Monday, June 10, 2013

On the genealogy of conspiracy theories

"The conspiracy theory of society", Karl Popper said, "comes from not believing in God and then asking: what it in His place?"  I prefer a Manichean modification where God is replaced with the devil because at their heart conspiracy theories always and everywhere claim to have identified a malevolent force that is manipulating world events.

Like most people who are generally dismissive of the conspiracy theory of history, I am sceptical of the competence of human beings that said theories impute to them.  Simple arithmetic seems to rule it out: the bigger the conspiracy, the more people need to be involved, which by definition increases the probability that it will be discovered.  Or as Gore Vidal put it in relation to the JFK assassination (I paraphrase):  "I dare say there was a conspiracy - but on the other hand, how come the shooter on the grassy knoll hasn't appeared on Oprah yet?"

There's also the genealogy of conspiracy theories, which is decidedly sinister.  Again, like many I see the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as the prototype, having as it does most of the ingredients of those which have followed.  At its core it has the idea that a small, malevolent, clandestine cabal is controlling world events in such a manner that the human race is heading for slavery and catastrophe.  It emerged in Tsarist Russia, was picked up by the Nazis and, such is the depressing longevity of this piece of Jew-baiting, has re-appeared in recent years in the Middle East.

In this history there are reasons to be dismissive of conspiracy theories while at the same time acknowledging that lower-order misdeeds of subterfuge by secretive organisations are a factor in human affairs.  After all, it is part of the paradox of the historical trajectory of the 'Protocols' that they were a forgery distributed by the Tsarist secret police.  I was reminded of this while reading about the revelations in the Guardian from former NSA operative Edward Snowden  What struck me was the way in which the story is already being filtered through preconceived interpretations, which probably do not bode well for this young man.  The story seems significant to me but I'm getting the impression that already a majority of people from both sides of the political divide are shrugging their shoulders.  For the paranoid Chomskyite left, who already seem to imagine we're living in the equivalent of occupied Poland circa 1940, these revelations form part of an eye-rolling narrative that finds any dismay at governmental misdeeds so painfully naive.  There's no point in trying to reason people out of a position they did not arrive at though reason in the first place - but there's a fair bit of that on the other side as well.  Dan Hodges seems fairly representative of this "Oh you limp-wristed liberals just aren't up for the fight, are you?", strand, as far as one can tell at this early stage:
"On September 11, 2001, 3,000 innocent people were killed in the worst terrorist massacre in history. [...] Then Guantánamo was opened. And that was of course opposed."
Yeah, and here's why: without meaning any disrespect to the victims of this atrocity, during WWII the Blitz on British cities was the equivalent of a 9/11 very month for a year. I know it wasn't always respected but we got through this experience while generally holding to the principle that a captured enemy combatant would be incarcerated without being subjected to torture and only being obliged to surrender his name, rank and serial number. Surrendering this convention seems of no account to some, so what chance has the right to privacy have among those who would have found the qualms expressed by bleeding heart liberals like Winston Churchill and Baroness Thatcher over matters of liberty and law so painfully antiquarian?  This is why I feel so very sorry for Edward Snowden; I think he's about to fall into the chasm between his conception of liberty and that shared by the people whom he imagines he's defending.

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