On the Dangers of Conspiracy Theories: Brief Reflections

I recently got the following request from a Dutch journalist doing an article on conspiracy theories. I responded in some detail, and thought I’d post it here for a wider readership.

As a Dutch freelance journalist I’m writing an article about conspiracy theories, and their potential danger to modern societies.

While doing my research, I found a very interesting lecture from the Hebrew University, in which you took part and said some very interesting things about this subject.

However, some things are still unclear to me, and I hope that you are willing to cast some light upon these questions.

You called the internet a petri dish for conspiracy theories. While these theories do seem to reach more people who might believe in those theories, do you believe that universities and media – from a moral and socially responsible point of view – should put more emphasis on debating and debunking such theories? Are such theories actually more dangerous in our internet age than ever before?

As you know from my article, I wanted to have a conference on conspiracy, and my colleagues showed considerable timidity about the possibility of drawing the wrong crowd. Academics are not known for their courage, even (I’d say especially) those who pretend to be courageous in their criticism of their own governments (which protect their right to criticize them), while yielding to the intimidation of other governments (who threaten them with everything from barred access – China – to worse). It’s particularly easy to dump on people who don’t retaliate. Hence, for example, post-colonialism does very little to address the profound imperialism and colonialism embedded in Islam.

Secondly, do you see a specific threat in some politicians, journalists and academics who might adopt (parts of) conspiracy theories? And thus sanitize these ideas?

Absolutely: good example is Princeton’s Richard Falk, a 9-11 truther and one of the most exceptionally deranged interveners in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

If so, which popular conspiracy theories do you consider to pose the biggest threats to societies in Europe and America, and for what reasons?

The overall danger of conspiracy theory is the assumption of ruthless malevolence on those one accuses of the conspiracy. Hence the idea that 9-11 was either a Zionist or (in some senses, worse) and US Government plot means that one has completely abandoned any notion that the US government is “of, by, and for the people”. It not only imagines that the president is so malevolent that he would deliberately kill thousands of american civilians, but that he could cover it up with the support of thousands of government officials and even other American civilians (e.g. if there was no “flight 77” that hit the pentagon, then not only the government, but hundreds of family members of those on that flight also covered up the disappearance of their relatives).

Now it’s one (sad) thing for Europeans to assume that America is a society of such craven pusillanimity that they can be cowed into silence (projection?), but its pathetic for Americans, who have a very long and powerful tradition of dissent to assume the worst of their fellow Americans. Democracies cannot live without a foundation of trust (one reason they’re so unsuccessful in the Arab world), and although no one deserves uncritical trust, no one in a democracy deserves the default assumption of malevolence. That’s actually the thinking that produces authoritarian societies.

This is not to say that we don’t have to be vigilant. Conspiracies do happen – although they’re more often conspiracies to cover up incompetence then super-competent plots. But the appeal of most conspiracy theories, especially those aimed inappropriately at democracies and deflected inappropriately from authoritarian and totalitarian societies, is the eagerness with which the theorists believe that any anomaly is best explained by the worst possible reading of the authorities (the basic plot of “Small Change” is that by listing all the anomalies, it’s obvious it was a conspiracy). The idea that Bush would put together a conspiracy like 9-11 in 9 months and sacrifice the Pentagon and the Twin Towers (and endanger the American economy) just so he could go to war with Islam or introduce fascism in the USA is pretty loopy (imho).

It is common among conspiracists to project their own desires onto others. the Nazis screamed about a Jewish plot to enslave mankind even as they planned precisely that; Jihadis do the same today. Those who fall for such dishonest projections are in for a tough ride.

Now granted that the “paranoid imperative” (as Eli Sagan calls it) – the assumption that the “other” (especially in politics, but even in neighborly relations) is out to get me/us – is true in most pre-modern political cultures, and in some sense, monarchies and other authoritarian cultures are (open) conspiracies against the people (kept poor and ignorant), the whole point of democracies is the collective assumption of “good will” towards each other (social contract). That doesn’t mean that when evidence of ill-will shows up we should ignore it, but to assume indicates a psychological problem.

This gains in significance when one realizes that 9-11 truthers are essentially more suspicious of their own government than they are of Jihadis, who loudly and persistently claim their malevolence towards their (widely designated) enemies – infidels, heretics, apostates. The idea that 9-11 was a US-Zionist plot rather than a Jihadi action, and that (as many 9-11 truthers will assure you) Islam is a religion of peace, represents a colossal misreading of current events with terrible consequences. again, like my description of post-colonial academics, represents a cowardly reversal of matters: accusing Bush of 9-11 will not put you in physical danger; opposing jihadi hatreds and violence most certainly will.

And of course, once you take the step of clearing Muslim radicals a priori of malevolence towards infidels (especially towards ones whose success humiliates them like US and Israel), and assume the worst of your own government, you have a formula to explain everything. Thus the Boston Massacre becomes a “false flag operation” (e.g., à la Richard Falk) designed to prepare americans to hate Muslims, rather than a wake-up call that Islamism needs to be confronted (which is possible without hatred, but not possible if you blame all their terrible deeds of shadowy government forces trying to provoke “Islamophobia.”

The other major conspiracy theory – this one extremely old – is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I have co-edited a book on them: Paranoid Apocalypse which goes over both the history and the damage done by this paranoid fantasy. It’s back in the form of the more deranged versions of anti-zionism currently fashionable. Again the danger to those who believe it (leaving aside the obvious danger to Jews), is that by radically  misreading the historical record, they mis-identify those who wish them harm, and miss identifying those who do. Like all scape-goating messages, it deflects responsibility from those who are the problem to someone else.

One last note on European anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism, which, as Andrei Markowits points out are twin phenomena: that Europeans despise Americans and Israelis even as they allow themselves to be colonized by Islamist-dominated Muslim communities illustrates the problem. In 2003, a friend in Morocco at the time told me that the Arabs think that France – the major, most vocal and most contemptuous opponents of Bush’s Iraq war plans – was weak. Why? Because they side with their enemies and attack their friends. But the French were just so pleased with themselves: Courage is attacking the strongest, and America’s the strongest.”

No. Courage is attacking the one’s who need criticism, even when they’ll retaliate. There’s no courage in attacking a strong friend who won’t retaliate, and falling silent on enemies, however “weak” who will retaliate. In that the Arabs are right: it’s weakness. Can civilizations commit suicide from envy? Apparently. Especially if their intellectuals are consumed with ressentiment.

8 Responses to On the Dangers of Conspiracy Theories: Brief Reflections

  1. Ray in Seattle says:

    Thanks Richard for another stimulating analysis and great read. And also for the occasion to re-read your deconstruction of Baudrillard in that last link.

  2. J B says:

    Just discovered your website and I’m very impressed.

    I’d like to add another point to this, which I saw in another article once-upon-a-time. What you write about projection and misreading things works within a society as well as between societies.

    The author of that past article pointed out that in the Arab world, basically all problems are blamed on conspiracies, usually blamed on Israel and the US (and one or another local minority, like Sunni versus Shia, or againsts Copts in Egypt). What this means is not only ever-festering, virulent and violent hatred of those countries/peoples, but it also means that nobody takes responsibility for mistakes or problems, so NOTHING EVER gets fixed.

    Name a problem, be it infrastructure, financial management, corruption, violence, etc. etc. – “there’s nothing we can do – it’s all the fault of a shadowy cabal of THOSE GUYS. We cannot fix the problem, except by DESTROYING those guys”.

    Thus are societies kept circling around the sewer drain and exporting only hatred and violence…

    • Richard Landes says:

      these are very good points. conspiracy theories render people, even highly effective people, dysfunctional. the Arab world has been scapegoating Israel for two generations, during which, with immense resources, they’ve managed to become the richest members of the underdeveloped world.

      the journalist’s jumping the gun over the arab spring was just another example of how little they understand about the arab world’s dysfunctions. (and that in turn, is partly because they have adopted the arab scapegoating narrative.)

      my father never tired pointing out that blaming someone else, even if it’s true, is counterproductive. and that cultures that blamed others for their failures never learned from their mistakes. in a sense, conspiracy theories are the ultimate blame game.


  3. Cynic says:

    Journalist far from being naive or having little understanding of the facts, and, or context are not above promoting the conspiracies by “bowdlerizing” the facts, distorting and massaging the narrative as we have witnessed in the “works” of Fisk, the “reporting” of the British Guardian, the Independent and others.

  4. fizziks says:

    Great post and great topic.

    I would like to disagree slightly on the question of which conspiracy theories pose the biggest threat. In the very near term, I think it is the medical ones, such as the vaccine-autism hoax. Some people will die because they didn’t vaccinate, and when enough people don’t vaccinate we may see the emergence of alternate strains that the current vaccines are less effective against. It could be really bad for all of us.

  5. Stevieb says:

    I think it’s a wonderful idea. It would be most facinating to watch Richard Landes try to argue that Israel’s direct and criminal involvement in the 9/11 attacks is an ‘antisemitic’ conspiracy theory.

    That is what worries the potential organizers of said conference. It’s that fanatics like Richard Landes only expose just how criminally rotten the ‘state’ of Israel really is. If you’re just trying to arouse the passions of the already indoctrinated -fine. But if you think you’re going to dissuade people from recognizing the psychopathology inherent in Zionism and Rabbical Judaism -you’d be dead wrong…

  6. Stevieb said:

    “Israel’s direct and criminal involvement in the 9/11 attacks”

    Such a pleasure to meet a gnostic!

    It is not unusual for brave commenters like you to show up in this blog and fight the Israeli monster face to face – commenters who overcome their fear of the certain retaliation of the Mossad. But it is rare the case that we see such a courageous commenter in possession of the truth. Please, let us into your secret 9-11 knowledge. The world needs to know.

    “fanatics like Richard Landes”

    You wouldn’t know it if you only read Dr Landes’ writings, he is always very moderate. But here is where my knowledge of the secrets of the Jews can be of use to you: i know for a fact that Dr Landes sacrifices young kids to drink their blood – the Jews have moved on since the old times, now they drink the blood directly instead of baking it.

    So yes, Dr Landes is a fanatic – a vampire too, if one might add to your incisive perception of Dr Landes.

    “But if you think you’re going to dissuade people from recognizing the psychopathology inherent in Zionism and Rabbical Judaism -you’d be dead wrong…”

    Stevie, a word of caution: the Zionists are now going to pick the term you used, “psychopathology”, and turn it against you by claiming that you are projecting your own troubled psychology on them. They will use as evidence the fact that you sound like a 9-11 truther.

    Don’t be put off, it’s just the usual zio propaganda machine ready to quash independent intellects like yourself.

    Keep the faith, Stevie, the free world counts on you.

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