When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide
Where I stop and I turn and I go for a ride
Till I get to the bottom and I see you again
Yeah yeah yeah hey
Anonymous, the loose collective of anarchists and hacktivists who declared ‘war on terrorism’ as a response to the attacks in Paris last week, say that a ‘worldwide day of terror’ will take place on November 22nd. If it’s true (which seems doubtful) then they couldn’t have planned a better date to do it.
In a kooky twist of fate, November 22nd is the date The Beatles released their famous White Album. The 1968 album, which featured tracks as incendiary and provocative as “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” went on to inspire Charlie Manson & and the Family’s ‘Helter Skelter‘ scenario – a multi-racial chaos fantasy that bears more than a passing similarity to the ‘Zero Hour’ (or al-sā’ah) craved by Isis.
The wild-eyed man of Topanga had high-hopes for Helter Skelter. In his off-kilter acid state Manson believed the murders would usher in some devastating global race war. It was 1969, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, and whilst the year never did bear witness to Armageddon, it did see the launch of Sesame Street and Hawaii Five O.
More significantly perhaps, November 22nd was also the day that John F Kennedy was shot in Dallas – an event that not only helped subsidize the entire Conspiracy Theory industry for the best part of 50 years, but one that may have inadvertently made possible the meteoric rise of The Beatles in America.
Sounds a little crazy? Well you have to start thinking like a conspiracy theorist.
Reviewing Beatlemania in the context of a country in mourning may not be quite as unreasonable as it seems. A report on the Beatles phenomenon by Alexander Kendrick for CBS Morning News (broadcast just a few hours before the assassination of Kennedy in Dallas) was rebroadcast at the behest of CBS News anchorman, Walter Cronkite just 18 days later. As Beatles scholar Martin Lewis puts it, “Cronkite was looking for a way to lift the spirits of the devastated American public with a cheerful segment. And he recalled the film clip that Wallace had introduced on his Morning News show that dreadful Dallas morning.” The segment set in motion a remarkable chain of events that culminated in the band’s game-changing performance on the Ed Sullivan Show that following February, a performance that was to have such a profound and devastating impact on one Charles Manson, who immediately became obsessed with the group. As author Simon Wells put it, the group ‘offered him a vision of his own technicolour future’ (Coming Down Fast, 2010).
It may be a bittersweet lesson in causality for most of us, but for the Conspiracy Theorist it is ‘quantifiable proof’ that The Beatles were, as Manson claimed, ‘telling the youth to rise up against the establishment’. You only had to take one look at John Lennon flashing ‘the sign of the horns’ on a promotional shot for Yellow Submarine to realise that the band were part of an Illuminati mind control experiment.
Sounds like the stuff of nonsense? That’s because it IS the stuff of nonsense. But making sense of nonsense is what drives the Conspiracy Industry.
The Beatles may not have been on the grassy knoll that day, but to the millions of people who doubted the moon landings and thought Elvis was alive on Mars, they were almost certainly holding the hand of the incoming Lyndon B Johnson, whose ruthless ambition to become President was viewed as the only motive necessary for shooting Kennedy. And once the thought has entered the head of the conspiracy theorist, it’s really very difficult to shift. The fact that the Fabs also released their second album, With The Beatles within hours of the assassination only compounded these suspicions.
Why Conspiracy Theorists Think The Way They Do
George Bernard Shaw once said that, “the moment we believe something, we suddenly see all the arguments for it”, and the Conspiracy Theorist adopts much the same policy when faced with the seemingly random sequence of newsworthy events unfolding around them. They see the repetition of a number, a symbol or location, and transfer them to the source code of an executable program that is really designed to calculate only one particular outcome.
But they are not unique in this, by any means. We all do it to one degree or another.
I think it is generally now accepted that the brain is predisposed to seeking out meaningful and meaningless patterns. You have only to consider the inkblot test to appreciate this. Content can be derived from even the most random and ambiguous of sources. However, it’s not so commonly recognized that this tendency (or better still, this cognitive habit) is promoted aggressively in our society. Whether it is doing algebra in the classroom, tapping in time to a song or learning the Macarena we are identifying repetitions then sorting and filtering them as patterns. A ‘thing’ (a face, a chess board or a keypad) is able to store meaning or semantic content only as a result of repetition. Repetition priming plays a key role in everything from word forms to visual objects. As Gordon Logan at the University of Illinois explains, “the effects of prior exposure to stimuli are important in many areas of psychology … it is observed in paradigms in which items are repeated typically once or twice. On the second exposure to the item, the person can engage the algorithm or rely on memory retrieval.” (Repetition Priming and Automaticity: Common Underlying Mechanisms?, 1990).
Pattern recognition is not only the glue that holds our world together, the instant recall feature it helps facilitate is critical to our survival. In a nutshell, repetition-based memory is accompanied by a phenomenal sense of ‘knowing’ in a way that ‘unprimed’ experiences are not. This may explain why the observations made by the conspiracy theorist are so very difficult to shift: the experiences have been hard-coded in their memories as result of experiencing these items in various contexts. In fact it is probably fair to say that without the strong bonding properties of pattern recognition that pretty little wall in the garden would be no more than a coagulum of mortar punctuated randomly by bricks.
Social Scientist, Howard Margolis went one further. In Patterns, Thinking and Cognition, published in 1990, Margolis presents a convincing case that suggests the very mechanics of thinking are based on recognizing patterns and that this process is intrinsically alogical. It’s a Darwinian account of thinking in which everything is reduced to the so-called P-cognition in which patterns are inscribed and then re-inscribed within assorted spiraling contexts and dependent on various cues to be activated or else realised. Leaps in our understanding of certain phenomena, like the discoveries made by Copernicus and Galileo, often demand radical changes to ‘thinking habits’, but in order to gain traction within the wider Scientific and social community, a ‘thinking contagion’ is required to help it spread among dominant and influential social groups (similar claims to those Copernicus was making had been made by Martianus Capella some 900 years earlier, but the cogs of understanding had failed to lock with other cogs more dominant at that time and even in Capella’s own brain).
Of course, breaking thinking habits doesn’t always lead to scientific breakthroughs but experts in the field of psychology are using it more and more to successfully treat depression, a condition that is not uncommon among conspiracy theorists and paranoiacs.
Here’s how it works. Habits are created by repetition and processed by a part of the brain called the ‘striatum’. Less automated actions, on the otherhand, are handled by the brain’s prefrontal cortex. Alex Korb in his book, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time also tells us that habitual thinking is accompanied by feelings of pleasure, which only increases the appetite for repetition (a consequence of dopamine flooding the nucleus accumbens).
Every time we hit the repeat button, a specific pattern is activated and becomes the default setting in your striatum. Think of it as your brain taking the easiest, most cost efficient route (like a Super Saver ticket). In the depressed brain the reduction in dopamine activity means that it is only our most deeply conditioned habits that give us some degree of pleasure (smoking, drinking, junk food, A Game of Thrones).
When thinking habits are deliberately broken (either by changes in domestic routines like a new job, a new partner or even just taking an alternate route to the supermarket) many experience a subsequent lift in mood (as new habits replace the old destructive ones).
To put it even more simply: pattern recognition is the ‘auto-complete’ feature of memory. It saves time, effort and no small amount of intentional thinking.
The father of modern journalism, Walter Lippman observed much the same phenomenon in the way the public processed information relayed to them about their world by those ‘managing democracy’. He saw a critical distinction between the real world out there and ‘the pictures in our heads’. As Lippman saw it, the world was “too big, too complex and too fleeting” to be consumed in its bulk entirety. As a response to cognitive difficulties we simplify our world, unscrambling a devastating volume of messages with shortcodes and filters. Long and complicated procedures are reduced to simple objects, symbols and even stereotypes. A computer programmer might recognise this as an ‘access-control’ mechanism. Using ‘stored procedures’ in this way not only minimises our reliance on overly complex cognitive processes (relieving burdens on cognitive resources), it also helps speed them up. The political world that we have to deal with, Lippmann contends, is out of reach and out of mind. Much of it has to be imagined:
“Those features of the world outside which have to do with the behavior of other human beings, in so far as that behavior crosses ours, is dependent upon us, or is interesting to us, we call roughly public affairs. The pictures inside the heads of these human beings, the pictures of themselves, of others, of their needs, purposes, and relationship, are their public opinions. Those pictures which are acted upon by groups of people, or by individuals acting in the name of groups, are Public Opinion with capital letters.” — Public Opinion, 1922 Walter Lippmann
In little more than an instant a route is cleared, and we can navigate a varied and grossly complex world simply by calling up its pseudo equivalent. If we are having ‘our wires pulled’ then we are complicit in how these wires are being handled. A failure not only to articulate demands, but a failure to interpret signals means we are all managing and mismanaging democracy:
“We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations. And although we have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage with it.” — Public Opinion, 1922 Walter Lippmann
Today, perceived abuses by the European Union (including the perception of an over-bureaucratised and over-centralised framework) threaten to unravel the whole European project. And the situation has arisen more as a response to ‘images’ than any rational argument put together by the Union’s challengers. In Britain it is the ‘euromyths’ that preside over the imaginations of the public. We are not allowed to eat wonky shaped fruit and vegetables. There is an imminent EU ban on the cleavage of the much-loved British barmaid. British road-signs going metric are evidence of an evil EU plot to get us to consume more petrol. It is images like these, bought hook, line and sinker from headline-geared press stories that shape opinion in Britain today. Modern democracy is shaped by images and not by argument.
Yes, I’m aware I’ve made some sprightly leaps there and compressed several fairly complicated and very separate research areas of cognitive psychology into an often crude series of statements, but the purely cognitive side of things is something I’d like to come back to in another post.
Patterncity & hidden payloads
Those involved in the so-called ‘search’ industry, whether they are attempting to reverse engineer a new search algorithm or trying to work out the impact that a series of changes to page content may have on the visibility of their web page in Google, are having to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty by first identifying and then forecasting patterns. As Michael Shermer, the author of Why People Believe Weird Things (1997), puts it, the brain’s predisposition to discerning patterns can be defined as ‘patternicity‘. Shermer also contends that this engender two types of cognitive errors: we accept a pattern is real when it is not (Type 1), or we do not accept a pattern is real when it is (Type 2). Our survival as a species depends on us accepting Type 1, meaning that we assume that all patterns are real and meaningful.
And this is true whether you are studying cognitive psychology, child language development or semiosis, the process by which a sign, or a ‘thing’ acquires meaning. The repetition principle also plays a dominant role in the building and encoding of metaphoric content in art, whether it’s the monolithic human figures standing portentously on Easter Island, the spiritual codex in the walls of the Alhambra in Spain, or the identification of the endless recycling principle at the heart of consumerism in Andy Warhol’s famous, Marilyn Diptych. Literature draws significantly on the repetition and patterning principle too. You’ll find it in the linguistic foregrounding techniques of alliteration, assonance, consonance and parallelism. So fair and foul a day? Blue with all malice, like a madman’s flash? I kissed thee ere I killed thee? It’s the artist’s way of giving us a clue that something might be significant, that they may have encoded some additional meaning in it; that the word, phrase or utterance may possess some surprising, hidden payload. It’s like hearing the motorised cogs of Alan Turing code breaking machine locking into place when they’ve cracked a cipher.
Whilst the majority of busy individuals going about their daily routine consume the world in passive and largely automated fashion, the bored and restless Conspiracy Theorist approaches the world like a dedicated search algorithm, looking for clues by which to derive all that is emotionally required from an immense bank of data, and a potentially endless stockpile of repetitions. Whether it is a date, a number, a symbol or a name, it is customarily flagged and then indexed as a positive return in a world of negative values. And in the absence of the emotional and social cohesion that a job or a long term relationship might provide, such searches appear to satisfy, temporarily at least, the longing for some kind of rational order.
The Internet with its ability to pull massive volumes of possible ‘search matches’ from one simple or complex query has simply accelerated this process. An all too accessible databank of broad and exact match searches, locks the paranoiac in a comparative and relational cycle that passes, at a superficial level at least, for some miraculous ‘theory of everything’ — an all-encompassing master narrative that brings all those loose ends together.
To test this theory, try entering ‘Elvis Charles Manson’ into Google. You’ll get over 525,000 exact match or partial match returns. Next try entering, ‘Richard Nixon Charles Manson’. This will generate a further 400,000 search results. And finally, enter ‘Richard Nixon Elvis’. This will generate an additional 477,000 results, most of them describing the President’s encounter with the singer in the Oval Office in 1970. To the scores of Conspiracy Theorists who recall that it was Nixon who famously declared that Manson was guilty ahead of the court’s verdict in 1971, it would go someway toward confirming the existence of some political ménage à trois, or some strange and sinister PSYOP operation carried out by the CIA and involving Elvis and the criminal underworld. In terms of semantic priming, it’s rather eccentric but not without its logic.
And with the content of Internet newsfeeds increasingly determined by a web user’s existing likes and preferences, such a self-fulfilling cycle looks set to get much worse. The artificial bubble produced by such a method is likely to shield the Conspiracy Theorist from any possible new experience or new perspective that might otherwise alter their worldview (Facebook and Google News will show more of what you like and less of what you don’t like).
Whether it is triggered by identity disturbances, unstable self esteem, a shared distrust of authority or rule, or simply a manic desire for closure, the typical Conspiracy Theorist exists in a state of perpetual anxiety. The often ambiguous processes of political, cultural and global events around them, gives rise to an elevated threat level; an invisible enemy presents an undetermined threat, with consequences that are far too broad and too complex to predict. The ever watchful Conspiracy Theorist can only determine the enemy’s location (and their imminence) by first identifying the patterns and repetitions that may indicate its arrival. If you ever played Battleships as child, then you’ll know exactly what I mean. The enemy takes its shape from the meticulous logging of hits and misses recorded upon the paper grid, and from the incomplete patterns that begin to emerge. In both cases the impulse to monitor and predict is based on fear.
As a suspected pattern begins to take shape Survival Type 1 mode kicks in and will very often culminate in some crude and unusually hostile episodes of cognitive mapping. The date, November 22nd is a hit on the paper grid, the manifestation of some hidden hand or secret agenda shaping the course of world events. Religions and superstitions throughout the world have relied on much the same mapping procedure. Repetitions and patterns in nature are seen as a glimpse of the Infinite or Universal. Just look at the increasing popularity of so-called ‘Angel Numbers’ or number sequences. Thousands of people from all walks of life and from all parts of the world, all claim to be seeing particular number sequences. Clocks, timers, car number plates, billboards, are all churning out various double digit, triple digit and even four digit numbers 22:22, 11:11, 777 — the list goes on.
Is it possible that Anonymous, like Manson before them, sensed some kind of deeper purpose behind the date; some discreet cosmic connection between the death of John F Kennedy and the all conquering success of the Fab Four? Well that depends on the sincerity of those involved.
There’s a thorny variable that we so far haven’t considered, and it involves the deliberate ontological sabotage missions carried out by modern conceptual anarchists, whose game plans can be traced right back to the early 1960s. For these people Conspiracy Theory was a part of a prank-based initiative to undermine traditional narratives and sow the seeds of paranoia in the West. As Jesse Walker’s book, The United States of Paranoia makes abundantly clear, a relatively small group of American subversives, including Kerry Thornley and Robert Anton Wilson decided to “attribute all national calamities, assassinations, or conspiracies” to the Illuminati and other hidden hands. They called the project, ‘Operation Mindfuck’ and it was a half-joking, half-serious attempt to ‘galvanize the minds of readers, and television viewers and movie goers to suddenly see the world in anew way’.
By reviving the spectre of November 22nd was it possible that cultural descendants of these merry pranksters were engaging in some kind of ‘Operation Mindfuck’ by restoring the cosmic trade-off between JFK and The Beatles within the paradigms of a more contemporary chaos fantasy, the chaos of Global Jihad — deliberately jamming the paranoid narrative?
Among the more delirious and attentive members of the conspiracy community, November 22nd had a deep and peculiar resonance; it had currency, it had form. Whilst the allusion may have been lost on the vast majority of busy press hacks hammering away at their keyboards, it would have meant something to these people. It was a symbol and a signal that would be recognized immediately, drawing together the various strands of an ongoing (and totally improvised) historical soap opera. The date boasted the kind of social and cultural components that got both teeth and keypads chattering.
Yes, on the one hand it could serve to warn, but on the other it might serve to corroborate some hazy notion that all these things were connected; that Isis were as much a creation of Illuminati Bankers as The Beatles, and that their victims were every bit the ‘human sacrifice’ that John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been in the 1960s (as some of these eccentrics allege).
It would be like taking the cape and surgical instruments used by Jack the Ripper and leaving them at the scene of a crime in modern day Whitechapel, handing the reader a series of dots with some vague instruction on how to join them.
The hacker group may have told the media that the goal of their announcement was timed to make sure the whole world knew ‘that there have been threats and that there is possibility of an attack to happen’ but it is equally possible that the announcement was designed to escalate fear among the public and destroy all remaining trust in democratic institutions and the agencies that serve to protect them.
Acid guru, Timothy Leary once declared The Beatles to be mutants, “prototypes of evolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with a mysterious power to create a new human species, a young race of laughing freemen.” To Charlie, they were a ‘hole in the infinite’. And to the scores of over-attentive paranoids occupying the member areas of websites like Above Top Secret, InfoWars and Conspiracy.net, The Beatles, like Charlie Manson, were agents in a radical social agenda engineered by the Illuminati.
Whatever the case, the hacker’s trainspotterish reference to The Beatles or JFK probably says more about the their appreciation of popular culture than it does about the murderous plans of Isil, as both groups seem intent on causing widespread mayhem and turning up the volume on large-scale civil disobedience from loud to practically deafening.
And the whole thing may not be as unlikely as it sounds.
Back in February 2004 the hacktivists backed a day of ‘coordinated civil disobedience’ spearheaded by online music activists, Downhill Battle. They promoted the day with the illegal distribution of a digital copy of The Grey Album, a bootleg bastard blend of The White Album and The Black Album by Five Percent Nation fetishist, Jay-Z 1
But even if the comparison has arrived by accident rather than by design, can an analysis of chaos junkies like the Manson Family shed any further light on the paranoid worldviews of Isis who similarly prey so consummately on feelings of social, racial and religious persecution?
This is Isil. Yer Dig?
I’ve seen the following quotes from Charlie Manson dragged smugly from the vaults in recent weeks, usually in a desperate bid to present him as some kind of prophet:
“The Black Muslims – they know the way, they’re ahead of us. Fifty years ahead. They are way ahead of the Black Panthers, dig. They know what’s happening. And I turn them on because I’m the only white guy in here that knows Mohammed. They got things going on in the sewers that you wouldn’t believe!”
“The sword of Mohammad will swing back and chop off the heads of the whites, because the Whites have done it to the Mohammedans which was a love civilization.” – Charles Manson, October 1970
Is this a frighteningly accurate prediction about the head-lopping antics of Isil in 2015 or an open and shut case of self-fulfilling prophecy?
Sandra Good, who had been given the name ‘Blue’ by Manson went one further:
“Islam. Yeah, that’s it, it’s coming. Islam is on the rise and Christianity is goin’ down. The whole thought is becoming Islam.”
As a teenager Sandra had been an opinionated rights campaigner. Supported by peers and contemporaries like Margaret Avery, the activist-come-actress who played ‘Shug Avery’ in Spielberg’s The Colour Purple, Sandra had joined the Student Opinion Club at Point Loma High School. But any precocious demands for equality were soon ‘deprogrammed’ by Manson. Avery and the other students went one way, Good went the other.
Although the claims made by Manson and Good had clearly been inspired by the likes of Malcolm X, the Doctrine of Yakub and the more bloodthirsty visions of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam it is terrifically easy for the youth of today who have no idea about X, to re-ascribe them to more current events, which is why Charlie’s rambling, elusive ‘parables’ makes it remarkably easy for different cultures and different generations to reinvent him as a prophet. He says everything and nothing. You take the dots and you fill in the gaps.
Manson’s conspiracy theories seem to have become a part of the cultural mindset. The dark, murderous events of 1969 seem like more of a kind of birthing process in this respect. He’s the father of all paranoia:
“From the world of darkness I did loose demons and devils in the power of scorpions to torment.”
“Total paranoia is just total awareness.”
“ … the music is telling the youth to rise up against the establishment because the establishment is rapidly destroying things … It is not my conspiracy. It is not my music … It says Rise, it says Kill. Why blame it on me? I didn’t write the music … ”
He does talk a lot of mumbo jumbo, it has to be said. There’s no shortage of quasi-esoteric nonsense in among all that oily garage-wisdom that appealed so much to the kids. It’s an uncommon fanfare for the very uncommon man. This scuzzy garage prophet bit down hard on the most popular soundbites of the day – whether it was Ayn Rand, Friedrich Nietzsche, Timothy Leary, Jesus Christ or Buddha – and spat them out with such ferocity, and such impeccable timing, that they stuck like glue to 60s youth. It was like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People all over again. Manson just added the ‘ … with Menaces’ bit at the end.
If you’ve ever listened to Manson’s rambling and brutally fractured diatribes you’ll find it’s a little like listening to some disturbed radio dial tuning-in to different frequencies. Much of it is just white noise, but every so often you convince yourself you’ve found the faintest glimmer of a pattern. Maybe the SETI Institute would do a better job of decrypting Manson.
Anyway, here he is the crazy old buzzard, coming down fast, and even after all this time showing no sign of actually stopping. And his influence on the more spaced-out dub divisions of Isil, Black Daesh or whatever moniker you want to toss at them, shows no sign of slowing either.
Shortly before his death this year, Vincent Bugliosi, the leading prosecutor in the case against Manson admitted that Charlie has “more supporters and sympathizers now than he ever did”.
Am I trying to suggest that Manson was the inspiration behind Isil? No. What I am saying is that I don’t think the inspiration some of these groups have derived from Manson is entirely that random or that arbitrary. He’s a part of that same genus. If paradise isn’t half as nice as the heaven that this death cult clearly wish to be taken to, then Manson represents the next best thing — an enduring Superstar legacy. When you ain’t got nothing you got nothing to lose. And when promised your 15 minutes of fame you damn well want some returns when celebrity fails to materialize.
It didn’t take a direct route, obviously, but Manson’s cutthroat brand of stroppy rainbow-Anarchism clearly arrived among some Isil sympathizers in the West off the back of Gangsta rap and the heavy justice beats of bands and artists like Tupac Shakur, Public Enemy, Brand Nubian, Wu-Tang Clan, Gang Starr and Sheikh Terra. To one degree or another, all these artists had been influenced by radical Black Nationalist movements like the Black Panther Party and Five Percent Nation — the latter a crazy post-Nietzschean mash-up of classic Masonic mysticism and Nation of Islam separatism.
In 2002 the Five Percent Nation came to public attention for all the wrong reasons when John Allen Muhammad and the John Lee Malvo were discovered to have made statements broadly in line with Five Percent teachings prior to Beltway sniper attacks in Washington DC. Both men were found guilty. John, who was executed in 2009, had been an active member of the Nation of Islam and cited Osama Bin Laden as a major influence. Whilst the pair appear to have had no formal ties to the official Five Percenters, it is likely that both men had been inspired by its teachings in the music that they had been listening to in the years leading up to the attacks. The writings of his most vocal supporters during the trial are littered with references to symbols, motifs and psuedo-mystic phantasmagorica. And of course, there’s no shortage of Conspiracy Theories in there too, both the anti Semitic and the ‘broad spectrum’ apocalyptic variety.
as the Apocalypse unfold Black People must choose their side, must not call everything they don’t understand conspiracy. We must know the time of Satan is up … so naturally it is time for the uprising — Ital Iman, Word is Bond: The trial of John Allen Muhammad, 2015.
In many ways, it was the Music and not the Mosques that helped spread all that doomsday paranoia in the West. They didn’t start the fire but they contributed no small amount of heat to it.
And where do the sponsors of Isis fit into all this? Well look at it this way. The major brands have long realised that the one-shoe-fits-all approach doesn’t work in the Global market. You adapt brands to local or regional conditions. That’s why their recruiters haven’t been focusing on mosques. The more fertile market exists elsewhere in Europe and via vastly different mediums. To put it very glibly, the buying habits of the average Isil recruit in the West are very different to those in the East. They tune-in and turn-on to vastly different sales-pitches. An opportunity has been seized, a market place has been built, traders have been notified and all that is really left for Isil to do is wait in on the millions of eager buyers to come and exchange their various doomsday goods. In this particular context Apocalypticism isn’t an end in itself but a hugely marketable product with trans-cultural appeal. Daesh is becoming a very successful franchise. Alliances are being formed, and new trading routes are being established. The group are just one of dozens of different stakeholders dumping their own toxic assets into the global doosmday exchange mechanism. The digital ‘outreach’ centres set-up and maintained by al-Adnani and his supporters on behalf of The Islamic State Institution for Public Information addresses a global pool of potential recruits. The aim is to have a branch in every town and Conspiracy Theory and Apocalypticism are one of the group’s more fluid and adaptable assets.
Bait-and-switch tactics are nothing new in retail. One claim or promise is used as bait to lure customers into the store only for something else to be promoted in its place. And the thousands of Westerners leaving to fight in Syria and Iraq have probably been experiencing much the same device. And in the broader context of Hijrah and the migration of Muslims back from their Infidel countries, the ends will justify the means. The kind of Commonwealth craved by the Ummah makes all things possible. The fatwas against digital technology imposed by the old-school hardliners have been handed a temporary reprieve in pursuit of the greater good.
Malcolm X was ostensibly one of the first successful Sunni franchises in the West. And whilst it would be respectful to acknowledge the massive gulf between Isil and X, they do share a common ancestry. Malcolm’s correspondence with Dr Said Ramadan of the Muslim Brotherhood during the early 1960s reveals a man who knows that restoring the dignity of the demoralized Black communities of Sixties America was the key to Sunni uptake in the West. For this he relied on the Nation of Islam’s apocalyptic visions as a message of hope.
Drawing on his knowledge of the Bible and the more extreme interpretations of Islamic eschatology, Malcolm, like Charlie, was able to convey a compelling vision of divine retribution to a community longing for justice. As Wayne Taylor of The Malcom X Project explains in his insightful 2005 essay, Premillennium Tension, Malcolm’s delirious ravings about a War of Armageddon and the ‘mother ship’ placed him within a well established tradition of prophetic visions of deliverance. Like the Isil of 2015, X took a tough, uncompromising and very unforgiving stance on the Infidels. This put him in direct competition with powerful (and peaceful) reformers like Martin Luther King when it came to competing for the hearts, minds and souls of Black America.
Inevitably Manson’s Helter Skelter 2 influence is more obvious among the White Supremacists (pudding-bowl psychos like Dylann Roof are proof of that) but the killer’s grotesque topology also makes an appearance in the much celebrated chaos fantasies of hacktivists like Anonymous, LulzSec, the Computer Chaos Club. It’s even there in the progressive libertarian whimsies championed by the likes of George Soros (who nearly broke the Bank of England in the nineties) and the Open Society. And we have trendy European philosophers like Henri Bergson and Karl Popper to thank for that.
Like Manson, Bergson and Popper see a more generous, egalitarian order arriving only out of chaos 3. In their Humpty Dumpty mindset it is only by first breaking the system that we can ever hope to fix it. And it goes without saying that when all the kings horses and all the kings men come to put Humpty back together again they will all be summarily shot in an ambush.
It won’t come as any surprise to learn that Bergson’s sister married the occult author Samuel Liddell Mathers, founder of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. In fact it was the Order’s most famous son, Aleister Crowley that had the single greatest impact on the counter-culture movement of the Sixties. The Beatles, Jimmy Page, the Grateful Dead, Timothy Leary – they all turned-on and tuned-in to Crowley. Even if he wasn’t the ‘wickedest man in the world’ he was certainly one of the most influential — and most far-out. And naturally, like any self-respecting prophet, Crowley styled himself as the ‘Beast of the Apocalypse’, a cosmic gatekeeper who (god willing) would usher in a new age of strife and destruction that would sweep across the world (The Age of Horus).
It’s a slightly facetious reference, I know, but I think it is only fair to extend the study of extremism to the extreme ‘sports’ and extreme programming celebrated by Crowley and his followers and subsequently re-imagined by the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the doggedly permissive ‘Diggers’ and ‘Yippies’ of the 1960s. The hard-line Freiheit activities of Luigi Galleani, Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman and even groovy acid dreamers like Jerry Rubin and John Sinclair have shown that the radical libertarian can be almost as hostile and aggressive in their pursuit of moral and intellectual freedom as your sabre-rattling Jihadi, and I’m not just talking about troubled Tea Party activists like Joseph Stack, who expressed his own desire for freedom by flying his Piper Dakota light aircraft into Building I of the Echelon office complex in Texas.
The culture jamming antics of Anonymous, LulzSec and their various splinter-groups owes no small amount of debt to self-styled Saint of Discordianism and Conspiracy Theory-Laureate, Robert Anton Wilson, whose mid-seventies series of novels, The Illuminatus! Trilogy practically defined the modern Conspiracy genre. A long time fan of Crowley and a somewhat awkward practitioner of Chaos Magic himself, Wilson devised a book that is to ‘guerrilla ontology’ what Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is to high-end epic fantasy.
It was a colossal achievement, certainly, but the trilogy is not without its problems.
On the one hand The Illuminatus! Trilogy offers an intelligent satirical commentary on the emergence of Conspiracy fiction, and on the other they extend and obfuscate those fictions, routinely smudging the lines that help give definition to what is real and what is unreal. It is parody and homage both; piss-taker and plaudit-maker, observer and intervention. It’s also a dense and encyclopedic tome of work whose super heavy gravity attracts everything from John F Kennedy to HP Lovecraft, from Woodstock to John Dillinger, the Principia Discordia and all the various secret societies and powerful Bavarian cabals in between. If you’ve ever doubted the veracity of something, it’s in there and double-doubted.
The absurdist Discordian practice known as ‘Operation Mindfuck’ which Wilson co-developed in the 60s with one time Lee Harvey Oswald collaborator, Kerry Thornley, was eventually taken up by pioneer hacker, Karl Kock of Chaos Computer Club (he was also reported to have been selling state secrets to the KGB). Thornley had spent three months with Oswald whilst serving in the United States Marines in 1959 , and during this period the two engaged in lengthy conversations about politics, philosophy and their shared interest in Marxism.
Shortly after their encounter, Thornley started work on a novel about a disillusioned Marine serving overseas. The novel’s principle character was called Johnny Shellburn, a composite character based on Thornley, Oswald and several other Marines they knew at the base.
In January 1960 Oswald boarded a train in Moscow heading west. He had been discharged from the Marines and was defecting to the Soviet Union. When news of Oswald’s defection reached Thornley in Japan the focus of the novel shifted entirely to the figure of Oswald. Thornley’s book, Idle Warriors was completed in 1962, one year prior to the assassination. Thornley was subsequently subpoenaed to appear before the Warren Commission in Washington on May 18, 1964 (and again in January 1968 by District Attorney, Jim Garrison who believed there had been a New Orleans-based conspiracy to murder the President and that Thornley was involved).
Operation Mindfuck proved to be a broad-spectrum menace, advocating a panoply of chaos devices including civil disobedience, culture jamming, graffiti, practical jokes and hoaxes, chaos magic; in fact, practically anything that could disrupt or else subvert traditional knowledge systems (it is alleged that Wilson and Thornley set out to deliberately disrupt Jim Garrison’s investigation into the JFK Assassination with all manner of prankster claims and spurious announcements and members of Anonymous are just as capable).
As Wilson himself had conceded, this was no centralised conspiracy but a counter-hegemonic effort by a miscellany of actors that just ‘rolls merrily along’, fuelled and sustained only by the natural ‘anarchistic impulses of art’ (Robert Anton Wilson, Notes from the Underground seminars, 1997).
Like Manson, Thornley had spent the best part of 1966 at a hippy commune in Haight Astbury, San Francisco which was at this time the nerve-centre of the so-called Flower Power movement. The Kerista Commune — a psychedelic orgy cult experimenting in ‘sex, drugs and treason’ — had set up their base at 543 Frederick Street, just a five minute walk around the corner from Manson and Mary Brunner at 636 Cole Street.
Was it possible that Thornley’s subversive ‘chaos fantasies’ and Kerista’s heady combination of drugs and ‘polyfidelity’ had influenced Manson’s ‘Family’ idea at all? Well if they did they were just one of many, as literally dozens of radical communes were springing up the Haight, and the exchange and rotation of members was promiscuously fluid between each of them. However, both Thornley and Manson had been deeply affected by just one book: the award-winning (yet controversial) ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ by Robert A. Heinlein, published in 1961. This groundbreaking Science Fiction novel tells the story of a human raised by Martians and then returned to a post-apocalyptic earth where he becomes a major celebrity and sets about uniting (and dismantling) all the world’s religions under the banner of ‘the Church of All Worlds’. And of course all manner of promiscuous sex , casual nudism and justice-derived violence ensues.
Like Thornely and Manson, Heinlein believed that order was an attempt by man (and moreover, the Establishment) to bring meaning to a chaotic universe. By contrast, Operation Mindfuck was an endlessly joyous celebration of chaos and confusion. As Manson was always eager to point out, the fear experienced by the Coyote in the desert means the animal is perfectly tuned into everything. And as Charlie saw it, “total paranoia is total awareness.” Manson simply brought the philosophy of the coyote to the far-out, feel-good community of Laurel Canyon.
At this point I could go on to talk about Robert A Henlein’s similarly kinky exploits in Laurel Canyon as a guest of the boozy Jack Parsons and the OTO or the fact that Thornley appointed Manson ‘Superintendent of Sunday Schools in the Discordian Society’ as a result of receiving a Christmas themed-letter from the killer back in the early 80s. I could, but given their respective track records in the common rituals of ‘truth management’ it probably wouldn’t be wise.
There’s only one common property we really need to be aware of: it was anarchy, Jim, but not as we know it.
The casual anarchist impulse certainly played a part in the Boston Marathon Bombing of April 2015. The heavily improvised pressure cooker device that used in the attacks is a method that can be traced right back to the so-called ‘Anarchist Cookbook’ written by counterculture ‘revolutionary’ William Powell in the year of the Manson murder spree and first published in 1971. Written in December 1969, just as the remaining members of Manson’s gang were being arrested by Police, the book was written as a ‘survival guide’ for the ‘silent majority’ who didn’t have access to considerable resources made available to fringe political groups, like the Weatherman and the Minutemen.
The book had information on the uses and effects of drugs, detailed advice concerning electronics, sabotage, and surveillance, a chapter on natural, non-lethal, and lethal weapons plus a section on explosives and booby traps. It was subsequently disowned by its author, who said it was penned when he was “angry and alienated”. An older and less impulsive Powell was able to reflect some 50 years later that the Cookbook had all too frequently been found among the belongings of “alienated and disturbed young people who have launched attacks against classmates and teachers”. He suspected that the people behind these attacks did not feel much of a sense of belonging, and the Cookbook may have added to their sense of isolation (The Guardian, Interview, December 2013).
Was it possible that the device used in the marathon bombing paid some kind of grotesque homage to anarchists of the counterculture movement? It’s difficult to tell. The elder brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, already a fan of conspiracy websites like Infowars, had befriended 67–year-old Donald Larking who loaned him various newspapers, books and journals pushing right-wing conspiracy theories out 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombings, and the Newtown school massacre; so there was clearly an ‘old-school’ influence. The books found in his possession included Protocols of the Elders, anti-Semitic periodicals like American Free Press, the Sovereign and The First Freedom. Like Manson, Tamerlan also show an interest in psychology and self-improvement, almost enrolling on a course called “How To Create an Instantaneous Sexual Attraction in Any Woman You Meet.” (The Wire, August 6th 2013).
The younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, had taken an interest in post-apocalyptic ‘survival’ novels like Earth Abides (1949), on the recommendation of his wrestling coach and English mentor, Peter Payack, himself a self-confessed ‘conceptual anarchist’, who cites Russian Anarchists like Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin as among his influences as a student radical in the 1960s (‘No Lightweight’, Catherine A. Salmons, The Boston Phoenix, 1997). And whilst there’s certainly nothing to suggest that Payack knew of the brother’s plans, his popularity and reputation among members of the ‘Boston Anarchist Drinking Brigade’ must have made him a charismatic and inspiring figure from an intellectual point of view (interestingly photographer and musician, Henry Diltz, who took so many shots of Manson’s friends and contemporaries in Laurel Canyon, was invited to speak at the Berklee College of Music in Boston by Payack and his students in 2015).
The Marathon attack had also taken place on the April 15th. The date was the anniversary of an attack in Boston by Italian-born US anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The two men were followers of Luigi Galleani, an Italian anarchist who advocated revolutionary violence, including bombing and assassination (and who was alleged to have played a role in the Wall Street bombing of 1920). Boston anarchist and former political prisoner, Sergio Reynes even set up a website in honour of the pair.
But before we disappear down the rabbit hole completely, what does any of this prove? Well it proves that terrorism (or violent acts of resistance) are often drawn from a deep and complex reservoir of intellectual, political and emotional compulsions, filled and then drained over time by a various cast of actors.
Actor Troy Donahue who had known Manson and had been going out with a girl (Alma Sharp) who had been due to visit Tate and her friends at Cielo Drive that fateful evening, said no small amount of blame should have been shared by the artists and intellectuals who had been filling Manson’s with all kinds of subversive ideas. In a 1971 interview with Earl Wilson, Donahue goes on to say, “I went out to a couple of the things at the Roman Polanski-Sharon Tate home. It was too permissive. I saw a lot of very angry people. They’d been taken off the streets and played with by the Intellectual set. You can’t flirt with danger. It was dangerous and I could feel it.” (Journal Gazette, 1971)
This is the downside of intellectual or conceptual anarchy; it often mutates into wanton violence when it finds the right host and the right emotional charges.
You spin me right round, baby
Whether we are talking about the Boston Anarchist Drinking Brigade, the Boston Anti-Authoritarian Movement, William Powell’s ‘cookbook’ or the discordian eccentricities of Operation Mindfuck we are talking of the desire for a state of disorder due to non-recognition of authority or other controlling systems. It’s an ideal that can only ever be pursued in negative terms, so just how successful can any of these crudely reactionary tactics be in the long run?
As Jean Genet’s The Balcony illustrates so well, more often than not the fabulous hopes of revolution collapse under the cycle and counter-cycle of social resistance; order is established, order is threatened, order is reestablished – and on much the same terms as before. You spin me right round, baby, right round like a record, baby, right round round round. This is regime change at 33 RPM. Power is preserved by the heavy rotation of traditional Western binaries that relate to power itself. We make heroic pleas for justice and for truth, when what we really seek is inversion. Whether it’s White Supremacy or Black Supremacy we struggle to define ourselves without recourse to the existing conflict order. Statism, anarchism, bagism, shagism, this-ism, that-ism. What goes around, comes around.
In the blistering heat of Summer that old oak panel on your house can make the door to your home either a gateway or an exclusion zone. And power expands and contracts in much the same way: the heat builds, the pressure mounts, the door jambs and eventually the heat escapes. In the process it prohibits just as much traffic as it lets through. Expectant mothers probably experience no less painful a squeeze during labour with their Braxton Hicks. And in the context of unfixed power giving birth to anarchy or revolution, this is no smug metaphor.
The Global Caliphate that Daesh and their supporters dream about follows all the usual conventions of traditional Statebuilding, yet unlike their nemeses in the West they don’t underestimate the role that language and images play in all this. If there is such a thing as Semiotic warfare, then Daesh are making significant advances. Like Manson they provide a vision, they open the door. And whilst neither of these visions enjoy fidelity to any truth, they provide a powerful substitute for sections of society where other forms of meaning have been denied.
Like most self-styled anarchists or transgressives both Crowley and Anonymous seem to have little or no interest in making any truly radical bid for freedom, preferring to engage instead in the familiar hurdy-gurdy of oppositional politics. The French novelist, André Gide talked of being an advocate of ‘whatever voice society seeks to stifle, of whatever hitherto has been prevented from or incapable of speech’. And I think much the same thing can be said of the hacktivists – and to a certain extent, those popularizing and extending Western Jihad. Bum rush the show/You gotta go for what you know. What show? It no longer matters.
Who would have thought that silky soft purveyors of adult-oriented-rock, REO Speedwagon anticipated all this as far back as 1984 in an uncharacteristically Nietzschean outburst:
I can’t fight this feeling anymore. I’ve forgotten what I started fighting for.
In a world that celebrates rational selfishness with the same deference and the same joy as Christmas or Thanksgiving, Kevin Cronin might only have added ‘but that’s okay because nothing is true and everything is permitted’. Only God isn’t dead this time, he’s off-his-face on acid and running around with an AK-47.
If Hassan i Sabbah and the Order of the Assassins had also been around the 80s, who knows what kind of edge they’d have been able to bring to Chicago’s ‘Hard To Say I’m Sorry’.
So if we are going to blame anybody, then let’s blame Nietzsche, right?
Wrong. If direct aficionados of Nietzsche has led the assault then we would have had only a handful of academics lobbing copies of ‘Beyond Good And Evil’ at the National Guard in Berkeley, California in 1969. The dangers posed by Nietzsche were in how he was being recycled and redistributed by Sixties Popular Culture. You didn’t come across Nietzsche by talking to your Ethics Professor you ‘got’ him by listening to The Grateful Dead, Jim Morrison and Jim Hendrix. Nietzsche wasn’t doing the pushing, it was coming at you second hand. It was his creative readership in Haight Astbury, San Francisco who were bum-rushing the show. He was ripped-off and reconstituted by everyone from Ken Kesey to Anton LaVey. And somewhere along the line someone added the cyanide tips.
This is not a clash of civilizations but a clash of truths. And as truth becomes ever more fractured and ever more distributed in the postmodern world it is only the ‘revolutionary moment’ that can provide that sense of community. Even after the collapse of truth and the collapse of values we are capable of recognizing no values outside of our own. And it’s a contradiction and a struggle that we currently have no hope of resolving.
Whilst people like Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary were significant in their own right, it was LaVey who had by far the greatest impact on the Manson Family. Born Howard Stanton Levey, Anton was the self-styled ‘Black Pope’ of Haight Astbury. He did for Popular Satanism what Brian Cox has done for Popular Science or what Leif Garrett did for Skateboarding. And two of his most famous disciples just happened to be key players in the Manson Murders: Susan Atkins and Bobby Beausoleil.
Whilst the details remain vague, it seems that Bobby and Susan had been peripheral yet ambitious members of LaVey’s Satanic Circus during the ’66 to ’67 period. They were a part of his ‘artists community’ and performed as blood swilling vampires in several Satanic sideshows LaVey had been performing in Mendocino, California. These performances were laden with references to Nietzschean sadomasochism and neo-fascism. In fact in was in light of her sadomasochistic sexploits with the Circus that Susan was dubbed ‘Sadie Mae Glutz’ by Manson. He might very well have called her S&M for short 4.
So if we are going to blame anybody, then let’s blame Anton LaVey and Timothy Leary, right?
Wrong again. Both Atkins and Bobby Beausoleil had been repeat criminal offenders well before meeting either Manson or LaVey. Beausoleil had been in and out of reform school and Atkins had been emotionally disturbed and in need of urgent treatment since quitting High School in ’66. Neither Manson nor LaVey created these monsters as such, they just gave them their platform, they gave them their act. Whilst living in San Francisco Charlie had made a point of zoning in on the scores of alienated and disaffected youths who had absconded from life in one way or another and could be found hanging around Berkeley and The Haight in various states of emotional collapse. As Manson told the court in 1970, “The Family were just people that you did not want, people that were alongside the road, that their parents had kicked them out or they did not want to go to Juvenile Hall”. Like the vast bulk of IS recruits in the West most of those Manson attracted were in their late teens to mid-twenties.
And much the same could be said of Isil followers today; they are social casualties first, war casualties second.
Those investigating the Hinman, Tate and LeBianca murders were confident about one thing; Manson may have ordered the hits but the hits were carried out with such cruelty and such ferocity that they must have been the culmination of years of hostility. You couldn’t program someone to act this way, it would have to have been driven by some basic inner need.
The murders bore all the motifs of ferocious sado-eroticism. There was clearly a cathartic element, the multiple stab wounds an obvious indication of a climax of sorts being reached. The violent deaths of Alan Foley, David Haines and Alan Henning whilst disturbingly controlled by comparison, must have been accompanied by that same rapturous elation. Those who carried out the executions must have felt, at the very least, a temporary surge of relief.
LaVey may not have harbored the same diabolical and murderous intent as the Manson Family, but the existence of his project amounted to much the same thing, in that it was there only to provide a rational basis for a range of irrational (and antisocial) kinks and peccadilloes 5. At the very least it offered a shot at social redemption, however skewed their appreciation of redemption was, and however warped their redeemer.
Just as fish swim in shoals for safety, LaVey and his supporters bunched tightly to confuse their challengers and claim some degree of legitimacy. Whether it’s Heavens Gate or the Branch Davidians the whole thing rests on adopting a gang mentality. It’s safety in numbers, afterall. The rigorous structure of the cult, and the support system that it offers is what gives such swarming, disaffected starlings their shape.
The cultural and philosophical projects cultivated by both LaVey in the 1960s and Isil today is reactionarism of the worst possible kind in that it binds or indebts itself at a basic conceptual level to the very thing it seeks to escape. It acquires definition only through opposition. No final solution is sought because all Fascist entities are, by their very nature, defined and preserved by “valiant struggle”. No provisions have been made for any subsequent era of peace because there is little appetite for resolution. When pressed by his members on what would happen after Helter Skelter, Manson was unable to provide an answer; he didn’t know, he didn’t care. And this is true of Apocalyptic Complexes in general.
How did LaVey define his peculiarly Nietzschean brand of Satanism? Well he made damn sure that it was everything that Christianity or conventional religion was not, even to the point of appropriating and then inverting its most cherished symbols and rituals. And because of this it had no identity of its own. It was locked ad infinatum in a bristling, unhappy marriage with conventional religion. It simply couldn’t escape its gravity. It couldn’t even escape Nietzsche.
Counter movements like these seek authenticity and end up becoming a weak inversion of the status quo. They seek freedom (and lots of it) yet ultimately become withdrawn and narcissistic co-dependents. It’s a classic teenager in this respect. It hates the rules it is forced to abide by at home but refuses to move out or move on.
Psychopathy is traditionally summarized as a cluster of the following symptoms: glib and superficial, egocentric and grandiose, lacking in empathy, remorse or guilt, impulsive with shallow emotions, poor behavior control and a basic refusal to take responsibility for one’s own actions. If I was being honest, this could be every bit as much my 15-year daughter as it my 85-year old mother but the basic pattern is there all the same: the only thing necessary for evil to triumph in the world is for under-employed and under-ambitious teens in the West to sit around doing nothing. The Devil makes work for idle hands. If this isn’t true of everyone it was certainly true of that scavenging crew of misfits at Spahn Ranch. Maybe a glimpse of the eternal is best left to those with 20/20 vision and not those experiencing acid-induced hallucinations.
Who knows; if they’d had YOP schemes or Beetle Drives in 1960s California, maybe the whole Manson thing might never have happened.
The pounding of the drums, the pride and disgrace
You can bury your dead but don’t leave a trace
Hate your next door neighbor but don’t forget to say grace
And tell me
Over and over and over and over again my friend
You don’t believe
We’re on the eve of destruction
If attempts at a LaVey- Daesh tie-in seem laboured and implausible then spare a thought for Sirhan Sirhan, the Palestinian Christian charged with shooting Robert Kennedy for his support of Israel during the Arab–Israeli conflict – his crazy, fractured ramblings make Manson’s skewed oratory seem masterly by comparison. And this too took place in LA (just one year before the murders at Cielo Drive).
One look at the assassin’s thrashed-out notebooks reveals an appetite for the same hocus-pocus that moulded Manson and the gang. His paranoid theories and unshakable obsessions concerning some imaginary push for global domination by Zionists not only found support among a sizable proportion of LA’s 25,000 Arab-Americans, they also chimed with the belligerent Aryan Brotherhood into whose arms various members of The Manson Family fell after Manson’s imprisonment in 1971. Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam were also among those who lost little sleep over the slaying of Kennedy. Sirhan, likewise, had shown no shortage of approval for the group, visiting the Black Muslim Temple in Central Los Angeles and buying a book on the movement’s leader, Elijah Muhammad 5a.
Among the assassin’s scrawls and diagrams you’ll see references to Koot Hoomi (who, real or otherwise, was a direct influence on Crowley and his mentor Madame Blavatsky), Wajihuddin Alvi (generally regarded as something of a Mystic Meg among the Qadiriyya Sufi Order) and even the Star Sapphire, a symbol that was to play such a central (and groovy) role in Crowley’s ‘Sex Magick’ rituals.
Given Crowley’s own largely uncredited pilfering of Sufi Mysticism it would be pretty unwise to view Sirhan’s kooky ‘abrahadabra’ as a purely Western phenomenon. And even though Daesh may be routinely destroying Sufi sites in Syria and beyond, it seems ironic that so many aspects of the modernity of their recruits in the West should have been so deeply and so profoundly shaped by it (both Crowley and Blavatsky drew extensively on the doctrines and mythology of the Yazidi people who were persecuted so brutally by Islamic State in 2014).
For all we know, the legendary ‘girl in the Polka Dot dress’ seen in the company of Sirhan Sirhan that day may even have been one of the Manson girls. Let’s face it, in a world of tangerine trees and marmalade skies just about anything is possible. Maybe the girl with the ‘kaleidoscope eyes’ was just hiding behind sunglasses that day and made-off back to the Northern Valley before anybody had a chance to notice 5b.
Winning the Justice Narrative
When you look at the basic doctrine of ‘all-purpose Jihad’ in the West the general principle is very Manson-esque: I am only what you made me. I am only a reflection of you. I never created your world, you created it.6 It’s the return of the repressed, the mirror held up to the world, the sum of all ills coming back at the world to wreck havoc – or for the Jihadis, the wrath of god. Whatever form it takes, it all has a very dreamy and very hippy-like ‘karma creep’ quality to it. It’s not a modern metaphor by any means. Just six years before the Manson murders took place Malcolm X provoked controversy when he told reporters that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was a case of ‘chickens coming home to roost’. And it’s a phrase that has been revived several times since, most famously by Ward Churchill in his book, ‘Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality’ and Anders Breivik sympathizer, Alan Ayling on his 4Freedoms website. The notion is part of a broader justice narrative that has been in circulation for millennia. It’s there in Chaucer’s Parson’s Tale, in poems by Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. What the Intelligence Community calls ‘Blowback’ the Buddhists call ‘Karma’. The Universal Law of Balance may even go all the way back to the Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’ and the weighing of the heart.
Successive cultures have seen that acts of wanton terror have been successfully redefined as composite measures on the scales of human justice. Terrorism has become so entangled in narratives regarding freedom, liberation and self-determination that one cannot consider it as anything other than the unintended consequences of perceived abuse; bad deeds coming back to haunt bad men — cultural, political and economic hazardous waste.
The terrorists have the upperhand in this respect: one cannot declare ‘War on Terrorism’ because Terrorism resists all notions of conventional warfare. In fact it is probably fair to say that terrorism exists when conventional warfare cannot be legally, economically or politically considered. It exists on a purely moral and philosophical basis, whether you are the one engaging in acts of terrorism or on the other side responding to it. You can no more declare war on terrorism that you can on freedom or criminality. Attempts by various law enforcement agencies to even define Terrorism are routinely overwhelmed by political and emotional charges. And if we can’t even decide what Terrorism is the tactical and moral strategies that States take to combat Terrorism are forever doomed to failure.
In his 1991 essay, ‘Reflections on War’ semiotician Umberto Eco claims that War is not possible in the modern world. Instant information, mass-migration and multi-national capitalism make the very notion both ‘impossible’ and ‘irrational’. War waged with the ‘explicit consensus of nations’ is simply not viable. And at the risk of sounded unduly pessimistic, divided opinions seldom produce desired results. In order to triumph we would first need an opponent with a clear territorial, economic or political objective. Instead we have self-styled representatives of a Mankind-that-does-not-exist intent on performing some vague global exorcism on some no less intangible New World Order.
As many are now beginning to realise, triumph is in the hands of the psychiatrists and not the Militarists. Successful interventions in the justice narrative are the desired outcomes and cognitive behaviour therapies are the tools by which we’ll achieve them, even if there is no hope of an actual cure. As long as the traditional mechanisms of War remain morally and economically prohibited, clashes between cultures and economies will continue to be played out in the spaces between worlds and in the vacuums that are created when power is systematically challenged or denied. The current situation exists because absolute power can no longer rule absolutely.
Who knows, maybe the paranoid screams of Conspiracy Theory have become the default expression of the counterculture movement. Maybe theories like these are the inevitable returns you get from buried histories and buried voices. I think Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel ‘Beloved’ tackled some of these issues. The ghost of the child murdered by its heroine becomes angry and more demanding, and ultimately more destructive as the novel progresses.
So what is Conspiracy Theory? Traumatic cultural-memory syndrome? Some diabolical modern fairy tale? The ghosts of buried voices coming back to haunt us? Or even just the sound of the dam bursting under the sheer combined weight of all those unseen machinations that make economies and worlds go round; those things our leaders tell us it’s in the best interests of the public not to know — the invisible hand of democracy.
And yes, if the aftermath of 9/11 is anything to go by, Conspiracy Theory can also be the bagful of loose change used to kosh the Heads of State in the West and undermine the trust and the equilibrium of its citizens and its allies. One thing is for sure, for those who challenge the West and all it stands for the dust that came showering down with the Twin Towers that day had no small quantity of gold within it. And sadly while the demand for these myths continues and certain truths remain undisclosed this gold-dust is likely to enjoy an exchange rate quite unlike any other.
Michael Sells’ ‘Armageddon in Christian, Sunni, and Shia Traditions’ kicks off with a quote from Saudi scholar, Safar al-Hawali: “This is not a clash of two powers or two races, but a clash of promises”. The issue of contemporary militant apocalypticism isn’t confined to Islam but to a fiercely competitive race between cultures to claim exclusive, controlling rights to the Day of Resurrection. Sells presents his case convincingly; the more extreme visualizations of Islamic Eschatology are no more aggressive and incendiary than their Jewish and Christian rivals. And to a certain extent this is true. American Bible Networks are routinely placing the doomsday scenario as ‘the axis of many of their products’. Even Messianic Cults like the Hojjatieh whose own ‘Helter Skelter’ vision serves to hasten the return of the Mahdi, would struggle to compete with the kind of Doomsday stock being floated on Pat Robertson’s CBN. 7
But its not only those peddling religion that we should keep an eye on as utopian and dystopian visions have been harvested by the Film and Publishing industries for generations. George R. Stewart’s, Earth Abides, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Fukuyama’s The End of History, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and even Stephen King’s The Last Stand have all entered the arms race at one time or another, some more successfully than others.
The dominance of this genre was emphatically underlined by the success of the Tolkien franchise. The release of Peter Jackson’s ‘Two Towers’ in 2002 gave the attacks on the World Trade Centre just one year before a resonance and imminence that only an IMAX blockbuster can truly summon. And if the sight of Gandalf and the Five Armies charging across Mordor didn’t seal the deal, then George W Bush’s 2003 announcement that God had signed-off a mission to bring freedom to the rest of the world, must surely have clinched it in the final reel 8.
Successive attempts are being made to re-set the World Clock to ‘Year Zero’. Much the same attempts were made by Pol Pot and North Korea. As humanity adjusts to globalization it is not moving toward the end of history but going into reverse. The complex meta-narratives of post-modernism and consumerism have led to a sense of overcrowding and the ‘blood and soil’ aesthetics of the Islamist and New Right Movements seem like a crude and often brutal attempt to alleviate this burden and simplify these narratives. Reduce, reuse, recycle.
So should we blame Orange Wednesday for the collapse of moral order here in the West? No we shouldn’t, but it’s sorely tempting. As Manson acknowledged in 1992, chaos and confusion sells; “People want to buy that insanity. They don’t want the truth. They want fear, they want violence, they want sex and drugs and guns”. Charlie understood the value of keeping the fear levels up, and so do these people. Unlike al-qaeda, the Islamic State have grasped the power and reach of Social Media. The expansion of this ‘digital caliphate’ continues its viral spread across the world much like the classic computer worm, taking advantage of failures within existing cultural mechanisms and consuming enough political bandwidth to short-circuit those ‘defiant’ counter-narratives wheeled-out on demand by Prime Ministers and Presidents alike. The 12th Century Persian poet, Saadi Shirazi wrote that, ‘Whatever is produced in haste goes easily to waste’ and the flippant dismissal of the chilling videos produced by the Islamic State as ‘propaganda tools’ is unlikely to have the same impact as those stunningly stylized videos and those ‘Call Of Jihad’ video games conceived by IS.
When the British Prime Minster declared that ‘Our values are so much stronger than theirs’ it was the State equivalent of thumbing your nose and hoping for the best. Whatever counter-narrative we produce must not ‘be made in haste’ but have all the glossy, high-end appeal of their own Hollywood-style productions. If our values really are ‘so much stronger than theirs’ we need to prove it. Being stronger is no longer enough. Our values must be more saleable and more compelling than those of the Islamic State.
As F. Scott Fitzgerald might have put it, humanity will turn out all right in the end, but in the meantime it’s what preys on humanity, what ‘foul dust’ floats in the wake of its dreams that may temporarily overcome the ‘abortive sorrows and short-winded elations’ of those of us still dreaming of release.
Like Manson, the exact nature of Conspiracy Theory is elusive. It’s probably all of these things and none of them.
Anyway, next time the Magic Bus rolls up in your town, just tell the Family, Daesh or whoever else is driving it that day that you’d rather tackle the journey alone. It could be a lot less costly to your health.
1 Jay Z’s casual support of Five Percent Nation is interesting in this context as it is the direct offspring of Malcolm X’s 1960s Black Rights movement. Like Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, Jay Z has also been reported to have immersed himself in the writings of Aleister Crowley and the OTO. Ooo-wee-ooo, indeed.
2 It may also be worth acknowledging that the 1968 film, Sympathy for the Devil played a crucial role in the development of Manson’s Helter Skelter. The film (produced by Jean Luc Goddard and Ian Quarrier) interwove clips of the Black Panthers with footage of the band rehearsing and featured various demands for revolution. Interestingly the film’s producer, Iain Quarrier was interviewed by Police investigating the Manson murders. He had arranged to be at the Tate residence at Cielo Drive on the night of the murders but had been delayed by filming. He subsequently suffered a major nervous breakdown and retired from the film world altogther.
Phil Kaufman, who regularly visited Manson and the family at the Ranch was also Jagger’s chauffeur. Kaufman had shared a cell with Manson years before. It was Kaufman who also got helped Manson get his music released shortly after the murders. You may also recall that the Stones featured in the Altamont incident, also in ’69, which included the very motorbike gangs that Manson and his friends had been dealing with. The bikers had been hired by the Stone’s controversial road-manager, Sam Cutler.
4 Beausoleil and LaVey both featured in the Kenneth Anger film, My Demon Brother in 1969. Beausoleil, who had been been the object of Anger’s fanatical affections, played Lucifer and LaVey played Satan. Anger was also a devotee of Crowley. It’s also been rumoured that Atkins may have met Sebring on the S&M Hollywood circuit. Sebring’s fascination with S&M is well documented. This may explain why victims Sharon Tate and her ex-boyfriend, Sebring were found bound in this way. In another ironic twist both Beausoleil and Sebring appeared in the 1967 film, Mondo Hollywood.
5 Although LaVey claims not to have shared the same murderous intent as the Family, it didn’t stop him publishing and then re-publishing his ‘Satanic Bible’ within days of Manson and Atkins being arrested for the death of Sharon Tate in December 1969. The Publishers who commissioned the book were an offshoot of William Randolph Hearst Publishing (the inspiration for Citizen Kane). Hearst’s granddaughter was Patty Hearst who became a member of the left-wing terrorist group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army, after being kidnapped by the group in Berkeley in 1974. Hearst Snr had been aggressively anti-communist and had even supported Aleister Crowley during his visits to the United States distributing Nazi propaganda.
5a Robert Blair Kaiser, R.F.K Must Die. It’s interesting that Sirhan’s actions found support from both White Supremacists and Black Supremacists as the day after his home was firebombed by the Nation of Islam and just a week before he was assassinated, Malcolm X exposed a secret agreement between NOI leader, Elijah Muhammad, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and the American Nazi Party. You can view the entire press conference here.
5b The legendary ‘Girl in the Polka Dot Dress’ is a bit of mystery. Several witnesses allege that Sirhan was seen in the company of a girl wearing a polka dot dress at various times during the evening, including in the kitchen where the assassination took place. A very good YouTube documentary on the subject can be found here.
John Fahey, a witness who was questioned by LAPD at the time of the assassination alleges that he spent some hours in the company of the girl in the Polka Dot Dress in the days prior to the assassination. He says she was a ‘kooky’, ‘paranoid’ type. According to his interview she ended by saying said she was leaving for San Jose to visit the HQ of some organisation called the ‘Roslayns’(Rosicrucians). As unreliable as his account may be Police records show that there were several hippy cults operating in the San Jose area at this time including The Processeans and the Four Pi movement.
Sirhan received some mailorder ‘welcome pack’ from AMORC (a quasi-Rosicrucian organisation) about 6 months prior to the assassination: hardly time to enrolled as some esoteric Ninja Assassin as the conspiracy theorists would have us believe, but perhaps enough time to tip his obsessions over the edge.
6 Charles Manson To The Court November 19, 1970
7 Yes, Pat Robertson is the man behind America’s sprawling Christian Broadcasting Network and has been for several decades. His 1991 book, The New World Order has become something of a Bible within the Conspiracy Theory Community. Judeo-Masonic orders, the Illuminati, the Knights Templar, the Vatican – they’re all in there. Amazon helpfully suggests that if you like this book, you’ll also like Mein Kampf.
In some ways the mythology that has built up around Manson over the years reminds me of that which has built up around Imam Mahdi – a deeply enigmatic figure that has become part-Savior and part-Bogeyman depending which side of the religious divide you sit. According to Islamic hadiths, Imam Mahdi is the 12th Shia Imam who will return to earth to establish peace and justice on earth. To his more extreme challengers in the West he is the Antichrist. In each scenario his return is to be prefigured by an apocalypse. There are even those who claim that the CIA and MI6 have been visiting Iraq for the best part of 20 years to squeeze information from insurgents about the whereabouts of this mysterious figure.
Director Bryan Singer produced a comparable figure in Keyser Söze (The Usual Suspects). There’s a great line that Kevin Spacey delivers where he says, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist”. And although it might not be as visually entertaining as David Blaine being suspended in a transparent Plexiglas case above The River Thames or even the Paul Daniels Cup and Balls routine, it has to be said that Iman Madhi’s vanishing trick has certainly raised the bar at the Magic Circle. So deep are some people’s belief in this figure that soothsayers like Melanie Philips even go so far as claiming than Iran is actively bringing about Armageddon in efforts to accelerate the process of his return. Naturally it is a cruel and gross distortion of what many Muslims believe but it shows what a powerful and divisive figure ‘Keyser Mahdi’ has become in the ongoing ‘claims race’.