Conspiracy Theory

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American conspiracy theories are hard to underrate, since most of them turn out to be wrong. But their impact is both overrated or underrated, and in this sense, the most overrated are what might be called “event conspiracy theories.” Event theories attribute some dramatic occurrence to the machinations of conspirators. The attack on Pearl Harbor, the crash of TWA Flight 800, and September 11 all have generated such responses, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy unleashed what is perhaps the most sustained outpouring of them.

Events generate conspiracy theories for two quite different reasons: First, sudden, unexpected calamities leave trails of ambiguous evidence. Witnesses give conflicting testimony, records are fragmentary, and accounts may be open to contradictory interpretations. Even when an event happens in front of many witnesses, the reports can contain frustrating inconsistencies. Since absolute truth eludes us in such cases, conspiracists have room to construct alternative narratives.

The other, and more compelling, reason for the popularity of event conspiracies is that they provide a reassuring sense that important things happen for important reasons. By attributing a disaster to sinister plotting, conspiracists tell us that it was not the result of mere accident.

If event conspiracy theories minister so effectively to our psychological needs, why, then, are they overrated? They are overrated simply because the outpourings of speculation are largely limited to the generation that experienced the tragedy. As the spectators age (and in an era of electronic media, we all are spectators), memory fades, other events clamor for attention, and what once seemed of crucial importance recedes. Even the Kennedy-assassination conspiracy literature, which has lasted longer than most, is finally diminishing to a trickle.

Underrated

Other conspiracy theories, however, continue to claim believers over decades and sometimes centuries. These are ones that purport to explain virtually all the evil in the world. They posit what I call “superconspiracies,” plots of diabolical cunning and power whose aim is nothing less than world domination.

The longest lived of such superconspiracy theories are those built around the Illuminati, the small quasi-Masonic society active in German-speaking Europe in the late 1770s. The real Illuminati opposed monarchical absolutism, and within a decade or so fearful governments dissolved the group. Nonetheless, in the wake of the French Revolution, a literature arose among the Revolution’s enemies to the effect that the Illuminati had merely gone underground and, operating covertly, had engineered the overthrow of the French monarchy. Later conspiracists (most recently, Pat Robertson) have blamed the Illuminati for virtually every subsequent revolution.

Illuminati-centered theories have often appeared in tandem with another superconspiracy theory, the one presented in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion , the notorious anti-Semitic tract first published in Russia nearly a century ago. In the early 1920s The Protocols was exposed as a forgery concocted by the czarist secret police. Nonetheless, it has continued to be reprinted in North America, Europe, and the Middle East and cited as proof of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy.

The troubling paradox about such ideas is their combination of demonstrable falsity with tenacious survival. One reason seemingly decisive evidence fails to uproot them lies in their structure: Theories about superconspiracies are closed systems that contain defenses against their falsity. They posit cabals so powerful and clever that the plotters can always cover their own tracks. The standard conspiracist response to skeptics is to say that the conspirators themselves have planted false evidence to avoid detection. The conspiracy believers, of course, are the perceptive few who have seen through these deceptions.

This circular reasoning, in which asserting a conspiracy’s existence is tantamount to proof of it, accounts for the fact that these bizarre ideological constructs are underrated. How could they not be, given their egregious failure to meet ordinary canons of proof? To most people, they appear nothing short of delusional. Scholars too find them unworthy of serious attention, although for different reasons: Superconspiracies flourish in marginal subcultures, fringe publications, and crank Web sites, and their lack of respectability makes them unappealing subjects for research.

Unfortunately, as recent history has made all too clear, bizarre, irrational, or demonstrably false beliefs can still drive behavior. While most conspiracists do little to act on their conviction that a vast evil plot is in progress, some find it a mandate for violence. To ignore them because they lack intellectual respectability is to deprive ourselves of the information that might make their attacks easier to anticipate and prevent.