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Conspiracy Theories

It hasn’t been a good month for popular conspiracy theories.  Several theories with different levels of popularity have been thoroughly put down, including the idea that President Obama was not born in Hawaii, bin Laden was already dead, and very quickly the idea that the raid conducted to kill him was a fake.  The world appears to be just what it is on the surface.

That doesn’t mean that there will be an end to rumors and the “official” retelling of some major events won’t continue to be doubted by people that believe they are elaborate diversion away from the truth.  People like to believe that things aren’t how they seem because dark forces in charge of the world explains why any one of us seems to have little power over our own lives.  But some research on my part has yet to come up with a single good example from history that was later shown to be a vast conspiracy.

A conspiracy is, by itself, pretty mundane stuff.  Anytime two or more people get together to make something happen in secret you have a conspiracy.  This can be as simple as planning a surprise party or a plan for a new business venture.  This kind of “conspiracy” does not get anyone going, however.  The popular use of the term involves the use of  power to make something happen that is illegal or at least immoral under a veil of secrecy.

Has there ever been any official smokescreen that allowed some dark and sinister plot by a government to be realized?  The Iraq War comes pretty close, but no one has come forward to say why various bits of false intelligence were used.  A good conspiracy needs not only official secrets that conceal the truth but also a hidden agenda – a goal that is hidden from the public.  It’s hard to say how anyone benefited from that mess at this point.

The best example I could come up with is the sinking of the battleship USS Maine in Havana harbor on 15 February 1898, sparking the Spanish-American War.  This fails the basic test, however, in that there was never any official conclusion as to why it spectacularly exploded and sank.  The disaster was used by US newspapers to fuel lust for revenge that became a war, and sell a lot of papers, but the exact cause has never been proven.  Opportunism is not the same as conspiracy.  Riding events well is very different from making them happen.

That’s not to say that there aren’t a few good conspiracy theories still out there in various forms.  One of my favorites is that the CIA was involved in running drugs into the US in the 1970s and 80s, a plot that I happen to believe in.  It was explained to me once by a man who flew for Southern Air Transport, a company well known to be a CIA front operation.  He was very confident that US intelligence did indeed smuggle simply because the Cuban government was deeply involved – and the best way to gather intelligence on Cuba was by having a few well seeded business partners.  Supposedly it wound up being both lucrative and secret, giving the CIA a source of cash that it could use without anyone in the US government knowing.

If that turns out to be true, however, it does not suggest that the explosion of cocaine and related drugs was designed to dull the wits of our nation or anything that elaborate.  It smells of pure opportunism, something I will always believe in.

Is there some grand conspiracy of governments or secret societies plotting to control the world through lies and deceit?  I’m sure there is.  But I have yet to hear of one that remained secret through a set of operations that accomplished their goals.   History should have revealed at least one such operation by now, but good examples are rare enough that I have yet to come up with one. People eventually talk, clues are left behind, those who are wronged find ways to lay out their case – but no operation on the scale of a fake birth certificate or a faked death of a major leader has ever been revealed by time.

That doesn’t mean that conspiracy theories aren’t useful, however.  They will always be around as long as people need to believe that someone, somewhere, is the real reason that their lives aren’t what they should be – which is to say always.  As always, if the story sounds too stupid (or silly) to be true it probably is.

If you have a good example, by all means let us know.  A great official conspiracy may have happened at some time and there may be another “Da Vinci Code” in the retelling of the events.  But this month has been a tough one for thrillers on that scale – at least in the real world.

14 thoughts on “Conspiracy Theories

  1. Eric wrote:

    “That doesn’t mean that conspiracy theories aren’t useful, however. They will always be around as long as people need to believe that someone, somewhere, is the real reason that their lives aren’t what they should be – which is to say always.”

    What happens if we substitute “religions” for “conspiracy theories” in the above? Perhaps also change “someone, somewhere” to “a supernatural force or being.”

    Some forms of irrationality are more socially and politically acceptable than others. That doesn’t mean they are really different.

  2. What, no mention of the Kennedy Assassination? That has to be the biggest conspiracy theory there is.

  3. Alan, I’m not sure I want to “go there”, but I think I can separate out the good use of religion/spirituality as a kind of personal centering from the bad use that wants to force the world to be in a certain image. If I can add that I’ll agree with you. There are a lot of things in this world that none of us can really understand intellectually, but a system that helps us accept them and focus ourselves to move on, irrational or not, is still helpful. When that lashes out it can be very destructive. Yes, it’s very similar in that sense.

    Jim, I don’t know what if anything is at the heart of that set of theories. It certainly has been a living for a lot of people. I do believe in the lone gunman, but a conspiracy that put him there is always possible – yet I’ve never seen anything that seemed plausible to me lay it all out.

  4. The scientific literature on human behavior suggests pretty clearly that we are much more apes than we are computers–Our behavior is mediated more strongly by emotional/irrational factors than by reason/analysis. It also tells us that we don’t recognize this about ourselves–we tend to consider ourselves more “reasonable” than we actually are. Maybe because we are taught that reason is good and emotion something to be controlled?

    Religion as such seems to me morally neutral–it can be and is rolled out as artillery–so to speak!–for both sides of most wars and political controversies.

  5. Eric–very good point about the differences between religion as a personal centering thing and a social control/manipulation thing. Maybe this could be discussed–I’m not proposing it here, particularly–in terms of a distinction between “spirituality” and “religion.”

    Likely both individuals and communities need to be “centered” in something like this sense. I don’t know what the trends are for individuals–I’m sure there are people who do know–but it would be very easy to argue that in the collective sense we are are in a time of destructive dissonance and unbalance….arguably promoted systematically by special interests for their own purposes. But, saying that could make me a “right wing conspiracy” paranoiac, no?


  6. Love The Brain! Same thing we do every night Pinky!

    I guess I only believe what I see so conspiracies never meant anything to me. The way you make the distinction between a conspiracy and opportunism gets me to think that it probably is just people taking advantage of a situation. There probably aren’t too many evil geniuses running around plotting like The Brain other than in cartoons.

  7. I generally don’t like c. theories. The drug one you mentioned was also promoted by the black power movement (armed and politicized and sometimes practical) as the drugs were promoted by Nixon to weaken the people and the Movement. There was once a pretty good book and film about the early Black Power movement that discussed its origination. Trying to get a stop sign put up after there were too many accidents at an intersction in Oakland. Now what do you think of Iran contra? That was very very dark . Now I will propose a new conspiracy to your readers. Why are there wood chip piles by Minnesota highways? I knew the answer right away.

  8. Sorry (too much coffee) I meant to mention the Black Panthers, The book and film 1995 were by the father son directing team of melvin and marvin Van peebles.

  9. Alan, I do agree that we value intelligence more than intuition and that drives people to be a bit less honest than they should be about who/what we are as a species. I’m a scientist at heart (well, an engineer by degree) but it alarms me no end how much faith people have in science. It’s horribly misplaced and lacks any good context because we are so dishonest about what it means to be a chimp that stood up on the savannah and looked out over the horizon.

    Anna, I think that there are no plotting geniuses (geneii?) outside of cartoons. Just a lot of plodders, not plotters, and some can take advantage of the situation well. I tried to find counter-examples, but I don’t think they exist. Who knows?

    Dan, I forgot that the CIA numbing the population conspiracy came from the Black Panthers. I think they did have a point, but it was a bit inflated. Most conspiracies probably have that kernal of truth in them, eh?

  10. “The Iraq War comes pretty close, but no one has come forward to say why various bits of false intelligence were used. A good conspiracy needs not only official secrets that conceal the truth but also a hidden agenda – a goal that is hidden from the public. It’s hard to say how anyone benefited from that mess at this point.”

    How about Haliburton and Blackwater for starters?

  11. Pat, it may come down to simple war profiteering. It’s classic, I’ll give you that. But it’s so lame – all that for a few bucks? I guess if we can’t come up with anything else we might have to go with it. It just doesn’t make for a good conspiracy theory in my opinion – there are other ways of looting the treasury.

    But it also got Bush re-elected and a solid Repub majority to do what he wanted. Perhaps it all adds up in the end to a good conspiracy after all.

  12. Well you got a few replies on Minnpost and they mentioned Iran contra. Once again your former article on the managed depression was on point. The same day I read an article about impending riots in Greece amongst the young and sure enuf it happened within 48 hours.

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