Is conspiracy theorizing a problem?
As America recognizes the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination, the conspiracy theories continue to abound. Among the most prevalent are:
- That he was murdered by the CIA as revenge for his post-Bay of Pigs personnel shake-up and/or his alleged plan to de-escalate the Vietnam War.
- That he was murdered by the mafia both because of his brother's role in prosecuting major dons, and because of his failure to oust Fidel Castro, who interfered with their business interests in Cuba.
- That he was murdered by the Soviets and/or Castro through Lee Harvey Oswald (who had known Communist ties), because they wanted to exact vengeance for the Cuban Missile Crisis.
- That he was murdered by then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who was concerned that a financial scandal might convince Kennedy to drop him from the 1964 ticket.
- That he was murdered by the Federal Reserve, which believed that Kennedy's issuing of Executive Order 11110, instructing the Secretary of the Treasury to issue $4.2 billion in silver certificates, was the first step in a larger plan to diminish its power over the currency.
Much of this has to do with traits of the American political psyche. As William Saletan of Slate recently wrote, conspiracy theorists "aren't really skeptics. Like the rest of us, they're selective doubters. They favor a worldview, which they uncritically defend. But their worldview isn't about God, values, freedom, or equality. It's about the omnipotence of elites."
After reiterating this perspective, The New York Times recently concluded, "Psychologists aren't sure whether powerlessness causes conspiracy theories or vice versa. Either way, the current scientific thinking suggests these beliefs are nothing more than an extreme form of cynicism, a turning away from politics and traditional media — which only perpetuates the problem."
This idea was perhaps best summed up by former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski: "History is much more the product of chaos than of conspiracy."
While there is merit to the Slate/New York Times/Brzezinski school of thought on the mindset of conspiracy theories, it is excessively reductive. For one thing, there have been verified conspiracies throughout history. From the Reichstag fire and Operation Ajax to the NSA's PRISM program, our textbooks are filled with verified accounts in which small cadres of powerful elites plotted to increase their power through manipulative means.
The loony conspiracy theory of yesterday has too often become the official history of today that historians can no longer offhandedly dismiss theories without scrutiny. Indeed, this may be the foremost reason why conspiracy theorizing is ultimately healthy. Regardless of whether their claims are true, conspiracy theorists juxtapose an alternate historical narrative with conventional accounts, preventing purveyors of the latter from settling into scholarly complacency. If they're right, then of course they deserve an audience; but even when they're wrong, conspiracy theorists prevent a fate far worse than wrongheaded speculation — namely, intellectual atrophy.
Even more important than this, however, is what conspiracy theories tell us about our political culture. For this, I turn to a passage from Richard Hofstadter's classic essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," one that needs to be quoted in full:
"Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest — perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands — are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power — and this through distorting lenses — and have no chance to observe its actual machinery."
In short, one of the primary reasons conspiracy theories continue to abound is because vast swaths of the American population feel shut out from the democratic mechanisms that are supposed to serve them. If Americans felt more closely connected to the political, social, and economic institutions that control their lives — you know, if our society was actually run according to democratic principles — conspiracy theories would be much less popular. Ordinary people wouldn't feel like the society that controls their lives is run by forces beyond their control. When people feel powerless, a mystique inevitably develops over the places where power exists. This then proves to be a fertile breeding ground for conspiratorial mindsets.
Perhaps appropriately, this returns us to the ideals propounded by Kennedy himself. Regardless of which of the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories is correct (if indeed any of them are), the bottom line is that a well-informed citizenry living in a transparently democratic society is one that needs no conspiracy theories in the first place.
As Kennedy himself put it: "A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people."