U.S. History postsMonday April 22, 2019
Conspiracy Theorist in Chief
There's a good, sad article by The New Yorker‘s Elizabeth Kolbert about conspiracy theorists called (in print) “That’s What You Think” and (online) “What's New About Conspiracy Theories?”
(SEO has made dullards of us all.)
Kolbert reviews four new books about conspiracy theories and theorists; about what's new and what isn‘t, and tries to lay it all out.
One thing that’s new is this thing; where you‘re reading this. The like-minded find each other easier online, and if initially we thought this meant scrapbook makers and baseball card collectors, experience has shown it’s often the worst of the worst. There are certain subreddits you don't want to go down.
“This category of recent conspiracy theorists is really a global network of village idiots,” Pozner tells Merlan. “They would have never been able to find each other before, but now it's this synergistic effect of the combination of all of them from all over the world. There are haters from Australia and Europe and they can all make a YouTube video in fifteen seconds.”
YouTube is key, too, since it and other sites tend to push users toward more sensational versions of the material they‘re already watching. Their motives, says Kolbert, is commercial, not political, but the result is the same: extremism.
Classic conspiracy theories, Kolbert writes, tend to try to make sense of something that shatters our worldview: JFK assassination, 9/11. There has to be a reason for this unreasonable thing. But one thing that sets theorists like QAnon apart, Kolbert writes, “is a lack of interest in explanation.” What’s the child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton out of the basement of a DC pizza place that doesn't really have a basement trying to make sense of? “There is often nothing to explain,” Kolbert quotes one author. “The new conspiracism sometimes seems to arise out of thin air.”
And then there's Trump, the man who reps our loutish age:
Historically, Muirhead and Rosenblum maintain, it's been out-of-power groups that have been drawn to tales of secret plots. Today, it's those in power who insist the game is rigged, and no one more insistently than the so-called leader of the free world.
It's beyond his birtherism and “fake news” and “witchhunt.” Business Insider lists 19 examples of his conspiracy theories. I didn't know, for example, he'd floated rumors that Justice Scalia had been murdered rather than died of natural causes.
Democracies depend on buy-in; citizens need to believe in certain basics, starting with the legitimacy of elections. Trump both runs the government and runs it down. The electoral system, he asserts, can't be trusted. Voter fraud is rampant. His contempt for institutions ranging from the courts (“slow and political”) to the Federal Communications Commission (“so sad and unfair”) to the F.B.I. (“What are they hiding?”) weakens those institutions, thereby justifying his contempt. As government agencies “lose competence and capacity, they will come to look more and more illegitimate to more and more people,” Muirhead and Rosenblum observe.
Those are the forces against us.
Free, White and 21, Cont.
During another rabbit-hole meandering on IMDb, I came across this title—a play, of course, on the once-familiar, early-20th-century phrase, “Free, white and 21.” This version is a little more palatable, but I'm sure that's not why 20th Century Fox, way back in 1940, went with it. “Blonde” just has more sex appeal:
IMDb's synopsis is short but seems to give away a lot: “Stories of women who live in an all-women hotel. One (Bari) works hard and marries a millionaire; another (Hughes) cheats and goes to jail.”
“Bari” is Lynn Bari, who would become a WWII pinup; “Hughes” is Mary Beth Hughes, who began appearing in movies in 1939 and stopped in 1976. A year after this one, she was in “The Cowboy and the Blonde” (as the latter), and would go on to play “Blonde Spy” in “Sucker Bait,” a WWII-era documentary short, and “Atomic Blonde” in the 1950s TV series “My Hero.” She was also in “The Ox-Bow Incident” and “The Women.”
Found the film while searching on Frank Coughlan, Jr., who played Billy Batson in the 1941 serial, “The Adventures of Captain Marvel,” and has a bit part in the above.
Free, White and 21, Cont.
In “What Price Hollywood?,” an RKO picture from 1932, directed by George Cukor, Constance Bennett plays waitress Mary Evans who is plucked from obscurity by director Max Carey (Lowell Sherman), becomes a star, and gets married to a rich man, Lonny Borden (Neil Hamilton, Commissioner Gordon of TV's “Batman”). It's ur-“Star is Born” since, as she rises, Carey plunges into alcoholic stupor and death, while her marriage to Lonny can't handle her celebrity and breaks apart. Here's the telegram informing her of this.
It's the second line that caught my eye. I first noticed it back in 2009 when watching “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” and, as I wrote back then, “The Worldwide Web isn't much help with the phrase.” Well, that was then. Now the phrase has a Wiktionary entry and an entire Jezebel compilation video of different actors saying it, or mouthing it in silent pictures, over the years. It was such a well-known phrase that it allowed for variation and puns: Not just slight variations like “free, white and 45” (“Dinner at Eight” (1933)), but “married, sunburned and forty-one” (“Foolish Wives” (1922)). Everyone knew it that well, apparently.
What did it mean? It meant master of your domain. It meant what Henry Fonda says after he says the line to Bette Davis in “That Certain Woman” in 1937: “I'm gonna lead my own life.”
Why did it die out? Check out Harry Belafonte's reaction to it in “The World, The Flesh and the Devil” (2:42) and then his follow-up (3:09), and you‘ll get the idea:
A little while ago you said you were free, white and 21. That didn’t mean anything to you—just an expression you‘ve heard for a thousand times. Well, to me it was an arrow in my gut.
Shame Jezebel didn’t end with that one.
It would be nice to say that the phrase died out because white people became a little more race conscious during and after the civil rights movement, and, sure, that's probably part of it. But more, I think it's the assumption of it, tossed out blithely: “Free,” of course; “21” and thus unentangled. And “white”? Because only white people had the opportunity to be free. And after the civil rights movement, that assumption, blithely tossed out or not, didn't feel so freeing.
I was at the downtown Seattle library yesterday doing some research on an old Hollywood screenwriter when I came across the following cartoon in a 1933 copy of the The Saturday Evening Post (founded AD 1728 by Benj. Franklin). I know a bit of racial history in this country, I know the era I was in, but you still do a double-take at the combo of cutesy/kitschy and horror:
That's a Henry comic by Carl Anderson. I remember seeing them as a kid. He kind of freaked me out: bald and silent, he looked like he was made of taffy. Anderson created him in 1932, they were taken over by others in the 1940s, and kept going in some dailies until about 1990.
The magazines themselves are amazing: large, edit-heavy, often more than 100 pages, and generally trying to make sense of the world. In just one issue, June 24, 1933, you could read Dorothy Thompson's boots-on-the-ground take on the new German Socialist Party led by Adolf Hitler, along with short stories by Booth Tarkington and F. Scott Fitzgerald—who, by the way, didn't even make the cover. His name didn't mean enough in 1933 to sell the magazine. Tarkington's and Thompson's did.
But even while trying to make sense of the world, they had this one huge blind spot. In another issue, from ‘34, there’s a non-fiction piece by Mississippi author Harris Dickson, “The First Law of Farming,” that includes photos of African Americans, and captions reading, for example, “On ‘Ration Day,’ Negroes Flock to the Store, Chattering Like Happy Blackbirds.” Yes, they capitalized most words in captions back then. Maybe where Trump got it.
All of this is less to condemn the people in the past for their blind spot than to acknowledge the distance traveled. Also to wonder what our blind spot is. Because there surely is one, seen every day, which will be just as obvious to people 100 years from now.
I came across this old Milton Caniff strip on IMDb.com when I was watching the 1940 movie serial of the same name. Serial wasn't bad, considering it was a 1940 movie serial. There was racism in it, but nothing like this.
A few thoughts:
- “Chinaman” isn't even the bad part.
- “Warm up to that Chinaman”: That's the bad part. Terry, our hero, is being duplicitous from the start.
- And how does he warm up to him? He takes his “A” sweater and makes it spell “SAP.” He turns him into the butt of a joke.
- And for that, he demands a favor. God, what a dick.
- And those Chinese characters Caniff writes? They‘re not anything. The only one that’s a real character is the first: 女。It means “female.” It's generally not part of a name, and it certainly wouldn't be part of this guy's name. The others are horseshit. Like pretending Xtruioq is a word.
- But because Terry can't pronounce the Chinese guy's name (that isn't a name), he renames him. Is there a joke in the name, too? Like a pitiful sigh?
Remember: This was read by kids. Terry was a role model for kids. Next time some right-wing yahoo complains that modern athletes aren't good “role models,” feel free to bring up Terry and the Pirates.
In the rest of this Sunday strip, which you can see here, Pat, the older hero of the strip, Batman to Terry's Robin, is almost seduced by the sexy “Dragon Lady.” It's both sides of the All-American white male attitude toward the Chinese: the women are sexy and thus dangerous; the men are idiots and thus comic foils.