When is a Conspiracy Theory NOT a Conspiracy Theory?
Copyright © 2005 by David Brin. All rights reserved.
I recently shared with some of you one paranoid scenario — by a friend of mine — suggesting that the Bush Administration’s social security initiative, combined with their frantic denials of climate change and glossing over the world’s depletion of oil stocks, can all be neatly explained by a plan to create a vast pool of “greater fools” to buy up “dog” stock investments before the fit hits the shan.
This is an example of how a conspiracy theory can have two levels, one of which seems rather lurid. (One reason that “conspiracy theories” have a deservedly bad reputation.) After all, it would take a pretty large group of colluding fund managers willing to risk prison, in order to deliberately divert Social Security investment funds in a big or systematic way. Moreover, as I have said in The Transparent Society, there is some reason to believe (or hope) that really big conspiracies may start to vanish in a world where henchmen can easily become celebrity whistle blowers. (See “The Future of Philanthropic Grant-Making” for a way to promote this trend.)
But sometimes there is another level, where an unpleasant scenario is less a “conspiracy” than a no-brainer, or simply an obvious trend based upon blatant self-interest. Take my friend’s example (above). If you are already a big owner of stocks, your natural desire is to see millions of new people enter the market because, in order to do so, they must buy your shares, raising the price. The same logic applies to brokers and corporate directors. There is no doubt or possible argument that the mild version of this scenario is true — even if there is zero corruption. The biggest beneficiaries of Social Security privatization will be — in at least the short term — the American aristocracy.
If the mild version is so obvious, why even discuss the garish one, then? Well, because there is worrisome support for it. For example, in the weirdly obstinate and insistent anti-science campaign, by those denying the possibility of human-induced climate change, in the face of overwhelming evidence and scientific consensus. Why would they be doing this? Even if Global Warming proves eventually to have been overstated, some moderate measures like conservation and research seem only prudent! Even, well, “conservative,” so why oppose them so fiercely?
This campaign is indicative of something going on below the surface. After all, the deniers of global warming and resource depletion aren’t actually stupid. At least not all of them. They must have a reason for behaving in the way they do.
The more lurid version of the “greater fools” scenario — alas — would seem to be the theory that fits. It may be that they are denying Climate Change in order to buy time to position themselves, to be winners when it does come pounding on our doors.
Want another example of a conspiracy that has two levels? One that’s blatantly obvious and another that sounds crazy, but fits the facts? My own crackpot theory starts by asking that basic question. Again. Who benefits?
Go through this administration’s list of assertive actions. Then ask which of its constituencies always does well, and which should feel disappointed.
Category #1: The vast majority of Republican voters. They tend to be “conservative,” in the libertarian sense, on many issues. Openly patriotic. Pro small business, socially moderate but worried about values. They have been working to reduce their own racism, slowly- steadily and deserve credit for this that the left will never give them. (Most will vote for the right black person or woman as president, sooner than you think.)
They want immigration to be legal and the borders controlled. They don’t mind gay rights (civil unions) but do not want it pushed in their faces, thanks. (“Gay marriage” was an unnecessary provocation that helped Karl Rove achieve re-election. He called that phrase a “godsend.”)
They would prefer an end to deficits and limitation of Big Government. Their tradition is to lean away from adventurism abroad and to favor military readiness. These moderate conservative Americans have been driven away from the centrist, modernist, pragmatic American self-improvement project by a concerted campaign — pushed by BOTH radicals of the left and radicals of the right — to make US politics a choice between two imbecilic, strawman, ideological poles.
The crux: GOP voters in group #1 are getting almost nothing from the administration. Small business is cut off at the knees. This administration has crippled the border patrol (for reasons that neither GOP nor democratic leaders will discuss). Deficits have skyrocketed while Americans lose jobs and nothing is done about energy or the environment. Big government is getting more and more dominant in our lives. Allies desert us. Bill Clinton’s record on all these issues should have pleased classic conservatives, but a very weird collusion among pundits has prevented any of these contrasts from rising into view.
As for what IS in view — e.g. the War, people in GOP Constituency #1 rightfully felt we had some kind of duty to remove the monster (Saddam) that we had imposed on Iraq in the first place. Still, there are worries, for example over the cosmically stupid way it was done. Certainly, their wishes are not served by the systematic demolition of our alliances and military readiness by this administration. (Notice how I am parsing all these complaints in THEIR terms, not the reflexively antagonistic terminology of the left. Indeed, if Democrats were to learn to talk to these people… but that’s another story.)
Category #2: The “apocalypts,” the romantics who despise the whole pragmatic-modernist agenda and express this loathing in religious terms. They are waging “culture war.” (see: “The Real Culture War“) They want church meddling in state. Repression of abortion and birth control. You know the litany. And the left commits seppuku when they conflate these people with the much larger group in category #1… helping drive these two groups together. (Of course there is overlap, but less than you might think.)
People in category #2 provide Karl Rove’s ground troops in large numbers, but when it comes to getting actual political benefits, they are only getting lip service. They get symbolic fights, like over court nominees. But take note of the rate at which their ACTUAL AGENDA is being enacted, even with the GOP owning all three branches. It is pathetically slow. Clearly, the apocalypts are not the masters
Category #3: The neoconservatives. I go into them in great detail here and here. They got their war. They sound very academic-smart… while being in practice horrifically incompetent and stupid. They say we should all read Thucidydes and I agree! Read about a fellow named Alcibiades, whose arrogance, hubris and cleverness combined with a lack of accountability to destroy everything that Pericles had built. These guys are his clones. And yes, they got their war. But little else. They are not the masters.
Category #4: Kleptocrats. We are all descended from guys who used swords to take stuff away from other guys. When things got more sophisticated, the STATE defended the privileges of small cligues of aristocrats who lorded over numerous slaves, below. This isn’t leftist ranting. It is ALL of human history, till the last 200 years.
Should we be surprised that SOME of today’s aristocrats yearn for the days when inherited wealth wasn’t just a chance to afford better toys, but an automatic key to real power? I am a huge supporter of free enterprise and am not offended by rich folk. (I are one, by some measures.) But they clearly come in two kinds. Those who “get” this civilization with its diamond-shaped social structure, and feel grateful… vs. those who feel they deserve to tower over others in some fundamental, qualitative way.
Among the former (deeply worried) group are some of the richest (and smartest) people in the world!
But the latter type have their chance now. They are engaged in a feeding frenzy that makes the Savings & Loan Scandal look like a tea party. Clearly they are the masters of policy in this administration. THAT far, this is in the category of “it’s obvious and a no brainer.” No fantastic conspiracies needed.
…except that the American sub-caste of kleptocrats don’t ALWAYS get what they want! I’d guess their interests are only served 90% of the time. For example, putting aside Michael Moore’s turgid, over-the-top rants, there really is no sign at all that our native aristocracy has profited from the Iraq War. Except for Halliburton, that is.
Is there any group that does even better, when it comes to administration actions that have genuine effects? In tracking who always benefits… if you list everything… the only TOTAL beneficiaries are members of a certain foreign royal house. But if we go down that road, it starts to sound like sci fi.
I’ll leave that exercise to the reader. What is important is for us to consider whether we know enough to scale and judge the most recent conspiracy theories that seem more plausible by the month.
Are these notions crazy?
One problem we face is that OUR friends are mostly members of the Enlightenment, or what a neocon inside the White House once derisively called the “reality-based community.” (For an excerpt from the infamous Suskind interview see “The Real Culture War.”)
Such people (the Enlightenment modernists-like people we generally hang around with) do not viscerally approve of conspiracy theories. And rightly so! 99% of conspiracy theories are just plain dumb and the 1% that have some degree of plausibility are often exaggerated out of all usefulness. Indeed, this is a deeply cultural thing. The bazaars in macho-belt countries are rife with silly conspiracies like “the west wants to spread polio” that harm immensely the memic struggle for a better world. You and I know that isn’t the way adults should behave.
So what do we do in an era when several conspiracies do actually seem to be (1) plausible, (2) feasible, (3) match all visible evidence, and (4) fit the character and motives of the people in power? “Reality-based” modernists are at a huge disadvantage in conceptually being ABLE to detect what used to be normal in most other cultures —
that is, conspiratorial collusion by society’s leader-caste, using their position in order to cheat and manipulate the system (sometimes in conjunction with hostile foreign powers) and screw the masses.
All right. Even typing those words felt turgid, immature, rash, even kooky…
…and yet, history inarguably shows that’s exactly what happened in most human societies a majority of the time! That we would dismiss the possibility of a recurrence of such behavior, when all branches of governance have been taken over by a single clade of elite rationalizers — the same clade that showed their trustworthiness in the S&L Scandal, Enron, the Keating Five, etc. — shows how desperately accustomed we have become to being able to trust in the modernist agenda.
An agenda that is under attack as we speak.
Mind you, I think what is REALLY surprising is that a large fraction of our “aristocracy” today do NOT buy into the anti-modernist agenda. Probably a healthy majority of today’s rich feel very much a part of what used to be called “liberal society” — before the word was ruined by jerks of both left and right. Alas, with a few exceptions — Warren Buffett, George Soros, etc. — these moderate elites are much less likely to get organized. (Life is good. Send a check to some good causes, then relax.)
Do I actually believe these two particular paranoid scenarios? Only tentatively. As a scientist, what I REALLY want is to put them to experimental test. There are easy ways to check out both theories… and as far as I can see, these confidence-building measures have been relentlessly prevented, adding fuel to a smoldering suspicion.
For further discussion on the “culture war” and an ongoing discussion about Modernism and its Enemies, drop by my blog.