Obama Blows Up the Gulf: An Inquiry Into Conspiracy Theories, Part I

Americans believe in conspiracy theories for the same reason we're so quick to accept the right wing's faux science and reconstructed history: we simply don't teach most of our kids the basic skills of critical thinking any more.
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You've heard the latest one, right? President Obama -- or maybe it was Obama working hand-in-glove with BP -- deliberately blew up the Deepwater Horizon, sent 11 workers to their deaths, destroyed the country's biggest fishery, and smeared the coasts of five states with endless tides of oil.

Why did he do this? Why, to pass the new energy bill, of course.

This is the Conspiracy Theory Of The Week (TM) on the far right this past week -- our little dip into the alternate, fact-free, gravity-free reality zone of the rabid right. Tracking the loony parade of right-wing conspiracy theories became something of a personal enthusiasm last spring, when the right wing's Bizarro World stories took a quantum leap for the weird. Up until the inauguration, these confections had almost always been wrapped around a kernel of factual truth; but there came a point -- it was somewhere in the early phases of the health care debate -- when that chewy middle suddenly became optional. Some new level of outrage and irrationality had been breached; and beyond that point, the new stories being told had absolutely no relationship to any observable reality at all.

Fascinated, I hit the books. The most useful one out of the several I read turned out to be Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History by British historian David Aaronovitch. While carefully dissecting the anatomy of over a dozen of the past century's most famous conspiracy theories, Aaronovitch also draws some thoughtful insights about the nature of conspiracy theories: how they start, who believes them, and what psychological purpose they serve.

Aaronovitch defines a conspiracy theory as any story that assumes that things happen due to the deliberate, covert actions of powerful others -- even when the preponderance of evidence points to the conclusion that the events were almost certainly accidental and unintended.

Unfortunately, the right wing doesn't hold the franchise on conspiracy theories -- a lot of progressives are quite ready to believe all manner of sordid things about the Bush regime, for example. But as Dr. Robert Altemeyer observed, there are distinctively conservative habits of mind (suspicion, fear of strangers, fear of change, faith in strong leaders, paranoia) that do seem to lend themselves to conspiracy thinking. It's no surprise we're seeing it out of them -- but we also need to be more acutely aware that we're hardly immune to the siren song of crazy paranoia, either.

Why do people believe this stuff? It turns out that it's a complicated issue, with several answers. Some of those answers have to do with the internal state of the people who believe them; others have to do with the cultural and political environment they're trying to navigate. This post covers some of the external factors that create a climate that predisposes people to suspend their judgment and believe the worst. Next week, I'll follow up with a second post about what goes on inside people's heads that untethers them from reason just far enough to be swept away by their fears.

* * *

Broken Trust
People are far more likely to believe in conspiracy theories when they've already been objectively, seriously, undeniably lied to by people in power. Conspiracy theories are always a clear sign that people's faith government and private institutions has been repeatedly shattered, but never mended. If they lied to us then, we can never be sure they're not lying to us now.

It's not just the Gulf of Tonkin, or Watergate, or Iran-Contra, or being lied into Iraq. It's also the way our own bosses treat us at work, and Wall Street doctors the books, and the media leaves essential facts out of news reports. The current generation of Americans, left and right, has learned the hard way that people in power lie to us -- constantly and habitually. Since they won't trust us with the simple truth, there's no reason to trust them in return.

The thing our leaders still don't get about us is this: when we're forced to reflexively discount the official story, it only sharpens our determination to find out what's really going on. And the less solid information they give us, the bigger the void that has to be filled -- and the wilder our collective imagination will run to fill it. In the end, whatever we make up will invariably be orders of magnitude worse than any ugly truth we're not being told. They more they try to manage our perceptions, the more resistant to any such management we become.

History's "Contradictions"
This distrust is particularly likely to spin out of control around big, history-shaping events, every last one of which generates its own zombie horde of conspiracy theories-that -will-not-die. A lot of these theories hang on the belief that The Official Story (as told by the Warren Commission or the 9/11 Committee or establishment historians who have taken months or years to fully investigate) fails to account for important details, which are left unanswered. Or, if they are answered, the answer is rejected as unsatisfactory.

Much of this dissonance starts with the very first news reports coming out of a crisis zone. As Aaronovitch notes, "Reporters in the West usually do the best they can in frightening and confused circumstances, but early explanations of major disasters will contain much that turns out to be mistaken or speculative." Conspiracy theorists typically seize on these early, blurred, fog-of-war reports and give them the status of indisputable truth. When later reports -- prepared with the advantage of complete information and the clarity of hindsight -- come to different conclusions, conspiracy theorists make a fuss over the perceived "contradictions."

Many of these contradictions crop up because we tend to assume that the people in the thick of the moment had the same broad perspective and complete data that we enjoy now, looking back -- which, of course, they didn't -- and then use that as license to second-guess their decisions. Also, as Aaronovitch notes, "given the desire to believe, it is easy to confuse detail with thought." Conspiracy theories are often presented as a blizzard of random "facts" (like the lists of "facts" that still circulate on the right about the Vince Foster matter) -- but these "facts" don't necessarily add up to any kind of actual conclusion. And again, it's left to our imaginations to string them together -- which our marvelous pattern-making engines will do with reckless abandon.

A lot of conspiracy theories start when someone in government or business decides to create a scapegoat in order to deflect attention away from their own decisions. The problem isn't that our immigration policies (which have been tailored to the whims of large employers at the expense of American workers) are completely ineffectual. The problem is that those damned Mexicans are conspiring to reconquer America. As long as we're distracted by the latter, we won't be doing much about the former.

Scapegoats also appear when ideologues don't want to acknowledge that their own leaders have feet of clay. Our movement didn't fail out of its own inherent weaknesses or contradictions; it was sabotaged by plotters. This was the paranoid rationale behind the Stalinist purges; but you can also see it alive and well in the conservative movement's successful campaign to hunt their RINOs to extinction.

We're Never Wrong
Some conspiracy theories start when a group attempts to deflect humiliation after being proven categorically, undeniably, embarrassingly wrong. For example, the Holocaust Denial conspiracy theory can be directly traced back to the old America Firsters who had strongly opposed the US's entry into World War II. Their entire movement (which had included many high-profile, respected Americans) was completely discredited at war's end, when the liberation of the death camps proved beyond argument that America's decision to intervene has been the right one. After that, some isolationist diehards figured that he only way to vindicate themselves was to deny that the Holocaust ever happened; or (alternatively) to insist that the Zionist movement ginned the whole thing up to gain the world's sympathy and support, and thus reclaim Israel.

Unfortunately, this toxic little figleaf, designed to cover up for one of the American right's bigger blunders, created a conspiracy theory that's now taken on a life of its own and gone global. Resurgent fascist movements in every corner of Europe these days take it as gospel that the Holocaust never happened (or, at least, didn't happen the way the historical record says it did). And it's gained a real following in the Arab world as well.

X Marks The Spot
Besides covering up embarrassing lapses of judgment, conspiracy theories very often contain elements that are shadow projections of our own worst attributes. It's axiomatic on the left that if the right wing is accusing us of thinking or doing something terrible, it's because they've already thought or done it themselves.

This is such a reliable phenomenon that smart reporters rely on it: whatever evil a right-winger is raising holy hell about, start digging, because he's telling you precisely where his own dirt is buried. And so it happens that the congressman who pounds the pulpit about the Gay Agenda's evil conspiracy to corrupt America's youth is the very same one taking his own rentboy to Europe.

Faux "Experts"
Americans are famously suspicious of egghead intellectuals, and conspiracy-mongers take full advantage of that suspicion. Most of the "experts" promoting these theories are either celebrities (if Charlie Sheen believes that 9/11 was an inside job -- well, then, it must be true!), or "experts" and "researchers" whose credentials don't even hold up to the most basic scrutiny.

Many of these popularizers received their lofty titles from "think tanks" or "institutes" that are run out of somebody's PO box or den. Almost none of them have credentials or professional experience in the field they're holding forth on -- and the ones that do have relevant qualifications are more often than not regarded as embarrassments by their colleagues. And so it happens that David Ray Griffin, the leading author of books on the 9/11 conspiracy, isn't an aviation expert, physicist, structural engineer, or authority on terrorism; he's a retired theology professor who asks his readers to take a lot on faith.

Despite the lack of academic or professional cred (or perhaps because of it), the folks who promote conspiracy theories go overboard to put a thick veneer of scholarship on their claims. Books and essays are ostentatiously footnoted; but the references typically link back to even more obscure conspiracy publications with even flimsier evidence -- or else to other works written by the same author, in a self-reinforcing loop. Some theorists use scientific jargon to dazzle the crowd and obfuscate weaknesses in their story; others borrow terms of art from the intelligence trade, giving the impression that they're getting their data from sources on the inside who know what's really going on.

Media Sensationalists
The media needs to fill airtime, and doesn't feel the least duty to do even a minimum level of fact-checking. With our self-proclaimed gatekeepers of the truth asleep on the job, those above-mentioned fake "experts" and "researchers" find it easy to get on the air and spew fact-free nonsense. It's cultural pollution -- but if an hour-long examination of Obama's birth certificate or Dan Brown's latest book grabs eyeballs, that's all that matters.

The worst conspiracy mongers totally abdicate their obligation to the facts by using the "I'm just asking" tactic, which is a particular favorite of right-wing talking heads like Glenn Beck. "It is irresponsible to speculate? It would be irresponsible not to." No data is provided, no evidence offered; the theorist merely offers up some disturbing questions out of "a simple desire to find the truth" -- and then leaves the audience to make up their own minds (which, as we've seen, is basically an open invitation to insert their own fantasies here). We report, you decide. But the questions themselves only make sense if you already think there's mischief afoot -- and once they're asked, the conspiracy is free to take on a life of its own.

The Failure of Critical Thinking
Americans believe in conspiracy theories for the same reason we're so quick to accept the right wing's faux science and reconstructed history: we simply don't teach most of our kids the basic skills of critical thinking any more.

This is where 25 years of teaching to the test has brought us. We don't know who to trust, or when, or why. We can't evaluate the claims of history or science, or even get a basic timeline straight. We can't sort out what's plausible and likely from what's implausible and unlikely. We can't assess the relative credibility of various experts, or figure out what agendas they're serving when they make their claims. We'd rather take Rush Limbaugh's explanation as gospel than spend .062 seconds on a Google search that would give us some alternative data to work with, because then we'd be forced to evaluate that data on our own.

And then we wonder why in the hell so many of us believe such bizarre stuff, but can't seem to locate the truth at high noon with both hands.

Next week, I'll take a deeper look at what's going on in our own heads that predisposes us to believe the unbelievable. And in the third and final part of the series, I'll talk about what needs to be done in order to conspiracy-proof our discourse and restore some reason to our political conversations.

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