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Debunking Conspiracy Theories
An interview with Chip Berlet
C hip Berlet is an analyst with Political Research Associates, a Massachusetts-based organization. PRA monitors and reports on the political right wing. Berlet’s articles appear in the New York Times , the Boston Globe , and the Progressive magazine. He is the editor of Eyes Right: Challenging the Right Wing Backlash and co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America .
BARSAMIAN: Let’s start with a working definition of conspiracy theory.
BERLET: I’m going to make a distinction between conspiracy and conspiracism, which is a way of seeing the world that overvalues the role of individual actors and undercuts any kind of systemic or institutional analysis. Conspiracism sees the world as governed by plots hatched by relatively small groups of people.
For millennia there’s been a fascination with intrigue, cabals, Machiavellian plots, and shadowy figures and dark forces. What are the origins?
In Western culture especially, the idea is that there will be a millennial reign of Jesus Christ and also prophecies from the Book of Revelation about the End Times during which trusted political and religious figures form an alliance with the Antichrist on behalf of the devil. So the particular strain of Christian evangelicalism in the U.S. is rooted in this centuries-old, millennia-old idea that in the End Times there will be vast conspiracies against the average person.
Who does this appeal to? Who are the consumers of conspiracy theories and who are the purveyors?
Most people today who believe in conspiracy theory as the way the world works are people who are trying to figure out something about how power is exercised. People who believe in conspiracy theory are correct in analyzing that the world does not work the way power elites say it works; that there is a disjuncture between how power is realized and how we’re told the U.S. works—as a democracy with everyone having a vote and everyone having a role in developing policies for the United States.
The problem is when this is all attempted to be knit together into one seamless tapestry that goes back hundreds of years and involves everybody who is in the media, education, and politics. It’s this extension into complete control over all aspects of a person’s life that debunks conspiracy just on the basis of rational investigation. You simply can’t have a conspiracy that goes back centuries and extends across so many different sectors of a society and not have it unravel as people turn against each other.
Some of the groups that keep turning up over and over again are, for example, the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Illuminati, the Bilderburgers, the Rockefellers, and others.
Some of these are institutions that have real power in the world and we should be investigating them as power brokers. The dilemma is assuming because a group has power that it has control. There are many powerful groups that meet and plot strategy. The Bilderburgers are a real banking group, the Trilateral Commission really does affect foreign policy.
But there isn’t one group that is the puppeteer over everything; there are a number of groups that are jockeying for power. Sometimes they work together, sometimes they have falling-outs. That’s the distinction here. An institutional analysis would look at the role of these powerful groups and say, “This is where they’ve been successful, this is where they’ve failed. These groups worked together for a number of years. Now they don’t work together.” It’s the insistence on a kind of Manichean thinking: there are evil forces in the world and good people have to expose them, and everything will be fine once they are exposed. This is a magical explanation of how the world works. Power concedes nothing without a struggle, as Frederick Douglass pointed out. You cannot change the way power is exercised in the world simply by exposing a handful of people. There needs to be a struggle to explain how systems and institutions and structures of society affect us.
Even if we could expose a handful of people who are powerful, there would still be powerful forces of capitalism and class exploitation. There would be powerful forces of white supremacy. There would be patriarchy. There would be heterosexism.
In your research, what groups and individuals have you identified as principal disseminators of these kinds of ideas?
Skipping over the 2,000 years of Christian millennial, apocalyptic allegations of conspiracy, we can cut to the chase around the late 1700s. The basic idea really starts as a defense of the monarchy and oligarchy in Europe against the Enlightenment, against free thinkers and liberal thinkers in Europe who were demanding that citizens have a right to have a say in their society. People who defended church-state alliance, the monarchy, and oligarchy put out a series of books alleging that calling for voting and democracy and the scientific method and the Enlightenment was all a plot by people trying to destroy society by undermining church and state. The basic allegations of modern conspiracy thinking start out as a right-wing attack in defense of the status quo. Ironically, as more and more democracy was introduced into society, this flips and people now are criticizing the government, claiming that the government is run by the conspiracy.
For many decades these are right-wing theories that surface against the Jesuits, against Jews, against anarchists, and during the McCarthy period, against Communists. The basic theme is that the reason you’re unhappy with the government is that there are these secret elites who run everything. The original allegations started out with the Illuminati, which is said to be controlling the Freemasons. In the 1900s, this gets changed to the “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” a hoax document that alleges that Jews run everything. In the 1950s, it’s all about the Communists and the State Department and the CIA versus the really righteous people in the military and conservative groups. Today it filters down so that a number of progressives have adopted this way of thinking and claim that ever since the JFK assassination the government has been run by a handful of secret elites.
The reason I get so frustrated with this is that we’re sitting here in a library. Just a few feet from us there are 300 or 400 books written by right wingers over the last 50 years making all of these allegations. Then I have a shelf of books by progressives who have adopted this way of thinking and made it a progressive issue by abandoning any kind of systemic institutional or structural analysis.
So it’s fair to say that conspiracy theories are not the province of the left or the right?
They’ve become widespread in U.S. society. Looking at conspiracy thinking has become so popular throughout U.S. society that it has become a way of thinking that’s quite popular not just in politics but in entertainment. So we have some people who see politics as essentially “The X Files.” I loved “The X Files.” I saw it as entertainment—they read it as the structure of how the world really works.
Talk about some of the characteristics and the patterns that you find in conspiracy theories.
There is a habit of people who promote conspiracism to delete from the discussion any counterevidence. I think that’s very clearly the case with the people who are talking about 9/11 being a plot by the Bush administration or the Mossad from Israel. They come up with all these tantalizing little facts and then string them together into a conclusion that isn’t borne by the facts. What’s more, the facts they choose don’t include all the facts that would negate their assumption. They delete any evidence that contradicts what they’re saying.
Worse, and I think in some cases most dishonestly, they will lay out a series of allegations based on a series of facts and when these facts are later shown not to be facts, they either pretend that their facts haven’t been refuted or that somehow this refutation is itself part of the broader conspiracy. There is no way to challenge this kind of conspiracy thinking.
The Internet seems to have emerged as some kind of fount of truth and wisdom for people who claim they’re doing research.
I don’t want to knock the Internet. The Internet has democratized the flow of information a whole lot, but there is this process that people are ignoring, which is anyone can post an Internet site and make any claim. You need to be a little skeptical when you first look at any information from the Internet. But I don’t think censorship is the answer and I think to have the free and horizontally democratic kind of media that the Internet brings us in the long run is a good idea, and we have to put up with the junk that appears on the Internet. It’s up to us to be skeptical.
Two prominent conspiracy theories are the assassination of John F. Kennedy and September 11. Both have evolved into cottage industries, with oracles and films and websites and books and conferences. What is there in the grassy knoll that keeps resonating with people?
I think that people had two choices: (1) they had to look at some of the forces in society and engage its complexity or (2) blame the bogeyman. I’m one of the few people who actually read the Warren Commission report. I can tell you that it was lousy research. One of the things the Warren Commission did, for instance, was look at a number of political assassinations in the South during the late 1800s, during Reconstruction and Redemption, and missed the fact that this was a political struggle and attributed all those assassinations to, basically, lone gunmen. That’s idiotic. Most of the political assassinations during that period were part of the struggle between the people who wanted to restore the antebellum South and the people who wanted to have a more democratic society that included the freed slaves as participants. Those were political assassinations; they were not motivated by single crazy people.
So the basic research of the Warren Commission was terrible. However, what a lot of people did—and this really starts on the left with Mark Lane and his book—was to valorize Kennedy in some way—this idea that Kennedy represented some ideal, utopian presidency and that his assassination, therefore, ushered in everything that was bad, especially the continuation of the Vietnam War. There are legitimate arguments back and forth about what Kennedy was planning on doing, but the bottom line is that you cannot ascribe everything bad that has happened since November 22, 1963 as flowing from this single assassination. The attacks on the civil rights movements, the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the Iran-Contra scandal, these are not all traceable back to the Kennedy assassination. If you look at some web pages, you will see that when they recommend the books that you need to read to understand U.S. politics—not just the Kennedy assassination, but the Robert F. Kennedy assassination, the Martin Luther King assassination, Flight TWA 800, and the AIDS virus—they’re all somehow connected to this power elite that runs everything and is destroying the world.
In Oliver Stone’s movie, JFK , he inserted grainy footage into the movie, which many people may have thought was actual documentary footage. The narration underneath was whispering, “Coup d’etat, coup d’etat.”
This, of course, is a common theme of a number of authors, that the Kennedy assassination represented a coup d’etat by secret, powerful forces. The allegation that comes through in JFK really is one that starts in the political right wing, which is that the military-industrial complex killed Kennedy. But you have to understand that this theory came from groups like the John Birch Society, which were so far to the right that they thought the Kennedy government was left-wing. But also, they thought that the military-industrial complex was a liberal, left-wing plot involving internationalism, so that they thought that this was an internecine struggle within liberalism and within the left and within the Rockefeller internationalists.
The left comes along. They don’t like the military-industrial complex. They take this allegation. They delete the right-wing analysis about the military-industrial complex being left wing and internationalist and part of the corporate global elites and they invert it and say, “Well, we know the military-industrial complex is right-wing. Therefore, the right wing killed Kennedy; therefore, Kennedy had to be good.” This is very appealing, but it’s completely nonrational and nonlogical and there is no evidence to defend it.
So you start with the idea that these are people you don’t like who are killing someone you do like. Therefore, the person they’re killing has to be good; therefore, their plot has to be attributed to these people that you start out by not liking. You know who you don’t like. And just because the original analysis says they’re left wing doesn’t bother you. That’s what happens over and over again: this right-wing theory of conspiracy, which you track through Father Coughlin and the money manipulators and Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice Not an Echo , and the Christian right talking about liberal secular humanism, and during the 1950s, the idea that there is a communist menace that’s promoting not just sexuality, but also integration. Or the idea that comes out during Danny Sheehan’s reign at the Christic Institute, that everything the CIA and everything Oliver North was doing was part of some secret team. In fact, there is no secret team. There is U.S. foreign policy and there are covert operations.
But don’t think for a moment that the people who really run the country inside the White House and inside the Congress don’t know what’s going on. There were people who knew what was going on. They tried to hide it from the rest of us and that got exposed. But all of this goes back to the idea that there are not huge economic forces that help run the U.S., there are just these bad people. If you replace these bad people with honest people, somehow all of these structural forces of capitalism, of class, race, gender, sexual identity, none of this really matters. What matters is this handful of people who run everything.
Any theory, any ideological theory that looks at the structures and institutions of society and government and global politics and domestic politics and looks at the complex forces that are jockeying for power will give you a lens that will accurately allow you to describe reality and call for change. If, however, your lens is conspiracy thinking, then there are no social-change options available other than chasing these loose threads of conspiracy forever.
There are numerous theories about what happened on September 11. They have two variants: one is that the Bush administration organized the events of September 11; and the variant of that is, they didn’t organize it, but they let it happen. Is there any evidence to support either of those two allegations?
None that I’ve seen. Have the people that have alleged these things to be true met the requirements of either basic logic or conventional journalistic practices? I don’t think so.
But people say,“Well, how was the government able to identify bin Laden right away? What about the Patriot Act? What about Afghanistan? What about Iraq?”
I don’t think the government had enough evidence to identify bin Laden right away. I think that they just leapt at that. When they were making these claims, I don’t think they could prove it. But that happens all the time. Remember, after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, all of these experts, like Steven Emerson and Vincent Cannistraro, came forward and said, “You know, this has the hallmark of Middle Eastern terrorists.” The government and the media both came out and alleged that Timothy McVeigh—when they finally dismissed the overtly racist claims about Muslims and Arabs—was a member of the militia movement. It turns out that he wasn’t a member of the militia movement, he was a neo-Nazi trying to get the militia movement to move towards him.
But the thinking here is that these outcomes clearly benefited the Bush administration agenda so that it must have been involved.
That’s the basic fallacy of logic, sequence implies causation. If sequence implies causation, then anything that happens before and after can be linked. And that’s not true. What’s more, it erases a whole history. We know, for instance, that almost all of the aspects of the Patriot Act had been proposed for ten years by conservatives who were horrified by the regulations and the restrictions that were put on government intelligence agencies after the FBI COINTEL program was exposed. When Reagan took office, he began to unravel regulations and restrictions. Clinton continued this policy. So it’s both Democrats and Republicans. We know from reading reports from the Heritage Foundation and from conservative pro-intelligence agency journals that these folks wanted a whole lot more power in the hands of law enforcement and the intelligence agencies.
What is a much more logical explanation is that, given the horrendous events on 9/11, this gigantic wish list from conservative pro-intelligence agency people was put back on the table, and neither the Republicans nor the Democrats had the backbone to stand up against it so it passed into law. That is a much more rational and reasonable explanation for what happened and it assumes that whenever there is some amazingly tragic and focusing event, there are people ready to exploit it to pursue their own ends. That’s really how the world works.
Very often you will find in police brutality cases that it’s not that the police targeted a particular person, it’s that because somebody got beat up, they go back to the cop shop and that’s when the conspiracy to cover up begins. So it’s not that a particular person gets targeted, it’s that police beat up people all the time and then try and cover it up. Very often when political people are involved in some kind of altercation where physical violence occurs on the part of police, they’re going to claim that, “I was beaten up because they know I’m a radical leader,” when in fact they were beaten up because cops beat up people who get in their face. The conspiracy to cover it up starts later. That’s a basic misunderstanding of how bureaucracies defend themselves and exploit opportunities after the fact.
Two of the hijacked planes on September 11 came from Logan Airport in Boston. There is a U.S. Air Force base, Otis, on Cape Cod. Were they scrambled and involved in intercepting the planes?
The argument is that they scrambled, but they were delayed and that they could not have really been trying to intercept the planes because the top speed of those jets would have meant that they would have gotten to the World Trade Center so fast that they would have really been able to stop the second plane. This is based on a whole series of false assumptions about how jets are scrambled, how fast they are alerted, how fast they can get up to top speed once they’re in the air.
I think that there were serious errors in not notifying them in time, serious errors in terms of deciding which air bases were tasked with scrambling. There clearly are people who didn’t do their jobs. Having said that, there is no evidence to suggest that there was a plan to not notify these air bases. You can look at some of the articles in the Boston Globe or small newspapers on Cape Cod that interviewed the pilots when they came back. The pilots were crushed that they couldn’t get there in time. There are some very good interviews with people up and down the line, who said, “I wish we had reacted faster.”
Other people question why Bush continued sitting in a Florida classroom after Andrew Card, his chief of staff, informed him that the first tower had been struck.
If you’re going to try to argue that Bush set up this whole chain of events, or at least knew about it and did nothing, then you would think that his reactions during the day could have been better and more skillfully plotted out by his handlers, who obviously tell him what to say, where to go, and what to think. We have a situation where Bush seems to act in an inappropriate way. He then went into hiding, which certainly didn’t help him because it was the wrong thing to do in terms of his image. So if you’re arguing that this was all skillfully plotted, then why was his reaction that day and his handlers’ reactions so inept? I can’t tell you why Bush didn’t immediately burst into tears and rip off his shirt and throw sackcloth and ashes on, but I can tell you that because he didn’t is not proof of anything.
Concerning the attack on the Pentagon on that same Tuesday morning in September. There are photos purporting to show that a Boeing did not hit the Pentagon, that it was a missile. Have you looked into that?
I have because that’s easy to refute. There were so many people who saw the plane hit the Pentagon that you would have to argue that there were hundreds of witnesses who were the Manchurian candidates of this operation. There were people sitting in an office building, there were people walking around in the parking lot, there were people who were eating breakfast who saw the plane hit the Pentagon.
With all the hard evidence we have as to overt criminal action by the government—the use of chemical warfare, from Agent Orange in Vietnam to depleted uranium and cluster bombs in Iraq; to the planning and waging of aggressive war in Iraq—with all of those things, why bother with this stuff?
Because sometimes these allegations are so hyperbolic that they are used to increase the status and authority of the people making the claims. I think there is a kind of competition for outrage. By being able to claim that you know that George Bush ordered the attack on the Twin Towers, you gain higher visibility because of the outrageousness of that claim. But here’s the thing. It’s a game that has no end. I could claim, like David Icke does, that all of this is controlled by alien lizard monsters from outer space. The problem is that it distracts attention from those things that we could be talking to our neighbors about how society is structured to ensure that a certain number of people are unemployed. Do we like that as a policy for the economy of the United States? Do we like the policy being put forward by the Bush administration of being the global cop of the world? If we go into a political setting and say, “Bush engineered the attack on 9/11,” we are closing the door to reaching into new communities that we can bring into the movement for social change. It is suicidal for progressives to make these outlandish claims on scant, if any, information and documentation when there is so much really good reporting going on.
Conspiracy theorists are right—something is wrong. But we’re not going to change things by running down six white guys drinking bourbon in a basement on Wall Street. We’re going to change things by showing how people are affected by a political and economic system that values wealth and power and privilege and we need to change that to value democracy, diversity, and equality.
What is the average citizen to do, facing this blizzard of charges and countercharges and theories and countertheories? How do you make sense of it?
I don’t think you should try to make sense of it because I think it’s like Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum where the protagonist decides to try and chase all of these loose ends, and in the chase he discovers more loose ends. He leaves his job and he begins this quest of showing the gigantic conspiracy. By the end of the book it’s clear that what Eco is saying is there is an infinite number of loose ends, there is an infinite number of questions for which there will never be an answer. You have a choice: you can take part in real life and deal with real issues that affect you in a real way or you can go on that endless quest for finding those loose ends and tying them together. And the choice is yours.
David Barsamian of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado (www.alternativeradio.org) has two new books: The Checkbook & the Cruise Missile with Arundhati Roy, and Louder than Bombs .
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