Thursday, January 22, 2004

Conspiracies and conspiracy theories

It's probably not surprising that any journalist or writer dealing in conspiracies winds up being accused, eventually, of trading in conspiracy theories. It kind of comes with the territory, though it used to be that in the end the results were what mattered; if you had the facts on your side, it was no longer a mere theory, but a point of substance.

No longer. Now it has become an increasingly common way for defenders of the Bush administration to trash its critics -- call them "conspiracy theorists," and relieve yourself of the need to address the substance of their accusations, regardless of their merit or the evidence supporting them. Already, they're trotting it out as a way to airily dismiss Kevin Phillips' work in American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush., particularly his handling of the October Surprise matter. That was, after all, how the scandal was whitewashed in the first place.

It's a kind of easy smear, one that reflects the right's current trend toward accusing liberals of the very behavior in which it egregiously indulged during the Clinton years (most notably the "Bush haters" meme).

But real conspiracies do exist, and have through most of civilized history. In recent years, one need only point to Watergate, or the COINTELPRO episode, or the Iran-Contra scandal to demonstrate that conspiracies continue to weave their way into the fabric of American history.

What has happened, however, is that as these abuses have occurred and the conspiracies unraveled and were exposed, critics of the government on both right and left have conflated the nuggets of fact involving these incidents into "proof" of much wider-ranging conspiracies -- stretching, eventually, into UFO and Protocols of the Seven Elders of Zion territory. These constitute what we commonly call conspiracy theories. The culture of paranoid conspiracism (see, e.g., The X-Files) has now become almost ingrained in popular culture, and it continues to contribute to irrationalism in the national discourse in a significant way.

Anyone who's read In God's Country is probably aware that I've dealt with conspiracy theories a great deal over the years. I'd estimate that I've examined, in the course of research, in excess of 200 different theories and urban legends. My method was consistent: examine the factual content and the analytical structure, assess the logic, and reach a balanced conclusion about its validity.

The bulk of the conspiracy theories I studied originated on the far right, though not always -- in addition to far-left theories such as those linking the CIA to every misery in the world, there were also the UFO, phony health care, "contrail," and various national-disaster theories, which were in most cases also adopted by conspiracy theorists on both right and left and woven into their respective universes. In many cases, there became a distinctive crossover between right- and left-wing extremists in this territory; the far-left conspiracists David Icke and Johnny Liberty (his real name is John Van Hove), for example, traffic in theories that clearly originate with the anti-Semitic far right.

In the process -- and with some guidance from others even more experienced in debunking such theories -- it became clear that conspiracy theories and genuine conspiracies had really distinctive qualities that made it fairly simple to distinguish between them in most cases.

Real conspiracies, by their very nature, have the following characteristics:
-- They are limited in scope, their purpose being usually to achieve only a singular, often narrow, purpose.

-- They are limited in duration in time.

-- They include only a limited number of participants.

-- As the boundaries of these limits increase, the likelihood of the conspiracy failing or being exposed rises exponentially.

Conspiracy theories, in direct contrast, almost universally feature the following qualities:
-- They are broad-ranging in nature, and usually boil down to a massive plot to enslave, murder or politically oppress all of mankind or at least large numbers of people.

-- They are believed to have existed for long periods of time, in some cases for hundreds of years.

-- They involve large numbers of people, notably significant numbers of participants in high positions in government or the bureaucracy.

-- The long-term success of these conspiracies is always credited to willing dupes in the media and elsewhere.

George Johnson, author of Architects of Fear: Conspiracy Theories and Paranoia in American Politics, argues that "conspiratorial fantasies are not simply an expression of inchoate fear. There is a shape, an architecture, to the paranoia." He offered with five rules common to conspiracism in America:
-- The conspirators are internationalist in their sympathies.

-- [N]othing is ever discarded. Right-wing mail order bookstores still sell the Protocols of the Elders of Zion ... [and] Proofs of a Conspiracy.

-- Seeming enemies are actually secret friends. Through the lens of the conspiracy theorists, capitalists and Communists work hand in hand.

-- The takeover by the international godless government will be ignited by the collapse of the economic system.

-- It's all spelled out in the Bible. For those with a fundamentalist bent, the New World Order or One World Government is none other than the international kingdom of the Antichrist, described in the Book of Revelation.

As Chip Berlet has observed, there are real dangers associated with conspiracism:
-- All conspiracist theories start with a grain of truth, which is then transmogrified with hyperbole and filtered through pre-existing myth and prejudice.

-- People who believe conspiracist allegations sometimes act on those irrational beliefs, which has concrete consequences in the real world.

-- Conspiracist thinking and scapegoating are symptoms, not causes, of underlying societal frictions, and as such are perilous to ignore.

-- Scapegoating and conspiracist allegations are tools that can be used by cynical leaders to mobilize a mass following.

-- Supremacist and fascist organizers use conspiracist theories as a relatively less-threatening entry point in making contact with potential recruits.

-- Even when conspiracist theories do not center on Jews, people of color, or other scapegoated groups, they create an environment where racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of prejudice and oppression can flourish.

Berlet also offers some valuable guidance on identifying the logical flaws inherent in conspiracy theories:
-- Raising the volume, increasing the stridency, or stressing the emotionalism of an argument does not improve its validity. This is called argument by exhortation. It is often a form of demagoguery, bullying or emotional manipulation.

-- Sequence does not imply causation. If Joan is elected to the board of directors of a bank on May 1, and Raul gets a loan on July 26, further evidence is needed to prove a direct or causal connection. Sequence can be a piece of a puzzle, but other causal links need to be further investigated.

-- Congruence in one or more elements does not establish congruence in all elements. Gloria Steinem and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick are both intelligent, assertive women accomplished in political activism and persuasive rhetoric. To assume they therefore also agree politically would be ludicrous. If milk is white and powdered chalk is white, would you drink a glass of powdered chalk?

-- Association does not imply agreement, hence the phrase "guilt by association" has a pejorative meaning. Association proves association; it suggests further questions are appropriate, and demonstrates the parameters of networks, coalitions, and personal moral distinctions, nothing more. Tracking association can lead to further investigation that produces useful evidence, but a database is not an analysis and a spiderweb chart is not an argument. The connections may be meaningful, random, or related to an activity unrelated to the one being probed.

-- Participation in an activity, or presence at an event, does not imply control.

-- Similarity in activity does not imply joint activity and joint activity does not imply congruent motivation. When a person serves in an official advisory role or acts in a position of responsibility within a group, however, the burden of proof shifts to favor a presumption that such a person is not a mere member or associate, but probably embraces a considerable portion of the sentiments expressed by the group. Still, even members of boards of directors will distance themselves from a particular stance adopted by a group they oversee, and therefore it is not legitimate to assume automatically that they personally hold a view expressed by the group or other board members. It is legitimate to assert that they need to distance themselves publicly from a particular organizational position if they wish to disassociate themselves from it.

-- Anecdotes alone are not conclusive evidence. Anecdotes are used to illustrate a thesis, not to prove it. A good story-teller can certainly be mesmerizing -- consider Ronald Reagan -- but if skill in story-telling and acting is the criteria for political leadership, Ossie Davis would have been president, not Ronald Reagan. This anecdote illustrates that anecdotes alone are not conclusive evidence, even though most progressives would think that Davis would have been a kindler, gentler president than Reagan or Bush.

If you consider all these criteria, it becomes clear that events such as Iran-Contra or, in this case, October Surprise rather clearly fit into the category of being genuine conspiracies. The question then becomes a matter of their factual grounding. The former has been established beyond much reasonable doubt. The latter has not, but the evidence about it remains substantial, and the alleged debunkings of it (especially Stephen Emerson's work in The New Republic) have proven in fact badly flawed.

More recent examples include the many conspiracy theories that swirled around Bill Clinton and his presidency. The most notorious of these -- the "New World Order" theories arising out of the Waco and Ruby Ridge affairs -- quite clearly fell into the specious category, not merely because of their broad-ranging characteristics but because their facutal grounding was worse than flimsy. Others, including the "Vince Foster was murdered" theories promoted by Richard Mellon Scaife and the "Mena drug running" theories that formed the basis of the Falwell-backed screed The Clinton Chronicles were, at first glance, more in the middling ground, until one examined them more closely. Then it became clear that not only were they factually groundless but were ultimately grounded in the same kind of broad-reaching conspiracism of the NWO theories.

It is worth recalling, of course, that many of the Clinton conspiracy theories were in fact promoted by such mainstream conservative organs as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times and The American Spectator. They came to encompass nearly every smear that was directed at Clinton, including the phony Gennifer Flowers and "black love child" tales. Interestingly, many conservatives raised these smears in conjunction with Clinton's impeachment trial, which revolved not around any alleged conspiracy but his private sexual conduct.

Now, with George W. Bush -- whose father was almost certainly a participant in Iran-Contra and a likely participant in the October Surprise cases -- in the Oval Office, Republicans are eager to dismiss as mere conspiracism serious questions about the kind of crony capitalism and abuse of the national-security apparatus not only was rampant in the first Bush administration but is a self-evident hallmark of Bush II.

Make no mistake: There have in fact been a significant number of conspiracy theories swirling around Bush's presidency, particularly regarding the 9/11 attacks (see Berlet's excellent summary of these) as well as the war in Iraq (notably the contention that the invasion was primarily about obtaining control of the oil fields for Bush's industry buddies). Most of these originate on the far left, though they also have enjoyed a certain level of circulation on the far right as well.

However, mainstream liberals who have attacked, for instance, the involvement of the neoconservative Project for a New American Century in the invasion plans have likewise been dismissed, by such conservative luminaries as the New York Times' David Brooks, as not only conspiracy theorists but likely anti-Semites as well. This is, as I say, an easy smear.

The same tactic is being directed at Kevin Phillips, himself a former Republican and a widely esteemed truth-teller and political analyst. The accusation is being hurled not only because American Dynasty tackles such subjects as the October Surprise and the Bush family's Nazi dealings, but due to its larger themes of confronting the danger posed by the confluence of dynastic wealth, corporatism and political power.

Yet as Jonathan Yardley notes in his Washington Post review, Phillips in fact has taken great pains to avoid the pitfalls of conspiracism. In his introduction, he writes:
We must be cautious here not to transmute commercial relationships into a latter-day conspiracy theory, a trransformation that epitomizes what historian Richard Hofstadter years ago called the "paranoid streak" in American politics. ... On the other hand, worries about conspiracy thinking should not inhibit inquiries in a way that blocks sober examination, which often more properly identifies some kind of elite behavior familiar to sociologists and political scientists alike.

Of course, what is really remarkable about this is the way the same people who accuse Phillips of conspiracism have themselves trafficked in outrageous conspiracy theories over the years, particularly those aimed at liberals and Bill Clinton in particular. But then, Hofstadter also rather keenly observed that projection is a common trait of the American right, along with its paranoia.

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