A “conspiracy” is a bad thing. It can be, depending on who is actually involved, seditious, evil, treasonous, fraudulent and, perhaps least of all, illegal. It implies a well-coordinated plot to manipulate circumstances for the betterment of an elite few while victimizing the innocent. Some conspiracies are small-scale, like the owner of a cockroach-infested restaurant bribing a health inspector to look the other way. Some actual conspiracies are much grander.

In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon conspired to keep the truth about Watergate a secret. Back in 1932 in Tuskegee, Alabama, the federal government and medical personnel conspired to keep black men with syphilis away from cures, so that they could be studied as they slowly died. The “study” continued for about 40 years. For generations, tobacco companies conspired to keep the serious health risks of cigarettes away from the public.

The history of the United States is full of corporations conspiring to fix prices, eliminate competition and control government and politicians for their own benefit. Real-estate agents have conspired to keep blacks out of “white” neighborhoods. Polluters have conspired to hide from their acts, allowing communities to suffer the ill effects of their negligence. Automobile manufacturers have conspired to keep dangerous equipment on our roads.

These were real and horrible conspiracies. Surely, some conspiracy theories are eventually proven to be actual conspiracies. No one leading a conspiracy wants to be found out. Likewise, no one (me!) wants to claim a conspiracy is false and eventually be proven foolishly incorrect. So I’ll avoid confronting specific conspiracy theories and focus more on the overall.

Some unproven conspiracies are much easier to believe than others. Was President John F. Kennedy killed by a sniper armed with a magic rifle loaded with free-thinking bullets? And some are so bizarre that they are beyond belief. Could the government actually be secretly working with alien lizard beasts?

While some conspiracy theories would make excellent science-fiction plots (or, actually, really bad science-fiction plots), many are far from benign. conspiracy theories were used by Hitler and the Nazis to enslave and exterminate the Jews. In the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy invented a conspiracy theory that disloyal communists had infiltrated the highest levels of government and society and used the ensuing panic to trash many a person’s career.

conspiracy theories are often used to gain political or financial power. People take advantage of existing prejudices and suspicions to compose intricate plots that appeal to some other people who lack the knowledge and reason to confront them effectively. The result of this is that many people are misled into shifting the blame for real problems from the actual source to imaginary enemies. This leads to a lot of time, energy and intellect being wasted that would be better spent on actually improving our communities and places of work.

These days, bred by the events of 9/11, there is a rash of conspiracy theories. In the beginning, the conspiracy theories about 9/11 being a plot by the Bush administration to make war against their enemies and make money for the friends were promoted by, mainly, people on the left. And the behavior of the radical Bush/Cheney administration lent a lot of evidence to prop the thinking up to the point that it has become an industry. Many people who began their belief in conspiracy theories with 9/11 now adhere to many more conspiracy theories. The original idea that 9/11 was planned by Bush/Cheney has often been morphed into a theory that a worldwide cabal of evil-doers (led by communists, or Jews, or pod people, whoever) is plotting global dictatorship. Everything from financial crisis to new roads to comments made by otherwise obscure sources are fit into the theory until believers become so cultishly caught up in the whole thing that they can no longer relate to non-believers. What generally began as a left-wing suspicion,has been turned into right-wing propaganda.

So, how the fuck did this happen?

It is no coincidence that the conspiracy theories about a New World Order date back much farther than most modern adherents realize. It was in 1958 that the John Birch Society (JBS - which can also stand for “Just BS”) was formed by Robert Welch. JBS began to compile numerous conspiracy theories into one, big conspiracy theory with the basic premise that international communism, financed by wealthy bankers, was slowly taking control of the planet.

Gary Allen came along shortly afterward and began writing books that attempted to fit all the little pieces together. In 1968, he wrote Communist Revolution in the Streets, which tried to tie Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement into this international conspiracy. Later, and most famously, he wrote the 1971 book None Dare Call It Conspiracy, which became incredibly popular among the far right (millions and millions of copies sold). Allen, a spokesperson for JBS, included all kinds of “facts” that would be familiar to conspiracy theorists today. These included alleged plots by bankers, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the Bilderbergers as well as targeted rants against the Federal Reserve and the United Nations (which was claimed to be planning to build a worldwide communist government when actual observers of that group know they could not agree on how to build a sand castle).

Welch and Allen accused noted conservatives Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and John Foster Dulles of being communists (Henry Kissinger got more of a pass as a “liberal” and therefore only a communist sympathizer). While I wouldn’t necessarily categorize JBS as anti-Semitic or racist (many would), the anti-Semitic Nazis and the racist Klans grab hold of and revise these theories for their own ends. For example, neo-Nazis might claim that the “bankers” involved in a global conspiracy are, actually, “Jewish bankers.”

It wasn’t as though these ideas didn’t exist before or without JBS, but this group was able to get a fairly large and energetic band of extremely paranoid patriots together and then get their works widely distributed. And that distribution continues today.

Today, the most widely known personality to speak, pretty directly, from the older works of the John Birch Society is Republican Congressman and former presidential candidate Ron Paul. Paul seems to state very little of his own design, rather relying on the more baseless and ridiculous conspiracy theories of Welch, Allen and other Birchers. More, he has rewrapped these theories and called them a form of libertarianism, which many actual libertarians have a real problem with.

While I’m no fan of libertarians, actual or otherwise, the libertarian icon Ayn Rand, in a 1964 interview with Playboy magazine, had this to say about JBS: “...What is wrong with them is that they don’t seem to have any specific, clearly defined political philosophy. Therefore, some of them may be crackpots, others may be very well-meaning citizens. I consider the Birch Society futile, because they are not for capitalism, but merely against communism. I gather they believe that the disastrous state of today’s world is caused by a communist conspiracy. This is childishly naïve and superficial. No country can be destroyed by a mere conspiracy, it can be destroyed only by ideas. The Birchers seem to be either nonintellectual or anti-intellectual. They do not attach importance to ideas...”

However a popular conspiracy theory begins and whatever it involves, one can be absolutely sure of one thing. JBS, the Klans, the Nazis and other residents of the ridiculous right will attempt to fit that conspiracy theory into their own, existing conspiracy theories.

The conspiracy theory of 9/11 is the prime example. Again, I won’t debate the particulars of this theory. Though I will admit that my general feelings about conspiracy theories are akin to my feeling about fast food and rug burns: Avoid them whenever possible. But the 9/11 conspiracy theory pretty much began as an assault against the Bush/Cheney administration. It was a product of some leftists who were horrified by the actions of the US government after the events.

But this conspiracy theory has, for many people, morphed into much more than that. In fact, no one can possibly believe in every tendril that this particular theory has grown, as many of them offer conflicting views. But with every aberration, the theory branches off into a more conservative direction.

So far the result has been that many people who leaned left were attracted to this theory because of their predisposed political view. Then, slowly, as more fluff and foolishness was added to the theory, they followed along. Many people who were once leftists, and still consider themselves leftists, now spout the words of JBS conspiracy theories without realizing their origin. And, certainly, without realizing that these theories were designed to attack their own ideals.

This is the conspiracy theory version of Six Degrees of Separation. conspiracy theories rarely exist on their own without some connection to other conspiracies. Fall too deeply into one and you may become buried and blinded by many more. There are many people out there who are completely engulfed by conspiracy theories.

The best conspiracy theories are nearly impossible to disprove. They can be discussed, debated and even ridiculed, but they can’t be made to go away. Like disgraced politicians, some rise up again after decades of public hibernation. But people inclined to believe in these should, at the very least, apply some rationale when selecting which theories to believe in and which ones to discard. Below are a few suggestions.

ORIGIN: Where did the theory come from? Use your computer skills to track down the earlier versions of the theory. Note how it may have changed over time and try to figure out why the changes were necessary. Was the theory so outdated that it was proven silly and, therefore, needed to be altered? For example, earlier forms of a conspiracy theory may have called for something to happen on a particular date. When that date passed without incident, the theory needed to be revised. Who was the originator of the theory? Was it a conspiracy theory mill like JBS? What political leanings does the originator (and subsequent spreaders) have? Do you suspect that they have ulterior motives for promoting this conspiracy theory and others like it?

WHISTLEBLOWERS: The larger and more complex that a conspiracy theory is, the more people must have actual personal knowledge of its existence. It would be pretty impossible to disprove a conspiracy theory that included only a few people. But, for example, a conspiracy to dominate the planet and turn us all into pod people would most likely require many participants. Eventually, some of these people would come forward. A conspiracy theory without witnesses is usually a fantasy.

FINANCIAL ADVANTAGE: How much money are people making on the conspiracy theory? Of course, we live in an economy that values the making of money. But, be assured, that if a person or group’s main source of income is through the promoting of a conspiracy theory they will NEVER give it up. Never. No matter how many times or ways it is shown to be false.

PARADOXES: Look for paradoxes within conspiracy theories. These paradoxes are often invisible to the uneducated person as they rely on common misconceptions - misconceptions possibly held by the original, uneducated starter of the theory. Example, does it really make sense that rich bankers would finance socialism when that ideology calls for taking the wealthy’s money and power away?

BEWARE THE OBVIOUS: Similar to paradoxes, some conspiracy theories are so complex that simple and obvious questions go unasked. If a person claims that all-powerful alien pod people have secretly invaded the planet, why the hell wouldn’t these alien pod people assassinate this big-mouthed, tattle-tale first?

LOGIC: Unfortunately, not much logic is taught to Americans unless they enter college. But there are long lists of “logical fallacies” available on-line. Some of the ones most present in conspiracy theories include; the False Dilemma (you are given a choice of two but they are both false), Circular Reasoning (the bible is the word of god; therefore, god exists because the bible says he exists), Post Hoc (it rained today because I washed my car yesterday) and Appeals to Fear, Pity, Popularity and Tradition. There are many, many more (and I’ve probably even used a few in this work). Learn logic and apply it to conspiracy theories.

EXPERT WEIGHT: Balance the number of experts for a conspiracy theory versus the number against. We can’t all be learned in everything. Often, we have to rely on experts to give us important information and, even, conclusions. But the mass media requires that two sides of an issue be shown. This often means that discredited ideas are given equal weight during debate no matter how lopsided the experts stand on the issue. Global warming is a good example. Most people educated in the issue insist that it is a man-made phenomenon while a handful suggest otherwise. Of course, this doesn’t mean that global warming is necessarily a product of humans. What it means is that the great majority of learned people who look at the scientific facts conclude that it is. They might be wrong, but the odds are in their favor.

UNDERSTAND THE TERM: A conspiracy is hidden. People aren’t supposed to know about it. Don’t confuse a conspiracy with a lie or even public policy. Several decades ago there were lots of claims from the far right that fluoride in our drinking water was a communist plot to brainwash and subjugate our population (actually, reality-television programs do that). But this was done in full view of the public with all the scientific details available. So, it couldn’t possibly have been a conspiracy. Unless it was a sinister plot to make people’s teeth less prone to cavities.

DESTINATION: Where does the conspiracy theory lead? Don’t subscribe to any one of them until you’ve followed it along. Often, you’ll find that the whole idea has been hijacked by people you don’t want to be associated with. Be especially careful of the ones that lead to worldwide conspiracies led by Jews – neo-Nazis already have too many friends.

– witten by Bob Maschi
originally published April 2009

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