Conspiracy Theories Flourish When Conditions Are Ripe
Dr. Lorin Swinehart
“Oh Judgment! Thou“Oh Judgment! Thouart fled toBrutish beasts. Andmen have lost their reason.”Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”
As my good friend and fellow El Ojo del Lago contributor Fred Mittag has frequently observed, “People will believe anything.”
Conspiracy theories generally proliferate during any period of societal uproar, in the aftermath of, for instance, a war, an assassination, an economic collapse or a pandemic. Perhaps even more troubling than the theories themselves are the motivations of those who so willingly adopt and even promote them.
Some conspiracy theories verge upon the humorous, for instance that Elvis Presley still lives, that the world is flat, that the infamous Area 51 in Roswell, New Mexico conceals the truth about visiting extraterrestrials or that Neil Armstrong really never walked upon the moon. During the period of the Black Death in Medieval Europe, conspiracy theories ran rampant among the uneducated and superstitious masses. One theory was that the cause of the calamity was men having sex with older women. Other theories had more tragic consequences, that the plague was caused by Jews poisoning the wells, for instance, a delusion leading to yet another cruel and bloodthirsty pogrom.
Susceptibility to mass delusions and hysteria has defined many eras of human history. In the aftermath of World War I, for instance, the public acquiesced in the injustices and persecutions of the Big Red Scare, convinced that the dread Bolsheviks who had just overturned the Czarist regime in Russia were armed and eager to initiate a reign of terror in the streets of America. With President Woodrow Wilson effectively incapacitated by a stroke, his attorney-general A. Mitchel Palmer, aided and abetted by J. Edgar Hoover, initiated a series of so-called Palmer raids targeting any and all dissidents, guilty or innocent, sending 249 people off on the “Soviet Ark” to the newly established USSR. Labor leaders and so-called “radicals” were most at risk. Anyone who rocked the boat too hard did so under the threat of deportation.
The 1920’s were a time of widespread hysteria, during which the public was convinced that a Bolshevik lay in wait ready to pounce behind every bush and fence row. There are always those eager to grab the ball—any ball—and run with it.
The decade also saw the rise of a resurgent Ku Klux Klan, a terrorist organization from its very inception until the present. As Frederick Lewis Allen details in his Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920’s, many small towns, not only in the South erected signs at their corporation limits announcing, “The Ku Klux Klan Welcomes You,” alongside others offering new arrivals membership in Rotary International, the Kiwanis Club or the Lions Club. The Klan at the time directed its venom as much toward immigrants, Jews and Roman Catholics as at black citizens. A number of small businessmen my old hometown of Ashland, Ohio abandoned the Klan for fear that their Roman Catholic customers would boycott them if knowledge of their affiliation became known.
Not to be outdone, the aftermath of World War II saw a new emergence of mass paranoia, the fires stoked by the usually inebriated Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. With Joseph Stalin’s minions on the march and Mainland China newly in the grip of Mao Tse-Tung (totalitarianism by any name will smell as rank), the more gullible among us provided fertile ground for the senator’s assurances that the US government in general and the State Department in particular was riddled with Communist sympathizers. Somehow, he assured his followers, dark forces within the government had connived to cause the US to “lose China”, as though we had ever possessed China in the first place. Our stubborn support for the corrupt Chaing Ki-shek had probably done more to erode support for the Nationalist cause and toss the nation into the abyss of Maoism than any domestic conspiracy ever could have.
When Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted and executed for passing nuclear secrets to the USSR and the petty spy Alger Hiss was found guilty of espionage, the masses were affirmed in their belief that agents of the “worldwide Communist conspiracy” lurked everywhere. To even question the status quo with regard to any of society’s cruelties or injustices was to risk being labeled a Communist sympathizer, pinko (as opposed to red) or fellow traveler. When Rev. Martin Luther King met with the black citizens of the Goolah Geechee islanders off the South Carolina coast, the local press sniffed that the gathering was a meeting of Communist Party members. None other than President Eisenhower’s Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson labeled the entire civil rights movement a Communist plot.
It was suggested by some observers that the membership of the actual Communist Party of the USA was so minuscule that it should be divided among municipalities nationwide so that each community could have a convenient target for its paranoia.
It is unlikely that speculation will ever cease surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy. That a festering nonentity like Lee Harvey Oswald would pull off such an outrageous crime on his own remains too much for many to accept. Other conspiracy theories are more sinister and mask deep seated biases, such as the big lie that the Nazi conducted Holocaust of World War II is a hoax.
Many conspiracy theories originate with outright lies perpetrated by political leaders, whether out of malice or befuddlement. It was not learned until after a vast expenditure in blood and treasure that the Gulf of Tonkin incident used as a pretext for our deeper involvement in the Vietnam War did not happen as reported. In a similar fashion, it was discovered that Saddam Hussein, as evil a man as he was, did not possess weapons of mass destruction, the rationale provided for our lengthy involvement in the Second Gulf War and the geopolitical quagmire that persists in the Middle East to this day.
During a period of societal upheaval and insecurity, many persons, particularly the uneducated and uninformed, can be more prone to accept the most outlandish theories. When Orson Welles broadcast his War of The Worlds program in 1938, large numbers who tuned in late to his Mercury Theater were readily convinced that ravening Martian hordes were leveling major cities and vaporizing the residents. In the throes of the Great Depression and with World War II looming, many were taken in by the broadcast who may not have been during more settled times. Even then, the responses of many who were taken in reveal their level of ignorance of science, with one person actually trumpeting that a “planet” had landed in New Jersey, clueless as to how absurd such a statement was.
It would seem that it generally takes three elements to foster a wave of hysteria and criminality: Social and economic unrest; a fanatical cult feeding upon and encouraging the worst instincts of the populace; a mass of the willfully ignorant and ill-informed. Most recently, it only took a president whose failed term in office was thankfully ending and whose ego was too fragile to admit that he acquired that most despised of titles, that of loser, to unleash a slavering, malodorous horde of thugs and malcontents upon the US Capitol.
In his study The People of the Lie: The Psychology of Evil, the psychiatrist Dr. M. Scott Peck posits that ignorance is an evil choice freely made. While education—true education that emphasizes critical thinking skills—remains the best way to arrive at truth and avoid falsehood, there are those who resist self-improvement through education, preferring unsubstantiated rumors and speculation to evidence as provided by, for instance, modern science. In a recent article published on Aeon, Quassim Cassam of the University of Warwick labels such types Bad Thinkers. It would seem that what one learns or refuses to learn is indicative of one’s values, that for many it is easier to water and nourish their delusions than to engage in the hard business of serious thought.
The consequences of bad thinking can be tragic, as, for instance, in the case of recent acts of violence directed at Asian Americans by those who suspect Mainland China of deliberately fostering the COVID pandemic. While serious scientists, including those at the World Wildlife Fund, suspect that the COVID virus is zoonotic, perhaps originating with bats, the list of misdeeds perpetrated by the Chinese government is long and deplorable, to which people of Tibet as well as members of the Uyghur minority of Xinjiang can well attest. And yet that anyone could somehow associate the misdeeds of the Chinese government with an innocent civilian of Chinese, Japanese, Thai or Vietnamese descent going peacefully about their business simply because they “look Asian” stands as a powerful indictment of the character and intelligence of conspiracy theorists.
The solution to bad thinking is, of course, to educate the all too often resistant public, to, as Dr. Cassam says, encourage intellectual virtues as opposed to such intellectual vices as closed mindedness and prejudice. The task is necessary but time consuming and seemingly Sisyphian. By the time the bad thinkers have been so educated, the ramparts may have been breeched, the sanctuary befouled and the artifacts looted and shattered yet again.
Cassam reminds us that the best route toward arriving at truth and avoiding falsehood is provided by eduction. Of course, we have been told many times that in order to address the world’s many ills, such as global warming, rising sea levels, plastic pollution, or the pervasive effects of pesticides, we must educate the public. Given that large segments of the public are resistant to being educated and would prefer to avoid uncomfortable realities and the discoveries of science, the bad thinkers—barbarians—may well have breached the ramparts, befouled the sanctuary and shattered the artifacts within before the tasks before us are meaningfully addressed.
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