the hunt for a conspiracy theory
Conspiracy theory has captured the public imagination. Often
we are less interested in what politicians say or do than in attempting
to decipher the hidden agenda that motivates their behavior.
Every Supreme Court nomination turns into a search for the skeleton
in the closet or a trace of a conspiracy. No sooner was Harriet
Miers nominated before rumors suggested that President Bush used
her as a fall guy whose failed nomination would make it more difficult
for liberals to discredit her more conservative replacement. The
president may have more than one conspiracy up his sleeve. It has
been suggested that the avian flu scare is promoted by the White
House to distract the nation from a messy war in Iraq. Others hint
that the pharmaceutical industry is behind it to profit from an
explosion of demand for flu vaccines.
Conspiracy theories are now so influential that the US State Department's
website desperately tries to contain the damage these theories cause
to the reputation of the United States. It recognizes that conspiracy
theories have "a great appeal and are often widely believed."
Indeed, the theory that American foreign policy is the outcome of
a carefully elaborated secret plot concocted by a cabal of neoconservatives
is widely believed both inside and outside the US. Preoccupation
with conspiracies is no longer confined to the margins. Virtually
every unexpected event provokes a climate of suspicion that breeds
rumors and conspiracies.
After hurricane Wilma, which knocked out the power of millions
of Floridians last month, rumors claimed that powerful people in
the region got their power switched on before the rest. These rumors
are positively benign compared to the ones unleashed by hurricane
Katrina. The rumor that officials had deliberately flooded black
neighborhoods in New Orleans is still believed by a significant
section of the population. When director Spike Lee announced that
he was making a film about the flooding of New Orleans, he stated
that he wouldn't be surprised if conspiracy theories of government
involvement in the flooding were confirmed.
Conspiracy theory offers an explanation of the causes and motives
for otherwise inexplicable developments. Such theories are appealing
because they provide us with a semblance of control over powerful
forces that influence our lives. Today, acts of misfortune are frequently
associated with intentional malevolent behavior. Nothing happens
by accident. Human malevolence is suspected to be at work behind
the death of Princess Diana in a car crash, or a sudden electrical
blackout. Unexplained illnesses or a spillage of chemicals are frequently
blamed on the self-serving irresponsible acts of politicians, public
and business figures, doctors, scientists - indeed all professionals.
People always search for meaning. But in our confused and ever
changing world we feel particularly perplexed when it comes to making
sense of the problems that confront us. One of the most important
ways in which an absence of meaning is experienced is the feeling
that the individual is manipulated and influenced by hidden powerful
forces - not just by spin-doctors, subliminal advertising, and the
media, but also by powers that have no name. That is why we frequently
attribute unexplained physical and psychological symptoms to unspecific
forces caused by the food we eat, the water we drink, an extending
variety of pollutants and substances transmitted by new technologies
and other invisible processes. As a result, global warming is not
simply a climatic phenomenon but an all-purpose evil that can account
for a bewildering variety of destructive events.
We seem to be living in a shadowy world akin to "The Matrix"
trilogy, where the issue at stake is the reality that we inhabit
and who is being manipulated by whom. In previous times such attitudes
mainly informed the thinking of right-wing populist movements who
saw the hand of a Jewish or a Masonic or a Communist conspiracy
behind major world events. Today, conspiracy theory has become mainstream
and many of its most vociferous supporters are to be found in radical
protest movements and among the cultural left. When Hillary Clinton
warned of a "vast right-wing conspiracy," it became evident
that the politics of the hidden agenda have been internalized in
everyday public life. Today, the anticapitalist and antiglobalization
movement is no less wedded to the politics of conspiracy than its
opponents on the far right. From their perspective a vast global
neoconservative conspiracy has turned into an all-purpose explanation
for the many ills that afflict our times.
The simplistic worldview of conspiracy thinking helps fuel suspicion
and mistrust toward the domain of politics. It displaces a critical
engagement with public life with a destructive search for the hidden
agenda. It distracts from the clarification of genuine differences
and helps turn public life into a theater where what matters are
the private lives and personal interests of mistrusted politicians.
A constant search for the story behind the story distracts us from
really listening to each other and seeing the world as it really
published in Christian Science Monitor, 16 November