Contrasting views of conspiracy theories

Three chapters on conspiracy theories in three separate books, two pursuing a Cultural Studies perspective and the other a rationalist one.

  • Chapter 7 – A few clicks of a mouse. In Aaronovitch, David. 2009. Voodoo Histories – the Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern Histories. London: Jonathan Cape. pp219-258.
  • Chapter 3 – Cultural studies on/as conspiracy theory. In Birchall, C. 2006. Knowledge Goes Pop. Oxford: Berg. pp65-90.
  • Afterword – Conspiracy theory, cultural studies and the trouble with populism. In Fenster, M. 2008. Conspiracy theories. Secrecy and power in American culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp 279-289.

Birchall is a theorist of popular culture who views conspiracy theories as “signalling a healthy scepticism towards official accounts” (p40). Her interest is the conditions under which the “knowledge producing discourses” of conspiracy become “necessary possibilities” to counter government secrecy veiled in “established and rational discourses” (p63), and what this has to teach her as a cultural theorist. So while she alludes to lack of substantiation and commitment in some theories, she is mainly responding to the prevailing invalidation of conspiracy theories as irrational, politically impotent, bad cognitive mapping done in ignorance. Drawing on John Fiske’s view that conspiracism can be “a method by which the negative experience of capitalism can be, if not rectified, then at least articulated” (p67), she argues that distaste for conspiracism on the part of the intelligentsia is symptomatic of a problem with the cultural analysis carried out by the academic establishment, threatened by other meta-narratives than its own. She argues that viewing conspiracism only in terms of political success or failure will fail to recognise “many aspects” (p69), namely that it is positively active and challenging of hegemony. She points out contradictions in scientific appeal to reason which simultaneously refuses to engage with the possibility that conspiract theories may be true (p71). She calls this phenomenon an example of Lyotardian ‘differend’,

“…a case of conflict between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgement applicable to both arguments. One side’s legitimacy does not imply another’s illegitimacy.” (p72)

From this point of ‘epistemic relativism’ she proceeds to Baudrillard’s view that knowledge is imaginary and plural, and from there to a Lyotardian criticism of consensus about ‘bad interpretations’ (p81) – consensuses which bear no inherent relation to the truth, are vulnerable to being hijacked for nefarious ends, and are used by ‘the system’ to consolidate its hold on power. This lays the ground for her to celebrate the hoax cultural studies essay successfully submitted by Alan Sokal to the (non-peer-reviewed) Social Text journal. She argues that rather than compromising the cultural studies project, the Sokal incident affirms it. The essay was accepted, she argues, because despite Sokal’s intentions the essay wasn’t bad. Moreover its acceptance demonstrates the admirable openness of cultural studies to the illegitimate. At this point Birchall, while acknowledging the defenciveness of cultural studies in the face of attacks on its credibility, begins to set out commonalities between the conspiracist ‘forgers’ of knowledge and cultural studies itself, for which “the legitimacy of knowledge cannot be decided in advance of any reading”. She then asserts the illegitimacy of cultural studies: “cultural studies may well be a con, a scam, a swindle” and cultural theorists “a bunch of charlatans” (p86), warning against enlisting metanarratives such as Marxism or Humanism in the hope that “the more respectable discipline’s credibility will rub off on ours” (p87). In a move reminiscent of the embattled conspiracy theorist she first announces that she may be branded a traitor, and then professes herself a sort of cultural studies patriot, putting her neck on the line for the sake of its integrity. She then retorts that everybody who works with knowledge is illegitimate, which she qualifies as ‘undecidable legitimacy’, which in turn implies the need for precautionary inclusivity. This leads to a surprisingly banal conclusion which reads like an appeal: because none of us can claim to know anything, academics should avoid offending the subjects of their inquiry, their colleagues, or anybody by ridiculing their point of view, but should instead be as affirming as possible. She alludes to the propensity of some conspiracy theories to harm politics and sometimes people but this is not her focus. She seems primarily concerned with appropriating illegitimacy as a dignified means to retrieve lost ground and morale in cultural studies. I think you have to be a cultural studies insider to fully understand this self-referential preoccupation.

Nobody seems to have notified Aaronovitch that his pursuit is illegitimate or that conspiracists are to be studied rather than countered. Taking a firmly political historical approach, he is uncompromising towards conspiracists from a position of deep and explicit familiarity with their anomalies and slants rather than prejudicial gut distaste. He views conspiracism as effectively and fundamentally unjust and a threat to some groups who are far from power and influence, most prominently Jews and Zionists. In this respect he takes conspiracy theories more seriously as projects in their own right than Birchall chooses to; his is a different – and you could say more substantial – form of recognition. His chapter begins by recounting a 9/11 ‘truth’ event in 2005 fronted by Susannah York. He points out the habit of ruling out better-evidenced, and consequently most likely, explanations in favour of perverse and convoluted ones. He notes that the speakers are unlikely to have encountered each other without the contact across the usual boundaries catalysed and enabled by the Web, which he views as a “mass of undifferentiated information” (p221) where sites – often self-characterised as ‘alternative’ or ‘independent’ – which use new media to proselytise or amplify 9/11 conspiracism far outnumber those dedicated to debunking conspiracism. Aaronovitch moves into this gap with two approaches to debunking: he fully engages with several 9/11 conspiracy theories on their own terms and takes them apart factually, and he also examines the modus operandi of conspiracists. With respect to the latter he demonstrates the dangers of ‘cui bono’ reasoning as a means of identifying perpetrators by asking who benefited from World War. He also points out the double standards of conspiracists in their “lofty incredulity” about establishment accounts while simultaneously insisting that their own highly questionable accounts stand unless each part (for example, the assertion that the FBI benefited from 9/11) is conclusively refuted. Aaronovitch is responding to a “leaching” of conspiracism into popular culture.There is a subtext of concern about the hyperactivity of the conspiracists, and his meticulous attention to detailed debunking of conspiracies positions him as somebody who hopes to shore up facts against sustained erosion as the “theories formulated by the politically defeated [are] taken up by the socially defeated” (p292).

Fenster’s chapter is between these two opposing views. A fellow cultural theorist whom Birchall quotes approvingly before rejecting this final chapter of his book, he is concerned that while conspiracism is a manifestation of “often justifiable discontent with contemporary institutional democracy and governance” (p281), cultural studies must accept that far right conspiracism, which hurts and even kills, should not be valorised and empowered. He explores the difference between the experience of black Americans with a history of enslavement, systematic exclusion, exploitation (including their unconsenting involvement in the Tuskegee syphilis study), and the assassination of their leaders and supporters, and on the other hand the experience of white working class American men who adopt far right conspiracy theories, concluding that black Americans are more justified in tending towards conspiracism. However he disagrees with John Fiske’s view (p264) that ‘blackstream’ and ‘counterstream’ knowledge should always be championed as not only legitimate but also presumptively emancipatory simply because it actively and radically resists the dominant forms of rationality.  Fenster points out that conspiracism, being simplistically constituted round a monocause such as race, “precludes linkages to other movements of resistance” (p286) and can as easily be used to oppress as to empower. Instead he paraphrases Eve Sedgwick,

“…a paranoid hermeneutic may aid critical practice and yield important insights and strong theory but it will not necessarily lead to good theory, correct answers or better practice.” (p285)

He concludes, compassionately nevertheless, that conspiracy theory is political failure.

Making sense of conspiracy beliefs

As usual, I am slow off the mark. While I was falling asleep underneath Fenster and Aaronovitch these past six weeks or so, a rich vein of interest in conspiracy theory has been uncovered in the media and blogs. Since this interest comes mostly from one (if broad) political perspective, and I have some other theoretical angles, here is my 2p (and I apologise for a skimpy post which is thin on linkage).

I’m trying to make sense of several theories from different disciplines – history, social psychology, cultural studies. I’m not prepared to pariah-ise conspiracy believers or theorists.

This event, attended by Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth and other micro Truther groups, happened on May Day 2009 outside the Bank of England – click for bigger. These gatherings and pickettings happen not infrequently.


The sparkles at the back are the reflective tabards of the police.


I don’t hate or fear the people I encounter around Bank and Liverpool Street but nor do I have affinity with them or faith in them. I haven’t found a way to communicate with them outside the boundaries of what they are eager to persuade me about. Constrained like this, their minute, obsessive analysis and story-making about the role of power-holders in the world’s ills have no programmatic response. Simply, these people have no proposals (except in the case of We Are Change, below, drastically palingenetic ones) to fix the things they rail against. It seems more than likely that their fears and dreams make them susceptible to the authoritarian extreme right.

So I admire what little I know of Chip Bertlet’s work a good deal – he is somebody who raises the alarm about the propensity of popular conspiracy believers to be overtaken and channelled by the authoritarian right:

“Conspiracy theories encourage demonization and scapegoating of blameless persons and groups—distracting society and would-be agents of change away from the real causes of social and economic injustice.”

However, I am not sure he is right when he argues that “Modern conspiracism is rooted in bigotry, especially antisemitism and racism”. In my experience talking with activists who leaflet the City of London, conspiracy belief is often rooted in a dismay at the global reach of a few power-holders, and a  yearning for a more transparent world with vastly curtailed power structures – see my unsophisticated encounter with We Are Change from a while back, for example. We Are Change believe that power necessarily corrupts, and by change they mean decentralisation of power.

Bertlet’s huge contribution has been a functionalist view of conspiracy beliefs which recognises their origins and how they might be exploited, rather than merely pathologising them. I think that his warnings about the expediency of conspiracy-mindedness to the extreme authoritarian right are convincing and have been borne out (retrospectively-speaking) at various stages in the history of fascism. These times of global economic, environmental and energy pressures lend an urgency to addressing this weakness to exploitation. At the same time though, Bertlet does pathologise conspiracy theories, holding them to be “toxic”, or a “contagion”, and so incompatible with democratic process in ways similar to other consensus political commentators such as Eric Hoftstadter, the great influence in current responses to conspiracy mindedness who coined the phrase “the paranoid style”.

But I don’t think conspiracy mindedness per se is or should be outside democracy. I think I broadly accept Fenster’s (2008) analysis that, where it is a populist explanation of power held by elites, conspiracy theory is an inescapable part of democracy.

When it comes to dealing with the threat of conspiracy-mindedness to progressive politics, I think it’s helpful to understand conspiracy mindedness in a social-psychological way as an expression of disaffection. I know that disaffection often goes with other qualities and attitudes – untrustworthiness, negativity, cynicism, and a marked empathy with the perpetrators in their own conspiracy narratives. But also a deep and painful concern about the state of the world, feelings of political estrangemement from the power bloc and at the same time, responsibility and a desire to be involved.

I think that that power-holders and policy makers should take this populist critique of power seriously, and should allow themselves to be nudged further in the direction of transparency and accountability, because these are good directions and because they will undercut those outside the consensus who hope to rally voters with cries of government corruption, most threateningly an extreme political right looking to enlarge its share of the vote.

If I had time I’d refer to Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories here (because he details the damage done by conspiracy mindedness, whereas Fenster’s preoccupation is to retrieve conspiracy believers from beyond the pale and rehabilitate them into the political community) but for now I’ll end with Fenster wrapping up Part 2 of his book Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (2008, p194):

“I have suggested that something more than the madness of paranoia is going on in conspiracy theory – specifically, a reckoning by those who consider themselves to be outside the centers of power (however that is defined by an individual or group) with what is deemed to be an inaccessbile, essentially opaque political and social order. In its interpretive practices of desire and production and its ability to narrate a totalizing vision of a world gone wrong, conspiracy theory challenges the individual who engages in it to find new, hidden possibilities lurking in the recesses of history and the daily newspaper. In doing so it offers particular pleasures and opportunities to play, as well as a promise of social interaction, community, and political involvement that it ultimately cannot deliver. It may frequently, or even usually, be “ideological”, under either a Marxist-influenced or non-Marxist approach that would view conspiracy theory as expressing a false consciousness or distorting some fundamental truth. But it expresses a longing for involvement, a desire for political meaning and significance on the part of the political subject”.

So maybe next time I stop to talk with a conspiracy theorist I’ll try to reframe the discussion by asking “What do you want for the world” or “How did you first become interested in this subject”?

But if they do turn out to be scapegoaters (specifically, antisemitic) I’d better have something else to say. Any ideas for constructive wrong-footing?

Excellent lectures, conspiracy theory, a vegan recipe

I’ve been luxuriating in podcast lectures. Three of the best:

  • Gwen Griffith-Dickson’s Gresham College lecture on Countering Extremism and the Politics of ‘Engagement’, whose central tenet is that the agencies which are doing the engaging should choose their Muslim partners on the basis of how they engage, rather than their denomination, beliefs, the content of their writing or speaking, or trouser style. She anatomises engagement, with many examples. It’s definitely a must-listen / look / read which gave me new criteria with which to evaluate Press TV, say (when I die, I might leave my hoard to Gresham and the RSA). GGD was principally concerned with civil liberties – freedom of belief, to be precise – and the credibility of the engagers, whom she advised (again rightly) to stand for justice. She was spot on in content, but the level of detail left me wondering (and sometimes her tone was blase). Her approach to engagement is a very challenging one, requiring immense skill and wisdom on the part of facilitators. Good – how could it be otherwise – but I didn’t really get the sense that she appreciated this – how would her proposed approach be implemented by Faisal, say? She was kind of detached, like Fenster below, an academic making the recommendations of an academic, and they were very good ones, after all, and based in her evaluation work carried out for the Lokahi Foundation, an organisation which has managed to attract a number of people I very much respect and connect them with Tariq Ali, thus reprieving him somewhat from my Injustice bucket. I think about the “feral media” she derides – bloggers, commenters – and although I realise that her presentation was more of a commission than a how-to, I wish she’d had sufficient time to engage with the challenges in a little more detail. The engagers are, after all, operating in the face of some views which are openly threatening.
  • Steven Lukes’ RSA lecture on Moral Relativism, in which, as well as a penetrating the origins of moral relativism in Anthropology, and nature of moral relativism (researchers asked primary school children “Can you call the teacher by her first name?” They reply “No”- he does the voices a bit. “Can you call the teacher by her first name if she says you can call her by her first name?” “Yes!” they say. “Can you hit little Johnny, your classmate?” “No”, they reply. “Can you hit Johnny if your teacher says you can?” “No!” they shout) he also takes the piss out of Matthew Taylor so affectionately that I burst out laughing on a very windy moor in the Yorkshire Dales, and again on London Bridge a week later. He draws a sharp distinction between tolerance, which is what you do when you dislike what somebody stands for or how they live their life but you don’t intervene, and moral relativism, which is when you believe, on principle, in the equal validity of different ways of life, which in my view and his is a load of old cock. There is also some discussion of neurological aspects and the view of some scholars that there is an innate moral sense in human beings.
  • Explanations of Enmity: Pessimists, Optimists and Sceptics, another Gresham College lecture by Rodney Barker. Perhaps this is my favourite. He considers enmity through the lens of five theorists, including the inspiration of many fascists, Carl Schmitt. He notes, with Ferguson, the great dynamism that a threat can represent. He takes a look at Georg Simmel’s Conflict and its thesis that conflict between societies can build unity within them (the other week I went for dinner with a friend, a Somali exile, who told me how when Ethiopia had invaded Somalia a few years back, for the first time in ages Somalia had mustered a government of national unity, kicked out the Ethiopians and promptly disintegrated into upheaval again) and, following from this, the expediency of enemies. And Schmitt, who yearned for a strong, unified government. A brilliant lecture, and one in which an interesting observation was made and not developed – the rhetoric of enmity does not necessarily lead to enmity being played out on the street (nor between states?).

I finally finished Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (reviewed in The Observer), emerging with the feeling I’d survived an ordeal (New York Times review: “you turn the pages astonished and frightened”), but clearer about my fears (see for example Eve Garrard on today’s Normblog, and see Ignoblus, via Bob) and with a better awareness of the difference between a state on the verge of going fascist, and the state in which I live now.

This really is an exquisite book for character, for situation and for prose. When they say that Roth is at the height of his powers, they are not kidding. Some things I loved about the story (spoiler follows). I loved it that the son who became a tool of the pro-Hitler regime abandoned his activism as soon as he discovered girls. He didn’t have an epiphany, he didn’t meet a bad end – he just discovered girls. I loved it that the Italian family who moved into one of the houses vacated by Jews who had been repatriated from Newark to the countryside were no less protective of their neighbours than the Jewish family had been. I loved the references to the US constitution, how they were referred to as wall between the Jews of the US and the ghetto, and how, ultimately, they were invoked and applied. I loved the way that the Jews who (like today’s Independent Jewish Voices) sought a personal haven from antisemitism by cleaving to their persecuters and grooming their own credentials, were induced by the collapse of their world to create conspiracy theories which exonerated President Lindberg. Winchell’s martyrdom and the obituary speech that followed were masterful.

Now, and relatedly, I’m reading Fenster’s level-headed and compassionate book Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (see his Rorotoko piece) in which conspiracy beliefs are not pathological but part of the popular idealistic tradition which has shaped American culture. We can see the distribution of power between executive, legislature and judiciary as anti-conspiracy measures, for example.

“Conspiracy theories proceed from an assumption that is undoubtedly correct, even banally so: we don’t all have equal access to power and capital. They then seek evidence of the extent to which the system by which those assets are distributed—the state and economy—is both hidden and corrupt, and they construct elaborate stories that explain the conspiracy’s secrecy and villainy. These steps are shared not only by the most committed conspiracy theorists; political novelists and investigative reporters, for example, also try to explain and narrate a world of unequal power. They do so differently, but they share with conspiracy theorists many of the same interpretive and narrative strategies.”

I’m not at all very far through this one. Like Gwen Griffith Dickson, above, with regards to extremism, Fenster seems to feel mercifully free of any sense of personal threat from conspiracy theories. This is to some extent reassuring, but not entirely. So alongside this cultural theorist perspective, I’m reading Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories, for which he put in some time at the British Library researching primary sources. Hear him talk about it at the RSA. Even Aaronovitch Watch liked it:

“I’d forgotten that Aaro is a history buff – and is in general a much more rounded and less one-dimensional character than yer average Decent, and he knows how to build a story. The chapter on the origins and dissemination of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is excellent and has more or less everything in it that you might need to know. Particularly, Aaro is generous enough to provide you with ample evidence to undermine his whole thesis – in that although the Protocols is a story of a clearly fake conspiracy, the way in which it was brought into general circulation was by the specific and purposeful actions of individuals who concealed their actions.”

I finally got a new foot for my old Singer sewing machine (from the magnificent Ilford institution Regent Home of Sewing, and also home of Keith, who gave us special curtain tracks from below stairs – bet he says that to all the customers – and who knows 45 year old Singers by their 3 digit serial number alone). I made purple curtains with gold ribbon detail, and I got out Matt’s old shirts and made lavender bags from last year’s lavender, for the drawers. I seem to have lost his most playful old shirts, though, and am left with stripes and open checks. I also bought a haunting picture of Bette Davis in 1934, not posed, from Soho.

For the gob, Vegan Society Magazine (is it my imagination or is this improving somewhat?) had an unpromising-looking recipe by Helen Edwards (p24, Summer 09 issue) which I followed only because I had a cauliflower mountain from my local veg box delivery. It was fantastic – the flavours worked in ways I have never encountered. I adapt:

Tahini Fried Cauliflower (serves 4)

Grate the rind of 2 lemons, add to 4 -6 grated garlic cloves and a finely chopped red chilli and gently fry in a big frying pan or wok for a minute before removing to a small mixing bowl. Mix these well with the juice of 2 lemons, 4 tbsp tahini and 4 sbsp water. Cut 1 medium head of cauliflower into small-ish florets. Steam until just tender, and keep warm. Cook 400g of farfalle pasta (I used white), rinse starch off in fresh boiling water, and keep warm. Put a slosh of oil into the pan / wok and fry the cauliflower fairly hard until it browns. Turn down the heat and add the pasta and the tahini mixture. Cook until hot. Stir in 120g hot peas. Eat.

I might consider frying 2 or 3 sliced shallots at the start. Matt said he’d have preferred a little less lemon juice in the sauce, and some texture – I thought some roughly chopped hazelnuts toasted in the pan before anything else would have done it.

That’s all.