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Notes on conspiracy theories

February 13, 2010

Interesting interview with David Aaronovitch, who has a new book on conspiracy theories:

I think we live in a more conspiracist period. There’s no question there are more of them, and they’re more global, and they take off more quickly. They’re also more complex and relate to virtual communities rather than real ones. I think it’s because of global interdependence. We live a global period, and there’s a huge temptation among people to believe there is a master plan, because otherwise the suggestion is we’re interdependent and the world is chaotic — and that’s a mindfuck.

Not to be vulgar about it, but Aaronovitch seems unaware of the pleasures of a good hard mindfuck. That heady sense of disorientation is what conspiracy theorists get off on. Like science fiction, their close cousin, conspiracy theories dress up boring real-world facts in a dizzying fantasy.

Seriously though, no matter what you think of them, conspiracy theories signal that under the hood all is not right with the modern world. If you think they’re ridiculous, then vast numbers of people are about as foolish as medieval peasants. And worse, they’re willfully ignorant. But if you subscribe to conspiracy theories, then vast numbers of people are not just stupid but suckered. They’ve been had by powerful, shadowy players, often the very ones they trust most. In this way, conspiracy theories are sort of like religious fundamentalisms: either the world is seriously damned or it’s seriously diseased because so many people think it’s damned. By the way, would it be paranoid of me to suggest that this resemblance is not coincidental?

Conspiracy theories are now so common and so varied that the time seems ripe for a new academic niche: ‘interdisciplinary conspiracy studies’ or something. It could draw on psychology, anthropology, literary studies, history, sociology, philosophy, etc. When academics colonize a new subject the first step is always, in the parlance, to ‘problematize,’ to declare that each case involves a number of very complex factors.

Well, there certainly are different kinds of conspiracy theories. Early death-related theories are always very sentimental: the world took JFK, Marilyn, and Diana because they were too good for it. On the other hand, a world where Elvis or Tupac aren’t still alive is simply too much for some people to take. Then you have your opiates of the masses, which salve legitimate discontent. Hence the belief that the CIA manufactured AIDS and crack as weapons against gays and blacks. There are also techno-conspiracies—fluoridated water and airplane contrails and the like–which play on our fear of technology penetrating our personal space. The so-called Big Lie is a conspiracy theory propagated as part of a real conspiracy: Hitler’s Big Lie was accusing Jews of an even bigger one. Finally, there are neurosis-like theories, which people turn to as a way of hiding from themselves: basically, you can’t admit, even to yourself, that you’re creeped out by Obama’s complexion, so instead you insist that you’ve managed to sniff out his foreign birth.

Of course, the hallmark of modern conspiracy theories is the cover-up. The principal conspiracy is less to do something than to get people to believe something. The authorities are always on it, and the official story never needs to be taken seriously because it’s just what they want you to think! Hitler and Goebbels were remarkably prescient about the power of the lie so outrageous it has to be true, but they erred in thinking that the lie had to be sustained by a repressive state. There are lots of lies of that survive and replicate perfectly well without state support. These are lies that implicate the powers that be, lies that are strengthened (or even proved true!) by official attempts to regulate or dispel them.

The standard line about conspiracy theories is that they arise from a desperate, frustrated need to find order in an increasingly chaotic world. That’s true enough, but it doesn’t cut very deep. Nowadays what belief doesn’t come from such a need? We’re human beings: pretty much everything we do is an attempt to stave off chaos of one kind or another. Nor is it very helpful to simply berate conspiracy-believers for believing stupid things. For one thing, a lot people believe a lot of stupid things: conspiracy theories are a drop in the bucket. For another, the tendency to believe conspiracy theories shares common DNA with healthier mindsets.

Like discredited scientific theories, conspiracy theories don’t just come out of nowhere. They have their roots in perfectly sensible thinking. They often expose genuine mysteries. For example, the man behind Shakespeare’s plays is a real mystery. But the mistake is to think that the mystery is simply biographical: the inscrutability of genius would remain even when the biography is settled. And don’t forget that petty conspiracies are not all that uncommon. For generations tabloids and celebrities have thrived on a conspiracy to deliver “unauthorized” photos and inside dirt. Viral marketing and celebrity sex tapes are the latest forms of this, but certainly not the last. More broadly, we have been taught to look for hidden lines of dependence and responsibility: shopping at Wal-mart supports sweatshops; proceeds from marijuana sales go directly to al-Qaeda; eating meat makes you complicit in the industrialized torture of billions of animals. We have been taught how political ideology and economic interest can warp our vision of the facts. We have been taught to ask “Cui bono? Who benefits?” and conclude that those who benefit from a situation must also have engineered it.

People have a natural aversion to being duped. It’s painful and humiliating. It’s possible to avoid being duped by simply never believing what anyone else tells you. But then you’d probably wind up believing lots of false things. But in our world truth has been devalued. We think: “no one has a monopoly on truth, so what’s the point? Isn’t truth relative anyway” The effect of this is that many people would much rather be wrong all the time than be duped even once. Like Milton’s Satan, they would rather be wrong on their own terms than right on someone else’s, especially those of the powerful.

This does more than simply lead people into willful ignorance. The emphasis on rooting out hidden intentions sets the bar for wrongdoing too low. We start to think: “if there was no conspiracy to do X then there is really nothing to be done about it; if it wasn’t intentional it can’t be corrected and no one can be blamed for it.” But of course this is a false choice. Was there a conspiracy to deceive the American public into supporting the Iraq war? If that means ‘did Cheney and his inner circle knowingly deceive people about WMD?’ then the answer is ‘no.’ But that doesn’t exonerate them. It’s not an either-or. It ignores the fact that people and institutions are guided by forces far deeper and more subtle than intention. One way or another, Cheney and others acted to create a climate in which invasion was a foregone conclusion.

In a related way, Aaronovitch is mistaken when he thinks the choice is between intelligible conspiracy and unintelligible chaos. That may be how conspiracy theorists see things, but then again that’s part of their problem. It’s simply a false choice. It’s not that things are either designed by someone or else pure chaos. There are, increasingly, features of our society that are ordered, but not consciously designed. No one intended for the stock market to crash, but it wasn’t random either. The military-industrial complex didn’t kill Kennedy, but its influence is in society is real. The war on drugs isn’t intended to incarcerate black males, but it wouldn’t be so popular if it didn’t have that effect. Conspiracy theories don’t so much create order out of chaos as humanize the vast impersonal forces that shape our lives. They put a face on or, more accurately, behind complex phenomena.

So there is a kind of subtle truth to conspiracy theories, and this is probably why post-modern writers like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo are so fascinated by them. In any case, it would be a mistake to dismiss them as mere stupidity. For we are all more or less in the same boat. There are phenomena that are neither intentional nor chaotic, yet because we evolved for a simpler world we naturally gravitate toward thinking that things are one or the other. There is a middle ground, but we simply don’t yet have the full intellectual resources to make sense of it. It may be that conspiracy theorists aren’t dumber than the rest of us but simply less willing to tolerate this lack.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Joe permalink
    February 16, 2010 2:00 pm

    Great post. Negligence can still be criminal.

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