Conspiracy Theories Again? Not If We’re a Serious People

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.”

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17 Responses to Conspiracy Theories Again? Not If We’re a Serious People

  1. lbwoodgate says:

    How refreshing to see a conservative share this view. I know that there are many others that do too but it seems lately that the only one’s who get attention these days are those who engage in conspiracy theories. Thanks Kendrick

    • Thanks lbwoodgate. The rightwing conspiracy theories are more prominent these days, but there’s no shortage of leftwing conspiracy theories. I suspect it’s a function of who’s in power (since conspiracy theories are virtually always about power). Much like the tone on the right ratchets into ugly when the left is in power, and the tone of the left ratchets up to ugly when the right is in power, conspiracy theorists flourish best against the ideology in power.

  2. Terrance H. says:

    Spinny said it best when she said Donald Trump is nothing more than a famewhore. You know I reject the birther B.S.; one reason I quit watching Glenn Beck, and am delighted to see him off the television, lest it becomes more of a sewer.

    • Yes, you blogged early about debunking the birther nonsense. Well done.

  3. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    I don’t think calling them “theories” is at all accurate. These things are emotional responses to fears and paranoias that reside within us. We’ve got to explain away the boogeyman (or boogeyperson?) lest we lose sleep over it. The serious problem with them is how they take on a life and are sustained by spokespersons whose goal is nothing but attention and power. Trump found an issue that gains him attention. Why he didn’t find a better, more rational issue to bring forth speaks much about the person he is.

    The video is disturbingly hilarious, Kendrick!

    • Thanks SDS. I use the term “conspiracy theory” not to signal an analytic integrity (quite the contrary), but because it is popular shorthand for a well-known mental and social phenomenon (even got a 1997 movie named after it, in which, OMG, they really were after Mel Gibson, which, I suspect, changed his real-world brain into a Jews-control-everything freak).

  4. Bruce says:

    “Conspiracy theories are narratives for people who no longer wish to think.”

    Disappointing dismissal of some people… and I am in that set. I do not believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone shooter in Dealey Plaza, and perhaps not a shooter at all. This is the thing about science and learning and history… it isn’t static. The only people who learn nothing are those unwilling to know there’s likely more to the story.

    I just want to know the truth. It’s like the old journalism saw: If your mother says she loves you, get a second source. In some cases you can stop: I think Obama was born in the U.S., I don’t need to research any further. However, if I hear some solid evidence that he was not, I will listen. Let’s hear Trump’s “interesting things.” I also am awaiting the news of the “real killers” of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.

    I think you may trust people too much. We live in an age where lying, deception and behind-the-scenes manipulation of events and thought are facts of life. The modern “smoke-filled room.” This is “not thinking?” No. This is healthy skepticism. Some of it’s loony. Some of it isn’t.

    As Richard Linklater’s video backpacker said, “Paranoia is just a heightened sense of awareness.”

  5. jeff veazey says:

    SDS fine tunes it quite aptly. Theory is a word that should be reserved for the Big Bang or Relativity, something that the scientific method may eventually prove. Dallas, my hometown, has always been home to conspiracy nuts and I from the age of 8 until 20 or so believed in the Kennedy Assassination Theory. This is exactly the emotional response of fear SDS mentions above. Then the light went on. Driven by madness and misdirected rage, a weak, sad, strange little man, who happened to be an accomplished marksman, had one of his best days. End of story – not as exciting as the Tri-lateral Commisssion- but the end nonetheless. Sometimes the facts seem almost as impossible as the (shall we call them) Conspiracy Self-Deception Coping Mechanism? Totally unreal events (events that do not have a context in the reality of some lives) have to find a meaningful context in some other, even more far-fetched than truth- way. This is where liberals (like me) see the racism of the birther and, some parts of the tea party movement. Those folks could not accept that a black man could just be, you know, elected overwhelming by the majority. That fell outside their “matrix”. At that point, 50 years of racial progress prevented them from running through the streets screaming “Kill the Darkie” but they could deny his legitimacy. By diminishing President Obama’s existence, they could put the Black President into the context of an illegitimate evil coming to crush the established matrix paradigm. Conspiracy Delusions hide racism, which is real.

  6. Bruce says:

    Related: Nixon said “I am not a crook.” But he was the president, and he lied.
    Clinton said “I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” He lied.

    They lie. And they lie at the highest levels. If the most scrutinized person in the world lies and thinks they can get away with it, what are the lesser lights doing? They’re lying, and trying to get away with it. And in many cases, they are getting away with it.

    And if you don’t believe that, I want some of that sweet stuff you’re smoking, because it is clearly a nicer world to live in than the real one.

    Meant respectfully. I love you, brother.

    • Love you too my dear old friend. And perhaps my world is a nicer one than the real one. Perhaps, as well, I trust too much, as you suggest above. But no, you can’t have the stuff I’m smoking. It makes you skinny.
      If it is said of me, when I pass, that he trusted too well, that he gave people the benefit of the doubt, that he expected the best of people, then I’ll have lived well. People often mildly annoy me, but rarely disappoint me.

  7. Craig W says:

    Honest question: how do we define “theory”? I’m thinking about some really outrageous things that were utterly unthinkable beforehand but turned out to be true nevertheless. What if someone had claimed in the Spring of 2001 that Muslim radicals would attack our nation within a few months and kill *thousands* of Americans before they were stopped? Boy, that would have sounded really stupid and extreme, probably even bigoted. So, back to the question: how do we decide what is totally irrational?

    • Fair question Craig — and similar to the analytical objection my friend Bruce lodges above. Almost by definition, we’ll never be able to draw the line with absolute certainty. But I’m focused here on what we would generally agree is fringe nonsense. This isn’t ultimately satisfying (like Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of hard-core pornography: “I know it when I see it.”), but it at least permits the development of some consensus about what we should forthrightly dismiss as nonsense.

      Also, I think there probably are some characteristics of “conspiracy theories,” as I’m using the term, that properly distinguish them from other novel or evidence-weak theories. I’d have to think about that.

  8. lbwoodgate says:

    ” What if someone had claimed in the Spring of 2001 that Muslim radicals would attack our nation within a few months and kill *thousands* of Americans before they were stopped?

    It may have not been spring of 2001 but ,a href=”http://www.historycommons.org/context.jsp?item=a080601ranchmemo#a080601ranchmemo”>the August 6th PDB to President Bush was titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” and in it Western intelligence agencies said they believed “Osama bin Laden was involved in a plot to crash an airplane into a building to kill Bush and other leaders”.

    According to journalist and author Ron Suskind, just after a CIA briefer presents President Bush with the PDB, Bush tells the briefer, “You’ve covered your ass, now.” and then dismisses him

  9. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    Jeff has the best name for it yet – the Conspiracy Self-Deception Coping Mechanism – and that’s what it is. These things aren’t truths waiting to be uncovered (as I infer from Bruce’s comments). There isn’t any truth lurking around the edges of these conspiracy theories. And their origins come from darker places as Jeff says – not from a conglomeration of facts that simply need to be sorted out, investigated and tested. The origins of conspiracy theories put them in their own category. And frankly, I’m convinced the birther nonsense has racist undertones – birthers aren’t offering up a rational argument for why Obama shouldn’t be president, their aim is character assassination.

    • I disagree that the Birther conspiracy theory is primarily motivated by racism, anymore than the Tea Party focus on the Constitution is primarily focused on getting back to counting slaves as three-fifths of a person. We’re so far beyond this kind of incendiary rhetoric. I know that by challenging the racism narrative, I may be validating my friend Bruce’s suggestion that I don’t comprehend how despicable people can be, but I’ll take that, in exchange for a little easing up on the ease with which we throw around charges of racism in a country that elected Barack Hussein Obama by a comfortable margin. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, the vast majority of conservatives, and increasing numbers of disenchanted moderates, dislike Barack Obama because he is aggressively liberal, not because he is black. I am certainly not denying the persistence of racism in this country, only suggesting that it becomes a much too broadly explanatory narrative against conservatives — much like the conspiracy theorists. Interestingly (see my UPDATE at the end of the post), the Birther conspiracy theory actually originated in an anonymous email circulated by Hillary Clinton supporters in the Spring of 2008. Were they seeking to appeal to all those racists voting in the Democratic Party primary? No, they were playing filthy politics, casting doubt on the legitimacy of the Obama candidacy. Tying that innuendo to the Constitution was a sure-fire way, as well, to excite some conservatives who believe strongly that the country has strayed perilously from its constitutional moorings. Here was a disregard of the Constitution that went “straight to the top.” It’s nonsense, but it’s not racist. I, and most conservatives, get very tired of having both to oppose the policies of President Obama and defend ourselves and the Republican Party against the charge of racism for doing so.

      • Snoring Dog Studio says:

        Thank you for the background, Kendrick. I can certainly support the argument that the origination of the birther conspiracy wasn’t primarily motivated by racism. I won’t argue with that at all. However, my opinion (just mine) is that this particular conspiracy theory has life because many vocal opponents of Obama, who are indeed racist, later joined the circus of opinion. The bizarre conspiracy theories that fall into the category of “fringe nonsense” are fueled by irrational fears and prejudices – it is what exists in our hearts and minds that create and sustain a lot of these. The view by many individuals that gays acquired AIDS for having sex with monkeys was spawned out of a hatred for homosexuality. Sometimes all it takes is identifying the target of your dislike to help formulate a bizarre conspiracy.

  10. Paul Grubbs says:

    “Just because you’re paranoid don’t think they aren’t out to get you.”~Lenny Bruce

    Great dialogue and interesting follow up questions are always good to provoke thoughtful intercourse.(always like using that word in this context!) After we decide what the definition of “is” is, maybe we should decide who “they” is. Jeff’s referral to the JFK conspiracy reminds me of all the hateful things broadcast about Dallas in general. As an eight year old it hurt to have my hometown depicted as a city of hatemongering racists. Those old wounds may never heal. Conspiracy theorists successfully divide and conquer. I suspect that most of them are just out to make a living but the consequences are often like the butterfly wings that stir chaos. Some conspiracies have merit, some are idiotic but all of them seem to put an us against them mentality to the forefront. Like Jeff I can say we have seen the enemy and the enemy is us.

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