Thursday, September 24, 2009

Conspiracy Theories

It’s a welcome development that, for the first time in years, liberals are no longer so thoroughly on the defensive that they feel free to go after the left. For this, we have the Moronic Minority, “the Republican base,” to thank. By being so appalling, they have inched public opinion over into the liberal camp, emboldening liberals to go on the offensive. However, it remains to be seen just how robust the liberals’ new backbone will be. By my reckoning, the chances remain better than good that, true to form, they will cave in to the Moronic Minority yet again – on health care reform and climate change and everything else of (economic) consequence, and on matters of war and peace. But the left is a different story; there the liberals have a softer target and, for fund raising purposes, a more profitable one.

Thus, within liberal precincts, there has been a resurgence of the idea that “extremes” are not only bad, but essentially the same. This is a slightly more thoughtful version of the now familiar Moronic Minority identification of fascism and Nazism with socialism and communism. It is therefore only slightly less wrong-headed. But be that as it may, the thought does underwrite the kind of centrism liberals favor. The center is moving (ever so slightly) leftward and, in the liberal view, it is where the action should remain. To that end, tarnishing all “extremists” with the same brush makes sense.

Reemerging in tandem with the idea that all “extremism” is bad is the idea that what “extremists” have in common is a predilection for “conspiracy theories.” This bit of conventional wisdom has been called upon, in the past several weeks, by those who, mistakenly in my view, see the Republican base’s acting out this summer –the tea parties, the town hall meetings, Mad Joe Wilson’s outburst et. al. -- as evidence of a “populist” revolt, rather than just corporate-manipulated astro-turfing. Dangerous, out of control “populists,” the story goes, are nothing if not “conspiracy theorists.”

But as a moment’s reflection will establish, history abounds with conspiracies, a point everyone, including the movers and shakers of the dead center, would acknowledge, at least implicitly. What, after all, do they think their Department of Homeland Security is supposed to investigate if not conspiracies? And what about the rest of the national security apparatus and that pillar of Order, the FBI? The latest, much publicized conspirator du jour is an airport shuttle bus driver in Denver named Najibullah Zazi. He, along with some fellow Afghanis in Queens, New York, are supposed to have conspired to do something (exactly what is not clear!). Maybe, this time (for once!), the government will be able to make a legally defensible case; usually, they can’t even make a plausible case. But, in any case, the point remains: it is always an empirical – and, in principle, decidable – question whether or not a purported conspiracy is real. Calling one or another claim to that effect a “conspiracy theory” settles nothing; it is, in Harry Truman’s apt expression, a red herring.

One could say, of course, that a “conspiracy theorist” is someone who sees conspiracies where none exist, with the plain implication that the phenomenon is evidence of a kind of paranoia. But, of course, even paranoids are sometimes right; sometimes others really are conspiring against them. To repeat the obvious point: it is in principle always an open question whether purported conspiracies are real.

In practice, “conspiracy theory” functions politically, much as “terrorism” does. People, especially people in power, use the expression to discredit positions they oppose. Thus, so long as liberals remain disposed to let President Obama keep Wall Street criminals in command of the country’s financial system, they will call those who blame Wall Street for ordinary peoples’ economic woes “conspiracy theorists.” It is worth noting, though, that, even now, it is hard to maintain that aspersion; the evidence of Wall Street’s role in causing the current crisis – evidence, in effect, of Wall Street “conspiracies” gone bad – is too overwhelming. Or consider how those who claim that the Israel lobby played a major role in leading the Bush administration into its war against Iraq are deemed “conspiracy theorists.” My view, for what it’s worth, is that this contention is probably wrong; that the Israel lobby dictates American policy towards Occupied Palestine, but plays little role in American Middle East policy elsewhere. This, however, is an empirical question; and a contrary view – like the one articulated, for example, in John Mearscheimer and Steven Walt’s The Israel Lobby – is hardly implausible, much less delusional.

It should also be noted that those who look for conspiracy theorists on the left have a hard time coming up with examples. The people who claim that Cheney and Bush are in some way behind the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the “truthers,” are often cited, notwithstanding two inconvenient facts -- that this is hardly a view that any significant or even insignificant portion of the left holds, and that there are “truthers” across the political spectrum. Nevertheless, for liberals, this “leftist” conspiracy theory is somehow of a piece with the ravings of birthers and deathers and tenthers and other Moronic Minority looneys.

I am by no means a truther. But I must say that the “evidence” truthers adduce is at least as compelling as anything the Department of Homeland Security has made public in support of its alleged conspiracies – including its conspiracy du jour in Denver and Queens. What is a bomb making manual, some telephone calls, and a trip to New York in comparison with the fact that Cheney and Bush were prepared in advance to seize the opportunities 9/11 provided them for their many nefarious domestic and foreign projects? And since when is the cui bono? (“who benefits?”) question no longer relevant for identifying when and where real conspiracies exist? I don’t take the truthers’ claims seriously mainly because the cover-up would require a level of competence that vastly exceeds anything else the Bush administration was able to muster in eight dreadful years. But the point remains: the case the “truthers” make is at least as plausible as almost anything – and perhaps literally anything – emanating out of the Department of Homeland Security.

The lesson is plain. Meaningless name calling is no substitute for thoughtful reflection and historical analysis. Let Fox News and its ilk blather on about “conspiracy theories.” It demeans liberalism when liberals follow their lead. But, then, liberals have never been particularly eager to see the world as it is because, doing so, would make their centrism indefensible. It is therefore easier just to go along with the blather, especially insofar as the idea is still to stand with Obama on the middle of the road.

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