Emma A. Jane and Chris Fleming. Modern Conspiracy: The Importance of Being Paranoid. Bloomsbury, 2014.
Andrew May. Conspiracy: A History of the World for Conspiracy Theorists. Bretwalda Books, 2014.
Andy Thomas. Conspiracies: The Facts, The Theories, The Evidence. Watkins Books, 2013.
Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent. American Conspiracy Theories Oxford University Press, 2014.
In a dangerous and uncertain world it is perhaps not surprising that conspiracy theories develop and grow. These four books present various facets of the theories and their study.
Two of these are academic studies. Jane and Fleming’s book is a social science study of conspiracy theories, but also, unusually, of their critics, such as Daniel Pipes, Richard Thompson and David Aaronovitch., which in some respects present mirror images.
Their argument is that even though the specifics of individual theories are often false, or indeed nonsense, their persistence is something worthy of social importance.
Uschinski and Parent trace the history of such theories in America, pointing out that the very foundation of state was based on a conspiracy theory, that of the conspiracy by King George to destroy the liberties of the people. Using letters to the editor of the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, they examine the development of such theories since the late nineteenth century. The result is an incredibly diverse set of suspected conspirators, covering nine columns and including; Anti-Sacharine men, anti-saloon league, Boers, the Bosnian government, construction workers, Croatian extremists, ice companies, Christian Scientists, Christian scientists, Pacifica Foundation, plumbers, silver interests, Wall Street gamblers and Mozart, not forgetting Filipino friars. They also use polling data to analyse the background of the those who believe in such theories.
On a more popular level, in his small book Andrew May traces the history of conspiracies, real and imagined, showing how far these go back into history; including for example the popish plot, the gunpowder plot, the murder of Edward I, the death of Napoleon etc. Andy Thomas presents a very much insider view of conspiracy theories, identifying himself with the 'truth seeker community' and taking on many of the usual suspects.
Of course there are conspiracy theories and conspiracy theories. There are real conspiracies, usually be small groups of people and some of the more unpleasant are those undertaken by middle managers of various kinds who think they are going to please their bosses (and instead end up hugely embarrassing them). As Jane and Fleming point out, real life conspiracies are rarely plotted out in advance, rather they are reactions to events, and grow in complexity as attempts to cover up what usually started as cock-ups become more desperate. They take Watergate as an example, but if there is a conspiracy involved in the assassination of John F Kennedy it is likely to be of this character.
Having studied the Kennedy assassination for years, I am no further from knowing whether he was assassinated by a lone assassin Oswald or by what we would now call a terrorist cell, whether of the left or right. My own suspicion is that either way, the thing was known about in advance and the plan was to let it run to the wire, to provide Kennedy, in confidence, with evidence he could use to blackmail Khrushchev into abandoning Castro to the fate that was being planned for him in a few weeks time. Something went horribly wrong and the president really was shot, with the result that loads of people had to do an awful lot of backside covering. Many of the historical conspiracies related by May seem to fall into that category.
Though many of the conspiracies are ancient, the “conspiracy theories” about them are often relatively modern, and often date from the post Kennedy assassination era. Some of the various conspiracy theories surrounding the Lusitania or Pearl Harbour Fall into that category. A typical example might be the various conspiracy theories surrounding “Jack the Ripper”. In reality it isn’t even at all clear that there was a single Whitechapel murderer, the canonical five murders may have had two or three separate culprits, but even if there was just one, he was almost certainly a working class East Ender aged between 25-40, who was probably known to his victims and not perceived as a threat, and certainly not the Duke of Clarence, J. K. Stephen, James Maybrick, Arthur Balfour, Lewis Carroll or Montague Druitt; and probably not one of the “foreign” suspects either, nor someone perceived as so mad as to be incarcerated.
These real conspiracies and 'petty' conspiracy theories are quite separate from full grown mega conspiracy theories. These often involve at the lowest level, huge baroque operations, which would require hundreds of people to be involved. The sheer complexity of faking the moon landing, would, as Jane and Fleming point out, require far more effort, expense and expertise that actually getting people to the moon. Imagine the effort and planning needed to fake all the evidence in the Kennedy assassination, or the fake 9/11, or as they also point out, 'Obama is not American' conspiracy theorists have to end up arguing that Obama’s grandparents must have planned in advance when he was a baby to fake the evidence that would be needed so he could run for president nearly fifty years later!
The step beyond this is the sort of mega-conspiracy theory which argues that all of history is a fraud, that the guardians of society of really its secret enemies, or that all the pain, heartache and suffering in the world is caused by the terrible others. In a sense this must be comforting, to believe that everything that goes wrong is caused by the government or the One-World conspiracy means that there is someone in charge of events, that tragedies are not the result of terrible happenstance.
One of the most important features of such conspiracy theories is that the other is sufficiently like us, that they could be the people next door, or even our own relatives, or indeed ourselves. That is perhaps why Muslim Exteremists are often discounted as the conspirators, they are just too other, too niche, or just too incomprehensible to be good conspirators.
Of course, one cannot help feeling that for most of the people that identify themselves as truth seekers, this is play-paranoia, essentially a form of entertainment on a par with computer games. This certainly seems to be the cases with books like Thomas’s. Does anyone really believe that the Queen is an alien shape shifter for example, or that alien hybrids are planning to take over the world? Surely this, at least, is the stuff of computer games. When the play ends, terror begins. Hitler really believed that the Jews posed a total existential threat and acted on that belief with appalling consequences, and the real fear with conspiracy theories is that someone out there will indeed really believe them.
Paranoia is one of the those words, like fascism which is often banded around promiscuously, not least by people like Aaronovitch or Pipes, to delegitimise anyone who is opposed to the neo-con world view. The real thing can however be truly terrifying.
Truth Seeker is another term which seems to be much overused; one gets the impression that the only truth these people are seeking is one which confirms their own belief systems, which all too often involve Judeophobia, as witness if you enter 'Truthseeker' into Google.
There are of course equally dangers in the blanket repudiation of all talk of conspiracy, I am sure that a year or two ago David Aaronovitch would have assured us that any talk of the police fabricating evidence in the Hillsborough tragedy, conspiring to fit up a cabinet minister, having sex with women in order to infiltrate opposition groups (morally if not legally getting close to rape) was so much nonsense. After all we are British and we don’t do that sort of thing. -- Peter Rogerson.