What Is a Conspiracy? with Dr. Orisanmi Burton, No Nuclear Deal, Bullfrog Breakfast
It’s the six-month mark of the revolution in Iran — what might the future look like? V checks in with Moj Mahdara, co-founder of the Iranian Diaspora Collective, to understand more about what the Iranian people are fighting for. And together, they explain how an Iran Nuclear Deal could actually give more power to the current regime. V also digs into all the hullabaloo that went down after Utah officials encouraged residents to eat invasive frogs. Then, with the help of Dr. Orisanmi Burton, social anthropologist and professor, V explores what it really means to carry out a conspiracy. Dr. Burton breaks down who’s been plotting and scheming over the decades, and how they’ve used this to harness power — for better or worse. This conversation was made possible by The Marguerite Casey Foundation.
Follow Dr. Burton at @orisanmi on Twitter, and keep an eye out for his forthcoming book on Black radicalism and prison repression from the University of California Press.
Find the resources on Iran mentioned in this episode at https://www.iraniandiasporacollective.com/
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V Spehar, Dr. Orisanmi Burton, Moj Mahdara
V Spehar 00:00
Hey friends, it’s Friday, March 10 2023. Welcome to V INTERESTING, where we break down the viral and very interesting news you might have missed. We’re gonna start by taking a quick call with Moj Mahdara, one of the founders of the Iranian diaspora collective, who’s got some advice for how we in the US can continue to support the woman life freedom revolution, and then we’ll chat about Utah’s effort to wine and dine with Mr. Frog. And lastly, will wade into the murky waters of conspiracy with Dr. Oren Sami Burton, an expert on conspiracy who might have used second guessing everything. All that and more on today’s be interesting from Lemonada Media. Let’s be smart together. Hello, hello. Hello, it is Friday. Finally, we made it through another week. And I wanted to address upfront a question that I was getting a ton of times on my TikTok this week. And that was what is happening with Iran. Is the revolution still going on? I haven’t heard as many updates. How are they doing? And most importantly, like what can we be doing? Yes, the woman life freedom revolution is still on and it is as strong as ever. In fact, media pressure and public outcry is keeping a spotlight on the regime and their crimes against the Iranian people like how they were gassing the girls schools. And attention is super important. And I know you guys are all action takers, if we’re looking for like a petition or a GoFundMe or something you could contribute to that would help keep the women of Iran supported. And what’s been a bummer is because of the rules they’re sending in care packages, or even donations just really hasn’t been possible. But what we lacking the ability to send mutual aid we can make up for with our powers of negotiation. Do y’all remember the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, aka the JCPOA, aka the Iran nuclear deal. Well, right now that deal has lapsed. So what does this have to do with the revolution? Well, I had the chance to catch up with Moj Mahdara, and they are one of the founders of the Iranian diaspora collective, the group that is helping to keep this revolution in the news. And I was asking, you know, like, what can we in the United States be doing to help and more importantly, after six months of revolution, who was even keeping this horrible governing body, the Islamic Republic in power? And she said.
Moj Mahdara 02:39
Well, us, we are keeping them in power, and so as Europe, and it’s a simple decision, to no longer through various channels, do business with them. That means once and for all dreading the JCPOA, no nuclear deal ever, not now, not ever, we need to end that deal. We need to keep pressure on the European Parliament and Government to put the Islamic Republic on the terrorist list. We shouldn’t do this, because it’s just a human rights issue. We should do this, because it’s also just bad for business. You don’t want someone in that region supporting Russia against Ukraine. And that’s what we have.
V Spehar 03:18
So with a nuclear deal, there’s a lot of folks who would be like, why wouldn’t we want to, you know, reduce the power of Iran having nukes or something? What is wrong with the deal? Why shouldn’t people support it?
Moj Mahdara 03:32
It gives them a financial lifeline to continue this regime. Your deal like most we can overload this contract, but your contract is only as good as the person you’re getting into it with. That’s a valuable lesson. You can spend 40,000 pages of trying to detail an arrangement with someone. But if the person you’re getting into business with sucks and is a liar, and holds American hostages, and kills little girls, and beats women to death, and provides drones to Russia, I don’t care what deal they make with you. You have a person who works in bad face, right. And the Islamic Republic has shown over and over and over again, that there is a lack of integrity.
V Spehar 04:17
The JCPOA was signed by Obama and several world powers with Iran in 2015. It placed significant restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. So it basically eased restrictions on Iran. And that was eight years ago, pals a lot has changed since then. So even if we wanted to do the original plan, we couldn’t. Trump pulled us out of the JCPOA in 2018, because he thought he could negotiate a better deal. And then in 2020, Trump ordered the killing of Iranian General Soleimani which was bad for our relationship with Iran, generally. So you know, none of this stuff, time changes of heart killing of generals none of that makes for good business partners. And so now, of course, the woman life Freedom Movement doesn’t want to see the brutal regime that they are fighting show up to shake hands with the United States and other powerful nations and some kind of like, new buddy-buddy deal. That’s bad for morale, and it provides the regime with clout and legitimacy. Now, back in November, Biden said, the nuclear deal with Iran is dead period. And now that all of you know the history and heard directly from the movement, the importance of keeping it dead, we can keep this top of mind if our politicians and President start warming up to the idea again, and that’s what you can do to help according to […].
V Spehar 05:44
The US government is making other big decisions these days, like what to do about invasive species. In Utah. There are way too many bullfrogs in the wild, and officials aren’t sure how they got there, but they’re not native to the area and are edging out other creatures and multiple ways. Like you guys, these Bullfrogs are known as both ferocious eaters and explosive breeders. Now that is quite the reputation. to curb the population, the state government is getting involved. Utah’s Department of Natural Resources is looking at residents and saying, y’all, we need your help. Please go and catch these bullfrogs. And while you’re at it, why not cook them up? If the thought of that is making you feel squeamish at the very least you are in luck because I am not going to go into the details of hunting or eating frogs. But why does that make some people squeamish? How come frog for dinner feels so off? Are we still hoping to kiss a frog and get our prints maybe. But it’s more likely that the average North American Eater is a routine eater and not an adventurous one, pick another time or be lucky enough to wake up in France and bullfrogs for breakfast might not seem that out of place. But here in the States, especially the way we relate to animals has taken so many different forms. One of the leading experts on this concept is a man named Hal Hertzog. And he points out that opinions and acceptance of animals as edibles has changed a lot over time. I mean, in the early 1900s, a congressman attempted to get people to raise hippos for meat in Louisiana. Turtles used to be a common fixture on menus. And mainstream cuisine has cycled through basically every type of fish. Some of this fluctuation has to do with availability, and some of it reflects pop culture. And of course, some of it reflects economics. Before global trade as we know it, Americans were often just eating things that were local and that we had enough of over time supply and availability has changed. We’ve overfished some species which has been at cost prohibitive. You’ve seen that happen with like lobster that used to be super cheap, and now it’ll run your 15 bucks for just the tail. And then TV cooking shows introduced us to trending proteins we might not have otherwise tried, like Looney or oxtail, or wild boar, or even deep fried crickets. And then there’s the pop culture aspect. movies featuring lovable pigs like Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web or Gordy and babes stopped me and my siblings from eating bacon or pork chops for years. If you think too much about what you’re eating, you can probably get the EQ about any protein. We’re in a phase in history where it’s been normalized, eat pretty much just chicken, beef, pork or fish. And even that will probably change as new foods are discovered or reinvented and old favorites get played out. So don’t wrinkle your nose that Bullfrog bouillabaisse just yet, maybe fraud catching is your thing, you’re not going to know unless you try. On the topic of something we used to think was bad, but we’re maybe changing our minds on. Remember that doctor who edited the genes of human embryos and caught a bunch of flack for it? Well, my friends, that was in late 2018. And it seems like stances have been softening since then. First of all, let’s refresh your memory of what happened. A mother and an HIV positive father used IVF to get pregnant. And the scientist who was based in China added some genetic material to the embryos that was programmed to do a certain task. And that task was to go in and snip snip snip remove the gene that enables HIV to infect people’s bodies. Now the global science community was obviously really upset about this. Gene editing was still mostly being used for tests for research, not viable embryos, embryos that would like go on to become people someday. Plus, this scientist did technically violate medical regulations, at least locally, and he ended up getting sentenced by a Chinese court to three years in prison. While we’re a little over four years past that initial experiment in just this week, many genetic experts met for the first time since 2018. And my friends, the conversation about gene editing has really changed over those couple of years. Most of the original criticism of editing viable embryos was that it was risky. Scientists didn’t know enough about how this could impact the children. as they aged, and ideally, a mainstream gene editing would first be trialed on adults and on genes that can’t be passed down to offspring. But in the four years that have passed since the original experiment, scientists have improved the gene editing process. And they’ve made the execution more precise. And they’re on their way to genetically treating things like sickle cell disease and cancer. One scientist at a recent conference even said, since the last summit, there’s been a shift from asking the question of whether to asking the question of how this original gene editor really broke the mold, it turns out, and it’s opened up so many other ways of thinking about it. Now, of course, scientists continue to debate whether gene editing is ethical, especially since embryos can’t give consent. Parents who currently use IVF, in some cases already have the option to choose the strongest among the few embryos. And they can even screen them for things like eye color, and sex, fairly limited choices. So like right now, you can’t dial up the specific traits you want for your kid. But we are not that far off from the possibility of parents editing genes to produce a fully customized offspring. And that gets real eugenic see real quick, scientists also acknowledged the huge consequences of making a mistake while editing genes. If you snip in the wrong place, you could create a genetic disease instead of preventing one. And then that disease would just be out in the world and be able to be passed along. So yeah, we would like to avoid that if possible. Here’s the thing though, these scientists have spent a lot more time improving the process itself and less time questioning if they should use it in the first place. And the original gene editor who went on to literal prison for his experiment has not deterred folks from playing God. Instead, many of his peers seem to have been led to think, Well, if the problem is that gene editing is just bad. Maybe we should see if we can make it better. This is bad. How can we make it better? I mean, that sounds like something you’d say while staring at the ugly wall color of your bathroom or outdated appliances, or MBD, even when staring at your fixer upper new relationship. But with supply chain disruptions and more recent inflation, maybe you’ve just kicked all of those projects down the road. The economy is wack and you can’t afford a fixer upper right now. Nobody can. And when I say no one, I mean no one, even government agencies, even the government agency responsible for fixing the economy. That’s right. The United States Federal Reserve is in the middle of major office renovations, and the price tag is through the roof and it just keeps growing. The Federal Reserve essentially oversees the United States financial system. It’s the agency that’s recently been upping interest rates. So you probably have been hearing about this in the news quite a bit. They’re trying to get us to spend less money so that we bring inflation down. The Fed has 1000s of employees and they fill several office buildings in DC. These offices started getting renovated in 2021. And the initial cost has recently ballooned by 34% to a total of $2.5 billion. And yes, the longer it takes, the more it costs. Inflation is literally laughing in the Feds face. To be fair, though, it’s not just inflation raising prices. Planners have made design changes. Builders have faced zoning hurdles, some materials are still super low and supply plus nothing moves fast in Washington. But maybe this recent price creep will push the Fed to tame inflation even more aggressively. After all the ones pulling the levers are also paying some hefty bills. Y’all at least the government is being upfront about what it’s up to, because that is definitely not always the case. Sometimes the government is conspiring because yes, my friends some conspiracies are real, and the United States government is responsible for a good amount of them. After the break, we’re going to talk to an expert in the field of conspiracies, Dr. Orisanmi Burton, there’s really no better guest for this conversation and we want to thank the Marguerite Casey Foundation for making this possible. All that right after the break.
V Spehar 14:33
Okay, friends, we have a super special guest today that I’m very excited to interview it is Dr. Orisanmi Burton, and he is an assistant professor at American University in the Department of Anthropology. He’s a social anthropologist exploring the collision of Black led movements for social, political and economic transformation with the state infrastructures of militarized policing, surveillance and imprisonment. That is quite the introduction. Ori, thank you so much for being here.
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 15:00
Thanks for having me V, it’s a pleasure.
V Spehar 15:02
So today we’re gonna be talking about just one area of your expertise. And that is conspiracy theories, which is awesome, because that is my favorite thing to talk about. But I think that the word conspiracy gets thrown around a lot, and the definition kind of gets lost in the sauce. So tell us from your view, what is conspiracy theorizing?
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 15:21
Yes, such a great opener for our conversation, because it’s definitely a thing that gets muddled a lot. So there’s different parts of it right? At the most basic level, a conspiracy occurs when two or more people collaborate on an illicit act, and attempt to conceal their actions to prevent political or legal sanction. Right. So in other words, conspiracies are happening all the time, at various levels of society. And they’re totally mundane and predictable forms of political behavior. Conspiracy Theory, is a mode of analyzing or attempting to analyzing those actions and to uncover them. And so yeah, so what I’ve laid out is quite different from what most people probably think about when they hear that term conspiracy theory. They’re probably thinking about these grand conspiracies, or capital C conspiracy theories, which posit that there’s a single group, usually of White men in business suits in a dark room smoking cigars, plotting on how to sort of manipulate the world with their dastardly designs.
V Spehar 16:28
And so you’re saying that’s probably not happening?
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 16:31
It absolutely does. However. So the grand conspiracy theories suggest that there’s only one group, right, and that this one group has an intense degree of internal solidarity, when in fact, I would argue that there are multiple groups who are conspiring for power, and organizing for power. And sometimes they aligned but oftentimes, they’re in conflict with one another, right? And so there’s no way to predict how people are going to respond, right, you might have a plan. But just because you have a plan doesn’t mean that your plan is going to be realized to perfection. And people might respond in ways you don’t anticipate they might tell a lie. They might change loyalties, they might spill the beans too early. And so all of these things are happening all the time.
V Spehar 17:25
It feels to me as a person who exists mainly on the internet, that conspiracy theory is a term that people will throw out when they just don’t like something. They’re like, oh, well, that’s just a conspiracy theory. Well, yeah, I’m sure that’s happening. And this has been going on since the dawn of time, or is this like seeing an uptick recently?
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 17:44
It’s funny, you should ask. Right. So conspiracies have been around since the dawn of time. Right. So Niccolo Machiavelli wrote a book called Discourses on Livy in the 16th century. And he talks about, you know, how conspiracies have caused more deaths, and overthrow more regimes than war. Right. So conspiracies have been around for a long time. The word conspiracy theory to my knowledge came into being and came into use around 1964, which is the same year that the Warren Commission was released, which was the report that laid out the official story of the JFK assassination. There’s a document that was declassified in 1977, which suggests that the term conspiracy theory was developed by the Central Intelligence Agency as a way to delegitimize critiques of the Warren report. So it’s quite possible that the term conspiracy theory is itself the result of a conspiracy.
V Spehar 18:49
The best conspiracy of all time to certainly one of my favorites, the assassination of John Kennedy, who did it, why they did it.
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 18:54
Yep. And something that we’re still living through now, right, those documents, all of the documents related to that event, were supposed to be declassified by law. The law was passed in 1992. And just recently, a few weeks ago, I’m sure you’ve heard more documents were released, but still not all of them. And the fact that all of them aren’t yet public is actually seeding conspiracy theory, right? I mean, it’s allowing different theories to flourish.
V Spehar 19:21
Are we totally sure that some of those documents aren’t in Joe Biden’s garage next to his Corvette, though? I mean, there’s been a lot of documents floating around places they weren’t supposed to be.
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 19:30
Absolutely. And, this is why the grand conspiracy narratives don’t hold water because they underestimate the critical role of incompetence, and just sort of like confusion and mistakes. It assumes that people who maybe want to have the kind of power that many people fear they do, it assumes that they are more adept at keeping secrets than they probably are. So that the fact that these documents are just everywhere, and nobody knew is where they are is just a perfect example of our tendency to overestimate people’s ability to keep secrets.
V Spehar 20:06
It’s just incompetence and some error or just or stuff gets lost in the mailman it happens. And not everything is a conspiracy theory, a lot of it can be blamed on just, you know, the happenstance of being human. And you’ve mentioned several times that conspiracy theories are sort of mundane most of the time, what does that mean?
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 20:25
So it’s interesting, there’s organizing, there’s political organizing, where people get together and make decisions and say, we’re going to take certain actions to achieve a certain result, right? And so how do you draw the line between just organizing and conspiracy theorizing because sometimes when you’re organizing to achieve a certain result, it’s in your best interest to keep things secret, because if you reveal your plan, then your opposition will have time to develop a counter plan. Yeah, so if you’re in a room with at least one other person, and you’re making a plan, and you’re trying to keep that plan a secret, because revealing it will cause a negative consequences from you, at the most basic level, that’s a conspiracy and you know, the Latin root of the word, conspirer, are means to breathe together. So it’s like people together in a room speaking in hushed tones, breathing together, that technically is a conspiracy.
V Spehar 21:18
That makes a lot of sense, because that is how me and my wife decided to get married, it was just me and her in a room breathing together, and then we decided to elope and not tell anyone. So we have our own conspiracy here. Is there a purpose that conspiracy can serve like a greater purpose?
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 21:35
Well, they can be used in different ways. Oftentimes, you know, in the public discourse, when the term conspiracy gets bandied about, typically, people are talking about bottom up conspiracies. So relatively marginal figures, developing a narrative about an event that they don’t believe is entirely true. And oftentimes, those people are pathologized as being sort of crazy or stupid, or mentally ill, or whatever, whatever. Right? There’s also top down conspiracies, right. The powerful all often theorize about the same things, right? They could they theorize about power, they theorize about organizing, this is what Machiavelli was talking about. He was saying, in fact, if you want to maintain power, you have to be a conspiracy theorist, especially if you are political regime is not viewed as legitimate because people are going to try to organize against it. So in order to stay in power, you constantly have to be vigilant about rooting out conspiracies. So one way it gets used in that context, is to hurl the title of conspiracy on to legitimate political organizing, as a way to justify criminalizing that work. And so this comes up in my research, when you think about like, slave rebellions, right, slave owners were constantly on the lookout for what they called slave conspiracies. And this was literally people breathing together gatherings of people talking about, okay, how are we going to do what we need to do? And the dominant thing on their mind was, how do we get free, because they were subjected to an illegitimate regime. And so in that context, conspiracy theory is a weapon that is used to delegitimize people from organizing.
V Spehar 23:23
And we’re seeing that even to this day, I mean, there are conspiracies surrounding things like the protests in the summer of 2020. And the death of George Floyd, we see this a lot with policing. What’s kind of happening in that world?
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 23:37
Well, I mean, one of the things that I often think about is, in this context, is what I just said, in terms of the root of the word, meaning, you know, breathe together and thinking about the very popular protest slogan, I can’t breathe, right? So Eric Garner, yelled, I can’t breathe multiple times while he was being choked to death. George Floyd said, I can’t breathe while he was being choked to death. And protesters said, I can’t breathe. They appropriated that as a slogan. And, you know, I start to think about what does it mean to come together and try to breathe together in a context in which, you know, you’re being expressed […] in a context in which people are being brutally lynched publicly, right. And I start to think about political theorists like Frantz Fanon, who talked about you know, we rebelled because we can’t breathe. So this idea of breathing together, in a context of struggling for freedom has a long sort of history within the what I would call the Black radical tradition, the Black protest tradition.
V Spehar 24:48
Is this something that you think when people know that correlation that you just drew can conspire better in some ways or can feel even more empowered by that correlation?
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 24:59
I think that what we need to do is to really think be able to think more strategically about knowledge. And the thing that is interesting to me about conspiracy theories is that it forces us to think about epistemology about how we know what we know, right? Because you’re presented with these alternate versions of reality, and you have to make a choice. And sometimes you want to believe a particular theory, because it affirms the dogma that you already have in your dogma backpack. And sometimes you don’t want to believe a theory because it contradicts those things, right? And so you have to sort of make a choice. And so, you know, we live in an environment, a media environment, where we’re sort of oversaturated with information and disinformation. And it’s becoming harder to be a critical thinker, and to weed through the overwhelming amount of information that we have. And so I think that that process is sort of a critical aspect of engaging in politics at this moment. And so, no, I don’t necessarily think that sort of knowing the meaning of those words, will help us engage in a more strategic manner. I mean, the thing that’s amazing about breathing is that you don’t have to think about it. And I don’t think you really have to think about breathing together with other people either, especially when you’re living under a racist or authoritarian, or sexist or patriarchal context. When people come together, they start breathing together, right?
V Spehar 26:32
Now there are people who are breathing together the monster breath of Qanon. And just that whole situation, I’m not sure where they stand now. But I know, you know, especially through the early days of the pandemic, and maybe even right before that, through sort of the later stages of Trump’s presidency, Qanon went from being a conspiracy theory to being an organized group to being sort of cult like, Is that common when conspiracy goes wrong or when conspiracy goes dark?
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 27:04
Well, I think we’re in an unprecedented context. And the role of social media, in facilitating this kind of intensification, cannot be overstated, right? Because what’s happening is that Qanon is a conspiracy community, right? It’s not just one theory. I mean, it’s, it’s various ideas that are all captured under this umbrella. And one of the things that’s driving it right is social media, which allows this group to sort of engage with each other in a sort of a self-fulfilling, self-validating system, where they really don’t get access to any competing information. And so that’s been driving it. But the other thing that’s been driving it is the decline in legitimacy of the political system that we live on. So sometimes the things that they say are right for the wrong reasons. So they talk about how, you know, mainstream media is lying to us. I would agree with that, right? I don’t agree with what those lies are. But I would agree with that, right. And so we can sort of delineate a whole list of their grievances. And this is the other thing, that’s important, right? A lot of people like to just pathologize people who hold views that we think are sort of crazy, or ludicrous, or however you want to sort of dismiss them. But if you take the time to look what’s underneath the theory, oftentimes, what you’ll find is a legitimate grievance, or a grievance that the people at least feel is legitimate.
V Spehar 28:38
I think what’s hard for me with Qanon is so many people that I share a habitat with, and that I’ve been friends with for a very long time, and who I don’t think are racist, or sexist or bad people, if you will, at all got very swept up into this. And would say things to me that like, I mean, there was a hospital ship that was docking in New York in the early days of the pandemic, because there just wasn’t enough hospital space to process all the early COVID cases. And I remember my literal college roommate who I very much care about saying to me, no, that’s actually a ship that’s going to help remove all of the children who are being sex trafficked in New York City. Donald Trump is leading them through the tunnels and subways of New York City to safety. And I was like, girl, okay, but this is my friend. I’m like, why do you think that? And she’s like, because I know it. I believe it. I see it. It makes more sense to me that that’s what’s happening. I’m like, I am in New York City. And I will go take pictures and I will show you because I thought that the quarantine was just messing with her sensibility. She believes this so deeply. And so hard, I’m like, but maybe it would be better if there was just a room of White men in suits smoking cigars, telling people these things. Because for her to be coming with these things from either her own imagination or people in her community is very scary. And I think a lot of people, that’s why they’re so scared of Qanon or why it’s something that we want to try and write off and dismiss, because a lot of it is people that we know and are like, why are you saying these things? How could you believe this?
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 30:26
Absolutely. So much of what you said is so important. The fact that you asked her why she believes what she believes is critical, the fact that you’re engaging with her with care, this idea that in some ways, it would be better if there were this, you know, secret room? Yeah, no, this is true. And this is part of the function. So now we’re sort of talking about the grand conspiracy theory narrative, right? There’s a spectrum all conspiracy theories are not equal. And some are more have more validity than others, you know, and then there are actual conspiracies, right. So we’ve established that right. But the sort of grand conspiracy narrative that gives people an explanation for things that can’t otherwise be explained, right, and the fact of the manner is that children are being sex trafficked in New York, right. And we live in a society in which that is just a fact. Right? And so maybe the part about the ship and all that wasn’t happening, but she has created an explanation for something that is she finds morally unacceptable.
V Spehar 31:32
And this happens. I mean, it happens a lot. We see it with people trying to explain the JFK assassination. The other one that was big. Speaking of New York, in the East Coast, West Coast fights are that Tupac and Biggie aren’t actually dead and they are controlling the music industry from afar. Is this another case of people just wanting something so badly to not be true that they’re willing to let their imagination kind of roam?
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 31:55
Oh, well, I’ve never heard the Biggie still alive. I’ve heard that Tupac is still alive. I’ve heard that for since he first was killed.
V Spehar 32:02
Why do you think that is people just don’t want to let go of him. There’s too much greed.
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 32:06
Well, it’s definitely that well, okay. So you know, Tupac was the son of Afeni Shakur, who was a member of the New York chapter of the Black Panther Party. He was the step son of Mutulu Shakur, who was a member of a revolutionary organization called the Republic of New Africa, who’s been in prison for decades and just got out a few weeks ago. Tupac watched his uncles and aunts and loved ones, and the Black Panther Party of which they were a part split into factions. And that split was facilitated by an FBI conspiracy called the counter intelligence program, which actively used all kinds of methods to turn radical and revolutionary groups to make them implode and to turn them against each other. So that was an actually existing conspiracy, of which his parents were apart. Tupac was under intense FBI surveillance, he’s got hundreds and hundreds of pages in his FBI file. And members of the Black Panther Party who survived COINTELPRO talked about a specifically his uncle or you know, not his uncle by blood. Jamal Joseph talked about the similarities between the East Coast West Coast beef in hip hop, right. The schism that happened in hip hop and the schism that happened in the Black Panther Party, right. And there are very compelling similarities between those things. Combine that with the fact that Tupac’s aunt, Assata Shakur broke out of prison in 1979, and fled to Cuba where she remains in exile to this day, right. And so if you put all of these things, and the fact that, you know, the album that he released, right after he died was called Makaveli, he changed his name. It’s all about his death. Right? It he talks about his death, he talks about things that he shouldn’t know about right at the time, and his music remains very prescient. So again, it would be easy to just say, wow, you know, like, why are people saying this, but like, if you lay all of these things out, it makes a compelling case, you know, and then there’s just the fact that people want him to be alive.
V Spehar 34:21
What are some conspiracies that you think folks ought to know about that may not be as mainstream as JFK or Qanon?
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 34:28
Well, I think the one that I already shared about the likely origins of the term, I think, is really key, because then that kind of opens us up to sort of re-engaging with the category overall. You know, my research is about the counter intelligence program and there was a successor to that program called the prison activist surveillance program, which essentially targeted counter intelligence program targets while they were in prison, because they realized that imprisonment failed to neutralize them, they continue to be active in prison. And so this was like a second layer. I also think a lot about Iran Contra, which is an event that happened in the 1980s, where the Reagan administration illegally sold guns to Iran and use the proceeds of the arms sales to fund the Contras, which were an extremely violent, right wing group in Nicaragua, who were fighting against a Marxist group called the Sandinistas. And according to Gary Webb, a journalist who died in 2004, by apparently shooting himself in the head two times, the US government was funding the Sandinistas even though they knew that members of the organization were distributing copious amounts of cocaine in California, fueling the crack epidemic of the 1980s. Right. So this is another one, right? When Black people say things like, Oh, the CIA is responsible for crack, like that way of saying it is not the most sort of like nuanced formulation. But evidence suggests that they’re not entirely wrong. And you know, we should take them seriously and try to figure out why they’re saying what they’re saying. So these are the kinds of things I’m interested in.
V Spehar 36:14
It’s kind of hard for people to accept that the government is doing good or that the government is doing bad, like it depends on I guess, who’s in office as to what you’re more likely to believe. And we know that there was a lot of conspiracy that led up to the events on January sixth that the Capitol, and that continue, even as these insurrectionists be, you know, sentenced and put in prison and Trump has not given them pardons. And a lot of the things that they were told were beyond conspiracy, they were lies, they still double down in a lot of them still believe it and are still acting towards this end goal of fighting this imaginary enemy, the government. What do you think, sort of drove that action at the Capitol on January 6? Was it Qanon? Was it far right stuff? Was it both? Just dissatisfaction with the idea that Joe Biden could be president?
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 37:09
I think it’s all of the above. I don’t think those things that you just laid out can be disentangled from each other. I think that a lot of people were there for different reasons. I don’t think that those reasons have been effectively disentangled. I don’t think that the amount of law enforcement who participated in that has been adequately interrogated. I think a lot of people who were aligned with the politics of that movement viewed a lot of the other people who were there as dupes. And this is what I mean about the internal solidarity. So you know, I’m not an expert on that. But I think that, you know, the sort of declining legitimacy of US political institutions, I think, the declining value of white skin. I think that the role of social media in cloistering people in this sort of information enclaves, I think all of these things played a key role. You know, in this.
V Spehar 38:09
Because we saw when some of the proud boys were former proud boys were on the stand, they had almost come out of what seemed like a trance like state that they were in when we saw that video footage of January 6, where they’re now sitting on the stand, and some of them are maybe just begging for mercy because they want a lenient sentence because they know that they got caught. But some of them truly did seem to have remorse truly did seem to be like I was believing what I was told my whole community was believing this and I was obviously tricked. And it was very upsetting. And we see this happens a lot in religion, also, where people are following a particular religion, a particular theory of how the universe exists, and then end up in a pretty bad situation or that religion turns to be a little bit more doomsday cult or a little bit more dangerous. Have you studied anything with conspiracy and religion?
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 38:58
Yeah, yeah. You know, one of the preeminent conspiracy theories, which is actually an actual conspiracy is MK Ultra, which is, you know, this was a project that really launched right at the beginning of the Cold War and was officially discontinued in 1972, in which the Central Intelligence Agency employed an unknown amount of researchers and scholars from around the country and around the world to use a variety of methods including hypnotism, electrode implantation, LSD and other drugs to figure out if it was possible to control the human mind, both to sort of erase memories and to insert memories. That was the sort of research agenda and they did this by experimenting on a range of people without consent. Prisoners children unwittingly experimented on their own CIA agents, you know, and we really don’t know the scope of this because In 1973, the director of the CIA had all of the MK Ultra files destroyed. And the only reason why they we know anything about them is because in 1977, someone found a mislabeled box of program files. And so we know a sliver of what there is to know about it. But one thing we learned from that sliver is that the CIA was very interested in different kinds of religions. Evidence suggests that they helped create some, but also that they were interested in studying some so you know, they sent agents to Nigeria, for instance, to study with, like traditional African healers, and to understand the phenomenon of trances and transmit, because they wanted to figure out, could this be something that could be predictably and scientifically induced in other populations? So yeah, there’s a tremendous amount of overlap. And once you get into looking in that area, things get real interesting, real fast.
V Spehar 41:01
I would imagine, yeah, that’s something I mean, even as you’re just talking, I’m coming up with my own conspiracy theories over here, as we do, right, where I’m like, well, maybe that’s where they’re getting Christian nationalism from, again, because those people who were alive do an MK Ultra are, some of them have to be alive now and have information whether it was, you know, in a box where it wasn’t supposed to be or not.
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 41:21
some of them are certainly alive. But also the knowledge that they produced, circulated through sometimes through peer review, research, but often through like classified memos and this kind of stuff. And a lot of these imperatives are still ongoing. And so I don’t believe that, you know, the quest to crack the human mind has ended. I think that there are lots of people in lots of places who are still interested in that and are working actively toward it. Interestingly enough, though, when you look at MK Ultra from the 60s, and you think about okay, what did they want to do? They wanted to know what people were thinking, where they were, who they knew they wanted to be able to induce certain feelings and moods in them? And I think about Hmm, that sounds like social media, right? I mean, it’s like, I was just gonna say that. Yeah, that’s what I mean that, you know, the Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, those technologies provide techniques and information, which is beyond the wildest dreams of folks who were doing MK Ultra 50 years ago.
V Spehar 42:30
What is your favorite conspiracy theory?
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 42:33
I personally don’t have one, because I’m more into them as an entry point into like, thinking about knowledge and accusation and suspicion, and secrecy and power and politics. But, you know, JFK, I know, that’s like, so cliche, but because it’s just so big. And there’s so many layers to it. And like, I’m not an expert on it at all, but just in terms of like, following the breadcrumbs that people leave, like, I can listen to that one for quite a bit. But like I said, My research is on COINTELPRO, which, in the 60s, activists used to say, you know, they’re spying on us, and you know, X, Y, and Z. And people would say, you know, you’re just paranoid. And, you know, then we later find out that they were right.
V Spehar 43:23
When conspiracy theorists or groups are being spied on? What is the government looking for? They’re just looking to crack down on any kind of like diversion from the happy narrative we’re all supposed to have as Americans saying the pledge allegiance every morning and being joyful, or is it? Like, it’s just about power hoarding, and keeping it in a singular place?
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 43:45
Right. So I don’t think the strategy typically is to crack down on individual conspiracy theorists, I think, especially now, in the era that we live in, it’s quite the opposite to strategy is to flood us with so much information that we can’t discern what’s true. Or if there’s a conspiracy theory out there that maybe has some truth in it, maybe not, it’s to them even add more information to that, to muddy the connections, right, or to try to minimize it. And there’s a term for that it’s called a limited Hangout. So when conspiracy has been sort of exposed or revealed, intelligence agencies will often publish a story proactively published a story using one of their many contacts in the mainstream media. And it will be a very limited version, the most non-incriminating version of it, and then they can delegitimize the other parts of it. So I don’t think it’s not about secrecy. It’s not about keeping information to the public. It’s about flooding us with so much information that we can’t make a decision about what we believe information overload. I think that’s the sort of modus operandi right now.
V Spehar 45:12
There’s another area that you are an expert that I want to make sure that we have some time to talk about because I think it’s so important. You’ve been researching the wave of prison rebellions across the US since the 1970s. And the first one that comes to mind is the Attica prison uprising. And for folks who aren’t familiar with it, that movement included mostly black and brown prisoners, who were living in really harsh conditions and treated absolutely horribly. How is that movement still significant today?
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 45:38
Yeah, thanks for the question. So I have a book coming out in October is called tip of the spear, black radicalism, prison repression and the lung Attica revolt. So yeah, that rebellion happened in 1971. Most people consider it to be a four day rebellion. I argue that it took place over at least 13 months and actually longer than that, but in 2016, and 2018, the United States saw the largest organized prison strikes, potentially in its history. It was organized by a group called jailhouse lawyers speak. And they organized it to take place around the commemoration of Attica, which is September 1971. So they organize it around the anniversary of Attica. And this really speaks to the ongoing significance of that rebellion, which was important for a number of reasons, especially because it was a black LED rebellion. But white prisoners and Latino prisoners all participated in it. And part of what was so significant about it was the racial solidarity that made it possible, it couldn’t have been possible without racial solidarity, because racism helps prisons function because it ensures that the prison population is divided. And so part of why that rebellion was so significant was the solidarity. But it was also as I argue, in the book, a revolutionary uprising, it wasn’t just about transforming prison conditions, it was really about transforming the world in a more egalitarian way. And so the fact that incarcerated people in our contemporary moment are still organizing in using Attica, as a point of inspiration speaks to its ongoing significance. And I’ll just say one other thing, which is that many of their demands for the National Prison strike in 2016, and 2008, were almost identical to the demands of the Attica, rebels back in 1971, which gives you an indication of how little conditions have changed inside prisons.
V Spehar 47:49
What were they asking for?
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 47:51
I think there were a lots of different kinds of demands, but the formal demands that they were making on the state involved. And I think this is an important point that I’m about to make. It involves many of the same things that people were demanding who were not in prison, because I think there’s a tendency to fetishize how bad prison conditions are, and they are bad. And they were especially bad in Africa. That was one of the most brutal prisons in the system. But the things they were asking for were better food, better clothing, better housing conditions, right? Different kinds of programs, education programs, these were the same things and are the same things that people are demanding who aren’t in prison. And in fact, people who were inadequate were arguing that the prison is actually a paradigm, a prototype for the society writ large. And so whatever’s happening in prison gives you a sense of what’s happening in the broader society. And they were making that argument to try to build solidarity across prison walls to say, look, this isn’t just about what’s happening in prisons, this is about what’s happening in the world. And they were making this argument in the early 1970s, when there were only 200,000 people in prison. Now, there’s well over 2 million and if you count like other forms of incarceration, you know, it’s even more than that, right. And so much of what they had to teach us is still relevant. But I think we haven’t internalized the central point, which is that it was never just about improving prisons. Many of them were abolitionist, they believed that prisons should be abolished. And they were critical of the capitalist system, which necessitates people commit criminalized acts in order to survive. But they were saying, Look, James Baldwin has a quote, In a letter that he wrote to Angela Davis. And he says, you know, if they come for you in the morning, they’ll be coming for us the next night. He’s saying, Look, this is an indication of what’s to come for everyone. And so I think that’s really the key point that we should understand.
V Spehar 49:57
It’s so true, and something that we don’t often spend enough time like hearing or thinking about. And back in the 70s. Even when this was happening, it was largely prisons were also being used to jeopardize black radical movements. And like you said earlier in this episode to put surveillance on these leaders, can you just talk a little bit about how they were using prisons to stop progress?
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 50:22
Yeah, absolutely. Um, so, you know, I mentioned the, the counterintelligence program, and this was an FBI program that started in 1956, to surveil the Communist Party USA, but in 1967, was basically renovated, and turned into an anti-black program. And most of the counterintelligence operations were against the Black Panther Party. And this involved facilitating assassinations, facilitating exiles planting new stories in the media to turn people against these movements. But it also involves criminalizing black radicals. And one of the ways that they criminalize black radicals is through the charge of conspiracy. Conspiracy, again, was weaponized to incarcerate black radicals, not only to incarcerate their bodies, but to incarcerate their knowledge and their ideas. And to sever the transmission of certain kinds of knowledge across the generations. My blue shows that this strategy essentially failed, because prison rebellions start to emerge at the exact moment that the movement is being criminalized. And so if we take prisons as a site of political struggle seriously, then we see that what we call the civil rights movement, or the Black Power movement, or the radical 60s actually extends beyond what we normally think of, because a lot of that organizing a lot of the thinking and writing, right rebellion doesn’t just involve like tearing up the prison, although that’s part of it. It’s also about producing and circulating criminalized forms of knowledge. And they did that in a variety of ways, including, you know, I found just beautiful letters, journalism, all kinds of ideas that are coming out of the prison. And they’re coming out of a context in which people are experiencing some of the most intense Forms of Racial class and sexual repression and domination that you can imagine. And so the kinds of political theory that come out of that context, are really about a deep structural kind of transformation and liberation. And so I think that this is what the prison movement has to teach us. And so this sort of this sort of effort to criminalize these movements, in some ways succeeded, and resulted in, you know, what we now call mass incarceration. But it also failed in the sense that, like, these narratives are still present. Some of these people are still alive, some of this knowledge is still circulating, but people haven’t taken it seriously. Because the prison, similar to the term conspiracy theory is used to delegitimize people, right, you can just start with, oh, this person was in prison, you can start with oh, this person did this act, this heinous act, and therefore, anything else this person did doesn’t have to be taken seriously. It doesn’t have to be listened to?
V Spehar 53:18
Are you seeing that black movements now are using some of the things that they learned from the 1970s to organize most effectively Now?
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 53:28
Yeah, some of these ideas are coming back into the fore, for sure. There’s been a lot of work to try to excavate that history. And I think about the prison as an archive of knowledge, right. It’s a carceral, archive and archive that is not meant to release the information that it contains. And so methodologically, we have to really think strategically about how to get that information out and how to present it in the best way. And so I think a lot, I’m one of many scholars who is trying to do that work. And it’s not as though the expectation is that movements of the 70s have sort of uncritically valorized, or celebrated. I mean, people made a lot of mistakes. People made a lot of bad decisions. Sometimes the analysis was wrong, but like that understanding being able to make those assessments is critical to the health of ongoing movements. And so, yeah, a lot of people are doing that work. And a lot of the activism that’s happening now is informed by work that already happened. But it’s this is a fairly recent phenomenon. So a lot of folks are playing catch up in terms of trying to piece together the legacies and lineages from the past.
V Spehar 54:42
Well, I want to thank you for spending the time with me I’m going to go reevaluate what’s conspiracy theory and what’s maybe true and what’s coming out of my grief and what’s coming out of my imagination and then and try to continue to be a good and thoughtful and grounded person, Ori tell folks where they can find you and when you’re done. Look, it’s coming out.
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 55:00
Right on. Thank you. I’m on Twitter, but I don’t tweet. I’m a lurker. But you can find me there. You can find my profile page at American university.edu. My book is coming out on the University of California Press in October is called tip of the spear, black radicalism, prison repression, and the long advocate revolt. And I look forward to sharing that with the world.
V Spehar 55:27
Yeah, I’m excited about it, too. Hopefully, we get to have you back to talk even more about it. I feel like we could have done this all day. I have like 90 More conspiracy theories to ask you.
Dr. Orisanmi Burton 55:35
I’ll come prepared next time.
V Spehar 55:37
Awesome. Thanks so much. All right. We’ll see you soon. Wow. Okay. So I’m going to be busy for the rest of the month diving into these conspiracies. And I don’t know, maybe I’ll even like just start making up some of my own. That’s how this works, right. I mean, we can make up conspiracy theory together and just see how far it goes as a social experiment. I don’t know maybe that we shouldn’t do that. There’s enough of that out there. I want to thank you all for being here today for our special chat with Dr. Orisanmi Burton and thank you to the Marguerite Casey Foundation for making this conversation possible. Be sure to tune in to next week’s episode where we dig into the headlines you might have missed and be sure to leave a five star rating to the show. Wherever you are listening. It really helps other people find the show. Follow me at @underdeskthenews on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube. And guess what friends? There’s even more V Interesting with Lemonada premium subscribers get exclusive access to bonus content, like Mercury Stardust, the trans handyman teaching us how to dress for the hardware store and how to mansplain to the man explainers. Subscribe now in Apple podcasts.
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