Monday, May 6, 2019

Who’s Watching You?

     We are involved here in a far reaching conspiracy to undermine our most basic beliefs and sacred institutions. Who’s behind this conspiracy? Once again ask yourself who has the most to gain. People in high places, their names would astound you! People in low places, concealing their activities beneath a cloak of poverty! People of all walks of life, left wing and right wing. Black and white. Students and scholars. A conspiracy of such ominous proportion that we will never, never know the whole story and we'll never be able to reveal all the facts! We are readying mass arrests. I am going to see that you people get every possible break. If there is any information you would like to contribute at this time, it will be held in the strictest confidence....

     [From Jules Feiffer’s play Little Murders]

     Conspiracy is currently one of the hottest words / concepts in the American lexicon. Everyone is accusing everyone else of conspiring at something. We hear of plots, counterplots, camouflage, espionage, sabotage, and intrigue of all sorts. You can hardly say “good morning” to a neighbor without seeing him pull the face that says “What did he mean by that?”

     People love this stuff. I can’t be sure why. My currently favored thesis is that it’s “devil theory” stuff. If something’s wrong – that is, if there’s something about “things” that you dislike and would prefer to be changed – the explanation that satisfies best is that some person or agency deliberately brought it about. Find the “devil” and kill him, and thereafter all will be well!

     Devil theories are most comfortable within a theological framework. They’re as unfalsifiable as any other claim about the supernatural. But when advanced as the explanation for large-scale political, sociological, or economic developments, they tend to be dubious. Moreover, they tend to make the proponent look ridiculous.

     Devil theories underpin a lot of popular fiction. A dramatic clash of good against evil is hard to bring off without a discrete enemy to carry evil’s banner. For the really big evils, you need more than one individual devil. A conspiracy is a good fit to that bill. If you’ve read Robert Ludlum’s novel The Matarese Circle, you’ll know what I mean.

     As Murray Rothbard wrote in For a New Liberty, a conspiracy theory must involve the perception of a common motive. Moreover, that motive must be strong enough to animate action. But another element is required to produce a functioning conspiracy: coordination. If those animated by the common motive don’t work together, what you have isn’t a conspiracy but a social, economic, or political trend.

     The John Birch Society, of which I was briefly a member (and of whose overall philosophy I still approve), is closely identified with conspiratorial thinking: specifically, that a great part of our troubles can be traced to one or more functioning conspiracies. This is not perfectly correct. The Society does advance the concept of the powerful or influential insider, who shares a principal motive with other insiders and who works to advance that motive through political mechanisms. However, it allows that such persons might not conspire in the classical sense. Simple commonality of motives among a significant number of powerful or influential persons might suffice, especially if those motives are venal and therefore must be shielded from popular scrutiny.

     But that’s not sexy. It can’t be made into a best-selling novel or a blockbuster movie. If you don’t have evil persons working together – preferably in secret, around a rickety table in a darkened room lit by a single guttering candle – you don’t have an identifiable agency that can be exposed and destroyed by the good guys…whoever they are, and how come nobody ever calls them a conspiracy?

     The strangely paradoxical role of contemporary digital technology deserves mention here. The Information Age, especially as enabled by the Internet and its most prominent subcategory, the World Wide Web, was supposed to be a liberating force. The more people know, runs the theory, the more effectively they can arrange to protect themselves while they pursue their individual interests. And indeed it is so…but what’s this? Has a shadowy group of Big Tech magnates conspired to control the flow of information while herding us all into a single corral? Are we being made into a nation of sheep, our every emission curated by faceless censors as we’re monitored by the ubiquitous digital “conveniences” we’ve so eagerly embraced? Sound the general alarm!

     It could be that way. There are days it seems more likely than not. But commonality of motive, without actual coordination among the Big Tech firms most commonly cited in this connection, would also suffice to explain their behavior. Not to mention that they hardly trouble to conceal with they’re doing, whether it’s to us or for us.

     What I’m saying here is that while conspiracy is a possible explanation for many developments, it’s seldom the only one, and in many cases is not the most plausible one.

     As far as popular consumption goes, that’s essentially irrelevant. People prefer conspiratorial explanations over the more depersonalized sort. It gives them hope that the evils they see can be traced to specific evildoers, who can then be eliminated, solving the problem for all time (or until the next batch of conspirators gets its engine running). They who promote conspiracy theories are aware of that. They don’t need to believe their own formulations, as long as it gets them nearer to their ultimate goals. Why, as a method for galvanizing popular support, it constitutes a clever innovation, a breakthrough in the technology of mass manipulation. I’d name names and provide dates and places, but they might take it badly.


mobius said...

On the other hand, the like minded conspire as a matter of course. The question is the legality of their actions

Linda Fox said...

I don't know much about the jBS. Mostly, what the reputation was, although, now that I think about it, I have to consider who gave them that rep.

Jim Horn said...

Bingo, Linda. Like the also despised NRA, its members actively engage the Congress, the media and the public. Not behavior that gets favorable coverage!