Not Catholic? Seriously?

Mystery guest number 1 was never a practicing Catholic. Mystery guest number 2 never believed in Temple rites. Now, there’s a good conspiracy theory.

Sometimes a conspiracy theory turns out to be true. There is even a class of crime for which people go to jail that starts out “conspiracy to commit…”. But the conspiracy theories that ought to bother us as being “crazy” are the ones which just a little thought shows replace more likely explanations. The Pope is not Catholic? He’s fooling all of us? Seriously?

Wouldn’t that require that he had been fooling the entire hierarchy of the Catholic church as he rose within it? Otherwise, why wouldn’t that hierarchy have kept him from rising in the first place? Or are we supposed to believe that the entire Catholic hierarchy was part of the conspiracy to keep us from realizing that there is actually no Catholic hierarchy left? It makes so much more sense to simply believe the Pope is Catholic than to explain how he got to the top of the Catholic church without being Catholic.Not a Mormon? Seriously?

The same Occam’s Razor applies to Thomas Monson. It takes a crazy conspiracy theorist to presume that he rose to the top of the Mormon hierarchy without being Mormon. You may not know what debates go on among the Brethren. You may not know anything about the boundaries of personal disagreement the Quorums may share as individuals, or the questions and concerns they may raise in their personal prayers at night. But you do know that there are definitions of faithfulness and worthiness held by past leaders that would ensure they would not knowingly be open to his promotion to even mid-levels of the hierarchy were they unconvinced he met those standards.

All of us believe in crazy conspiracy theories. It’s just that we don’t notice as long as we are among people who agree on a common definition of craziness. There are at least a billion people who know that it is crazy to believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet because there are no prophets. There are billions more who know that it is crazy to believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet because his visions conflict with the visions of their prophet. I know that at least one of those groups is crazy.

Thus, deciding whether something is a crazy conspiracy theory is all a matter of what your “prior assumptions” tell you should be the burden of proof. If you knew nothing about institutions like the Catholic or Mormon churches, you’d probably start out treating their leaders as having views similar to those you expect from any person to whom you are being introduced for the first time. And that probably says more about your personality and experiences than it does about the leaders. If you are trusting, you’ll assume the newbie is trustworthy. If such trust has burned you in the past, you’ll be guarded. It’s only human that that would be the case, and there is no obvious “morally right” stance. Jesus surely loved the Sanhedrin, but did Jesus ever trust the Sanhedrin?

However, the first knowledge that you gain about a leader or his/her institution, favorable or unfavorable, can make a lasting shift in your impression that is much harder for further evidence to undo. Once you form an impression of what a “Pope” or a “Prophet” of a particular religion ought to be and how they ought to behave, that becomes the basis to judge what will seem the simplest explanation: behavior to type is easier to explain than behavior counter to type, and it takes far more of the latter to convince us that our “typecasting” was originally in error (even if it actually was).

A confrontation with reality must be jarring to break the typecasting, and, even then, there is still likely to be backsliding to reconstruct the original belief system. However, once an irreparable break does occur, subsequent emotional shifts in expectation can also be profound, with new “typecasting” held as fervently as was the old. Converts to or from a worldview can be zealots.

So, one can say that a good conspiracy theorist starts out with (or ends up with) a mistaken identification of type, and holds to it fervently, creating ever more elaborate narratives to avoid further adjustment.

And that brings me to the question of what role narrative should play in this typecasting at all, when we fundamentally determine expectations of type on a much more primitive basis. Don’t our narratives just provide ideological frosting, so we don’t have to face too openly our more primitive motivations?

My background in science suggests to me that human beings have had primitive drives a lot longer than we’ve been creating elaborate narratives — whether we call those narratives philosophy, myth, theology, ideology, worldview, or theory. The primitive drives have had time to embed themselves in the genes of thousands of generations, where it’s hard to dig them out with even intense effort.  Our narratives become almost unrecognizable in a fraction of that timescale.

Walter Mead recently wrote an article summarizing how today’s liberalism sees itself as humanely concerned with those in society who can not make it without societal help.

“Once the privileges of race, gender and fortune have been neutralized so that the elite is a purely meritocratic body, the members of the elite are obliged to concern themselves for the welfare of the majority, but there is nothing more to be done about equalizing their condition with that of the elite. Authority must rest in the hands of the qualified; those who score poorly on aptitude tests, don’t do well in classes and/or lack extraordinary beauty, artistic talent or ambition must resign themselves to taking direction from the natural aristocracy that a well ordered society has brought so smoothly to the fore…

“In this vision, liberalism has accomplished its historic mission by bringing a true meritocracy into our midst. No longer do accidents of race or gender block the path of the talented to the heights of power; hardwired into the social structure by the shape of the economy and legitimized by equal access, a radical inequality of power and status will indefinitely persist. Liberalism now has nothing to do with attacking or eroding the power of the liberal elite; as long as that elite carries out its duty to share with the masses and [EMPHASIS ADDED] accepts that its children must in turn earn their own place in the elite rather than simply inheriting one, the elite has no further need to democratize. The long job of social evolution, the fight against entrenched power going back to Magna Carta is over. It has done its job, it has brought us into the golden age of absolute and permanent meritocracy. The best now truly rule.

“And something else has also come to an end: the rise of the common people. … Gentry liberals today see something different: the ‘ungifted’ majority is the object of their pity and care, rather than a force that demands their respect and even their fear. As they contemplate what post industrial society will look like, they are filled with pity for the incompetent losers, the untalented, those who will only be able to get jobs as pool boys and cocktail waitresses in the post-manufacturing world. Industrial society saw the workers as a rising irresistible force whose interests could not be ignored; post-industrial liberals seem to see the common folk as a collection of sad and weak losers whom the strong must protect.

“The economy is making us more unequal, but a wise elite can mitigate the harm—if only we are willing to live under their tutelage.”

Now, in light of the discussion in the JST for Genesis — “make man in our image” versus “none shall be lost, but give me the glory” — the “humane” nature of the philosophy Mead attributes to our elites is probably worth a lengthy debate on its own. However, what caught my attention, and caused me to emphasize it in the quote, was the notion that our elites have overcome the evolutionary imperative of promoting their own offspring. Does anyone really believe that part of the narrative? How many university professors do you know who don’t start ensuring that their offspring are going to be elite-college bound from, oh, say the age of three? How many politicians in our system are the children of elected politicians? Is the Bush or Clinton clan at the end of the 20th Century less driven by promotion of their young than was the Adams clan at the end of the 18th Century?

Although I am sure that the large majority of liberals are trying to “be their better selves”, meritocracy is not the best hypothesis to explain what we have produced. If we don’t close our eyes to the distressing counter-evidence, something more primitive than merit seems to driving our power relationships.

An article earlier this week in the New York Times discusses the nature of the political system in Illinois, and by extension, demonstrates the longstanding bipartisan, multi-class, multi-ethnic, multi-racial corruption that infests the Chicago political environment.

“George Ryan was released from a federal prison in the dark on Wednesday morning, and Illinois became a state with only one former governor behind bars….It was a morning not too unusual for people living in a state that has grown familiar with the sight of convicted politicians…

“Outside the state, Mr. Ryan, 78, is best known as the “other” governor from Illinois who was convicted of corruption. His trial in 2006 has since been largely overshadowed by the fanfare surrounding his successor, Rod R. Blagojevich, who was convicted of, among other things, trying to sell the United States Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama in 2008.

“They are among four Illinois governors who have been found guilty of wrongdoing in recent history, along with hundreds of public officials and business leaders charged with public corruption in recent decades. Before his corruption trial, Mr. Ryan, a Republican, was best known for a moratorium on capital punishment in Illinois. He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for commuting more than 160 death sentences in 2003, clearing the state’s death row in the final hours of his single term as governor.

“His indictment later that year came amid a federal investigation that lasted years and led to more than 70 convictions of Illinois state officials, government employees and business leaders. Mr. Ryan was accused of handing out state contracts to friends in exchange for bribes during his tenure as secretary of state and as governor. He was convicted of 18 counts, including racketeering and fraud, and was sentenced to six and a half years in prison.”

It is statistically unlikely that a pure and noble political system in one of the United States’ largest metropolitan areas is being consistently outvoted by all of those evil farmers and shopkeepers downstate. In Chicago, even Nobel Peace Prize nominees are often more motivated by cash than the purity of their cause. So, if you are one who thinks that everyone lived happily ever after in a reformed Chicago once Eliot Ness walked off the set at the end of The Untouchables with Al Capone in jail on tax evasion, adjust your expectations. The cancer was not cured; it only spread to other urban areas. Now it seems to be in the process of nationalization.

If you believe that “the best now truly rule”, and that this is somehow different than “might makes right”, we better stop and ask ourselves just who it is that has the really crazy conspiracy theory.

The Pope rises to the top of Catholicism without being a participating Catholic. Seriously?

The Prophet rises to the top of the Mormon church without being a practicing Mormon? Seriously?

The President of the United States rises to the top of the Chicago government machine, is promoted as its representative first to the Illinois system, and then to the national stage as the champion of the party of government, but actually fooled all of the corrupt politicians around him about his basic nobility and altruism. It is all about sacrificing himself for the good of the downtrodden, the marginalized, and the besieged middle class, not simply the more primitive nihilistic need to acquire all of the power that he can. I mean, there are no rulers anywhere who rationalize that the preservation and expansion of their rule is imperative for the good of their nations. The President was never complicit in the corruption as he rose through the ranks. That’s what you want me to believe happened? The machine let that happen without crushing this idealistic reformer the way the Mormon church would reign in an out-of-control bishop? Seriously?