Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Good conspiracies, bad conspiracies

Since the promptergate/mystery bulge controversy has elicited the usual snide allusions to black helicopters and Elvis sightings, I thought I would offer a few remarks on the general topic of conspiracy.

Like masturbation, theorizing about the evil schemes of our political adversaries is a common vice which most practitioners discuss in embarrassed tones. Most – but not all. Some folks are paranoia addicts; for them, suspicion is smack.

What separates the legitimate researcher into subterranean politics from the fear-junkie grasping after his next fix? I offer two basic guidelines:

1. We can categorize most conspiracy theories as either “right” or “left.”

2. The theories proffered by right-wingers have a much worse track record than do the theories proposed by left-wingers.

The first tenet has exceptions. Some conspiratorial notions are neither right nor left but off the map. For example, the once-popular Roswell silliness escapes easy political classification. The same can be said for many of the more outrageous allegations to come out of the World Trade Center disaster, or for the speculations in The Da Vinci Code.

In most cases, however, the “right/left” filing system really does work. Let’s look at some popular scenarios on both sides and see how they have stood the test of time. Yes, I fully admit that my selection is subjective and biased. I look forward to perusing any alternative lists readers might wish to offer.

Ten theories by Right-wingers:

1. The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. The classic anti-Semitic canard was cobbled together by Matheiu Golovinski, a right-wing émigré in Paris operating under the direction of the Tsar’s political police. It has been debunked many times.

2. The Satanic Panic. Is a worldwide cabal of Satanists raping and eating our children? Hell no!

3. “The Soviets are coming!” As late as 1995 – 1995! –reactionaries were telling lecture audiences that Soviet troops were massing along the U.S./Mexican border, just waiting for the “go” signal to come streaming in.

4. Whitewater. The scandal that wasn’t.

5. The Illuminati controls the world! Actually, the Illuminati was an anti-royalist society in Bavaria, squelched by the same Emperor played by Jeffrey Jones in Amadeus.

6. Was the Holocaust a hoax? In a word: No.

7. The Catholic Church assassinated Lincoln! This one dates back to a book of buncombe flung together by one Charles Chiniquy, an unstable defrocked priest with a grudge against his former church. Many fundamentalist Protestants still recommend his text.

8. The China/Soviet split was a fraud! So, at least, ran a theory popular within certain CIA circles throughout the 1960s. The prime mover behind this idea was counterintelligence chieftain James Jesus Angleton, a patriotic paranoid who nearly destroyed the agency he had hoped to serve.

9. Hillary and/or Bill killed Vince Foster (not to mention dozens of other alleged “enemies”). Taxpayers spent tons of money investigating this allegation, and ended up with little more than a chemical analysis of baloney.

10. The Communist Party in the United States was a powerful entity which had subverted much of Hollywood. Some folks (Ann Coulter, for example) still want you to believe this drivel. The reality: The CPUSA never had any real power or influence, and might well have died out if not for the dues paid by FBI and police infiltrators.

Compare the above to this list of ten conspiracy theories offered by left-wingers:

1. The CIA aids -- or at least overlooks the activities of -- drug kingpins useful to the Agency. The CIA had always denied this claim until a few years ago, when the Inspector General released a report which (in its unheralded second half) confirmed some of our worst fears. For further reading: The Politics of Heroin by Alfred McCoy, Cocaine Politics by Peter Dale Scott, and Acid Dreams by Martin A. Lee.

2. Watergate. Would Dick Nixon use spooks and Cuban operatives to spy on rivals? At one time, only the most paranoid Democrats would have answered yes.

3. Were hard rightists within the intel community behind the assassinations of the 1960s (JFK, RFK, MLK)? There’s no way I can summarize here the many arguments that have gone back and forth on this topic.

4. The CIA’s mind control experiments. In the 1960s, this was a rumor few dared to credit. In the 1970s, a small flood of documents on Project MKULTRA proved the point.

5. October Surprise. Did key members of the Reagan campaign make a secret deal to keep the American hostages in Iranian hands until Carter lost the election? Establishment pundits cackled at this notion. We haven’t heard much cackling since the allegation was confirmed by French intelligence chieftain Alexandre de Marenches, Russian prime minister Sergei V. Stepashin, Israeli secret agent Ari Ben-Menashe, former Iranian president Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and former Israeli prime minister Yitshak Shamir.

6. Was the Soviet military threat inflated? In the 1970s, left-wingers who made this suggestion were mocked. We now know that when the CIA’s main analysts provided data the hawks found insufficiently useful, George H.W. Bush assembled a “Team B” which churned out hyperbolic assessments of the USSR’s armaments.

7. Yamashita’s gold. Did the Japanese hide an astonishing cache of loot during World War II? And has that loot funded right-wing activities in more recent times? Don’t answer until you’ve read the books of Sterling Seagrave.

8. The CIA and the Nazis. Did the Agency rely on such unsavory characters as Hitler’s spy Reinhard Gehlen? Did Gehlen and company manipulate our view of the cold war? A number of books, including Christopher Simpson’s Blowback, have substantiated an idea once considered mere fable.

9. Did the Bush family do business with Nazis before, during and after the war? Yes – and the scandal goes far beyond what you will read in Kitty Kelley’s bestseller. John Buchanan has the documentation.

10. Did George W. Bush invade Iraq under false premises in order to grab dwindling oil resources? Most Americans deride this notion. Most Iraqis don’t.

I emphasize once again that the above lists represent nothing more than the first ten “right-wing” and “left-wing” theories that popped into my noggin.

Even so, I think most people would agree that list numero uno contains a greater number of outrageous and untrue notions than you’ll find on list number two. The left-wing theorists have a far from perfect batting average, but they often hit at least a double, while their reactionary counterparts rarely manage to get on base. More importantly, the left-wing theorists usually try to construct an argument based on evidence, while their rightist analogs tend to eschew footnotes in favor of high decibel levels and appeals to emotion.

Black helicopters? Post-mortum Elvis sightings? Those are red-state beliefs.

Theorists on both sides, alas, tend toward name-calling whenever any scoffer assails a much-beloved thesis. I would argue that the right-wingers are a little quicker to calumniate, and much nastier in their opprobrium. I will also admit that on both sides of the aisle, the conspiratorial viewpoint tends to transform adherents into creatures who are obsessed, insular, anti-social and just plain unpleasant.

Bottom line: Whenever someone decries “mystery bulge” allegations (or similar claims) as the stuff of conspiracy theory, you can counter by pointing out that not all theories are created equal. Many have proven risible; some have contained a measure of truth. Although the left-leaning theorists have proven all too capable of wild leaps and foolish presumptions (my own fallibilities remain on humiliating display in previous postings to this column), they have nevertheless amassed the better track record. They don’t ask for immediate credence – just a hearing.


Anonymous said...

Really thoughtful post, nicely done.

Jon Garfunkel said...

Joseph-- your post here may suffer from a bit of selection bias, and I don't see it as constructive at all.

There are better ways to analyze the merit of a "conspiracy theory" then by analyzing simply whose interests it serves, the "left" or the "right"

1. How does it hold up as a theory?
2. How does it hold up as a conspiracy?

to question #1 here, many observers have pointed out that a radio transmitter or even the LifeCor vest are far more solid theories than the "official" one given-- which is none at all. Many of the popular "conspiracy theories" are there to rebut an official theory.

Question #2 is important as well. The word "conspiracy" implies that it's some secret amongst a group of people who have to keep up appearances-- and thus have to be bought off for their silence. Many of the well-known conspiracy theories presume that there must be scores or thousands of people in on the secret (faked Moon landing, etc). On the other hand, there was Hillary Clinton's infamous "vast right-wing conspiracy" remark, which she latter redacted by pointint out that this is operation wasn't being done in secret. As with the Bulge issue. It is the *job* of the Secret Service to keep silent about their work, and the *job* of the campaign aides to lie through their teeth. For example, here's Ken Mehlman: "the gentleman responsible for the tailoring of that suit is no longer working for this administration."

Evidently he still is putting in very good work for the administration:

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