The Central Intelligence Agency owns everyone of any significance in the major media.
= William Colby, CIA director (1973-76)
Let’s get real: Who among us doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory? Our lives would sure be dull without them. And we’ve got plenty to choose from: The Kennedy and MLK assassinations, the faked Apollo moon landing, that crashed alien spaceship and autopsy at Area 51, everything to do with 9/11, certain vaccinations that cause autism, and today’s biggie, the great “Caliphate” conspiracy among Muslims the world over (which I like to call “the protocols of the elders of Mecca”). And while we’re at it, what about the Jews – not to mention the Freemasons and the Illuminati? Then there’s that business about Jesus’s and Mary Magdalene’s descendants…
Possessing secret knowledge makes us feel special – even powerful.
Conspiracies are nothing if not convincing – at least at face value – and we all have our favorites. But what happens when individual theories start contradicting one another? I mean, could Kennedy really have been assassinated by the CIA and the Mob, all in one day? How can conspiracy theorists hold two radically opposite ideas in their heads at the same time? A group of British researchers decided to find out. In an article published in Social Psychological & Personality Science last week, Michael J. Wood, Karen M. Douglas, and Robbie M. Sutton determined that “conspiracy theories can form a monological belief system: A self-sustaining worldview comprised of a network of mutually supportive beliefs.” They found “that even mutually incompatible conspiracy theories are positively correlated in endorsement.”
A conspiracy, the researchers write, “is defined as a proposed plot by powerful people or organizations working together in secret to accomplish some (usually sinister) goal.” In their study they examined two widespread conspiracy theories: Ideas concerning the death (or not) of Osama bin Laden in 2011 and the death (or not) of Princess Diana in 1997.
Regarding Diana, they note that “some claim that she was killed by MI6, others allege that she was killed by Mohammed al-Fayed’s business enemies, still others that she faked her own death. How does a conspiracy-believing observer reconcile the presence of these competing, mutually contradictory accounts?“ In order to understand this phenomenon better, the team examined 137 undergraduates (83% female) at a British university.
They also examined the notion that 1) Osama bin Laden died years ago, and 2) his killing last summer was faked and he’s still alive, which some people apparently don’t regard as a contradiction. For this, they surveyed 102 undergraduates (58% female) at a British university.
In the end result, the researchers found that persons believing in one conspiracy theory are not only much likelier than the general population to believe in several such stories at once, but are also liable to accept mutually contradictory versions of the same tale. The only thing they can’t believe is that the official narrative could ever be true. “The coherence of the conspiracist belief system,” they write, “is driven not by direct relationships among individual theories, but by agreement between individual theories and higher-order beliefs about the world. For instance, the idea that authorities are engaged in motivated deception of the public would be a cornerstone of conspiracist thinking due to its centrality in conspiracy theories. Someone who believes in a significant number of conspiracy theories would naturally begin to see authorities as fundamentally deceptive, and new conspiracy theories would seem more plausible in light of that belief.”
Where does the idea arise that certain unpopular groups, such as Jews or Muslims, are responsible for all the evil in the world? The renowned German-Jewish sociologist Theodor Adorno and his colleagues examined anti-Semitism in 1950. They “found strong positive correlations in endorsement between contradictory negative stereotypes of Jews, such that highly prejudiced participants found them to be both too isolated from the rest of society and too eager to participate in it. Adorno proposed that this paradoxical perception has its roots in ‘a relatively blind hostility which is reflected in the stereotypy, self-contradiction, and destructiveness’ of anti-Jewish stereotyping. In spite of their contradictory nature, both stereotypes drew enough credibility from their one common element—a negative perception of Jewish people—to end up with a strong positive association.”
The same goes, I would say, for the idea that “the Jews” are both capitalists and Marxists – meaning that they have ordinary working people in their grip, both coming and going. I imagine this would have been news to Jewish capitalists and Marxists – but I digress.
Not only Nazism, but also Marxism and – nowadays – Republicanism are predicated on conspiracy theories, and devote extensive effort to indoctrinating their constituencies accordingly. Remember Glenn Beck and his 2010 TV presentation about “puppet master” George Soros? Of course, Lewis Carroll figured this mechanism out long ago in his Alice in Wonderland:
Alice laughed: “There's no use trying,” she said; “one can't believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven't had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
In their article the British scholars ask us to
imagine that someone is heavily invested in conspiracism and strongly believes in a wide variety of different conspiracy theories. A view of authority as fundamentally deceptive is coherent with all of these theories, and as such draws activation from them until it becomes a strongly held belief in itself. When a novel conspiracy theory is presented, it immediately seems more credible because it agrees with this now strongly held view and disagrees with the officially endorsed narrative. Such higher-order beliefs may be so strongly held that any conspiracy theory that stands in opposition to the official narrative will gain some degree of endorsement from someone who holds a conspiracist worldview, even if it directly contradicts other conspiracy theories that they also find credible. In other words, a natural consequence of the explanatory coherence approach to social explanation is an instantiation of the principle ‘‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’’
Conspiracy theories, particularly false and downright irrational ones, quickly take on a dynamism of their own - and that's when they can become extremely dangerous. Once they take root, they are almost impossible to suppress.
Just as an orthodox Marxist might interpret major world events as arising inevitably from the forces of history, a conspiracist would see the same events as carefully orchestrated steps in a plot for global domination. Conceptualizing conspiracism as a coherent ideology, rather than as a cluster of beliefs in individual theories, may be a fruitful approach in the future when examining its connection to ideologically relevant variables such as social dominance orientation and right-wing authoritarianism.
Interestingly, the Kent researchers make a distinction between general anti-government conspiracism and the age-old canard of the Jewish threat. “Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are a notable and historically important exception; instead of alleging abuse of power by elites, historical theories of Jewish conspiracy usually detailed supposed attempts by a minority to seize power for themselves.”
The researchers themselves admit that some conspiracy theories are genuine, and who can deny it? Lincoln was murdered by a conspiracy, Nixon certainly conspired with his “plumbers,” the Holocaust was a blatantly obvious conspiracy, Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mosaddegh was toppled by a conspiracy (Operation Ajax) in 1953, and for many of us the “Project for the New American Century” of 1997 looks like more than just your neighbor’s laundry list. And answer me this: Why should we believe anything “the authorities” tell us? Are the official stories our governments placate us with any less fanciful than the wild stories cooked up by our most imaginative conspiracy theorists? The same goes for the reporting in our “lame-stream media,” let alone our “alternative” media, such as NPR and Mother Jones Magazine, which may very well be financed and stage-managed by the CIA.
My own problem with some of our more elaborate conspiracy theories, of course, is that they presuppose a degree of competence and foresight on the part of our masters that they are sorely lacking in their other endeavors. Regarding the most pervasive conspiracy theory of our own times, the “Truther movement” that has formed around the 9/11 incident, let me – for the purposes of this article – concede all their points. I simply don’t know enough about the dynamics of “controlled demolitions” and the melting point of steel to join in the conversation.
Let me instead postulate my own 9/11 conspiracy theory (which applies to the others too, by the way): There are people in Washington who not only delight in the Truthers’ claims, but are eagerly embroidering them further in an endeavor to make anyone who challenges the official report look like a crank. I mean, do you really believe that all those brilliant Truther websites are run by concerned citizens? That, I would claim, is the true conspiracy here: To keep ordinary citizens from asking the utterly basic question of why Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and the entire defense establishment were caught with their pants down during what should have been an easily avoidable cataclysm – assuming that the Defense Department has ever given any thought to our “defense,” rather than obsessing about how best to export war beyond our borders.
Now that question smells far worse than cordite in my opinion.