What’s Your Conspiracy!

After a long hiatus and much water under the bridge, I have applied fingers to keyboard once again to throw a very small rock into the waters once again. It seems an apt moment to talk about a subject that itself emulates the idea of a small rock being thrown into a pool. In this case, rather than ripples, the potential to create waves seems more appropriate. Are we currently living in times of unprecedented conspiracy theory? Has this always been a feature of social discourse? Has the advent of social media simply magnified the predominance of oulandish claims and polarising narratives? Why are these ideas, stories or ‘news’ items so attractive?

I listened to a podcast recently by an author given to writing books on this subject and heard some interesting thoughts on these questions during my research into the subject. Here are just some of my own thoughts on the subject. First of all, what is a conspiracy theory? Simply defined, a conspiracy theory is a statement of ‘fact’ that has either no verifiable proof or its source is based on ‘theory’ rather than emperical data. I do not necessarily believe that all pronouncements labeled as conspiracy theories are necessarily false or have no bearing on the truth. I do believe, however, that there are an unprecedented number of narratives being shared, particularly on social media, that seem to have no foundation in proven fact. Is this a new phenomenon? Not at all. The earth is flat, the holocaust never happened, Elvis is still alive, Hilary Clinton runs a child sex trafficking ring from a pizza restaurant…etc. etc. These are all famous examples and ones that, to this day, continue to have many adherents. As I write this blog, the current President of the United States is promoting his latest conspiracy theory concerning the election. He claims to have won the election, that millions of votes were cast by dead people and that the Democrats have ‘conspired’ to steal the election from him. This, despite the fact that certified, legal voting mechanisms have confirmed that not only did Joe Biden gain more than 7 million more popular votes, but Biden also won more votes in enough states to give him a clear victory in the electoral college.

So why are these stories so compelling to so many people? I will keep my discussion to the following 3 areas, but realise there is much more to understand.

  1. We live in a scary and confusing world where much that happends beyond our control makes us uncomfortable, concerned and in many extreme cases has an adverse affect on our mental health. Anything that provides an explanation for the events and cirumstances we do not understand is attractive. A prime example of this is the evangelical obsession with the ‘end times’. If your belief system promises peace on earth and you live in a world that seems anything but, the appeal of an apocalyptic end times allows for a measure of understanding and relief. I understand the current desire to see the Covid19 pandemic as a hoax or at least to contradict its severity. Some suggest the number of deaths is simply fabricated to ensure pharmaceutical companies make huge profits or that because this is a conspiracy engineered by Bill Gates to inject mankind with a computer chip through mandatory vaccination. These are just 2 current explanations for a state of affairs that does not accord with our chosen narrative. However outlandish these claims may seem, they simply add credence through confirmation bias to things we already believe. Do pharmaceutical companies make profit from people being sick? Of course. Would they encourage circumstances that enhance those profits? Like most businesses, I would imagine so. Have they ever done anything that might be considered unethical? Without proof I can only surmise, but I imagine that this may have happened. Do you see how it might not take much of a leap of faith or imagination to extend this from factual to conspiratorial conclusion?
  2. Confirmation bias encourages us to gravitate to those sources of news and information that accord with our narrative of events. It was both amusing and concerning on election night in the US to see the President’s condemnation of Fox News when they were first to call the Arizona election for Joe Biden. Within the next 24 hours, the formerly right-wing media outlet was branded a liberal propaganda channel and many of its erstwhile adherents, including the President were jumping to news sources even further right. Why? I believe we have entered a dangerous era, largely encouraged by social media where it is more important to feed our confirmation bias than to stay open to hear from those who seek to expose uncomfortable truths or news that does not feed our chosen narrative. I know this to be true of myself despite doing as much as I can to verify sources and spending more time than most in researching the news I take in. The problem with this approach is that we drift to ‘safe places’ that are merely echo chambers reinforcing our current understanding. The more we drift, the more extreme and potentially erroneous are the sources we listen to.
  3. Most of us have a hankering for that which cannot be explained, the magic, the spiritual, the ‘other’. We want to believe that we are not alone out here in the universe, that there is something mysterious and not everything can be explained by science or plain sight. This is so attractive that it fuels the world’s religions and provides the much needed desire for mystery and magic in our lives. I have been a believer in one of the greatest conspiracy theories of all, the theory that God exists! Please do not get offended, as I already stated, I too am a believer. The difference is that what one personally believes about the existence of God or gods is a personal choice. When that involves the formation of community based around a set of beliefs, whatever the religion, that too can have a positive impact on the lives of those involved and in many cases on the lives of those who are the target of their benevolence. The problems begin when those beliefs or that ‘echo chamber’ claims to be the only truth and its credo demands adherence to an ever widening subset of ‘truths’ that prove to be detrimental to those who do not subscribe to their belief system. An example of this is occurring in our current pandemic. Religious groups are proclaiming their freedom to ignore scientific advice for the sake of freedom to assemble, paying scant regard to the lives of those who may be vulnerable to a disease that has already claimed the lives of over 200,000 people.

This third reason also raises a fundamental question. Where do we derive our knowledge of what is real, true, helpful, empirical? I cannot remember such an overwhelming attack of the news media. We are told by the current President on a daily basis that the news media is fake. Religious groups deny empirically researched and documented science and lable it false. Blind adherence to those ‘leaders’ who we have chosen to follow borders on the cultish as it seems we increasingly dissmiss that which is logical and provable from reliable sources.

Of course the news media is biased to some degree. But to group together all news media as some fake conspiracy is unhelpful and dangerous. We seem to have forgotten that journalism has been and in many cases continues to be a noble profession. Without the determination of those in journalists who risk much to uncover the truth, democracy would not be possible. The exposure of Nixon’s corruption in the Watergate affair, exposure of the lies peddled to justify the war in Iraq, the recent reporting on state surveillance through Edward Snowdon’s revelations, the release of the Panama Papers and so many other examples are all the work of investigative journalists seeking to uncover the truth and report on the news in ways that most of us have no access to. In 2018, over 200 journalists worldwide lost their lives in the course of doing their jobs. Despite the bad example of much of the tabloid press and their talking head counterparts on television, there are still serious journalists at work seeking to bring the news to those who want to know what is happening in the world. There are also many who risk much in challenging unethical and corrupt governments. The same can be said of scientists dedicated to discoveries way beyond what any of us could hope to prove. Why does there have to be a conflict between science and faith? So much of what I have discovered in my limited understanding of evolution, quantum theory and other recent discoveries only increases my wonder at the world we live in.

Where are we getting our news from? Have they been reliable and proven in the past? Can you verify your the information your gather from other reliable sources? Does what we believe cause us to seek news and information that feeds our own confirmation bias? Are we willing to admit that as we cannot possibly have first hand knowledge of most of what happens in the world, we need to focus on ethical and reliable sources of information from those who are actually held to account for their reporting? I do not believe in censorship but I am deeply disturbed by the notion that anything posted on social media that happens to go viral seems to gain credence even though it may have no basis in fact or is missing key elements of a story to give it reliable context.

Do your own research. Read the perspectives of those you don’t agree with. Be open to the mysterious, magic, faith but don’t dissmiss those who think or believe otherwise. Enjoy our differences! But lets not base our lives on unfounded theories that may be detrimental to those around us.

I personally can’t find any harm in you believing the earth is flat, just don’t ask me to sail in your boat!

Au Revoir Facebook!

A few years ago I spent a couple of years in the ‘wilderness’ when I decided to take a break from posting and following anyone on Facebook.  This self-imposed exile was a refreshing time of being an outsider and felt something akin to drug rehabilitation, though I never considered myself a Facebook addict.  For quite some time now, I have been considering my position on belonging to this data behemoth, but resisted the deletion of my Facebook account because of a perceived need to represent my business to as large an audience as possible in order to communicate effectively given the waning influence of email communication.   Email has long since lost much of its usefulness through the advent of smap, phish etc.  However, the desire to be free of the social media giant has now become something that I feel strongly enough about that I am shortly going to take the fairly drastic step of full deletion and connection with the hundreds of ‘friends’ I currently have.  As for the BG Coffee business, we will continue to use Instagram, though it is owned by Facebook, but does not engage in many of the practices or manipulations commonly associated with the Facebook business models….yet!  There are many reasons for taking this step and I felt it only fair to make my reasons available to those who might be interested.

  1.  I am a long time cynic when it comes to the whole world of paid advertising.  As a friend of mine once said, “Advertising robs you of your dignity and sells it back to you at the price of the product being advertised.”  Not only does this ring true with me, but the essentially manipulative practice has taken on a much more sinister modus operandus with the use of personally targetted campaigns through email, texts, phone calls and of course, social media.  BG Coffee has never paid for advertising in the almost 12 years of its existence.  Facebook’s unashamed expoitation of our personal data and our friends’ personal data for the furtherance of manipulative targetted advertising is at best an annoyance, but at worst, an attempt to wear us down with the old strategy of sell them what they don’t need and can’t afford by associating as closely as possible with what they think they want.  When it became truly creepy was when I received adverts or reminders of posts relating to people or products I mentioned in text messages or online orders.  Somehow, these companies were collecting virtually everything I was doing online and fashioning a suitable advertising net to try to catch my hard earned dollars.  Besides all this, if I am targetted with one more advert for buying someone else’s coffee or coffee machine, I am liable to throw my phone out of the window!
  2. The recent media exposure of Facebook’s links with Data Analytica and other companies using our shared data for targetting people in elections and referendums has revealed an astonishing disregard for truth and properly regulated journalism.  Facebook has now been shown to have collaborated with some companies using highly dubious practices to influence the outcome of elections, notably the recent US election and the EU referendum in the UK.  The same commercially engineered manipulative methods have been employed to play on people’s fears, prejudices and preconceived notions, often not based on any semblance of fact to influence their voting intentions.  In some ways, I find this kind of manipulation more concerning than any interference by a foreign agent, though they allegedly used Facebook as one of their main areas of influence.  You may argue that people can make up their own minds, but the way in which Facebook and unverifiable internet sources have been used as representing the ‘truth’ and the general lack of time and energy people have to do their own research means that much of what is pushed in front of the huge audience is simply digested and forms part of their belief system.  I don’t know how many times I have been told ‘as fact’ things that I am fairly sure are about as near to the truth as the existence of unicorns!  Yes I know, there is a Facebook group for people who believe they exist, but what does that tell you!
  3. The sheer weight of spurious, hate-filled, partisan dialogue often based on fairy tales in the political arena is just becoming tiresome and unpleasant.  Yes, I methodically block and unfollow, but my reasons for wanting to abandon the platform altogether is because it lends itself to ever increasing extremist views and anti-social behaviour, far from the supposed culture of ‘bringing people together’.  The ultimate problem with the leadership of Facebook is that there is a wide lack of integrity between the message and the underlying philosophy.  Mr Zuckerberg tries to present his creation as a tool for creating community and bringing people together.  I am not disputing that this definitely takes place within the Facebook environment.  However, the underlying philosophy of the Facebook corporation has long since had something else as its driving force – Increasing profits and shareholder value.  I have nothing against companies seeking to make a profit, but as with so many large public companies, the overriding aim is this underlying need not only to make a profit but to increase profits on a continual basis to satsify shareholder value.  When this becomes the number one priority, the softer more desirable message is inevitably subsumed by the more powerful drivers.
  4. The last reason is purely personal and simply this.  I am finding myself drawn into scrolling through Facebook and reading so much that is irrelevant, inane, insulting, fake or just a plain waste of time.  Sure, there are occasional humorous posts that I am likely to miss such as cats using parachutes or hapless people falling for other peoples’ practical jokes and sometimes posts with genuine interest or needs that I am glad to know.  But with hundreds of Facebook ‘friends’ (most of us consider this kind of number a joke), these are few and far between.

So what am I going to do?  Well, firstly I am going to leave Facebook and completely delete my account including all the data ever collected.  Secondly I am going to join a social media platform that allows me to start fresh, is not driven by advertising and I am going to invite anyone I feel might want to follow my life to connect.  The choice to do so will be entirely up to those people, but at least I will know that they are people of interest, and that they too have an interest in what I may have photographed, read, listened to, watched or simply want to say.

Our business will be represented to the world at large on Instagram so that events and news can be shared with a larger audience and I will monitor Instagram’s business practices closely in the meantime.

In the end, I am deeply dissatisfied with Facebook as a company, but do not discount the use of social media as a means to stay connected.  This is an attempt to create online community in an active manner that includes those with whom I have a genuine relationship, recognizing the changing world of communication.  It is all too easy just to flow along in a passive manner and allow ourselves to join up, get involved without even thinking through the implications.  For me, personally, the implications have become negative enough for me to want to do something about it.  I have learned that you cannot change everyone’s world everywhere, but you can change your own world, and there is little value in complaining about something when you can do something about it.  My only way to tell Facebook that I am not happy with their creation is to leave and make my feelings known through a boycott.  So au revoir Facebook.  I’ll see all those of you who are interested on the dark side of the moon!

Thought Provoking Thursday – War and Peace

Well, for this one, I know I am in the minority, and so hopefully provoke a few people to thinking.  I am purposely not going to take a philosophical or religious perspective.  I believe there are compelling thoughts there that challenge the prevailing view that wars are sometimes necessary and even favorable, especially when the outcome favors the nation from which we derive.  Most would applaud the Western allies’ victory over Germany and Japan in the second world war, even if regretting the millions of lives lost.

What sparked my thought process here is based more from a historical perspective, and I owe much thanks and appreciation to Dan Carlin and his podcast ‘Hardcore History’.  I recently finished a 6 parter entitled ‘Blueprint for Armageddon’, which focused almost entirely on the four years of war between 1914 and 1918, otherwise known as the First World War.  Whilst this was a fascinating and engaging history lesson and covered much of the chronology of those years, what really struck me was the fact that this and other historical events can never be taken in isolation.  In particular, the impact of the First World War on what would become an even greater loss of life and devastation between 1939 and 1945.

The first of these awful conflagrations was kicked off by a single event in Sarajevo, Serbia, when Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne, was assassinated by a ‘Lee Harvey Oswald’ style gunman with the name Gavrila Princip.  Now, there are plenty of assassinations that never lead to any kind of war, let alone a major war involving most of the world’s nations.  But in this case, country after country was drawn in due to honoring of treaties, invasion of neutral territory and other political expediencies.  Millions died and, in many battles, in numbers never before seen and circumstances that rarely gave any real advantage to the winning side.  These were bloody encounters where both sides were subject to the ‘meat grinder’ of death unleashed across lines that barely moved for most of the war.  It was only towards the end, when extreme weariness and lack of supplies alongside desertion of most of the countries formerly supporting Austria-Hungary that Germany threw in the towel and were subject to the imposed peace terms of the allies in the treaty of Versailles.  This included the annexation of land, and specifically a piece of land called the Sudetenland with a majority German population, given to Czechoslovakia as it was then called.  This piece of land would be crucial in igniting the Second World War.

Germany almost won the war in 1917, when the Russians collapsed in the wake of the 1917 revolution and the US had not yet committed to fighting with the western allies.  Instead, they suffered defeat, surrender and loss of territory to cap a bitterness and despair at the massive loss of life and devastation of their economy.

It was from this deep-seated bitterness and defeat that Hitler wrote his manifesto, ‘Mein Kampf’.  This book played cleverly to the wounded and bitter psyche of the German people over the next few years and coupled with the devastated economy from the war, he was able to command enough support not only to become the leader of the country, but to introduce a brand of fascism that derived from the sense of victimhood and the brooding Xenophobia of the day.  Hitler’s first act of war in 1939, only 21 years after the treaty of Versailles, was to invade the very Sudetenland that had been given to Czechoslovakia and the rest, as they say, is history.

All this historic preamble is given to emphasize a fascinating lesson about war.  First of all, the numbers.  Around 15 million died in WW1, around 70 million in WW2.  In other words, WW2 wiped out the equivalent of more than the current population of the entire United Kingdom in 6 years.  I don’t think anyone can even comprehend what this really means in human terms, suffering and the impact on everyone who lost family and close friends.  It is highly likely the second war would never have occurred had the first not taken place.  AND the first occurred as a direct result of the assassination of an heir to a throne of a country that no longer exists.  It is fairly safe to say that that one royal murder triggered a chain reaction that cost 85 million lives.  Could this have been avoided?  Undoubtedly.  How would that have been achieved?  Instead of retaliation against the Serbs, was it not enough that the 19 year old gunman was tried and convicted of the murder.  We cannot predict what might have happened, but we should at least ponder the possibilities.  Perhaps another pretext would have presented itself.  But 20th century history suggests that pacifism in the face of provocation might just have saved the unimaginable impact of 85 million deaths.  It should, at least, cause us pause to think whenever war rears its devastating head!

Topical Tuesday – Hey Jesus, I’m Packing!

‘Hey Jesus, I’m packing…if anyone even attempts to threaten you, I’ve got a concealed weapon, and I’ll take care of them for you!’.  Yep, sound like something you might hear had Jesus carried out his emmanuel excursion in the 21st century in the US?  Not so much!  And yet, I am stunned on regular basis by the adopted beliefs of those who claim to represent said Jesus in our modern world.  And its not just gun ownership, prosecuting wars in far-flung territories, but the support of neoliberal trickle down economics and the increasing revelation of inherent discrimination that many followers adhere to as their political creed.  I understand that the Republican party secured a huge tranche of voting power by disingenuously pedaling support for moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage, but the wholesale adoption of some of the above mentioned positions just baffles the heck out of me.  And now….Trump!

The reason I struggle so much with the current ‘Christian politics’ stems from my own extensive study of the very finite and limited evidence we have pertaining to what Jesus actually stood for in the four accounts of his life, stories and interaction with his contemporaries.  I hear many so called ‘believers’ have proclaimed themselves firmly behind the extraordinary candidacy of the Republican presidential nominee.  This man is a self-proclaimed advocate of racism, bigotry and mysogyny, quite apart from his continual propensity to lie and bend the truth or simply insult anyone who does not conform to his worldview.  But he is simply a rather embarrassing extension to a politer form of political creed that has subsumed the belief system of those who call themselves followers of Christ.

My reading of the contemporary accounts tells a very different story, and I am purposely not going to quote snippets out of context, but paint a picture that seems at odds with these conventional views.  I see a caring, accepting leader who eschews any form of discrimination unless provoked by those who pedal such judgements, such as the religious leaders of his day.  I witness a falsely accused victim of injustice who rebukes his own follower for an act of violence to his captors and an act of healing to right the wrong done.  The emphasis he consistently demonstrates on caring for the downtrodden, the sick and the rejected alongside his clear statements on feeding the hungry, clothing the poor and visiting the prisoner seem to emanate much more from a ‘liberal’ playbook rather than the increasing emphasis on prosperity for the faithful dominating current theologies.  Jesus was specifically a friend to the tax collectors, and though he encouraged the redemption of illegal corrupt tax collection, he seemed to advocate supporting even unjust government in his statement on ‘rendering to Caesar’.

Taking a closer look at his attitude to war and violence, the phrases ‘love your enemy’ and ‘turn the other cheek’ bear little resemblance to the support for the waging of proxy wars around the world and a tacit proclamation of revenge for what is unhelpfully billed as religious terrorism.  On a more personal level, the idea of carrying a weapon capable of killing another human being because that would be my solution to any threat of attack or property violation is simply untenable.  I realize that I have been brought up in a country where firearms are simply not freely available and the local police do not even carry guns, but given that my faith insists I do not fear death, and personal property is more likely to be a hindrance to purity, why would I even consider carrying a gun.

In the end, the example of Jesus may be just a little too radical for most of us.  But didn’t Jesus meekly submit to a violent and unjust death without lifting a finger to stop the injustice?  Did he not encourage his followers to do the same?  History tells us that all but one of his original students suffered similar ends, and I am assuming none of them was carrying a concealed weapon, let alone used one.  My overriding impression of early Christianity is one of inclusion, forgiveness, acceptance of all religions, genders and backgrounds.  It focused on attention to the poor and downtrodden and paid little mind to personal gain and comfort.  There was certainly no room for discrimination, revenge, protectionism, nationalism or personal prosperity.  But somehow, that seems to be the order of the day.  The support evidently available to the Republican presidential candidate from Christian quarters is a very disturbing extension of a prevailing theology which I trust will be soundly defeated in the days to come.  And no, I am no fan of the other candidate, but I long for a return to beliefs that more soundly echo the Jesus of the Bible.

Topical Tuesday – Authenticity

I hear it a lot these days, that desire for the authentic, whether it be the local restaurant, the hope for a different kind of politician or simply a way of life.  I think it comes from the disturbing legacy of years when what is spoken bears no relation to actuality.  We are bombarded by soundbites seeking to gain our approval or Facebook ‘like’ but faced with a reality that lets us down at every turn.  Recent events in my country of birth, where the momentous decision to leave the EU was effected by a simple majority were beleaguered by campaigns on both sides full of  misrepresentation.  It now transpires that much was entirely inauthentic in substance, especially from those who advocated leave.

In the US we have seen the rise of Trump and a surprising surge of support for the unconventional champion of the downtrodden in Bernie Sanders.  Although Mr Sanders was unable to gain the presidential nomination, we now discover he was hampered by the Democratic establishment skewing the support of the party towards his opponent.  Despite this, his revolution has attracted the support of millions of Americans looking for that elusive ‘authentic’ politician.  You may be surprised to hear me say this, but Messrs Trump and Sanders have a lot in common.  Though representing 2 very different constituencies, what they have sought to do is appeal to the disillusioned with a message that cuts to the heart of their supporters’ fears and disenchantment.

Those who have thrown their considerable support behind Mr Trump are fed up with the established Republican cadre and rally to his entirely authentic voicing of their own thoughts and leanings.  Sadly, there are many people fearful of the ‘other’ be it the muslim immigrant who poses an existential terror threat or the immigrant from the south who comes to steal their living.  Something resonates in the anti-establishment railings and bombastic confidence that he can and will do things differently simply because he is not an established politician.  From a completely different perspective, Mr Sanders appeals to those who feel threatened BECAUSE they are ‘other’.  They are looking for someone who will genuinely fight for them, protect them from the elite power brokers who seem to have the establishment politicians in their pockets.  They are fed up with being fobbed off as their net worth and standing falls in the wake of powerful oligarchs taking and controlling more and more of the available wealth.  The call to do something about bankers responsible for almost destroying the world economy or the oil companies destroying the environment is highly attractive to those who feel without any power of influence.

Personally, I am also attracted to what I feel to be authentic, but as I mused on the subject, I began to feel deeply challenged.  You see, the thing is, we are relying on someone else to wave their authentic magic wand and deal with the injustice, the fear or the dissatisfaction we feel with the way things are.  But if I want authentic, then what am I doing to achieve it in my own life, relationships, work and environment.  If I really don’t want the environment to be destroyed, am I making appropriate choices in what I drive, how I manage my consumption, how I dispose of my waste etc.  If I wish there were more ‘authentic’ natural places to eat then am I making the extra effort to support those who purvey such fair?  If I disapprove of the way workers are treated in garment factories in Bangladesh, do I purposely seek out clothes that are not manufactured in such places?  Do I bother to withdraw my relatively small amount of wealth from the institutions that have proven financial mismanagement and deposit them with those who demonstrate more honesty in their dealings?

In the end, if we seek authenticity, then I feel we should first seek it in our own lives rather than looking for someone else to do it for us.  If I want to see change in the world around me, the people I have a relationship with, the church I belong too, the neighborhood I live in, then it starts with me.  Am I really serious about living an authentic life.  In other words, am I willing to make the sacrifice necessary to line up what I really believe with the way in which I live my life.  Big question, big challenge!