A bit of a role reversal this week: Charlie Sheen fronts for 9/11 conspiracy theories while Sting labors to bring a strip club to New York. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? (Columnist Marina Hyde in the Guardian Unlimited has great fun with this, and manages to get a dig in at Tom Cruise as well).
It’s too easy to mock the Hollywood and rock stars who fall prey to the lastest bunkum conspiracy theories. The continuing appeal of these paranoid fantasies, however, does not bode well for the American body politic. The Internet has fueled the spread of wild rumors and theories, and “evidence” of any given conspiracy (the assassinations of JFK or RFK; 9/11; Bush and fabricated WMD intelligence) can be found on numerous websites. More disturbingly, there are signs in national polls that popular attitudes and beliefs are being formed by some of this bunkum.
For example, the “Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction (WMD)” meme has become accepted Gospel for many on the fringe left and, sadly, many closer to the Democratic mainstream who argue for a “multifaceted conspiracy that included not only as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice, but also Colin Powell, then serving as secretary of State; British Prime Minister Tony Blair; the CIA; British intelligence; and even the Clinton administration, all of whom maintained that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD.”
What are the facts? As Patrick Chisholm pointed out in a recent Christian Science Monitor piece, the claim doesn’t hold up:
“The bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report, the Robb-Silberman Commission report, and Britain’s Butler report found that the Bush administration did not lie, distort, or prod intelligence agencies to alter their findings on WMD. Robb-Silberman concluded that it was “the paucity of intelligence and poor analytical tradecraft, rather than political pressure, that produced the inaccurate pre-war intelligence assessments.”
It is not hard to find fault with the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy (want the list? do you have all day?); yet it is not necessary to assume the worst–a conspiracy to lie the U.S. into war, or some nefarious plot to wrest oil riches from Iraq. An even more unappetizing version of this particular paranoid fantasy, recently surfaced by an unlikely provocateur, the dean of Harvard’s JFK School, floats the idea that a small cabal of neoconservatives and the “pro-Israel lobby” are controlling American foreign policy and had steered the U.S. to attack Saddam to protect…Israel.
As the historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out in his essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, a reflection prompted by the Age of McCarthy, those who fabricate convoluted conspiracy theories do not let the facts get in the way; their fantasy world becomes satisfyingly coherent, “since it leaves no room for mistakes, failures, or ambiguities.”
Hofstadter had focused on the far Right of 1950s, but his observations were timeless. He looked back at the paranoid style in American political history (including the anti-Masonic, anti-Mormon and anti-Catholic movements, and elements of abolitionism, etc.) and at the anger of the fringe Right after World War II and concluded:
“The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest–perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demand–are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed.”
Sound familiar? Now it is the angry American Left that has seen its favored national candidates defeated, its favored social and economic policies ignored or rejected, and has been shut out of power. Thus the turn to the paranoid style.
Hofstadter also noted that those who adopt the paranoid style are convinced of their own righteousness and see themselves as “the Elect, wholly good, abominally persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph.” He concluded that “to see the world in this way may be a persistent psychic phenomenon, more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population.”
Conspiracies do exist. They can be kept secret (although usually not for too long). They involve small groups of dedicated people, are commonly limited in scope and time, and are most successful when focused on a single, or discrete, action or outcome.
Examples? Iran-contra. Soviet espionage efforts to steal A-bomb secrets in the late 1940s. Watergate. The attempt on Pope John Paul’s life. What distinguishes real conspiracies from the paranoid conspiracy theories is their simplicity.
Real conspiracies conform to Occam’s Razor, the principle of parsimony: they are not complex, following the idea that “one should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything.”
In contrast, the conspiracies dreamed up by conspiracy buffs are rarely simple. They tend to be global, all-encompassing, complex. They explain the major shifts in history as a function of plots by the powerful or hidden-hand conspiracies. A fundamental flaw in this thinking: it presupposes that large numbers of people will go along with (usually) illegal, immoral and covert activities and remain silent.
Take the Area 51 conspiracy: the idea that the U.S. government has covered up its knowledge of UFOs and aliens for more than 50 years. How could a secret of that magnitude be kept for that long a period of time? In today’s tabloid world, wouldn’t the lure of a big-money book and movie deal loosen the lips of those in the know about the aliens? (As an aside, why do UFOs only show up in lonely and remote places? Are aliens anti-social? Why don’t flying saucers ever buzz Times Square?).
Another example: the idea that the U.S. government, Mossad, the “international Jewish conspiracy,” the CIA, or other “nefarious” organizations somehow staged 9/11, and that they have been able to keep this monstrous deed quiet, is absurd. A few weeks ago Porter Goss, head of CIA, complained in the New York Times that, in essence, the U.S government couldn’t keep anything secret because of leaks and these disclosures were hurting the war on terror. How could a conspiracy of the size and scope imagined by the “9/11 Truth” groups remain secret? (Unless, of course, “everyone” is in on the cover-up. That sort of paranoia calls more for treatment than debate).
Conspiracy theorists overestimate the competence of the supposed conspirators, both in carrying out their plots and in their ability to keep them secret. As Hofstadter noted, more likely explanations which might involve human error, stupidity, incompetence, or chance are always discarded in favor of the overarching and elaborate theory.
Is there any long-term danger with this? That a sizeable minority of the American electorate might cling to explanations that rely on fantasy and paranoia for events and policies they don’t like is troubling. This worldview may satisfy certain psychic needs, as Hofstadter suggests, and it may provide great material for late-night comics to mock the latest Hollywood ignoramus, but it doesn’t make for sound political debate, or a healthy Republic.
Charlie Sheen ; Marina Hyde; Conspiracy theories; Sting; 9/11; Patrick Chisholm; Area 51; Richard Hofstadter; UFOs; Porter Goss; Jefferson Flanders
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