If you live in Boston, Pittsburgh, Seattle, or a number of other cities, there's a very good chance you've had a run in with the LaRouche People. It probably mirrored an encounter I recently had trying to cross Commonwealth Avenue. Somebody (who looked and sounded like a German exchange student) approached me and said, "What are your plans for the development of the solar system in the next fifty years?"
"I'm sorry, what?" I asked. I thought perhaps I had misheard him.
He repeated, "What are your plans for the development of the solar system in the next fifty years?"
I explained to my interlocutor (whom I will call Hans) that I did not have any plans for the development of the solar system in the next fifty years. Space travel is costly and time-consuming, and fifty years from now I imagined us possibly somewhere in the late-exploration, maybe early-colonization phase — but definitely not in the development age.
Hans wanted to know why I didn't have plans to develop the solar system.
I tried to explain that with the time and distance involved, it wasn't practical, and that more importantly, I didn't particularly care about developing the solar system.
Hans wanted to put 200 billion people on Mars. Then he started talking about how modern science was a conspiracy against human progress. Then he asked why I hadn't read the complete works of Kepler. Then he talked about Bush and the Right-Wing Conspiracy. I think all my professors were in the conspiracy as well. If I disagreed with anything, Hans would say, "How do you know that?"
"I read a book on it," I would say.
"A book? What, so just because it's in a book it's suddenly true?"
As most conversations with LaRouchies, it went nowhere. As usual, he wanted me to read the LaRouche Tract and maybe come to one of their political meetings. I felt a few minutes older.
There are two ways to view the LaRouche People. First, you could view them as a source of annoyance and harassment. I, on the other hand, tend to view them as a source of free entertainment. Sometimes, you have a free lunch hour. All your friends are out that day — and you need to kill time in a different way. You could kill time on the internet, but that's what you've been doing for the past four hours when you were supposed to be working. Fortunately, the LaRouche people want to talk to you. And why, as a friend once asked me, would you stop and talk to them? Ask instead why you would climb a mountain or why you would run a marathon. (Or, considering who's likely to read this, why you would install a plexiglass panel in your computer case so people can see your processor.) Because you can! Because they're there! And like the mountain, talking to the LaRouche People is a challenge. And just like climbing Everest is one of the greatest physical challenges, having an intelligent conversation with a LaRouchie is one of the great rhetorical challenges in our century. Some say it can't be done.
Just as you wouldn't want to climb Everest without some ropes, training, and other safety gear, it is important not to talk to a LaRouche Person unprepared. In order to get the most entertainment out of talking to the LaRouche Youth Movement, you need to abide by a few simple principles.
It may be tempting to try — but these guys are wicked jaded to crazies. When I worried that 200 billion people on Mars could lead to interplanetary war because there was no mutually assured destruction, Hans listened with a straight face and explained why that wasn't very likely. If you want to try to gradually escalate the story into the ridiculous and see how long it takes them to notice, it doesn't work. You can't out-crazy the LaRouche People. When they talk about the imminent collapse of civilization unless we build a nuclear-powered desalinization plant in Gaza, they're completely serious.
The LaRouche People read the writings of a number dead people, predominantly 18th-century mathematicians and scientists. They also get some kind of bizarre spin on what each of these people valued. Kepler and Leibniz are good. Newton is bad. Riemann good. Aristotle bad. They will say things like, "In effect, Fermat, and later Leibniz, were defining the completed paths from the standpoint of the 'moments of becoming.'" If this doesn't make sense, it's not your fault. Fermat and Leibniz didn't really write those things — at least not in the way the LaRouche people are spinning them. They may also use words or terms you've never heard of before, like "physical economy." Some of these are special LaRouche words that either have no meaning or mean radically different things in the rest of the world.
Occasionally a LaRouche Person will say to me something like, "Now you're being like Newton! You've got to be more like Leibniz." Did he mean I needed to be more like a dead German inventor of calculus rather than a dead English inventor of calculus? Rather than sorting out exactly which bit of Leibniz's extensive writings he meant to contrast with Newton's extensive writings, I've found that a counterattack works best in these situations. Talk about something esoteric and full of jargon that you know a fair amount about that he won't. For law students, this may mean the rule against perpetuities. For Computer Science, this might mean... well, anything at all. LaRouche isn't very big on the information economy — so you're probably OK talking about something like email, though you could throw in a bit of theory in case you get one who used to have a life. Talk quickly, use long words, and pretend you expect them to understand you. Don't be subtle. Make sure you're blatantly parodying the way they were throwing around language. They still won't get it — but they're not the one you want to amuse.
This principle might sound mean at first — but once you've talked to the LaRouche people, you'll understand how important it is. Whatever they were before they joined the LaRouche Youth Movement has been stripped away. Somebody has put something back — to enable them to carry on a dialog, of sorts. However, that person was too lazy to program a decent sense of humor. Hans told me that we often think about the solar system in the same way we think about ourselves. I told him that I had always wondered why I imagined the solar system had an enormous penis. It was like telling a joke to Anna, the IKEA Help-bot.
You will notice very quickly that LaRouche People tend to ask a lot of questions. You could try to answer their questions, in which case you would be on the receiving end of the Socratic method. Alternatively, you could play the Question Game. The trick is that the LaRouche People don't know they're playing the Question Game. Eventually they will crack and answer one. Don't let up, though. Keep them on the defensive. Make them support their answers. Keep them talking. Most importantly, ask questions that require them to think a bit. If you have trouble coming up with more questions, just repeat one of the questions they asked. (In the question game, repeats are a technical violation — but nobody's keeping score.) Try things like, "That's an interesting question. You've clearly thought about it. How would you answer it?" Then make them repeat their answer in their own words.
This step is at once the most important and the most challenging. Can you find something that the LaRouche Person actually believes? Delving into the mind of a LaRouche person is like sort of like going on a space walk. It's a vast and terrifying emptiness. Part of the brainwashing technique involves breaking down everything once known. Unfortunately, there's not much left underneath the LaRouche Babble. If you can get them to commit to something as simple as "I like Lyndon LaRouche" or "Dick Cheney is bad," you're getting somewhere. Unfortunately, their concepts of "Lyndon LaRouche" and "Dick Cheney" might be a bit nebulous — so try to get something a bit more concrete like "Ice cream is yummy."
Once you have a few things nailed down, don't let them go. The LaRouche People have a fairly poor grip on relevancy. When I asked how Bush's economic plan was connected to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (Heisenberg bad), one told me, completely seriously, that "they have everything to do with each other. They're both in the universe!"
Occasionally you will start getting vaguely thoughtful responses out of one of the LaRouche People. This really worries the other LaRouche People who see one of their number has started to think independently. Thus, somebody else will come in and join the conversation. However, this new person doesn't have any of the context the previous person had. The new person is still asking the same questions the first person started with. Worse yet, you don't know whether the new person likes ice cream. You're back at the very beginning. Don't let this happen! Soon the first person will slip off, probably for reprogramming, and you're stuck talking to the new person. Inevitably, the new person is the supervisor, or whatever Senior LaRouche people are called, and so all your work with the first person is wasted.
Unfortunately, I haven't figured out how to stop this, but I have a few ideas of what might work. You might be able to ask LaRouchie #1 to explain to LaRouchie #2 what you're talking about. You might be able to disagree vehemently with LaRouchie #2 and say that you agree with LaRouchie #1b. You might be able to isolate one and preempt the tag team before it even happens. Convince one to stray from the hive a bit. "That's really interesting — I'm going to grab a quick bite to eat. Want to come with me?" I doubt that would work--but it would be worth a try. The most effective way would probably be to have a buddy of your own to take care of the one running interference. This could be done by simply distracting LaRouchie #2 with questions and eventually screening out LaRouchie #1 or it could be done by running up at the crucial moment and saying, "Hey, don't I know you from somewhere? Yeah — I'm sure it was you. Why didn't you call me the next day?" Because most LaRouchies are male, use a male friend. LaRouche People aren't always comfortable with homosexuality.
Or perhaps they're not brain-dead but simply brainwashed. Once upon a time, every LaRouchie was an idealistic young person. Some shell of that idealistic young person still exists, albeit in a reanimated, mechanical form. It is important to remember that underlying mechanics of rational thought are still there, even if they're somewhat rusty. For example, as soon as I told Hans that I was fascinated by his ideas and wished that there was some sort of charismatic leader to tell me what I should think, perhaps somebody with a felony conviction, he knew I wasn't serious. It is very important for LaRouche people to be too intelligent to remain in school.
If you say things like, "Can you name two prominent anti-Semites who had quasi-militant youth movements?" the LaRouche people might get unhappy. Similarly, it's best not to talk about about LaRouche's felony convictions or some of his other peculiarities. If you mention any of these, the LaRouche people will start talking about the conspiracy against their noble leader. They will also throw out names of respectable people who talked to , respected, or served as defense attorney to LaRouche at some point. At this point, any rational discussion is functionally over.
Once you are prepared, go forth and talk to a LaRouche person. If you're really good, perhaps you can convince them to stop being a LaRouche person. Once you've explored this possibility, you can try to mix it up a little bit. Frequently there are other people pushing other things on the street near the LaRouche people. Lure one of the LaRouche People closer to a street preacher — preferably one carrying an 8 foot tall cross and wearing a sack. See if you can get the two to argue. See if you can get the two to agree. As Hans would say, there is no limit the the human imagination.
Oh. While you're having fun, be a little bit careful. The LaRouche people may be a bona-fide cult. In a science fiction movie, the brainless automatons seem harmless enough — but you know that's not going to last.