CONSPIRACY THEORY: DEFECT OF A CONCEPT

What is it with “conspiracy theories” that makes certain people infuriated, judging anyone who is interested in them as paranoid or a complete wacko? Is it right to argue, or rational to assume that all conspiracy believes are based on sentimentality rather than on unbiased reasoning and objective observation? How did we get to a place where truth seekers are now conspiracy theorists, since that is how people are being labelled who are bold enough to ask questions, acknowledging the gaping holes in the ‘official’ stories they have reasons to doubt?1

According to Lance deHaven-Smith most people make the mistake “to lump together a hodgepodge of speculations about government intrigue, declare them all “conspiracy theories,” and then, on the basis of most improbable claims among them, argue that any and all unsubstantiated suspicions of elite political crimes are far-fetched fantasies destructive of public trust.”2 An attitude that runs parallel with the foreclosing of objective observation and analysis of antigovernment suspicions that entered the public domain in 1964, after the assassination of president Kennedy.
It was in that same year, 1964, when the Warren Commission issued its ‘official’ report on the assassination, that the New York Times published five stories in which “conspiracy theory” appeared. The fact that today most Americans still reject the official account of the Kennedy assassination, while also having doubts about whether it was a conspiracy, is the outcome of a successful CIA program, deHaven-Smith asserts. Being one of the world’s leading experts on psychological warfare, the CIA’s aim was “to sow uncertainty about the critics of the commission’s critics [and] to deflect accusations that officials at the highest levels of American government were complicit in Kennedy’s murder.” Ever since the “CIA’s campaign to popularize the term “conspiracy theory” and make conspiracy belief a target of ridicule and hostility,”3 the number of appearances has increased immensely. Today conspiracy theory gets more than 21 million hits on Google, not to speak of the vast literature, photographic compendiums, guides for researchers, sceptics and debunkers. Apparently nothing more than a hoax, or so it seems, so why bother?

Still, as deHaven-Smith stresses, there is something going on that needs to be clarified. In the last few years the conspiracy deniers have taken the conspiracy-theory concept for granted, as they assume that that which qualifies a conspiracy is self-evident and so “easy to spot because they posit secret plots that are too wacky to be taken seriously…the theories are deemed so far-fetched they require no reply of rejoinder; they are object of derision, not ideas for discussion.”4 However, this blind, uncritical brushing aside illustrates that the concept for irrational suspicions about secret plots by powerful people is defective, because, as history has shown, political conspiracies in high office do, in fact, happen!

It is an established fact that the CIA was involved in secret plans to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro and other foreign leaders, appointing hundreds of academics at hundred universities in the U.S. with the assignment to write and spread propaganda for foreign policy interests.5 Apparently people have also forgotten about officials of the Nixon administration conspiring to steal the 1972 election; that the Reagan administration participated in a criminal scheme to sell arms to Iran and channel profits to a rebel army in Nicaragua; that the Bush-Cheney administration did conspire to mislead Congress and the public about the strength of its evidence for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. In other words, because at least these conspiracies have actually taken place, it is illogical, even irrational, to dismiss all suspicions of elite intrigue by definition, as many ordinary people as well as scholars and journalists do.

But what is even more disturbing, is that most American scholars and journalists, who use the term conspiracy theory to ridicule suspicions of elite political criminality, betray “the civic ethos inherited from the nation’s Founders.”6 This not only undermines democracy and freedom of thought, but at the same time consolidates and centralizes power. In the eighteenth century the Founders knew all too well that the most important question concerning Western political thought is, how to prevent political leaders from abusing their power to establish what is in fact a tyranny. That is why in the famous first sentence of the Declaration of Independence the Founders felt it was necessary to sum up the causes that had led to a breaking of political bonds with Great Britain, as they were aware that “a history of repeated injuries and usurpations” displayed King George’s attempt to establish “an absolute tyranny over these states.”7 Being aware of the vulnerability of every constitution to subversion, The Declaration of Independence therefore had to contain strict limits on public officials, it had to give the people the means to control the government and the right to rebel and unleash a revolution.8 Scholars and journalists today seem to have forgotten about these facts, being no longer critical of politicians’ suspicious actions that dissipate in the vast and ever growing reservoir of conspiracy theories.

Another disturbing fact is that individuals, who publicly announce their conspiratorial suspicions, are being attacked and ridiculed, whilst the institutional purveyors of conspiracies are being ignored, even though they have actually been the most dangerous. After World War II U.S. officials had been asserting for at least three decades that the communists were conspiring to take over the world, claiming that the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s were infiltrated by communists. During that period hundreds of people lost their jobs without any form of legal justice, mainly because of ‘questionable loyalty’, which was based on investigations of anonymous witnesses and secret evidence gathered through paid informants.9 But the most recent massive spread of lies of the U.S. Government, the claim that Iraq was complicit in 9/11, secretly constructing nuclear bombs, resulted in mass loss of lives, fuelling the ever ongoing chaos that still has Iraq in its grip. Looking at it from this perspective, it is therefore not far-fetched to state that denying conspiracies per se is not only shutting one’s eyes for corrupt politicians who conspire against civilians, but it also means being complicit, even when it is an unconscious attitude, but even more so if one actively disputes and ridicules conspiracy theorists.

So what is truly at stake here, and how does it work, as apparently not all people are aware of this? According to deHaven-Smith the conspiracy theory label is being used by political elites “to suppress mass suspicions that inevitably arise when shocking political crimes benefit top leaders or play into their agendas, especially when those same officials are in control of agencies responsible for preventing the events in question or for investigating them after they have occurred.”10 As we can see, everything has somehow been turned upside down, so that instead of questioning and bringing to justice those people who are involved in high crimes, people who ask critical questions, which are in many cases more than legitimate, are now being targeted as being ridiculous and paranoia, as for instance with the attacks on 9/11.

But let us be honest here: is it totally unimaginable and paranoid for anyone, but in particular for Americans, to have questions about how on earth a few Arabs with poor piloting skills somehow managed to avoid America’s highly developed multilayered system of air defence, enabling them to crash the Twin Towers? Should it not raise questions as to why, prior to the conduct of an in-depth police investigation, the Bush administration announced that Al Qaeda was responsible for the attacks? How could they have known this? Were they forewarned of the attack? Otherwise it doesn’t make sense. Or was it to mould public opinion to accept the coming war in Afghanistan that had already been planned, since, as anyone could figure out if he would ask the question, a large scale theater war as has been launched in Afghanistan is never planned and executed in a matter of weeks?”11 In other words, is it, instead of being called paranoid, not rather natural to call the president and vice president to account for the apparently inexplicable defence failure? And is it not natural to ask, after they finally, although reluctantly, agreed to testify, why they insisted on testifying together, in secret, and not under oath?

These are all established facts, yet for some dark reason both Bush and Cheney, and with them many other officials, get away with it. As two communications scientists have found, is that the conspiracy theory label has this “discrediting, end-of-argument effect because conspiracy theories have come to be seen as mere suspicions with no basis in fact,” even if there are established facts. But exactly that seems to be the whole point, that “engaging the evidence is precisely what the pejorative conspiracy-theory putdown is deployed rhetorically to avoid.”12 Although deHaven-Smith introduced a new concept to displace the term “conspiracy theory”, to do justice to the actual types of wrongdoing about which the conspiracy theory label discourages us from speaking, looking at today’s discussions it seems as though the ‘ethical disorienting’ effect of the conspiracy theory label has taken deep root in society.13

1 Introductory questions a reporter asks before interviewing American professor Lance deHaven-Smith who did research on “conspiracy theories.”

2 L. deHaven-Smith, CONSPIRACY THEORY IN AMERICA, p.3 In a recent discussion I had, faced with a passionate conspiracy denier, this was exactly what happened. Later in a mail conversation he summed up all the popular conspiracy themes that dwell on the internet.

3 Ibid.,25

4 Ibid., p.6

5 H. Zinn, A people’s History of the United States, p.677

6 Ibid., p.7

7 Ibid., p.7

8 H.Zinn, A people’s History of the United States, p.96

9 Ibid., p.524 Between the years 1946 – 1952, 6.6 million people were interrogated on suspicion of being affiliated with communism.

10 L. deHaven-Smith, CONSPIRACY THEORY IN AMERICA, p.9

11 M. Chossudovsky, AMERICA’S “WAR ON TERRORISM”, p. Xi “Barely four weeks later, on the 7th of October, Afghanistan was bombed and invaded by US troops.”

12 L. deHaven-Smith, CONSPIRACY THEORY IN AMERICA, p.12

13 Ibid., deHaven-Smith introduced State Crime against Democracy (SCAD) to “reorient analysis of the phenomenon that has been assigned the derisive label of “conspiracy theory”.

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