwise normal?

You know the answer, of course - and so do I.

You start when they are children, because that's easiest. Or you find the weak minded and uneducated. The outcasts and the idiots, those with pliable minds. You do it a little at a time. You whisper in their ears, night and day. You introduce them to other crazy people. You immerse them in the crazy. You show them only what you want them to see, and destroy or deny everything else. You never, never, never let them think for themselves. Oh, you exhort them to think for themselves, but that's a lie - the biggest lie of all - because you only let them think what you want them to think and you stamp out everything else. You keep them isolated and you never let them out of your grasp.

You do it, my friends, exactly like this.

Read the story first, then watch the video. Watch the children in the video, watch how they are being indoctrinated. They are not being taught - teaching involves thinking - they're being programmed. Watch how the children are made to repeat key phrases. Watch the faces of the children, and the approving faces of their parents. Watch carefully, see the children looking to the parents first? Seeking their approval? See how they try to satisfy their folks and the guides? Watch the interviews with the tour guides and listen to what they have to say. Listen to how they say it. They don't believe it - but they want the children to believe it. Watch how they hide certain information from the children. Read the comments, if you can. Look up the definition of a cult and the criteria that defines it - then watch the video again with the criteria list in your hand.

Someday, very soon, these children will seek to remake America - and that, my friends, is how it happens.


  1. Ys'know, I saw the promo for that last night and I was just waiting to see which one of you went batshit crazy about it. Tag. You're it.

    The funniest thing to me is that he doesn't even get it right by his own philosophy.

    "We believe Jesus is our designer and our creator of everything that was ever made. That's a pretty neat trick since by his reckoning, Jesus was born about 4000 years after the Creation. Neat trick.


  2. And no. I can't bear to read the comments.

  3. I've known about these whacko's for a while, since the Denver Museum of Nature and Science is one of their stomping grounds.

    I'm always so tempting to "join" them in order to heckle with, you know, logic.

    Not worth it, though. I suspect it's a lost cause. Sigh.

  4. Nathan, yeah, I caught that too.

    Personally my favorite part of the report is the interview with the chubby BC guide: "uh, well, uh, I haven't actually done the math...but...uh, ah if you do, you'll see that the Earth is only 6000 years old."

    Funny thing according to these folks the bible is literally true. Period and no equivocation. BUT, the Earth is 6000 OR maybe 10,000 years old. They don't know exactly. By their reasoning they've got a slop factor of over 25%. So 60-75% is good enough for biblical work, but there's NO room to maneuver when it comes to biology and paleontology and radiology physics. Period. End of story. What complete bunch of fucktards.

    I call 'em as I see 'em and I'll tell you, I call this child abuse.

  5. Janiece, please go. Take your camera. And friends. I'd love to see that.

    I notice though that there are remarkably few normal folks passing by. I suspect they do this at special tour times - so as to avoid contact with people like you and me.

  6. Janiece, it wouldn't work. Faith transcends logic -- in fact, mere facts & logic are just another test & temptation for the true believer.

    I tried the explanation of "you arrive at creationism by faith and we arrive at evolution by science" with a true believer a couple of weeks ago and it failed miserably.

    His response? Evolution is faith-based too since it makes assumptions.


    He was at least against the "Freedom of Religion" bill that is being sponsored by Janiece's hate-mongering congresswoman. Baby steps to sanity...

  7. I especially loved the part where the chubby doofus tried to determine how many generations existed since the "Creation" and by the commentators count those people lived to be 800 years old on average. Those poor doe eyed kids were being fed the most incomplete line of Bull Shit I had heard in a while and it left no room for questions nor explanations. Just what modern parents and future generations need. A pack of lemmings that would rather nod in approval than form an original thought or challenge conventional "wisdom"(?)
    UGH glad I never had any kids but what have my neices and nephews to look forward to...BTW Jim don't bother calling because I forgot my phone at my brothers house.

  8. Beastly, that's ok you can corrupt my kid, and have - head on a plate, Baby, head on a plate.

    And I figured I used up enough of your minutes already this week

  9. Hey, I just had a thought. we're not in the bible, no really. In fact, history for the last 1900 years or so is not in the bible - does that mean that it doesn't exist?

    Perhaps I'll start my own religion, I mean hell I write scifi and I was in the Navy, I'm a natural - Reality Denialism. Strict interpretation of the bible, and I mean strict. The Earth is 6000 (or maybe 10,000) years old. Period. It ended sometime right after Jesus rose from the dead. Period. In fact, it does not actually exist anymore at all because now is not in the bible! Anybody who argues that they are in fact existing right now is only taking that on faith, because I believe that they don't actually exist at all. In order to prove they exist, they'll have to show me where they are referenced in the bible. In fact, since I believe that I don't in fact exist, then I must believe that they don't exist either, or something... my head hurts, or it would if I had a head that existed...

    What? Or yeah, Revelations implies that the world exists until some unspecified future end times. Fuck. Wait, it doesn't actually say when that will be, maybe it already happened - and we're all just left behind! Not existing. Yeah, that's it.

    Make your checks out to Jim Wright, care of Stonekettle Station.

  10. Okay, first this: religious indoctrination of children is appalling and Richard Dawkins may be on to something when he compares it to child abuse. (And let me preface what follows by reminding everyone I've been an atheist since I was in my early teens.)

    But the bad news is that you don't have to start with children to make a sick society. I feel where you're coming from, but Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo provided damn good evidence that you don't have to be brainwashed.

    It may be sufficient to be human.

    And that, tracking back to one of the big events of the week, is the real reason we need people like the late Arthur C. Clarke--not for his agnosticism, but for his calm, measured attempts to apply critical thought, constant curiosity, bottomless compassion and unwavering optimism to the world.

    And you remember that those things are merely starting points.

    (Hm... I seem to be in a sentimental mood of sorts... blame it on the nice dinner I just ate. I'll be a raving asshole again by tomorrow, I'm sure.)

  11. First, I couldn't stand to read more than one page of that article.

    I really don't need to toss my laptop across the room in anger.

    However, first, I second Eric's mention of the Stanley Milgram experiments. It seems like people want to be convinced to hurt others.


    I can understand David Koresh going insane, and he was manifestly bug-eating crazy, but how does a raving lunatic like that manage to convince hundreds of others

    The answer is charisma plus a compulsive liar.

    If you are charming, and can convince people of things that are plausible, but not real, once you get them to accept you as an authority?

    It's all over.

    And it can work in little harmless ways as well.

    Like the friend of a friend that convinced his co-worker that the air for airbags came from the car tires.

    You come up with a reasonable explanation and anecdotal evidence, you can convince people of almost anything.

    Just to add some levity: other stories this guy made up?

    The "Toss & Fetch" hunting dog competition. Dogs are each shown their own numbered bag, first dog to bring back the correct bag wins.

    Radio stations operate on the principal that you can only have so many listeners, so if you are driving down the highway and lose the signal, it means someone behind you turned on their radio to the same station. (This is now a running gag between me & my husband.)

    And my all time favorite story: when there is a drought, and grazing is bad, cows catch and eat chipmunks. This idea gives me such hilarious images in my head, it makes me laugh whenever I think about it.

    But the point is that if one person can convince another of these harmless ideas as a practical joke, think what someone with a similar charisma can do when that charisma is combined with selfish intent.

  12. Jim, I may go sometime, strictly for blog material. I will wear my "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. No one is entitled to their own facts" SkepChick T-Shirt.

    I wouldn't change any minds, but I would find it humorous.

  13. And my all time favorite story: when there is a drought, and grazing is bad, cows catch and eat chipmunks.

    And you all thought my avatar was a photoshop job. Oh, ye of little faith.

  14. Well, if we're going to go down the gullible road:

    Beastly, do you remember that time when we were in "A" school at NTTC Corry and I convinced Scotty Delaventura that bread was an animal? Like a big hamster, fields of them, whites, wheats, ryes. So nice that the navy got the processed filleted breads, nothing worse than having to pick the bones out of the wild ones. Nothing better though, than wild cinnamon raisin on the grill.

    Ah, city kids, so much fun.

  15. One of the things that make the Milgram experiments ethically irreproducable is that it's not that people want to hurt others--but they're willing to in obedience to perceived authority. Many of Milgram's subjects--we're talking about the ones who went all the way--showed signs of PTSD afterwards or made token displays of resistance before continuing.

    One of the things that Milgram observed was that blind obedience to authority isn't automatically a bad thing: IIRC Milgram used the example of traffic lights--we want people to unquestioningly respond to the authority of a stop light at an intersection. It's a good thing if they do. Human interaction depends on a certain amount of unhesitating obedience. The problem is when the authority abuses his trust--it's one thing to instantly obey the fireman who orders you to evacuate the building and another thing entirely to instantly obey Heinrich Himmler when he orders you to dispose of Polish Jewry.

    The corollary suggested by the Stanford Prison Experiment is that authority is easily abused: the participants (including the researchers, who quickly lost objectivity) fell into the roles of abusive authority and abased obedience within days. Whether this shows that humans want to abuse other humans is questionable--as with the Milgram experiments, there was an obvious and frightening psychic toll even on the participants who "got into it." I would suggest that what the SPE shows isn't a natural sadistic tendency, but rather that sadism may be a situational "path of least resistance."

    The likelihood is that obedience is part of our evolutionary wiring: we're social animals, and social animals (by definition) work together. When the instinct to obey comes in conflict with other instincts--and empathy, for instance, is also almost certainly a hardwired instinct in humans--there's damage. Damage control mechanisms come into play: we rationalize, we justify, we try to simply ignore the evidence of our senses. We dehumanize our fellow humans in our perception or come up with stories that make our actions necessary or just or inevitable. And if those defense mechanisms fail, we go a little nuts--we have nightmares, neuroses, phobias, stress disorders, etc.

    The toll in the Milgram experiments and the SPE are such that the ethical standards for psychologists were revised: Milgram's work and Zimbardo's cannot be reproduced by licensed psychologists in the United States (or, more accurately, the work could be reproduced by psychologists who don't care to be licensed for very long and don't mind being sued for gross malpractice--i.e. shrinks who are interested in professional suicide).

    It's not reassuring to realize that such susceptibilities are part of our human makeup. The consolation is that empathy and judgment are part of our makeup, too. There were people who said "no" to the Nazis. Not many, not enough to stop the machine--but enough to inspire hope. In a similar vein, it's easy to forget that there were people who abandoned Koresh and people who left (or were killed attempting to leave) Jonestown.

    Hope may be the last thing in the bottom of the box. But it's in there.

    * * *

    On a happier note (I suppose):

    I once had a girlfriend more-or-less convinced that "He who smelt it, dealt it" was a line from Shakespeare. I don't remember which play I told her it was from. Not that it mattered. I'm proud of that one; in retrospect, my only regret is that I 'fessed up.

    And then there was the time I was in the car with a friend and one of his friends, and we were driving past a local small college. When the friend-of-a-friend mused aloud that he'd never seen anyone on the campus whenever he drove by, I then proceeded to explain that the "campus" had been built for a movie that had been filmed in the area and it wasn't a real college at all, however it had proven cheaper to leave the set up then to tear the whole thing down. It was going quite well--I really had this guy on the line--until I tried to get the mutual friend to corroborate my tale, whereupon he betrayed me: "Eric," he slowly said, "I can't go along with this." Rat-fink bastard. I was on the verge of pulling off something really special that evening.

  16. Yeah, it annoys me sometimes, how rarely people check up on facts presented to them before they start passing them around as true. But then again there are a lot of things I don't spend much time checking either; either I trust the source because they've never said anything inconsistent with what I already know to be true, or it isn't important enough to me to know whether it's true or not (at least at the time it was told to me).

    As for brainwashing kids... at least a few of them probably WILL care enough to eventually question and fact-check when they're older - especially as they go out into the world and run into inconsistencies. (Which they will; no matter how much the brainwashers might try to keep them secluded from the world, it's not going to last forever if they're hoping these kids are going to be changing things.)

  17. It also helps if you tell them that their troubles aren't their own fault. And then you give them someone or something that is at fault.

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  19. (A reposting, due to my bad HTML in the first attempt.)

    Hey, good news, everybody! This wasn't the worst religious news of the week! It turns out that there's something nice you can say about B.C. Tours after all: at least they're not nailing anyone to crosses in order to treat measles!

    Exam question, worth 20 points: is the most depressing thing about this article the subjects' ignorance, their unreasoning faith, or the apparent state of the medical system in the Philippines? Discuss.

  20. I do have Pharyngula in my RSS feed, but ironically I saw it up at MSNBC first. I'll have to go see PZ's full post on it.

  21. Jim, the children angle is correct for keeping the batshit crazy going, but it does not explain how to start the thing in the first place.

    Kids weren't being indoctrinted with Nazi ideology in 1933, and the adults who perpetrated the Final Solution grew up in a different era. The generation who pepetrated the Terror in 1922 did not grow up with tales of Pavel Morozov.

    The crazy can happen anywhere, but certain societies seem more succeptible to it. Looking at the great killers of the 20th century, Maoism, Leninism, and Nazism, there are certain features that societies fertile for that crap have in common.

    A hierarchical system left over from feudal days is common to all. Of all of Western Europe that stuff took hold only in Germany, the most hierarchical of Western countries. Russia? Feudalism only ended there in 1868. China? I'd argue it's still largely feudal. Liten to what your told. If you don't, the local noble or party Chief is going to kock your teeth down your throat. There's a Russian joke that you have to explain to an American WHY a rule is in place before he'll obey it. For a Russian all you have to say is "it's forbidden".

    A streak of Romaticism is also necessary. Romantics see the world as the think it should be, not as it is. That makes them the most dangerous people on the planet when in power. It also allies them psychologically to people of extreme religious faith. Germany and Russia are frighteningly Romantic in their national outlooks. Chinese peasatry, too.

    Finally, there needs to be a messianic inferiority / superiority complex allied with the Romanticism. Germany in the interwar period had this in spades. Their great culture was desined to lead the world, yet it was under the heel of France and England. They were destined to be great, so why weren't they? The Russians and their "great culture" were in the same position - why were they so poor? China, too. The resentment born of the cognitive dissonance between what the Romantics saw as their national destiny and their actual material situation in the world gave rise to the sytems that tried to find a scapeoat (Jews, capitalism, etc.)and force their vews on everyone else, because deep down they were afraid that their views were actually worng, and that the only way to bolster their own faith in their ideology was to make everyone else believe tha same thing.

    See any parallels with religious fanatics?

    I distrust emotion in politics above all else becuase of this.

  22. John, one thing I would add to your factors as part of a hypothesis: your points about a cognitive dissonance among political idealists glosses over the fact that the material situation in the countries you point to was in actuality extremely bad. Pre-Nazi Germany was suffering from the Great Depression. The Czarist regime in Russia was as capricious and corrupt as any feudal monarchy in history and Russia's recent military adventures (the Sino-Japanese War and WWI) had been fiascoes that left the peasant class bereft of food, money, and their young men. And China between the revolutions was an unimaginable mess: after decades of depredations by the west, the Nationalist revolution had imploded, half the country had been occupied by Japan, most of the rest had balkanized into petty fiefdoms run by local gangs and warlords, and Chiang Kai-shek (ostensibly in charge of the circus) was corrupt, stupid, and incompetent.

    What's easy to overlook, eclipsed as it is by subsequent horrors, is that the revolutionary regimes succeeded in part because they actually did bring some initial improvements to their countries. Nazism initially brought law, order and economic stability. Leninism briefly brought peasants' rights and an end to the abusive class system. Maoism began with equality, economic opportunity, legal stability, and justice after a fashion. Please don't mistake any of these things as somehow serving as an apologetic for the subsequent horrors and betrayals that followed--the point isn't "Oh, well Nazism started pretty well," a statement which would be bullshit (it was always a racist ideology carrying the seeds of its corruption), rather the point is that we forget at our own peril that atrocious regimes may well offer concrete benefits to much of their populace. Maoism didn't take hold because of the Cultural Revolution, it succeeded because during the war with Japan the Maoists reimbursed peasants for materiel they requisitioned and hanged the landlords.

    Hence, the importance of that oft-abused phrase, "hearts and minds."

  23. Eric - I completely agree, I should have made that more specific in the thrid point - the cognitive dissonance is caused in large majority by material poverty.

    But poverty was not the pivotal factor - look at Ireland for a poor country without the other factors that teetered on the brink of fascism but did not fall over. Or Spain for a poor country that was nominally fascist, but never hit the depths of an organized Germany.

    And yes, such systems are bound to make progress in the short term. Timescales are hugely important, which is why you and I disagree about Rawls. Still working on that post.

  24. No, poverty isn't the pivotal factor--that wasn't the point. The point was that the regimes under discussion could offer benefits in exchange for support.

    Take Germany, for instance. It wasn't merely that the Nazis raised the question "why are we so poor when our destiny is to be so great?" And it wasn't merely that the Nazis were effectively able to blame the socialists and Jews, though that was part of it. It was that the Nazis were able, at least in the short term, to offer German protestants economic and legal stability. (And part of the reason they could only offer the enfranchised majority those things in the short term was that the Nazi leadership decided to go to war with everybody--particularly two countries that between them had practically unlimited materiel and manpower; had the Nazis contented themselves with Poland, the Third Reich might still be murdering its citizens and engaging in a brisk international trade).

    In a similar vein, the Maoists didn't merely offer ideals. They offered education, equality and what the peasant class considered long-overdue justice (i.e. they executed the landlords and warlords; we might call it retribution or murder, but to the peasants it was just desserts).

    I hope you're not one of those American conservatives who admires Franco; "nominally fascist"? Oy.


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