The Trouble with Conspiracy Theories
Saturday, January 12, 2013
Samuel Johnson once heatedly remarked to a man he was conversing with in a coffeehouse, “I can give you an argument, but I cannot give you an understanding.” There is no evidence that the great sage made this comment to a conspiracy theorist, but I have often been tempted to repeat it when I am talking to one, especially after I have exhausted every argument I can think of to show the conspiracy theorist the error of his ways.
Today I would like to offer Johnson’s remark as a word of caution to anyone who has encountered the various conspiracy theories that have cropped up in the wake of the Newtown tragedy. Of these there have been several, but I would like to focus on the theory put forth by James Tracy, a media professor at Florida Atlantic University, who on his website Memory Hole has argued that the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, did not really happen.
Normally when you hear this kind of thing, you are tempted to argue with the assertion, to adduce evidence to show Tracy, for example, that he is wrong. But if you yield to this temptation, you will quickly find yourself at the same point to which Samuel Johnson was driven. For no matter how many arguments you may give him, you cannot give the conspiracy theorist even an ounce of understanding.
The first obstacle you will encounter in your effort to refute the conspiracy theorist is his maddening habit of sly equivocation. Here’s an example of what I mean: “While it sounds like an outrageous claim,” Tracy writes on his website, “one is left to inquire whether the Sandy Hook shooting ever took place — at least in the way law enforcement authorities and the nation’s news media have described.”
Please note the force of Tracy’s qualifying phrase “at least” and consider how one might apply this caveat to what is among the most uncontested facts in world history, namely, the assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March in the year 44 BC.
Now the ancient historians have told us that Caesar said to Brutus the famous words “Et tu, Brute?” as his former friend plunged his dagger into Caesar. But suppose the ancient historians got this wrong. It may well be that Caesar did not utter these touching and pathetic words, but something akin to “You dirty bastard! I always thought you were a slimy piece of donkey dung” — except, of course, in Latin. This would be sufficient grounds for asserting that Caesar was not assassinated the way ancient historians have told us — but it doesn’t in the least mean that Caesar didn’t end up lying just as dead beneath the bust of Pompey as the ancient historians all reported him. By the same logic, both the law enforcement authorities and the nation’s media may have gotten many facts and details wrong about the Newtown massacre, but that is hardly reason for concluding that no massacre ever happened.
But there I go talking about logic and reason, which is precisely what the conspiracy theorist wants you to do. Because that is where the conspiracy theorist will trap you. Since this sounds like a bit of a paradox, I had better explain it, and to do this, I will assume the role of Tracy. Ahem.
The first obstacle you will encounter in your effort to refute the conspiracy theorist is his maddening habit of sly equivocation.
“You see how much more open-minded and reasonable I am than this Lee Harris fellow, whoever he is. I am more than willing to admit that it might just be possible that people were in fact killed at Newtown, as is generally alleged by the gullible and credulous. Personally, I think they were not, because, after all, I am a professor in media studies, and I know how easily the average American, simple soul that he is, can be swayed and manipulated by the media. My role is merely to get people to think and to question. But people of mediocre intellects and timid imaginations cannot be brought to look critically at their own opinions — and this Harris character is obviously a case in point. He obstinately refuses even to consider my point of view, while I am more than willing to concede that it is entirely within the range of imagination that there really was some amount of shooting and such in Newtown, though I am firmly convinced that the reports have been wildly exaggerated.”
Now which of us comes across as more generous and reasonable in this exchange, Tracy or me? Tracy is willing to admit that I might have a point, whereas, by my own admission, I categorically refuse to pay even the slightest attention to any argument that he can put forth, just as I do when I am dealing with people who think that George W. Bush blew up the Twin Towers or that the CIA masterminded the killing of John F. Kennedy. Yes, I am perfectly aware that the proponents of these popular conspiracy theories have mountains and mountains of evidence and facts at their disposal and can point to piles and piles of inconsistencies and contradictions in the conventional accounts of these notable catastrophes. I am also perfectly aware that by refusing even to glance at their arguments I am placing myself in the position of one who is unwilling to listen to “the other side of the question” — the first duty, surely, of anyone who claims to be objective, or even rational for that matter. But if the price of passing myself off as fair and open-minded is to dedicate the rest of my life, which isn’t getting any longer, to the detailed perusal and rebuttal of every conspiracy theory that comes down the pike, then I would far prefer to be regarded as a narrow-minded bigot, who would rather spend his declining years rereading the novels of Charles Dickens than tracing the devious machinations of Illuminati from ziggurat temples of ancient Sumer to the soaring skyscrapers of the Trilateral Commission. It just isn’t worth it.
Yet how difficult it is to give up an argument, to concede without a fight, especially when you know you are right and that the other fellow is whacko? Which is why, for years and years now, I have failed to follow the good advice that I so freely offer to others. Instead of leaving conspiracy theorists to themselves, the true course of wisdom, I have searched for a knockdown, drag-out argument that would, at one single stroke, cut the Gordian knot that is an apt symbol for all conspiracy theories that have ever been or are likely to be — entangled, intertwined, and convoluted as they all are by their very cabalistic nature. Have I at long last found such an argument? No, of course not — but if conspiracy theorists could in fact be convinced that they were wrong, if they could be given an understanding, I think this would do the trick.
Here’s the issue: Why did all the conspirators of the past get caught so fast, even for doing relatively minor acts, like bumping off Caesar, whereas today’s conspirators are so much more clever that they can blow up huge buildings, like the Twin Towers, and yet no one be the wiser for it? Is it really possible that today’s conspirators are so much better at their jobs than those of old?
Is it really possible that today’s conspirators are so much better at their jobs than those of old?
The current popularity of the conspiracy theory has caused many of us to forget that history has been replete with real conspiracies. There was the conspiracy, for example, to kill Lincoln, involving John Wilkes Booth and his confederates. Delving a little deeper into history, there was the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which a group of English Catholic fanatics had secreted 36 barrels of gunpowder beneath the House of Lords, for the purpose of blowing sky high the Protestant King, James I, along with the leading Protestant nobles of the land. This insidious design was fortunately brought to light on the very eve of its execution — a happy stroke of luck that English Protestants would continue to celebrate on Guy Fawkes Night, named after one of the Catholic co-conspirators. (It is still celebrated today, though merely as an opportunity for shooting off fireworks and getting royally toasted, and no longer as an occasion for bashing Roman Catholics or their faith.) And, as previously noticed, Julius Caesar had been the target of a successful conspiracy fomented by his senatorial opponents.
Here we have three sterling examples of genuine conspiracies, whose historical truth has been universally accepted by both historians and laymen. Those who have written about these conspiracies were not called conspiracy theorists, because there was no need to drag in mere “theory” when the facts so clearly spoke for themselves. And the reasons the facts spoke so clearly was that all the conspirators in question were immediately unmasked and identified, leaving behind no question that there had been a conspiracy.
In the case of Brutus and the other assassins of Caesar, the conspirators boasted openly of their conspiracy, explaining that they acted so ruthlessly not out of personal ambition, but in order to save the Roman Republic from Caesar’s despotic designs. John Wilkes Booth, who as a Shakespearean actor had perhaps played the role of Brutus once too often, was just as proud of shooting Lincoln as his noble Roman role model had been of stabbing Caesar. Indeed, proclaiming as he fell to the stage of Ford’s Theatre, sic semper tyrannis — thus ever to tyrants —Booth made it clear that he shared Brutus’s illusion that his own act of tyrannicide would receive the blessings of a liberated nation and earn the respect of future generations. The conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot were more discreet, but several of them eventually confessed to their conspiracy, though it is unclear to what extent either torture or the threat of torture might have inspired them to fully disclose their complicity in the plot.
History records many other conspiracies besides the three I have mentioned, but taken together they all demonstrate two overwhelming facts — first, that keeping a conspiracy a secret, until the time has ripened for its execution, is a damnably hard task, as the perpetrators of the Gunpowder Plot discovered to their cost; and second, that keeping a conspiracy a secret after it has been executed is next to impossible. Of all those successful conspiracies about which there has never been any serious historical doubt, none remained hidden more than a matter of days. Conspiracy will out, far more quickly and vociferously than murder — and the more elaborate and involved the conspiracy, the greater the number of conspirators and witnesses and the worse it will be for the conspiracy, which is why so many never get very far beyond the planning stages. In Caesar’s case, news of the planned assassination was already leaking out on that fatal morning.
Yet even as I write these words, I hear a voice inside my head seductively whispering, “Ah, but what makes you think there really was a conspiracy to assassinate Caesar?”
In the case of Brutus and the other assassins of Caesar, the conspirators boasted openly of their conspiracy.
After all, just think about it. (Which is all the conspiracy theorist ever asks us to do.) The ancient historians are forever assuring us how cunning and shrewd Julius Caesar was. No one could outwit Caesar — it was hopeless even to try. And yet, these same historians turn around and ask us to believe that on the day of his assassination this superman, this paragon of intellectual penetration, behaved like such a ninny that he refused to take a bodyguard with him to the Roman senate, despite the fact that he was fully aware of the deep hatred that the Roman senators felt toward him. Is it credible that Caesar could have been such a fool as to walk like a lamb to the slaughter, especially after the soothsayer had gone to the trouble of warning him to beware the Ides of March?
Can any intelligent man believe such stuff and nonsense? It is obvious that there was no assassination on the Ides of March, or any other day. And isn’t it equally obvious that the so-called assassination was staged by Caesar himself, along with the aid of his henchman, Mark Anthony? What better to kindle the wrath of the Roman populace against Caesar’s enemies in the Senate than to spread the rumor that they had murdered him in cold blood? Furthermore, who benefitted most from the alleged assassination? Certainly not Brutus and Cassius, who ended up dead. Yes, it was reported that Brutus gave a speech after the so-called assassination, acknowledging that he had committed the vile deed, but this report was obviously circulated by the real conspirators and was later repeated by credulous ancient historians duped by the cabal of Caesar and his cronies. Only the mind of Caesar could have devised such a fabulously self-serving coup de theatre.
And what happened to Caesar, you ask? Well, he returned to Egypt where he took Caesarion — his son by Cleopatra — to Palestine, where he taught him how to convince the Jews he was the Messiah and then introduced him to his future wife Mary Magdalene, which brings us back to the Illuminati, via Dan Brown and Signor da Vinci’s ingenious code. And so on and so on and so on, which seems to be where all conspiracy theories end up.
If the fool would persist in his folly, William Blake assures us, he would become wise. So perhaps the problem with today’s conspiracy theorists is not that they have gone too far, but that they haven’t quite gone far enough yet. But, if Tracy is any indication, they are getting very close.
FURTHER READING: Harris also writes “Eric Hobsbawm, Eugene Genovese, and the End of History,” “Stop Apologizing for Our Liberties,” and “Obama and Second Chances.” Timothy P. Carney says “Newtown Stirred Emotions but Offered Few Lessons.” Jonah Goldberg contributes “On Newtown, Mourn First, Then Act.” Christina Hoff Sommers discusses “Our Sociopaths, Ourselves.”
Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group