Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin; but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!- Alice in Wonderland
While I was doing some research for an article entitled Conspiring to Find a Policy for Moot Magazine’s March edition I had the opportunity to spend some time reading up on conspiracy theories. The gist of the article was that several of the policies being touted by the Republican candidates for the upcoming US election were once considered to be on the fringes of believability. This led me to thinking about conspiracy theories in more detail. I asked myself- when did we start spreading these sorts of urban stories? Why are people so eager to believe in secret cabals that plot for world domination or that the British Royal family are our reptilian overlords? Why do these theories start in the first place and who derives the greatest benefit from them really? All very deep and searching questions.
The literature on the subject all seems to point to conspiracy theories as being a modern phenomenon and as far as I can see the term was first used in its present context by K.R. Popper in his book Open Society (1952) in which he says:
“I call it the ‘conspiracy theory of society’. It is the view that an explanation of a social phenomenon consists in the discovery of the men or groups who are interested in the occurrence of this phenomenon.” Popper’s ideas in this book have been shown to be flawed but his contribution to the English language remains. The concept of groups working together to achieve a common result that is the basis of most conspiracy theories isn’t so hard to accept, in fact it is the truth, there are groups devoted to a common end, many of them. The conspiracy isn’t the thing that gives these theories their flavor, it is the intention of the conspiracy. Murray Rothbard points this out in his essay; The Conspiracy Theory of History Revisited. It isn’t about whether we believe that the cabals exist it is what we believe about their motives that is pertinent.
A lie is most cleverly hidden between two truths.- Mark Twain
In his book A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, Michael Barkun examines the conspiracy theory phenomenon from an academic perspective. Professor Barkun demonstrates that the evolution of the internet has seen the development of the number and complexity of conspiracy theories, no doubt due to the absolute freedom to express your opinion that the internet provides. He also points to the confluence of two trends which he calls “improvisational millennialism” which he says “is by definition an act of bricolage, wherein disparate elements are drawn together in new combinations” and “stigmatized knowledge” or “knowledge claims that run counter to generally accepted beliefs“. Barkun also defines three common properties that are shared by most conspiracy theories:
1. Nothing happens by accident
2. Nothing is as it seems
3. Everything is connected
He stresses the importance of secrecy to conspiracy and defines three main types of conspiracy theories:
1. Event conspiracies
2. Systematic conspiracies
3. Super Conspiracies
It is the empirical soundness of conspiracy theories that is the grey area. Most conspiracy theories don’t ask to be taken on faith and come complete with a full complement of apparently inviolable proofs. Facts and citations of scholarly works that support the facts of the conspiracy which while usually very parsimonious are also usually based on generalizations. Barkun puts it like this: “the more sweeping a conspiracy theory’s claims, the less relevant evidence becomes, notwithstanding the insistence that the theory is empirically sound. This paradox occurs because conspiracy theories are at their heart nonfalsifiable. No matter how much evidence their adherents accumulate, belief in a conspiracy theory ultimately becomes a matter of faith rather than proof.” Because these theories are so all encompassing they are untestable, unfalsifiable and theorists can fall back on the theory to prove itself by claiming that the general ignorance of the truth is one of the tools of the conspirators.
We’re through the looking-glass here, people… white is black and black is white -JFK 1991
The 1960s were the real start of the conspiracy theory phenomenon in Western society. The historians point to the Kennedy assassinations as the main source of most early conspiracy theories and they remain popular today. It was at this time that Area 51 myths and stories about spaceships hidden in Arizona made Roswell the capitol of the conspiracy theory world. As Western society has become more occultural the inclusion of secret groups like the Illuminati and the Knights Templar and then the Rothschilds and the Fabian Society have added new dimensions to the theorists’ level of complexity. Since the 1970s a whole genre has developed around conspiracy theories that has spawned dozens, if not hundreds, of books, television shows, movies and thousands of websites making it an influential part of pop culture.
I strongly suspect that one of the main motives behind most conspiracy theories is financial. Books in the genre sell huge numbers. The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield has sold 23 million copies- not a bad hedge against the Apocalypse. The latest superstar of the conspiracy theorists’ world is David Icke who has an eclectic conflation of conspiracies working together in a giant super conspiracy that places reptilian humans at the top of the food chain. With twenty odd books for sale, a dozen videos and a full schedule of speaking engagements we perhaps should ask if Mr. Icke is on the payroll of our velociraptor masters? In fact since the days of Erich von Daniken’s Chariot’s of the Gods (20 million copies sold) conspiracy theories have blossomed into almost an art form as they twist just enough truth into their intricate mechanisms to make the blatant untruths and fabrications palatable enough to generate a generous return on the investment. This trend seems set to continue as the popularity of Dan Brown’s conspiracy theory novels recently proved.
Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it- Adolph Hitler
The question of why people are so willing to believe in conspiracy theories is far harder to fathom. Barkun implies that they give the world a black and white, good versus evil explanation that people want to identify with. Instead of the world’s problems being the accumulation of greed and ignorance there is an alternative force behind the scenes manipulating events and controlling our lives. It involves people in a life or death struggle for the possession of their own minds and souls that gives greater definition to the value that they give to their lives. The broad generalizations of most theories make the complex ideas that they represent easier to grasp in a world that has expanded and become difficult for the individual to conceptualize.
Two of the yardsticks that I have always relied upon to measure the validity of a statement are the Naturalistic Fallacy and Occam’s Razor. The first is treating the term “good” (or its equivalent) as if it were the name of a natural property. Occam’s Razor simply stated is “a principle urging one to select among competing hypotheses that which makes the fewest assumptions and thereby offers the simplest explanation of the effect (Wikipedia)”. This means that when a conspiracy theory talks about abuses of the common good I am already suspicious but when they demand that I believe in reptile people from outer space that the theory is becoming too complex to accept on face value alone. This process usually reveals that at the heart of most conspiracy theories is a truth. Often it has been twisted to suit the desired end and usually it is the premise that is used to make the underlying falsehood seem reasonable.
O conspiracy! Sham’st thou to show thy dangerous brow by night, When evils are most free?- Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Over a couple of months I have perused the most popular of the current crop of conspiracy theories and have come to group them under my own headings. Some conspiracies fall into more than one category simply because they have conflated so many ideas into one grand scheme. Nonetheless, there are certain themes that seem to be pretty constant and so disproving the validity of one conspiracy theory begins to make many other look pretty shaky too. As they can’t all be right about the coming apocalypse and its causes this constant cross referencing naturally tends towards one super conspiracy theory which seems to be taking shape in the work of David Icke.
This is one of the most common themes and has a long history as the Freemasons have been running the world for centuries. The real Illuminati were a short lived occult institution in Bavaria in the 1770s and was disbanded in 1784. Of course the theorists postulate that the Illuminati went underground and became an uber-secret group. The same has been said about the Knights Templar who were disbanded in the 14th century. The New World Order (NWO) is an interesting concept that conjures up Orwellian images of slave laborers and political doublespeak. Secret societies (the Fabian Society is a favorite) that seek to create a world for elites and where we will all be chained to the wheel in some socialist hell. This category naturally tends to be somehow conflated with the next one.
Rothschilds, Central Banks and Funny Money
The fiscal domination of the earth is a popular theme in many grand theories and often the focus is on the Rothschilds who are supposed to be orchestrating the devaluing of our currency by the use of fractional reserve banking and fiat money. The motive for this is to take control of all of the money supplies in the world through their own central bank. By printing valueless money and redistributing the wealth of the world they intend to keep the wealthy and affluent West in debt while they bleed the third world dry. The convincing aspect of these kinds of theories is that many of the details are correct, the broad generalization that one central group is using this means is where we depart from the truth. Everyone knows that the government are the ones that are keeping us all brain washed.
False Flags and CIA Assassinations
Secret government cabals have been a central conspiracy theory since the beginning and no respectable conspiracy theory is complete without some level of government involvement. They are subverting our children, feeding us all poison, lying about the aliens and selling us out to their satanic overlords. The conspiracy isn’t that they are doing all of those things, it is that they are doing them in secret. Within days of September 11 2001 there were so many theorists claiming that it was a false flag operation by the CIA that President Bush actually commented on it. Since the CIA set Lee Harvey Oswald up for the JFK assassination they have been a central player in the conspiratorial shadow world.
Hidden Messages from the Ancient World
These sorts of theories are probably my favorite and I fondly remember poring over the Chariots of the Gods in my youth and wondering if the aliens were coming back. Unfortunately archaeology has uncovered the truth of most of the mysteries and I have had to come to terms with the fact that the Maori people carved the statues on Easter Island, not the aliens. Stonehenge and the Nazca Plains just aren’t the same anymore. Atlantis myths may have been the first conspiracy theories and the DaVinci Code has shown that we will continue to look for the hidden wisdom of the concealed masters for some time to come yet.
UFOs, Aliens and Assorted Higher Intelligences
Who doesn’t love an alien? Roger from American Dad is fantastic. Like the rest of humanity I hoped that the alien autopsy films were real. UFOs might be real- who knows? The definitive proof is still lacking. Higher forms of life that are secretly fostering humanity (or breeding them like cattle) have been around since Moses was a boy. Napoleon said that religion was nothing more than saying that my imaginary friend is better than your imaginary friend- maybe he was right. A really good conspiracy theory needs a sinister alien component.
The Royal Family are Reptilian Aliens
This one is a David Icke special which is part alien, part Illuminati elitism, and part apocalyptic. This theory of the secret enslavement of humanity is all encompassing and by far the most imaginative attempt at re-explaining the world in far more reasonable terms. Her Majesty is a velociraptor! That explains everything.
The Bermuda Triangle, Crop Circles and the Yeti
I still hope that it is possible that aircraft do disappear in the Bermuda Triangle but the statistics just don’t support the assertion. This class of conspiracy theory generally revolves around someone keeping them a secret. The government knows why those ships go into the time vortex in the Bermuda Triangle, they just aren’t telling us. The aliens are leaving the crop circles and the government knows why but they just aren’t telling us. One day they will catch Big Foot.
Elvis Lives and We Faked the Moon Landings
These are half conspiracy theory and half urban myth. Of course it is common knowledge that Elvis quit the dull life of a rock star to join the FBI and went on to work in a 7Eleven in Pittsburg. Of course it was much easier to fake the whole space program and film it somewhere at a secret location in the Rocky Mountains than it was to actually go to the moon. These stories always leave me asking why?
The Mayan Calendar and the Apocalypse
This is a long standing niche in the genre. We have been having the Apocalypse for around 1600 years when we first worked out that the Beast whose number is 666 was Nero. Of course it took the wind out of the Mayan Calendar inspired end of timers when someone asked a Mayan and he said that the calendar just starts again. Duh. The end of the world lobby seem to want the world to end, as if that will show the rest of us sinners where we went wrong. Although not strictly one of the conspiracy theories the Apocalypse features in many of them and their emergence in the late 20th century has been attributed to the coming of the millennium.
Every time that I mention conspiracy theories on this blog I seem to attract a few comments from people that tell me that I should look into the subject more deeply and then I will see the truth. Well the scales have been lifted from my eyes now and I see that these alternate theories of reality are generally created and believed by people that want things to be other than they are. I still enjoy a good conspiracy theory, they make for fantastic reading. In the end my faith falls short of actually believing them because, like e-mails from Nigeria, they are so full of promise but contain so little of substance.
Everything secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity.- Lord Acton