by Mark English
The term ‘conspiracy theory’, though it no doubt serves a useful purpose when used in carefully-considered ways, is most often used in polemical contexts simply as a derogatory descriptor. I want to set down a few ideas on the problem of deciding which ideas in the political realm (and, by extension, which sources) are too crankish (or nutty) to be bothered with, and which are not.
Of course, there can be no simple formula for making these sorts of decisions. It is a matter of judgment, and the point of these notes is simply to suggest certain possible general guidelines or heuristics.
The background to my thinking relates to a well-known psychological phenomenon: the tendency to over-project agency, to see things which happen around us (especially things which impinge on our well-being) as being willed and directed by intelligent agents (rather than being accidental or unintended). This idea underpins most of what I am saying here.
Just as natural events are sometimes seen (literally) as “acts of God”, so economic, social and political events are often interpreted in terms of deliberate and (usually secretly) coordinated actions on the part of a group of powerful individuals.
Literary and online examples are all too easy to find. But let me mention a couple of real encounters from my past. Both involved very intelligent and professionally-successful men. One was a well-regarded cardiologist, the father of a high school acquaintance of mine. For some reason, I was visiting the boy’s home one evening with members of my family and the doctor, a large Irishman with massive hands and bushy eyebrows, drew me aside for a confidential discussion. He had never met me before, but he wanted to warn me about “the Masons”. Which he proceeded to do, without preliminaries and in some detail.
The other example was an uncle of mine who engaged me in a similar confidential discussion not long before his death. From his youth, he had been highly political – pacifistic and left-wing. He worked as a journalist before qualifying and working (until retirement) as an accountant. He was a music lover and an excellent chess player. But what he told me in that confidential chat was utter nonsense (along the lines of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion).
An irony here is that after my uncle’s death details came to light concerning his (and my) Jewish ancestors. But such knowledge would probably not have bothered him. He would probably have taken a line similar to that taken by the notorious Charles Coughlin who divided Jews into the convenient categories of “good Jews” and “bad Jews”. Coughlin’s good Jews were religious Jews and his bad Jews were irreligious or atheistic. Presumably, he didn’t count converts to Christianity as Jews at all, though non-religious Jews were deemed still to be Jews. (This, of course, is quite in line with the attitudes of many religious Jews.)
For all his intelligence and good qualities, there is no denying that my uncle had crankish tendencies (and not just in relation to the matters under discussion). For him the fiction-based fantasies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion reflected an actual reality, and elite Jews not only had a plan to control the world, they actually had the power and resources to carry it out. They were carrying it out.
It seems to me that the idea that world affairs are being orchestrated by one specific group is a crucial indicator of crankish thinking. Clearly, this involves a radical simplification and distortion of what is an irreducibly complex reality.
A paradox lurks here. If things are so simple, why do others not see it? But another common psychological illusion – the tendency to have excessive confidence in one’s own powers of judgment – at once dissolves the paradox and boosts the ego. Others do not see aright (the conspiracy theorist argues) because of the extreme deviousness of the conspirators, which is further obscured by a compliant mass media. Only a small minority of perceptive observers can see through all this.
There is no doubt that national and international political and economic elites exist and communicate extensively and influence the course of events. And sometimes they coordinate their activities on a global scale. Central bank and other government-sponsored interventions in financial markets over the last ten years have been highly coordinated. There is abundant evidence for this (largely secretive) coordination of activity.
But the crankish conspiracy theorist – falling prey to the tendency of the human mind to over-project agency, to scapegoat and to grasp at simplistic solutions to complicated problems – goes well beyond the evidence, and claims that the network of elite and politically and economically powerful groups is both far more organized and far more unified in terms of motivations than in fact it is – or even could be from a rational point of view.
In a way it is not surprising – given the dramatic failure of publicly-funded formal education in Western countries – that the old, discredited myths associated with Western anti-Semitism are not only persisting, but gaining traction. And not just in the West.
In various published accounts of the origins of the Muslim Brotherhood, Paul Berman has made the point that the movement incorporated not only Western political ideas into its brand of Islam, but also elements of Western anti-Semitism – specifically the tendency to demonize Jews and impute to them (black) magical powers. (In fact, this could be seen as a natural extension of the tendency to over-project agency, as pre-modern forms of thought do not draw a clear distinction between natural and supernatural faculties and powers.)
The witch-obsessions and witch hunts and trials of early modern Europe illustrate how supernatural or magical powers are often imputed to imagined enemies. In Western folklore, witches are always credited with magical powers. In like manner, the most extreme forms of anti-Semitism impute – implicitly or explicitly – dark supernatural powers to Jews.
Jews themselves may occasionally (in various ways) play into this general stereotype – or be perceived to do so. For example, Saul Alinsky mentions Lucifer in one of the epigraphs for his influential book, Rules for Radicals: “Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins – or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom – Lucifer.”
This sentence has been much discussed. My only observation is that Alinsky’s allusion to Lucifer seems not to be Jewish in spirit so much as Romantic.
If I am not mistaken, Alinsky’s Lucifer owes more to the tradition from which Gustave Doré drew his creative vision than to medieval or Renaissance sources.