There’s that phrase again. “Conspiracy Theory” has been uttered very frequently as of late, by desperate politicians, clinging to power like their lives depend on it.
We hear this often enough that I could, and soon will, address the issue of the phrase itself, devoid of the context of the moment. To connect today’s episode to the news of the day though, I’ll mention that several current events have me musing about the terminology.
Most prominent is the ongoing show trial in the United States House of Representatives, pertaining to the supposed impeachment of President Donald J. Trump. Democrats allege that Trump abused the power of his office to aid in his own reelection, and pursued a “debunked conspiracy theory” that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.
To hear Representative Adam “Shifty” Schiff tell it, this preposterous claim is a product of Russian spies, devoid of any tether to the physical universe. To even mention this possibility is evidence of outright treason against the United States, as only one in the employ of the Kremlin would dare to speak such subversive filth.
Curiously, Schiff’s outrage over conspiracy theories seems quite narrow. No such indignation was forthcoming when Hillary Clinton alleged, sans evidence, that Tulsi Gabbard and Jill Stein were “Russian assets”. Van Jones remains a Democrat in good standing, despite signing a petition by 9/11 truthers. Schiff himself peddled “Russia collusion” for months, falsely claiming in televised interviews that he was privy to evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 election. No such evidence was forthcoming, after years long investigations by the Special Counsel’s office, the House of Representatives, and the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Whatever the case, a “conspiracy theory” is just that. It is a theory, about more than one individual, conspiring to do some illicit thing. All investigations involving more than one suspect, are, by definition, conspiracy theories.
Despite the plain meaning of the language, the phrase, in common parlance, has become synonymous with falsehood. It is a common utterance in news discussions “this is not a conspiracy, this actually happened” as if the two things were mutually exclusive. The FBI has recently classified “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists” as a terror threat, as if they were trying to mess with such “extremists” by confirming their worst fears. Being branded a “conspiracy theorist” is mere millimeters below being branded a “racist” in today’s political discourse, and for this reason, people would sooner deny the obvious truth, than bear the cost of espousing such unpopular views.
Perhaps the most common complaint about so-called “conspiracy theories” is that they are not true, by definition. To make this assertion, the person making it must necessarily have studied every conspiracy theory, and deemed all of them to be false. Since their premise is usually that we shouldn’t even be discussing these things, I find this terribly unlikely. With the Alex Jones program airing seven days a week, and InfoWars.com pumping out articles every single day, even the most dedicated conspiracy theorist would have his hands full trying to confirm or debunk all of them. Add to this dozens if not hundreds of other conspiracy theory websites, radio shows, and podcasts, and the task of finding out about all them, much less researching them, becomes quite the chore. Someone who dismisses an entire class of information, just because they call it a “conspiracy theory” is certainly not spending nearly that much time researching all of these ideas.
Granted, some of these things are not entirely supported by reality.
One of the more ridiculous claims I’ve heard made is that juice boxes are turning children into homosexuals. Then again, the idea just sounds so preposterous, that I’m not bothering to research it. I’d be willing to bet if you did research it, you would find some confirmed evidence that could lead one in that direction, but reaching the asserted conclusion is not necessarily supported by fact.
Take “chemtrails” as another example. There is evidence to suggest that it has been proposed by government agents and corporations to spray chemicals into the sky for “geoengineering”, and people have found elevated levels of certain chemicals in the soil in some areas. From these very real facts, people jump to the insane conclusion that every line in the sky is a radical depopulation agenda.
“Conspiracy theories” pertaining to the attacks of September 11th 2001 abound, some of which contradict one another. Some people say a plane didn’t even hit the pentagon, it was a missile. Some people say the planes were guided by remote control. Some people say there were explosives in the twin towers, some say thermite. I’m honestly not claiming to know the answer, but I would say that the most ridiculous conspiracy theory I’ve heard about September 11th is the “official” 9/11 Commission Report. Truth is the first casualty of any war, and to assume the “War on Terror” is any exception is lunacy.
Take the Boston Marathon bombing for another example. Some people claim there to have been “crisis actors” who came in and staged the whole thing. I personally find this a little bit ridiculous, since even if the government did stage the attack, they would have no problem murdering a bunch of innocent people in the process. That’s kinda what governments do, after all. The one absurd claim, is no reason to dismiss the fact that bomb drills describing exactly what happened were ongoing when it went down, or the many contradictions of the “official story” that have been pointed out by “conspiracy theorists”. Especially when it leads to something as insane as martial law in Boston, there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical about the narrative that leads to something like that.
For these reasons and others, I think dismissing “conspiracy theories” as untrue, is just plain bogus. One could make the criticism that conspiracy theorists should be a bit more careful in their positive assertions, but I think they have done a lot of extremely important work in exposing government lies.
A common criticism lobbed, especially by the “peace is the way” crowd, is that conspiracy theories scare people, and that fear is unproductive. I couldn’t disagree more. Fear is a healthy instinct. If you find yourself stranded in a jungle somewhere, and you see a pack of hyenas killing something, fear may lead you to walk in the other direction, and that’s a good thing.
Likewise, governments have murdered 260 million of their own citizens in the last century, by some measurements, so people who are not afraid of it, concern me. Government is arguably the number one preventable cause of human death and suffering in the world, and I couldn’t think of a better thing to be terrified of. If showing people shocking documentaries about government atrocities and exposing government lies helps lead people to the conclusion that government is a terrifyingly violent and evil institution, I’d have a hard time coming up with a better possible outcome.
People should be afraid of government! It kills people! Even the most anti-conspiracy conservative should be able to understand that.
Another common critique is that, true or not, one hurts the public perception of their favored political viewpoint by wading into this category of ideas.
This one really burns me, especially because it’s not just limited to “conspiracy theories”. If you don’t want to be associated with exposing government lies and atrocities, then by all means, don’t. For those of us who value this though, you have no more a right to claim ownership over a “movement” than anybody else. This “you’re hurting the movement” stuff is lobbed at every faction by every other faction, who thinks everybody should be doing what they’re doing. The whole point of opposing the Left, is to understand that we don’t all do the same things, that we all have different motivations, and that different people respond differently to different stimuli.
I certainly don’t agree with a lot of things Alex Jones has said. Yet, I would have to be dumb, deaf, and blind to think that he hasn’t done more to diminish the credibility of the “establishment”, than every loud mouth I’ve ever known, combined, short of Donald Trump.
I would also venture to say, that Jones, and others like him, have substantially improved the quality of their reporting over the years. This may be a mere consequence of the actual news of the day, becoming far more frightening, than the scarcely plausible things genuine “conspiracy nuts” used to fret about, just a few short years ago. Would we even have any concept of just how tragically screwed up our country has become, were it not for such “conspiracy theorists” daring to risk their credibility by digging up the rabbit holes?
I would think it unlikely…
So, on the whole, I tend to think conspiracy theories do more good than harm. While some, such as the Russia hoax, certainly damage our political discourse, others, such as demanding a more plausible explanation for Jeffery Epstein’s untimely demise, warrant considerable scrutiny.
The key to unlocking their benefits, and mitigating their potential for harm, as I see it, lies in a continuum of information. Along this continuum, credibility is granted or denied according to the reputations of those purporting such theories to be plausible. Obscure producers must listen to crackpots, respectable producers must listen to the obscure, and those in proximity to power must consider the insights of the respectable, combine this with their unique access to information, and act on those theories which turn out to have a basis in fact.
The threat to this continuum is the allegation of “conspiracy theory” itself. The crackpots remain crackpots, with no capacity to improve the quality of their information, if nobody will ask a question which might put them in the same social category as a crackpot. Obscure producers who avoid the crackpots, and instead mimic the utterances of the respectable for want of similar status, add nothing to our discourse, and leave the respectables without any challenge to their own narrative dominance.
Thus the accusation of “conspiracy theorist” is itself, something of a conspiracy. When powerful people shout “How dare you accuse me of conspiring? I will crush you!” one might reliably profit from betting that the threatening figure is, indeed, conspiring. The louder the denials and condemnations, the more frenzied the effort to discredit and silence the source, the more credible the allegation becomes, in my eyes.
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