Conspiracy theory in West
The situation in the West is different that in the Middle East. We have considerable resistance to conspiracy theory – as we also do, not coincidentally, to apocalyptic narratives, especially cataclysmic ones. One might argue that these resistances are indispensible elements of a successful civil society, and that when they fail — as they did in France in 1793, or Russia in 1917 — you get tyranny and terror.
Before 2000 there were certainly important elements of conspiracy theory at play in Western culture – Kennedy assassination and UFOs, to take the two most popular forms – but voicing these conspiratorial narratives was a ticket either to obscurity or to Hollywood. While Westerners may have played with conspiracy theory for fun (X Files), Arabs and Muslim killed for it (Iraq-Iran war). For the West, conspiracies are a last resort to explain reality; in the Middle East, the first and often only resort.
But conspiracy thinking cuts deeper into Western attitudes than simple contrasts like this suggest. Nazism and Communism both imploded on their paranoia, and totalitarianism is a Western invention. The lack of scholarly attention to the subject may understandably reflect the profound unease that non-conspiracists feel when getting involved in these exceptionally intricate and overheated explanations for reality. But understand them, we must. Especially now that Petrie dish of the internet has changed the dynamics so much at so dangerous a time. The ease of communicating Conspiracy theory through cyberspace, on the one hand, has combined with a serious culture war between a “progressive secular left” and a “conservative, fundamentalist, right” on the other, to increase the appeal of Conspiracy theories just as they become more readily available.
The approach and passage of 2000 have played a significant role in intensifying Conspiracy theory culture in the United States: the mythical imagination – UFOs, unknown underground races, scientific experiments gone awry – combined with the politics of impeachment to foster an ever-expanding menu of possibilities to believe in. Clinton had more conspiracy theories circulating about him than the previous half-dozen presidents. And in his first term, George Bush has surpassed him handily. In particular the events of 9-11 have fostered an immense range of conspiracy theories not only – and immediately – in the Arab and Muslim worlds, but in the West as well. Indeed, one might argue that these have penetrated farther and effected people more, than any previous case of presidential conspiracy theory.
Here’s where the bad faith Republicans demonstrated with their scorched earth assault on Clinton (e.g., publishing the most lurid details on the internet even as they complained of how the media were polluting our children with their sexual permissiveness), has intensified the political culture wars. These in turn, have made the receptivity to Conspiracy theory even greater among the left. Democrats have the same (if not greater) hostility to the current Republican president as did the Republicans for “Billary.” Indeed this hostility has prompted Charles Krauthammer to coin the expression Bush Derangement Syndrome:
Bush Derangement Syndrome: the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency — nay — the very existence of George W. Bush.
Considering the deranged behavior of the Republicans over Clinton’s trysts in the back corridors of the White House, and before that, the ferocious attacks on virtually every American president, one might better call the latest version, Presidential Derangement Syndrome, Version 43.2.
The hostility between “liberals” and “conservatives” in the USA, a reflection of the larger “culture wars” that plagues every “modern” culture to some extent, feeds Conspiracy theory by making the people on both sides eager to believe the worst of their opponents. In the case of the most recent, current, and still as-yet undetermined Conspiracy theory – namely Bush and 9-11 – the role of personal animus plays a significant role in the attraction of 9-11 Conspiracy theories. This is true both of Europeans across the political spectrum, and people on the American “left.” (Here, I observe that, by and large, the Canadians share European patterns.)
This animosity is critical in imagining a President capable of, at worst plotting to destroy three of the most important American sites, kill thousands, if not tens of thousands of Americans, all in based on motives that range from sagging polls, a desire to avenge his father in Iraq, Halliburton contracts in wartorn Iraq and Afghanistan, and plans for a new fascist world order. The degree of bad faith that these conspiracies accept as “assumed” in the logic of the argument says a great deal about how they view their fellow Americans. In order to have a conspiracy on the level argued for – that is, active planning and cooperation – we would need the following phenomena:
• A President and a tiny inner circle capable of thinking in these terms about politics, power, and American citizens, planning this during the first 9 months of the administration, and keeping it secret from everyone else in the cabinet.
• Multiple members of the FBI and CIA willing to work on this kind of malevolent and radically unconstitutional deed, without a leak, before or (even more unlikely) after. (Even in 24 season 5 which plays a 9-11 presidential conspiracy, there are people of integrity in the inner circles of power.)
• Contemplating such a damaging attack – both for the economy and the prestige of the USA – during one’s own presidency for either petty or megalomanic motives would make sense to a man like George Bush, chosen to bring good times to rich people.
In other words, people who believe in a conspiracy theory have an immensely low opinion of the people in our government. In a sense, they consider our elites every bit a unprincipled and predatory as earlier aristocracies who would, indeed, sacrifice commoners’ lives with little hesitation. One might even argue that this particular conspiracy, when attributed to an American president, represents one of the most terrible of all such theories, far worse in its moral implication the one about Roosevelt and Pearl Harbor.
Nor are Conspiracy Theorists unaware of the issue, but for them it explains the reluctance of people to believe their Conspiracy theory, rather than a reason not to. As Paul Griffin, author of The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions about the Bush Administration and 9/11, writes: “It is very difficult for Americans to face the possibility that their own government may have caused or deliberately allowed such a heinous event.”
But of course Griffin, whose work is riddled with errors and inconsistencies, and others feel no need to explain how our government could get involved in such morally aberrant behavior and no one leaked it. It goes without saying for Griffin and others, that this kind of thing can and does happen. Like all conspiracy theory, this one assumes that people in power are naturally evil.
The success of Conspiracy theories about 9-11 represents a relatively new stage in Western European Conspiracy theory. Unlike the Arab and Muslim world, where Conspiracy theories were already mainstream before 2000 and become virulent afterwards, in the West, Conspiracy theories were banished from the mainstream. Take the attitude towards the Protocols of the Elders of ion, for example, the very mention of it stigmatized the speaker.
9-11 Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, have invaded the private public sphere — the coffee house, tavern, dinner table conversations — and are knocking at the gates of published discourse and the elected officials. Mainstream media still refuse to give these conspiracy theories any credibility, but just under the surface these ideas simmer. In 2003, when I spoke with a journalist for ABC about al Durah, he asked me at the end of the conversation what I thought of these rumors that Mossad knew about the bombing beforehand, suggesting that in his circles the idea circulated with at least plausibility. In 2006, I asked my class how many had heard the conspiracy theories about Bush’s involvement, and two-thirds reported hearing them from at least one source who considered the hypothesis likely. Now we have our first (annual?) conference on 9-11 conspiracy, and an article about it in the NYT topped its list of “most emailed.”
These conspiracy theories about Bush show all the signs of serving the normal functions of Conspiracy theories: demonizing and scapegoating the target while exculpating major sources of the problem. In other words, far more than a real battle of “facts,” these Conspiracy theories represent a major piece in a chess game of culture wars, in which one sees the near-enemy – here Republican administration – as far worse than the far enemy – in this case Global Jihad. Indeed recognizing this near-evil – Chomsky’s Fateful Triangle – enables us to deny the very existence of the far-enemy. Behind the 9-11 deception Bush has launched a “false war on terror.”
We have met the enemy and he is us. As for those Muslim fellows out there who rant and scream about wanting to massacre us, they are artifacts of our imperial arrogance. When we stop oppressing them, they’ll stop wanting to kill us.
Next: Moral Equivalence, Multiculturalism, and Conspiracy Theory