"I must frankly confess that the foreign policy of the United States since the termination of hostilities has reminded me, sometimes irresistibly, of the attitude of Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II ... It is characteristic of the military mentality that non-human factors (atom bombs, strategic bases, weapons of all sorts, the possession of raw materials, etc.) are held essential, while the human being, his desires and thought - in short, the psychological factors - are considered as unimportant and secondary ... The general insecurity that goes hand in hand with this results in the sacrifice of the citizen's civil rights to the supposed welfare of the state."
–Albert Einstein, The Military Mentality
I am not a conspiracy theorist. Sometimes people label me that way. Many of my friends get labeled that way, and some of them might be – but some of them clearly aren't. In order to know for sure, we would have to know what is meant by the term.
Now the term 'conspiracy theorist' is meant to be dismissive, obviously. It's a term used to put borders on thought, to reassure, to identify aberrant patterns in individuals and create distance between us and them. You call someone a 'conspiracy theorist' to put them down or accuse them of being an intellectual outcast without having to think hard about it. Talking heads on television often identify someone as a 'conspiracy theorist' when they want to indicate a clear separation: "Well, that sounds like conspiratorial thinking to me," or "If I may sound like a conspiracy theorist for a moment ..." or "I don't want to get into conspiracy theory, so let's take another topic ..." The term is used, in essence, like profanity. It tends to connote 'stupid,' but also 'outrageous,' and – most importantly – not to be taken seriously. That idea you just had puts you on the outside. You are being stupid and outrageous. People aren't going to like you if you keep thinking that way.
Let's look at the term profanity. We all know what it means: bad words. Sometimes we say they are "curse" words, which gives them a slightly magical evocation. So: words that are intended to express strong disrespect or to invite the gods to visit heinous things upon someone. As the Woody Allen joke goes, "I told him to be fruitful and multiply, but not in those words." Bad language. When we visit the origins of the word "profanity," we find that it derives from the Latin "profanus," which means "outside the temple." There is a sense in which anything that is not sacred is profane – that is, not specifically holy – but the broader and more common definition is an insult to that which is sacred. That which cannot be done within the temple.
Now I find that fascinating, and I say that the term 'conspiracy theorist' is a kind of profanity, because it fulfills the precise intent of its original meaning. When you call someone by that term, you are indicating that they are outside the temple. We are inside the temple and holy and sacred, and you are outside with the profane. The term is a psychological attack meant to marginalize the speaker of the improper thought.
However, this is only one-half of the equation. The other half is that the term imbues the speaker with psychological reassurance and power. It is like saying, "By saying what you have said, you have proven yourself to be outside the norm, and I have hordes of people who will agree with me." It is powerful bandwagon thinking. For human beings, whose social instincts are so strong that they carry over into the digital and beyond, this type of thinking is not only motivated but receives immediate reward. It is like being inside the Dallas Cowboys football stadium and making disparaging remarks about the Washington Redskins. The crowd will reassure and happily agree with you in solidarity.
When this power is given over to television networks and beat reporters and those who provide opinions in voice and print, there is an incredible foundation laid to support the 'sacred' premises against the 'profane' ones. This is precisely why symbols are used – the flag itself, "old glory," the "founding fathers," and so on – to promote a dedication to certain ideas that shorts-circuits our reason. We hear certain concepts and are granted a pass from thinking about such unpleasantness. That guy is a conspiracy theorist.
If the association becomes strong enough and the evocation powerful enough, the end result can be people dismissing anyone who disagrees with the position of the state. Which is precisely the point. And when this happens, otherwise intelligent individuals can make statements like "I support our troops in time of war," when of course a war means that troops will die. That is the point of war – and indeed, the point of troops, but that is an argument for another day. For the moment, we only need to understand that the term 'conspiracy theorist' has force only in a context of the need for reassurance within the confines of the State.
We also should understand that this state of affairs is in some sense necessary. All over the world, at any given moment, the United States is murdering or torturing people somewhere in the name of democratic ideals. Reading William Blum's Killing Hope is one of the most distressing, but important, things one can do for oneself, even if it feels like losing part of one's soul. In fact it is one of the bumps on the road to saving it.
If the state did not provide a mythology and a process of identification of what is sacred and what is profane and a clear demarcation between party invitees and those to be excluded, the government – any government, for they tend to act in similar ways – would be untenable for most people. Psychologically, most human beings cannot simply tell themselves, "I value my comfort over the lives of millions of others, no matter how atrocious their conditions, because I can lose myself in electronic distraction and temporary entertainments." I think – and this is pure speculation on my part – that most people are aware of this truth, in the back of their minds, but do not acknowledge it. Ursula K. LeGuin's famous short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" deals with this very topic. Those who see the horror that gives them their happiness either block it and remain happy, or are haunted by it and walk away.
"The goal of modern propaganda," writes Jacques Ellul, the author of the marvelous book Propaganda, "is no longer to transform opinion but to arouse an active and mythical belief." Exactly – because belief does not require evidence. One cannot be allowed to question one's own house, one's own fathers. They know best.
This type of thinking, for example, underlies the present Edward Snowden case. Snowden leaked documents showing, among other things, that the National Security Agency was not only spying on Americans but also on the European Union. This isn't news to anyone who researches this sort of thing, but it has caused a sensation in the media. The reason Snowden leaked the documents was because of the disconnect between having faith in one's country and seeing things that he thought were obviously wrong, by a different standard. That is, he used his intellectual judgment. Democrats John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi, among many others, lined up against Snowden, but some of the most telling remarks came from the Republican Lindsey Graham: "This government has been corrupted. They don't have a real legislature. All institutions of democracies have been diminished in Russia, and when people do that inside their country they are not generally inclined to follow the rule of law outside their country ... Putin's handling of the Snowden issue is only the latest sign that Russia is backsliding when it comes to democracy and the rule of law."
Graham uses the evidence that Russia isn't immediately doing what the United States wants it to do in order to denote a failure of democracy.
In fact, the reason the media take the situation so seriously is that it breaks down one of the walls of government. To quote Mel Brooks' character in Blazing Saddles, "We've got to protect our phony baloney jobs, gentlemen!" Prior to Snowden, anyone who argued that the NSA spied on every American in Orwellian fashion could be successfully labeled a paranoid conspiracy theorist. Not so anymore.
We've talked about how the term 'conspiracy theorist' is really just a kind of profanity, of insult and separation which protects and reassures the user of the term. And that is one reason I don't like it. There is a secondary reason, however, that has to do with the words themselves: conspiracy and theorist.
It can't mean anyone who concludes, based on some evidence, that a conspiracy exists, because that would mean every District Attorney in the country is a conspiracy theorist. (They are, by the literal meaning.) So is Vincent Bugliosi, because the book that made him famous, Helter Skelter, posits an elaborate conspiracy theory in which Charles Manson was able to control other people to such an extent that they murdered in the name of creating a racial war. (Manson, the most notorious mass murderer in America, was never proven to have physically killed anyone himself.) Bugliosi may have been right, or not; that's a subject for another essay. However, it is unquestionably a conspiracy theory.
But that's not what people mean, really. What people mean, beyond the psychological content discussed before, is an elaborate story: The use of evidence to posit an explanatory description. David Icke thinks that many people, including members of the Royal Family, are a kind of space lizard. He has written many books to that effect. There are many people who believe "the Jews" control everything – mostly Nazi types like Henry Ford, who received the highest award a non-German (the Grand Cross of the German Eagle) can receive from Hitler himself. The head of IBM, incidentally, got one too – see Edwin Black's brilliant book IBM and the Holocaust.
So I am definitely not a conspiracy theorist in this sense either. I don't have a particular premise that I am attached to with regard to historical events. One has to look at whatever the evidence suggests and go from there. For example, in the Kennedy case, which is enormously complex, my emphasis has always been on proving the negative. That is, I cannot identify precisely who was the shooter who killed John F. Kennedy. However, I know – to a moral certainty, to coin a phrase – that it wasn't Lee Harvey Oswald.
The evidence is overwhelming. I've discussed some of it in previous writings, and many others have done brilliant work on the case. Of all the theories of what happened in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963, Oswald-as-the-shooter is the least likely. He was a mediocre shot, using a poorly designed low-velocity weapon, with a scope that was offline, shooting through Texas Live Oak trees at a tough angle, missing with the first shot but then deadly accurate the second and third times (just think about that for a second). He also used a bullet that created multiple wounds through skin and bone of two individuals but somehow emerged undamaged. He did all of this, by the way, while failing to leave any fingerprints on the weapon. Once arrested, he proceeded to vigorously protest his innocence before being shot to death by a local hood, Jack Ruby. Ruby, who had ties to the Dallas police and shot Oswald to spare Jackie Kennedy the indignity of a trial for her husband's assassin.
The story is idiotic. And this doesn't even scratch the surface.
Countless books have been written on the subject, some of them excellent, detailing the medical and photographic oddities and all the bizarre contextual information pointing in one singular direction: Oswald didn't do it. The only reason you would believe this story – the absolutely only reason you might find it plausible on an intellectual level (that is, you weren't being paid to promote a specific view) – is because of the psychological factors. Oswald-as-shooter is within the temple. Anyone-else-as-shooter is outside the temple.
If this were a question of logic, we would conclude that of course conspiracies exist. High finance would be impossible without them, as would certain government operations. It's a fact of modern life, and anyone who dismisses it is operating within the dichotomy illustrated here. That doesn't mean that everything's a conspiracy. That doesn't mean we should believe everything. We go where the evidence takes us, parental controls be damned.
There was a conspiracy in the Kennedy assassination, but I am no conspiracy theorist.