“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you…”
is a 30+ year new media development pioneer & differentiator who served several years in the US Peace Corps. His earliest political memory is arguing the merits of RFK, McCarthy, and Humphrey on the playground with his 2nd grade classmates in West Lafayette, IN. Ask him about his avatar (or maybe not).
Somewhere in the world as you read this, a pundit is writing a column that decries conspiratorial thinking as the scourge of the modern age. And if that columnist is American, and their column allows comments, at least one of the comments will point out (possibly because I will have written it) that there’s nothing particularly modern about it. Some date the rise of conspiracy thinking to Watergate, others to the JFK assassination. Actually this mode of analysis runs deep in our national DNA, dating back to the colonial era, when conspiracy theories spurred the American Revolution.
What’s Not Caesar’s
That our very founding was in part based on conspiratorial thinking–theories that mainly turned out to be mistaken, btw–should suggest that conspiracy theorizing is not actually unambiguously negative, any more than its communioning cousin theology is. When people engage in conspiratorial thinking, it compels them to consider the possibility that things which don’t appear to have anything do do with each other are actually connected, which is fundamental to the mission of science. Conspiratorial thinking also leads its adherents to hold that human beings have agency, and can and should be held accountable, that we aren’t simply at the mercy of irresistible, impersonal historical “forces.”
Part of our Wishticles series–like listicles, only collaboratively created and always socially redeeming–all the pleasure, with none of the guilt…
Would it really be better if people believed that things just happened to them, randomly, for no reason at all, or simply because of the limits of human nature and, as a result, became passive, apathetic, and fatalistic? Why yes, it would; for one group of people, this would be an ideal state of affairs–the elites that rule over society, including the pundit class that so reliably decries this type of thinking, no matter how many times what seemed outlandishly improbable has turned out to be true: the Tuskegee experiments, Exxon covering up what it knew about global warming because it wanted the Arctic to melt so it could drill more efficiently, Nixon ordering the IRS to audit the tax returns of his “enemies” (and the existence of the “enemies list” itself), any number of environmental disasters around the world, etc. et al.
The pundit class finds it easy to chortle about conspiracy theories, casually flicking out Occam’s Razor and other methodological or rhetorical devices, because the consequences of the conspiracies that turn out to be real are so rarely visited on them–the Love Canal rarely runs through their backyard. If it did, they might have more respect for ideas not any less substantially supported by the available evidence than the hunches and inexplicable intuitions in the middle of the night that have ultimately led to some of science’s greatest breakthroughs.
Sometimes the truth in science is found simply by painstaking application of the scientific method, just as some scoops in journalism are just the result of good solid gumshoe reporting. But just as often, as in the case of the discovery of the structure of DNA, best practice is complemented by theorizing that attempts to make sense of it all, accompanied by axioms that while appealing, may seem extraneous to the scientific process. Jim Watson had a dogged belief that the structure “had to be pretty,” and so it turned out to be; by contrast, in the case of Watergate, if not for the dogged persistence of Woodward and Bernstein, Nixon would have gotten away with exactly the kind of conspiracy the pundits claim is impossible because ‘too many people would have to keep a secret.’ Sometimes the conspiracy theory is a necessary part of finding the truth.
And sometimes it’s necessary just so people can go on, to keep on fighting rather than believe they’ve been condemned, or worse, unacknowleged, by the universe. I was a Peace Corps teacher in West Africa when AIDS spread like a California wildfire, inexplicably striking down, like it was nineteen-eighteen-2, the youngest, the healthiest, the strongest, the most successful, in particularly cruel and ugly ways, while the rest of the world looked on, unable to explain at that time why transmission was apparently heterosexual to a much greater extent among Africans than anywhere else, why so much more rapid, why so extensive and without warning, like the seven plagues of Egypt in one.
To get to the other side of the Jordan where the mystery was definitively solved–when the connection between transmission and the prevalence of other untreated STDs became clear–the devastated communities of sub-Saharan Africa needed something to hold onto. At the same time, it needed to be something outside of themselves, something they could not touch, because the idea that the gods, including Christian and Muslim, their spirits and ancestors, had not only failed to protect them but had singled them out for destruction, and in a particularly awful way, or because there was something fundamentally less fit about them than people of other races? In lives already made too hard in the living, this was too much to bear. And too personal, in a place where, one young man nervously told me, if he were to die without becoming a father, he would be buried at the edge of his family’s compound with his face and body turned away from the home, with a stone in his hand to remind him for all eternity what he had produced in life.
So it was that I found myself exposed to a variety of theories about the origin of AIDS, two in particular that illustrate divergent qualities of the most successful conspiracy theories, one by reflecting a larger, agonizing reality so well that it compelled sharing, the other, by virtue of its absurdity–with just a thread of reality necessary to tether it to the earth–was irresistible to share, and it thus attained a level of truth by repetition.
In the first category was the belief that AIDS was a biological weapon developed by the CIA and designed specifically to devastate people of color. The rationale: the American government hoped to exterminate all or enough of the African population that we could come in and seize all the rich natural resources of the continent for ourselves. It’s easy to see, given the level of exploitation they’d already experienced, right down to the level of the petty and contemptuous (I well remember eating mackerel harvested from the Sea of Japan and the red dye no. 2 the toothpaste digestif was infused with), why Africans would find this completely believable and how it would stiffen their resolve. Much as many Americans today have found “working hard and playing by the rules,” in a world where shareholder value is placed above all others, is a fast track to the kind of hardened cynicism the real darkies consider more feature than externality. Unless we get angry instead–and anger needs a story.
In the second category was the theory that–and I kid you not–AIDS began when an American Vietnam War veteran–always the individual involved was an American, a veteran, of that war–had sex with a chimpanzee that was carrying the disease. Thus the interspecific jump was made (which otherwise was being laid upon Africans for consuming undercooked “bush meat”) and the rest is rats, lice, and history. Everyone knew, from even the most sympathetic portrayals in the films they’d seen, that Vietnam War veterans were quite possibly the only people in the world so devolved, so crude, unkempt, mentally ill, drug-addicted, and pathologically violent to have been more than willing to do the necessary deed with the apes, an argument immeasurably strengthened by the fact that none of those who made it had ever met an American war veteran of any kind. Celluloid was all that grounded it. Sad.
If it’s all too understandable why our brothers and sisters in Africa–and other parts of the developing world–seek solace and meaning in conspiratorial thinking, why is America, the wealthiest and most privileged nation on earth, not only their Grand Central, as it is in so many other ways, but their main point source? Well, this is a piece on conspiracy, so of course we have a theory, though it’s not especially conspiratorial or original, namely that our country’s emphasis on individual achievement and responsibility leaves our citizenry feeling more vulnerable than in even much poorer communities, and has since colonial/frontier days. Personal responsibility is the lion in wait as we walk life alone; one wrong move and we’ll not only fall but be blamed for falling, and become part of the deserving poor, meaning, in a blurt or shart of exceptionalism, the people who deserve to be poor, making those who fall there feel far more destitute than those with much less materially, as consumed down to the bone spiritually as a physical lion would be wont to do.
The more vulnerable you are, in turn, the more you find yourself trying to make sense of. Early societies were almost all polytheistic because having multiple gods in the mix, in continually shifting alliances and interactions, allowed for closer piecewise mapping of the supernatural onto the jagged vagaries of day to day living and vice versa. The complexities of conspiracy theories play a similar role. In fact, on consideration, it takes a certain and surprising degree of confidence (or living in the monotony of a desert) to pick just one God to follow out of the community of the pantheon, one God to meet all one’s explanatory needs. One might even call it chutzpah. In an uncertain and complex world, those explanations devolve fairly quickly to “it’s a mystery,” “have faith,” “trust me”, “you wouldn’t understand anyway” and other appeals to authority.
Those kinds of appeals wear thin, not so much in the face of major life events, but erosion caused by a thousand micro-affronts generated by the dissonance between our founding belief in equality and persistent low-grade GINI coefficient, especially in a nation forged in revolution against authority and made up primarily of individuals and their descendents who came here to escape it. While we officially remain monotheistic, we begin to experiment with “recreational authorities”–George Soros, the Trilateral Commission, the davosphere, Democrats–who, like the ancestral gods of polytheism, are consciously made in our own image, and all too human. We begin to create what were then called stories, tales, and legends about them, which, thanks to inflation, we now call theories. Take it from an animist: used responsibly and under proper supervision, their effects can be spiritually beneficial.
Rolling Our Own
In case it’s not already obvious, we love conspiracy theories, and the likes of QAnon will never change that. For us, they’re part of what puts the creative in politics. They hold the powerful to account, they provide hope, motivation, and direction to the powerless, and often enough they turn out to be right, or right enough in the fuzzy domain of social science to be worth ‘clinging to‘–more often, in fact, than the brontosauring pundit class usually is when any degree of difficulty beyond basic play-by-play is required of them.
We know they’re dangerous, but so is a lot of what we value. We know they have an ugly history, dating back to at least The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, of being intertwined with fascism, but the same can be said of science, religion, business, the military, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, even environmentalism–pretty much everything any part of the spectrum views as noble, in fact–because that’s what fascism does, and part of why it’s so insidious and existential, like a virus. Can they lead to violence? Sure, and so can protests–should we stop demonstrating against injustice too?
So we’re asking you, in these crazy times, to do something crazier, to out-crazy life: join us in coming up with the wildest conspiracy theories you and we can collectively think of. Yes, we’re asking you to remove the brain bracelet of home confinement and run riot through the world with us. If we like what you come up with, we’ll publish it here, and you’ll get a free Creative Politics t-shirt for your troubles. You can post yours in the comments section below or, if you’re not sure you want to be known for opening [insert your name here]‘s Box, use this form–we’ll make sure you can always take credit later if you like, just like any other CP author.
But before you do, let’s review what makes for a good conspiracy theory, or at least what we’ll be looking for:
- Explausivity — I.e. mind-blowing to consider, yet with just enough of a frisson of plausibility that it can be lobbed over the transom to others without exploding in your hands–or brain–first.
- Supersaturation — When a liquid mix of chemicals becomes supersaturated, some element of what it contains precipitates out as a solid. A supersaturated conspiracy theory crystalizes something in the mind that you’ve never been able to put a finger on or allow yourself to think, like a good risque joke–your theory doesn’t have to be plausible at all if it makes 90% of the people who hear it laugh out loud or least suppress a guffaw of sudden recognition like a hiccup.
- Power-seeking power — A good conspiracy theory can only target the truly powerful as the bad actors involved, not store owners (Pizzagate), grieving parents (Newtown), and the like; otherwise it becomes fascistic (like The Protocols) and verboten–we won’t publish any such here.
- Therapeutic touch — When they’re working their magic, the best of these yarns help us to cope with things that are too awful to contemplate if they were really merely random, the result of indifference (i.e. the true opposite of love), incompetence, or the limits of humanity/human nature, all of which render us helpless, which is the root of so much self-destruction. For those who think more than they feel, a filthy-good hypothesis helps keep our heads from exploding as we slap them over and over at the otherwise inexplicable level of stupidity we’re trying to make sense of (Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, for example)
- Originality — Conspiracy theories are like viruses; if they’re too familiar, like the flu, people will have at least a certain level of acquired immunity to them, limiting their spread.
If you’re (still) thinking this is the most irresponsible thing anyone has ever asked you to do, especially in the current climate, let us give you a very good reason, in the current climate, even in reflection of it, to do it anyway. The problem in our society is not conspiracy theorists making many more connections than actually exist; it’s most of the population making too few, and therefore feeling battered and beaten down by forces they don’t understand. They’re passive with respect to politics, but not the rest of the world around them. They’re no less angry than conspiracists are, they just lash out with less coherence and accuracy, at their spouses and partners, at their children, at random strangers, at themselves via the slow suicide of drugs and alcohol.
And they have no acquired immunity, which makes them completely vulnerable to a virus like Donald J Trump, a master conspiracist himself. A fundamental governing element of the Trump regime is to “flood the zone,” throwing off so much chaff every day that nothing but doubt and confusion can result. A lot of that chaff is conspiracy theory, so if you hate these twisted tales, why not help flood the zone yourself with so many they lose their power to persuade and confuse? In our experience, there’s nothing more disconcerting to a right-wing conspiracy theorist than a left-wing conspiracy theorist. At the very least, you’ll have a good cathartic laugh and acquire some/more immunity yourself.
And if you love them, as we do? Though the supersaturation of chaff we create together may, if enough of us are generating it, cause them to fall from the sky, what conspiracy theories have in common, no matter what direction they point, will only be amplified, shaping political immune systems and responses just as different strains of influenza have through their shared essence, thus generating, to reiterate:
- More skepticism, and less idolatry, reverence, or fear, towards those who accumulate wealth and power for their own sake
- Greater belief that human agency is at work in the world, not just impersonal forces.
And, above all, helping to inculcate the practice of looking for connections where they’re not obvious, in ourselves and others, fundamental to solving the crisis that underlies all others, our collective loss of creativity, which motivated the creation of this site and stands between us and solutions to all the other challenges we face. By contrast, limiting ourselves to a diffuse, generalized “healthy skepticism” of government, as patronizing pundits recommend, rather than “going overboard” into conspiratical thinking is a recipe for reflexive cynicism we can ill-afford, given the nature of the existential threats we’re facing. Conspiracy theories are an antidote to cynicism, not its cause.
Need a little inspiration to get going? We’ve gone to town (in clear, open violation of the Overton lockdown) on one of the most fertile fields–freshly laid with manure daily–for the genre to take root. Warning: if you’re already having trouble sleeping, you may want to skip this and go straight to the self-theorizing–unfortunately, we think we’re pretty good at telling a political ghost story or two. Whichever path you take in migrating from Choose Your Own Adventure to Create Your Own Parallel Universe, in the name of the founders and forefathers, let’s make conspiracy theories great again!
Creative Politics is the world’s first comprehensive, community-based political incubator, synthesizing the best of liberal and conservative ideals with technology and history to generate policies, strategies, applications, and actions for the post-modern era that are well outside the beltway, and well beyond just talk. All our blog posts are collaborative, living documents, the way Madison and Hamilton would create them if they were writing The Federalist today. We welcome, nay urge, your feedback in the comment/discussion section below, and will be using it (with credit) to make what you just read more and more real…