One of the more pointed jokes about the Mel Gibson movie Conspiracy Theory is that the conspiracies believed by the character in that movie are believed by the actor as well. As a reasonably tolerant and patient listener, despite my own native talkativeness, I have heard many conspiracy theories over the years. I have read theories that I have not heard. I do not consider myself someone who has a highly paranoid worldview or believes too much in conspiracies, though, and today I would like to talk about why that is the case.
There are a few elements common to conspiracy theories. For one, they posit that a given group of people, be they the Black Pope (head of the Jesuits), the Freemasons, the Bohemian Grove, the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, the Jewish Bankers, and so on, are so powerful that without widespread knowledge they control the world, often through shared rituals and total secrecy. We have a combination of great power and great secrecy, because such a group would lose their power if it would become widely known and could be opposed, and also a great deal of ability to act in concert, without tripping over themselves in public and exposing the whole operation.
I find this difficult to believe. Conspiracies are hard to maintain over the large scale, simply because it is hard to transmit enough information to act in concert with someone with enough safeguards to prevent that information from being spread to someone who considers the reward of telling the secret to the world worth the risk of his angry colleagues killing him for it. As a point of reference, the Freemasons were exposed fairly quickly after they expanded beyond a very small elite group. The United States government is also fairly good at getting conspiracies (think of Michael Vick) to flip by offering lesser punishment to lower ranked people so they will tell on their superiors. Criminal minds are often very susceptible to such appeals, and unable to stay loyalty in the face of punishment for their crimes.
There are a few reasons I consider conspiracies very unlikely. For one, it is very hard for people, especially separated by great distances in time and distance, to consciously act in concert with each other. This past week, Americans have been treated to the spectacle of a political campaign that could not get its message straight about a fairly low-level accusation of sexual harassment, falsely accusing a rival campaign of leaking the information. Here we have two people who work closely together who can’t keep their stories straight when one of them is seeking the office of President of the United States. If two close associates and longtime business partners can’t keep their stories straight, how do vast conspiracies of thousands of people spread across generations keep all the bodies buried and keep all the secrets from getting out, without someone spilling the beans to the wrong person, or someone writing down the evidence and leaving it in the attic or wallboards of a house?
Conspiracies are fun to make into movies. The paranoia of a bunch of people working together to take away freedom or control the world’s economy is a comforting thought when faced with our own powerlessness to defend ourselves and to even (sometimes) earn a decent living. To believe that there are vast forces aligned against us helps to absolve us of whatever personality we have in our own troubles and state of affairs. For some people the sorry state of their affairs is a powerful incentive to find someone else to blame, to exculpate themselves.
There is an element of gnosticism in paranoid conspiracy claims, though. And that is because a conspiracy, at least on the scale of international conspiracies like Jewish bankers or Freemasons or Jesuits, requires godlike powers of intuition and massive power on the part of one’s enemies. It is the inverse of the gnostic belief in the godlike powers of spiritual intuition to believers, in this case, projected onto one’s enemies. Those who believe their enemies are a powerful and immensely secretive and unscrupulous conspiracy have no qualms about adopting the same tactics themselves, even if they have to create the conspiracy of their enemies (be they Jews or Catholics or some other group) in order to justify their own paranoid response to the imaginary threat. Dictators, who are fond of imagining conspiracies among their restive and oppressed subjects, also show a lot of the behavior of conspiracies themselves.
How is this so? There is the relentless focus on espionage, of people spying on their family members, friends, neighbors, coworkers, so that no one can trust each other for fear of death or long imprisonment in a gulag, and so that everyone becomes as paranoid as the dictator themselves. People project the nightmare of their fears and anxieties, and the more power they have, the more other people have to respond to that paranoia until they too are caught. Every group activity, no matter how innocuous, can be a cover for a coup attempt, be it a sports or religious group, or even just a group of friends who enjoy philosophical and intellectual conversation. Any attempt to act in concert about anything threatens a paranoid dictator.
It goes without saying that the dysfunctional way that such governments, be they Nazi Germany or the Communist Soviet Union, or the Confederate States of America, riven with rivalries over power and prestige and internal turf battles, belie the fact that such authoritarian regimes can work seamlessly or in a united fashion. It is a common mistake to assume that Satan’s kingdom (for such these deeply riven and corrupt regimes are a part of) is a unified whole. Those who practice the politics of division cannot help but be divided themselves. We are almost inevitably hoisted on our own petard, simply because we receive the same sort of medicine we dish out to others. The fact that coordination between rival people and parties within a regime fighting over power makes coordination difficult also makes conspiracies difficult to succeed without blowing their cover. In 2010 I had a good time blowing the cover of an attempted conspiracy within a group of ministers who left my church to form their own, and it was entertaining (in a grim way) to see the doubletalk and transparency of the conspiracy, how easy it was to snuff out and expose. We overestimate the ability of others to conspire because we aren’t aware of how difficult it is for people to cooperate on the large number of detailed actions in concert it takes to be successful without drawing undue attention to one’s actions.
In my experience, the only conspiracies that work well are not conspiracies to rule but rather conspiracies of silence. This is the sort of conspiracy that one sees very commonly within families and institutions. This is the sort of conspiracy that allows priests who are child molesters to get passed around from one diocese to another. This is the sort of conspiracy, which I commented on earlier today (see the previous post) that allowed Penn State’s former defensive coordinator to allegedly get away for at least fifteen years of raping and molesting vulnerable boys through his not-for-profit organization. This sort of conspiracy is possible to maintain because it is very easy to set parameters on what subjects are strictly forbidden to talk about (and it’s not too hard to avoid talking about such matters as child abuse, to sweep it under the rug and pretend it’s not there).
This is not the conspiracy that is meant by most people who are conspiracy theorists. It suggests that evil is able to keep silent about the darker parts of history, and to desire to ignore the more unpleasant parts of our nature, and that people can very easily conspire as to such matters, but that to conspire to rule and dominate others is a much more difficult task because of rivalries over positions and power that provide a high incentive for people to act out of concert and to throw mud about others who are their rivals, to make sure that the ugly and unpleasant details of an attempted conspiracy get brought out into the light of day. All of this makes it very easy to understand why the Roman Catholic Church has conspired for decades to keep sexual perverts in the priesthood without facing justice before the law but why the Jews or Jesuits aren’t able to conspire to take over the world. When you look at what is required to conspire to keep silence and what is required to work together to take over institutions and rule over people without informed consent, it is a lot easier to keep a secret about the one than the other. Even here, though, the secrets almost inevitably get out. In the end, two people can only keep a secret if both of them are dead, and none of them wrote it down first or put it on video, which makes conspiracies of any kind more and more difficult to preserve from an ever-increasingly nosy and informed public.