It's a dark American tradition, born of documented history and bloodstained, power-brokered skullduggery:
the terror-stricken belief that cataclysmic events large and small are the handiwork of some covert federation of organizations and individuals operating under the public radar for their own self-serving reasons. The same tradition posits that We - the newspaper readers, voters, tax-payers and television slaves - are being manipulated and lied to as our society is exploited for reasons known only to the conspirators. So, what else is new? Doesn't that clearly describe the world's well-justified opinion of life under the Bush administration?
"Conspiracism" - that is, the culture of conspiracy faith, as it is defined and theorized and judged nutty by culture-studies academics like Karl Popper
and Frank P. Mintz
- more or less began for us when JFK coasted through the Daley Plaza crossfire. And for a good reason: as even a Congressional committee has admitted by now, the assassination was a conspiracy
. (Not, let's say, merely a Webster's-defined confederation of "two or more people" for the purpose of planning or committing "an unlawful act," but more popularly, a secret arrangement for criminal purposes created by powerful agents abusing the public trust.) Before 1963, this worldview was preceded only by the low-boiling Russian notion of a Jewish world order, fueled by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
. Bullcrap agitprop, this hoax text was produced and disseminated by - guess what - another real conspiracy of secret authors, colluding publishers and counterrevolutionaries.
But the modern era has let loose the dogs of suspicion, and I for one say, bless the conspiracy theorists, long let them rave. The conspiracism scholars, along with the mainstream consensus, prefer to dismiss them as nutlogs. But if you accuse J. Edgar Hoover
of the 1969 assassination of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton
, would that make you a paranoid fabulist or merely a reader of the New York Times
? If we're all aware of dozens of well-reported CIA bloodletting schemes over the decades (assassination attempts, coups, covert armies, drug trafficking, etc.), doesn't that suggest that we already live in a conspiratorial society?
Not to Nicholas Lemann
, whose intolerably complacent October 16 New Yorker
article "Paranoid Style" takes the common position that conspiracy theory is discourse taken too far beyond common sense, into the wilderness of paranoiacs. These misguided, pulp-drunk hysterics, in a swift exercise of Catch-22 circularity, are so defined because they posit what the New Yorker
sees as "conspiracy theory." (I'm not concerned here with faked-moon-landing plotters, who only seem to disturb themselves.)
But too much of recent history is documented conspiracy - or, if you prefer, scholar Peter Dale Scott
's "deep politics" - to ignore. Lehmann's discussion proceeds as if, say, Lyndon Johnson
didn't lie about the Gulf of Tonkin
; as if Operation Ajax
(the CIA's destructive plot to subvert Mossadegh
) hadn't happened or hadn't been exposed in the Times
; as if Watergate
were just a hotel; as if COINTELPRO
hadn't been exposed; as if Henry Kissinger
didn't conspire toward the illegal decimations of Indochina, Bangladesh, Chile and Indonesia; as if the Reagan Doctrine
hadn't semi-secretly turned Central America into a butcher's desk; or as if Paul Wolfowitz
and Dick Cheney
hadn't written up plans to wage war on Iraq and North Korea in 1992. And so on. What's not to be suspicious about? Many of these documented affronts were first glimpsed as implausible conspiracy crimes, but then concrete evidence accumulated, often as a result of luck and researchers' doggedness, and a public tipping point was reached. Then, they became "fact."
But what of 9/11? Certainly, this most unenigmatic social trauma seems resistant to conspiratorial interpretation - that is, beyond the al-Qaeda nexus. Islamic men flew planes into buildings, that's that - if you suggest otherwise, the New Yorker
will say, talk to the hand. But this apparent public clarity has not prevented, as Lehmann notes, a veritable mushrooming of 9/11 fact-compiling, theory-mongering and conjecture - a subculture of extraordinary doubt. Web sites, books and movies proliferate from all corners and, though the jury will probably be out forever, nearly all of them have one cadre of culprits in mind: Bush & Co., the corporations they've worked for, the covert or semi-covert federal agencies they've directed, and the industries they've sustained with tax dollars since great-granddaddy Samuel P. Bush
became a federal war agency chief in 1918.
Didn't someone say "Question Authority"? For Lehmann, interrogations are worthless without immediate and iron-clad factual discovery - none of the filmmakers or researchers he discusses should ever "stray into the realm of supposition." But isn't puzzle-piecing necessary and appropriate in a society delineated by classified documentation, professional prevarication and news conference doublespeak?
Take Alex Jones
, rabid Texas radical, radio host, prime mover behind prisonplanet.com
, and conspiracy-theory filmmaker. His new DVD screed, Terrorstorm
(from The Disinformation Company
), is involved in two dovetailing activities. The first is sound and imperative: an eloquent history of governmental "false flag" operations, manufactured incidents from the Reichstag fire to the 1953 CIA bombings blamed on Mossadegh to the Gulf of Tonkin, all designed to provide the state with unlimited power to oppress, eliminate public inquiry and wage war. It's a thunderous lesson every school kid should have to see before reaching 18.
Jones's second assertion is the great leap: his conclusion that the 7/7 London bombings and the assaults of 9/11 were, in fact, false flags, to some unknowable degree managed or at least allowed by the American and British governments. It doesn't help that Jones's communication style could be called digital thuggery: Formally, Terrorstorm
is as brutalizing, patronizing and shrill as the worst Republican Party campaign shock ad. "The evidence is crystal clear!" he growls on the narration, but of course it's not, nor is it conclusive or sometimes even circumstantial.
But wait: are we supposed to think it's all coincidence? That the No. 30 double-decker bus that exploded in July 2005 was the only bus out of hundreds to be redirected that morning, and that multiple sources admitted (then denied) that Mossad had warned visiting dignitary Benjamin Netanyahu
to stay off the London streets earlier that morning? A coincidence that alleged 7/7 planner Haroon Rashid Aswat
was on the MI6 payroll, and that the only surveillance camera in London to malfunction that morning was the one that would've recorded the bombers boarding the underground? That both 7/7 and 9/11 occurred during "crisis management drills" enacted in both cities, involving the same exact scenarios that were unfolding in real life?
Maybe. All of Jones's points are culled from newspaper headlines and televised broadcasts, suggesting that there'd be no need for conspiricists at all if we bothered to remember what we read and see in the media. The line that Jones and his compadres cross and many of us do not may simply come down to one's position on coincidences. Jones is symptomatic of the conspiracy theorists' mindset in being unable to suffer tragic happenstance gladly. It's not as if he doesn't have reason for maintaining that attitude of disbelief - we all do.
Let's not label it "evidence," as Jones does, that the neo-imperialist D.C. think tank Project for the New American Century
released a report a year before 9/11 actively pining for "a new catalytic event... like a new Pearl Harbor." But what do you call it? One could hardly be blamed for not being convinced by the official explanations for the collapse of WTC building 7 - what with owner Larry Silverstein
admitting on PBS that he said at the time that "maybe the smartest thing to do is pull it," and that "they made that decision to pull and we watched the building collapse," in seven seconds and more than eight hours after the planes hit buildings 1 and 2. The NIST
(National Institute on Standards and Technology) is still investigating, as well they should. When their sanctioned, no-conspiratorial conclusions are finally reached, must we buy them wholesale?
Even day-to-day, global history is a hugely entropic muck, and conspiracy theories can easily be dismissed as neurotic efforts to shrink it down into something understandable and blameable. But consider that off-mainstream dissent culture, represented at its extremities by the screaming fervor of American conspiracy theory, is why so much of what our government does is kept secret - why, as Noam Chomsky
is fond of saying, the Central American slaughter-fests under Reagan were covert, not overt as similar criminal action had been in Southeast Asia. Better that full-throated, fist-pumping skeptics are thick in our midst than not, when otherwise the nation seems populated with so many sheep.