Conspiracies are U.S. : On Making Up Truthers, Birthers and Deathers, Part 2

This is Part 2 of a two part series by Prof. Joshua Reno on conspiracies in the U.S. You can read Part 1 here.

In the August 2011 issue of American Ethnologist, I discuss how it is that evidence becomes inadmissible, stopping us from giving an argument due consideration. According to Marilyn Strathern, the use of evidence relies on the ability to create analogies between general claims and particular facts. In a criminal case, for example, establishing “guilt” requires making links between this account of events and information about the perpetrator, their intentions, the scene of the crime, the victim, their relationship, and so forth. But there are many ways of establishing such analogies. The rejection of certain claims as “inadmissible” can arise from a sense that they somehow violate the unspoken rules of establishing truth.

One thing that those labeled “-ers” (i.e. 9/11 truthers, Obama birthers, bin Laden deathers) seem to have in common with each other is that they find an account more convincing the greater the stakes. Thus, if Obama’s entire presidency can be invalidated by his being foreign born, if Bush Jr.’s entire war on terror is premised on a danger posed to U.S. security, if Osama bin Laden’s death is meant to symbolize a historic victory in that same war, then the likelihood of a cover-up increases and a search for corroborating evidence begins. There is an analogy established, in other words, between the significance of the event, the political gain of the conspirator, and the appeal of conspiracy to explain it. It is suspicion aroused from a perceived motive.

What stops so many others from drawing this analogy? The answer certainly does not lie in their careful consideration of the facts. Professional conspiracy debunkers focus on the technicalities of evidential claims, rather than the assumptions underlying them. Like most people, I do not have in depth knowledge of the physics of demolition, of the bureaucracy of birth documents, or of covert military tactics, and yet I do not feel I need to see any of the mounting “proof” which conspiracists and debunkers regularly cite in order to settle on my opinions. Thus when someone emails me with “evidence” that Obama was not born in the United States I immediately deem it inadmissaible, not because I know for certain that it is wrong, but because I suspect the conditions under which it was derived. To be more specific, I assume that the “evidence” was artfully manipulated by some “-er” bent on feeding their obsession. Of course, this is merely reversing the “-er” logic described in the previous paragraph, assuming that the greater the desire the conspiracist has to prove their point, the less trustworthy their data. Once again, perceived motive overrules evidentiary claims. The question remains: what unspoken rules are “-ers” suspected of breaking, that makes their claims seem inadmissible from the start?

One possible reason for skepticism such as mine may lie in the appeal of conspiracy theories to people in the U.S. generally. Olmsted’s book would seem to suggest that an historic embrace of freedom and dislike of big government is responsible for the last century of developments in U.S. conspiracy culture. If this is true, then those same sentiments may prevent people from believing that conspiracy could be bureaucratically managed in a practical way. When I was young I was fond of a joke that went something like this: “how is the U.S. government supposed to manage covering up the Kennedy assassination when they can’t even deliver the mail properly?” To believe in the power of the state is to respect it, and people in the U.S. tend not to respect the government that much. This is why, at least since Reagan, Republicans can win elections by accusing their opponents of favoring “big government,” and why it is difficult to find any elected representatives who claims to be in favor of “big government” today. Would not the effective management of conspiracy on an everyday bureaucratic level, in office meetings, paperwork and communiqué, prove the ultimate triumph of big government: its capacity to manage truth itself?

Let me put this more clearly. The “-ers” I have met tend to accuse the uninitiated of being manipulated by the mainstream media to believe the “official” narratives that those in power demand. A complementary criticism is that those who do not believe would rather hide behind smug cynicism then challenge convention and seek out the truth at any cost. One possible reason people do not become “-ers” is not that they are media-manipulated dullards, or postmodern cynics, however, but that they optimistically believe the reverse of conspiracists: that a cover-up becomes implausible, regardless of the perceived reward to prominent political figures, when the risk of the whistleblower effect is so high. Whatever the advantages for the Bush administration of staging a terrorist attack, the planning and resources required to orchestrate such a massive event would seem to vastly increase the likelihood of something going wrong or of someone with knowledge of the cover up coming forward. John Dean testified against the president of the United States when the crime was only a simple burglary and conspiracy, a far cry from the mass murder of thousands of innocent U.S. civilians. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 might have taken only a few dozen Al Qaeda operatives to conduct, but it would have likely taken the complicity of thousands of government employees, most of them not well paid or rewarded for their efforts, to succeed in preventing any internal memo or illicit correspondence from coming to light.

Whether or not most people perform such a calculation, it seems as if “-ers” hold the opposite view: the bigger the scandal, somehow, the easier it is to believe. I would add another qualification to this, in light of the kind of “made up person” that “-ers” are supposed to be: the fewer people that believe you, the easier it is to believe. If this equation holds true, then one of the conditions that sustains “-ers,” for one reason or another, is the knowledge that their evidence is considered widely inadmissible, that their claims attract so much scorn and skepticism. It is easy to attribute the emergence of such a way of being to the isolated and anonymous experience that surfing the Internet can be, but that hardly explains Donald Trump. The core of narcissistic fantasy may be much simpler: an individualist enjoyment of being the heroic advocate for truth in the face of overwhelming opposition.

There are real conspiracies in the world, but I would argue that the biggest are rarely successful in accomplishing what conspiracists think they ought to first and foremost, which is to fool (almost) everyone. The Arab Spring is widely agreed to have begun in Tunisia, where people first rose in popular revolt. According to a recent dialogue between Zizek and the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, the Tunisians were inspired to overthrow their government, not because they were surprised to learn of political corruption within the ruling family (the so-called “Cable-gate” scandal attributed to Wikileaks), but because suddenly that vast public secret was out in the open. As described by Michael Taussig (1999), a public secret is something everyone knows yet no one is supposed to know. According to Zizek and Assange, the released Wikileaks cables made Tunisians suddenly aware that they were not alone and that no one, not even the U.S., could now deny what they knew to be true about their government.

It may be, in fact, that the greatest conspiracies are maintained by the complicity of people who know very well what is going on but do not or cannot act. This would be a conspiracy of knowing silence, rather than a conspiracy maintained, as many “-ers” assume, by ignorance. If information leaked tomorrow that Obama secretly received a promise of campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry in return for watering down his healthcare proposal, or from Wall Street executives for not seeking a tax on financial speculation, then there would be a new “-gate,” but no newly vindicated “-ers,” precisely because no one would be remotely surprised to learn that power and influence flows just as we all suspected. This is not conspiracy based on mystification. Maybe the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was not convincing people he didn’t exist, as the old adage says, but convincing people that they were the only ones to believe in him. Perhaps what maintains the worst conspiracies is not that people are so easily corrupted or manipulated, but that they tend to think that other people are. In the case of “-ers,” this lack of faith in others may go a long way toward explaining the appeal of “being” one of them.

Joshua Reno is a lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London, in the Department of Anthropology. He received his PhD from the University of Michigan in 2008. He has articles on waste, techno-science, and environmental politics appearing in Cultural Anthropology, American Ethnologist and Science, Technology and Human Values in 2011 and a book co-edited with Catherine Alexander on recycling economies expected in 2012.

2 thoughts on “Conspiracies are U.S. : On Making Up Truthers, Birthers and Deathers, Part 2

  • I really enjoyed reading this essay. I would like to ask a question. Could it be biologically engrained in human psyche to look for conspiracies, simply out of curiosity? Or rather could it be due to a certain societal mentality against an established system?
    For example, conspiracy’s against the establishment have been around as long as society itself. Perhaps, humans look for conspiracies because there is a psychological need for answers to the unknown.

    Just a thought.

    • Thank you for your comment James. I think you are likely correct, that there is something cognitively appealing about conspiracy (perhaps what is also appealing about ghost stories and mysteries), and there is something socially meaningful about imagining wicked others (whether politicians, aliens, or deities) who are concealing truth and/or seducing others into believing their lies.

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