Essay: The Conspiracy Boom, by Jay Kinney

Jay Kinney says: "The following piece was originally written several months ago for Salon, which for unfathomable editorial reasons ended up spiking it. It predates my recent BoingBoing review of Zeitgeist, the Movie – an on-line documentary encompassing religion, 9/11, and international banking that has been an underground sensation on the Web.

The review was critical of Zeitgeist, though not because of its chosen subjects, per se, a distinction lost on some defenders of the film who misread the review and took me to task for sins they were certain I had committed. As the following should make clear, I believe that conspiracies – of one sort or another – are a real component of our world, but that doesn't mean that we have to toss out our common sense and critical reasoning when investigating or confronting them. -JK"

The Conspiracy Boom

Why is nothing what it appears to be anymore?

By Jay Kinney

Say what you will about conspiracy theories, they are unlikely to go away as long as real life, courtesy of the daily news, keeps tossing us events that seem like, well, conspiracies.

Take the Litvinenko assassination. Russian ex-spy turned journalist, who is a vocal critic of the Putin regime, flees to London, where he swallows a radioactive appetizer over lunch and dies shortly thereafter.

British cuisine may have an unsavory reputation, but no one in their right mind assumes that polonium-210 has become a staple at London restaurants. Someone, it would appear, was out to get Litvinenko.

Even before Litvinenko dies, the media and the Internet are awash in conspiracy theories about who or what was behind the assassination. Putin? The Russian mafia? Litvinenko himself? Until the case is settled – and not even then – accusations will fly amidst proliferating theories.

Or take the 9/11 attack, the current and still reigning champ of conspiracy speculation. No one is disputing that it takes a high level of criminal coordination (a "conspiracy," in other words) to simultaneously hijack several airliners and crash them into very large buildings. That much seems obvious, even if no one can agree on anything else.

But despite 9/11 being a conspiracy – or perhaps because of it – it has attracted alternate interpretations like iron filings to a magnet.

The official explanation of 19 al-Qaida-linked terrorists is, after all, a conspiracy theory of sorts, though its proponents would say that it isn't a theory — it's a fact. Similarly, those in the 911-Truth crowd who are certain that the World Trade Center buildings came down due to "controlled demolition" — not fire from burning jet fuel — don't think they are selling a theory either. As far as they are concerned, "CD" at the WTC has been proven, it is just that everyone else is ignoring the evidence. And so it goes.

How did we arrive at this juncture where theories are facts and facts are theories? Where nothing is assumed to be what it appears to be, where paranoia afflicts the body politic like an involuntary twitch?

In one sense, America's love affair with suspicion is nothing new. As far back as 1798, the Federalists accused Thomas Jefferson of being a tool of the Illuminati. Barely 25 years later, America's first political "third party," the Anti-Masonic Party, was fueled by heated accusations that Freemasons were corrupting the country.

Indeed, a preoccupation with conspiracies is such a long-standing American tradition that historian Richard Hofstadter famously labeled the phenomenon "the Paranoid Style in American Politics," back in 1964.

And yet, the present preoccupation with hidden hands and covert culprits seems to have racheted up a notch or two above past levels of intensity. We've lived with doubts about the JFK and MLK and RFK assassinations for 40 years, and with an enduring fascination with UFOS for even longer. But those seem almost old hat in comparison to the baroque efflorescence of recent theories that aver that Messrs Bush and Chaney are actually shape-shifting reptilians from another dimension or, alternately, that they are Satanic pedophiles presiding over child-stealing rings run by CIA mind-control experts.

It might be attractive to blame this conspiracy boom on the late and semi-lamented X-Files, which undoubtedly did its part to propagate certain conspiratorial memes to a wider audience. But the X-Files was just a canny homage to a worldview that was already surging in popularity.

To what then might we attribute this upsurge in debunkery? At the risk of peddling a conspiracy theory of my own, I think the sources are several, though interrelated.

The first is the fact that, for two generations now, we have been treated to a succession of events that have incrementally chipped away at the facade of governmental credibility. On the one hand we had the series of assassinations in the '60s that blew away our best and brightest — all courtesy of a curious crop of "lone nuts." The official inquiries fell short of satisfying many questions, and one stream of skepticism was set in motion.

Compounding that was the string of incidents, from the Pentagon Papers to Watergate to Iran/Contra to the Monica affair to the missing WMDs, which cumulatively suggested that we were being lied to as a matter of course. The last six years of prevarication emanating from the White House have only reaffirmed the common perception that the official story is probably just that — a story.

A related loss of faith in the intelligence community has taken its toll as well. The Cold War fed the popular myth that our good spies were protecting us from their bad spies – epitomized in the romantic lunacy of James Bond. But the revelation in the '70s of the FBI's Cointelpro abuses, and of CIA programs like MK-ULTRA using unsuspecting citizens as guinea pigs, led many to the conclusion that our protectors were really our tormentors.

Then there's the omnipresent Fear Factor. 9/11 was certainly unnerving, but most of the fear that has been propagated over the last six years has come from our own leaders. Constantly augmented fear generates paranoia. A stressed-out populace is more likely to embrace scenarios that validate its darkest fears, as a way to ease the tension. Why harbor resentment against bin Laden, who's off in a remote cave somewhere, when it is much more satisfying to resent the powers close to home who make us remove our shoes at airports, restrict toiletries to three ounces or less, and make us ditch all dangerous weapons such as nail clippers and Habeas Corpus?

There's also the unexpected emergence of the "recovered memories" phenomenon, to which we owe the rise of both alien abductions and ritual abuse as conspiracy fodder. There's no question that memories can be suppressed and can later return, but it's not always easy to distinguish between a recovered memory and a recovered fantasy —- especially if the person doing the remembering is mentally brittle. Many who are most taken with abductee or survivor memories make no effort to even try. It's all true, and into the mix it goes.

Finally, there's everyone's favorite scapegoat: the Internet. We've now had twenty years of ever-increasing numbers of folks networking, trading rumors, comparing notes, and posting research online, as well as Googling everything under the sun. This has created a boom in connecting the dots, whether the dots were meant to be connected or not. It has also goosed the speed with which memes can be propagated and assumptions widely accepted. But you knew that already.

This short list hardly exhausts the possible reasons for the present tendency to posit conspiracies behind nearly everything. The simplest explanation – and the one most favored by conspiracy researchers themselves – would be that people are finally wising up. But if that is so – and I don't dismiss the idea entirely – then people need to sharpen their sense of discrimination as to which suspicions may be worth cultivating and which may lead to the laughing academy.

The phrase "conspiracy theory" is often employed as a term of dismissal, but that is not my intention in raising this discussion. Conspiracies do exist — the aforementioned Watergate and Iran/Contra affairs leap to mind. Organized crime amounts to an ongoing series of conspiracies that call for exposure and justice. So, a wholesale rejection of conspiracy theories or investigations risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

But there is such a thing as a plausible conspiracy and an implausible one. Certain executives colluding to defraud the public and make a bundle? Plausible. Our "secret government" has sold us out to the alien "greys" and has allowed them to harvest humans in return for advanced weapons technology? Sorry: bad science fiction.

Many conspiracy theories overreach themselves by proposing too small a set of actors for too vast a conspiracy. The infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion – a hoax document concocted by the Czarist police – attributed nearly every negative development of modern life to a tiny circle of Jewish elders. Similar accusations against the Illuminati, a "Committee of Three Hundred," or Skull & Bones are just as implausible. The interactions of the world's economies, cultures, and nations are just too complex for any single cabal to control.

Other conspiracy theories suffer from insufficient data stretched past the breaking point. An "expert" or a witness or two are not sufficient for a credible case in court, and they shouldn't suffice for us either. An interconnected set of rash assumptions, each based on hearsay or the thinnest of evidence, is unlikely to capture "what really happened," no matter what the situation.

However, we shouldn't let the weakest theories dissuade us from a rational consideration of the many questions raised by genuine mysteries or government conduct. Hard-hitting investigative journalism is invaluable, yet as it has become scarcer in the corporate media, amateur researchers and bloggers have leapt in to fill the void, with mixed results. Some of it meets journalistic standards and some of it doesn't – the challenge is to separate the wheat from the chaff.

To point this out is simply common sense, one would think, but I suspect that we may be past the point where common sense serves as a favored guide. The ritual of assigning blame may have taken on a life of its own, where facts are secondary to poetic justice. Dick Cheney – a shape-shifting reptilian? I personally doubt it, but were it proven so, a growing part of the population would just nod their heads and say, "I knew it all along!"