“Conspiracy theories” – Q & A

 

The phrase “conspiracy theory” is so widely used it is in danger of losing all meaning – or rather being used to stop critical thinking and investigation.

We will be running a number of articles in which various meanings and uses of the term are teased out, starting with this introductory Q & A by John Booth, a member of the JVL Education group

John F. Kennedy in the presidential limousine shortly before his assassination

When Sir Keir Starmer dismissed from the shadow cabinet his 2019 Labour leadership rival Rebecca Long-Bailey for retweeting an interview in The Independent, he said: “The sharing of that article was wrong because the article contained anti-semitic conspiracy theories”.

So what would happen to a party member who retweeted the following?

“Jews hold stunningly powerful positions and clout in the United States. The combination of the American state’s power and the Jewish power in the areas of legislation, administration, media, law, business, culture and entertainment have made the Jews a defining factor of contemporary America.

Would the party’s compliance unit quickly check its list of anti-semitic tropes and suspend the retweeting offender? Would it then seek to discover if the author of the quote was also a party member with a history of promoting “anti-semitic conspiracy theories”?

If the Labour officials found the tweet and the original statement breached the party’s “zero tolerance approach to anti-semitism”, they would then face a rather embarrassing difficulty.

Why?

Because the quoted author is Avraham Burg, a former Speaker of the Knesset and the ex-chairman of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organisation.

This shows the problem when a phrase like “conspiracy theories” is wielded as a political weapon, even without the toxic addition of “anti-semitic”.

As mature Labour people we know comradely discussion and united action is not aided by loosely labelling our political opponents inside or outside the party. That kind of knockabout politics may have offered some playpen fun in student days, but it adds little to our understanding and does nothing to impress those whose support we need to move the country forward. So let’s try to grapple with what’s meant by “conspiracy theories”.

What is a conspiracy?

Sir Keir, as the former head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), knows that “conspiracy” is a term in routine legal use to describe an agreement where two or more people agree to carry their criminal scheme into effect. A fuller description of its extensive scope is here at the CPS website and here.

Less formally we know that “conspiracy” describes what happens when a group of people get together to plan change affecting others without the majority knowing about it. It’s a very common activity among those seeking controlling influence be it at work or play as well as on the political stage.

For example, in his book about South African-born cricketer Basil D’Oliveira, writer Peter Oborne describes how influential figures discreetly sought to prevent him playing for England in his native country. He subtitles his revelatory account: “Cricket and Conspiracy: The Untold Story”.

Those involved in democratic politics – the business of who gets what, when and how – want transparency and openness about the way power is exercised. We rightly question how decisions are made and by whom.

Throwing light on the hidden corners of our public life is part of the Left’s task in making our democracy healthy and accountable. Seeking out and exposing those involved in secret dealings – conspiracies – is a democratic imperative.

What are theories?

They are ideas or principles explaining or justifying something. These can range from conclusions methodically reached by careful evaluation of evidence to notions that disintegrate at first glance through their sheer absurdity. It’s a word encompassing Albert Einstein and shape-shifting reptiles.

So what are conspiracy theories?

They are propositions that some covert but influential organization is responsible for unexplained events. This way of thinking has a long history, usually attributing these occurrences to influential groups. These have included the Roman Catholic Church, Freemasons, Jews, the Kremlin, Aliens, the Queen and the Illuminati among many others.

They come in all shapes and sizes from single, overarching conspiracies embracing the whole world down to beliefs that local Freemasons are secretly benefiting each other in council decision-making. Growing scepticism about our politicians and mainstream news, the ubiquity of social media and the deregulation of US broadcasting have permitted them to multiply, much encouraged by shows like The X-Files.

Where did the phrase come from?

It didn’t originate with the assassination of US President John F Kennedy in 1963, but it gained wider circulation the following year when the Warren Commission reported on his death.

Why?

The Warren Report was widely criticised and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) took steps to undermine and smear critics by calling them “conspiracy theorists”. It urged its staff and media assets to do the same.

The phrase has been used since to stymie the questioning of events and the interrogation of individuals and organisations. Challengers to orthodoxy are often styled “tin foil hat wearers” and “people with an agenda”, or even disturbed malcontents suffering paranoid delusions.

By wheeling out “conspiracy theory” whenever controversial issues arise, we fence off areas from examination and discussion and so inhibit freedom of expression. The addition of phrases such as “anti-American” “anti-clerical” and “anti-semitism” is often used as an extra barrier to inquiry – a thought-stopping and sometimes guilt-inducing block to critical thinking and debate.

Can conspiracy theories be true?

No and yes.

No. The notion that a group of people can covertly control the way our complex and diverse world works lacks credible, rational evidence. This doesn’t mean that those who promote this simplistic view don’t have followers: religious cults, for example, attract millions who pay for the privilege of sharing a monochrome perception of reality. Few UK participants in democratic politics share that facile world view.

Yes. There are plenty of examples of specific conspiracies being proved true, including those by the many arms of government whose confidential work is concealed behind the Official Secrets Act.

One example was the Information Research Department set up discreetly by government during the Cold War ostensibly to oppose Communism at home and abroad. For 30 years it was a key source of media information, some of it true, some of it false and the rest a mixture of both. It helped form the opinions of millions of citizens, including MPs, who unknowingly paid for its propaganda. Its influential existence was only revealed the year after it was closed down.

Think too of the belief held by many Hillsborough families that the police, aided by some in the media, conspired to conceal the truth about the death of their relatives and friends in 1989. It took years of legal and political struggle in which the campaigners were subject to great personal abuse to finally establish the truth of their conviction.

When I lived in Italy in the 1970s I met activists who believed that behind the country’s spate of bombings, murders and kidnappings was the covert hand of the Italian state. They were styled “conspiracy theorists” by many in the mainstream of politics and journalism. But subsequent investigation proved them right and revealed a much wider covert network of influence within Western governments.

Then ask questions nearer home. Who were the “conspiracy theorists” in 2002 who told us that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction? And was it just a coincidence that every one of Rupert Murdoch’s global media outlets supported the invasion of that country?

How can we test for truth?

The starting point is to recognise that conspiracies are a real and normal part of our lives together, including politics.

Accepting that reality it’s worth bearing in the mind the following thoughts. Writer Gore Vidal said he wasn’t a conspiracy theorist but a conspiracy analyst. Fellow author Anthony Summers said he wasn’t interested in conspiracy theories but in theories about conspiracies.

The next step is to carefully sift whatever evidence is being put forward in support of what is being claimed. Is it verifiable from more than one source? Are those sources credible and with relevant expertise? Do they have a previous record of reliability? Do they represent special interests or have other motives for promoting their claim to the truth? Can a money trail be reliably established? Are there other sources of evidence relevant to the claim?

If that sounds like hard work, it’s because it is. It’s so much quicker and easier to swallow an account that is well publicised or comes recommended by others. But if we are to become a fully democratic society where events and ideas are tested by logic, evidence and rationality many more of us have to do it – because we can be sure the mainstream media and career politicians won’t.

 

 

 

 

 

Comments (12)

  • Philip Ward says:

    Interesting.

    So what was Maxine Peake’s “crime”? Certainly nothing antisemitic. Not a conspiracy theory either. I would call it an understandable misapprehension and a misinterpretation of the evidence.

    What’s happened to her BTW? Should Keir Starmer be held to account for the damage done to her livelihood?

  • Jan Brooker says:

    The current pandemic has revealed quite a few *conspiracy theorists* on the *left*.
    Quite a few seem unable to separate out the fact that Governments lie doesn’t mean thay always lie: mask wearing being a case in point, linked to restrictions on *freedom* vis-a-vis Covid-19, and the actual numbers of deaths; and on from there.
    Only yesterday, someone I’ve now *unfriended* was posting: “Do you know anyone who has died” ~ the implication being ….

  • Sheldon Ranz says:

    Peake had it right the first time. The Squawker uncovered a website that the Israeli government tried to bury which bragged about how Israeli soldiers use the knee-on-neck technique as a krav maga maneuver (which Israel invented). Minnesota policeman Derek Chauvin used this same technique to kill George Floyd this year, eight years after the Chicago affiliate of the Israeli consulate organized a seminar in Minnesota for about 100 police officers featuring security coordination and anti-terrorism techniques. Prior to 2012, there is no record of any Minnesota cop using such a technique on an African-American in custody.

  • Chris Hemmings says:

    “Who were the “conspiracy theorists” in 2002 who told us that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction?

    Surely the CT guys were those of us – self included ‐ who said there were none?

  • Inbar Tamari says:

    It would be interesting to know the exact details of Burg’s statement. When he said it and in what context.

  • Pat Mc Ginley says:

    This 1985 Miami court case – which the CIA lost and lawyer Mark Lane won – is evidence beyond all reasonable doubt the CIA assassinated JFK. Opting for peaceful coexistence and ordering the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam got JFK killed by the military-industrial complex which controls the US. LBJ reversed the order, four days after the assassination. Mark Lane’s two excellent books on the assassination provide transcripts of the Miami court case i.e. ‘Plausible Denial’ and ‘Last Word’. http://www.libertylobby.org/articles/2000/20000207cia.html

  • different frank says:

    You briefly mention Gladio.
    Here is a really good Timewatch from the BBC on this.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1YhRBxxyRqs

  • Antony R says:

    Maxine Peake, at worst, overstated her case on a single detail that at the time was no more than a reasonable inference from other documented facts. To call it an “antisemitic conspiracy theory”, as Kier Starmer did, is to trivialise both AS and CTs.

  • Johny Conspiranoid says:

    “The phrase “conspiracy theory” is so widely used it is in danger of losing all meaning – or rather being used to stop critical thinking and investigation.”
    Well duh. Why was it invented?

  • Ian Sanders says:

    Chris Hemmings The UN weapons inspectors (the officials whose job it was to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq), said they saw no evidence of any WMDs and they hadn’t been obstructed. Some of us believed them. On the other hand were people claiming (with no evidence) that the weapons inspectors had conspired with Saddam Hussein, that Scott Ritter had been “bought” (also without any evidence) and declared (without any evidence) that there were Iraqi weapons which could be launched at the UK within 45 minutes. It is perfectly legitimate to call the latter group “conspiracy theorists”. Very few conspiracy theorists trust the UN.

  • DJ says:

    The right wing press including the Guardian and the Independent claim the leaked report is nothing but a conspiracy theory. Corbyn and his supporters are being presented as poor losers trying to pin the blame for electoral failures on others. No need to look into the incriminating evidence against Labour staffers just exonerated by Keir Starmer. Well they would say that wouldn’t they? We just needed to save the country from a hard left government. Sacrificing investigative journalism is a price worth paying to stop this “cult” from “seizing power”.Thank God Keir Starmer has three “right minded” Labour peers on the Forde Inquiry.

  • Dave Bradney says:

    Basic but excellent on conspiracy theories. Needs to be basic as there is a lot of opportunistic nonsense talked.

    I always say that if conspiracies can not exist we would not have a word for it!

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