Selling Trump’s Wall: How a Huckster is Using GoFundMe to Benefit Himself

A disabled veteran and former fake news huckster has squeezed $17 million out of American conservatives with a promise to “fund the wall.” The press has covered the crowdfunding campaign, and even dug a bit into his shady prior endeavors. But I can’t find a single report really analyzing how the man behind this campaign, Brian Kolfage, is benefiting personally. He’s given an audience of disaffected conservatives, frustrated by Trump’s failures, a way to buy the feeling of a successful movement. It’s an unscrupulous way to monetize irrationality and xenophobia, and it’s going to succeed even as the campaign to fund the wall fails.

(Kolfage has sued people in the past for criticizing him. With that in mind, I’ll point out the obvious: this piece shares previously reported facts about Kolfage and his campaign, as well as my opinions based on those facts. For example, the numbers below come from the linked public sources. My conclusion based on those reported facts, that Kolfage is an unscrupulous huckster, is purely my opinion. I do not have any reason to believe that he has broken any laws.)

Unneeded, unwise, unfunded.
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We Can Make 2019 Less of a Triumph for Conspiracy Theories

This was a big year for conspiracy theories. They’ve staked out more space in the headlines than we used to be comfortable with and stayed long enough that we’re starting to get used to it. The energy feeding them comes from above, as Trump and other mainstream media figures find new ways to harness conspiracy theory culture, and from below, as movements like Q Anon find ways to raise their profile with cynical self-awareness.

October was particularly gruesome. While relatively benign groups were busy ginning up new conspiracy theories for the benefit of the US and Russian governments—a bizarre flipflop of their traditional hostility to mainstream power—two men made headlines in a horribly familiar way. One murdered eleven people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the other mailed more than a dozen bombs to Trump’s critics. They apparently both believed that Jews and liberals were plotting against them, and they decided to fight their imaginary enemies by slaughtering strangers.

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The wall of stickers on the MAGA Bomber’s van were a perfect visual representation of the fog of angry paranoia fueling that movement today.

These are two different expressions of the same basic phenomenon. Not every conspiracy theorist will act on their beliefs, and even fewer will become violent. But those extremists aren’t arising in a vacuum. They radicalize over time, after years of absorbing frantic, paranoid calls to action the culture that grows up around particularly invidious conspiracy theories. We can’t do much to control the bell end of violent extremists directly; only law enforcement is really equipped to do that, and unfortunately only after the damage has already been done. But going into the holidays and 2019, we—and that does include you, the reader—can do something to disarm the culture that radicalizes them.

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We had an adverse reaction to the MMR vaccine.

Last week, our son Ox had an adverse reaction to the MMR vaccine.  I’m glad, and I’m grateful.

First, the downside. Ox came home from daycare with a fever hovering around 100° F/38° C. That’s high enough to worry first-time parents, and it was persistent. By Friday night he’d been feverish for days and couldn’t sleep. When we measured him at 103°/39°, we finally called the pediatric nurse hotline at the local children’s hospital. The nurse was cool, calm, confident, and knowledgeable, just as you expect a nurse to be. She listened to a first-time dad ramble on about his boy’s fever and then let us know that it sounded like a reaction to the MMR vaccine he’d had the week before.

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For his first birthday, Ox got a checkup, the MMR, and a flu shot.

It’s possible that he simply came down with a normal fever and the timing was a coincidence. A lot of reported adverse reactions to vaccines are coincidences. But his experience closely fits the profile of a known vaccine reaction.  Fevers are one of the most common adverse reactions to vaccines, affecting about ten percent of kids after their MMR shots. Our experience was worse than the typical fever; Ox spiked above the usual ceiling of 103° and it lasted a little longer than the standard two days.

Ox is fine today, but I don’t want to minimize the downside. Fevers can be dangerous, of course, leading to dehydration and other serious complications. And while Ox came through just fine, he suffered. He spent a few hot, cranky days unable to sleep or eat comfortably. That hit us, too. As new and first-time parents we don’t have a lot of perspective on what’s serious and what’s not; when the baby’s feverish for that long, it’s scary and upsetting. It also disrupts our lives; we’re very busy but Ox is our priority, so when he’s sick, it’s hard to keep all the other plates spinning efficiently.

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Sick little boys get Star Wars stories.

But it’s good news, over all. Ox spiked a scary fever and spend a miserable few days waiting for it to break, and I’d have him do it again in a heartbeat. Because that fever is an indication that his immune system is responding to his MMR shot, which means he’s developing a powerful, natural immune response to dangerous diseases that could leave him deaf, sterile, or even dead.

Ox suffered an adverse reaction thanks to his pediatrician and the nurses, and I’m sincerely grateful for it. They gave him a shield against pathogens that evolved specifically to attack and ravage him, and that have seriously hurt unvaccinated kids in our community. And they helped make him into a shield in turn, protecting other children through communal immunity.

To Ox’s nurses and doctors and to all the doctors and nurses giving vaccines every day: thank you. You’re standing between our child and a world of suffering, and we’ll always be grateful—even when it causes a fever.

 

 

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Debunking Done Right: Mick West’s Escaping the Rabbit Hole

When I heard that Mick West was publishing a book on how to help talk people out of conspiracy theories, I said a bad word. I’m writing my own book on a similar subject, and it’s frustrating to see someone else get one out first. But I also preordered it immediately. West stands out as one of the most careful and thoughtful public figures debunking conspiracy theories, and I was eager to see what he had to say on the subject. Then I realized that if I asked for a review copy, I wouldn’t have to pay for it. (Negotiation is my specialty, remember?) Now that I’ve read it, I’m thinking of ordering a hardcopy to lend out–it’s a message that deserves to be spread.

Escaping the Rabbit Hole 840

 

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A Vax for Ox

We closed 2017 with some actual good news: the W.H.O. reported that measles deaths in 2016 worldwide fell to an all time low of 89,780.  According to the New York Times, “the decline — a public health triumph, as measles has long been a leading killer of malnourished children — was accomplished by widespread donor-supported vaccination that began in the early 2000s.”

This is fantastic news! But unfortunately the NYT chose to illustrate their article with yet another photo of a terrified child being held down by two adults, one of whom is jamming a needle into his arm.

As many of us repeatedly point out on twitter, these photos provoke fear and mistrust rather than convey a positive message about vaccination.

As new parents ourselves, we are now intimately acquainted with the terror that goes along with suddenly being responsible for a precious new life. We question and second guess every decision we make about play, feeding, clothing, childcare and traveling. It doesn’t matter that we know rationally how adaptable children are—the emotions take over.

One decision we don’t question is our choice to vaccinate our child Ox (not what it says on his birth certificate) on time and according to schedule. We’d actually been looking forward to his two-month pediatrician appointment, because after he received his shots we would feel much better about our upcoming holiday travels.

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Even mighty bears need help fighting off pertussis.

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Sean David Morton: Please Call A Lawyer

This will be a relatively short post, updating my series about the ConspiraSea Cruise and the people I met there. For those who haven’t read it, the cruise was a week-long conference for conspiracy theorists. One of the speakers was Sean David Morton, who claimed he could teach people to stop paying taxes, win any court case, and make money by creating esoteric financial instruments. Eighteen months later, he’s been convicted of tax fraud and issuing false financial instruments. And on Monday, he skipped his sentencing hearing and became a fugitive.

Sean, if you’re reading this, call a lawyer. Please. You tried your legal theories in court and they failed, just like they’ve always failed every time anyone has ever tested them in court. They haven’t worked. They don’t work. They won’t ever work. I know you don’t want to hear this from a skeptic and a critic, but I think you also know it’s the best thing you can do for yourself and your family. Call a lawyer, and get some expert advice. They’re going to tell you to turn yourself in, and you should. It’s the best way to get ahead of this situation.

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Is Donald Trump Really a Great Negotiator?

This isn’t Violent Metaphor’s usual content, but it’s not as far away as you might think. We all want to have stronger skills for detecting pseudoscience and holding legitimate science to the highest standards. One of the most important skills for doing that is discriminating between hype and fact.

When it comes to science, I can’t do that. I’m not a scientist. What I am is a negotiator. I have spent years helping clients with their negotiations through training and consulting, and I have a new company doing exactly that.

Once Donald Trump became a serious contender for president people began asking me whether he’s really as great a negotiator as he claims to be. The answer is that based on the information we have, it’s very doubtful. Just as in science, the evidence matters more than the claims.

This is relevant to science and scientists in another way, too. There are strong indications that the administration and its Congressional allies will try to limit funding for scientific research. Those cuts will probably be resolved through political negotiations. Of course Trump won’t be the only negotiator at the table, or even the only negotiator on his side of the table. Nevertheless his style of negotiation is going to heavily influence the results. He’s likely to push hard to negotiate from a position of strength, which can distort the negotiations in harmful ways. This is a short and simple analysis of how that works.

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You’re not entitled to your own facts (or to hang the people who prove you wrong).

“There is evidence for being able to hang these [public officials]. I am so tired of ‘em. I’m just sick of it. I’ve had it, the Second Amendment is there for a reason.” Corey Eib, Agenda 31.

white-male-1871394_1280You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts–that’s the simplest, most basic credo of skepticism. Want to hold the opinion that extraterrestrial life exists out there? Great, me too. Want to insist that it built the pyramids? Now we’re talking pseudoscience.

I’ve been following a budding pseudolegal guru who’s become very frustrated and angry that his nonsense theories about citizenship and jurisdiction have yet to make him immune to the laws of the United States, where he lives. His case highlights an interesting difference between pseudoscience and pseudolaw.

Both turn on theories that don’t really fit the available facts, whether those facts relate to the building of the pyramids, the origin of species, or the text of the Fourteenth Amendment. When the theory doesn’t fit the facts, pseudoscientists and pseudolawyers both build walled gardens to protect their theories–that’s one of the crucial differences between a “pseudo” scientist or lawyer and the real thing. Those walls might be a community that doesn’t ask critical questions or conspiracy theories that provide a mechanism for disqualifying and ignoring such questions. A creationist, for example, can pretend that carbon dating proves the Earth is just 6,000 years old. And they’ll never have to emerge from their walled garden to compare that theory to the facts available to actual scientists. They can just keep reading creationist blogs and books and avoid the awkward mismatch between their beliefs and the outside world.

A pseudolawyer is in a different boat. Legal theories usually get decided in court, sooner or later. It forces a comparison between the irrational belief and reality, and exposes its flaws. That can happen with scientific and medical theories, such as when a miracle cancer cure fails to cure any cancer, but it’s less common for any individual believer to experience that. In the legal world, if you decide you’re allowed to drive without a driver’s license because you’re a special kind of super-citizen, sooner or later the system is going to force you to test that belief. And the theory is going to fail, because it’s wrong.

When those cherished, irrational beliefs fail, it’s at the end of a long and difficult process. The tribulations of trials encourage pseudolegal gurus to double down on their beliefs–they have to be truly committed to spend months litigating their beliefs, much less risk jail for them. And when the process that’s welded them more tightly to their ideology then exposes that ideology as false, the result is often going to be immense frustration and anger.

This is an exploration of one pseudolawyer’s mistaken ideas about the US Constitution, how they failed that empirical test, and how he’s responded with frustration, anger, and paranoia rather than reconsidering his own beliefs. It’s also about why just losing in court again and again and again isn’t enough to dissuade a budding guru. I’m not trying to do that with this piece, either. I don’t think it’s possible to talk such a person out of their beliefs.

But because this guru’s recent rhetoric has become extremely frantic and even he’s even suggested violence, it’s important to engage with the theories he preaches in case that helps dissuade people from falling for them. I don’t think this particular pseudolawyer is actually going to become violent, but the communities that form around such ideas can become unpredictable. (Just ask the Malheur occupiers.) So in addition to discussing those theories as a case study, at the end of this piece I’m going to outline some of the simplest and most obvious flaws with them. Engaging irrational beliefs that hurt people is, after all, the Good Fight.

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#Vaxxed, reviewed: What happened inside the movie

Jennifer and I saw Vaxxed in Kansas City on June 11, along with her sister Julie. We have a lot of observations and thoughts about the movie, so we’ll probably be doing several articles discussing the film itself, the audience’s reaction to it, the protestors, our responses, and a lot more. Jenny’s post is here, and covers some of what happened after and as we left the movie.

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Not exactly a full house; theater staff said about 1,100 tickets were sold for the entire week. The number may go up, but that’s consistent with the movie’s low numbers.

My first, strong reaction was that very few people leaving the movie would have any idea what happened with the “CDC Whistleblower.” The audience left knowing next to nothing about the events it’s supposedly about; I confirmed that by talking to people afterwards, and they had very little grasp on the facts.

That’s no surprise. The movie is propaganda—it’s not educational, it’s manipulative and inflammatory. We can’t fact-check every statement or point out every strategic omission in the movie, so here are some simple and obvious illustrations of how it deceives audiences.

To fans of the movie who have seen it: I don’t expect this will change your mind. I don’t think much of anything would, really; I asked people on the ConspiraSea Cruise what evidence would change their minds, and not a single person could describe evidence that would persuaded them they were wrong. (Even Wakefield gave me a roundabout, evasive response.) Doesn’t that sound like ideology to you? Even if this doesn’t change your mind, I hope it makes you think. Do you know what William Thompson really thinks about vaccines? Or about Wakefield or Hooker? Do you know what data the CDC supposedly destroyed, or whether anyone has ever found any actual problems with the study it performed? Do you know what other independent organizations have found the same thing the CDC did—a total lack of any causal connection between vaccines and autism? Most fans of the movie don’t know anything about these subjects. If it leaves you scared and angry but misinformed, doesn’t that make it propaganda? And if you think it did leave you informed, well, see how many of these facts you actually knew.

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