A conspiracist is someone who reaches first for the conspiracy explanation, then seeks out support for his or her presupposition.
Wikileaks’ latest release of a mountain of diplomatic chit-chat has provoked more than a government attack on Wikileaks. It has provoked more than a diplomatic emergency for Secretary of State Clinton. Wikileaks has unleashed a flurry of conspiracy theories – the main one being that the entire drama around the release of documents is a government–run disinformation campaign. These are illogical allegations; but more than that, they are a kind of Rorschach blot that can give us some insight into this whole conspiracist predisposition.
When I use the term conspiracist here, I am referring to the tendency to explain things with conspiracies first. I am not saying there are no such things as government conspiracies. I wrote at length this year about the US conspiracy to undermine Latin American independence initiatives, and US involvement in the 2009 Honduras coup.
In fact, Wikileaks’ documents from the US Embassy in Honduras confirm – as I had suggested in Hillary’s Bones – A Coup Tutorial – that Ambassador Hugo Llorens and Secretary Clinton both knew that the coup was illegal, and that the US concealed that determination from the public to avoid obeying US law and cutting off military aid to the coup government. This is at least grounds for some intrepid attorneys to prefer charges against the Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, et al., for refusal to obey the Constitution.
This is precisely the value of Wikileaks, the details and all the pieces they become of other puzzles.
A conspiracist is someone who reaches first for the conspiracy explanation, then seeks out support for his or her presupposition. A conspiracist generally has one identified enemy in the world, an enemy that is responsible for all our ills… an enemy that is secretive and all-powerful.
Many conspiracists have chosen the United States Government as that enemy, as the government that is unified, intentional, omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. The fact that the government is secretive and powerful lends credibility to unexamined premise that this secrecy is hermetic and this power absolute.
Wikileaks exposes that fallacy along with many others, because the nature of most of the memos and messages shows the government to be exactly what it is, a plodding, reactive, scheming maze of bureaucracy, with policy makers the captive of their own agendas, their own careers, and their own bullshit.
Much of the anti-establishment red-flagging of Wikileaks seems to have more to do with how these cables have undermined pet fantasies of the Great Oz government. Banal reality threatens tightly-held convictions about a more dramatic and discernable world. Without this vast and hyper-competent conspiracy of secret councils whose hands are firmly on the levers of power, the universe is rendered unintelligible, chaotic.
The problem with this kind of argument – right now – is that it is as attractive to some as it is wrong. Given that the executive branch for the last ten years has been so aggressive at pushing an agenda of increased executive power; and given that the government has engaged in numerous conspiracies; and given that the disruption in the economy has made things tangibly much worse for a lot of people, there is a gold mine of anecdotal – if decontextualized – evidence to suggest support for the claim that there is a single-minded conspiracy cell that runs the world, and that this cell wields an infinite capacity to deceive.
If “the enemy” has an infinite capacity to deceive, then they might be behind everything we see and hear, and we have to be hyper-vigilant. When we see something that looks like it has beaten the Great Oz, then it must be an illusion. It has to be the Great Oz himself who is behind it, trying to trick us again.
Hyper-vigilance is a symptom of post-traumatic shock, and it is understandable when we live in a period that might be symbolized by a blood-drenched question-mark about the future. But is it no substitute for a modicum of the intellectual rigor which acts as a prophylaxis against paranoia.
While associated with mental illness, paranoid ideas are rarely symptoms of schizophrenia. Paranoia is an attitude forged in a world where anxieties are so ubiquitously cultivated on behalf of agendas that we have adopted the premise that to pursue an agenda effectively, one has to mobilize the fears of others. That this is a fallacious premise does not take anything away from its power, because the premise is unexamined.
Once we are in the habit of mobilizing fear (usually followed by hatred of the feared enemy to remobilize after the fear breaks you down), we begin to assume that anyone who questions this fear is the enemy.
Jesus said, “Those who are not against us are for us.” The modern view is the opposite. Those who are not for us, we will be against. This habit of thought is widely shared, and the paranoia-advocates are but a subset. But it’s easy to understand paranoia-advocacy, when this is a common starting point in the thinking of so many politically attentive people.
My idea-history is similar to many conspiracists, an uprooted history of ideas. Trained by schools and TV, I bought the establishment line… fell for several crackpots in my seeking (my childhood crackpot was Ayn Rand)… discovered a few outrageous truths that destabilized me,…reached for answers, and found some better than others… and some more attractive than others whether they were better or not. Hey, let’s be honest, we are all bumbling through, and only arrogance can blind us to that. But in this seeking, there is a path down which you encounter this brand of paranoia I’m trying to put my finger on.
A good conspiracy is attractive. We can feed an obsession to understand more – with more information than we have the appropriate analytical models to cope with.
More than that, it is instrumental paranoia, the cultivation of paranoia, not pathological paranoia. The story that this paranoia expresses is eschatological. The hope that is concealed under the fear is that if the problem is a giant, then the giant can be killed. With the destruction of the giant, all things will return to some proper order.
Social eschatology is an essential ingredient in any call to arms. And that is what underlies this instrumental paranoia. I’m not saying that conspiracists are conspiring to go to war. I’m saying they have largely decided that some disorder on the order of war is inevitable, even if they are bitter that a dramatic and decisive life-during-wartime has not ripened for them. There is an apocalyptic edge to their speech that is clearly eschatological; and it is signaling to others of like mind… I’m down if you’re down, when the time is right. This never develops, and so the possibility becomes freighted with fantasy. Martial fantasy (male fantasy, even though some females partake).
On the left, we had a term for this: adventurism. The affinity for war out of a fascination for its drama.
Adventurism bears close watching, because it presents the real government with real opportunities to discredit those who appear to be real threats. And not to add to the general paranoia, but old union organizers will tell you that you can sometimes find the company rats by seeing who calls for the most extreme actions.
And one of the edges that appears in the most frightfully earnest of these conspiracist circles is anti-Semitism. I have seen this too many times, in person, to ignore it. A world conspiracy maps easily onto the oldest world conspiracy lie of our time – the Jewish conspiracy for world domination.
This survivalist element among conspiracists actually shares a good deal of space with many of the food praxis types I associate with nowadays. Survivalists and foodies see some serious changes on the horizon, and both of these elements share a belief that food sovereignty is an urgent issue. I am hopeful that the practices associated with food sovereignty efforts will tame the savage breast somewhat.
I am also afraid. Logic seems to have little effect on some of these folks, so the I’m-down-with-the-real-revolution attitude is pretty scary. Boys get caught up in this one-up-manship, and it’s not pretty.
In the Assange/Wikileaks case, the conspiracist thinking as explicated by various people reaches way beyond facts for its conclusions. Interestingly, the lack of facts to support a conclusion can easily be explained as concealment of the conspiracy. Then every fact is assessed for its verity by whether or not it supports the conclusion.
There is not a single fact that I’ve read that so far even remotely suggests collusion between the government and Wikileaks. There is not a single fact suggesting Army whistleblower Bradley Manning is colluding with the government. Wikileaks came by the documents by way of Brad Manning, and if there is no hint of collusion there, then the only option left is to assume the government planted the documents. That would require the government’s foreknowledge that Manning would leak, and bundling the exact traffic to be stored in his intel shop’s computers. Since the CIA started Wikileaks four years ago, and Brad Manning is, what, maybe 23? – that means the CIA may have been grooming young Manning since he was 19 years old to participate in the greatest disinformation conspiracy in history.
Presumably, he is in a beach house right now, while “they” tell us that this lad is in prison.
Even the cover story, the mysterious Assange fleeing the murderous CIA, working to save the world is lame. WikiLeaks is lame. Please, everyone, go to the site and read everything there. I have seen more confidential information on a weather report. Assange is hardly a James Bond figure. Woody Allen is masculine in comparison.
Journalists all get leaks, and frankly, we don’t print most of them. Some we can’t trust. Some are just too dangerous. Some are simply illegal. Some are blatantly self serving Israeli propaganda coated with a veneer of anti-Americanism. This is “Wiki-leaks” material. What is important is what they don’t print. The only things that come out about Israel, the country most vulnerable to leaks, the country always up to the most skulduggery, is an occasional harmless story like their major leak on East Jerusalem settlements. It hit the New York Times first.
This from Veterans Today and Gordon Duff. Some veterans are very susceptible to these ideas. The martial language calls to them, a distant opportunity to reclaim some mythical manhood.
Here’s an agenda-easy one from Pakistan:
Recently Wikileaks has made startling revelation that the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has been assisting the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in fighting the American and NATO invaders.
Wikileaks which become famous when in April, it released a video footage from an American helicopter cockpit showing a deadly 2007 aerial strike in the Iraqi capital that killed 12 civilians, including two journalists from the Reuters news agency, thus building a reputation as a publisher of classified videos and documents.
We know there are thousands of videos which already exist on the internet which have captured American soldiers crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, but for some mysterious reasons the video which was released by the Wikileaks was propagated with a zeal, the mainstream media projected Wikileaks as a authentic source, which is working to propagate truth, without any involvement with any intelligence services, to build this public image of Wikileaks, Wikileaks released video was used as a building block, thus the public mindset was now ready to except (sic) anything Wikileaks published. CIA propaganda through Wikileaks about the Pakistan (ISI) and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is a follow up on the United States Secretary of State Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton claiming that Amir ul Momineen Mullah Mohammad Omar Mujahid and Sheikh Osama bin Laden were in Pakistan.
…but for some mysterious reason…
When you see this, look out. The mystery is about to be “solved.”
Here’s the Northern Truthseeker blog:
I have stated clearly since the original Wikileaks “documentations” were released last summer that it is nothing more than a massive propaganda campaign and disinformation to feed lies to people and to lead people away from the real truths. Nothing since then has come forward to change my stance….
Nothing has proven to me that what I said is not true.
This is the CCF, the Central Conspiracist Fallacy, and it is impregnable. The reason it is impregnable is quite simple. You cannot prove a negative. You cannot prove that it what they claim is not true, therefore it must be true. One cannot find evidence for the nonexistent. The old example that you can’t prove a negative is, Prove there is no God.
It’s a closed system.
From the standpoint of reason, there is only one way to establish the facticity of a thing, and that is by proving a positive. If the challenge is, Prove that there is a God, then we can say that someone proved or failed to prove. Because the challenge to prove in the positive, “prove that there is chlorine in that water,” e.g., is a challenge with the possibility of proof. We can find chlorine in the water, and we have a proven fact… for the time being.
I know a good number of people who still believe 9-11 was a government job. Many are sane people who simply don’t understand or appreciate some key variables. Many 9-11 buffs, however, are incensed that the Wikileaks’ releases did nothing to support their theory; and of course moved from there immediately to the presumption that Wikileaks is a CIA operation designed to continue the cover-up.
The rule is, never, ever, ever question the core assumption of The Conspiracy. If something doesn’t fit, make it. It does, however, in the age of the internet, go viral.
The first major leak released earlier this year by Assange was about occupied Afghanistan in the form of more than 92,000 documents. These docs included secret files about civilian killings by the US and NATO along with boogeyman stories about the long-dead Osama Bin Laden, garbage regarding the Taliban acquiring ground-to-air missiles, and plenty of lies about Pakistans intelligence agency, the ISI (2). There wasnt a single document about the Israeli training of the Taliban (3), the massive drug profiteering by the Mossad (4), the CIA (5) and the US-puppet Hamid Karzai and his brother (6), Karzais connections to Unocal and Zionist war criminal Henry Kissinger (7), the clandestine Israeli business operations set up to take control of the oil fields in neighboring Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan (8), or the Russian-Jewish mafia, fully protected by the Zionist entity, selling guns to US-backed Afghan warlords (9). Why werent any of these massively important, critically damning events and operations mentioned? Because by doing so, it would incriminate the already internationally condemned Zionist regime. Journalists, bloggers and activists, from occupied Afghanistan and abroad, have been reporting on the vast civilian casualties in Afghanistan since US intervention began more than 30 years ago. Wikileaks revealed nothing that wasnt already known; however, it did reinforce Zionist propaganda regarding the illegal war on terror.
That was from Johnathan Azazia at a blog called Newsvine.
Does this person believe that diplomatic communications are accurate, unbiased? It doesn’t matter, because in this case, Osama bin Laden is a myth, so any mention of him constitutes proof of the conspiracy to maintain the myth.
And again, we see some Conspiracist Playbook 101 stuff: Negative evidence to prove negatives. The communiqués failed to contain certain prescribed conspiracist materials, therefore the absence of those materials proves an intention to conceal or deceive. Every failure to prove the initial theory then becomes part of the conspiracy.
Here’s a new (old) rule: Just because you can’t think of any other explanation than your own, that doesn’t mean no other explanation exists.
My favorite argument is that “the fact that Assange is alive says it all.”
I’m not making this up, but this line is in the mouth of the protagonist in the film, Conspiracy Theory. Mel Gibson’s character – the broken-minded Jerry – is nearly as out-there as Gibson’s more offensive off-screen persona; and in the film, he claims that Oliver Stone is an illuminati-like character, someone deep within the secret society. His proof? “With everything he says, the fact that he’s alive says it all.” Something to that effect.
That is exactly what one thesis says. The government’s failure to kill Assange is proof that Assange is a government agent. This, obviously, assumes two things: (1) the government kills all its enemies, and (2) the government has the unlimited capacity to kill anyone it wants. Neither of those presuppositions is true.
It’s not unique to conpsiracists, this bypassing of the rudiments of logic. Logic has been devalued in this culture. It’s true that Logic’s history is freighted, and any of its claims to ultimate authority are rightfully challenged; but logic is extremely valuable when it is used appropriately, i.e., in evidentiary debates and investigations. Demagogues have no interest in cultivating logic in the culture, and our politics has become completely demagogic,so it’s no surprise that logic has so atrophied. Scoring points and clever repartee are more important to us than plodding logic, and no wonder. It is so seldom used.
It is ironic that many conpsiracists actually level a critique against the wider culture for its failure to think critically, while they violate these most basic standards of intellectual rigor.
We hear this criticism in the language of misanthropy.
Self De-Selective Misanthropy
This culture doesn’t think critically… like I do. Critical thinking means thinking that concludes the same things I conclude.
I’m okay, you’re not okay. Sorry, I’m a child of the 60s, and with the old transactional analysis model we can get to the essence of political misanthropy, which is characteristic of conspiracists, but which is also shared by a large number of disaffected middle-class people, again, mostly men.
When the world does not conform to our expectations, we should always consider the possibility that the problem might be as much with our expectations as with the world. Most people would agree, for example, that getting mad about inconvenient weather may wind you up pretty good, but it doesn’t change the fact that the weather will not obey you. Our expectations of people can be likewise grandiose; because we really know far too little about most people to have an informed expectation at all. Here is the misanthropy trap.
If people do not do what I want them to do, even after I tell them what I want them to do, then the problem cannot be that I do not understand them. Since the problem cannot be that I do not understand them, then the real problem must be that they do not understand me. Since I am right, their failure to understand me can only be the outcome of their sheep-like stupidity. Since most people seem disinclined to do what I want them to do, that means that most people are stupid… and that is why things go wrong, because if they’d only listen to me and do what I want them to do, that would demonstrate that they are not stupid. But they don’t, so they are stupid, and I am one of the few who are not-stupid but are sidelined by the magnitude of human stupidity that engulfs me.
There’s biological determinism hiding in that trope somewhere; and it says I am genetically superior to the rest.
I’m going to go slightly biographical here, and say that I have met a lot of different people from a lot of different places for a long time now, and of all those I have met, the overwhelming majority are very smart and creative. All different kinds of smarts and all different kinds of creativity, in spite of being misled by a kaleidoscope of competing agendas about some ideas. People are packed with potential and creativity, and they are trapped by circumstances, ideas being one of those circumstances. But human beings are not stupid.
Anyone can do a stupid thing. That’s different than saying people are stupid… saying they are “the sheeple,” because they refuse to be in my flock.
This misanthropy not only lends itself to a kind of bitter schadenfreude when we see people suffer, it blinds one to the true complexity of our circumstances and provides a ready excuse for inaction.
Some will object that in asserting one’s own perspective, a person is indulging the I’m-smarter-than-them conviction, but that’s a misplaced comparison. The “I’m smarter” part is built into the “they are stupid” part, because one has already divided the world into smart and stupid. Challenging a position in a debate is not asserting that your opponent is stupid; and asserting a minority position does not assume that most people are stupid, only uncomprehending of the details of one’s argument. There is a real and vast difference.
Just as there are differences between people who adhere to conspiracy theories about Wikileaks.
Some people believe a lot of conspiracy theories, and some have one or two pet theories. This does not make them stupid. Conspiracists I have known are usually bright, curious, and well-read to boot.
In the face of challenges to conspiracism, some conspiracists have altered their language. They have left the character of the Giant Oz government intact – monolithic, omniscient, omnipotent – and changed their language. They refer to the “ruling class,” a valid category in my opinion; but they are talking about a giant, disciplined conspiracy cell nonetheless, which is different than most people who use this term mean.
Ruling class is a term from radical social theory to describe a dominant class as a whole. Socialists and anarchists and other “lefties” do not assume that it is organized as a secret cell with a single mind, but that it is the outcome of historical self-organization over time, with changing material conditions as the primary driver of change, not a secret global domination committee.
This shift in terminology by conspiracists carries a shift in meaning that goes back to the defaults: we can still kill a giant and get what we want, the world is still easily intelligible, the future heroic conflict is still on, and the same self-insulating logical fallacies can be given free-reign.
Summary with Disclaimers
When you paint in broad strokes, you miss a lot of details. I know that my representations here are overly general and ignorant of the many permutations and exceptions to what I’ve written. I’ll just own that.
I want to reiterate, in case I didn’t give it enough emphasis, that I don’t think everyone who believes in some unproven conspiracy is a fool or a manipulator. I don’t think conspiracists are bad people, but I do believe a few of them to be mentally ill. I also know Marxists and Democrats and Methodists who are mentally ill, because any set of ideas can be refracted in an unsettled or broken mind. That said, I don’t believe there is a psychiatric (read: medical) explanation for conspiracism. I believe it is a habit of thought, borne of the same circumstances that we all experience.
My pop psychology above is as much self-analysis as anything else. I impute motivations in a very general way, and I admit to imputing them – again – in an overly general way. My critique of the smart-stupid dichotomy is not a psychological critique; it is a critique of the biological determinism lurking inside the assumptions of the dichotomy and of arrogance – a character flaw not yet listed in the DSM-IV.
I might be accused of arrogance for the content or the tone of this rant, or because I believe I am right and the conspiracists are wrong. I think this is quite possible with regard to tone – though I honestly don’t mean to – but it is sophistry to compare “I believe I am right and you are wrong” to “You are stupid.” The former remains open to change, and the latter forecloses the topic.
I might be accused of valorizing logic, then departing from logical claims in the text of the rant. That would be true. I don’t think logic is adequate to describe many things, even though it is necessary to test the validity of certain questions.
Now I need to tell the story of my own conspiracy theory, this one about 9-11. When the September 11, 2001 attack happened, I was appalled at how quickly and cynically the government moved to take advantage of that terrible day. My suspicion alarm went off, and I suggested that the whole thing was fishy – with a long list of reasons why – and I posted my suspicions on a list. One list member became enthusiastic about my rant there, and he published it across the internet. What was meant as the contribution to a private list discussion went viral, and pretty soon I was fighting a false impression that lasted long past the time when I had had time to study and reflect and rule out my original suspicion. And for three years, when I was writing for “From the Wilderness,” I was the only one among my colleagues who apparently did not believe the US government planned the attacks of 9-11. No biggie, because Mike Ruppert, the editor, treated me well, accepted my writing with very little editorial guidance, and paid a fair price for my output.
While I was there, at Mike’s behest, I began writing about another government conspiracy, the Pat Tillman cover-up. One article caused the family to contact me, and then we wrote a series, called The Tillman Files, that attempted to make sense of around 2,000 pages of highly-redacted documents from three Army investigations provided by Pat’s mom, Mary Tillman. Since then, the investigation forced a Congressional hearing, and has been brought to life by Amir Bar Lev in his engaging and sensitive film, The Tillman Story.
Even during this investigation, and even after we published serial pieces, a summary with Counterpunch, and Mary’s book, Boots on the Ground by Dusk, we still heard a chorus of insistent voices suggesting that Pat was assassinated because he has criticized the war. This was an intractable belief by many, even when we presented deeply-researched and detailed reasons why this was not possible.
People became angry with me when I pointed out the reasons why, and some – alas – decided that I too was part of the cover-up. After all, I worked for the government for a long time.