Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, October 14, 2008 3:30 EDT
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I’ve been mulling over this post by Fred at Slactivist (and its follow-up) since I read these posts last night. The original post is about the psychology behind the ludicrous rumor that the CEO of Proctor & Gamble went on some talk show and proclaimed his love of Satan. This one really does show the truism that the spread-ability of an urban legend is dependent on how much it flatters the prejudices of the person who is spreading it—for instance, I’ve heard more legends in Austin of the horrible goings on of evil gang-bangers than I have in El Paso, though the latter actually has gangs in a way that Austin doesn’t. That’s because the source of all hair-raising and untrue horror stories of criminal behavior in El Paso were attributed to illegal immigrants. You can tell a lot about someone’s prejudices by what urban legends they tell. The P&G legend obviously made its way through evangelical Christians, who are highly motivated to convince themselves as a group that Satanists exist, because it flatters their self-perception as mighty spiritual warriors.

Now that I think about it, a lot of right wing nuttery is about engaging fantasies of being more important and powerful than you are. Stockpiling guns in preparation for some kind of imaginary warfare isn’t all that different from praying for strength to beat back imaginary Satanists. Translation: Pay no attention to my mild-mannered exterior, people! I am a mighty warrior who just happens to look like a soft-bodied couch potato.

Obviously, the impetus for thinking about these kind of fantasies is the use of similar ones in service of the McCain campaign. Fully 95% of any one of Sarah Palin’s speeches now take place not in the real world we know, but in the fantasy plane of right wing nuttery, where the Anti-Christ is real, and he’s a “terrorist” masquerading as an ordinary politician. With tax raises. What’s frustrating about these myths is that people seem to be so damn intent on overlooking the obvious, which is that no sane person can seriously believe this shit. No sane person being honest with herself can really believe any of the following:

*Obama is a terrorist or terrorist sympathizer.
*Obama was a junior Weatherman.
*Obama supports infanticide.
*Obama is a socialist, much less a Maoist or a Stalinist.
*Obama is the fulfillment of a “Biblical” prophecy of the Anti-Christ.
*Obama isn’t an American citizen.
*Obama is a secret Muslim.
*The Left Behind series are an accurate portrayal of Biblical prophecy.

And yet, without these bullshit ideas, the McCain campaign would be empty, as would many an emailbox of the right wing base. So what gives? How can people so feverishly believe things they know aren’t so? Fred has some interesting thoughts, filtered through his experience beating back the P&G rumors (which were, by the way, shown in court to be at least partially the responsibility of Amway salespeople trying to loop more suckers into their pyramid scheme):

In trying to combat the P&G slander with nothing more than irrefutable facts proving it false, I was operating under a set of false assumptions. Among these:

1. I assumed that the people who claimed to believe that Procter & Gamble supported the Church of Satan really did believe such a thing.

2. I assumed that they were passing on this rumor in good faith — that they were misinforming others only because they had, themselves, been misinformed.

3. I assumed that they would respect, or care about, or at least be willing to consider, the actual facts of the matter.

4. Because the people spreading this rumor claimed to be horrified/angry about its allegations, I assumed that they would be happy/relieved to learn that these allegations were, indisputably, not true.

All of those assumptions proved to be false. All of them. This was at first bewildering, then disappointing, and then, the more I thought about it, appalling — so appalling that I was reluctant to accept that it could really be the case.

But it is the case. Let’s go through that list again. The following are all true of the people spreading the Procter & Gamble rumor:

1. They didn’t really believe it themselves.

2. They were passing it along with the intent of misinforming others. Deliberately.

3. They did not respect, or care about, the actual facts of the matter, except to the extent that they viewed such facts with hostility.

4. Being told that the Bad Thing they were purportedly upset about wasn’t real only made them more upset. Proof that the 23rd largest corporation in America was not in league with the Devil made them defensive and very, very angry.

In the reproductive rights arena, you find this bewildering problem with anti-choicers a lot. You’d think they’d be relieved to find that science has shown that fetuses are incapable of feeling pain before 28 weeks and that the birth control pill does not cause abortion. By their own stated beliefs of concern for the unborn, they should feel a rush of relief to find out these facts, and also that evidence shows contraception use does lower the abortion rate. But instead, they get angry with you and slip right into denial of the evidence. Because—and they may only be half aware of this themselves—they are, to use Fred’s term, bearing false witness about their concern for life and fetal suffering. The innocent fetus, like the evil Satanist, is a stand-in for massive ego issues that they can’t quite admit to themselves.

To illustrate further what’s going on, Fred tells a story about a paper running a story about some kids who set kittens on fire, making the very reasonable point that condemning kitten-burning is almost a tad redundant, because it’s self-evidently fucked up. Nonetheless, the overwhelming predictability of people’s response to kitten-burning (disapproval) didn’t seem to stay anyone’s hand in condemning it with enthusiasm. Fred’s take:

The kitten-burners seem to fulfill some urgent need. They give us someone we can clearly and correctly say we’re better than. Their extravagant cruelty makes us feel better about ourselves because we know that we would never do what they have done. They thus function as signposts of depravity, reassuring the rest of us that we’re Not As Bad As them, and thus letting us tell ourselves that this is the same thing as us being good.

Kitten-burners are particularly useful in this role because their atrocious behavior seems wholly alien and without any discernible motive that we might recognize in ourselves. We’re all at least dimly aware of our own potential capacity for the seven deadlies, so crimes motivated by lust, greed, gluttony, etc. — even when those crimes are particularly extreme — still contain the seed of something recognizable. People like Ken Lay or Hugh Hefner don’t work as signposts of depravity because we’re capable, on some level, of envying them for their greed and their hedonism. But we’re not the least bit jealous of the kitten-burners. Their cruelty seems both arbitrary and unrewarding, allowing us to condemn it without reservation.

Seriously, since the same people who live in fear of Satanists get all worked up over “baby-killers”, I am right there with him. Seriously, the fantasy lives that are fueled by evangelical Christianity in this country would be funny if they weren’t so damn destructive. In the movie “Religulous”, there’s a truck driver convert who swears with a straight face that he was a Satanist, and Maher just sort of drives past that, because what else do you do? But former Satanists are all over the place, as are people who claim to have “survived” abortion.* It’s the second level of the self-delusion that Fred’s talking about. The people who lay claim to these non-existent experiences are strongly benefiting from self-delusion, because they are fussed over and admired by people who need these people’s fantastical stories to reinforce their own precarious belief in the bullshit. The lies start to swarm and envelope the people involved. But they’re not, of course, incapable of setting aside the bullshit if they need to, which is why “pro-lifers” so often end up in clinics getting abortions like the women they condemn. Or to use a similar example—when I was in high school, there were a couple of houses that everyone “believed” were haunted and we would go to them late at night and scare ourselves silly and then laugh about it and go to bed. (We were bored. Can you tell?) Did we believe in ghosts? No. But the human brain is addicted to narrative, and the line between suspending disbelief and half-convincing yourself something is true because you want it to be true is a thin line indeed.

I think that’s what’s going on with the crazy Obama rumor mill that is, beyond a doubt, feeding the McCain/Palin rallies that are veering into scary territory. Those aren’t people that are “excited”. Those are people swept into the throes of trying to convince themselves and each other of that which they know isn’t true, but they wish was. The out of control nature of Obama hatred reflects the ugliness of the reality the conservative base is running from, which is their complicity in the objectively and factually awful Bush administration. They believe Obama is a Muslim terrorist to feel superior when their conscience is biting them with the fact that they’ve supported a pointless war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people. The more the economy splinters, the more they need to believe Obama is somehow in league with secret forces undermining our society. Because it’s easier on the conscience than the truth.

*To be fair, it’s not just Christians who have these levels of self-delusion. Past life regression and recovered memories are further examples of this kind of deadly combination of extremely suggestible people coupled with social pressure from others looking for real world validation of their fantasies. This tendency cuts across ideology, even if it’s more pronounced in religious circles, since duh, they’ve gathered around a central implausible myth. A lot of the recovered memory enthusiasts were, regrettably, feminists who got swept away with the sense of moral superiority over child molesters. That’s why it’s not wise for anyone to feel that they’re immune to fantastical thinking, and we all should embrace skepticism.

You know, the first time I saw the Flametrick Subs, I thought about all the fundies I knew, and how they would be physically frightened to be in that room because they’d fear going to hell. But maybe it’s also because they’d find out that god wouldn’t strike you down, and everything you believe is a lie. Either way, I always loved the “party in hell” feeling they are able to concoct at their shows.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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