Sunday, December 11, 2005

Against conspiracy theories

"The conspiracy theory of society comes from not believing in God and then asking, 'What is in his place?'" - Karl Popper.

Conspiracy theorists are often perceived, not least in their own self-image, as sceptical, if not cynical, figures - questioning everything, believing in nothing. I'd argue the opposite: the conspiracy theorist, far from engaging in a critical, sceptical intellectual venture, has moved from the realm of rationality to one of faith - a step one has to take simply because conspiracy theories are intrinsically implausible. For whether they are applied by the weak to the proud and the powerful or vice versa, conspiracy theories always and everywhere impute powers to the protagonists that they do not, and cannot, possess. This is not to say conspiracies don't and haven't existed, merely to insist that the ability to maintain secrecy is in inverse proportion to the size of the particular plot that it's claimed has been uncovered. Or to put it more simply - a plot which involved so few people that secrecy can be maintained has little chance of success; one that does would involve so many people that secrecy would be impossible.

I'd rather insist on this point rather than engage with any individual conspiracy theory because one wonders if by doing the latter, one isn't yielding too much of the Humean ground on which the conspiracy theory sceptic should stand: for those of us who are of a genuinely sceptical disposition, we should not feel obliged to counter arguments based on co-incidence, absence of evidence to the contrary, and conjecture - the burden lies with them to provide evidence and rational argument for what is on the face of it literally unbelievable.

People believe in conspiracy theories, not based on evidence, but because they want to believe in them, not always an impulse easy to understand because practically all of them are rather gloomy, pessimistic, if not apocalyptic. Popper was near the mark but perhaps one could say the conspiracy theory of society comes from not believing in the devil and then asking what is in his place because the unseen powers for the conspiracy theorist is always malevolent. It raises the question, what does the believer gain from it?

One is a sense of righteousness. The conspiracy theory, I've often thought, is a species of gossip in that the those who spread it, and those who enjoy it, assume a certain moral, and sometimes intellectual and social superiority. In other words, if you are asked sotto voce if you've heard what the lady at No. 42 has been doing, you can bet you aren't about to be told of her clandestine charity work - and it'll be told in a "I know something you don't" kind of way.

Conspiracy theories are like this writ large, I think. The problem is on this scale, the subject is not merely the person who has in some way deviated from the accepted values of the community but the very incarnation of society's, civilisation's, even humanity's ruin. They are attractive in times of uncertainty, instability and suffering because they offer an explanation of tragic events that impute to the believer righteousness because the wickedness has been personified and externalised.

It's maybe because the explanation as to why bad things happen is just too mundane for some people. Why was John F Kennedy, this President who was the repository of so much goodwill, cut off in his prime? Those who insisted that there must have been a conspiracy never seemed to consider the possibility that maybe what was remarkable was that in an open country awash with weaponry like the United States, the assassination of a President isn't something that happens more frequently. But why accept this when you can convince yourself that had JFK remained alive, the whole trauma of Vietnam could have been avoided, as Oliver Stone did? The parallels between then and now, with the various 9/11 conspiracy theories should be obvious.

If theories of this nature are implausible when applied to those with power - the 'industrial-military' complex, the White House, the Pentagon - how much more so when they are applied to those whose numbers are small and lack power? Here conspiracy theories often attach themselves to minorities who arouse suspicion because of their exclusivity, secrecy or 'otherness' and religious groups have always and everywhere been the target for these because of a perceived division of loyalty. This can be seen in what might be described the grandfather of conspiracy theories, the antisemitic "Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion". Purported to be a blueprint for world domination by international Jewry this forgery was distributed by the Okhrana, used at the time to distract from the internal problems in Tsarist Russia and resurrected after 1917 by Romanov supporters to discredit the Bolsheviks.

It's early discreditation, revealed as a forgery lifted from a German or French (depending on what account you read) hasn't affected it's longevity: it was used, of course, by the Nazis and then was imported to the Middle East where it has appeared as an authentic exhibit in the Alexandria museum and has been serialised on Syrian TV.

So while I found Yusuf Smith's question on the Sharpener as to whether Islamophobia hadn't acquired some features of European anti-semitism an interesting one, I think a bit of historical proportion is called for as well as to remember that the Jewish conspiracy conceived of in the 'Protocols' is still a very current and sinister myth that has more adherents world wide than any other currently doing the rounds. Having said that, I'm not sure he's entirely wrong in thinking the supposed discovery of a 'Project' to establish a European caliphate, or "Eurabia", falls into the classic conspiracy theory by the way it imputes to a small number or people malevolent powers they cannot possibly possess. I was astonished to read Melanie Phillips describe the task of translating this document that's supposed to contain a blueprint for an infiltration with the aim of "thus beginning the slow destruction of our institutions, of our structures" as "heroic" because it struck me as being rather a waste of time. She writes that, "One must bear in mind the possibility that 'The Project' is an elaborate hoax" - but the question of the document's authenticity is practically irrelevant as Daniel from Crooked Timber points out, given that the supposed 'Project' is utterly impossible anyway.

If it is being argued that a few millenarian moonbats without much in the way of power or wealth have despite their small numbers the ability to take over and destroy our very civilisation, and not just themselves, random civilians and property, this is false for the same reason all conspiracy theories are false; if it is being argued that the threat lies rather in the fact that this nefarious scheme is understood to be indicative and typical of the religious group from which these profess to belong, I think one should pause at the start of this rather dangerous road and ask yourself whether there isn't a part of you that wants to believe this?

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