Paranormals, Psychics, and Politicians: The Human Need to Believe in Hucksters

by | Jan 18, 2017

Why are Clinton loyalists blaming Putin for Hillary losing the election?

Why do Trump loyalists believe that Donald’s economic hokum will make America great again?

Why do I believe in different nonsense without realizing it?

What is it about humans from all walks of life and education levels that they fall for flimflam artists, hucksters, scoundrels, and claptrap?  Why do they suspend rationality, reason, and logic?

One can spend a lifetime looking for answers in philosophy, history, anthropology, sociology, and evolutionary psychology.  Or one can spend an hour and 33 minutes watching the 2015 documentary, “An Honest Liar.”

The documentary is about magician and escape artist James Randi, who, after retiring from a successful career at sleight of hand, set out to expose popular faith healers, paranormals, psychics, and televangelists as frauds and hucksters.

The documentary could just as well have been about politicians, or, for that matter, the news media, TV commercials, and reality shows.

James Randi saw himself as an honest liar, because he never portrayed himself during his career as anything but a magician and entertainer.  The charlatans, on the other hand, took advantage of people by pretending to have special powers, including healing powers.

It’s the same with politicians who pretend to have special powers and insights instead of just admitting that they are magicians and entertainers.   Take FDR, one of the most beloved presidents in history.   Because he had no idea about how to repair the economy, FDR flailed about wildly with economic hokum after economic hokum, thus protracting the Great Depression.  But he came across as confident, sincere, articulate, and caring.  He also was a master at using the Twitter of the day, the radio, in his fireside chats with the public.

It’s no surprise that the charlatans exposed by Randi had similar traits.

Faith healer Peter Popoff was one of them.  He had the looks and charm of a newscaster on the evening news.  Thousands would attend his faith-healing events and cheer, cry and swoon as they watched him receive a private message from God and then select people out of the audience, supposedly at random.  Popoff would then proceed to identify the ailments of the selected people and cure them on the spot.  But as Randi revealed, Popoff’s special gift was a tiny receiver in his ear.  His wife, who was offstage, would use a radio transmitter to read cards to Peter that people had filled out beforehand about their infirmities—similar to newscasters reading scripts written by someone else or to politicians reading a teleprompter.

Many believers became angry after Randi exposed Popoff and others as frauds—not angry at the hucksters but angry at Randi.   It’s only human, after all, to want to believe that someone has the answers to life’s mysteries, has the power to make everything okay, has easy solutions to complex problems, and is pure of heart and cares for others.  Burst their bubble at your own peril.

Ironically, famous media personalities fell for the shticks of some of the hucksters exposed by Randi.  Hucksters in their own right, the media elites thought they were smarter than the average bloke but in actuality didn’t have the smarts to realize that they were being duped by better skilled hucksters.

Randi even set up an experiment to show that physicists could be fooled by hucksters pretending to have telepathic powers.

Which brings us back to Hillary Clinton.

Her loyalists are less angry about her losing the election than they are about the curtain being pulled back to reveal that she is a huckster.  The resulting cognitive dissonance was too much for their psyche to bear.  They couldn’t accept that they had been duped by a phony in whom they had believed for decades, and in whom they had invested their self-worth. That left them with only one escape from the psychological trap:  to blame someone other than her or themselves.

Republicans are no different.  They just believe different hucksters, as was the case with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

The same with me, in ways that I don’t yet realize.

And it will be the same with Trumpers, after they discover that Trump is a huckster selling economic snake oil.

Being embarrassed about being wrong is a blessing and completely natural and expected.  It should be celebrated instead of denied.  It’s a blessing to find out that you’ve been duped, that you’ve put your faith in a scoundrel, that you believed a falsehood, and that you had the facts wrong about something.  Otherwise, one stays trapped in perpetual adolescence, never questioning assumptions and beliefs about the world and never acquiring wisdom, thus ending up like such simpleminded ideologues as Sean Hannity and Alec Baldwin—which would be the ultimate embarrassment.

Of course hucksterism goes beyond politics.  It is the foundation of the TV industry.  TV hucksters hawk magic elixirs that supposedly make it easy to lose weight, attract the opposite sex, smooth your wrinkles, or give you a 12-hour erection.  Other hucksters hawk cars and trucks that will accomplish the same things.  Still others hawk craft beers, free-range coffee beans, and electronic gadgets that will do the same, along with FICO scores and credit cards to buy the stuff and be forever in debt to the hucksters.

Of course those who succumb to such seductive advertising are not sexier, smarter, wiser, or hipper after buying the stuff than before they bought it, but are certainly poorer afterwards. In my case, I would still have a large Roman nose on my face and have an average IQ, whether I drove a Maserati or Corolla.

Then there are the reality shows that make fake news look real by comparison.

An example is “Alaska, the Last Frontier,” which is about a family that pretends that they will starve over the Alaskan winter if they don’t kill enough game and chop enough wood in the short summer and fall.  Unspoken is the fact that a town and supermarket are within driving distance on a paved highway.  And unexplained is how they can afford a fleet of snow machines, ATVs, tractors, bulldozers, backhoes, and even a large tugboat and barge—or how it pays to take a boat or seaplane 300 miles to a wilderness area to shoot a bear for meat instead of driving to the Safeway and buying a rump roast.

Even worse is the “Property Brothers,” a popular show on HGTV featuring two brothers who convince gullible homeowners to renovate their homes at ridiculously low quoted prices and short timeframes.  The brothers pretend to do much of the work themselves while dressed in clean skinny jeans and skinny shirts and wearing tool belts that look as if they just came off a Home Depot shelf.  The brothers don’t look anything like the burly beer-bellied guys who actually do such work.  Instead, they look like effete metrosexual males with scruffy beards, the kind that hang out at Starbucks, drive a Mini Cooper, and wear pink breast cancer ribbons in order to get bedded by weepy women or other metrosexual males.

Worse yet is “Flip or Flop,” featuring a California husband and wife who buy distressed properties and renovate them for resale.   The wife has a grating Valley-girl voice and sees herself as a fashion model, complete with long false eyelashes, longer false nails, short skirts, and the standard bleached-blonde hair with dark roots.  Some staged scenes show her pretending to paint a large inside wall with a tiny three-inch trim roller without an extension handle, as multiple bracelets dangle from her wrists and clingy skirts shake seductively on her hips.  Miraculously, there is not a drop of paint on her or the uncovered floor.  The plot is always the same:  After buying a house, the couple discovers that the roof needs to be replaced, or the electrical system needs to be upgraded, or water and sewer pipes are shot, or the foundation is sinking at one end.  They never learn to spot these problems beforehand.   Of course the show would be devoid of drama if they did learn.

Each “Flip or Flop” episode ends on an even more absurd note.  As prospective buyers walk up the sidewalk to an “open house” of one of the couple’s remodeled houses, they are wired with mics and make rehearsed comments about the house, as if it’s perfectly normal to go to an open house and be recorded and filmed by a camera crew.

There’s nothing real about any of these shows.  They’re all fake shows.  But they are very popular, just like fake news, fake elixirs, fake erections, and fake politicians.

Well, enough of that.  It’s time for me to check my horoscope.

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