Posted by: Harold Knight | 12/22/2009

The Headless Horseman, Lou Dobbs, the Tri-Lateral Commission, and other legends

Does Oprah belong to the Tri-Lateral Commission? If I really wanted to know, I could look her up on their website. They don’t hide their membership list. (1)

We all know she helped the “meteoric rise” of Barak Obama. Now she apparently wants to legitimize Sarah Palin. Watch her show today (I wouldn’t watch it on a bet). I wonder with whom Oprah has decided to conspire to insure Palin’s election in 2012.

My writing today has nothing to do with the Tri-Lateral Commission or conspiracy theories although what I’ve written so far seems to. On December third I wrote here:

Conspiracy theorists are humans acting as humans do—attempting to find patterns where none exist. Since the Third Person Effect is fully operative (“…people generally feel that others are more gullible than themselves…”), those who are convinced they are not gullible, that they have either figured out the truth or are among those who are intelligent enough to figure out the truth, set out to protect the “gullible” by announcing the “truth.” (2) 

Some conspiracy theories have the appearance of truth. King George V of Great Britain, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, all grandsons of Queen Victoria, reigned at the outbreak of World War I. Did they decide together to go to war, or did the Great War break out because of their dysfunctional family spread through the ruling houses of Europe? Or did the Great War happen in spite of family connections? I can’t say. But I smell conspiracy.

Sarah and Oprah popped into my head this morning because I saw a trailer of Oprah hawking her interview today with Sarah duirng my few minutes of TV watching last night. I watched some dumb thing for about fifteen minutes, and then I played the organ until bedtime. In that fifteen minutes I saw Oprah bragging about her interview with Sarah “tomorrow” (today).

The interview will show how far Sarah’s grooming has already progressed. If Oprah belongs to the Tri-Lateral Commission, this may represent the first round of their preparation of Sarah for the Presidency. They obviously approved her last year or John McCain would not have chosen her. Surely her public persona so far does not appeal to the Tri-Lateral Commission unless they have pronounced final victory for themselves in the complete dumbing-down of the American people. That would not surprise me.

This bit of writing comprises my thinking about desperation, not about conspiracies, and certainly not about the Tri-Lateral Commission. (I will, however, ask the obvious questions to stir up worry about them: how did Zbigniew Brzezinski become Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, what on earth did they care about the Mujahideen, and why has Barak Obama committed to ending the job they started in Afghanistan? My contribution to conspiracy theory.)

My writing today concerns legends. Legends do not necessarily comprise the quaint stories we learn as children. They do not necessarily come from the pens of great writers (Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”). They often begin with chance conversation among people who report what they believe they know as the “truth” because they “witnessed” whatever event they report. These days, legends sometimes begin with reporting by famous personages, often politicians, more often TV talking heads.

It’s remarkable that this –whatever confusion, or confoundment over 7,000 cases, they actually keep a registry of cases of leprosy. And the fact that it rose was because –one assumes –because  we don’t know for sure –but  two basic influences –unscreened  illegal immigrants coming into this country primarily from South Asia, and secondly, far better reporting. (3) 

Lou Dobbs singled-handedly invented the legend that illegal immigrants bring leprosy into the country. The legend quickly spread over the airwaves and the internet. Never mind that he had the resources of CNN to check his facts. Never mind that his charge sounded nuts. Never mind that he has worked tirelessly to bury deep in the psyche of white, middle-class America the idea that illegal immigrants constitute one of the greatest threat(s) to the peace and happiness of Middle America.

The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil. (4)



Sarah Palin single-handedly made the legend of “death panels” part of the accepted discourse on health care reform in the United States. The idea had floated around the blogosphere and other places before her comment raised it to the plane of legend—and baptized it with respectability.

“[It] just shows the kind of people we’re dealing with. These people are crazed fanatics, and I want to say it now: I believe it’s motivated by demonic power. It is satanic and it’s time we recognize what we’re dealing with. . . .the goal of Islam, ladies and gentlemen, whether you like it or not, is world domination.” (5) 

When Pat Robertson speaks, an enormous (though decreasing) number of Americans listen. And his vitriol becomes legend—not the vitriol itself (which is legendary), but the ideas about which he spouts his vitriol.

Legends depend on believability for currency. In order for a tall tale to become a legend, it has to strike a chord in people who hear it. It must “[conform] to the cognitive, emotional, and moral expectations of its audience.” (6) A tall tale will remain just that (who with any knowledge of disease or disease communication could possibly believe that illegal aliens bring leprosy into the United States?) until people hear it who, for whatever reason, want to believe it.

These expectations are interrelated, although they are conceptually distinguishable. What does it mean to say that a legend is more persuasive if it meets cognitive expectations? It means that it is more persuasive if it conforms to the ideology and belief language of the listeners. (6)

Lou Dobbs says illegal aliens spread leprosy. Sarah Palin says health-care reform will bring Death Panels. Pat Robertson says “satanic” Islam wants to dominate the world. And legends spring up among people who share the “ideology and belief language” of the speakers. The fact is, the less explanation the legend-maker gives, the more likely belief will blossom in those with a predisposition to accept what the speaker says at face value.

A theory need not be framed in scientific or quasi-scientific terms. A theory appeals to a general principle by which the world is presumed to work—even a religious one. (6)

I would say “especially” a religious one rather than “even” a religious one (with no evidence and probably attempting to start a legend). I don’t know anything about Lou Dobbs’ religious inclinations. But I (we all) know about Sarah’s and Pat’s.

I said above that “this bit of writing comprises my thinking about desperation, not about conspiracies.” Desperate people, it seems to me easily fall victim to (at least) three behaviors. First, they invent patterns in events that do not necessarily exist. Second, they accept any explanation of an event that fits thegeneral principle by which [they presume] the world” works. And third, once they have that explanation in mind, they will into being a legend around it that satisfies their desire for patterns in events that they cannot control.

American truth.

Tri-Lateral Commission. Leprosy. Death panels. Crazed fanatics. Sarah. Oprah.

Take your pick.



(2) As I noted before, the “Third Person Effect” comes from the article by Karen M. Douglas and  Robbie M. Sutton, “The hidden impact of conspiracy theories: perceived and actual influence of theories surrounding the death of Princess Diana.” The Journal of Social Psychology 148.2 (2008): 210

(3) Dobbs, Lou. “Lou Dobbs Tonight.” Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System, May 7, 2007. Web. 2 Dec. 2009. <>.



(4) Palin, Sarah. “Statement on the Current Health Care Debate.” Facebook, August 7, 2009. Web. 20 Dec 2009. <>.

(5)  Robertson, Pat. The 700 Club, March 13, 2006. Pat Robertson Said What? The Humanist Society of Gainesville. Web. 5 Dec. 2009. <>.

(6) Oring, Elliott. “Legendry and the rhetoric of truth.” Journal of American Folklore 121.480 (2008): 127+.



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