Who is Afraid of Conspiracy Theories?
By Lance Dehaven-Smith, Ph.D.
In his book Philosophical Investigations, philosopher of science Ludwig Wittgenstein demonstrated that words are more than designations or labels. They are signals in a context of activity, and are invested with many assumptions about the roles and social status of speakers and listeners.
In the 20th century, men often called women “girls.” This term, while indeed referring to something real – to women – was more than merely a label; it was demeaning and implicitly conveyed a subservient status. Wittgenstein called the common sense view of words standing for things, the “naming theory of language.” However, he pointed out, if words were merely labels, you could not teach language to children. If you pointed at a table and said “table,” how would a child know you are referring to the piece of furniture and not to the rectangular shape of its top, or the table’s colour, or its hardness, or any number of other attributes? Language is taught in the context of activity. You say to the child, “the cup is on the table,” “slide the cup across the table top,” “I am setting the table for dinner,” and slowly the child learns what a table is and how the word table is used. Wittgenstein’s observation may seem simple, but it posed a profound challenge to all of Western philosophy since Plato, who had asked: What is beauty? What is truth? What is justice? Wittgenstein’s critique of the naming theory of language suggested these were the wrong questions. What needs philosophical investigation is who uses such words in what circumstances and with what implications.
The term conspiracy theory did not exist as a phrase in everyday conversation before 1964. The conspiracy theory label entered the lexicon of political speech as a catchall for criticisms of the Warren Commission’s conclusion that US President Kennedy was assassinated by a lone gunman with no assistance from, or foreknowledge by any element of the United States government. Since then, the term’s prevalence and range of application have exploded. In 1964, the year the Warren Commission issued its report, the New York Times published five stories in which conspiracy theory appeared. In recent years, the phrase has occurred in over 140 New York Times stories annually. On Amazon.com, the term is a book category that includes in excess of 1,300 titles. In addition to books on conspiracy theories of particular events, there are conspiracy theory encyclopedias, photographic compendiums, website directories, and guides for researchers, sceptics and debunkers. Initially, conspiracy theories were not an object of ridicule and hostility. Today, however, the conspiracy theory label is employed routinely to dismiss a wide range of anti-government suspicions as symptoms of impaired thinking akin to superstition or mental illness. For example, in his 2007 book on the assassination of President Kennedy, former prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi says people who believe JFK conspiracy theories are “as kooky as a three dollar bill in their beliefs and paranoia.” Similarly, in Among the Truthers, Canadian journalist Jonathan Kay refers to 9/11 conspiracy theorists as “political paranoiacs” who have “lost their grip on the real world.” Making a similar point, if more colourfully, in his popular book Wingnuts journalist John Avlon refers to conspiracy believers as “moonbats,” “Hatriots,” “wingnuts,” and the “Fright Wing.”
As these examples illustrate, conspiracy deniers adhere unwittingly to the naming theory of language. They assume that what qualifies as a conspiracy theory is self-evident. In their view, the phrase conspiracy theory as it is conventionally understood, simply names this objectively identifiable phenomenon. Conspiracy theories are supposedly easy to spot because they posit secret plots that are too wacky to be taken seriously. Indeed, the theories are deemed so far-fetched they require no reply or rejoinder; they are objects of derision, not ideas for discussion. In short, while ridiculing conspiracy beliefs, conspiracy deniers take the conspiracy theory concept itself for granted.
This is remarkable, not to say shocking, because the concept is both fundamentally flawed and in direct conflict with English legal and political traditions. As a label for irrational political suspicions about secret plots by powerful people, the concept is obviously defective because political conspiracies in high office do, in fact, happen. Officials in the Nixon administration did conspire to steal the 1972 presidential election. Officials in the Reagan administration did participate in a criminal scheme to sell arms to Iran and channel profits to the Contras, a rebel army in Nicaragua. The Bush-Cheney administration did collude to mislead Congress and the public about the strength of its evidence for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. If some conspiracy theories are true, then it is nonsensical to dismiss all unsubstantiated suspicions of elite intrigue as false by definition. This fatal defect in the conspiracy theory concept makes it all the more surprising that most scholars and journalists have failed to notice that their use of the term to ridicule suspicions of elite political criminality betrays the civic ethos inherited from British legal and political traditions. The Magna Carta placed limitations on the King, guaranteed trial by one’s peers, assigned historic revenue sources to London, and in other ways recognised the dangers of unrestrained political authority. More generally, the political institutions of the English speaking peoples presuppose political power is a corrupting influence which makes political conspiracies against the people’s interests and liberties almost inevitable. One of the most important questions in Western political thought is how to prevent top leaders from abusing their powers to impose arbitrary rule or tyranny. The men and women who fought for citizens’ rights, the rule of law, and constitutional systems of checks and balances would view today’s norms against conspiratorial suspicion as not only arrogant, but also dangerous and historically illiterate.
The founders of English legal and political traditions would also be shocked that conspiracy deniers attack and ridicule individuals who voice conspiracy beliefs, and yet ignore institutional purveyors of conspiratorial ideas, even though the latter are the ideas that have proven truly dangerous in modern history. Since at least the end of World War II, the citadel of theories alleging nefarious political conspiracies has been, not amateur investigators of the Kennedy assassination and other political crimes and tragedies, but political elites and governments. In the first three decades of the post-World War II era, officials asserted that communists were conspiring to take over the world, Western governments were riddled with Soviet spies, and various social movements of the 1960s were creatures of Soviet influence. More recently, Western governments have accepted US claims that Iraq was complicit in 9/11, failed to dispose of its biological weapons, and attempted to purchase uranium in Niger so it could construct nuclear bombs. Although these ideas were untrue, they influenced millions of people, fomented social panic, fuelled wars, and resulted in massive loss of life and destruction of property. If conspiracy deniers are so concerned about the dangers of conspiratorial suspicions in politics and civic culture, why have they ignored the conspiracism of top politicians and administrators?
In my book Conspiracy Theory in America, I reorient analysis of the phenomenon that has been assigned the derisive label of conspiracy theory. In a 2006 peer-reviewed journal article, I introduced the concept of State Crimes Against Democracy (SCAD) to displace the term conspiracy theory. I say displace rather than replace because SCAD is not another name for conspiracy theory; it is a name for the type of wrongdoing which the conspiracy theory label discourages us from speaking. Basically, the term conspiracy theory is applied pejoratively to allegations of official wrongdoing that have not been substantiated by public officials themselves. Deployed as a derogatory putdown, the label is a verbal defence mechanism used by political elites to suppress mass suspicions that inevitably arise when shocking political crimes benefit top leaders or play into their agendas, especially when those same officials are in control of agencies responsible for preventing the events in question, or for investigating them after they have occurred. It is only natural to wonder about possible deception when a US president and vice president bent on war in the Middle East are warned of impending terrorist attacks, and yet fail to alert the public or increase the readiness of their own and allies’ armed forces. Why would people not expect answers when Arabs with poor piloting skills manage to hijack four planes, fly them across the eastern United States, somehow evade America’s multilayered system of air defence, and then crash two of the planes into the World Trade Center in New York City and one into the Pentagon in Washington, DC? By the same token, it is only natural to question the motives of President Bush and Vice President Cheney when they dragged their feet investigating this seemingly inexplicable defence failure and then, when the investigation was finally conducted, they insisted on testifying together, in secret, and not under oath. Certainly, citizen distrust can be unwarranted and overwrought, but often citizen doubts make sense. People around the world are not crazy to want answers when a US president is assassinated by a lone gunman with mediocre shooting skills who manages to get off several lucky shots with an old bolt-action carbine that had a misaligned scope. Why would there not be doubts when an alleged assassin is apprehended, publicly claims he is just a patsy, interrogated for two days but no one makes a recording or even takes notes, and then shot to death at point-blank range while in police custody at police headquarters?
In contrast, the SCAD construct does not refer to a type of allegation or suspicion; it refers to a special type of transgression: an attack from within on the political system’s organising principles. For these extremely grave crimes, English legal and political traditions use the term high crime and included in this category is treason and conspiracies against the people’s liberties. SCADs, high crimes, and antidemocratic conspiracies can also be called elite political crimes and elite political criminality. The SCAD construct is intended not to supersede traditional terminology or monopolise conceptualisation of this phenomenon, but rather to add a descriptive term that captures, with some specificity, the long-recognised potential for representative democracy to be subverted by people on the inside – the very people who have been entrusted to uphold the constitutional order. If political conspiracies in high office do, in fact, happen; if it is therefore unreasonable to assume conspiracy theories are, by definition, harebrained and paranoia; if constitutional systems of checks and balances are based on the idea that power corrupts and elite political conspiracies are likely; if, because it ridicules suspicion, the conspiracy theory label is inconsistent with the traditional Western ethos of vigilance against conspiracies in high office; if, in summary, the conspiracy theory label is unreasonable and dangerous, how did the label come to be used so widely to begin with?
Most people will be shocked to learn the conspiracy theory label was popularised as a pejorative term by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in a global propaganda program initiated in 1967. This program was directed at criticisms of the Warren Commission Report. The propaganda campaign called on media corporations and journalists around the world to criticise conspiracy theorists and raise questions about their motives and judgments. The CIA informed its contacts that “parts of the conspiracy talk appear to be deliberately generated by communist propagandists.” In the shadows of McCarthyism and the Cold War, this warning about communist influence was delivered simultaneously to hundreds of well-positioned members of the press in a global CIA propaganda network, infusing the conspiracy theory label with powerfully negative associations. In my book, I refer to this as the “conspiracy theory conspiracy.”
For a more detailed exposition on the above, read Prof. Lance DeHaven-Smith’s Conspiracy Theory in America (University of Texas Press, 2013), available from all good bookstores and online retailers.