October 09, 2009

The Truth is Out There? An Examination of Political Conspiracy Theories

by Duncan Tucker

Amid the furore about healthcare this summer, Barack Obama faced wild accusations from right-wing “birthers” claiming that he is a Kenyan-born Muslim, sent to bring socialism to the United States. These unsubstantiated allegations demonstrate not only the growing desperation of the conservative right, but also America’s age-old love for conspiracy theories. Conspiracies have become increasingly popular in the internet age; Google lists over ten million results for conspiracy theories, while in 2006 a national survey revealed that a remarkable 36% of Americans believe that their own government was behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks.[1] The popularity of such theories may be attributed in part to human nature. It is only natural for people to question authority and invent narratives in order to make sense of complex or distressing events. Additionally, conspiracy theories play a sensationalist role. They have become just another form of entertainment, capable of selling newspapers and satisfying the public’s appetite for gossip and scandal. Yet there is a risk that such theories trivialise and over-simplify important political issues. An examination of the historical circumstances behind major political conspiracy theories can reveal why they remain so persistent, and whether they deserve such attention.

Conspiracy theories crop up routinely throughout history, but it was not until the 1960s that they began to gain widespread popularity and media attention. The US public was losing faith in the government after Lyndon Johnson’s lies over the Vietnam War were exposed, and this distrust was intensified when the Watergate scandal revealed the extent of Richard Nixon’s illegal activities and his inept attempts at a cover-up. Amid the growing sense of disillusionment there developed a political climate ripe for conspiracy theories.

Perhaps the best known of conspiracy theories arose after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963. Rumours persist to this day of CIA/Soviet/Cuban/Mafia involvement; additional shooters on the infamous grassy knoll; and Lee Harvey Oswald’s tantalising claim that he was “just a patsy”, moments before he too was gunned down. The huge weight of evidence against the Warren Commission’s official account – that Oswald was a deranged lone assassin – led to an official reinvestigation in 1979, which ruled that there was ‘a probable conspiracy’, but failed to identify any specifics of the plot.[2] The Kennedy assassination also helped to popularise conspiracy theories for a new generation, thanks to the release of Oliver Stone’s controversial thriller ‘JFK’ in 1991. The film reignited public interest in the case, led to the declassification of thousands of documents, and helped to firmly establish conspiracy theories in contemporary popular culture.

Such theories have maintained popularity and a degree of credibility in part because the US government was behind operations as sinister and unlikely as those detailed in many alleged conspiracies. Under the guidance of director J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI ran a secret and illegal counter-intelligence programme (COINTELPRO) to repress political dissent, from the 1950s through to the 70s. Hoover targeted high-profile African-American leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X through means such as blackmail, infiltration, violent intimidation and murder. The CIA was involved in even more bizarre operations, such as the mysterious “MKULTRA” programme, which seems as absurd and far-fetched as even the wildest conspiracy theory. During the 1950s and 60s the CIA spent years experimenting with mind-control through hypnosis and the administration of drugs such as LSD. They sought to create a “Manchurian candidate” who could “perform an involuntarily act of attempted assassination against a prominent foreign politician or if necessary, against an American official.”[3] However, in 1973 all files related to the project were conveniently destroyed before they could be made public to an official investigation.

Many conspiracy theorists have asserted that 9/11 was an inside job, or “False Flag” operation, to create a pretext for the War on Terror and justify the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. While most people refuse to believe that the US government would sanction the murder of its own citizens, this would not be an entirely unprecedented action. In 1962 the CIA proposed “Operation Northwoods”, a plan that involved clandestine operatives carrying out terrorist attacks against the American public, including bombings in Florida and Washington. Cuba’s communist government would then be blamed, providing a convenient pretext for another US invasion and the removal of Fidel Castro. Although Kennedy ultimately abandoned the plan, Northwoods remains an intriguing precedent, revealing that False Flag operations were not necessarily beyond the realms of government policy. With government agencies actively working against progressive social movements, and contemplating the murder of their own citizens and politicians, it is no surprise that conspiracy theories were met with increasing public acceptance in America during the Cold War.

Yet in regard to 9/11, it seems unlikely that the US government could have flawlessly planned and carried out attacks of such magnitude in complete secrecy. It is more plausible that the government may have known about the attacks in advance, but failed to prevent them either deliberately or through sheer criminal negligence. Indeed, there is ample evidence of a government conspiracy after 9/11, to cover up the mistakes of the Bush administration and the security agencies who ignored numerous warnings in the months prior to the attacks.[4] The 9/11 Truth Movement has campaigned tirelessly for a reinvestigation of the attacks, yet could their efforts be misguided? Although the official accounts of events such as 9/11 may often be misleading, Noam Chomsky argues that inordinate focus on conspiracy theories distracts attention from more serious state crimes: “One of the major consequences of the 9/11 movement has been to draw enormous amounts of energy and effort away from activism directed to real and ongoing crimes of state, and their institutional background, crimes that are far more serious than blowing up the WTC would be, if there were any credibility to that thesis.”[5] Instead of poring over every aspect of the tragedy, the Truth Movement would perhaps have been more constructive in redirecting its attention towards Bush’s exploitation of the attacks; highlighting and campaigning against his repression of civil liberties, abuses of executive power, and imperialist foreign policy.

Conspiracy theories now emerge after almost every high profile news event, and it is unsurprising that they have flourished online. The internet provides a cheap and easy means of reaching a potentially huge worldwide audience, and can be an excellent resource for independent research. Yet most conspiracy sites are notoriously unreliable, frequently taking quotes out of context and making tenuous connections between half-truths and lies to create new interpretations. Internet films like ‘Loose Change’ and ‘Zeitgeist’ are riddled with errors, omissions and distorted or even invented facts. It is essential for conspiracy theorists to treat such sources with caution. Those truly dedicated to uncovering the truth must be willing to consider alternative perspectives and read debunking arguments as well. Unequivocally accepting such theories is just as naive and close-minded as refusing to consider them in the first place.

Although frequently ridiculed and labeled as “conspiracy nuts” by the mainstream media, conspiracy theorists can still play an important role in investigating stories that the corporate media often ignores. Conspiracy theories should not be immediately dismissed out of hand, and despite their flaws can often reveal lies or inconsistencies in official accounts which might otherwise go unnoticed. Events such as Watergate illustrated the importance of holding official sources of information to account, and not blindly accepting what we are told by anyone. While the whole truth is often elusive, an objective examination of major news events can help create a conscious, critical discourse and prevent an Orwellian rewriting of history.

[1] Scripps Howard poll (2006) http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_1475.cfm

[2] James DiEugenio and Lisa Pease, ‘The Assassinations: Probe Magazine on JFK, MLK, RFK and Malcolm X’ (2003) p.51

[3] CIA memorandum (1954) http://ww.tenntimes.org/stories/mind-control/mind-00f-05.htm

[4] 9/11: The Conspiracy Files (BBC Documentary, 2007)

[5] Noam Chomsky (2006) http://www.radicalreaction.com/blog/chomsky/index.html

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