Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The seductive lure of conspiracy theories

My weekend op-ed in the newspaper.

To conspire,” verb: from the Latin con spirare, “to breathe with”: 1. to join in a secret agreement to do an unlawful or wrongful act or an act which becomes unlawful as a result of the secret agreement . 2. to act in harmony toward a common end. - Merriam-Webster

“Never attribute to conspiracy that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”
- The First Principle of Conspiracy.

The Daily Kos website recently posted the results of a survey that purported to find that in spite of contemporary birth announcements in newspapers and Hawaiian state documents, 28 percent of Republicans believe President Obama was not born in the U.S. and 30 percent are not sure.

Note however, this is the same website that took seriously columnist Andrew Sullivan's claim Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin was not the mother, but the grandmother of her child Trig.

In 1997 when I was living in former Yugoslavia a student very seriously asked me, “Do you think (President) Milosevic is working for Clinton?”

After 9/11 a student in Poland asked me, “Is it true that all the Jews who worked in the World Trade Center were told to stay home that day?”

What is the appeal of the notion events are ruled by sinister groups of conspirators?

For one, conspiracy theories appeal to our sense of self-importance and the thrill of possessing occult knowledge. "Everybody's been duped about how the world really runs but me and a few like-minded comrades. We know things nobody else does."

Conspiracy theories offer reassurance. The realization the powerful are not inherently wiser than we are can be terrifying. The idea those in charge are sinister conspirators is actually reassuring, if the alternative is that no one really knows what's going on.

And then there are people so convinced of the self-evident rightness of their position the mere existence of people who disagree is incomprehensible. They must have ulterior motives for denying what is so obviously true.

For example, the reaction of the proponents of the administration's health care plan to the opposition amounts to sheer incomprehension that so many people could sincerely disagree. Which causes them to, equally sincerely, attribute dissent to “a vast right-wing conspiracy” in Hillary Clinton's famous words.*

Real or not, widespread belief in conspiracies has driven historical events more often than we're comfortable thinking about. Historian Bernard Bailyn has documented how much popular belief in a conspiracy against American liberty motivated the American Revolution. The Nazis claimed a Jewish conspiracy against Germany justified the “Final Solution.”

Calling a claim someone is making a “conspiracy theory” can be used to dismiss, rather than address a position.

The Associated Press recently ran an article stating, “Conspiracy theories about a secret Mexican plan to reclaim the Southwest are also growing amid the public debate about illegal immigration.”

Calling it a “conspiracy theory” is disingenuous. In fact, there is a “conspiracy” in the sense of “acting to a common end,” but it's not the least bit secret. It's openly discussed in articles, websites, and speeches by Mexican officials and Mexican-American intellectuals who have never forgotten what Americans never remember – that the southwest quarter of the U.S. was once the northern half of Mexico.

And, sometimes there really are conspiracies. That's why we have criminal conspiracy laws.

“Never be surprised by conspiracy. Conspiracy is normal primate politics.”
- The Second Principle of Conspiracy

* Hillary's dismissal of claims her husband had "sexual relations with that woman" and lied about it under oath.


  • At 6:57 AM, Blogger Ted Amadeus said…

    Gee, sounds an awful lot like religion...Go figure!
    Actually, as I like to put it, large groups of unthinking idiots led by cunning liars in a similar direction can often take on the appearance of a conspiracy.
    Also, when a sizable number of upper-crust believe they are the be-all-and-end-all, the result can be the trending of systems and societies toward a specific point: Their unknowing like-mindedness (take the almost-universally-accepted delusion of altruism, for example) guides these "leaders" there like a siren-song to the rocks.
    I'm not absolutely certain, but I'm not dismissing the idea either.

  • At 6:01 AM, Blogger Steve said…

    In his novel 'The Earth Will Shake,' Robert Anton Wilson mentioned that in Naples there was a church that for centuries annually exhibited a "miracle," the liquification of the blood of San Genaro (if memory serves.)

    He pointed out that you must either accept, 1) a miracle happening regularly as clockwork on a given date every year, or
    2) a centuries-old conspiracy. old.


Post a Comment

<< Home