Saturday, March 26, 2016

In Praise of Conspiracy Theories

Do you believe in conspiracy theories?

No, of course not. You're a rational person. You have no time for such nonsense. Only fools and lunatics believe that sort of trash.

Except ... don't you believe that the 11 September attacks were carried out by an international conspiracy of Muslim radicals? I mean, sure, it's a lot more plausible than any of the alternatives, but it's hard to get around the fact that the official story of what happened is a conspiracy.

Now you're probably saying, "Yeah, but when we talk about 'conspiracy theories,' we aren't talking about conspiracies that have been absolutely proven through incontrovertible evidence. 'Conspiracy theory' refers specifically to crank theories that aren't backed up by fact."

And that's a fair point. The evidence for Abraham Lincoln being assassinated by a conspiracy of Confederate sympathizers is qualitatively better than any evidence that's ever been put forth for a JFK assassination conspiracy. The two might technically be conspiracy theories, but in the same way that Special Relativity and Phlogiston are both scientific theories. Being the same class of ideas doesn't mean they're equally plausible.

The problem is, by treating "conspiracy theory" as a pejorative, we end up tainting all conspiracies regardless of plausibility. Once someone classifies something as a conspiracy, people stop taking it seriously and dismiss anyone who advocates it as a nutjob.

A prime example of this is the NSA. Edward Snowden's revelations should've come as no surprise to anyone who's paying attention. James Bamford published The Puzzle Palace in 1983, revealing the existence of the NSA and its activities to the world, but, being the height of Reagan re-escalating the Cold War, the idea of an omniscient US intelligence agency was comforting to most people, and the suggestions that the NSA was less than benign fell mostly on deaf ears.

Mostly. Lots of people did latch on to the idea, and in certain circles the idea that the NSA was a powerful, Big Brother style agency took hold. My father was one of those people. He worked in crypto systems for the Army, and he had enough dealings with the NSA to make him paranoid as hell. Twenty years before the Snowden leaks, my father swore up and down that the NSA monitored every phone call in the US and had decryption technology far in excess of what civilian encryption could defend against. But of course such ideas sound like crazy conspiracy talk. It's the sort of thing Frohike brings up to show that he's even more out there than Mulder. And so anyone who talked about NSA surveillance was dismissed as paranoid without any examination of the evidence (and keep in mind, Bamford wrote several followups to The Puzzle Palace, revealing more details of the NSA's activities). Only when Snowden's leaks appeared on the front page of the Washington Post did people actually take NSA surveillance seriously.

Even obviously outlandish conspiracies can't be thrown away without consideration. Take UFO conspiracies. Even though the fundamental ideas behind such conspiracies are obvious non-sense, that doesn't mean everything the theorists turn up is non-sense. The existence of a secret military base at Groom Lake, Nevada is well established fact now, regardless of the fact that the first people to publicize its existence were UFO nuts who thought the government was storing aliens there.

A more pertinent example of why it's problematic to associate all conspiracy theories with unsound minds comes from the 1992 presidential race. That's the year when Ross Perot ran as a third party candidate. Halfway through the campaign he dropped out, claiming that Republican operatives were planning to disrupt his daughter's wedding. In the modern political climate, such a claim probably wouldn't strike anyone as outlandish, but in the more staid atmosphere of the early '90s, Perot's assertion came off as deranged and paranoid, and even when he rejoined the race a few months later, he never recovered.

But the best example is one that's with us today. Why does the Drug War exist? Decades of propaganda would have you believe it's to protect the country from drug fiends who, if they aren't thrown in prison, would break into your house and steal your TV to pay for their crack addiction. But anyone who's looked into the origins of the Drug War comes to a very different conclusion -- see Radley Balko's Rise of the Warrior Cop and Rick Perlstein's Nixonland for instance.

In 1968 Nixon established the groundwork for the Southern Strategy by promising to restore "law and order" to America -- a thinly veiled code for cracking down on hippies and blacks, who many white voters saw as threatening the country's social fabric (i.e., white Christian supremacy). To fulfill this promise, Nixon latched onto drugs, taking a social problem that should've been met with programs to combat addiction, and turning it into an excuse for a law enforcement crackdown targeting political radicals and minority neighborhoods.

The radicals buckled under quickly, and by the time Reagan became President political figures of all stripes were mouthing the "drugs are bad, m'kay" mantra. But the crackdown on minority neighborhoods continued, and continues even today. The police force now acts as an occupying army in black and Hispanic areas, stopping people on the street for little reason, conducting midnight raids on homes, and operating under loose rules of engagement that would never be tolerated in predominantly white, middle class areas. (As Balko points out in his book, modern American police forces are exactly the sort of standing army the Colonists complained about in the Declaration of Independence.)

And yet, when you lay out the facts, it sounds like just another conspiracy theory. I mean, the government is engaged in a long term plot to suppress minorities through a trumped up and selectively enforced drug war? Preposterous. That's why so many people were shocked this week when an old interview with John Ehrlichman resurfaced which affirms the entire conspiracy.

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

So here then is the issue -- when we treat "conspiracy theory" as a synonym for "bunk," we end up tainting anything that takes the form of a conspiracy theory, regardless of its merits, and in doing so we allow real injustices -- NSA surveillance, a racist Drug War -- to exist free of scrutiny or criticism. That's not to say we have to take every conspiracy seriously, but a kneejerk dismissal of something simply for being a conspiracy is dangerous.

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