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Shhhh! Conspiracy Theories!

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The word “conspiracy” derives from the Latin con– (“with, together”) and spirare (“to breathe”).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines conspiracy theory as “the theory that an event occurs as a result of a conspiracy between interested parties; spec. a belief that some covert but influential agency (typically political in motivation and oppressive in intent) is responsible for an unexplained event.”

This country is sadly replete with conspiracy theories playing major roles, from Indian Wars of the 17th Century to labor battles of the Gilded Age, from the American Revolution to the war on terror. They’re frequently aimed at the government, and often hilarious, like the one that the U.S. developed a submarine made invisible through electrical field manipulation that also could time travel, because it allegedly teleported to Norfolk, Virginia a few seconds after it left. Then there’s NASA’s fake moon landing, and the U.S. government being complicit in assassinating John F. Kennedy, and aliens from outer space holding conventions in Area 51, right on up through the barrage of craziness endured by Hillary Rodham Clinton. (My personal favorite is that Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, was really Jack the Ripper.) All of which must bow, however, to the vomitous spew of conspiratorial thinking and rhetoric that has issued forth from Donald Trump and his followers, which attained national prominence with his “birther” lies and escalated from there.

But such theories are hardly only American phenomena. In rural parts of the world, common targets of such thinking include powerful, evil people, social elites, other tribes, and the western world, with modern technology sometimes listed as a form of sorcery created with a goal of harming or controlling people. In China, one widespread conspiracy theory claims that various events including the rise of Hitler, the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and climate change were all planned by the Rothschild family. Today, once fringe theories with marginal audiences have become commonplace, largely because of the Internet and social media; it’s been said that we live in an “age of conspiracism.”

Such thinking correlates to anti-governmental attitudes and a low sense of political agency, with conspiracy believers seeing threats to individual rights and feeling a personal paranoia that one’s voice and vote don’t really matter. (Of course, this doesn’t explain why women as a group have not been conspiracy theorists since the beginning of time!) Natural or human-made societal-crisis situations that promote general anxiety or unease play a large role in people’s tendency to believe these theories, because they address feelings of powerlessness. This is usually the preferred style of minority movements and the less educated, although educated elites can hold such beliefs, too (e.g. the Republican Party circa 2021). Moreover, these theories are always closely linked to bigotry, which is a central element: witch hunts, wars, genocide. Conspiracy theories are consistently held by terrorist-attack perpetrators (Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing), and they’ve been deliberately propagated by Nazi Germany, the USSR, and other authoritarian and fascist states.

Scapegoats are required for such theories to flourish. In many parts of the world, antisemitism is fueled by beliefs that Jews are plotting to achieve global domination, and this formed a major part of Hitler’s speeches blaming German defeat in World War I on a Jewish conspiracy — while Stalin, ostensibly opposed to Hitler, entertained similar theories. As early as medieval times, the European Jewish population was the target, blamed for setbacks during the Crusades and, together with women burned as witches, for causing the Plague. HIV/AIDS denial by the South African government, motivated by conspiracy theories, caused an estimated 330,000 deaths. Such beliefs are grave obstacles to public health improvements, since people who fall prey to such thinking are less likely to follow medical advice, preferring rumored alternatives. Avoidance of science in favor of mythology has been seen in resistance to water fluoridation, to fraudulent anti-vaxxer autism rumors, and today in avoiding vaccines for otherwise preventable diseases.

Penetrating conspiracy theorists’ minds with fact can be counterproductive, especially when related to challenging a person’s worldview or identity, and because conspiracy theories re-interpret dis-confirming information as part of their narrative, and even absorb it. An NPR poll from December 2020 found that the QAnon-fueled conspiracy theory that “a group of Satan worshiping elites running a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media” had 17 percent of the population in firm belief, with another 37 percent not sure; 19 percent believed President Obama was not born in the United States, while 22 percent were not sure; 12 percent thought recent mass shootings were staged hoaxes, and 27 percent were unsure. And moon landing conspiracy theories, as well as 9/11 conspiracy theories, both hover around 8 percent of the firm believers with 20 percent not sure.

Here is one example that will seem quite familiar. In the late 1790s, Jedediah Morse, a Congregational minister in Charlestown, Massachusetts, drew national attention for suggesting that a secret organization called the Bavarian Illuminati was at work “to root out and abolish Christianity, and overturn all civil government.” It was a rather volatile era, what with the U.S. Constitution newly ratified and the French Revolution gushing blood in Europe. Morse became certain atheists and infidels lurked behind the secular Jacobin movement in France that had tried to purge that nation of religion, superstition, and royalty. (But this was hardly a hush hush plot–it was The Enlightenment, for crying out loud!) One group, the Illuminati, advocated Enlightenment ideals: reason, secular government, self-rule. Many of the U.S. Founders were aware of their existence because of the overlap of Enlightenment ideas, though the Founders were not members. The Freemasons are sometimes thought to be an Illuminati offshoot, but it was actually the other way around, and the real Illuminati went out of existence in about 20 years, having settled for wearing ceremonial robes, chanting, using somewhat silly code names, and becoming the grist for more bad novels and conspiracy theories than I can count.

But Morse believed the Illuminati group was pursuing the same agenda in the infant United States and that it was working closely with Thomas Jefferson and his party, the Democratic-Republicans, who were political rivals of the Federalists. Morse, a Federalist himself, stoked the fears of evangelicals concerned with the young Republic’s moral character. In a 1798 sermon, Morse described the Illuminati’s ominous attempts to “Abjure Christianity, justify suicide (by declaring death an eternal sleep), advocate sensual pleasures agreeable to Epicurean philosophy, decry marriage, and advocate promiscuous intercourse among the sexes.”

Soon Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College, expressed similar alarm, quoting from Revelation 16 to caution his followers about “unclean teachers” who were educating innocents in “unclean doctrines,” spreading throughout the world “to unite mankind against God,” and taking their cues from previous opponents of Protestant America: the Jesuits, Voltaire, and the Masons. (No doubt, racism helped this propaganda considerably: Jefferson’s well-known 40-year-long relationship with Sally Hemmings, an enslaved woman living on his plantation and mother of six of his children, doubtless fed Morse’s fevered fantasies of lustful, demonic forces.)

Dwight and Morse reminded their readers that if this dangerous society succeeded, the children of evangelicals would be forced to read the work of Deists (gasp!) or become “concubines” in a society that “treated chastity as a prejudice, adultery as a virtue, and marriage as a farce.” Elias Boudinot, a former president of the Continental Congress, and John Jay, a Federalist statesman, fell for this conspiracy theory. Eventually, the accusations were unable to withstand the weight of evidence; evangelical Federalists went on obsessing about the preservation of the nation, but they had overplayed their hand, and the Federalist party died quietly.

I cite this example at some length not only because it’s so familiar but because, like all conspiracy theories, it merges with bigotry, which itself hides fear–oh such fear! Conspiracy theories, like the political and religious belief systems they’re dedicated to defending, must impose purpose – their purpose, even if by force – on existence itself. It breaks your heart: the thought of people frantic with terror whirling in a maelstrom of their own making, trying to find some reason, some meaning, some spell, some prayer, some pattern that will tell them what to do and why and how it all works!

It reminds me of a story I heard long ago. A child came to a wise old woman, weeping. Why are you crying, child? asked the old woman. Because, the child said, I can’t find the key to the universe anywhere, not anywhere. The old woman smiled. Ah, she said, that’s because there is no key to the universe. The child cried out desperately, Not anywhere? The woman replied gently, No, not anywhere. But that’s no reason to worry, child. You see, the universe is not locked.

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