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.