On the care and feeding of theories

 Sam Smith

As I might have predicted, our coverage of the Bilderberg conference has brought a number of suggestions that we are engaging in conspiracy theories. Actually, if we had a theory, it would be more of an anarchy theory, since when social and political order breaks down, one no longer needs conspiracies. Everyone does their own thing and the ones with the most power win. In Latin America they call it a culture of impunity. It’s an issue that’s come up before. Here are a few of my prior comments:

2006 – A conspiracy does not have to be illegal; it can merely be wrongful or harmful.

– The term ‘conspiracy theory’ was invented by elite media and politicians to denigrate questions or critical presumptions about events about which important facts remain unrevealed.

– The intelligent response to such events is to remain agnostic, skeptical, and curious. Theories may be suggested – just as they are every day about less complex and more open matters on news broadcasts and op ed pages – but such theories should not stray too far from available evidence. Conversely, as long as serious anomalies remain, dismissing questions and doubts as a “conspiracy theory” is a highly unintelligent response. It is also ironic as those ridiculing the questions and doubts typically consider themselves intellectually superior to the doubters. But they aren’t because they stopped thinking the moment someone in power told them a superficially plausible answer. Further, to ridicule those still with doubts about such matters is intellectually dishonest.

– There is the further irony that many who ridicule doubts about the official version of events were typically trained at elite colleges where, in political science and history, theories often take precedent over facts and in which substantive decisions affecting politics and history are presumed to be the work of a small number of wise men (sic). They are trained, in effect, to trust in (1) theories and (2) benign confederacies. Most major media political coverage is based on the great man theory of history. This pattern can be found in everything from Skull & Bones to the Washington Post editorial board to the Council on Foreign Relations. You might even call them conspiracy theorists.

– Other fields – such as social history or anthropology – posit that change for better or evil can come as cultural change or choices and not just as the decisions of “great men.” This is why one of the biggest stories in modern American history was never well covered: the declining birth rate. No great men decided it should happen.

– Homicide detectives and investigative reporters, among others, are inductive thinkers who start with evidence rather than with theories and aren’t happy when the evidence is weak, conflicting or lacking. They keep working the case until a solid answer appears. This is alien to the well-educated newspaper editor who has been trained to trust official answers and conventional theories.

– The unresolved major event is largely a modern phenomenon that coincides with the collapse of America’s constitutional government and the decline of its culture. Beginning with the Kennedy assassination, the number of inadequately explained major events has been mounting steadily and with them a steady decline in the trust between the people and their government. The refusal of American elites to take these doubts seriously has been a major disservice to the republic.

– You don’t need a conspiracy to lie, do something illegal or to be stupid.

2007 – The other day I asked a former TWA pilot – one who had flown TWA 800 just months before its final crash – what a group of his colleagues sitting around a bar would say about the disaster. Overwhelmingly, he said, they would think the plane had been brought down by a missile – either the result of Navy error or a terrorist attack.

By the standards of the media and the rest of the American establishment, these pilots would thus qualify as conspiracy theorists. This is a bit odd since the average former TWA pilot knows far more about planes and what can go wrong with them than 99% of commentators, politicians and think tankers in Washington. Yet it is the latter who claim not only consummate access to the truth but the prerogative to determine who amongst us is a paranoid nut for not accepting their version of it.

We do not even need to discuss the facts of the TWA 800 incident to appreciate the enormous hubris involved in such a presumption. Yet almost every time the phrase ‘conspiracy theory’ is used, this hubris lurks to some degree just behind the protective shield of derision.

In fact, unproven or unprovable theories are all around us. They not only guide our everyday choices – I think if I turn right here I’ll get home quicker – but our intellectual ones, witness the time spent absorbing the guesswork of Marx, Freud and Ayn Rand. The greatest conspiracy theory in our culture is probably the notion that J. Christ ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty. If the Washington Post and the FBI had been around at the time, they might have insisted that his body had been snatched by members of a contemporary version of Al Qaeda. But no one would have paid much attention because the truth back then was controlled by religion and not by a secular elite. In more recent times, the secular elite has wrested ownership of unprovable theses from the priests.

And own them they will. An early example was a 1967 CIA report, 1035-960, on how to handle doubts about the JFK assassination. Among the recommendations:

“The aim of this dispatch is to provide material countering and discrediting the claims of the conspiracy theorists, so as to inhibit the circulation of such claims in other countries. . .

“To discuss the publicity problem with and friendly elite contacts (especially politicians and editors), pointing out that the Warren Commission made as thorough an investigation as humanly possible, that the charges of the critics are without serious foundation, and that further speculative discussion only plays into the hands of the opposition. Point out also that parts of the conspiracy talk appear to be deliberately generated by Communist propagandists. Urge them to use their influence to discourage unfounded and irresponsible speculation.

“To employ propaganda assets to . . . refute the attacks of the critics. Book reviews and feature articles are particularly appropriate for this purpose. The unclassified attachments to this guidance should provide useful background material for passing to assets. Our ploy should point out, as applicable, that the critics are (I) wedded to theories adopted before the evidence was in, (I) politically interested, (III) financially interested, (IV) hasty and inaccurate in their research, or (V) infatuated with their own theories.”

In other words, only the CIA and their toadies in politics and the media – aka ‘friendly elite contacts’ – are allowed to have theories before the evidence is in, be politically interested, financially interested, hasty and inaccurate in their research or infatuated with their own theories

This is not to say that popular alternative theories are inherently correct, only that the acceptability of any theory should not be based on the status of those who propose it but on the internal consistency of the premise and the external evidence to support it.

Obviously, if you want to rig the evidence, the approach favored by the secular elite is a good one. But what about those who go along with ill founded conclusions and prattle about conspiracy theories while sincerely believing that they are being responsible? This latter class includes much of the best educated and most powerful in Washington and other power centers.

One important cause of such behavior is simple caution and fear. To question the conventional wisdom in Washington is not a wise career move whether you’re part of the government or merely reporting on it. It takes a lot of work and a lot of courage to challenge accepted presumptions.

Further, you can signal your willingness to play by the rules by the use of such terms as ‘conspiracy theories.’ It’s a code that says to the powerful, you don’t have to worry about me.

Finally, a major key to success in Washington is using certainty as a substitute for competence and disdain as a substitute for comprehension. Calling someone a conspiracy theorist is so much easier than actually investigating an issue or engaging in an honest intellectual debate, something that rarely happens in the capital.

Most of the time, the secular elite wants neither new facts nor new theories. On the other hand, the intellectually curious are not afraid of either. In the best scientific tradition, they will take new facts and, if they warrant it, contrive a hypothesis about them. They will test that hypothesis, and then take it from there, revising, discarding or refining what was originally proposed as the evidence accumulates. They will follow the story as far as the facts lead and leave the remaining anomalies out in the open to be dealt with in the future.

Admittedly, there are plenty who offer alternative theories who do not follow such a rigorous approach. The irony is that such critics of accepted wisdom have far more in common with the editorial board of the NY Times than either would admit. Both place faith over facts. It’s just that their faiths clash.

This doesn’t, however, mean that the alternative theorists’ criticisms of official explanation are without merit. One does not have to accept the notion that the Bush regime was behind the WTC attack to question the gaps in the government’s version of the story or to raise the mostly ignored issue of whether the World Trade Center was built right in the first place.

But critics who insist on ill-formed conclusions actually play into the hands of those in power who happily use the most extreme hypotheses to ridicule all doubt and questioning. This has happened with virtually every unsolved mystery of recent times. The serious remaining questions are thus obscured or lumped with the unreasonable. It is far better not to reach a final conclusion, offering instead several possibilities or just pressing for answers to the unresolved aspects of a case.

Thus, like the TWA pilots, I do not trust the official story on what happened to Flight 800. But I also do not know what really did happen. Like so many other incidents in our recent history, the case can not be closed, in no small part because those in power refused to deal with it in an honest and thorough manner. So it up to others to both investigate and come up with alternative hypotheses – to test them, to write about them and, perhaps some day, to finally discover the truth.

Meanwhile, we can do our country a great favor by encouraging others to keep asking these questions and seeking answers and not to insult or dismiss them as conspiracy theorists for attempting, as best they can, to do what those with far more power, knowledge and money, should have, and were meant to have, done.

2003 – 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.

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.

2009 – The other day, Politico ran a typically sneering article about the Bilderberg Group. As usual, anyone who shows the slightest interest in the hyper secret meeting of some of the most powerful people in the world is a “conspiracy theorist.”

This is smug, childish, mindless establishment journalism at its worst. By any traditional standard of journalism, a secret meeting of some of the most important people in the world is news. How you handle that news is certainly debatable but to ignore it completely is simply incompetence.

Consider this. The recent G-20 conference produced over 10,000 news stories. The next Bilderberg event, about 150 – none in the conventional media according to a Google scan.

Yet how newsworthy was the G20 conference? Robert Kuttner put it well when he wrote:

“Since they began at Rambouillet, France, in 1975, these annual economic summits have been treated as momentous events, but they are memorable mostly for being forgettable. Only very infrequently, as in the 1999 Cologne summit’s embrace of debt relief for the third world, do they produce lasting achievements. This Group of 20 meeting was notable only because the club of seven leading democracies plus Russia was expanded to include emerging world powers such as India, China, and Brazil. . . But the 2009 summit, whose extensive press clippings will soon be fish wrap, succeeded mainly because it managed not to fail.”

Of course, nothing much may happen at this year’s Bilderberg conference – to be held perhaps in Greece in either May or June (only conspiracy theorists care where or when). On the other hand, Belgian viscount and current Bilderberg-chairman Etienne Davignon pointed out to the EU Observer that the Euro was created in part by the Bilderberg Group in the 1990s, certainly more newsworthy than anything the G20 crowd has been up to lately.

One of the reasons Bilderberg is so heavily censored by the archaic media is the number of publishers and owners who attend. The Washington Post, the New York Times, LA Times and all major networks’ ABC, CBS and NBC have participated. All participants are sworn to secrecy.

Bilderberg denies its existence, and all the resorts at which they hold their meetings require their employees to lie and deny they are present.

Among those reportedly present in 2007 were Donald Graham, chairman and chief executive officer of the Washington Post, Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller, John Vinocur, senior correspondent of the International Herald Tribune, Paul Gigot, editor of the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, Nicholas Beytout, editor-in-chief of Le Figaro, George David, chairman of Coca-Cola, Martin Feldstein, president and chief executive officer of the National Bureau of Economic Research, Timothy F. Geithner, president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Vernon Jordan, senior managing director of Lazard Freres & Co., and Anatole Kaletsky, editor at large of the Times of London.

Any journalists who don’t think such a crowd, meeting at a secret place at a secret time for secret reasons, is not worth covering deserves to have their press pass cancelled.

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