Republic of Lies

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 16 May 2019

Member Reviews

REPUBLIC OF LIES by Anna Merlan is about "American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power."  Merlan is a journalist working for the investigative division of Gizmodo Media Group. In her first non-fiction book, she offers chapters on various conspiracy theories, including ones on medical oddities (several references to vaccines), white nationalists, and UFOs. There are also several pages of sources, primarily books and recent news reports, as well as a very detailed and helpful index.  Overall, though, this text felt a bit too dense for many of our students, particularly those who are still honing their skills at evaluating sources. It would have been very useful (although perhaps open to charges of slander or libel), if she had provided a chart or list of fringe organizations and/or hate groups (or maybe well-regarded sources for those lists like Southern Poverty Law Center?).  As Merlan points out, "We're all prone to believing half-truths, forming connections where there are none to be found...."
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It’s a typically disorienting winter day in an unremarkable part of Los Angeles, the palm trees bristling above the Walgreens and the tire shops, the golden light washing insistently over the slowly rotating sign above a twenty-four-hour burger joint, its paint peeled away into nonexistence. The sun doesn’t penetrate into this vast, windowless ballroom out by the airport, where I’m learning about the secret pedophiles who make up 30 percent of the federal government.

Journalist Anna Merlan takes readers on a highly readable walk through some of America’s most notorious conspiracy theories of late, and introduces the theorists responsible. She focuses on the most recent incidents, particularly contributors in the lead-up to the 2016 election and their ripple effects through politics, mainstream news and sometimes, endings in tragedy.

She also does due diligence in covering where myth has intersected with reality, something often hard to discern after conspiracy theories have blown up.

There’s often (though not always) some relationship in America between conspiracy theory and actual conspiracy, between the shadows on the cave wall and the shape of the thing itself.

In addition to very smooth and easy to follow storytelling (no small feat considering the inherent complication and near-nonsense beliefs of some of these) her writing is at times just sublime, as the above passage demonstrates. I hate to say the cliche makes-you-feel-like-you’re-there, because I’m not eager to attend the conventions and meetings of groups she bravely does, but she has that journalistic gift of capturing her surroundings and making the reader feel that impression fully. Like when she describes being “treated to the charming and unexpected sight of old ladies with haloes of snowy hair carefully taking notes while they listened to presentations about Nazis flying experimental spacecraft over DC.”

Merlan circulates amongst various gatherings and events, providing camera-like reportage on what she observes and explanatory context about the groups, their leaders and core beliefs. Her reporting doesn’t uncover anything earth-shattering, but rather distills the essences of individual movements and motivations, clearly and concisely analyzes the sociopolitical context in which they arose, and makes it all informative and page-turning. It doesn’t necessarily say massive amounts that’s new. That was fine for me as I enjoyed her impressions and walk-throughs, but it’s worth knowing. To have so much information about these beliefs collected here and reported brilliantly makes a worthwhile, and dare I say, enjoyable read.

Pizzagate represents a type of story to which Americans are particularly susceptible, a religiously based hysteria and conspiracism featuring the Devil and children and sexual horror. Different versions of the same scenario have dogged us from the Salem witch trials through the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and ’90s.

And some of these conspiracies, like Pizzagate, I’d paid scant attention to (you really have to limit conspiracy consumption in your daily news intake, lest you feel too hopeless and/or confused) but didn’t know much about in detail. In the Pizzagate story, she explains its origins and what a dangerous belief in unfounded rumor can unleash, following the story through to the shooter who showed up at Comet Ping Pong in Washington, D.C. looking for Hillary Clinton and John Podesta’s basement child sex slave operation. Sometimes I can’t even believe the words I’m writing and I can only imagine what it was like for Merlan to be in these places, talking with these people and trying to explain it all in the book. I have to wonder what she did to stay sane.

Also worth noting is that Merlan wisely only marginally involves herself in the story, and her appearances are generally just to demonstrate the hypocrisy, disorganization and confusion among members (something also demonstrated to great extent in Vegas Tenold’s Everything You Love Will Burn, about white supremacist groups, some of which also make appearances here.)

Otherwise, this remains a fairly objective and richly observational look at what’s happened/happening and why, with only a few mildly questionable personal interjections of opinion. Learning what we learn, it’s hard to fault her, and they are funny, although I would’ve liked to have seen a different approach to journalistic integrity, something at which she truly excels elsewhere.

And I have to take a hats-off moment for the publishing team here, who may have achieved something remarkable. That combination of title and cover imagery just might be enough to get this into the hands of people who need it most, albeit through the belief that it’s on their side, but still. It just might do it (if the subtitle gets overlooked).

Topical and important narrative journalism on the disturbing, but not worth ignoring, issue of conspiracy and fringe groups and their increasingly loud voice in American politics, especially with a “conspiracy enthusiast” in the White House. 4.25/5

Some quotes:

“These outbreaks of religious hysteria recur so persistently in America for a reason: they are, like so many conspiracy theories, a response to moments of social change and perceived societal fracture. Satanic Panic allegations first arose during a moment in the 1980s of intense concern over the number of women in the workforce and a subsequent rise in “latchkey kids” and paid caregivers. Pizzagate emerged during the 2016 elections, a time when Americans were relitigating, to an exhausting degree, our beliefs, our vision of America, and our sexual ethics. The paranoid idea of sexual predators hiding in the highest echelons of power was not so paranoid; Pizzagate, though, spun it through a nexus of faux black magic, imagined ritual, and nonsensical allegations that were somehow both unbelievable and yet, for a lot of people, unbelievably powerful.”

“One of the most intense and immovable American fears is of subliminal, hidden government control…that’s one reason for paranoia about such threats as mind-controlling fluoride in the water supply, subliminal messages in advertising and Disney movies, and brainwashing in schools through the Common Core curriculum.”

“The logic of false flaggery has become so convoluted that…lesser conspiracy theorists have said that Alex Jones is himself a false flag, a government plant designed for a sinister purpose.”

On Twitter banning Trump for violations: “Surely, in part, some of these services are hamstrung by a grim, darkly funny logical endpoint: Trump is the best-known political figure on earth to use social media to spread conspiracy theories. Any banning policy would, in the end, have to cover him, too.”

“The Chapman survey noted that more Americans believe in UFOs than believe in natural selection or that the earth is 4.5 billion years old.” (That one bummed me out)

“In the end, though, conspiracy theories are the symptom, not the disease; they are a function of the society in which they breed.”
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I've been following Anna Merlan's writing on conspiracy groups at Jezebel and the Gizmodo Special Projects Desk for a few years, and it's consistently great - providing historical context where appropriate, reporting things as they are, and providing a critical eye in exactly the right places.  This book does a great job of applying this eye to the conspiracy theorists that have seemed to be on the rise since the 2016 election, and puts a lot of the actions they've taken in context, reaching as far back as the Oklahoma City bombing (where Alex Jones got his rise) and going all the way through the Russiagate accusations floating around now.  This is incisive, points to why we keep seeing these pop up, and helped me keep all of this in context.
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Another good book about conspiracies. Not as all encompassing as some of the other books I have read but certainly worth your time.
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America has had conspiracies as long as it has existed but with rise of a "birther" as president, conspiracies and conspiracy theories that were once rightly dismissed as crackpots and crackpot ideas are normalized. This book gives nice explanations of conspiracy culture even if it is demoralizing to read and think about the future of our country and the truth tellers.
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An excellent discussion of conspiracy theories and why they are so prevalent in contemporary society.  The author combines firsthand observations, reporting, and insights from history and from academic research to back up her claims.  Her discussion about the role of social media in spreading these theories is particularly insightful.
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I never do this, but here is the first sentence of Republic of Lies: “In January 2015, I spent the longest, queasiest week of my life on a cruise ship filled with conspiracy theorists.”

SOLD! Anna Merlan has put herself through a brain-exploding experience to tell us about the astounding variety of lies Americans tell about themselves and their country. It’s a whirlwind tour of conspiracies, hate, ideology, religion, UFOs, and politics. They are all urgent matters. The nation is at risk. Time is running out.

To Merlan’s point (and book title), Americans have very good reason to suspect conspiracy. American governments and government agencies have a horrific history of conspiring against citizens and lying about it. The FBI under J.E. Hoover sent a blackmail letter to Martin Luther King Jr, instructing him to commit suicide lest his sexual history be exposed. The Freedom of Information Act has led to whole volumes of FBI files being made public, showing it had files and actively interfered in the lives of innocuous groups and individuals. The FBI admits its COINTELPRO program was designed to insert disinformation into various organizations in the hope they would spin out of control. Similarly, agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration are known to have given informants kilos of cocaine as payment or incentive. There was warrantless wiretapping exposed by Edward Snowden. The CIA experimented on the unknowing with LSD, plutonium and syphilis. So Americans come by the conspiracies legitimately. What you sow, so shall ye reap, someone once said. Americans are highly trained conspiracists.

The government sterilized the feeble-minded (ie. blacks), incarcerated the homeless after Louisiana floods, and routinely classifies everything Top Secret. Most recently, government agencies have taken to seeding protest marches and demonstrations with thugs who start fights and riot in the streets to discredit the efforts. So yes, there is reason to suspect conspiracy.

Into this atmosphere comes social media, the ideal incubator for conspiracy theories. The result is a huge overreaction of conspiracies like false flag accusations. In false flag, absolutely anything that happens can be construed as a government act to scare people, or prepare them for military occupation, a coup, or some loss of rights. So massacres at schools, night clubs and churches never actually happened. No one actually died. They’re all false flag scare tactics. Like astronauts landing on the moon, it was all staged for somebody’s advantage. On social media, this appeals to millions to disbelieve their own eyes, in preference for a conspiracy theory.

Americans have a decided preference for child molestation and slavery conspiracies. They see it everywhere. They suspect it of the “elite” and lowly pizzerias. I remember the Wenatchee child molestation trials, where the complete lack of physical evidence was successfully submitted at trial as proof of guilt, because nothing could be that free of evidence. Merlan devotes a chapter to the epidemic, focused on Pizzagate, which nearly turned into a genuine tragedy when someone took it all as real.

Possibly the most revolting part of the book is these followers’ harassment of the victims of massacres. They have attacked surviving students of the Parkland School and gone after the parents of children killed at Sandy Hook. They demand proof the murdered ever existed. They doxx the survivors. They find and circulate drivers’ licenses, social security numbers and other personal data so more followers can harass and attack them with demands and death threats. Sending threatening e-mails to one parent’s lawyer causes a bill to be generated: a quarter hour for each one received.  An interesting way to bankrupt someone. It puts survivors in a double jeopardy having to deal with grief and then also being attacked for good measure. Not responding is no solution either, as the attackers assume that is proof they are hiding something. It is ruining the lives of many undeserving victims. The perpetrators remain largely anonymous and shielded.

What all the causes, cults and movements seem to have in common is they are operated for and by white male Christians. Merlan is Jewish (not to mention a woman) and has reported on highly charged racist gatherings where white male Christians gather to promote the removal and/or death of Jews. She routinely reveals her religion to her interlocutors, which results in backpedaling and diversions like “Well, it’s complicated” or “You’re a very beautiful woman.” 

The most valuable service performed by Republic of Lies is the sheer variety of nonsense underway. There is a conspiracy for every topic and every event. There are followers for all of them. It is a much bigger sickness than a simple day of Fox News would demonstrate. There is also far more of it than I realized. Merlan describes a number of political conspiracies I had not known of, but which have thousands of adherents. 

And newly minted celebrities. The quickest path to celebrity in America seems to be by conspiracy theory. Whoever makes it up becomes the greatest authority on it, and is legitimized by the media interviewing them and profiling them. Very often, they seem to be losers, with criminal pasts and no future. Their conspiracy theories boost them into fame and a new direction in their failing lives. She profiles a number of them, and they tend to come off as rather pathetic.

They eat their own too, constantly infighting, breaking apart and creating new groups. As one participant memorably described them: “We have a circular firing squad of everyone telling everyone else they are the opposition.”

It has made the USA a paranoid laugh riot. 

David Wineberg
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