Not all Conspiracy Theories are Created Equal
By J.R. Nyquist 08.28.01
Notes on interpretations of recent political history
Some propositions are so flexible as to be circular; as such, every fact reinforces the proposition and no possible fact is ever taken to refute it. Such propositions are impossible to argue against or examine scientifically because, in principle, they are built on an unassailable basis.
Suppose there is a theory: (1) all swans are white.
The founder of this theory is an expert who has examined 10,000 swans on five continents. Every swan he has seen is white. He writes eight volumes documenting the whiteness of swans. He claims, furthermore, that this is beyond dispute. However, another researcher finds black swans in Australia. When confronted with this discovery the founder of the theory decries it is "impossible." The theory that all swans are white is well established. If they are black, they are not swans.
Among our political writers we are blessed with many who say that all swans are white, and turn this into a logical proposition. All swans are white, therefore any non-white swan is not a swan. Very logical, indeed, put hardly honest. Here the assumption proves the conclusion and the conclusion proves the assumption. There is no appeal beyond this circle, no appeal to the realm of fact.
But if we want to be reasonable and open-minded, we must admit that any generalization from specific facts (e.g., 10,000 white swans) is vulnerable to the discovery that contradicts the generalization, making it untrue. We humans are not omniscient. There are gaps in our knowledge. Some facts are unknown to us, like the existence of black swans. Therefore, when we put forward a theory, and this includes conspiracy theories, we must take care to avoid circular formulations. We must ask ourselves what a black swan would be, in this case, to our white swan. What fact or discovery would fatally wound our theory?
Recently I had the occasion to ask a lady author and conspiracy theorist what might be the equivalent of a black swan for her. She had no answer. Such methods do not apply to her inquiry. As she explained, she was setting out to prove what she already knew to be true. I put the same question to another conspiracy theorist, who is an excellent researcher, but he had no answer. My argument to them was quite simple: If no fact disproving their "elite conspiracy" hypothesis is conceivable in principle, then their argument is probably based on circular logic, not strict empirical observation. In fact, their hypothesis is not an hypothesis at all, but a faith or dogma which is never to be challenged or questioned by critical methods.
Not all conspiracy theories, however, are based on circular reasoning. Not all position themselves above critical examination and refutation. KGB defector Anatoliy Golitsyn, who alleges a Kremlin long-range plan against the United States, offered a number of falsifiable predictions about the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the manner in which it would happen. Had these predictions failed to come true his hypothesis would have been falsified. Such a failure would have been the equivalent of a black swan.
It is my challenge to those who are inspired by elite conspiracy theory, drawing sustenance from works like "None Dare Call it Conspiracy" and "The Shadows of Power," to say what their black swan would be. What fact, if proved, would upset their thesis. If no such fact can be imagined, then perhaps their theory does not depend on fact at all, but is an universal interpretation which can be applied to all human facts (as mustard might be applied to all food).
Most conspiracy theorists have yet to suggest what discovery might lead them to change their mind. It is my observation that whatever future event occurs, whatever fact is discovered, their notions can be flexibly fitted to the occasion. If a politician rises, it is proof there is a conspiracy. If that same politician falls, it is also proof. If a president is assassinated, we see the hand of the Satanic cabal. If he survives assassination, he has come over the cabal's side.
When a Nazi official in the 1930s brought proof to Adolf Hitler that "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" was a forgery, Hitler's reply was: "It doesn't matter. The Protocols are still true in principle."
Conspiracy theory, for Hitler, was a statement of faith - the furtive fallacy of those who cynically believe that history is a chronicle of nefarious dealings, plots and subterfuge; that all events are explicable by a reference to a common plot. In Hitler's case, it was a "Jewish-Masonic" conspiracy. For Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, conspiracy theory is due to the mysterious Illuminati. There are many amendments to the basic conspiratorial line.
Except for the occasional third rate historian (like Carroll Quigley), or the fourth rate Nazi or Marxist thinker, no great and distinguished mind has yet embraced "conspiracy theory" if we look back at the great thinkers of the past two centuries. Works of acknowledged scholarship, erudition and literary skill do not reflect this theory. And this has to be accounted for, if indeed conspiracy theory is true.
Rather than seeing organizations and movements inspired by liberal and utopian notions, the conspiracy theorist see a nefarious plot to enslave mankind under a global totalitarian state. Who, specifically, wants to create such an enslavement? Answer: The rich and powerful, the most respected names in the United States and Europe, the people who (as it turns out) already rule the world. In conspiracy literature the words and deeds of the enviable upper class are given an uncharitable coloration. Wars, assassination and economic difficulties are ascribed to malevolent cunning. Even the moves of the West's enemies are credited to these plotters.
If the conspirators oppose Russia, they are playing a dialectical game and the Cold War itself is decried as "phony." If these same people turn around to support and appease Russia, they are proving their totalitarian credentials. Their real motivations, thoughts and plans are never properly examined in an objective way. Always, the conspiracy theorist knows these people are villains from the outset, and he/she knows what they are up to.
Their least errors prove their evil genius. Their greatest bungles are without the least stupidity. Their inability to deal with insuperable is always cunning and by design. The plotters are building their power. The global dictatorship is getting closer by the day.
This analysis does not take into account the complex interplay of forces which constitute the simplest social formation. Today we have a civilization which daily moves millions upon millions of barrels of oil from one part of the world to another. If this flow stopped for any reason there would be a catastrophe. Yet the machinery functions, and must continue to function, moving faster and faster. The plotting and scheming which allows the machine to move is thought to be nefarious. Yet abundance is produced by this
machine on a scale never before seen. We have before us a society more permissive than dictatorial, more lenient than harsh and more liberal than fascist.
Yet the conspiracy theorists decry its totalitarianism.
To accuse the leadership of this amazingly vibrant, productive and decadent civilization of unleashing a plot to purposely smash the engine which they themselves have sweat to build and maintain, is to propose a contradiction.
It is an odd conspiracy which, after a hundred or two hundred years, intentionally produces prosperity when it is alleged to be conspiring for pauperization. It is much simpler to theorize, instead, that the utopian projects of liberal civilization stem from the intellectual errors of the liberals themselves (i.e., the assumed perfectibility of humanity). Let it be noted that human beings often use their prosperity and power unwisely. This, in fact, is quite common and not at all extraordinary. No conspiracy theory is needed to account for the evils we see around us today. We are all-in-all sufficient to create such problems simply by "being ourselves."
When the next great economic crash comes (and perhaps it is upon us, even now), when the economy suffers a grand correction, it will not be due to the machinations of conspirators - foreign or domestic (though our enemies may give us a strong push if they can). It will be due to the excessive economic optimism which debased all rational calculation and encouraged an economy of moonbeam farms.
That being said, there are sophisticated international players who would be happy to give our civilization a "push" - as it were - into the abyss. Naturally, these are players who reside outside the West.
At the same time, the leaders who sit on top of a civilized structure, to the extent that they are conscious of the great process around them, understand that they have everything to lose and little to gain from the destabilization of that structure. They already possess not just power, but the prestige of standing at the head of the most successful economic and political formation yet known to history. These leaders, despite flirtations with utopian liberalism, are profoundly conservative when they sense a threat to their own position. In the recent past, many in the U.S. elite were genuinely frightened of the arms race and the possibility of nuclear conflagration. The search for peace, the belief in the soothing influence of international commerce, led these players to open doors that should never have been opened - to China, for example. And these same players were eager - if not over-eager - to hear noises of contrition from the communists, if not rumbles of collapse.
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