195 Toward a theory of conspiracy

The inspiration to put this column of 2003 on the Schwartzlist in 2019 came from the excellent column on conspiracies by Ross Douthat in The New York Times, 13 August 2019.

The other day Dutch tv aired a movie called Conspiracy Theory. The hero, Jerry Fletcher, is a New York taxi driver of the legendary sort, who pesters his customers with the scandalous secret truth about who killed Kennedy, how the moon landings were faked, aliens who make crop circles and the cabal in the U.S. government that keeps us from knowing these things. The cabbie publishes a private conspiracy newsletter that has five subscribers.

For a few minutes I thought that Hollywood had finally made a spoof of one its favorite genres, perhaps its very favorite. I have long been amazed that in movies like Soylent Green, The China Syndrome, Coma, Twelve Monkeys, The Net, Arlington Road and The Truman Show, to name some of the better examples, the worst suspicions of the hero – suspicions that are initially ridiculed by all – turn out not only to be true, but even nastier than he or she thought. I’m sure there must be movies in which it turns out that the doubter is simply wrong, but I can’t think of any.

Was Conspiracy Theory a refreshing exception to this rule? No. It soon emerges that NASA has developed a means for causing earthquakes from space, that they are attempting to use it to assassinate the president, that four of Fletcher’s five subscribers have to be killed for having read this (the fifth is the leader of the conspiracy), and that Fletcher himself is the victim of an attendant medical experiment. As the saying goes, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

The global audience for American movies seems eager to believe that the world is run by clandestine branches of government, infestations of aliens, corrupt police departments, keepers of the Holy Grail, sinister corporations, secret societies and ruthless television stations. (Only the mother of all conspiracy theories – the International Jewish Conspiracy – has never been the subject of a Hollywood film. The reason of course being that Hollywood is part of that conspiracy.)

This stands in sharp contrast to the way conspiracy theories are treated in polite discourse. In  respectable newspapers and academic journals, “conspiracy theory” is a patronizing putdown. Belief in conspiracies is something for “the Arab street,” not for rational westerners. To criticize someone for believing in a conspiracy is to call him embarrassingly credulous, incapable of grasping that history is made by complex forces that cannot possibly be manipulated by small groups. In the movies, the paranoid hero is always right; in the press, the skeptical bystanders come out on top.

The ground between the movies and the press tilts, I believe, toward the movies. The popularity of conspiracy movies is matched by the willingness of the public to credit a wide-ranging variety of urban legends and folk beliefs. A researcher of the homosexual community in the Netherlands, Theo van der Meer, says that no tale about it could be too tall to command credence even among intellectuals. No machination is too unlikely to be attributed to the underground network of homos in the closet.

This example brings us to a major point, the hinge between credulousness and credibility: van der Meer has found evidence for an underground homosexual community from 1730 on, with roots in the 17th century. This group, which survives even in our open society, behaved conspiratorially in the sense that its members denied its existence to the outside world. Once one finds this out, the basis for deniability is removed from virtually anything else that can be said about the network. The same is true of secret agencies like the CIA. If it does not reveal what it does, its denial of responsibility for any particular act will not convince a skeptic. Any group that lies about itself feeds the paranoia of conspiracy theorists, whose attitude is moreover supported by revelations concerning documented conspiracies such as Watergate. Do viewers of All the President’s Men think differently about that film than Oliver Stone’s JFK? I seem to recall a survey that said they didn’t.

The serious press and academia do the world a disservice by leaving conspiracy studies in the hands of filmmakers and other fantasists. The subject is of immense importance. The belittlement of conspiracy theory leaves us helpless when we are faced with disturbing phenomena that may or may not be conspiratorial. The Belgian state has been materially damaged by uncertainty as to whether the Nijvel gang, the Cools assassin and Marc Dutroux belonged to high-placed conspiracies. In the Netherlands, a tragic debate dragged on for years as to whether the sexual abuse of children in a particular school was organized by a ring of devil worshippers. Portugal and the Catholic church are now rent by similar scandals, on a wider scale, with more prominent actors.

I do not claim that a single theory will cover all conspiracies, which come in all shapes and sizes, in all degrees of malignity. George Bernard Shaw said that every profession turns into a conspiracy against the public. To the extent to which this is true, it would be to the benefit of society and the professions to investigate this aspect of things, aware of the kinds of dangers it implies. it would surely be an improvement if the forms of group behavior that match the description of a conspiracy were studied as such, rather than this being denied or giggled at. What are we afraid of? Actually, to that question an unsettling answer suggests itself. It would frighten me, for one, to discover that the basic form not only of professions but all human society is conspiratorial. But if it is, I want to know it.

© Gary Schwartz 2003. Published in Dutch, in the translation of Loekie Schwartz, in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 25 October 2003, p. 25: “Gezocht: complottheoreticus.” Published on the Schwartzlist on 14 August 2019.

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2 thoughts on “195 Toward a theory of conspiracy”

  1. Thanks for citing my column. However, I think that the point you make in your own column does not really apply to what I was trying to say. You write that it should be up to teachers, not researchers, to undermine belief in false conspiracies. I agree, but what I was after was the study of real conspiracies. In the case of the Protocol of the Wise Men of Zion there are both sorts. The cabal of the Wise Men is invented, and that fact, which was indeed long exposed, should be taught to pupils.

    But then there is the real conspiracy – the harnessing of that text by people who know it is false for viciously anti-Semitic purposes. Especially, as I have read, in Muslim countries at present. That needs to be investigated and placed in a larger framework of true conspiratorial behavior. And that should in the first place be the work of scholars and thinkers.

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