Campfires, Conspiracy Cults, and Civility

It was supposed to be just a regular, ordinary Sunday hike on the Appalachian Trail. I planned to hike as far and as fast as I could with the 2 hours I had available.

But best-laid hiking plans rarely go off exactly as planned for an extrovert who’s feeling extra-verted lately.

As I approached one of those trusty wooden A.T. shelters that give rest to the weary (through-hikers), I saw a plume of smoke wafting up from a campfire into the autumn-hued trees. Given that an October campfire is possibly my #1 favorite olfactory pleasure, I couldn’t resist. I was drawn to the flames like a moth to… well, you know. But without the impending doom part.

I wandered over to the shelter and there were 2 guys preparing their breakfast and packing their gear. I asked if I could borrow a whiff of their campfire, and they were affably amenable.

Thus commenced one of the most fascinating and deeply unhinged conversations I’ve had in ages.

Their names, I learned later, were Matt and Mark. Our chat started innocently, with close to 10 minutes of warmly exchanged pleasantries about such near-universal pleasures as camping, campfires, fatherhood, nostalgia, and the sodium-laden wonder of Ramen noodles.

I noticed 2 minutes into our conversation that Matt, the main guy, was wearing a beige Trump 2024 baseball cap. (I would have noticed 2 minutes earlier if it had been one of those ubiquitous bright red MAGA hats.) I tucked this fact into the back of my mind, determined not to let it affect my enjoyment of a conversation that, on a pristine autumn morning, had no reason to dive into the murky waters of politics.

I’m not sure what prompted Matt to veer in this direction, but about 10 minutes into our enjoyable chat, he told me that his mission in life is “to learn about freedom, and how we lost all of it in this country.” This proved to be something of a thesis statement for him.

I will now attempt to reconstruct as much of Matt’s and Mark’s worldview as I can, even though my recollection will be scattershot because their rhetoric was dense with manically conveyed thoughts and conspiracies. This is as good as I can do. Try to keep up. (I certainly couldn’t.)

*takes deep breath*

In 1933, when FDR launched the New Deal, Americans immediately lost all of our constitutionally granted freedoms. The New Deal essentially negated the Constitution. When FDR abandoned the gold standard, he rendered our currency worthless — a collective illusion with no actual substance. So ever since that point, every transaction we have engaged in as a country or as individual citizens is predicated on a now-88-year-old lie.

Also, no one owns anything. No one. Even if you’ve paid off the mortgage of your house, you don’t own the house. This has something to do with bankers and certificates, but gosh darn it if I can explain it to you. Matt seemed to understand it perfectly, though, and relayed it to me in breathless, cascading, dizzying stream-of-thought.

Then there’s the fact, unbeknownst to me, that the legal system is fraudulent to its core. The way courtrooms are set up, defendants are essentially treated as enemy combatants with no fundamental rights. Believe it or not, this can be seen in the U.S. flags that hang in courtrooms, since they have gold trim around the edges, denoting that they’re battle flags. So every courtroom is a battlefield, and every judge is essentially a military tribunal that’s unilaterally prosecuting enemy combatants.

You heard me right: The gold trim of the flag is what proves this. Heck, I didn’t even know that flags were gilded. I’ll have to look more closely next time I see Old Glory.

Also, here’s an epic bombshell for you. Are you ready?

Dr. Fauci planned the pandemic, i.e. the “plandemic.”

(Incidentally, I always thought that term was a conspiracy based somehow on “plants.” I had no idea it was short for “planned pandemic.”)

Full disclosure: I may have blacked out slightly during this portion of Matt’s soliloquy. I just know — finally, since it’s been hidden from my view until now — that Anthony Fauci himself, part of a shadowy cabal, planned the coronavirus pandemic in order to cull the world’s population. In fact, that cabal, which runs everything, wants to reduce the world’s population to only 800 or 900 million people. Which means they still have a lot of work to do, and many more “plandemics” to plan.

Matt and Mark have learned much of this, and I’m not making any of this up, from an online entity who goes by “Neo” and charges money for a class that takes place somewhere in the vicinity of the dark web. These two guys, who are both satisfied customers, could not reveal to me either the identity of “Neo” or where one would go online to sign up. Everything’s on a need-to-know basis, and you have to know someone in order to get the secret password and take the elusive red pill.

So even though he learned from “Neo,” Matt essentially saw himself as the Neo character in our conversation. He had learned the truth, and as a result he was also acting as my Morpheus. (But without the cool trenchcoat and sunglasses.)

Somehow I don’t think the Wachowski sisters would endorse this Matrix appropriation.

I could go on, regaling you with details of Matt’s and Mark’s ideology. But my primary takeaway that day wasn’t about conspiracies.

It was about civility.

If I had encountered either of these fellow and their ideas in an online space, like a message board or a Facebook comment thread, I would have probably reacted with undiluted scorn and sarcasm. I would likely not have deemed their ideas worthy of dignifying with either a thoughtful response or a warmly civil tone. I would have been snappy and churlish.

But meeting these two guys in the flesh, eye to eye, and in the great outdoors on a pristine autumn day no less, utterly transformed the nature of our interaction.

Matt and Mark were totally civil in their breathless explanation of their ideas. And I was totally civil in my careful responses to their ideas. I listened more than I talked. Then I asked some probing push-back questions, without a drop of contempt. I didn’t grind an axe or lob accusations. I argued in good faith. And in their own way, they did too. All three of us fully assumed each other’s humanity.

I made it clear that I was deeply skeptical of a number of their premises. But I did it in a way that didn’t get their hackles up. I didn’t put them on the defensive, and they didn’t put me on the defensive either. It was actually quite a beautiful thing.

In fact, because of the fact that I was inclined to be civil, I was able to say more than I would have been able to say if I had come out guns blazing against their raving rhetoric. They were amenable to my periodic pushback because I had honored them by fully granting them to space to explain their beliefs.

This simply doesn’t happen, almost ever, in online spaces. We snark and snipe at each other. We lob epithets when we feel the other person is delusional in their ideas. We dig in our heels and refuse to listen, to learn, to let another human being explain himself.

What we need is to look each other in the eye again. We need to re-learn the art of discussion and debate in actual physical spaces. Spaces where we will, if we are still civil at our core, be vastly more likely to honor each other’s free expression.

And as a result, we might even be more likely to actually be able to persuade each other of our point of view now and then. Or to be persuaded now and then of someone else’s.

I won’t be falling for conspiracy theories anytime soon. Certainly not about shadowy New Deal-derived cabals or a “plandemic” orchestrated by Dr. Fauci.

But you know what I will do, quite happily?

Affably chat with anyone who will affably chat with me.

As long as you aren’t spouting hate, I am very happy to talk with you.

In person. Preferably on the Appalachian Trail. Or at a park. On a cool autumn day. With an October breeze blowing right into my soul.

A soul that each of us shares. (Whether we believe truth or nonsense.)

A soul that unites us all, if only we can remember that central fact.

A soul that makes each of us inherently worth listening to.

And inherently worth seeing.

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