Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Twin Forces Drive Conspiracy Obsession


Some conspiracy theorists insist that there’s nothing new or novel or dangerous in pointing to the hidden hand behind perplexing, painful present events. They argue that discerning observers and historians have always identified powerful conspiracies because these plots and schemes have played such a prominent role in human events.

Consider the assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March. Wasn’t that high-minded plot an example of a diabolical and world-changing conspiracy? And what about the Nazis or the Bolsheviks or even the Sons of Liberty in the American Revolution? Didn’t such groups prepare secretive plans which they ultimately executed in the course of seizing power?

The difference between actual conspiracies like these and paranoid delusions about ongoing World Domination by various secret societies or hidden cabals involves the public display of power. After Cassius and Brutus led their cohorts in stabbing Caesar to death, they proudly and publicly claimed credit for their actions and seized control of Rome. Hitler and Lenin both wrote prolifically about their revolutionary plans—and publicly announced their intentions to anyone who cared to listen. The Sons of Liberty favored public displays – like the Boston Tea Party, or attacking tax collectors, or erecting “Liberty Poles” – as a means of rallying the people to their cause.

In any conspiracy – or confederation – some of the participants will claim credit and trumpet their success if they achieve, or else they will blame some of their colleagues if they fail.

Throughout human history, and particularly in this media-riddled age, the very essence of power is public influence or authority. The definition of a powerful ruler (or conspirator) involves the ability to force multitudes to bend to your will, to follow your orders. That ability remains meaningless or non-existent if your will and your orders and your plans remain a well-kept secret.

The last generation has witnessed a worrisome explosion of theories and nightmares suggesting that such invisible schemes play a deeply concealed role in shaping current events.

Two paranoid but popular obsessions provide evidence of the recent rise of brain-addled conspiracist thinking. After the world learned the shocking truth about Hitler’s Holocaust in the late 1940’s, no one – not even Nazi war-criminals themselves – attempted to deny the extraordinarily well-documented murder of millions of Jewish civilians. Thirty years later, however, with the spread of media culture , “Holocaust Denial” began to gain ground, openly encouraged (and funded) by anti-Israel Islamic dictators and potentates.

Even more recently, the JFK assassination horrified the nation but produced few skeptics concerning the wealth of evidence that Oswald represented a lone nut (like previous assassins of Presidents Garfield and McKinley, and would-be assassins who fired on Presidents FDR, Truman, Ford and Reagan), not an agent of some massive conspiracy. The Warren Commission provided a definitive account of the killing, and raised few questions until various charlatans and opportunists began to attack its findings nearly two decades after the events. Again, some odd feature of the late ‘70’s zeitgeist led to an obsessive pursuit (utterly discredited by Vincent Bugliosi’s magisterial new book “Reclaiming History”) of various lunatic speculations about Umbrella Men, and Grassy Knolls, and Magic Bullets.

Why the increasing desire to find conspirators behind every big event (including the death of Princess Diana, the Moon Landing in 1969, the Y2K Computer Bug, the September 11th attacks) and under every bed?

Two important factors in contemporary life help to feed the current conspiratorial mania: first, a lust for privileged “insider” status and information, and second, the decline of a religious view of history.

Countless commentators on the modernity and its misfortunes note the sense of disconnection and insecurity that come with our fast-moving, urbanized society and media-saturated culture. Many (if not most) Americans slight the old ties of neighborhood and extended family and devote a disproportionate amount of their time to communing with phantoms on TV, with video games, DVD’s and, of course, on the internet. The literally hundreds of millions of personal websites and blogs posted every day reflect a desperate desire to connect, to win attention, to achieve some status as noteworthy and special rather than resigning oneself to anonymous status as just another cog in the post-industrial machine.

In this context, anyone can qualify as a conspiracy “researcher,” or an important and uniquely well-informed specialist in some arcane speculation about numerology or cults or hidden cabals of world-shakers. Conspiracism provides the ultimate sense of privileged, “insider” information. According to those who traffic in these secret plans, only dupes, or fools, or ordinary “sheep-ple” would prove so naïve as to accept the “official” version of events (“Some nineteen Arabs with box-cutters could knock down the tallest buildings on earth? Only a gullible dolt, or a willing tool of the power structure, could believe such nonsense!”).

Whether the conspiracist is “blowing the whistle” about the New World Order of AIDS as a CIA Plot, or the Monster Superhighway through Texas, his special “knowledge” makes him, in turn, feel special.

The second factor fueling conspiracy theories involves the rise of secularism and atheism in the United States and, to a much greater extent, in Europe. Human beings feel a deep and perpetual desire to find some deeper meaning in the dramatic events around them. Religious believers can examine those developments and begin to discern God’s will. Those without strong faith, however, may feel the need to explain these alarms and disasters with reference to diabolical human agents determined to play god. Either way, the observer gets the satisfaction of seeing some larger purpose behind puzzling occurrences. With the JFK assassination, for instance, there’s no satisfaction whatever to the idea of the charismatic leader of the Free World felled at age 46 by a crazed, laughably pathetic loser who’d never achieved any success or impact of any kind before his lucky shot in 1963. The notion that JFK’s death meant something more, that he died as a martyr to some higher cause, provokes a deep-seated, instinctive preference for believing in some grand, all-powerful conspiracy that at least seems worthy of its target.

If spectators to history can’t pronounce the words “Thy Will Be Done” without having them stick in the throat, at least the formulation “The Conspiracy’s Will Be Done” provides more satisfaction than an assumption of randomness.

G.K. Chesterton once observed: “The problem with those who reject God is not that they believe in nothing. It is that they believe in everything.”

And believing in even the most outlandish conspiracies (much in evidence earlier Monday during full-moon “Conspiracy Day” on my radio show) at least involves some examination of the deeper meaning and long-term direction of recent events.

Karl Marx argued that it made sense to encourage anti-Semitism, because those who began by hating the Jews would go on to hate Capitalism in general. He called anti-Semitism “the Socialism of Fools” –hoping that it would ultimate lead the less foolish to embrace his statist ideas.

By the same token, conspiracism represents “The Historical Perspective of Fools/” No, it makes no rational sense, but it may for some theorists represent the beginning of an effort to put our current age in context and to examine the broader sweep of human events.