This time I’d like to stray from science fiction and write about one of my favorite topics- conspiracy theories. Why do people, especially in the mainstream media, view them with such disdain? I’d say that it’s due to a number of misconceptions, which I’ll address below.
- Believing in conspiracies is a sign of mental illness.We’ve all met the disturbed, paranoid type. I once encountered a homeless woman who muttered continually about Richard Nixon “reading her mind” with spy cameras. Then there are the “tin foil hat” people, like Mel Gibson in Shyamalan’s movie Signs (or in Mel’s case, real life.) Since some conspiracy believers are crazy, the argument goes, all must be- a conclusion that violates Logic 101. There’s nothing crazy about keeping an open mind. Even if a given conspiracy is nonsense, it can still provide inspiration for a good story. Chris Carter took advantage of several of them for the X-Files.
- Conspiracies can’t work in the real world because conspirators are always caught.People often cite the Watergate and Iran-contra scandals as proof of this assertion. These guys were caught and prosecuted, despite their powerful positions. More likely it was due to the plotters themselves. Nixon was a paranoid drunk and Oliver North was an arrogant fool. Yet on the topic of organized crime, people draw the opposite conclusion. When we hear of a truck full of drugs being busted on the border, we wonder how many others got through.
- Someone will always talk and expose the conspiracy.Never underestimate the power of group loyalty. For example, a policeman who blows the whistle on corruption in his department runs the risk of losing his job, and will likely be viewed as a turncoat by his friends on the force. In intelligence agencies and the military there’s the added threat of legal sanctions. Look what happened to Bradley Manning, reviled by millions as a “traitor,” despite his good intentions.
- If conspiracies were real, people who threatened to reveal them would be killed.There are numerous examples of people with knowledge that was dangerous to the powerful who died under mysterious circumstances: Clinton aide Vince Foster, British weapons inspector David Kelley, and JFK mistress Mary Pinchot Meyer to name just three. In most cases, however, it’s more effective to harass, intimidate, and otherwise marginalize the truth-tellers. Even the most damning revelations are harmless if no one believes them.
- Companies and private organizations conspire, but democratic governments don’t.The media can’t dismiss all conspiracies, because they like to point the finger at modern bogeymen such as tobacco companies and the Vatican. Foreign governments are also fair game if they’re enemies of the United States. Right wing pundits accused Saddam Hussein of plotting to attack America, but our “friends” the Saudi monarchy (who actually do support extremism) were off limits. See Gary North’s article explaining how conspiracies for monetary gain are acceptable but not those for political power.
- Belief in conspiracy theories is bad for public health and/or the environment.
This is why the Climate-gate scandal never gained traction in the mainstream media: environmentalists can only be motivated by good. Instead we hear how parents in Pakistan refuse to vaccinate their children because they suspect the CIA of poisoning the injections. The media doesn’t consider the behavior of the US in Pakistan (especially the drone strikes) as a likely cause of these suspicions. Obama aide Cass Sunstein has publicly expressed his desire to suppress web sites that promote “false information” on health issues. No doubt he would like to treat conspiracy theorists the way European governments treat Holocaust deniers- with arrest and prosecution.
- Because some conspiracies are false, they all are.
I’m a big fan of conspiracy sites such as Prison Planet. This doesn’t mean I accept every one of their theories as fact. Even the ideas I consider to be far-fetched (chemtrails, HAARP) may contain a kernel of truth or, as I noted before, provide fodder for sci-fi stories. My own theory is that agencies such as the CIA secretly promote bogus conspiracies to discredit the government’s skeptics. Consider the many bizarre and contradictory theories about the 9/11 attacks. Debates about “pods” under the aircrafts’ wings and molten metal under the twin towers draw attention away from more obvious questions, such as, did someone in the government have foreknowledge of the attacks? Could this be why FBI agents were ordered not to investigate suspicious Arab flight students?
- Governments practice secrecy not to manipulate and exploit us, but to protect us.There are plenty of counter-examples that show how governments, even Western democracies, view their citizens as expendable pawns in the “great game” of international politics. Consider the Pentagon Papers, which revealed that the Johnson Administration deceived the public about the Vietnam War. Or the Downing Street memo, which admitted that the reasons for attacking Iraq were rationalizations for a policy that had already been decided. For me, the clincher was the book Day of Deceit, by Robert Stinnett, which uses declassified documents to prove FDR had foreknowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack, which he welcomed as an excuse to get the US into the war. What I find most amazing is that so many people are still so gullible. If the government proposes yet another war against an apparently harmless enemy, they conclude that “the President must know something we don’t.” Who, I ask you, are the crazy ones?
Conspiracy theories are not always far-fetched or implausible, though even the crazy ones can be entertaining. Sometimes they make more sense than the conventional wisdom. Perhaps the theories themselves may be part of a larger conspiracy.