Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Conspiracies for You and Me

RWA1 has been letting me down lately: I rely on him for links to wacked-out rightwing spew, and I wasn't getting anything I could use. The best was a link to an article about David Mamet's self-touted conversion from liberalism, with RWA1's comment "It will be interesting to see what this gifted writer has to say. I went down this journey 50 years ago." I didn't write about that one because I've seen little of Mamet's work; what I have seen, however, not only didn't interest me much but supported what numerous people have said online: Who knew Mamet was a liberal?

There was also a link to a piece by Stanley Crouch attacking Cornel West. Not exactly daring, since West has been getting a lot of flack from liberals for his attacks on Obama. RWA1 commented, "Stanley Crouch has him dead to rights. The man is a charlatan, down to his shiny gold cufflinks. Liberal guilt has gone too far in accommodating him." I've read more Crouch than I have Mamet, and mainly remember Crouch's homophobic attacks on James Baldwin. I've got my own differences with West, but I wouldn't call him a charlatan. But remember, RWA1 thinks David Mamet is "gifted", that Jay Nordlinger's mind is "worth spending time with," and that George Will, Peggy Noonan, and Joe Rehyansky are sober, rational political commentators.

Anyway, today RWA1 linked to this article, with the comment "The Internet is speeding the spread of arrant nonsense." I can't really argue with that; the Internet has made it possible for all kinds of material to spread with greater speed than ever before, and there's no reason why arrant nonsense should be an exception. But still, RWA1's own fondness for arrant nonsense makes his complaint seem rather ungrateful. He gets lots of nuttery for free from the Right's propaganda mills and -- also for free -- links to it on Facebook to help speed it on its way.

Even better, after another of his friends made a little joke, RWA1 added: "Apocalyptic hysteria is always cropping up, but the conspiracy fantasies are really getting out of hand with the internet." That's especially ungrateful, given his fondness for conspiracy theories. (NPR must continue to receive government funding so he can listen to opera, despite their liberal anti-American news programs.) RWA1 has always been scornful of religious "Yahoos" as he likes to call them, though as with Dan Savage's fury over hearing that being gay is a choice, I find myself wondering why he takes apocalyptic hysteria so personally.

And what does apocalyptic hysteria have to do with conspiracy theories? The Truthout article RWA1 cited, "Theories and Hoaxes Are Blurring Reality", by one Greg Guma, began with a trendy comment on Harold Camping's failed prediction of the Rapture, but moved quickly from there to "offbeat" theories:
There are so many out there. Obama is a secret Muslim – millions of people believe that, secular humanists want to repress religion, and liberals are plotting to confiscate people’s guns and push a “gay agenda.” At the opposite end of the political spectrum, there is the assertion that 9/11 was an inside job and all that this entails. No offense meant. I’ve been called a “conspiracy nut” myself, specifically for saying that we should know more about the attack on the Twin Towers. Still, a modern-day Reichstag fire at multiple locations does qualify as a radical conclusion.
I think Guma is somewhat confused about what a theory is. (To say nothing of "radical.") Believing that Obama is a secret Muslim, or even that he grew up in Kenya where he was trained in anti-colonialism doesn't qualify as a theory. The theory would lie in who conspired to hide Obama's true background, and how they did it, but the claim itself isn't a theory. The 9/11 Truthers have some theories about what happens or doesn't happen to tall buildings when airliners strike them, and they believe that the Bush-Cheney administration carried out the destruction of the Twin Towers to justify the War on Terror they wanted to start. In some broad sense of the word that could be called a theory, I guess.

Calling an idea, a belief, or even a theory a "conspiracy theory" is an easy way of derailing a debate. In the first place, conspiracies do happen, so speculating about conspiracy is not like claiming that the Second Coming is near. The hard part is finding evidence that a conspiracy did in fact happen, and the burden of proof lies on the advocate of any given conspiracy theory. But some nutty claims, such as the one that the US government has been involved in the narcotics trade, or that the Reagan administration conspired to evade Congressional prohibition of military aid to the Nicaraguan contras by selling weapons to Iran, or that the US tried to assassinate Fidel Castro, have turned out to be true.

In the second place, there are perfectly mainstream conspiracy theories, like the one that a network of Islamic fanatics around the world is conspiring to destroy Western freedom. When I was growing up in the 1950s, anticommunist conspiracy theories were part of the mainstream. And indeed, there were Communists who spied on the US for the USSR, just as there were American spies who spied on the USSR for the US. The difference is that these conspiracy theories were promulgated in the mass media, from the Reader's Digest to the TV networks; or by groups like the American Legion, the Roman Catholic Church, and the FBI, who had access to schoolchildren. Even after the decline of McCarthyism, the US left has never had such access to media.

That's leaving out the less respectable, but still popular beliefs that circulated widely, some of them still current on the Internet. The atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair has a petition before the FCC to ban all religious broadcasting, and if Bible Believing Christians don't send them a million postcards, the Word of God will be driven from the airwaves! The United Nations has created a World Bible with all reference to the saving blood of Jesus Christ removed, because "we do not wish that any man be saved"! Hippies spat on Vietnam War veterans! Rock music contains secret messages recorded backwards that will turn listeners into devil worshipers! Paul McCartney died in a car accident and was replaced by a guy called Billy Shears, but the Beatles scattered hints about the matter throughout their later work. (Many people who don't believe that Paul died still believe that the hints are there.)

The funny part of RWA1's comment about conspiracy theories is that the Right generally is quite fond of conspiracy theories. Muslims are stealthily imposing sharia law on America! Liberals are filling TV with gay teen propaganda so teenagers will want to get gay married! Liberal scientists invented the theory of global warming and the liberal media are trying to scare us with it so that ... what? I'm not sure what the Right thinks is the secret, anti-American payload of global warming theory. (RWA1 is scornful of creationists and the Academic Left for their rejection of science, but he freely denounces science that doesn't suit his politics.) The liberal media are suppressing news about the Tea Party Movement and trying to make Sarah Palin look bad! Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11! President Bush had to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons that were an imminent danger to the US! President Clinton had to bomb Iraq because Saddam had expelled the weapons inspectors!

The biggest irony, though, is that this griping about the spread of conspiracy theories is itself a conspiracy theory. So is Guma's conclusion, after he concedes that there is something to some of the nutty claims that have been going around:
In short, some theories may be distractions or even deliberate deceptions, but others are worth considering, as long as we stipulate that they aren’t necessarily facts and resist exaggeration. The problem is that it’s becoming more difficult to tell the difference in an era when facts have been devalued. There are so many possibilities, the standard of proof appears to be getting lower, and theories tend to evolve, expand and mutate rapidly in unexpected ways as they circulate through cyberspace. As yet, there is little follow up to see whether new facts reinforce or discredit a particular idea or prediction. Corruption of truth meanwhile contributes to social division and civic decay. Yet there are apparently no consequences for stoking paranoia, intentionally confusing speculation with fact, or perpetrating a premeditated hoax.
"Facts have been devalued," Guma says, but by whom? Them, I guess, the bad guys who want to distract and distort and devalue facts. He doesn't consider the possibility that many people don't trust the US government because the US government has lied, often, about matters of great seriousness. The Bush administration, with a lot of help from the corporate media, stoked paranoia, intentionally confused speculation with fact, and perpetrated a premeditated hoax about Weapons of Mass Destruction in order to get support for their invasion of Iraq. The human cost, in terms of lives lost, refugees fleeing into exile, and the destruction of a country was staggering, yet there still have been no consequences for the perpetrators. Nor was Iraq an isolated case: similar distortions and "corruption of truth" attended most if not all American wars. (I specify American wars because of American exceptionalism, which freely admits the lies and aggression of other countries, but denies that the US would do such awful things.)

But are things any worse than they used to be? I don't know of any reason to think so, and Guma doesn't give any.