Conspiracy Theories Again? Not If We’re a Serious People
April 22, 2011 17 Comments
Conspiracy theories are back in the news. Donald Trump has “operatives” finding out “amazing things” about President Obama’s birth. It’s vaguely respectable again to entertain the Birther nonsense. (And there, by the way, is the limit of money: it frequently buys notoriety, sometimes buys vague respectability, even more rarely buys legitimacy, and never buys integrity or authenticity.)
Possible Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, who might have been an attractive African-American counterpoint to Barack Obama, floated his own conspiracy theory when he was asked whether he would be comfortable appointing a Muslim to his cabinet or as a federal judge: “No, I would not. And here’s why. There is this creeping attempt, there is this attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government. It does not belong in our government. This is what happened in Europe. And little by little, to try and be politically correct, they made this little change, they made this little change. And now they’ve got a social problem that they don’t know what to do with hardly.”
Truther Jesse Ventura (Minnesota, what were you thinking?) now promotes, with a book, the preposterous notion that 9-11 was an “inside job.” Which, by the way, the jihadists abroad love. Thanks much Jesse.
Conspiracy theorists, fascists, jihadists, rightwingnuts, leftwingnuts, all have something in common. They thrive on sinister narratives. They all love whatever encourages abortion of thought and embrace of evil design. Oh my goodness now I get it, thank you for explaining so I never have to think again. Thank heavens the world isn’t complicated after all. It’s actually simple, “they” manipulate us.
I’ve always been impatient with conspiracy theories, because, basically, I’m a Pollyanna guy who refuses to see how diabolical people can truly be — especially when they team up and hatch really, off-the-chart nasty plots (which, make no mistake, they’re doing as we breathe this moment).
Also, I think it exceedingly rare that three or more people could ever truly collude to achieve some nefarious purpose without the thing unraveling — based upon the very mistrust that fuels conspiracy theories. If you think about it, conspirators have abundant reason to distrust their co-conspirators. By definition, as an evil conspirator, all of my co-conspirators are evil, meaning I sort of have to assume the worst about them, and I sort of have to assume that they’ll play self-protective three-dimensional chess (see Wild Things), meaning my very best Prisoner’s Dilemma option is probably cooperating with the authorities. No picnic for the Illuminati there.
Also, I’ve never minded too much not being in on the joke, which seems to bother many people greatly.
Because that’s what we really fear, right? Being taken as dupes? Being manipulated, notwithstanding all of our high-school civics rhetoric about democracy and freedom and self-determination? The wealthy and powerful obviously do something with all that wealth and power — so why not collude to make fools of all of us? And we’ll have none of that. By dang.
Anthropologists Todd Sanders and Harry G. West observe “that a broad cross section of Americans today … gives credence to at least some conspiracy theories.” Oh my.
Given the enormous policy challenges our country currently confronts, the single greatest threat to our viable democracy, in my opinion, is the embrace of conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories are narratives for people who no longer wish to think. And we are at a crossroads that desperately demands thinking.
Conspiracy theories are to thinking what prostitutes are to a man’s sex drive. It gets satisfied and shut down, embarrassingly.
UPDATE (Sat., Apr. 23, 2011): Politico published an article on Birtherism shortly after this post. It’s worth the read. Interestingly, and I did not know this, the actual origin of the Birther conspiracy theory was an anonymous email circulated by Hillary Clinton supporters in the spring of 2008. Those racist Clintons.
UPDATE (Sat., Apr, 23, 2011): From the Volokh Conspiracy today — these numbers are really troubling:
“Belief in political conspiracy theories is widespread on both sides of the political spectrum. Some 45% of Republicans believe that Obama is not a native-born citizen and (presumably) that the Democrats have gotten away with covering up that fact. Similarly, 35% of Democrats believe that George W. Bush knew about the 9/11 attack in advance, but let it happen anyway. About a quarter of all Americans, including 32% of Democrats and 18% of Republicans, believe that “the Jews” are to blame for the financial crisis of 2008.”