Last night’s Rachel Maddow Show was excellent for three reasons, and at least the first two segments are well worth watching. (I realize that she is often quite liberal and quite partisan, but these two segments are not about the election and are well worth your time, whatever your political alignment.)

1) In the first segment, she points to a lot of different news coming out of Libya from a variety of sources which give strong indication that the attacks on the Libyan consulate–the attacks that killed the American ambassador–might have had absolutely nothing to do with the protests about the anti-Muslim video.  Instead, it is increasingly likely that the attacks were coordinated by an al Qaeda affiliate.

2) But it is the second segment that is most interesting.  In the second segment, she interviews Richard Engle, an NBC news corespondent in Egypt.  Among other things, Engle mentions that the protests and protesters really only make up a very small segment of Egyptian society.  For most of the interview, he has been standing with the protests as a dramatic back-drop to the interview.  But at Ms. Maddow’s request, he pans back and shows the entire square where the protests are taking place.  It turns out that the protests are only in a very small corner of this large square, and in most of the square traffic and city life is proceeding quite normally.  So when you read headlines like “Anti-American Fury Sweeps Middle East Over Film,” keep that in mind.

3) At some point, Mr. Engle notes that the protesters have this incredibly conspiratorial mindset.  He has interviewed several of them, and they are convinced that there is this global conspiracy to denigrate and attack Islam, funded by the American government, by Zionists, and by Free Masons, of which this anti-Muslim video is just the latest example.  Mr. Engle blames the conspiratorial mindset on totalitarianism and says that the answer is “free-thinking” and “education”.

But that’s just wrong, on both counts.  First of all, free societies have plenty of conspiracy theorists running around, many of whom are violent.  One of our home-grown conspiracy fanatics just committed mass murder at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin less than two months ago, as a matter of fact.  Another one is responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing, the second largest terrorist attack ever on United States soil.  And you don’t have to go far to find conspiracy theorists in American politics.  Of course, most American conspiracy theorists are non-violent–but the same is surely true of most Egyptian conspiracy theorists.  If Mr. Engle is trying to assert that Egyptian conspiracy theorists are more prevalent than American conspiracy theorists… well, that would be an interesting question for social scientific research, but I seriously doubt that he has done anything approaching that kind of systematic study.

Second, “education” actually isn’t a very effective tool at helping us overcome deeply held beliefs.  Instead, social scientific research has indicated that a) we tend to ignore information that conflicts with our deeply held beliefs, b) we tend to only hear information that we can conform to our deeply held beliefs, thereby strengthening them, and c) we are likely to discount any source that we view as even remotely critical of our deeply held belief.  In other words, once someone believes in a conspiracy theory, they are unlikely to stop believing in it.  The best education can do is to reach their children before the children start to believe the conspiracy theories.

  2 Responses to “Terror, Conspiracy, and Protest in the Middle East”

  1. Hello Mr. Edwards! I attend Loomis, and I was wondering if you could answer one last question from me? Not related to your blog post, but I didn’t know how to contact you. Do you think that the right to rebel (promoted by John Locke and confirmed in our Constitution) makes the government more likely to listen to the people/protect them in fear of being taken out of office? Thanks.

  2. Always happy to chat about anything (and by the way, I can always be emailed at mike at leftfielder.org).

    The “right to rebel” is a strange duck. First of all, keep in mind that for Locke our natural rights derived from God not from government–all government can do is protect (or guarantee) a right, but we have it anyway. Or to put it in terms of the right to rebel, all people have the right to rebel from their government–after all, the whole point of rebelling is to act our against the government!

    So really, then, different governments can vary in two ways, if you think about it:
    1) By making it easier or harder to exercise this particular right. (In other words, how easy is it to overthrow the government? How stable is government? How powerful/loyal is the government’s army and police forces? etc.)
    2) By making it more or less desirable to exercise this particular right. (In other words, how effective is government? Are there other ways, besides rebelling, to make changes or to get our voice heard? etc.)

    In our book, we argue that one of the keys to democratic success lies in #2: democracies make it less desirable to rebel, because there are other ways to be heard. Many (although to be fair, not all) autocratic nations try to maintain power by adjusting #1: making it harder to rebel by spying on their own people, forbidding them from gathering in large groups, destroying civil society, restricting free speech, etc.

    Note that it is very difficult to do both things at the same time: for instance, if I restrict a people’s free speech so that they won’t rebel, then I’ve also made it more desirable for people to rebel. On the other hand, if I grant people more freedoms (of speech, of movement, etc.), then I’ve made it easier to attack the government. All societies struggle with this balance–it’s why we are free to have this conversation, but not to make direct threats against the president’s life, or why we can post online descriptions of how to make a bomb but cannot even talk casually about explosives in an airport.

    Now, lets get back to your question: does the right to rebel affect a government’s likelihood of listening to it’s people? Sure… sometimes. Of course, sometimes it has the exact opposite effect too. The question that we have to ask as voters and citizens is this: which reaction is likely to be more effective, and in what circumstances? Do we follow the lead of Ben Franklin here: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” ? Or do we follow the lead of Abraham Lincoln who once said that because “disloyal persons are not adequately restrained by the ordinary processes of law from hindering this measure and from giving aid and comfort in various ways to the insurrection” it was okay to suspend the Writ of Habeus Corpus during the Civil War?

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