There is obviously a great deal of interest in the subject of conspiracies these days, and many different ideas floating around about who and what might be conspiring about what. The world seems increasingly divided between those who see conspiracies everywhere and those who are committed to denouncing the whole idea of conspiracy and vilifying those who believe in them. Did the US actually land people on the moon in 1969, or was the whole thing shot on a back lot in Burbank? Who really killed Kennedy? Is Justin Bieber a reptilian shape shifter?
I’m a well-known contrarian. I’m going to speak up on behalf of conspiracy theories generally. It isn’t necessary to accept full details of each and every widespread conspiracy theory in order to acknowledge that there actually are conspiracies affecting public life, and that some of them deserve serious investigation. (I’m not going to firmly commit myself on the Moon landing, at the moment, although I find the Bieber/reptilian connection oddly persuasive.)
The fact is, most of human history is nothing BUT conspiracies. What’s a conspiracy? It’s a relatively small number of people getting together at some point to plan and/or act on something to their mutual advantage. Sounds like your divisional staff meeting this morning? Like the PTA meeting last night? Getting together with some of your family to plan Xmas festivities? I would guess that each of us is up to our ears in 10–15 different conspiracies at any one time. We tell ourselves that since we are good people, we can’t possibly be conspiring, because conspiracy is something that only bad people do. The dynamics of conspiracy are pretty much the same whether the object is world domination or a better surprise birthday party.
Society exists and is managed as an intricate dance of different conspiracies (AKA “organizations”, groups, etc. — pick your level of aggregation.) Of course, some conspiracies have more effect than others. There are certainly well-documented conspiracies that have had and continue to have enormous impact on American public life. The federal Constitution was written by a conspiracy. From Burr’s conspiracy in the early 19th century to the Bankers’ Plot of 1934, there is a steady trail of ideas about overthrowing the government. The number of financial scandals and conspiracies throughout American history probably approximates the number of stars in this galaxy. The relatively recent scandal involving manipulation of currency rates by a combine of British and American banks provides clear evidence that we are still at it. The conspiracy between J.P. Morgan, George Westinghouse, and Thomas Edison to discredit and destroy Nikola Tesla is also well-documented by historians, and continues to affect our day-to-day existence in deplorable ways. There is even an entire field of “government conspiracy law” that is worth noting.
The phrase “conspiracy theory” was dreamed up by the government as a generic way of smearing and discrediting any alternatives to the official narrative regarding the Kennedy assassination. It continues to be used primarily as a term of insult applied to any alternative to any official narrative. And there is no shortage of pundits and op-ed writers happy to condemn any and all conspiracy theories and denounce anyone who professes belief in any of them. Simply labeling a narrative as a conspiracy theory is generally sufficient to shut it down completely, to provide reason not to examine any evidence put forth, and to discredit anyone expressing such a narrative.
On the contrary, I would argue that a reasonable attention to the possibility of conspiracy is simply responsible public policy analysis. If anyone seriously believes only all of the official narratives, s/he is simply too naive to participate in today’s society. This is wrong, and does not contribute to the growth of a healthy body of social information. The Latin phrase “cui bono?” ought to be front and center in any meaningful analysis of political, social, and/or economic developments. We owe it to ourselves and our society to be both suspicious and attentive to all the social narratives put forth. We no longer have a journalistic “fourth estate” on which we can rely to dig up the real stories; that’s a casualty of the new information environment. So responsible citizenship now requires our own personal attention to the social and political narratives with which we are confronted, since we can be almost certain that the public versions are carefully edited to match the interests of those who originate them — that is to say, a conspiracy of one form or another.
Once upon a time, almost everyone tended to believe the official narratives. Also once upon a time, scientists believe that the earth had developed gradually and uniformly over a long period of time, with only minor changes taking place at a given moment. Now, we understand that the Earth’s development is much more like a set of punctuated equilibria, where periods of more or less stability alternate with periods of catastrophe and fairly dramatic changes. Now also, it’s time to understand that our social institutions do not always deliver optimal solutions to everyone, and that they are not necessarily on your side, since these institutions are largely owned and operated by conspirators acting on their own behalf. We call this giant intersecting batch of conspiracies “the market”, and we desperately hope that enough of the conspiracies will cancel each other out or reinforce each other to keep things more or less stable overall. Except, of course, for when they don’t.
Paranoia is the idea that people may be conspiring against you to do evil to you. Of course, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. There is also a parallel concept called “pronoia”, or the idea that people may be conspiring to do you good. For some reason, this is a much less prevalent delusion than paranoia, although it’s not uncommonly experienced.
It’s certainly true that much of what tends to be attributed to conspiracies is actually the result of simple incompetence or stupidity. But there is no doubt that there is a core of determined conspiracies that will succeed, and one of the tests of their success is that you won’t ever know that they did. History, as they say, is written by the victors, and those who achieve their victory through conspiracy aren’t likely to broadcast the fact. They’re much more likely to tell you “Move along now, nothing to see here.” You’d be surprised at how successful even arrant nonsense can be when it’s backed up by the police power of the state.
It’s also true that there is a tendency to expand theories about conspiracies, and to link different kinds of conspiracies together as a result of the same set of conspirators. The result is often an overblown or highly improbable combination of conspiracies that tends to cast doubt on all of its components. For example, it’s not necessary to accept the full range of theories about 9/11 to find some things extremely suspicious about, for example, the collapse of building number 7 as a probably controlled demolition. Nor is it necessary to endorse the proposition that the British Royal family are lizard shape shifters who eat babies in order to accept that members of the family have enormous financial resources that they use in some very strange ways. It’s also unlikely that elite American men meet annually at the Bohemian Grove primarily to have sex with children, but there’s no doubt that there are many varieties of financial conspiracies that are doubtless consummated in that environment. Trying to wrap all the minor conspiracies up into one grand overarching conspiracy such as the illuminati control of the world limits our ability to find and prosecute the specific smaller scale conspiracies that really make life difficult.
Conspiracy theories are a hard sell, even in today’s environment. Despite all the evidence of history, most people are desperate to believe that they are not being conspired against. Like the devil, the greatest success of any conspiracy is convincing you that it doesn’t exist. Dismissing the idea of conspiracies altogether just gives carte blanche to the real conspirators. Good luck with that.