A good conspiracy is unprovable. I mean, if you can prove it, it means they screwed up somewhere along the line.’
Jerry Fletcher (played by Mel Gibson) in the 1997 movie Conspiracy Theory.
High profile scientist David Bellamy was not led to the mythic rocks of destruction, but to the cold hard reality of glaciers. He was unwittingly seduced by the sirens of conspiracy theory. His 2005 letter to New Scientis magazine questioned the reality of global warming and made false assertions about glacier melting rates. Guardian columnist George Monbiot traced Bellamy’s flawed claims back to a conspiracist website run by a group of addled crackpots led by Lyndon LaRouche.
Columnist John Naughton wrote that it was a lack of scepticism toward this type of ‘codswallop that lured Bellamy to his professional doom’. We can nod about how silly this all is when our political adversaries make such dubious claims and shrill predictions revealing their gullibility; but what about when it is our political allies who embrace conspiracy theories? Belief in them is rampant around the world, and increasingly among activists working for peace, a safe environment, social equality, civil liberties and economic justice. Conspiracism in these human rights movements, in my view, distorts accurate strategic analysis and undermines effective action.
Criticizing the flaws in conspiracy thinking, however, has made me part of the conspiracy – as a simple internet search will confirm. Critics like me are dubbed ‘Left Gatekeepers’ who are tools of the ruling élites and the CIA. The Canadian journalist Barrie Zwicker suggests we are all part of the ‘Conspiracy Theory Conspiracy’. Zwicker produced a DVD The Great Conspiracy: The 9/11 News Special You Never Saw, and wrote Towers of Deception.
‘An entire industry has sprung up about the speculation of the events of 9/11,’ reports the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s flagship public affairs programme The Fifth Estate. After thoroughly researching numerous 9/11 conspiracy claims, it ‘found no credible evidence in the public domain to prove the US Government had any specific advance knowledge of exactly what would happen on 11 September 2001’. According to the programme: ‘The most infamous conspiracy theorist of them all is Thierry Meyssan. His book The Big Lie was a bestseller in Europe.’ One English journalist stated: ‘Meyssan’s theories are often circumlocutory and warped. They contain huge gaps.’ The less formal Canadian journalists just called them ‘wild allegations’.
It’s not just about 9/11. Conspiracy theories flourish in many areas. As if the documented erosion of civil liberties in the United States were not bad enough, conspiracy hysterics such as Alex Jones and Jeff Rense feature forecasts of élite conspiracies presaging tyranny and massive waves of destruction. In Britain, David Icke warns of humanoid lizard aliens plotting really bad things, and fills auditoriums around the world when he tours. In Japan – a country with an infinitesimal Jewish population – antisemitic conspiracy theories are widespread. In parts of Africa, conspiracy theories about what causes AIDS have resulted in needless deaths.
Sonali Kolhatkar hosts a radio news programme in Los Angeles. Her specialty is the war in Afghanistan. When she speaks in public she is heckled by vocal audience members who bring up ‘the 9/11 attacks as some sort of “inside job” which implies [that] I should really be talking about the “much bigger story”’.’ Kolhatkar objects when ‘serious journalism is mixed in with conspiracy theory’ in a way that draws in ‘innocent listeners’. This is ‘hard to resist unless you are a complete sceptic and willing to do lots of homework’.
We are all attracted to conspiracy theories. Forensic psychologist Evan Harrington suggests that to some extent ‘suspiciousness is part of human nature’. Part of ‘our evolutionary heritage’, he says, is that humans are ‘efficient at organizing social information’. This ability and the ‘need to see patterns, or to resolve ambiguity, is not always detrimental’, but can lead to errors of judgement and ignored evidence. This is especially true when traumatic events make it difficult to find an explanation to fit the drama and scale of our memories. Conspiracy is the easy answer.
Conspiracy theories are stories with a plot revealing who is villainous and who is virtuous. As an overly simplistic perceptual frame, conspiracism is rooted in the age-old dualist view of a battle between the forces of good and evil. This easily becomes a narrative form of scapegoating which leaves real problems unresolved by directing attention away from the legitimate targets of our organizing.
Why is trying to argue with conspiracy theorists so frustrating? ‘Once an individual makes such a deep investment in a belief system,’ says Harrington, ‘it can be very difficult to dissuade them. Experiments have shown that we all, to some extent, have a “disconfirmation bias” in which we try to explain away information that doesn’t fit what we already believe.’ This selective perception allows conspiracy theorists to latch on to eccentric crumb-sized claims while ignoring mountains of easily documented evidence. Harrington notes that ‘some people have a greater need for resolution of puzzles than others’, while some ‘have a greater intolerance for ambiguity than others’. Lacking information, these folks connect the dots with speculation without finishing their research homework.
Conspiracy theorists are correct about one thing: the status quo is not acceptable. They have accurately understood that there are inequalities of power and privilege in the world – and threats to the world itself – that need to be rectified. What conspiracy theorists lack is either the desire or ability to follow the basic rules of logic. Their claims, however, are compelling. Conspiracy books are top sellers on the online US Amazon bookstore, including a range of 9/11 conspiracy books by Jim Marrs, Webster G Tarpley, Michael C Ruppert and the theologian David Ray Griffin.
Not all scholars accept that conspiracism is fatally flawed. Michael Parenti, Peter Dale Scott, David Ray Griffin and Michel Chossudovsky promote the use of conspiracy theories as a form of analysis. Scott and Griffin attended a Vancouver 9/11 Truth Conference along with Tarpley. Chossudovsky, a Canadian academic, sent a video. As of August 2007 you could still visit Chossudovsky’s Global Research website and read a 2004 screed by Tarpley – a former LaRouche acolyte – who warned that the ‘Bush Regime was working out Procedures for postponing November Election’. I’m an optimist, so I went to vote anyway.
Real problems, phoney solutions
Professor G William Domhoff, the dean of Power Structure Research, argues against conspiracism because ‘there are powerful élites, but the individuals are interchangeable’. With conspiracism, questions of race, class and gender are almost always shoved aside. Political and economic policies are framed as controlled by a handful of powerful and wealthy secret élites manipulating elections, foreign and domestic policy and the media. This sets the stage for resuscitating historic antisemitic claims of Jewish plots. The fixation on sinister individuals leads us astray. It is precisely those forms of analysis that explore the structural, institutional and systemic aspects of power that provide ‘deep research’ and help activists avoid historic bigotry and make effective strategic and tactical decisions.
There actually are real conspiracies. Political and economic power is frequently abused. There are plenty of documented scandals based on uncovering corporate and governmental abuses: ‘there may be some very good reasons to distrust authority figures’. When information is not forthcoming, however, ‘the situation is ripe for rumour and gossip. Rumours tend to grow when people feel strongly about the issue… I see gossip, rumours and conspiracy theories as a sort of continuum.’
Ironically, government secrecy feeds the process. Kit Gage, director of the Defending Dissent Foundation in Washington DC, tells people who raise various conspiracy theories about 9/11 or other tragedies in recent years that ‘regardless of who did what to create those tragedies, the civil liberties results are the same’. Therefore, she concludes, ‘it is restoring and bolstering those civil liberties that we must pursue, now and vigorously. History will take care of the rest.’
We should focus on the abuses we can plainly see, rather than endlessly searching the shadows. The same can be said for any issue: conspiracy theories spotlight lots of fascinating questions – but they seldom illuminate meaningful answers.
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