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.