Conspiracy Theories and our Need for Myth

A reader writes concerning the particular species of conspiracy theory called Birtherism:

I read an article once which argued that the popularity of conspiracy theories had to do with a cognitive bias to the effect that big things must have big causes. JFK can’t have been shot by one guy, because the killing of a President is a huge big deal and so it must have been a huge big operation. 9/11 can’t have been 19 guys with simple weapons, it has to have been a controlled demolition, because it was a huge deal and such a small group can’t do something that big. There must be hidden things going on we don’t know.

A man who looks like Obama becoming president – when his parents’ marriage wasn’t even legal in parts of the USA at the time he was born – is a big deal. The simple explanation, that the GOP had mismanaged the country for a decade and Obama ran a good campaign, is too simple. There must be some hidden truth we don’t know.

Yeah. I think there’s something to this. We find it hard to believe that technology is *that* much of a force multiplier, allowing smaller and smaller groups of people to do bigger and bigger damage.

Also, we tend to want to simplify the narrative. We like the broad mythic stroke more than the granular and ambiguous historical canvas.

So, for instance, encouraged by Professional Catholic demagogues spinning simplistic culture war narratives, we easily believe that when somebody criticizes a Folk Hero, it is due to a shadowy conspiracy or a cabal, rather than facing the fact that sometimes (in fact, usually) the criticism is due, not to the critic being a secret member of the Enemy Cabal, but to the fact that the critic has a legitimate point and is often, in 99 cases out of a hundred, pretty much in agreement with us.

Ironically, this means that in our search for the Simple Narrative (pure eeeeevil hiding behind the smiling face of seeming friends) we wind up with absolutely byzantine complexity as conspiracy theories fractal to account for the fact that the pure eeeeevil person you are sure is part of The Conspiracy often behaves in ways that don’t really make a lot of sense if your nutty theory is true. So, for instance a reader who writes to tell me that I am secretly a liberal pro-choice Obama supporter and obviously heterodox would, if he were capable of actual thought, have to formulate a theory of Rube Goldberg complexity in order to account for the fact that I am a conservative Catholic who says that all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims is revealed by God, opposes abortion, euthanasia, and gay “marriage”, hates Communism, regards Obama as a tyrant, voted for Reagan and Bush twice, supports just war, supports capitalism (within just limits), stands for monogamy, rejects artificial contraception, and thinks Benedict XVI is the bees knees. Likewise, the simple-minded conspiracy theorist who suddenly discerns the smoke of Satan at work at EWTN, the National Catholic Register, and the chanceries of Bishops Mulvey and Zurek has to account for why these orthodox people suddenly wish to join the ranks of the average National Catholic Reporter reader in their naked animosity to Pope Benedict and the Church.

How does such a reader achieve such a feat? Often it appears that this is done by simple acts of association. So I am a “liberal” because I oppose torture and pre-emptive war and think it obscene that the strong prey on the weak in this country with increasing impunity, while middle class incomes flatline and vast amounts of wealth accumulate in fewer and fewer hands. That makes me a socialist, doncha know. Moreover, I do not think a chaste homosexual who maintains a relationship with another chaste homosexual is obviously a contemptible enemy of the faith. And I do not believe conservative Folk Heros who defy their bishops are to be applauded, nor that criticism of such Folk Heros when they do defy their bishop is evidence of a Conspiracy.

Similarly, EWTN is somehow populated by fiends and the Register is the abode of the liberal heretic overnight due to a massive conspiracy to “destroy” Father Corapi. Ed Peters is revealed to be villain who hates the Church because he documents, rather dispassionately, that Fr. Pavone was way the heck out of line in his response to his bishop. It’s a pattern repeated again and again, with a stunning track record of failure and lack of discernment among conspiracy-minded “conservative” Catholics, in the cases of Maciel, Euteneuer, Corapi–and now Williams.

Because we like this Broad Mythic Stroke approach, we also couldn’t be bothered to look at the facts before we attacked Iraq. Them Muslim bastards had attacked us and we were going to attack them back, even if they had nothing to do with 9/11. Dick “Five Deferrments” Cheney declared and we believed without question: “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.” It fit the mythic narrative we wanted to believe of a righteous retaliation for the evil done to us. And when people attempted to point out that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, when the facts vindicated those who had pointed out that there was no actual evidence of WMDs, we simply changed the narrative from a Righteous Crusade of Vengeance to a Righteous Crusade for Freedom (to be more oppressively Sharia-bound). We needed a myth of victory, a fantasy of triumph in which the grievous blow dealt us received a grievous defeat followed by a transformation of our Enemy into Us, the ultimate triumph. We told ourselves “Mission Accomplished” and have lived in denial since then that our broad mythic narrative bears little resemblance to the facts.

That, I think, is part of the reason, by the way, that the GOP ties itself in knots over the fact that Obama and not they achieved the satisfactory mythic goal of killing Osama bin Laden. It was, after all, his attack that scarred our nation and the obvious resolution (emotionally speaking) was to hold his severed head before the nation and shout “Osama Delenda Est!” Bush failed. In fact, he never even tried. Obama succeeded. And like any smart pol he knows that’s a selling point with a wounded nation that longed to see the murderous son of a bitch dead. People don’t know or care from nothing about the complexities of Al Quaeda’s decentralized organization, just as they don’t know or care about the complexities of the cave tunnel system on Iwo Jima. What they need, mythically speaking, is a picture of four guys raising a flag that says, “We beat the enemy”.

The death of Osama bin Laden gave that satisfaction. The crazy war of choice against a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 did not. So the GOP was left pathetically trying to claim “Hey! Our willingness to torture is what *really* got bin Laden.” This, in addition to being a bald-faced lie (GOP torture policies actually hampered our intel gathering ability) demonstrates clearly that the GOP knows the killing of bin Laden was exactly one of those things that a nation can grasp as mythically satisfying and is trying to horn in on the action.

Mythic thinking is not all bad. We require to be kept in touch with the great themes of human existence. But mythic thinking can be very dangerous too. It is an American myth that our crusade for the American Way shall surely conquer the world with truth and justice. It is a fact on the ground that Obama’s war on Catholic conscience is being conducted precisely on the grounds that this Myth shall conquer the Backward Forces of Evil represented by the Catholic tradition. Totalitarian states are as adept as free ones at tapping into mythic imagery to bypass rational thought and gin up the masses by teaching them to salivate at images and associations, rather than reason and clearly thought-through ideas.

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  • “I am a conservative Catholic who says that all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims is revealed by God, opposes abortion, euthanasia, and gay “marriage”, hates Communism, regards Obama as a tyrant, voted for Reagan and Bush twice, supports just war, supports capitalism (within just limits), stands for monogamy, rejects artificial contraception, and thinks Benedict XVI is the bees knees.”

    You socialist! 😉

  • Andy, Bad Person

    “I am a conservative Catholic who says that all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims is … abortion, euthanasia, …gay “marriage”, … Communism, … Obama …war, …artificial contraception, and …bees …”

    It’s like I don’t even know you anymore, Mark.

    • Mark Shea

      You crack me up!

  • Kirt Higdon

    One reason so many people believe in conspiracy theories is that there really are a lot of conspiracies. A conspiracy is simply an agreement or plan by two or more people to accomplish an evil end or a good end by evil means. Few would contend even in theory that this rarely or never happens. In modern times, the proliferation of intelligence agencies as states within states and the establishment of far flung criminal and revolutionary organizations, all wrapped in a shroud of secrecy, leads the average person to speculate and to various conspiracy theories. If people refused to speculate and simply believed whatever their “betters” told them, would this be an improvement? Of course, the regime (any regime) always promulgates conspiracy theories about its enemies – note the conspiracy theories about Iran’s nuclear weapons currently being circulated. This doesn’t amount to an endorsement of any and all conspiracy theories. A conspiracy theory should make sense (birtherism spectacularly fails that test) and shouldn’t be so vague as to serve as an all purpose explanation for everything. The theory should not be used for scapegoating religious and ethnic groups. Finally, Occam’s razor should apply as a rule of thumb. The theory should not be needlessly complicated generally speaking, although some conspiracies are needlessly complicated. I think following these principles will enable the average person to separate the wheat from the chaff in conspiracy theories.

  • Thinkling

    There is another simple reason conspiracy nuttery is around, and indeed thriving in some circles.

    Be it birtherism, grassyknollism, the latest DanBrownism, or yourvaccinecausedmychildsautism-ism, these are all shades of Gnosticism, repackaged for the 21st century.

    Old heresies die hard.

  • John

    Given the state of the means of communication – which Mark so ably demonstrated a week ago to be controlled by a dozen or so companies and perhaps only 400 or so individuals- is it surprising that the rest of us pick and choose our ‘facts’ and come up with conspiracy theories to account for discrete events that otherwise baffle us? It’s like the Heisenberg principle of atomic physics…. atoms are ‘fuzzy’, not mini-solar systems with distinct, hard lines or little solid spheres zipping about. Ditto with national and international politics… the complexity is stunning, there are wheels within wheels, and at any given time we know precious little about the reality of Iran or China or even ourselves and our ‘real capabilities’….. So, we know that China has perhaps 400 ICBMs with perhaps 1200 nuclear warheads on them. But not much more. We don’t know what their real game plan is, other than that they’ve got 3,000 miles of tunnels for those nukes. It sounds like a lot, but then if you add all our tunnels we’ve probably got at least that much just for ‘civilian’ purposes like salt mines (Detroit’s salt mine had over 100 miles of tunnels at a depth of 1100 feet….). It doesn’t mean armageddon…but it’s not nothing either. It’s a deterrent. Ditto with North Korea….we don’t know much about them…but do know they’ve got 10,000 artillery tubes dug into bunkers and pointed towards Seoul…. so without nukes they can conventionally ‘deter’ the South from ever crossing the DMZ…. it’s the perfect stalemate: they can’t invade but neither can the South risk losing the capital to conventional artillery barrages. In this uncertainty field or haze of complexity it’s natural that we’d cook up conspiracy theories – because reality is never static and ‘simple’. Conspiracies are being cooked up all the time – every undercover operation is a ‘conspiracy’ is it not? Every case of business espionage is also a ‘conspiracy’. Political parties are waging low level cloak and dagger ops too…. false flag ops happened to the Tea Party and they happened to the OWS people. Such little initiatives never explain everything but they do influence everything…hence the permanence of the concept of ‘conspiracy’ across cultural and historic lines…. Yes, they exist…. but no, they’d don’t account for everything.

  • “Osama Delenda Est!”

    Pardon a moment of Latin pedantry, but if I’m not mistaken, that’s what you would say before bin Laden was killed, rallying people to the cause. After he’s dead, you might say something like “Osama deletus est!” (I’m not much of a Latin scholar, so someone can correct me.)

    • ivan_the_mad

      You’re right, that would translate as “Osama ought to be destroyed”, as opposed to “Osama has been destroyed”. It’s put this way to mirror an oration of Cato (forget which of the two now), who said “Carthaginam censeo deledam est” a lot.

  • Its always great to see conspiracy news!