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The Texas Style of Paranoia

Conspiracy theories in the state didn’t just start with Alex Jones.

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Illustration by Anna Donlan

Stereo FM radio came along during my teenage years, right around the time that I was ready to leave teeny bopper Top 40 behind. The Doors replaced Paul Revere. The Rolling Stones took over from the Monkees. The Beatles bridged the gap. Between the songs on my small radio, a disc jockey with a sleepy, stoner voice whispered to us about how many bombs had been dropped on Vietnam that day and where the protests had been held. Then, one night, there was a different rumor, something to take our minds off of Vietnam and draft numbers. It was a new rumor that the Beatles had engaged in an elaborate conspiracy to cover up the automobile death of band member Paul McCartney, all the while giving us clues to Paul’s death in their albums. It was all there for us. We just had to look at the album covers to see the clues or play the White Album backward to hear John Lennon intone, “Turn me on, dead man.”

Of course, McCartney wasn’t dead. At best, it was an odd twist of coincidences. At worst, it was some hoax perpetrated by Lennon, which he always denied. This was the first time in my life that I learned how a few disparate strands of truth can make a person believe something so fantastic that it’s almost incomprehensible. Are we all just gullible?

This question has been on my mind a lot during the ongoing child custody trial of famed conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. His lawyer is arguing that there are two versions of Alex Jones. One is the family man, and the other is the “performance artist” who appears on the Internet as a maniac ranting that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an “inside job” carried out by our own government or that the Sandy Hook school shootings were staged—a “false flag” operation—to help the government take control of us. As his Austin-based Infowars site declares: “There’s a war on for your mind.” By the end of last week, Jones put out his own web video to say that he sometimes acts satirically but that his news is so real that the mainstream media just wants to destroy him. He may be performing on Infowars, he said, but he believes what he says.

In 2007, I interviewed Jones for the Houston Chronicle. He talked so fast that that the discussion felt like the proverbial drink from a fire hose. The interview was for a story on globalist conspiracy theories involving then-Governor Rick Perry. Perry had been promoting the construction of a superhighway toll road known as the Trans Texas Corridor, and he had attended the Bilderberg conference, which many conspiracy theorists believe is a gathering of one-worlders. Infowars posted a mug shot of Perry with the words “Wanted for Treason.” U.S. Representative Ron Paul appeared on Jones’s show and said the Bilderberg trip was a sign that Perry was “involved in the international conspiracy.” Author Jerome Corsi claimed Perry’s corridor really was the NAFTA Highway, designed as the starting point of forming the North American Union of Canada, the United States, and Mexico with a currency called the Amero. Corsi is now the Washington bureau chief for Infowars. “Perry is actively waging war, economically in the interests of the elites and neomercantilism,” Jones told me at the time.

We Texans seem especially fond of conspiracy theories. In the days leading up to the Civil War, there was a widespread conspiracy promoted by Dallas Herald Editor Charles Pryor that abolitionist ministers were promoting a slave rebellion and were supposedly responsible for fires that burned most of downtown Dallas and half the town square of Denton (the actual cause was oily rags that had ignited). At least three slaves were lynched in Dallas, and a Methodist minister named Anthony Bewley was wrongly accused of fomenting the uprising. The reverend fled toward Kansas, but a posse caught up to him and brought him back to Fort Worth, where a lynch mob hanged him. His body was then burned and the flesh removed from the bones. What remained of the Reverend Bewley was moved to the roof of Ephraim Daggett’s store, where children often rearranged his bones into amusing poses.

Before we get away from Fort Worth, one of the state’s great and forgotten conspiracy stories involves evangelist J. Frank Norris. When his church burned in 1912, Norris was accused of arson but won acquittal. In a third-person autobiography, Norris gleefully related how each of those who conspired against him found retribution in car wrecks and failed businesses that led to suicides. Newspaper editors saw their papers close and their names forgotten. “The District Attorney, who was the tool of the liquor interests, and who framed and forged the indictment in 1912, met with a horrible death, driving an eight cylinder Cadillac over North Main Street Viaduct, with his lady companion, and his automobile full of liquor, a head on crash with a street car and both were hurled into eternity and their blood, brains, and the broken bottles covered the pavement,” Norris wrote. When one of the allies of Fort Worth’s mayor showed up at his office in 1926, Norris shot the man dead, claiming the mayor had sent him as an assassin. A jury found Norris acted in self-defense.

Norris became nationally famous in the 1920s as a radio preacher who sermonized against “that hell-born, Bible-destroying, deity-of-Christ-denying, German rationalism known as evolution” at Baylor University. He later changed his focus to the evils of communism, and in 1949 delivered a speech in the Texas House chamber against communist-leaning professors at the University of Texas. It was a rambling speech full of the kind of fulminations that would make Alex Jones proud. Almost in mid-sentence, Norris ended the speech with a sudden, “To Hell with Joe Stalin!”

But the all-time Texas conspiracy theory surrounds the November 22, 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. At that time, I was in fourth grade in Dallas, and had woken up that morning with my mother showing me a map in The Dallas Morning News of the route of Kennedy’s motorcade. She told me she wished they hadn’t printed it, because it was like a blueprint for assassination. Later that day, after Kennedy was dead, my school gathered the children in the auditorium to wait for our parents to pick us up. One girl became hysterical. She knew her father was supposed to see Kennedy at the Trade Mart that day and was flying to Japan immediately after. She burst into tears after convincing herself that her father had killed Kennedy. She was only the first of the Kennedy conspiracy theorists.

Within days of the assassination, a New York lawyer named Mark Lane started raising questions. He would launch a cottage industry of Kennedy conspiracy. I saw his presentation when I was in college. We watched the famed Zapruder film over and over. Certainly this could not just be the work of Lee Harvey Oswald. It would have taken an expert marksman. There was umbrella man and babushka lady. Everyone looked at the grassy knoll. Before it was over, the conspiracies had the Soviet Union behind it, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, the mafia, and the CIA. A U.S. House select committee convened to consider the alleged conspiracy, concluding that there may have been more than one assassin. Then came the books debunking Mark Lane and all the Kennedy conspiracies. My clarity came one Christmas, when I went up to the Texas School Book Depository museum and looked out one of the sixth floor windows onto Elm Street and realized I could have done it with a handgun. So much for the expert marksman.

Now we are in a new age of conspiracy and paranoia that began with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. If our government could not protect us from passenger airliners being turned into bombs, maybe the government was part of the conspiracy. If there is a mass murder of children at Sandy Hook elementary school, then maybe it is easier to believe it did not happen than to wrestle with the national debate on firearms. And when the U.S. Army conducts maneuvers in case a war occurs, then it must mean that the exercise, known as Jade Helm, is part of some plot. There’s a certain thrill, real or imagined, to danger that you cannot control, sort of like standing on a hillside while watching an electrical storm approach.

Fanning the flames of fear and conspiracy, Alex Jones came out of the depths of Austin cable television to prompt Governor Greg Abbott into responding to Jade Helm by assigning the Texas State Guard to “monitor” the Army’s maneuvers. President Trump has bought into more than a few of Jones’s conspiracy theories. Jones’s style of paranoia is affecting U.S. government policy. Ask yourself this: a decade has passed since Jones and his Infowars predicted the new North American Union. Where is it? The Army came and went in 2015 without establishing martial law in Texas. What happened to Jade Helm?

I’m not going to make fun of the people buying into Alex Jones and his conspiracies—after all, I spent a portion of my life playing records backward and watching the Zapruder film over and over again. But Paul McCartney is alive and JFK is dead, and I’m willing to admit it.

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  • Sam Jacinto

    Some people really are quite gullible and are victimized by hucksters of all kinds. We have more than our share in Texas. Is it the heat? mountain cedar? or some mosquito-borne illness? See “trump voters” for an example. Now we have a conspiracy-theorist con man in the White House.

    • St. Anger

      It’s the education

      • SpiritofPearl

        Or lack thereof . . . does that make me an elitist?

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        • BCinBCS

          No, just observant.

  • SpiritofPearl

    For Texans who want the U.S. to withdraw from NAFTA, consider this map:

    https://mobile.twitter.com/kfs78/status/857406919761440771/photo/1

  • That’s what they want you to think.

  • Manuel Labor

    JFK’s dead? Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

  • Gunslinger

    I’ve spent a good amount of time with conspiracy theorists. I’ve noticed a few things.
    First, there’s the person who creates the theory: the Alex Jones types. Being a conspiracy theorist is an identity, a social standing and an income to this person. It’s a lifestyle. He usually, at the most, only halfway believe what he’s saying. He’s an egomaniac. He knows that he must keep churning out more outrageous theories so that his followers/listeners will support him.

    This brings me to the followers. They’re a varied crowd, but they’re usually libertarians, gun nuts, socially inept, drug users, distrusting of the media, and paranoid.

    But mostly, I’ve noticed that they all take great pride in being the gatekeeper of knowledge, knowledge that no one outside their group possesses or understands. If you don’t agree, then you’re “sheeple” or willingly blind. You’re “less than” according to their standards. This is a nice reversal for them, since they are used to being lower on the social totem pole, so to speak. They can now look down on you.

    Their preoccupation with firearms is another way for them to be on an even keel with society that they feel so at odds with. It’s more difficult to argue with someone who’s armed when you’re not armed. They need that advantage or inflated sense of self esteem that comes with carrying a firearm. That said, they’re generally timid in one-on-one situations or in small groups.

    Being in this group is an identity for them as well. It gives them social support and a network of friends that they wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s also titillating and just a little dangerous being part of a quasi anti-government, wannabe rebellion. There’s a lot of fantasy going on there.

    All in all, being part of the conspiracy crowd gives the illusion of power to the powerless. That’s the general appeal…at least from what I’ve witnessed.

  • WUSRPH

    A president this unqualified can make you paranoid.

    “Trump, discussing NATO with the Associated Press:

    I was on Wolf Blitzer, very fair interview, the first time I was ever asked about NATO, because I wasn’t in
    government. People don’t go around asking about NATO if I’m building a building in Manhattan, right? So
    they asked me, Wolf … asked me about NATO, and I said two things. NATO’s obsolete — not knowing much about NATO, now I know a lot about NATO.”

    • SpiritofPearl

      Geez, when I was in grade school I know what NATO was. Perhaps I didn’t know all the countries or what their obligations were, but I knew more when I was 12 than the Mad King knows now as an old man.

  • WUSRPH

    My question for today:

    Since it is not a criminal violation to be in the US without legal authorization, what is the police office supposed to do when he stops someone for a broken tail light and asks him to prove his right to be in the
    US? Is he supposed to find some reason to arrest that person so that the sheriff, police chief can then notify the ICE that they have an undocumented alien in custory? Or, doe he just make a note of the name and address and forward that to ICE?

    Thanks to the Texas House (with the Senate soon to concur), we may soon find out….

    Hispanics be afraid.

    • Jed

      papers?

      zhow us your papers.

      • WUSRPH

        Let’s just get it over and go to a national ID card and having to register your address with the police.

        • Jed

          it would be fascist, but at least it wouldn’t also be racist.

          i do hope to see many, many whites detained for not having proof of citizenship.

          papers, please!

          • WUSRPH

            I would also be afraid if I were an Indian (from India-type) or Chinese or had any kind of an accent…….All of which could constitute “suspicion” that they were here illegally.

          • SpiritofPearl

            My son’s friend from Canada was driving while black north of Big Bend a few weeks ago without her passport because she hadn’t planned to actually cross the border. Was placed in detention for five hours while her husband and daughter waited while she was questioned. I’ve crossed that stretch of road a few times and have never been pulled aside for questioning. Wonder why?

          • BCinBCS

            I quickly read your post and then wondered “How did the officer know that he was Canadian – the license plate?” The I re-read it and realized that he was pulled over for a DWB.
            Sad.

          • SpiritofPearl

            Making America great again . . .

          • SpiritofPearl

            My trips to McAllen and Big Bend were interesting because we encountered “border patrol” quite a distance from the actual border. In all my travels around the world, I only encountered the border officials at the actual border.

          • BCinBCS

            The reason for that is that Texas has a very long and unprotected border that would be prohibitively expensive to patrol (or secure with a wall/fence). There are only a few roads leading inland from the border areas so it is much more cost effective to stop illegal immigrants as they try to move to the major cities on the relatively few roads than it is to try to catch them as they cross the Rio Grande.

          • SpiritofPearl

            Good point.

            While in Big Bend in 2010, we could see some men on the Mexican side with horses. They had paddled across the river earlier in a john boat with some trinkets to sell to tourists which they’d left on a rock above the river. They waved at us and we waved at them. The idea that a wall can stop all that is silly.

          • WUSRPH

            Rather than trying to patrol the entire border—-with all its difficulties—the Border Patrol puts some of their effort into in-land “choke points” where they can pick up people in better conditions. The fencing, where it is, helps divert those crossing into those kinds of areas.

          • ScudAg56

            Many countries in the world, including Mexico, have such a card. Everyone gets it when they turn 18 or 19. Puzzles me why people think Hispanics in this country are incapable of getting a photo ID.

          • BCinBCS

            Absolutely Scud, I can see it now…
            Undocumented alien drops by the police station: “Hi, I’m an undocumented alien in this country illegally and I’m here to get a picture I.D. card”
            Officer: “Certainly, sir. Step this way. We have a jail cell waiting for you.”
            [scene]

          • Jed

            whether we are capable of having a chip inserted under our skin, for example, is not an argument that we should have to do so.

            you of course miss the point completely. the question isn’t why hispanics can’t get ID’s, the question is why only hispanics need them.

            when was the last time YOU were asked to prove your citizenship? could you even do it right now, without first going home a finding your birth certificate?

            and of course, WHY are you being asked (or not asked) to prove your citizenship? abuse of the bill of rights. remember that thing?

        • BCinBCS

          I live in a college town with a very large number of foreign students, If the police had to determine the legality of every foreign person that they encounter, law enforcement would grind to a halt – and class attendance would decrease as they sat in jail waiting to be cleared.

          I suspect that the “enforcement” of this law in Texas would be disproportionately felt by those with an Hispanic accent though.

  • WUSRPH

    Yesterday, the Texas House gave cops free rein to question anyone they come into contact with about their legal status….today it is repealing the only tax we have on general business, placing a garrote around the state’s fiscal neck…..soon it will probably make it legal for a doctor to lie to his patient about the condition of her fetus….and you wonder why people are paranoid?

    • SpiritofPearl

      This will (1) cost a lot more money, and/or (2) get cops killed.

  • WUSRPH

    If you want to see Texas-style paranoia at probably at its most extreme version read the Texas secession proclamation……It reeks with it.

    http://tinyurl.com/lzmljmj

    • Jed

      the texas declaration of independence is pretty good for this, too.

      for example, chief among the complaints by the texans about the mexican government they signed up with … they don’t speak english.

      it’s meant to be in the style of the u.s. declaration, but it winds up being an ironic self-parody of the sort only texans could produce.

    • José

      Nope, secession was not about slavery. Not one teensy weensy bit.

  • WestTexan70

    You’re a better man than me, Mr. Ratcliffe. I not only make fun of these “conservatives”, I point and laugh while living a more fulfilling life. I tried ignoring or understanding them for six decades — I no longer have the patience.

  • John Bernard Books
  • WUSRPH

    When a person deliberately and with full knowledge of the impact cuts themselves to release blood they are considered mentally unstable….but what do you call a state government that deliberately and knowingly cuts its revenues by $8 billion like the Texas House did yesterday with the passage of the bill to phase out the only general business tax it has when it is already facing a more than tight budget? And, making it worse, it did the same thing by more than $9 billion during its last session……..Is the Legislature deliberately committing suicide? It has to know—as history has shown us at least twice in the past 30 years—that the Laffer Curve is a myth….but it does it anyway……Mentally unstable?

    • Gunslinger

      Have you ever seen a body so irresponsible?

      All that matters to them is being able to air that ad that says, “Rep. So-And-So voted to kill the franchise tax.” The only problem for them is how to get re-elected. The next session’s budget shortfall doesn’t matter. They’ll just make cuts. This time it was higher ed. I’m guessing public ed next time.

      • WUSRPH

        The only thing more irresponsible would be for the Congress to adopt the Trump tax cuts.

    • BCinBCS

      SMH
      For the first time in my life, I told a friend a couple of days ago that if I was not tied to my hometown by real estate ownership, I would move to another state (probably in the Northwest). I cannot believe that I now feel that way.

      Not to get down into the weeds but a lot of economists believe that the Laffer curve has validity but at taxation rates above 50%. There is still controversy about the shape of the Laffer curve – is it horseshoe shaped, is it a right or left shaped deviated curve, etc.

      • WUSRPH

        All I can say is that every time we have cut taxes based on a Laffer Curve justification—Reagan and Bush–it dramatically reduced federal revenues and added to the deficit in direct contrast to Dr. Laffer’s supposed law. Of course, the rates being cut were no where near 50%.

        • BCinBCS

          I agree with you on tax cuts vs economic stimulation. As you might remember, I have a standing $100 offer to anyone who can give me definitive proof that trickle-down (supply side) economics has ever worked. I see it as a convenient excuse by Republicans to justify cutting taxes on the rich.

    • BCinBCS

      I try to stay current on trickle down (supply-side) economics. The proving ground for this experiment in economics is Kansas where Governor Sam Brownback is certain that those policies will result in an explosion of wealth for his state any day now.

      The similarities in the gutting of Kansas’s state government and the draconian reductions in the Texas budget should ring some alarm bells. Here’s what is happening in Kansas and is a foreshadowing of what will happen in his state:

      A Kansas tech CEO outraged by the ‘destructive policies’ of Gov. Sam Brownback announced Monday that he’ll move his business across state lines in protest.

      Jeff Blackwood, the founder of Kansas City-area healthcare technology firm Pathfinder Health Innovations, wrote on the company’s blog that he plans to relocate its offices from suburban Overland Park, Kan., to downtown Kansas City, Mo. A $600 million budget shortfall and accompanying cuts by the Republican governor have slashed funding for schools and services for developmentally disabled people, Blackwood wrote.

      ‘It’s not so much that I’m moving the company to Missouri as I’m moving it away from Kansas,’ he wrote. ‘In the end, I believe the goals of the Brownback administration are going exactly to plan — starve the state of resources to the point where it just makes sense to turn over critical government functions to for-profit entities.’

      He continued: ‘I can’t, in good conscience, continue to give our tax money to a government that actively works against the needs of its citizens; a state that is systematically targeting the citizens in most need, denying them critical care and reducing their cost of life as if they’re simply a tax burden that should be ignored’.”

      Do you need a crystal ball to see the future of Texas?
      Nope, just open your eyes and observe.

  • WUSRPH

    After 3 missile test failures in a row I would guess that heads are literally rolling in Pyongyang… Wonder if there is somebody doing some computer hacking? We/Israel did it to the Iranian nuclear program…..could we be doing it to North Korea too? Hope so.

  • SeeItMyWay

    Great piece, Mr. Ratcliffe. Having been to the School Book Depository building, I thought the same thing.

  • BCinBCS

    Did you see the Comrade Trump interview by John Dickerson on CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday? He has absolutely no idea what is going on with his health care bill.

    Don’t believe me? Here’s the interview and a transcript:
    http://www.cbsnews.com/news/trump-interview-full-transcript-face-the-nation/

    I checked around and found this analysis in Vox:
    https://www.vox.com/2017/4/30/15492354/trump-ahca-interview

    Here is part of the Vox article:

    Dickerson is the first journalist I have seen grill Trump on what, exactly, is in the Republican plan. He isn’t asking about the politics of the bill and whether it will pass. Rather, he focuses on what are arguably basic questions: what elements are in this bill, and what do you think of them?

    Trump stumbles. He says that people with pre-existing conditions will be protected. Under the latest amendment to the American Health Care Act — the one that got the Freedom Caucus on board — they won’t be. He says that deductibles will go down under the Republican plan. Non-partisan analysis expects deductibles would go up.

    The health care plan that Trump described on Face the Nation is not the one that the Republican party has offered. His answers suggest an unfamiliarity with basic policy details of a plan that has been public for nearly six weeks at this point — a plan that his administration has pushed Congress to pass.

    There’s more to the article. All of you conservatives who admonished us to take Comrade Trump seriously but not literally should read both articles and then explain how anyone could take him seriously or literally.

    • José

      Even those conservatives who cynically supported Trump in hopes of using him to further their own agendas ought to be shocked. The man is clueless, completely over his head. It’s preposterous that he should occupy such a dangerously powerful office, and it’s shameful that the Republican Party allowed it to happen. History will not look kindly on the collaborators.

    • SeeItMyWay

      I’m clueless. Is this blog just an open forum for whatever we want to spit out, no matter

      • BCinBCS

        What’s more important to you – that LBJ and/or the mafia and/or the CIA and/or Cuba and/or the Illuminati and/or the military shot JFK or that we have an ignorant man-child occupying the Oval Office?

        • SeeItMyWay

          Sorry. I just thought Mr. Ratcliffe and Texas Monthly directed the topic of conversation on this site, but I see this must not be the case since the posts run in all sorts of directions without one addressing the subject of the thread but mine. I just find that a bit odd.

          • GibsonGirl99

            Someone up-thread posted here instead of another article on the BurkaBlog dealing w/immigration. After no moderator interference, the thread just went wherever the commenters wanted it to go.
            So, thread jacking, & moderator overload, quite probably.
            I thought it was a great take on the ubiquity of conspiracy theories, and their care and feeding.

      • José

        When the moderators of BurkaBlog are slow in creating new threads the readers get restless and impatient. These are turbulent times. There’s a lot going on that folks consider important to discuss.

    • SpiritofPearl

      Dickerson also nailed him on the “phone tapp” and his part in disseminating fake news.

      • BCinBCS

        I assume that you are referencing the interview that Comrade Trump angrily terminated after being pressed on his “sick and bad” comment that he made against Barack Obama after claiming the former president “tapped his wire in Trump Tower”.

        The crazy can be viewed here:

        • SpiritofPearl

          I can’t even . . .

  • WUSRPH

    Attack at UT. All those guns on campus did no good.

    • SpiritofPearl

      Have you seen “Tower”? It’s on Netflix. Lots of students and locals were shooting continuously. It took two cops and a clerk at the co-op to kill Whitman by ascending to the top, not by the folks who were shooting recklessly.

  • WUSRPH

    It gets weirder and weirder every day…Now he’s appointing a woman who does not believe in contraception to head the family planning office! And some people wonder why some of us think there is something wrong with his brain.

  • WUSRPH

    Trump says he wants to be like Andrew Jackson…..but he apparently does not know much about the man. For example, Trump is reportedly getting ready to sign a so-called “religious freedom” EO that is totally contrary to everything Jackson believed. In fact, Jackson probably had about the most extreme view on Separation of Church and State of any of our presidents……He leaned so far in that direction that he even blocked the passage of resolution calling for a day of prayer for victims of a cholera epidemic in 1832 declaring that:

    “I could not do otherwise without transcending those limits which are prescribed by our Constitution for the
    President, and without feeling that I might in some degree disturb the security which religion now enjoys in this country in the complete separation from the political concerns of the General Government.”