The culture of conspiracies

Sam Smith

The conspiraphiles are back at work at the Washington Post, this time lumping anyone who questions perceived wisdom about major events with those advocating alternative theories about what happened at the Pentagon on September 11. The irony is that the story appeared on the same day as the Post was devoting over three pages to one of the larger conspiracies of our lifetime – the massive dissemination of misinformation used to justify the Iraq invasion, albeit now being neatly spun as the fault of intelligence agencies rather than of Bush and his neocon buddies.

I call the Post conspiraphiles because those mainly obsessed with conspiracies are the county’s most alienated and its most established, only in the latter case conspiracies are called things like “well examined policy,” “summits,” “think tanks” and so forth. They involve benign acts of a small number of well educated persons acting on the behalf of the ignorant masses. This is the fundamental assumption upon which Washington functions and is implicitly accepted by politician, academic, and media alike.

Thus both militia and media believe in the great man theory of history. The difference is that the former believe the great men are up to no good and the latter that they can do no harm.

There is an alternative, and more sensible, way of looking at all this, and that is to take each matter separately and to judge it based on the facts. This is not the way it is done in Washington because for every phenomenon there must quickly be a theory, if not by the evening news than at least for the Sunday op ed section.

The way that reporters used to be trained to do it was to look at life inductively, which is to say to start with the facts and follow their trail until, perhaps but not necessarily, one reaches a conclusion.

This is the way homicide detectives are meant to work and it’s the way I was trained as an anthropology major as my Harvard buddies were learning to revere Marx and Freud and other icons of the well educated. It always seemed strange to me that so few people should have such a lock on so much wisdom and importance. Still, while I was looking at the evidence of human culture, many of my fellow students were absorbing a limited number of theories, ones into which they would learn to stuff all of life’s subsequent events, soon realizing that skepticism was the worst possible road to the top.

Social historians, feminist academics and the like would eventually demonstrate what a shoddy way this was, but in high places the anti-intellectual and anti-democratic notion of truth and wisdom as the property of the privileged few largely continues.

This is why, I suspect, the Post – which has mentioned conspiracy theories or theorist 81 times this year – gets so upset about theories that question the theories of the benign elite.

This is not to say that all things labeled conspiracy theories are true. Far from it. There is, for example, a vast difference between the largely theoretical assumptions of what happened to American flight 77 and the considerable unexplained evidence in the case of TWA flight 800. Or, as the Post did, conflating the Pentagon crash with the wisely questioned JFK assassination, an act either deeply cynical or plain stupid.

There are ways to consider these matters without being either gullible or myopic:

– Stick to the facts.

– Neither suppress nor exaggerate anomalies

– Don’t feel you have to have a theory for every fact.

– Don’t have theories that go beyond the facts.

I have reported on numerous matters outside the realm of establishment approved wisdom. In each case, I have tried to use the model of the classic (albeit today somewhat archaic) reporter or the detective, which is to say, to point out the anomalous and suspicious without leaping to conclusions. Thus, I don’t know how Vince Foster died but I know it was not the way it is said he died. I do not know what brought TWA 800 down, but feel inadequate attention has been given to repeated sightings of what seemed to some to be a rocket-like trajectory in the sky. While there are many valid questions about the reaction to September 11, one of the most ignored aspects has been the matter of dubious construction materials and procedures used to build the World Trade Center.

Further, I regard a conspiracy in its legal sense of two or more people joining secretly to do something improper or illegal. It happens all the time. But to suggest that it only happens amongst the lower criminal classes is either naïve or grossly self-serving.

That said, much of what goes wrong in and around government is far more a product of culture than of conspiracy. If you plant corn in a field you are going to get corn and not cauliflower. If you impose prohibition – for either alcohol or drugs – you are going to create a massive class of criminals as well as corrupt law enforcement and politicians. If you train young men and women in unrestrained violence you may end up with Abu Ghraib. If you train college students to see themselves as chosen keepers of political and social truths you are going to end up with the Washington Post city room. And so forth.

As America sinks deeper into its culture of impunity, in which corruption is the norm rather than a deviance, the country’s elite will lash out at those who questioned its acts, its morality and its wisdom. But please don’t think there necessarily has to be a conspiracy involved. In many case it’s just the way they growed.


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