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NOWADAYS, WHEREVER they go, leftists encounter many questions from newly political folks about this or that political episode--the October Surprise, the BCCI scandal, Irancontra, David Duke--with an emphasis on who did what, when, and with what knowledge and intent. They field far fewer questions about the systemic causes of trends and events. People study the membership of some rogue group. They ignore the structure of government and corporations. How did this "fashion" come about? Where is it taking us?
A CONSPIRACY THEORY is a hypothesis that some events were caused by the intractable secret machinations of undemocratic individuals. A prime example is to explain Irancontra as the secret rogue actions of Oliver North and co-conspirators. Likewise, another conspiracy theory explains the hostage-holding in Carter's last presidential year as the machinations of a "secret team" helping Reagan win the presidency. A conspiracy theory of Karen Silkwood's murder would uncover the names of people who secretly planned and carried out the murder. Bending usage, we could even imagine a conspiracy theory of patriarchy as men uniting to deny women status, or a conspiracy theory of the
Conspiracies exist. Groups regularly do things without issuing press releases and this becomes a conspiracy whenever their actions transcend of "normal" behavior. We don't talk of a conspiracy to win an election if the suspect activity includes only candidates and their handlers working privately to develop effective strategy. We do talk about a conspiracy if the resulting action involves stealing the other team's plans, spiking their Whiskey Sours, or other exceptional activity. When a conspiracy cause's some outcome, the outcome would not have happened had not the particular people with their particular inclinations come together.
Conspiracy theories may or may not identify real coteries with real influence. Conspiracy theories:
(a) Claim that a particular group acted outside usual norms in a rogue and generally secretive fashion.
(b) Disregard the structural features of institutions.
Personalities, personal timetables, secret meetings, and conspirators' joint actions, claim attention. Institutional relations drop from view. We ask, did North meet with Bush before or after the meeting between MacFarlane and Mr. X? Do we have a document that reveals the plan in advance? Do phone conversations implicate so and so? How credible is that witness?
IN AN INSTITUTIONAL theory, personalities and personal motivations enter the discussion only as results of more basic factors. The personal actions culminating in some event do not serve as explanation. The theory explains phenomena via roles, incentives, and dynamics of underlying institutions. An institutional theory doesn't ignore human actions, but the point of an institutional explanation is to move from personal factors to institutional ones. If the particular people hadn't been there to do it, most likely someone else would have.
An institutional theory of Irancontra and the October surprise would explain how and why these activities arose in a society with our political, social, and economic forms. An institutional theory of Karen Silkwood's murder would reveal nuclear industry and larger societal pressures that provoked her murder. An institutional theory of patriarchy explains gender relations in terms of marriage, the church, the market, socialization, etc. An institutional theory of government emphasizes the control and dissemination of information, the dynamics of bureaucracy, and the role of subservience to class, race, and gender interests.
Institutions exist. Whenever they have sufficient impact on events, developing an institutional theory makes sense. However, when an event arises from a unique conjuncture of particular people and opportunities, while institutions undoubtedly play a role, it may not be generalized and an institutional theory may be out of place or even impossible to construct.
Institutional theories may or may not identify real relationships with real influence on the events they explain. Institutional theories:
(a) Claim that the normal operations of some institutions generate the behaviors and motivations leading to the events in question.
(b) Address personalities, personal interests, personal timetables, and meetings only as facts about the events needing explanation, not as explanations themselves.
Organizational, motivational, and behavioral implications of institutions gain most attention. Particular people, while not becoming mere ciphers, are not accorded priority as causal agents.
TO SEE THE operational difference between conspiracy theory and institutional theory we can compare a smattering of the views of two currently popular critics of
HULET: "This isn't about
"Why should Americans die to restore a dictator invaded by another dictator? First it was to protect
CHOMSKY: "If we hope to understand anything about the foreign policy of any state, it is a good idea to begin by investigating the domestic social structure: Who sets foreign policy? What interests do these people represent? What is the domestic source of their power? It is a reasonable surmise that the policy that evolves will reflect the special interests of those who design it. An honest study of history will reveal that this natural expectation is quite generally fulfilled. The evidence is overwhelming, in my opinion, that the
"Some attention to the historical record, as well as common sense, leads to a second reasonable expectation: In every society there will emerge a caste of propagandists who labor to disguise the obvious, to conceal the actual workings of power, and to spin a web of mythical goals and purposes, utterly benign, that allegedly guide national policy... any horror, any atrocity will be explained away as an unfortunate--or sometimes tragic--deviation from the national purpose....
"Since World War II there has been a continuing process of centralization of decision-making in the state executive, certainly with regard to foreign policy. Secondly, there has been a tendency through much of this period toward domestic economic concentration. Furthermore, these two processes are closely related, because of the enormous corporate influence over the state executive..."
THE COMMONALTY OFTEN evidenced in these two thinkers is distaste for
For Hulet, the implicit problem is to punish or "impeach" the immediate culprits, a general point applicable to all conspiracy theory. The modis operendi of the conspiracy theorist therefore makes sense whenever the aim is to attribute proximate personal blame for some occurrence. If we want to prosecute someone for a political assassination to extract retribution or to set a precedent that makes it harder to carry out such actions, the approach of the conspiracy theorist is critical. But the conspiracy approach is beside the point for understanding the cause of political assassinations to develop a program to prevent all policies that thwart popular resistance. Conspiracy theorizing mimics the personality/ dates/times approach to history. It is a sports fans' or voyeur's view of complex circumstances. It can manipulate facts or present them accurately. When it's done honestly, it has its place, but it is not always the best approach.
For Chomsky, the problem is to discern the underlying institutional causes of foreign policy. The modus operandi of the institutional theorist would not make much sense for discovering which individuals conceived and argued for a policy, or who in particular decided to bomb a civilian shelter. To understand why these things happen, however, and under what conditions they will or will not continue to happen, institutional theory is indispensable and the motives, methods, and timetables of the actual perpetrators are beside the point.
Take the media. A conspiracy approach will highlight the actions of some coterie of editors, writers, newscasters, particular owners, or even a lobby. An institutional approach will mention the actions of these actors as evidence, but will highlight the corporate and ideological pressures giving rise to those influences. A person inclined toward finding conspiracies will listen to evidence of media subservience to power and see a cabal of bad guys, perhaps corporate, perhaps religious, perhaps federal, censoring the media from doing its proper job. The conspiracist will then want to know about the cabal and how people succumb to its will, etc. A person inclined toward institutional analysis will listen to evidence of media subservience to power and see that the media's internal bureaucracy, socialization processes, and interests of its owners engender these results as part of the media succeeding at its job. The institutionalist will then want to know about the media's structural features and how they work, and about the guiding interests and what they imply.
The conspiracy approach will lead people to believe that either:
(a) They should educate the malefactors to change their motives, or
(b) They should get rid of the malefactors and back new editors, writers, newscasters, or owners.
The institutional approach will note the possible gains from changes in personnel, but explain how limited these changes will be. It will incline people
(a) Toward a campaign of constant pressure to offset the constant institutional pressures for obfuscation, or
(b) Toward the creation of new media free from the institutional pressures of the mainstream.
The Appeal of Conspiracy Theory
NATURALLY CONSPIRACY THEORY and its associated personalistic methodology appeals to prosecutors and lawyers, since they must identify proximate causes and human actors. But why does it appeal to people concerned to change society?
There are a many possible answers that probably all operate, to varying degrees, on people who favor conspiracy theory. First, conspiracy theory is often compelling and the evidence conspiracy theories reveal is often useful. More, description of the detailed entwinements become addictive. One puzzle and then another and another need analysis. Conspiracy theory has the appeal of a mystery--it is dramatic, compelling, vivid, and human. Finally, the desire for retribution helps fuel continuing forays into personal details.
Second, conspiracy theories have manageable implications. They imply that all was well once and that it can be okay again if only the conspirators can be pushed aside. Conspiracy theories therefore explain ills without forcing us to disavow society's underlying institutions. They allow us to admit horrors, and express our indignation and anger without rejecting the basic norms of society. We can even confine our anger to the most blatant perpetrators. That government official or corporate lawyer is bad, but many others are good and the government and law per se are okay. We need to get rid of the bad apples. All this is convenient and seductive. We can reject specific candidates but not government, specific CEOs but not capitalism, specific writers, editors, and even owners of periodicals, but not all mainstream media. We reject some vile manipulators, but not society's basic institutions. We can therefore continue to appeal to the institutions for recognition, status, or payment.
Third, conspiracy theory provides an easy and quick outlet for pent up passion withheld from targets that seem unassailable or that might strike back. This is conspiracy theory turned into scapegoat theory.
Where Are Conspiracy Theories Taking Us
IT WOULD BE bad enough if endless personalistic attention to Irancontra, the October Surprise, Inslaw, etc., were just attuning people to search after coteries while ignoring institutions. This was the effect, for example, of the many Kennedy Assassination theorists of past decades. At least the values at play would be progressive and we could hope that people would soon gravitate toward real explanation of more structural phenomena.
But the fact is, the values inspiring conspiratorial ways of trying to explain events are beginning to drastically diverge from progressive values. Even some sectors of left activists have become so hungry for quick-fix conspiracy explanations they are beginning to gravitate toward any conspiracy claim, no matter how ridiculous.
Thus the field of conspiracy theorizing has become attractive and new entrants are no longer always progressive and sometimes even tilt toward reaction or downright fascism. The presentation of conspiracy theories has moved from little newsletters and journals to large audience radio talk shows and magazines and, at the same time, from identifying "secret teams" of CIA operatives to all-powerful networks of Arab financiers and worldwide Jewish bankers' fraternities.
There is an ironic analogy here to some recent analysis of national Republican Party politics. In that arena, many journalists now claim that the Republican Party's manipulations of race in prior years paved the way for David Duke by reacclimating the public to racial stereotyping and increasing its appetite for more. In somewhat the same way, isn't it plausible that the relatively huge resources thrown into progressive conspiracy writing, organizing, and proselytizing over the past decade is now coming home to roost? Of course, the changing times are partly responsible for growing public interest in conspiracies, but doesn't past behavior by progressives bear a share of responsibility as well?
What To Do About It
LEFTIST INSTITUTIONALIST theorists generally ignore conspiracy theorists as irrelevant. To confront their arguments is to enter a miasma of potentially fabricated detail from which there is no escape. Nothing constructive emerges. But perhaps this view needs some rethinking. When Holly Sklar, Steve Shalom,
Likewise, when progressive radio talk shows and left journals and magazines invite people to communicate with their public about world and national events, it is good to be sure the guest is coherent, has effective speaking or writing style, talks about the issues, identifies actors accurately, and knows about the relevant history. But it isn't enough. Fascists can fulfill these standards and still spout made-up statistics as if they were facts, disgusting allegations about social groups as if they were objective commentary, and nothing at all about real institutional relations, passing this whole mess off as a useful way to look at the world to understand and affect social events. Left media, even strapped as it is, should take responsibility for its offerings. People expect that if commentators appear on our shows and in our publications they have a degree of integrity, honesty, and sensitivity. We should not lend credence to right-wing garbage, whether it is blatant or so well concealed as to be civil but malicious. Even regarding progressive and left conspiracy theory, while it often uncovers important evidence, left activists ought to indicate its limits and augment it with institutional and contextual analysis.
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AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; https://nato5support.wordpress.com.
MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
Contact: WisCon, ? SF3, PO Box 1624, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://www.wiscon.info/.
ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
Contact: SWCHRS, 3200 Marshall Avenue, Suite 290, Norman, OK 73072; 405-325-3694; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ncore.ou.edu.
MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
RADIO - The 38th Annual Community Radio Conference is schedule for May 29-June 1, in San Francisco, CA, with discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20004; 202-756-2268; email@example.com; http://www.nfcb.org/.
BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduated Center, ? Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; firstname.lastname@example.org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.socialismconference.org.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.peacestockvfp.org.
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.childrensdefense.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
Contact: email@example.com; http://east.usworker.coop/.
WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
Contact: 121 West 27th Street, #301, New York, NY 10001; 212-627-0444; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.madre.org.
SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
Contact: http://www.falconridgefolk.com/; email@example.com.
WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
Contact: 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-228-0450; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.warresisters.org.
POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
Contact: Center for Popular Economics, PO Box 785 Amherst, MA 01004; 413-545-0743; email@example.com; www.populareconomics.org.
VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
Contact: email@example.com; http://occupynationalgathering.net/.
COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.