It's markedly cooler this week than a couple of weeks ago, and the fronts responsible have also swept Minnesota with severe thunderstorms a couple of times. The flash floods coursing down the streets have left noticeable silt deposits in the bike lanes -- another good storm or two and the larger ones will become full-fledged sandbars. Aside from the minor inconvenience of biking through sand, the storms have been creating larger problems for the recovery workers still trying to extract the last victims from the wreakage of the I-35 bridge. While the Mississippi is mostly running quite low due to the drought conditions in northern Minnesota, a good downpour makes for a substantial surge in the river current.
Perhaps due to the proximity of my life to the bridge area, I've been asked my thoughts on the collapse on several occasions of late. Of course, I only know what everybody else has read and seen; there isn't a neighborhood-resident pass to get behind the fences and barriers. I do have my own photos from the collapse, but nothing as informative as the lovingly captured disaster porn of the cable news channels. All the signs point to an engineering failure flowing from the nasty combination of questionable design and overused, undermaintained (mostly by Republicans) infrastructure. Nevertheless, I and others have gotten questions about whether there might have been some kind of attack or conspiracy involved.
So what kind of thought processes contribute to belief in conspiracy theories? A study I carried out in 2002 explored a way of thinking sometimes called major event - major cause reasoning. Essentially, people often assume that an event with substantial, significant or wide-ranging consequences is likely to have been caused by something substantial, significant or wide-ranging.
...To appreciate why this form of reasoning is seductive, consider the alternative: major events having minor or mundane causes -- for example, the assassination of a president by a single, possibly mentally unstable, gunman,
or the death of a princess because of a drunk driver. This presents us with a rather chaotic and unpredictable relationship between cause and effect. Instability makes most of us uncomfortable; we prefer to imagine we live in a
predictable, safe world, so in a strange way, some conspiracy theories offer us accounts of events that allow us to retain a sense of safety and predictability.
The article even gives directions for starting your own conspiracy theory, if you're so inclined. Sounds like a fun party game.
A conspiracy theory I've been reading about lately is the NAFTA superhighway nuttiness. There's a fascinating investigative piece by Chris Hayes in The Nation this month:
"Construction of the NAFTA highway from Laredo, Texas to Canada is now underway," read a letter in the February 13 San Gabriel Valley Tribune. "Spain will own most of the toll roads that connect to the superhighway. Mexico will own and operate the Kansas City Smart Port. And NAFTA tribunal, not the U.S. Supreme Court, will have the final word in trade disputes. Will the last person please take down the flag?" There are many more where that came from. "The superhighway has the potential to cripple the West Coast economy, as well as posing an enormous security breach at our border," read a letter from the January 7 San Francisco Chronicle...
Grassroots movement exposes elite conspiracy and forces politicians to respond: It would be a heartening story but for one small detail.
There's no such thing as a proposed NAFTA Superhighway.
Digby noticed this article and immediately thought of the right-wing nuts that make up the Republican base these days. Dave Neiwart has been tracking this sort of thing for a while, and sees the far right recycling the old "New World Order" crap now that it looks like Democrats are ascendant again. Hayes is more interested in description than prognosis, and points out Richard Hofstadter's famous 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," (summary from Wikipedia, and reproduced in full here) suggesting that conspiracy paranoia is something of an idiosyncracy endemic to American discourse. I can attest from experience that it's a tendency by no means confined to the right.
At TAPPED, Steven White zooms in on a passage identifying NAFTA Superhighway paranoia as a poorly expressed populist critique of 21st century America. This sounds about right to me. What initially looks like a peculiar coincidence -- a conspiracy theory that merges the xenophobic suspicions of the right with distrust of globalization on the left -- resolves into a broad-based reaction in the non-elite classes to economic insecurity and perceived political alienation. So it's no wonder the Republican noisemakers are all too happy to pump this sort of thing. If the problems were perceived clearly the solutions would obviously lie in progressive, not conservative, policies.