Conspiracy or Institution?
A good place to begin is with Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code. The book ignited a firestorm of controversy about faith and Christ, causing discussion about religion that I think is long overdue. But it was interesting to see the mentality of Dan Brown. He said he came into writing the book with the mentality of a skeptic, but it was clear that he didn't quite know what the word meant. (In the interest of full disclosure: I am a Buddhist, anarchist, parecon-advocating, feminist college student, so it's not like this is coming from the Heritage Foundation or something). What struck me in this documentary on the book was that there were people making sober, historically aware and by no means fundamentalist points. There was a preacher who said that Christianity had an unhealthy attitude towards sex and that, if Jesus was married and had children, it would not affect his divinity one iota. There was the author of a book on whether or not Mary Magdalene may have founded a Merovingian dynasty. And so on. I saw the following aspects of conspiracy theory thought emerge in Brown's comments, which was a pattern I saw irrespective of the merit of his work:
1) He viewed the theory as almost self-justifying. Conspiracy theorists view an absence of proof as simply an amazing testimony to the quality of the coverup: in other words, absence of proof is the best proof. They also interpret any finding they see based on their theory and then incorporate that finding as part of the proof, one of the worst kinds of circular logic. Dan Brown found that the Knights Templar had discovered something in the old ruins of Solomon's temple that gave them a lot of clout and ended up killing them. He then said, "The ONLY logical thing is that these are documents relating to Jesus Christ being married." What? That doesn't seem to be a logical derivation at all. Why would there be such documents buried in Solomon's temple? A good scholar responded by saying, "It was money. They got powerful because they had money; they were killed because they had money and the King of France needed some." Critics of this kind, irrespective of being wrong or right, fail to follow Ockham's Razor: if there is a simple explanation for a phenomenon, then it is more plausible than the complex explanation.
2) He failed to distinguish and qualify his evidence. He'd say "This city in France has a history of exactly what I said" and the people there actually said "No, we have a history of Mary Magdalene and others coming here, but we don't think that the person was the child of the Messiah, that's sacrilege." Whereas good scholarship can cite a piece of evidence and use it to make arguments that the source of the evidence would not necessarily agree with, it is nonetheless key (and especially vital in this case) to get the argument the person originally offered right and THEN offer your speculations and inductions.
3. Conspiracy theorists can make the same claims as someone else, but they do so in a distinct way, referring to coverups and saying "This is true". Other people say, "This is a hypothesis. There is promising evidence, but as of yet I do not know of its validity." A scholar they interviewed was the source of many of Dan Brown's claims, but he constantly made clear that he does not "believe" anything but knows or does not know, and in this case he does not know with any certainty.
Which brings me to a favorite author of mine, Chomsky. What distinguishes his work and the type of work that good institutional analysts do from conspiracy theories?
1). Chomsky has an established methodology that is rather rigorous and which is commonly accepted. When he discusses the performance of the media, he uses a few standards. One is comparing media here and media abroad. His argument is, "Corporate media have X and Y properties. In particular, American media show these properties." So he compares American media, which he says have these properties in particular, with foreign media and with prominent organizations (church groups, human rights groups, think tanks and journals, government agencies), organizations that are often cited by the mainstream media when they say the right things. By noting differences in coverage, he can provide some element of proof that his theory is fairly valid. He lets his adversaries choose their ground, discussing the examples they offer for an opposing theory as they relate to his. He, for example, shows that Watergate was not actually a courageous fight against power, but was in fact the powerful in the society punishing one of their own who had overstepped the boundaries, and makes his case even more compelling by comparing the coverage of Watergate to that of COINTELPRO. And he compares coverage of the media of the same topic over time, showing that the reporting of the same issues change as the consensus of the elite classes changes. All of his sources and methodologies are fairly sober and don't involve digging through obscure files. For example, his analysis of NSC 68 is one of the few out there, even though it is commonly recognized as an important document. He also cites people who disagree with him strongly, and as where he cites Grossman and Mitchell on space militarization, he actually DOESN'T make some of the arguments they make because he doesn't want to make overly rash claims before verification.
2). His theory has prima facia credibility and is an analysis of institutions. Were someone to say, "Pravda's reporting is affected by their institutional structure as adjuncts of the state", everyone would view that as a remarkably sane and even trivial "no duh". But Chomsky gets nothing but scorn by saying that "Institutional properties of our media will affect its reporting." The claims are no different. His claims about the media also make sense based on very simple assumptions about markets. On the whole, one would believe Chomsky's theory at first.
3). Chomsky's theories are nuanced and accounts for variations. Chomsky constantly compares different journals, different governments, different industries, different administrations. What people slight him for is being "simplistic" by noticing and arguing for consistent patterns, but that's a silly brushoff made by critics who can't answer the argument. To see consistent patterns is not "simplistic" if one can demonstrate that, irrespective of differences that one concedes, there is a consistent pattern.
4). Chomsky's theory overwhelmingly ignores individuals and small groups. Listening to Dan Brown, he focuses not just on the Church (which makes sense) but on groups like the secret organization Leonardo da Vinci was supposedly part of and the Knights Templar. It's a list of obscure event after obscure event, with small groups hiding information for nebulous and ever-changing reasons. Chomsky instead looks at what institutions will drive people to do, because he sees that when individuals like Ramsey Clark have conversions or attacks of guilt, policy changes very little. In fact, the claim that he is "simplistic" arrives from this very claim. Critics of Noam can't have it both ways: Either he's simplistic in that he focuses too much on broad patterns that he verifies and doing so blinds him to nuances, or he's a conspiracy theorist who pieces together things and makes such a complex story that it falls apart from its own magnitude.
The fact that this is the case is relatively easy to show. If someone were to say, "State media sources and intellectuals have a vested interest in not saying particular things or allowing them to be heard because it might foment revolution or anger against them and thus hurt their cushy position", everyone who's not totally deluded would agree with them. But if someone says, "Corporate media sources and the intellectuals dependent on their good will have a vested interest in not saying particular things...", that is a sheer sign of an addled leftist who's been taking too many drugs.
What people often say is, "This can't be true because the media would have reported it." But the media invite all sorts of people with differing viewpoints to make different claims, some of which are uncontroversially less valid than Chomsky's. After all, the media paid attention to Dan Brown, didn't they? Further, the argument is usually circular or close to it: "The media is good, therefore they wouldn't report this. Why is the media good? Because they have standards of objectivity and don't report things like this." That is admittedly somewhat of a caricature, but the critiques often think that Chomsky is alleging a conscious coverup and a silencing of everything. Chomsky's point is rather that there are all sorts of voices not heard in the media irrespective of their validity. It's not that there's been a coverup and the information is now hard to find, it's that the information is easy to find, in fact sometimes buried in the very news media, and yet the assumptions of the reporting and the focus of the reporting follows a consistent pattern.
I believe Chomsky in no small parts thanks to my own experience. It's not that reporters think, "Oh, this is against the interests of the great capitalist conspiracy, I must not say anything lest I be shot." It's rather that they're so well indoctrinated that they simply don't get the argument whatsoever. One time, a reporter interviewed me regarding a debate I was doing in front of the League of Women's Voters. I said something along the lines of, "The research I do when I have a strong opinion lets me build a better and more nuanced case. I can read today's lies and build a straw man of the media so I can catch them when the lies change tomorrow and the straw man is different." The article put the debate in a very positive light, even calling me "fresh-faced" and saying that we debated on an even keel with little to no ad homs. Yet the content of what I said to her was simply lost: She listened to the smart leftist junior and simply didn't get what he said. You see it over and over if you're watching Chomsky or any other leftist speak: They'll say something, and the response is totally non-sensical because the person simply isn't getting it.
Everybody assumes that if you're attacking Bush that they can throw you off by critiquing France and Kerry, for example. When I say "Kerry and France have their problems too" and list them, their response is usually far more muted and surprised. That's a good example of certain assumptions that people have: Everyone thinks that if you're political, you're a hard party-liner. When I discuss to people the problems I see in a way that's more critical of the "system", as it were, and not individual candidates, something different happens.
There are conspiracies in history. It is true. And I do think, for example, that there are some questions about 9/11. But I try desperately to avoid adopting the conspiracy theorist mentality, and more importantly, regarding my questions about 9/11, I cast them as things to think about. Why? Because they are just that: Questions. I only see a hypothesis and I have a skepticism for the line that's being fed to me, and when I see everyone from former Marines to intelligence agents (including Robert Mueller, only the head of the FBI, saying repeatedly "believe", "think", etc. regarding al Qaeda and 9/11 and commenting that funding came from Germany and the United Arab Emirates) to Lyndon LaRouche to Michael Moore to Sherman Skolnick commenting on questions about 9/11, I think it's not remiss to give the matter some thought. But even if 9/11 was masterminded by Osama bin Laden, or, more likely, a cell of al Qaeda, it does not justify the post-9/11 policies one iota. And this is very common about conspiracy theories.
Let us say that there is an Illuminati or a Freemason conspiracy. So, how would one deal with such a conspiracy? Well, a good place to start would be to eliminate state and corporate structures so that they could not use those levers of power to dominate, and then to establish participatory polities and economies so that their small numbers made them politically inconsequential. In other words, the problem with a small group of people exerting a large amount of influence isn't something you need to go through dusty archives to see: You see it everyday, in the decisions made by the rich and powerful to kill and steal from the poor and weak. In that sense, the Illuminati are at best chimerical opponents who don't change a good leftist's strategy one bit. The point of research, of looking into and uncovering nasty things about society, should be to empower and inform us to action, not to make us wild-eyes advocates of one particular theory about one particular problem and spend our entire lives compiling a library, as I saw one man in Dallas do.