The Truth Is…yadda, yadda, yadda

In the Fall of 1986, when I was studying in Leningrad, a friend showed me a Soviet newspaper report that Ronald Reagan’s government was selling arms to Iran in order to fund the Contras, the right-wing rebels who were trying to overthrow Nicaragua’s socialist government. We both rolled our eyes, but admitted to a sense of perverse admiration: you had to hand it to those Soviet propagandists.  Every now and then, they displayed a real spark of imagination.

Except, of course, they hadn’t.  The Iran-Contra Affair, which also involved photogenic colonels, ingénue secretaries, and huge amounts of cash, really happened (even if nearly everyone involved got away scot free).  By comparison, Watergate, the go-to-scandal of the last three decades of American twentieth-century politics, was straightforward: a set of crimes and cover-ups.  Iran-Contra was so baroque that the Illuminati and the underground lizard people would have fit right in, if it weren’t for the fact that Iran-Contra was real. 

 

The problem with a wholesale dismissal of conspiracy theories is that it does not justify a wholesale dismissal of conspiracies.  At some point, what looks like healthy skepticism can turn out to be gullibility.   Perhaps the ultimate conspiracy theory would be to posit that some evil entity is deliberately spreading absurd conspiracy theories so as to drown out actual conspiracies in a sea of noise. [1]

Brian Keeley addresses this problem head-on, noting that a typically capacious understanding of conspiracies would include surprise parties,  which, however unwelcome they might be, hardly qualify as sinister.   He has created a special subset of conspiracy theories:  the “Unwarranted Conspiracy Theory” (UCT): 

  • (1) A UCT is an explanation that runs counter to some received, official, or "obvious" account.
  • […]
  • (2)     The true intentions behind the conspiracy are invariably nefarious.
  • “(3)     UCTs typically seek to tie together seemingly unrelated events. 
  • “(4)     As noted, the truths behind events explained by conspiracy theories are typically well-guarded secrets, even if the ultimate perpetrators are sometimes well-known public figures.
  • “(5)     The chief tool of the conspiracy theorist is what I shall call errant data.”  
  • “Errant data come in two classes: (a) unaccounted-for data and (b) contradictory data. (116-118)

The UCT is a valiant attempt on Keeley’s part, but he himself is the first to find fault with it, admitting that both Watergate and Iran-Contra meet the UCT criteria.  The UCT was first proposed in 1999, but it has not caught on with the scholarly community, since it contains an evaluative component that can never be completely validated. 

Years later,  Lance deHaven Smith tries to do away with the term “conspiracy theory in its entirety:  

  • I introduced the concept of State Crime against Democracy (SCAD) to displace the term “conspiracy theory.” I say displace rather than replace because SCAD is not another name for conspiracy theory; it is a name for the type of wrongdoing about which the conspiracy-theory label discourages us from speaking. Basically, the term “conspiracy theory” is applied pejoratively to allegations of official wrongdoing that have not been substantiated by public officials themselves. 

Like the UCT, the SCAD has yet to catch on, even as it avoids the pitfall of developing a definition based on the truth or falsehood of a given theory.  deHaven-Smith’s project is one of reclamation, trying to balance skepticism of conspiracy with skepticism of official claims.  But any value the term may have is bracketed by his study’s very title:  Conspiracy Theory in America.  deHaven-Smith presumes the existence and desirability of democracy; what happens when democracy is not an issue?   Certainly Russian history is rife with conspiracy theories developed during decidedly undemocratic times. 

For our purposes, while it is important to acknowledge the reality of some conspiracies (and the possible reality of others), truth value is not the primary concern.  The issue for the Russia narrative discussed in the introduction ranges from the conspiracy theory as habit or default to conspiracy as a mode available for adoption.  In other words, we are looking at the conspiratorial subject position. 

And that brings us back to paranoia.

Next: Conspiracy and Its Subjects

Notes

[1] This is a notion that The X-Files has occasionally flirted with, but, as with everything else in that show, flirtation never translates into absolute commitment.   

Sources 

deHaven-Smith, Lance.   Conspiracy Theory in America. Austin: University of Texas, 2013. 

Keeley, Brian L. "Of Conspiracy Theories.” The Journal of Philosophy 96.3. (March 1999), 109-126.