Conspiracy Theories from Margins to Center Stage: Dynamics and Implications
Paper delivered at the conference on Antisemitism, Multi-culturalism and Ethnic Identity at Hebrew University under the auspices of the Vidal Sassoon Center for the Study of Antisemitism, June 16, 2006.
Introductory Remarks: Two Anecdotes
Let me begin with two anecdotes from a relatively calm, non-radicalized American campus.
No. 1: I once suggested to a colleague in African-American Studies that we have a conference on conspiracy theory. He blanched somewhat, and said, “but how could we control the audience?”
No. 2: I was on a panel in 2000 consisting of three rappers, and an African-American professor discussing apocalyptic themes in hip-hop music. The notion that the US government was injecting AIDS in African-American communities came up so often that a member of the audience asked, “how many on the panel believe these AIDS conspiracies?” The three rappers all said they did. The African-American professor said, “I don’t want to answer that, because if I say I do, I’ll lose credibility with my colleagues, and if I say I don’t, I’ll lose credibility with the brothers.”
Between them, these two anecdotes tell us two extremely important elements of conspiracy theories:
1) Conspiracism is volatile: even talk about conspiracies and they can run away with your audience. In James C. Scott’s terms, conspiracies are “hidden transcripts,” pushed out of what’s permissable to say publicly. Just to speak of them, is to court an eruption of hidden transcripts into the public sphere. And given that the Shoah came to us via a people in the grip of mass paranoia, believers in a giant Jewish conspiracy that acted as a warrant for genocide, this is no small matter.
2) Conspiracism is far more common than the public record registers. More than the three rappers, the professor’s response reveals both the depth of the belief and its community-wide validity. No one can question this one without being viewed as having abandoned the community, here, without becoming an “Oreo.” It suggests that within certain communities, a public transcript at complete variance with that of the larger culture exists.
Conspiracy Thinking: Definitions and Dynamics
A conspiracy theory seeks to explain either one extremely important event (singular conspiracy), or a whole pattern of events (global conspiracy) by positing a small group of conspirators who are manipulating the public’s perception in order to a) carry out a nefarious deed of great damage to the public, and b) have the public blame the wrong agents. Most singular conspiracy theories tend to work on the principle of cui bono (to whom the good? i.e., who benefits?), and concern past events which they explain. They also tend to be passive – who can fight such powerful hidden forces? They are cognitive and emotional booby prizes: “Now we know why we’re screwed and it’s not our fault.”
Most global conspiracy theories seek to explain larger cultural phenomena, in particular, modernity (earliest modern Conspiracy theories begin in the late 18th century with the Masons (Illumiinati) blamed for democracy in America and France). Because they warn about a conspiracy in progress, they often (almost always) involve a critical question of timing – how far advanced is the conspiracy? Global conspiracies, because they have not already happened, can, under the right circumstances, become active. The most powerful large scale conspiracy theories convey a sense that the final stages have been reached; that a great battle looms; that if action were not imminent, it will be too late.
All global conspiracy theories have apocalyptic elements in all three senses of the word: they are radical and stunning revelations about the opaque present; they are part of a larger cataclysmic final transformation, of the world, and they are about to happen, imminent. Virtually all active cataclysmic apocalyptic (we are the agents of the huge cataclysm that precedes/accompanies the great apocalyptic transformation) has global conspiracy theories as a central element of its discourse (Nazism, Communism, Global Jihad).
Psychological dynamics: Appeal?
Conspiracy theories explain catastrophes as the work of men who appear beneficent, but secretly conspire to bring about those catastrophes. They assume the worst of these men, so consumed by the desire to dominate others that they will stop at nothing – including the most dastardly conspiracies – to achieve their goal. Conspiracy theories simplify the moral universe: the bad things that happen to us are not our fault, they are the fault of evil others. Future-oriented Conspiracy theories seek to warn an innocent victim population of the plots that these unscrupulous “others” even now set in motion against them. In particular, global Conspiracy theory tends to scape-goat. As René Girard has pointed out – scapegoating emphasizes the innocence of the scape-goater and the guilt of the designated victim. “Conspiracism,” points our Chip Berlet, is a particular narrative form of scapegoating that frames demonized enemies as part of a vast insidious plot against the common good, while it valorizes the scape-goater as a hero for sounding the alarm.”
Conspiracy theories work on several psychological levels. Cognitively, they offer a gratifying world view that explains everything. All details cohere, unnoticed or unexplained facts fit into place, everything connects, gains shape and color. To the believer, now semiotically aroused with his new hermeneutic, the troubling world makes sense. Furthermore, Conspiracy theories tend to engage in systematic projection of bad faith onto the conspirators, or the cognitive egocentrism of bad faith. The articulators and believers in Conspiracy theories live in a universe where everyone is driven by libido dominandi, everyone wants to dominate and, as Eli Sagan so eloquently puts it describing the basic political axiom of the pre-modern world, it’s “rule or be ruled.” The only motivation possible among the conspiring “enemy” is a ruthless lust for power. And finally, Conspiracy theory is Gnostic: it is powerful hidden knowledge, available only the initiate, attractive, even true by very virtue of its being proscribed.
The emotional blandishments of Conspiracy theory are at least as attractive as the cognitive rewards. They offer above all freedom from any responsibility: failures, setbacks and sufferings, are not the victim’s fault; they are the work of the conspirators. The dualistic moral universe of “us” and “them” that Conspiracy theory provides shows up in stark and simple contrasts with no grey areas. Conspiracy theories are a quintessential expression of what, using James Scott’s term, we might call a hidden transcript of resentment.
Furthermore, Conspiracy theory at once eases the conscience – we are not at fault, we are innocent – and liberates it – no limits on what we must do in order to defend ourselves. The more dire the conspiracy, the more liberated the violence of the response: anything is permitted when struggling for one’s very existence against some agent who is plotting to destroy “us.” Conspiracy theories are narratives that justify aggressive action; the worse the conspiracy, the more aggressive the justifiable action. At their worst, they are “warrants for genocide.”
Conditions for conspiracy theory
I wish to posit the argument that Conspiracy theories are always present at a low level in any society. The real question is, when do they take over and drive a culture to act on paranoid fears. Or, to take up a problematic suggested to me by Anthony Kauders on Tuesday, how does it go from the public sphere of private conversations – coffee shop and tavern culture – to the published sphere, part of the public discourse. To take a graphic example, when and how did the paranoid chatter of the sans culottes become the policy of the Committee of Public Safety; when does paranoia dominate the public and political discourse.
Singular Conspiracy theories arise from specific events – Pearl Harbor, the assassination of JFK, 9-11 – and unless they are connected to a larger plot, remain relatively low key. Collective or global Conspiracy theories tend to arise in civil societies, among what we might call “Nietzsche’s ‘blond beasts’ as losers”: those who, formerly dominant predators, having lost the authoritarian powers of aristocratic societies, imagine modernity as an unfinished conspiracy designed to replace their (now former) aristocratic dominion with a new and far more vicious form of universal slavery. These latter Conspiracy theories seem to be a natural companion of modern societies. When modern societies fall into conspiracy theory… when, for example, those in power invoke a clear and present danger to eliminate any criticism since criticism is part of the conspiracy, historically the consequences are grave. The French revolutionary terror, repeated on a colossal scale by the Russians and Germans and Chinese in the 20th century, represents the catastrophic results that can ensue from such madness taking hold.
Conspiracy theory seems to be a low-level constant, a marginal but enduring discourse. The key issue in terms of conditions under which Conspiracy theory takes over public discourse concerns less what produces such thought – it (Indeed, meditating on Scott’s work, I suspect that conspiracy thinking is a major dimension of most “hidden transcript” discourse in most cultures, especially in ones where an aristocratic minority has managed to monopolize power (i.e., successfully pull of a conspiracy of dominion). Given their destructiveness, successful modern societies have developed a healthy resistance to Conspiracy theories. They tend to break out at moments of crisis, when social forces that seem out of control bring ruin upon many (e.g., the great Depression), and they work best in populations filled with a sense of unavowable guilt which they eagerly project onto another party.
The more the conspiratorial narrative identifies marginal and vulnerable populations as the conspirators, the more they appeal to the desire to victimize the innocent and dishonestly absolve guilt. The dishonesty of this kind of scapegoating conspiracy theory of course leads to seriously self-destructive behavior, misidentifying the source of the suffering. As a result, although attacking the mistaken foe may offer immediate if temporary psychological relief, in the long run intensifies the grip of those who do impose the suffering. When European populations rose to the paranoid call of rumors about witches and Jews and lepers poisoning their wells and blighting their lives, they ended up putting themselves ever more firmly in the grip of an ecclesiastical Inquisition that blighted European life for centuries.
At the simplest level, by alleviating the need for self-criticism – indeed, declaring self-criticism a form of betrayal of the cause against the conspirators – conspiracy theory relegates the cultures that indulge in it to a cycle of failure and depression: when serious consideration of past errors cannot take place (i.e., history is dishonest), societies have flat learning curves. Moreover, rendering all relations with the “other” conflictual, makes it difficult to solve problems with positive-sum outcomes (win-win). Conspiracy theories are the crystallization of a whole world view of absolute scarcity: every relationship, every event is zero-sum; every motive hostile; every exchange an attack; everyone suspect.
Given its destructive capacities, Conspiracy theory discourse tends to get banished from public space; and when it does appear, it gets beaten back with silence, contempt and hostility. So one of the keys in determining when one gets an outbreak of conspiracism, comes from paying attention to what happens when a Conspiracy theory discourse goes public. If it gets well received by the public rather than rejected, the culture in which such a narrative “takes” is in for a rough ride, especially if that narrative is a global or future-oriented conspiracy theory.
Role of media
For conspiracy theory to go public it must have means of communicating itself. Many who think conspiratorially never go beyond their own selves, since when they share their concerns with family and neighbors they are rejected and find no friendly ear, or if so, only the ears of other losers. The existence of means of communication for people whom the “gatekeepers” normally keep out of public discourse vastly increases the ability of conspiracy theory to “take” among a larger audience of people who can be reached. Thus, print, telephone, and especially the internet have immensely increased the scope of conspiracy. Indeed, given the capacity of the internet to bring together people from all over the world to exchange conspiracy theories and anomalous “facts,” the number of identifiable conspiracies, and the heat their discussion generates has grown exponentially in the last 20 years. If anything, the WWW represents a Petrie dish for conspiracies. This is especially evident in the increase of the number of conspiracies circulating about the last few presidents. Bill Clinton had more than all the previous sevesan – Nixon and Kennedy included – and Bush surpassed Clinton’s record in his first term. I’ll come back to this point. First, let me make a side journey, via the Middle East.
Conspiracy theory in Arab/Muslim world
It is something of a commonplace that the Arab and Muslim media are full of conspiracy-thinking. Indeed, anyone bold enough to defy Edward Saïd’s prohibition on seeing Arabs as different from Westerners, remarks among the most salient features of Arab culture a propensity to conspiracy theory: Everything is part of a plot; every motive has secret and malevolent motives. The frequency with which even quotidian political events are conceived as the playing out of conspiracies confirms what observation also notices: this is a culture where the political axiom “rule or be ruled” dominates.
Nor is this kind of thinking a recent phenomenon. After WW II, for example, the Nazi conspiracy theories about the Jews, in particular, their foundational conspiracy theory, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, found earnest welcome in the Arab world. It provided the perfect escape from facing the nature of their failure to wipe out any trace of an independent state made by dhimmi. This same need to explain their humiliating failure by blaming the conspiratorial malevolence of others accounts for why one of the major disagreements in the Arab world today is whether the US is a pawn of Israel or vice-versa.
Dan Pipes’ 1998 book, The Hidden Hand, describes the role of conspiracy theory in the Arab world. There he finds a mentality that pervades almost all forms of thought, that contributes fundamentally to both the insolubility of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the economic stagnation of the Arab world. But he also finds that conspiracy theory works primarily as a depressant: the forces are so great, the Arabs such victims, that nothing can be done. Pipes finds this quality among the most damaging:
Imagining conspiracies of malicious, omnipotent adversaries can induce a profound sense of hopelessness. After all, how can an enemy so shrewd, so powerful, and so vast be challenged? At the same time, how can one negotiate or compromise with such an implacable and evil force?
Since 2000, however, things have changed significantly in the Arab world on two major levels. First, the intensity, variety and sophistication of the conspiracy has risen exponentially. The elaborate film and TV series that depict the most horrendous, bloodthirsty Jewish conspiracies to destroy Arabs and Islam have brought public discussion of these themes to a new and vivid prominence. Similarly the variety of conspiratorial narratives, taken over from the Europeans (e.g., blood libels) and given new twists (e.g., Humantashen made with Christian or Muslim boys’ blood), appear in prominent and respected mainstream media. Any glance at the contents of many of the most mainstream of Arab media (from the PATV to Al Jazeera, to al Ahram) reveals an intensity of paranoid hatemongering conspiracism with few parallels in recorded history. Indeed, some future, impartial judge will probably find the early 21st century Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism was even more fevered (if, hopefully, less effective) than Nazi anti-Semitism.
Right after 9-11, 60 Minutes ran a piece on the conspiracy theory that the Mossad was responsible (can’t find this, pretty sure it was CBS). The narrator expressed astonishment not at the existence of such a rumor, but its pervasiveness, even in educated circles, even in non-Arab countries (he was attending a wedding in Pakistan). That TV program should have been a wake-up call to the problem of an entirely different mentality operating in the Arab and Muslim world, where conspiracy is not relegated to the commoners, but publicly embraced by the elites. Even in moderate, pro-Western Muslim circles one finds an almost naïve recourse to CT. In a recent statement by the apparently genuinely moderate Muslim Canadian Congress (MCC) [they’re against Sharia law]), their spokesman, Tariq Fatah, expressed relief at the recent pre-emptive arrest of the terrorists in Canada, and, while attacking Muslim extremists, let this comment slip:
It is ironic that Muslim extremists are portraying themselves as anti-imperialist, when in fact Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are nothing more but a creation of the CIA.
Note how the conspiracy theory – with all its profound misunderstandings of how things “work” – allows Mr. Fatah to deny any Islamic dimension to the imperialism of Al-Qaeda.
But in addition to new intensity since 2000, we also find an even more alarming switch from passive to active. Indeed the emergence of global Jihad has accompanied, fed, and ridden on the wave of this intensified conspiracism. One might suggest – I would – that the turn of the millennium has shifted the gears of the Muslim world from passive to active, that the narrative of conspiracy that had previously had so soporific an effect now offered the very rhetoric of incitement to aggression.
This shift to the offensive, already in motion among certain, relatively marginal jihadi figures like Abdullah Azzam and Bin Laden and organizations like Hizbullah, Hamas and al Qaeda, first encountered success in the public arena with the outbreak of the Intifada in the Fall of 2000. The previously marginal found eager ears for conspiracist narratives that incited to action, not to fatalism, militant Islamism and global Jihad. From that point on a new and more aggressive form of Conspiracy theory took on world-wide proportions: from the outbreak of the Intifada, to the convening of the Durban conference, and 9-11. It continues to spread, from the Middle East to Europe, the USA, Far East Asia, etc.
Like most active cataclysmic conspiracy theory (there is a massive conspiracy out there and we can and must fight it), this one has heavy doses of apocalyptic rhetoric, symbolism and, accordingly, absolutist logic. Suicide terrorism first receives its terrifying justification in the framework of an apocalyptic battle between good and evil; and after 2000, receives large majorities of support in opinion polls. In other words, in the Arab world, conspiracy theory has, since 2000, both taken over even more of the public sphere – i.e., taken over the mainstream – and gone active… a highly ominous development.
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.
Moral Equivalence, Multiculturalism, and Conspiracy Theory
Brief note: I’m in favor of multiculturalism of the variety described in Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s book The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations. I’m terrified of a particularly dangerous form of multi-culturalism informed by what strikes me as a virtually suicidal adherence to such dogmas as “moral equivalence.” By and large I will be treating the latter form, which I consider pathological.
This kind of thinking, which I have dubbed the PC Paradigm (in the liberal form, Politically correct, in the radical, Post-colonial paradigm), certainly has its appeal. Since the early 1980s it has dominated both the media talking heads and the academic discourse about the Middle East… forbidding us, on pain of accusations of racism, from identifying primitive cultural traits, (like warrior honor-shame culture), and their pathologies (like “playing the victim” and honor-killing your daughter when she’s raped by your son), from discussing the less savory aspects of Islamic imperialism, and their lengthy pedigree (like Dar al Harb, and dhimmitude).
Moral Equivalence constitutes an important dimension of multi-culturalism as it is currently practiced. “Who are we to judge?” All cultures have their own sets of values, and to imply a hierarchy of values is a form of cultural imperialism that we must renounce in order to live in peace with each other. In a kind of therapeutic act of good will that features our generosity, our stupidity and our secret condescension, we say: “Don’t worry, we are as bad as you are.” Saïd’s Orientalism appeals fundamentally to such sentiments.
Now this kind of “therapeutic approach” is the inter-cultural variant of a peculiar trait of modern civil societies, and that is their extraordinary willingness to be self-critical. Self-criticism is at the core of modern society’s abilities – without open criticism and the ability to change one’s mind and learn from one’s mistakes, there would be no modern academy, no science and technology, none of the transformative elements that permit a civil society. But self-criticism can become pathological, a kind of intellectual form of beaten wife syndrome: “if he’s angry it must be my fault.” At its extreme, it has a kind of messianic quality to it, a kind of masochistic ominipotence fantasy, in which if everything is our fault, then by changing we can fix it. Thus we have the spectacle of a culture (the West, with Israel in the lead) willing to publicly self-criticize at levels never achieved in the recorded history of civilizations.
And at its most pathological levels, it produces not just moral equivalence, but moral inversion: “we (Israel, the US, the West) are not only as bad as you are, we’re worse.” It is that kind of moral disorientation that has fueled the massive failures of the “progressive left” since 2000, its hate-fest at Durban, its feeding frenzies over Al Durah and Jenin, and were it not for the world cup, the Ghalia family’s tragedy in Gaza. In a sense, when Chomsky declared in the wake of 9-11, that Americans were the worst terrorists, he opened the door to the conspiracy theories that teem through Western culture today.
Think of the reaction of a 9-11 conspiracist to the suggestion that Hamas planned the Gaza Beach massacre of 6-9-06 because of sagging polls, the threat of Abbas’ “peace referendum,” and a desire to embarrass Olmert before his trip to Europe. Outrage! “You racist! How dare you suggest that these people would be so base! You must really hate these people to imagine that.” And yet he or she, without hesitation, embraces far worse thoughts about our own administration, a product of over two centuries of sustained effort to purge such vicious behavior from our elected elites. How intellectually and morally crude! How self-destructive.
In that sense, 9-11 actually constitutes a new direction in the history of Conspiracy theory. Normally Conspiracy theories operate in order to scapegoat someone else and assert both one’s innocence and one’s right to violence. It depends on what psychologists call cognitive egocentrism: “they” think like “we” do – libido dominandi all around. 9-11 Conspiracy theory, as part of a larger project of morally equivalent multiculturalism, actually reverses this process.
Left-wing Conspiracy theories, progressives who believe in 9-11 systematically project good will onto the cultural “other” – Islam is a religion of peace, Bin Laden and Hamas have good reason for their anger, if only we’re nice to them they’ll be nice to us. Thus the next step after blaming Bush is to exonerate Bin Laden: Bush is creating an Islamic boogy man who does not exist; the Americ an government’s behavior since 9-11 presents a greater threat than Bin Laden. Bin Laden is an agent of the USA. Meanwhile, the “other” – global Islamism, particularly in its dominant Salafism – systematically projects bad will onto us (concessions, apologies cannot be sincere or meant to help, they are either a trick or a sign of weakness). This Moebius Strip of cognitive egocentrism is very dangerous and policies based on it tend to explode in the faces of those who earnestly seek to make them work. They have brought us Oslo, the current French response to their own Intifada, and the Anglican bishops dialogue with Islam as described by Margaret Brearly yesterday, to take a few examples.
Why would such good intentions lead so quickly to hell? Why is not “good neighborliness” working right now?
Partly, because we are dealing with demopaths, with people who use the language of democracy, human rights, moral equivalence, tolerance, not because they believe in them, but because they can use them to disarm us. Demopaths “use democracy to destroy democracy.” And when you let them in, they plan to push you out. Right now the largest collection of demopaths and their dupes can be found at the interaction between Islamists and westerners. From our point of view, it’s dialogue and moderation; from theirs, it’s Dawa, or the verbal dimension of Jihad of conquest.
Given the radical instability of sustaining such an intensely inaccurate view of reality, those who insist on seeing their enemies as innocent, must find an explanation for what the evil that continues to flourish despite (I would argue in part because) of their efforts. And here we get the peculiar post-modern twist. We’re the ones at fault. We’re the evil ones. If Bush did 9-11, then the world makes sense: they are angry with us for our aggressive imperialist ways; our leaders continue to act in aggressive imperialist ways; if we stop them, then everything will be better. Get out of Iraq, withdraw to the West Bank, give money and programs to the “lost territories”, open dialogues and dismantle the apparatus that, whatever its origins like the Anglican Church, have brought us civil society.
And in so thinking, speaking, and acting, those with Bush Derangement Syndrome and an according attraction for 9-11 conspiracy end up thinking and speaking like the paranoid Muslims who initially cheered on 9-11 and then, when it didn’t go well for them, immediately blamed it on a conspiracy. This convergence of “left,” “progressive” conspiracism (far more mainstream among Europeans) with the most aggressive versions of global Islamist discourse, represents a genuinely terrifying example of an alliance of dupes and demopaths around the Moebius strip of cognitive egocentrism. For the Western dupes (among whom I suspect are some demopaths), this is the height self-criticism and commitment to overcoming our imperialistic impulses; for Islamist demopaths, this is a standard expression of imperialist ambitions demonizing an enemy. Both positions are poison; and together, they’re weaponized poison.
Now in this entire talk, I have scarcely spoken of Jews and anti-Semitism. That will have to await another conference or discussion. But let me just make the following brief observations:
1) the more fevered the Conspiracy theory, the more the Jews play a key role
2) post-modern anti-zionism reflects this fevered quality: Israel, whose behavior in both the battle field and the street has set standards that no other nation has come near, becomes a symbol of moral degradation; the Palestinians, whose behavior sets new lows in moral degradation, become the chosen people.
3) the Jews, via anti-Zionism play a key role in the culture conflict at work now. The British boycott illustrates the phenomenon: like some mafia making an undercover cop kill another one to prove loyalty, the left wants Jews to kill Zionism in order to be “admitted.” Any “liberal” who defends Israel gets exiled from the “progressive” camp. The result is a catastrophe for any real liberalism.
And if the driving wedge of the culture conflict which can, under current conditions, kill us, is the status of the Jews, it may follow that the route to resolving the culture conflict is also the Jews. If the Anglicans had the generosity of spirit not to still harbor supersessionist fantasies about the Jews, they could turn to the real and dangerous supersessionists, the Muslims, and, instead of engaging in a private and deadly embrace with them, insist that the measure of their ability to get along with the Jews was the mark of their sincerity in wanting to participate in civil society. The same for the French and their Muslims, whose aggressions against the “Republic” began soon after they turned on the North African Jewish communities with which they had shared neighborhoods from the time they immigrated. And the same for the world community who, if they want a genuinely multi-cultural globe in the 21st century (to say nothing of the 3rd millennium), need to say to the Muslim and Arab world: “Learn to live in peace with Israel; as long as you harbor fantasies of revenging your honor, as long as you treat your own commoners like cannon fodder, and as long you will not accept the consequences of your failed aggressions, do not come to us with complaints about how “they” oppress “you.”
But in order to do that, the West would have to act with honor, and not with an eye to the loss of contracts that offending the notoriously prickly egos of the Arab and Muslim world might entail.