Conspiracy Theories and Other Radical Ideas

21 06 2010

I like to think that I have a pretty open mind.  While much of my interaction with people from different backgrounds happened during college, more of these conversations are taking place now that Jay and I have been traveling and meeting people from around the world.  I enjoy engaging in discussion on just about any topic, but many of the ideas I have come across seem radical, and ridiculously conspiracy theory-like.

One person shared with me that America is the country with the least freedom and civil liberties because the government can watch you through your television screen.  She added that this is why the government encouraged everyone to switch from analog to digital and even initially gave away free cable boxes, so that we can be watched.  Another Costa Rican added that there is no privacy in the United States, since there is a personally-identifying code on each voting note so that the government can record in a file who you voted for.

The ‘radical ideas’ and misconceptions extend beyond the United States to other countries including Israel.  While I was once quite staunchly right-wing in my views, my political leanings migrated to center-left over the past few years and I began to develop a distaste for blanketed Israel advocacy.  But my jaw dropped and I instantly understood the mass ignorance that perhaps necessitates the advocacy when one tico shared with us that -historically – there were never Jews in ancient Israel, and that the Israelis are relentlessly and purposefully persecuting Palestinians as a misguided revenge against Hitler and the Holocaust.  She made no distinction between “the Jews” and Israelis, and stated all of these comments as nonnegotiable facts.

I don’t have high expectations that culturally-entrenched views can change overnight, but I gave a little push-back and a small discussion ensued.  I did take slight satisfaction in realizing that – unbeknown to this tico – her house is stocked full of Israeli products (Beit HaShita) as well as American kosher-certified products (cookies, olive oil, etc.).  The irony.

posted by amybetho




4 responses

25 06 2010
Allen Strouse

A conspiracy theory is, for me, like reading about the Judgment of Paris. It’s like entering into—reading about—a new, magical universe. Some people really live in a different dimension! where no one landed on the moon, or the C.I.A. killed J.F.K., or 9/11 was an ‘inside job.’ What a world! When I hear these stories, it’s always so totally fantastic: I feel like I’m walking through the wardrobe into Narnia!

What I want to know is, why do people believe these ‘insane’ ideas?

My understanding is that human beings tell stories, in order to make sense of the world. We tell Shakespeare, and we tell Einstein, and we tell the Bible. It’s one of our greatest assets as people, and also one of our great downfalls: we tell stories, true or not.

Clearly, the world is extremely complex, almost overwhelmingly so. It’s hard enough accepting that we all really ‘exist,’ let alone dealing with nature and especially with human society. We tell stories, so that we can claim to understand.

There are ‘crazy’ people who tell stories that are flagrantly untrue and disconnected from the facts. But then there are other, ‘sane’ people who believe silly stories, too. For instance, a student in an American public school is taught that Columbus was a hero, and that the founding fathers were all righteous men who fought against divine monarchy (Columbus actually was a kind of imperialist, and the first Europeans in North America murdered millions of natives; the founding fathers owned slaves, oppressed women, and were fighting against a parliamentary democracy, not a divinely-appointed king). If you went to a Hebrew school, you would have every reason to believe in the ‘conspiracy’ of a mass revelation at Sinai, and most Christians believe in the ‘conspiracy’ of the murder and resurrection of Christ. If you respond with the ‘real’ answers on your 10th grade history exam, you’re liable to get a bad grade, and to look ‘insane’ to your teachers, parents, and peers. Most people agree to the untrue, but accepted ‘facts,’ and if they don’t, then they’re automatically seen as a nutcase.

This isn’t to say that ‘conspiracy theories’ aren’t totally ridiculous (they may be). But I mean to point out that, even today, we tell stories in the public sphere that are not ‘true.’ Most Americans, for example, believe that their political opponents are ‘conspiracy theorists,’ people who live in an alternative, false reality. Is it ‘true,’ for instance, that a fetus is a person? Is it ‘true’ that gay people are afforded by the Constitution the right to marry? Answers to these questions, for many people, decide if you are ‘sane’ or not, if you live in the ‘real’ reality.

We are all constantly debating about ‘reality’ and what is the truth. We are all talking about, when we enter into the political realm, what is ‘true.’ And many people insist that they speak for the ‘truth.’ Many voters on the left and right assume that their opinions are grounded in the ‘truth,’ and politicians of all stripes claim to speak for the ‘truth.’ For most Americans, their opponents on the other side of the political fence are seen as totally stupid, like conspiracy nuts.

Unfortunately, our politicians and our news sources say a lot of things that, to the critical thinker, are nothing more than lies. And, worse still, many people are not critical: people who do not think are swept up by the lies.

In my experience, conspiracy theorists tend to be people who are skeptical enough to know that the ‘truth’ we hear on t.v. is not really all that true. Unfortunately, these people are also not educated enough to think deeply, and then they succumb to other, false fantasies.

I mean, for example, that in some sense ‘9/11’ really was an ‘inside job’: powerful people on the ‘inside’ did use the attack as a rhetorical touchstone, cited it to justify war and torture—but their ‘real’ motives were oil, greed, and imperialism. Figuratively speaking, ‘9/11’ turned out to be, after the fact, an ‘inside job.’ People believe that ‘9/11 was an inside job,’ because, in some sense, it was.

Furthermore, people on the ‘inside’ talked about the threat from weapons of mass destruction… but that turned out to be a complete fantasy! The WMD ‘conspiracy theory’ was, alas! the raison d’être of public policy. The most powerful people in our society believed in weird conspiracy theories! At least, they convinced the majority of Americans to believe in the WMD theory.

Still, it is not literally true that ‘9/11 was an inside job.’ But people who are confused and scared, weary of the government and of the media, are smart enough to know that the story we tell about 9/11 is not the truth, but they are not sophisticated enough yet to think and read and analyze what is really going on. Thus, these folks say ‘it was an inside job,’ without realizing how this is figuratively, not literally, true.

My point, then, is that conspiracy theories have a figurative, if not a literal, truth about them. It’s just too bad that the conspiracy theorists themselves don’t realize this! It seems to me that conspiracy theorists are wise enough to approach the world skeptically, but not quite deep enough to really investigate it. They arrive at the wrong answers, but they do ask the right questions.


I’m really glad you brought up the subject of conspiracy theories, because I hope someday to do a study of them. I’d love to write a conspiracy theory book! They say so much about the ‘truth,’ and about what people are willing to believe in. They really are so fascinating! Oh! but they are, in many ways, such a detriment to positive political change!

Please tell us more about the conspiracy theorists you’ve met!


That being said, I want to add that I think Israel is not, of course, “persecuting Palestinians as a misguided revenge against Hitler and the Holocaust.” But the Israeli state does continually invoke the Holocaust, and the paranoid fear of a future holocaust, as an excuse for keeping Palestinians inside a kind of concentration camp. Israelis do use the Holocaust as an excuse for oppressing other people and perpetuating a holocaust of murder and starvation against Arabs. And they oppose a single-state solution on the grounds that it would open up Israel to the possibility of genocide against Jews.

Even though the Holocaust is an historical reality, it has taken on mythical proportions, a Hell on earth, a story with which to justify anything. Even though the Holocaust did literally happen, it is a kind of figurative theory, a Biblical myth, in the minds of many people, Jews and Gentiles alike.

3 07 2010

Allen, I totally want to respond. Hopefully I’ll find time soon!

3 07 2010
Retired Syd

Oh my gosh that is hilarious (not the Hitler stuff but the spying through our TV’s). Did you point out that the governmental job of manning the video surveilance at the other end is incredibly boring one since you’re just watching Americans sitting on their couches staring back at you?

That was a good laugh . . .

3 07 2010

And if they are watching EVERYONE, where do they get the “watchers” from?

(If there are 300 million people in the country and half are watching TV during prime time, are the other half watching them? Secretly?)


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