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Episode 3.5: “The Cultic Culture Club” (part 5)

Updated: Mar 8



"My Analogy Is Bigger Than Yours"

(Paranoid Planet Podcast: Season 1, Episode 3.5, Chapter 1)


President Trump Press Conference, Aug. 19, 2020 (on QAnon):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GNI553Np__k


1. A is to B just as C is to D

2. A is related to B through P

---------------

3. Therefore, C is related to D through P


[Ray Romano voice:] “Hey Honey!” You now exclaim, “Gagné’s talking nonsense again!”

No I’m not. That was an argument by analogy: a popular method of inductive reasoning that we see and use every day, especially when, having observed two similar things, we make an inference about one of those things based on something we know about the other thing.[1]


“Ah…. I don’t get it,” you say.


Okay. Then let me give you an example:


“Life,” says Forrest Gump, “Is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” How does Forrest Gump know this? Well, he probably learned at a young age that his chances of reaching into a random box of chocolates and picking out a crunchy praline instead of, say, a piece of yucky marzipan, are about as predictable as trying to guess whether or not the people he loved—his mama, his best girl Jenny, his best buddy Bubba, and Lieutenant Dan—would still be alive thirty years later. And Forrest probably also knew, because his mama brought him up rightly, that it’s rude to spit out a piece of foul-tasting confectionary in polite company, because even marzipan is better than no chocolates at all. And so, given the fact that (1) life is like a box of chocolates, and that (2) even bad chocolates help make life somewhat sweeter, (3) there really is no point complaining when a bullet bites you in the buttocks or Jenny takes off with another abusive drug-addict boyfriend because that’s just the way life is, and by accepting that you can’t have the good without the bad, life becomes more tolerable, and it makes you a better version of you.



“Ah…. I still don’t get it,” you say.

Okay, so maybe chocolates are not your thing. So let’s try a more familiar example, like this one: “Conspiracy theories are like religious cults.” Perhaps you’ve heard some random podcaster say that before, based on the fact that cults and conspiracy theories both often make simplistic apocalyptic predictions that turn out to be wrong; that they stoke fear of an invisible and all-powerful boogeyman; that they are often deceptive and emotionally manipulative; that they drive a wedge between believers and their friends and family; that they provoke intense and unjustified suspiciousness of others; that they foster isolation and a sense of victimhood; that they prey on the vulnerable and gullible; and that their leaders often display narcissistic tendencies, are vengeful and accusatory, or incite their followers to engage in dangerous behaviour against themselves and others. Given all these similarities, you might reasonably conclude that conspiracy theory movements should be treated the same way as cults by the media, by academics, by government officials, by the justice system, and by concerned citizens to ensure that others don’t fall prey to their paranoid, deceptive, or abusive tactics.


So, are conspiracy theories a type of cult? And if so, should they be treated as such? We’ve spent a lot of time over the past few episodes compiling a list of behaviours that make certain groups cultish, from the Unification Church to Scientology, the Peoples Temple, and others. The question we’re raising today is whether conspiracy-minded researchers and activists share a close enough “family resemblance” to cults to classify them as a public danger.


On July 2nd 2020, 46 year-old Correy Hurran, a Canadian Armed Forces veteran, survivalist, and sausage-maker from Manitoba, drove several hours to Ottawa (the Canadian Capital), armed to the teeth, and crashed his pickup truck through the front gates of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s official residence in a failed attempt to make a citizens’ arrest on the man he blamed for his misery. Thanks to the RCMP officers who cornered him and talked him down, no one was hurt, save perhaps for Hurran’s ego. The media soon discovered that Mr. Hurran had been outraged against recent Covid-19 restrictions that caused the failure of his business, against new restrictions on firearms, and by his fear that Canada was turning into a communist dictatorship.[2] It also didn’t help that Hurran had recently become a member of the QAnon movement.[3]


If that story sounds like déjà-vu, it may be because there are many others like it. Edgar Maddison Welch drove six hours in 2016, from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., armed with a pistol and assault rifle to storm the Comet Ping Pong restaurant. Like a strange real-time remake of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Welch had come with the intention of freeing underaged sex slaves who, he recently learned on the internet, were being kept in the restaurant’s basement to serve a cabal of pedophile Democrats. His first problem was that the place had no basement.[4] His second was the four years he would then spend in prison. Welch was likely the first unwitting victim of QAnon’s false prophecies.


U.S. Air Force veteran and struggling pool cleaner Ashli Babbitt was among the angry crowd of "Q-Patriots" who stormed the U.S. Congress on January 6, 2021. She was also the first one to die in the assault when a police officer opened fire on the riotous crowd that was trying to break through the doors. “Babbitt’s journey,” wrote journalist Peter Jamieson, “illuminated through her extensive social media activity, court and military records, and interviews with some who knew her—was one of paranoid devotion and enthusiasm that only increased as Trump’s fortunes waned. […] She avidly followed the QAnon conspiracy theory, convinced that Trump was destined to vanquish a cabal of child abusers and Satan-worshiping Democrats. She believed […] Trump would capture and execute his opponents.”[5] Like Correy Hurran, Babbitt had a military background, had strong libertarian values, had a business that recently faltered, and thought that covid-19 restrictions were part of a left-wing plot to eliminate civil liberties. There is no doubt that Babbitt, Welch, and Hurran were all predisposed--emotionally, economically, and ideologically--to fall into a movement like QAnon.


Unless you’ve spent the last five years living in a cave in Sumatra, you’ve probably heard of QAnon. And yet, you probably aren’t completely sure what QAnon is, even if you’ve been following it closely. The reason for this is that QAnon is what we might call a super-conspiracy, which political scientist Michael Barkun defines as a complex hierarchy of disparate conspiracy theories that feature an all-powerful but invisible enemy secretly taking control of the world through a vast network of government bureaucracies, private corporations, major media, and other powerful institutions.[6] At the heart of the QAnon narrative is the belief that a high-ranking anonymous American bureaucrat with top-secret Q-level clearance (hence the name QAnon) is methodically unravelling the power of a Satanic Pedophile ring deeply ensconced in the U.S. “Deep State”, enslaving children to harvest adrenochrome out of their terrified brains, which allegedly gives these Satanic child abductors unnaturally long lives.


[Ray:] “Yeah, I’m looking at you Dick Van Dyke!”


And yet, this theory as I’ve described it may not be universally accepted by all QAnon followers, because, well, it’s a story that has been constructed collaboratively over several years, like a Wikipedia article jointly composed by a band of speedball-snorting Mad Hatters.

Q is believed to be the source of several "Q-drops", cryptic messages that appear now and again on niche websites like 4chan, 8chan, and 8kun, which, interestingly enough, also serve as message boards for anti-Semites, mass shooters, and amateur pornographers—a strange place for a morally-conservative child-advocate to be contacting his followers (but then, QAnon makes so little sense in so many other ways). The theory then got amplified and popularized to an older, more mainstream, and more religious audience through Infowars, Reddit, Breitbart, Facebook, and Fox News. QAnon now has a community, a set of doctrines, a mythology to explain the problem of evil, a rallying mantra (“Where We Go One, We Go All!”), and a millenialist apocalyptic eschatology that Q calls “The Storm”, which—until recently—predicted that President Trump was about to round up and imprison all of those Satanic Democrat Pedophiles and inaugurate a libertarian American utopia…[7]


Or anyways it ran something like that, until Donald Trump lost an election and the story started changing again to explain this loss away as a massive electoral fraud. To quote critical thinking author Daniel Luxton: “QAnon is a viral, organic, crowd-sourced ideology that can stretch to accommodate a broad diversity of conspiratorial views. It is also flexible enough to allow believers to dismiss Q’s failed predictions and shifting claims […and is] broadly compatible with whatever conspiracy beliefs one happens to hold regarding vaccines, Covid-19, fake news, Jews, vampirism, a New World Order, the Vatican, deep state conspirators, 'false flag' hoaxes, white nationalism, immigrants, or practically anything else.”[8] To fully unwrap the peculiar subtleties and contradictions of QAnon would require a whole series of podcast episodes (which we might get around to some day). For now, we can only point you to the sources listed on our website [See below].


Unsurprisingly, QAnon has been accused of being much more than a conspiracy theory, and something more like a cult, and not just by pundits who make fun of its members and message, but also by those who lost a loved one to a deep rabbit hole of cryptic Q-drops and internet chatrooms, and by a growing number of ex-QAnoners who describe it as a massive mind-control fraud pushing its followers deeper towards despair, hatred, and violence—acts like an armed standoff at the Hoover dam, the murder of a mafia don, the attempted kidnapping of a U.S. state governor, and, most of all, the January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol.[9]


Many are aware that QAnon grew out of the Pizza Gate theory—the one that led Edgar Welch to ambush the Planet Ping Pong restaurant in 2016. That theory held that Hillary Clinton, her campaign manager John Podesta, and a slate of Democrats and Hollywood stars were running a secret child pornography ring from the non-existent basement of that pizzeria. This theory was based, it turns out, on little more than imaginative interpretations of Podesta’s personal emails that had been stolen from Mrs. Clinton’s hard drive (allegedly by Russian spies) and dumped on the internet by Wikileaks founder, Hilary frenemy, and cyber-vigilante Julian Assange. But in many ways QAnon is much older, drawing its mythology from medieval blood libel legends about witches, devil worshippers, and bloodthirsty Jews killing and feasting on innocent children. (You can also thank sensationalist journalist Geraldo Rivera and Canadian Psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder for cranking up the Satanic Ritual Abuse scandal during the Nineteen-Eighties—a false moral panic that found a new life in the QAnon movement.)

Mental Health counsellor Steven Hassan is the author of a 2019 book titled The Cult of Trump. A former Unification Church member, Hassan has described QAnon as a “destructive, authoritarian cult” like the Moonies, the Peoples Temple, and the Chinese communist party, and Donald Trump as a “malignant narcissist” cult leader reminiscent of L. Ron Hubbard, Sun Myung Moon, and Jim Jones. “Trump is the symptom of decades of the systematic breakdown of laws and checks and balances, and the increasing sophistication of how to manipulate people in large groups [using artificial intelligence and social networks],” Hassan told The Atlantic magazine. “[P]eople can be radicalized. Good people can be made into killers […] If we don’t educate everybody about these techniques, the people who know the techniques are going to have an unfair advantage over all the people who don’t.”[10]


Professor Michael Barkun, author of A Culture of Conspiracy, uses the phrase “stigmatized knowledge” to refer to the claims of conspiracists, cultists, and New-Agers who believe that they are endowed with a privileged insight into a deeper reality that only they can perceive, especially concerning invisible power hierarchies. “Stigmatized knowledge,” he writes, are “claims to truth that the claimants regard as verified despite the marginalization of those claims by the institutions that conventionally distinguish between knowledge and error—[such as] universities, communities of scientific researchers, and the like.” These so-called ‘deeper truths’ are often produced from a mixture of introspection and fear, and then confirmed through the obsessive study of secret messages hiding in plain sight in films, photographs, emblems and symbols, political speeches, religious scriptures, lights in the sky, and even mundane conversations, emails, and Tweets. This new insight produces a sense of euphoria and feelings of chosenness. “That sense of constituting an elite,” Barkun writes, “provides partial compensation for what might otherwise be insupportable feelings of powerlessness—the sense of being a minority in a world of scoffers. […] Believers [then] assume that when their own ideas about knowledge conflict with some orthodoxy, the forces of orthodoxy will necessarily try to perpetuate error out of self-interest or some other evil motive.” [11] Convinced that they know the truth and that their opponents are dupes and liars, those who find refuge in conspiracist subcultures have a propensity to entrench themselves deeper inside a fortress of stigmatized information, which then leads them, like the isolated communes of many religious cults, to live in a state within a state with little personal interaction with the wider society.


A world in which every community grows mistrustful of all others, produces its own unimpeachable truth, with heroes and villains tailored to fit its peculiar fears, is a world in which we’ve all turned into members of cults, hoping to silence—if not obliterate—those with whom we disagree. “The likely outcome of such a polarization,” warns Barkun, “is not pleasant to contemplate.”[12]


So, Ray, what do you think?


[Ray:] “Yeah, that makes a little more sense now. But it doesn’t explain why that pedophile billionaire Jeffrey Epstein managed to kill himself while under heavy surveillance.”


Yeah, we’re still working on that one…



Michel J. Gagné, 2021.


[1] Sharon Kaye: Critical Thinking, Chapter 1. Oneworld Beginners’ Guides, 2009. [2] Catharine Tunney: “Corey Hurren pleads guilty to 8 charges tied to Rideau Hall incident,” CBC News, Feb 05, 2021, https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/corey-hurren-rideau-hall-plea-1.5902362. [3] Mack Lamoureux: “Armed Man Who Allegedly Stormed Trudeau's Residence Appears to Have Posted QAnon Content,” VICE, 3.7.20, https://www.vice.com/en/article/z3ez39/armed-man-corey-hurren-who-allegedly-stormed-justin-trudeaus-residence-rideau-hall-appears-to-have-posted-qanon-content. [4] Cecilia Kang and Adam Goldman: “In Washington Pizzeria Attack, Fake News Brought Real Guns,” The New York Times, Dec. 5, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/05/business/media/comet-ping-pong-pizza-shooting-fake-news-consequences.html. [5] Peter Jamieson et al: “‘The storm is here’: Ashli Babbitt’s journey from capital ‘guardian’ to invader,” The Washington Post, Jan. 10, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2021/01/09/ashli-babbitt-capitol-shooting-trump-qanon/. [6] Michael Barkun: A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic visions in contemporary America. University of California Press, 2013, p.6 [7] Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins: “How three conspiracy theorists took 'Q' and sparked Qanon,” NBC News, Aug. 14, 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/how-three-conspiracy-theorists-took-q-sparked-qanon-n900531. [8] Daniel Loxton: “QAnon Is Just a Warmed Over Witch Panic—And It’s Also Very Dangerous,” Skeptic 25.4, December 2020, https://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/qanon-warmed-over-witch-panic-also-very-dangerous/. [9] See New York Times: Rabbit Hole podcast, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/22/podcasts/rabbit-hole-prologue.html; QAnon Anonymous podcast, https://www.qanonanonymous.com/. [10] “Former Cult Follower Describes How President Trump Has Created a Cult Following,” Katy Couric interview of Stephen Hassan), KCM, Jan 12, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNdm6M8ctfo; Joe Hagan: “‘So Many Great, Educated, Functional People Were Brainwashed’: Can Trump’s Cult Of Followers Be Deprogrammed?” Vanity Fair, January 21, 2021, https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2021/01/can-trumps-cult-of-followers-be-deprogrammed. [11] Barkun, 26-27, 35. [12] Barkun, 239.



Readings and videos related to Episode 3.5:


1. Peter Dale Scott: The War Conspiracy: JFK, 9/11, and the Deep Politics of War. Skyhorse, 2013.


2. Michel Chossudovsky: War and Globalisation: The Truth Behind September 11. Global Outlook, 2002.


3. David Ray Griffin: The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions About the Bush Administration and 9/11. Interlink Pub Group, 2004.


4. Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth (Richard Gage’s website). Featuring videos of World Trade Center 1, 2, and 7 Collapse.


5. Sharon Kaye: Critical Thinking. Oneworld Beginners’ Guides, 2009.


6. Forrest Gump (Paramount, 1994). Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Starring Tom Hanks, Sally Field, and Robin Wright.


7. Catharine Tunney: “Corey Hurren pleads guilty to 8 charges tied to Rideau Hall incident,” CBC News, Feb 05, 2021.


8. Mack Lamoureux: “Armed Man Who Allegedly Stormed Trudeau's Residence Appears to Have Posted QAnon Content,” VICE, 3.7.20.


9. Cecilia Kang and Adam Goldman: “In Washington Pizzeria Attack, Fake News Brought Real Guns,” The New York Times, Dec. 5, 2016.


10. Peter Jamieson et al: “‘The storm is here’: Ashli Babbitt’s journey from capital ‘guardian’ to invader,” The Washington Post, Jan. 10, 2021.


11. Michael Barkun: A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. University of California Press, 2013.


12. Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins: “How three conspiracy theorists took 'Q' and sparked Qanon,” NBC News, Aug. 14, 2018.


13. Daniel Loxton: “QAnon Is Just a Warmed Over Witch Panic—And It’s Also Very Dangerous,” Skeptic 25.4, December 2020.


14. Rabbit Hole podcast (New York Times, 2020).


15. QAnon Anonymous podcast.

16. “Former Cult Follower Describes How President Trump Has Created a Cult Following,” (Katy Couric interview of Stephen Hassan), KCM, Jan 12, 2021.


17. Joe Hagan: “‘So Many Great, Educated, Functional People Were Brainwashed’: Can Trump’s Cult Of Followers Be Deprogrammed?” (Interview of Stephen Hassan) Vanity Fair, January 21, 2021.


18. Robert Jago: “On Cultural Appropriation, Canadians Are Hypocrites,” The Walrus, May 2017.


19. Jonathan Kay: Among The Truthers: A Journey Inro the Growing Conspiracist Underground of 9/11 Truthers, Birthers, Armageddonites, Vaccine Hysterics, Hollywood Know-Nothings and Internet Addicts. Harper Collins, 2011.


20. David G. Robertson and Asbjørn Dyrendal: “Conspiracy Theories and Religion: Superstition, Seekership, and Salvation,” in Joseph Uscinski, ed.: Conspiracy Theories & The People Who Believe Them, Oxford UP, 2019.


21. Reed Berkowitz, “A Game Designer’s Analysis of QAnon: Playing with Reality,” Curiouser Institute, Sep 30, 2020.


22. Ibram X. Kendi: How to Be an Antiracist. One World, 2019.


23. Jonathan Kay: “Race and Social Panic at Haverford: A Case Study in Educational Dysfunction,” Quillette, December 1, 2020.


24. Thomas Sowell: Race And Culture: A World View. Basic Books, 1995.


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