Thursday, January 27, 2011

1994: Conspiracy Theory

You might have noticed that I tend to go on about assassination plots and such. This little rant grew out of my interactions online in the early days of the Web (well, early to me). It appeared in the January, 1994 issue of the Tucson Comic News. Note to scoffers: try googling "Operation Northwoods."

Now, if I had suggested, a couple of generations ago, that the federal government was injecting plutonium into helpless retarded children, just to see what would happen, I would have been called a number of interesting things. Perhaps the nicest of them would have been 'conspiracy theorist.' Actually, I get called that quite a bit in any case....

These days, the words "conspiracy theory" have become a single buzzword, conspiracytheory, which, roughly translated, means, "I don't want to think about that." The pejorative use of the term is used to mean "you are a paranoid wacko." But I use the term proudly, since a lot of what I do is read up on various criminal conspiracies, and try to consider which theories meet the available facts.

After all, the alternative to conspiracy theory is often coincidence theory. For example, if I were to assert, based on a wealth of documented sources, that Lee Harvey Oswald spent an inordinate amount of time hanging out with known CIA agents, extreme rightwingers, wealthy oil industry tycoons, and violently anti-Castro Cuban exiles, there would be two of several ways of looking at these facts. The conspiracy theory would be "perhaps these associations of Oswald's had something to do with the events of November 22, 1963." The coincidence theory would be, "despite these known associates, I believe that Oswald, acting alone, killed JFK." However, only one of these theories is subject to widespread ridicule.

Much of what is put down as conspiracy theory is simply little-known historical fact. The July 1933 plot by fascist US businessmen to stage a coup against FDR, for instance, is simply too well-documented to be refuted. Yet most Americans have never heard of it. Still other conspiracy theorists will take established facts (a significant portion of the money looted during the S&L crisis went to the CIA) and come up with a theory that, while plausible, cannot be proven (the CIA must have planned it that way). There is nothing wrong with theorizing on that basis, as long as the documented facts are identified, and speculation is clearly labeled as such. As long as such guidelines are followed, crying "conspiracy theory!" simply serves to obfuscate the issues involved.

Another buzzword used to trivialize discussions of conspiracy is "revisionist history." This means, of course, "the previous version of history better reflected my belief system." Whether we like it or not, blatant falsehoods pass into history, and if new facts or evidence come to light, history (never a settled, unchallengeable canon of universally accepted facts to begin with) must be revised. Thus the one million "Communists" massacred in 1965 by the Indonesian government become part of revisionist history when interviews with US State Department officials reveal that hit lists were provided to the Indonesian military. Thus the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, which the Wall Street Journal denounced at the time as, you guessed it, conspiracy theory, now must be redefined as revisionist history. No doubt the Journal would have preferred to have left it unrevised.

Another branch of conspiracy theory, more thoroughly stigmatized, concerns secret societies, which by their very nature invite conspiratorial speculation. Taken to extremes, this leads to Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory, in which the whole of human history is to be explained by the devious machinations of the Freemasons, or the Bavarian Illuminati, or the Jews, or the International Communist Conspiracy, or pick your favorite. This sort of thing gives conspiracy theory a bad name.

But looked at more rationally, secret societies are fertile ground for researchers. There is no denying that certain groups of wealthy and powerful men, meeting in secret, have had considerable influence on the course of history - and continue to do so. A branch of rightwing theory, which has also been embraced by many on the left, concerns the workings of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, and, more obscurely, the Bilderberg Group. The fact is that these groups do exist, they do maintain secrecy over some of their activities, and that they wield considerable power and influence. Whether you choose to believe that the Trilateral Commission is, as they claim to be, simply a group of concerned businessmen, or perhaps something more sinister, probably depends on your preconceived notions. Adherents to either view would do well to offer some evidence to back up their claims.

To take a more pedestrian example, consider such institutions as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. These very wealthy, mostly white men sit in secret deliberation on how to impose their economic philosophies on Third World countries in exchange for credit, mostly to pay off debts incurred by some bloodthirsty dictator, previously supported by these same men and now, oftentimes, living off deposits kept in their banks. As a direct result of the "austerity" enforced by these agencies, people starve to death.

Is this just "networking," or is this a conspiracy? It certainly meets the dictionary definition (an agreement to perform together an illegal, wrongful or subversive act). It also resonates with the Latin roots (literally, to breathe together). If you want to believe that the Trilateral Commission, who have been breathing together with these institutions since their inception, are engaged in purely innocuous activities, you are certainly free to do so. But I must say, doing so seems to me to require a certain naive faith that our leaders never lie, and that the world is run pretty much the way our newspapers and high-school textbooks say it is.

The best way to look at many conspiracy theories is to consider them as worst-case scenarios. And since much of our history in the postwar era has turned out to be much worse than even the wildest conspiracy theorists dreamed of at the time, it would behoove us to come up with as many conspiracy theories as possible. Now that we're left having to pay compensation to thousands of radiation victims, as well as literally trillions of dollars to clean up the nation's leaking radioactive waste dumps, who is to say what theories are too outlandish to consider? Understanding and theorizing about such conspiracies is not irrelevant or trivial. It is vital to concentrating on the challenges of the future.

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