Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Conspiracy Theory Theory

We seem to live in the age of conspiracy theories. Not that they haven't been around for a while, but that something in this postmodern moment seems to supply them, amplify them, and keep them alive longer than at any time in the past. An event scarcely settles into public awareness before someone steps forward to "question" it -- not simply to question why or how it happened, but whether it happened at all.

In the course of this post, I'm going to try not to mention any specific such theories -- I have no desire to give their promulgators more attention -- but I do want to look at some of the reasons for the plethora of such theories at the present moment, and I believe I can do so without going into the particulars of any of them (though I will, on occasion, mention such theories about the Kennedy assassination, which in many ways is the model for them all).

What kinds of events generate these theories? And what does the their structure tell us about the shifting shape of mass media, and our own shifting modes of understanding the 'true' and the 'real'?

To generate such theories, an event has to be of a very specific nature: something that, at its very occurrence, was completely unanticipated, spectacular, and ideologically charged. Whenever something terrible happens to an individual -- a friend dies, one's home catches fire, or one's finances collapse -- we ask ourselves why.  Sometimes, there's a simple answer: he got cancer, the ashes were still hot, you invested in what turned out to be a pyramid scheme.  Even then, though, there are leftover questions: Why did someone with such a promising future have to die? How could such a small mistake destroy a home? Why didn't I realize much sooner that the promised returns were too good to be true?

It can take an individual years to sort through these issues, and to eventually decide it's time to move on. But what about when such a disaster overtakes an entire region, nation, or the planet as a whole? The causes and consequences of these disasters are vast and complex, and there may never be a completely clear and unambiguous reason why.  Why did the Light Brigade charge into the cannon? How was it the Roosevelt didn't anticipate the attack on Pearl Harbor? How could a lone gunman have killed the leader of the free world, flush in the youth of his success?

The psychic cost of letting ourselves understand and accept such events is enormous, and the collective soul searches for some, for any kind of release from this torment. In the past, scapegoating was the easiest option; to identify and attack the purported cause of something terrible is undeniably cathartic, even if it later turns out that the person or people blamed were innocent.  It's harder to do today, although it can still happen.  But as it turns out, alleging a conspiracy -- even one so vast and profound that it turns out that what we thought happened didn't actually happen at all -- provides an even more effective balm.

On the face of it, these claims are absurd, but that doesn't matter. The people who make them do not put themselves under the burden of constructing a single, plausible alternative to what everyone else believes has happened; they simply exploit doubt and uncertainty to a sufficient degree that they can discard what they regard as the "official" and therefore false version. Having done that, they hint vaguely at a series of dark alternatives; they don't have to pick just one, and if one is shown to be patently false, they just point to another, and another, and another.

The Kennedy assassination's "grassy knoll" is one such point. One frame of the infamous Zapruder film seems to show a puff of smoke at this location.  Is it a puff of smoke? A puff of car exhaust? A slight fogging of the film? The first attack is simply to cast doubt on the "single shooter" version, and in this charge the puff of smoke is just the beginning.  The second move is to speak of another shooter as if he or or she was definitely known to exist, and search all the testimony one can find that correlates with this possibility; if any such claim is doubted, one simply cites another.

And here is why in this age, such theories have such traction: the informational background -- official reports, statements, maps, photographs, blog postings, 911 recordings, satellite photos, and so forth -- is so vast, and daily growing so much vaster, that the amount of informational fuel available is, for all practical purposes, infinite.

As anyone who has tried can confirm, it's impossible to ever win an argument with a conspiracy theorist. For one, they have bushels of information at their fingertips, and warehouses more if those run out.  For two, they don't have to produce a coherent account of what actually took place, just cast doubt on every particular claim, one after another, until eventually the whole thing shudders under piecemeal attacks.

Recently, some such theorists have defended their statements by saying that they are just practicing "critical thinking," that they are "questioning assumptions" and doing "investigative journalism." But none of these actually apply: what these theorists -- who often have, or are given, the name "truthers" actually possess is a very poor understanding of nature of truth.  To them, "truth" must be consistent, not only with every conceivable piece of data, but with their own ideological presuppositions. Anything inconsistent stinks to them of untruth.  And yet, the strange fact is, the truth of any actual event is full of inconsistencies, many of which can simply not be resolved completely.

The "truther" path dares those who accept a commonly-known fact or event to "prove" it happened. And yet nearly all human events cannot be proved in this way.  Prove that the ancient Egyptians existed! One points to the pyramids, and the Temple of Luxor.  But what if these were actually fake ruins put there by the Greeks thousands of years later? Prove that evolution is evidenced in fossilized life! But what if these fossils were put there by God to test our faith and confuse us?

Truthers are fond of documents taken out of context; the obsess over documentation but when documentation is provided, they simply say that it was forged or faked.  They insisted that neither the President's short form nor long-form birth certificates were "real" -- and yet an obviously, clumsily faked Kenyan one was held forth as confirmation of their suspicions. They point to photographs quite a bit -- and yet when it's shown that the image doesn't depict what they claimed, they simply say the photograph was altered by people trying to discredit them.

And they love eyewitness testimony.  Never mind that it's been conclusively shown that eyewitness testimony is quite often unreliable, they love the way the acid of testimonial inconsistency eats away at the "official" version.

The irony is that the reason eyewitness testimony is unreliable is the exact same reason that conspiracy theories are so attractive to their adherents. It's because the human mind detests information in a vacuum; we make stories of our memories even as we are making our memories, and the stories stick -- we hate to change them later.  In a classic Peanuts strip, Lucy sees what she thinks is a rare butterfly from Brazil on the sidewalk,  and wonders at the amazing natural ability of these tiny creatures to travel so far. In the next panel, her kid brother Linus points out that it's actually a potato chip. To which Lucy replies,  "Well, I’ll be! So it is! I wonder how a potato chip got all the way up here from Brazil?"

And so it is with the conspiracy theorist. The things which evidence may or may not point to are taken as givens, and any attempt to show that the preponderance of the evidence shows that it's a potato chip of local origin simply does not compute.  And, in the age when anyone who wants to can Google up millions of pages of information about butterflies, those of us who still see a potato chip are in trouble.


  1. Chris Matthews had a segment "Coincidence in the age of conspiracy" which ran Thursday or Friday. It backs up your argument, anyone who dissents from the narrative will get their head whacked off. I think some people are so desperate to see what they want to see, they ignore anything that does not suit their belief. I do not understand the mindset that somehow a different opinion also includes different facts. There can only be one set of facts. I could go on...
    here is the link to Hardball http://tv.msnbc.com/shows/hardball/

  2. Keith, thanks very much for this link!