Sometimes I feel like a conspiracy theorist. Take climate change. For many years, one was castigated as an unhinged to question the monolithic consensus that global warming is taking place, that it will end life on earth in a few decades, and that it’s all our fault. To suggest that the sudden tidal wave of data was predicated on suspect temperature gauges and hypothetical computer models, or that it ran counter to other, equally (or more) credible data, or that contrary voices were being systematically silenced opened one to charges that one owned closets full of tin-foil hats.
The problem for those castigating skeptics as loony conspiracy theorists is that all of the previous statements are correct. That is, they are actual facts. Temperature gauges are in strange places (near jet airplane tails, for example), the climate change advocates boast that they’ve reached their conclusions based on computer modeling, and the internet revealed that many voices are trying to speak up, but have been turned away by scientific publications and the media, despite meeting the objective criteria for both. In other words, there is actual evidence supporting the skeptic’s concerns (and that is true whether or not the skeptics are ultimately correct).
Likewise, for those of us who detected the same monolithic tilt in the media, the revelation about Journolist answered those concerns as well. Yes, Virginia, there was indeed a tight nexus of liberal journalists at major publications who got together to shape the political narrative. How can I say that with such assurance? Because we’ve got the emails. We’ve got the evidence.
These thoughts — about real behaviors, albeit behaviors taking place in secret, and nonexistent conspiracies — keep floating around in my head because I’m reading Churchill’s history of World War II. (And jj’s right — it’s remarkably leaden, but nevertheless fascinating.) No history of World War II can be complete without focusing on Hitler’s and, by extension, German’s obsessive belief that Jews were controlling the world economy and that it was they who sucked away Germany’s wealth during and after World War I. The evidence of this conspiracy? The complete absence of evidence. The Germans justified this complete absence of evidence by assuring all and sundry that only a race as sneaky, manipulative and all-powerful as the Jews could carry out a conspiracy so exquisitely that there was no evidence whatsoever of their foul deeds.
The same illogic guides the Truthers. Because they dislike the U.S. government (at least the U.S. government under a Dubya presidency), they have created a vast and complicated theory predicated on the complete absence of evidence. Actual evidence would only complicate things. It’s so much easy to point to all the dogs that didn’t bark in the night.
And that’s really the nature of true conspiracy theories, isn’t it? The conspiracy theorist finds the most compelling evidence to be the absence of any evidence at all. Actual facts are dangerous, since they might run counter to the theorist’s ideas.
That conspiracy theorists live in a fantastical dream world doesn’t mean that there aren’t dangerous trends and conspiracies out there. Groups of people do get together behind the scenes and come up with ideas, covert or overt, to carry out their agenda. Some are innocuous, some vaguely dangerous, and some genuinely malevolent. What one cannot deny, though, is that all true conspiracies and movements leave a trail. Sometimes we merely suspect the trail, but it may take a few years (or decades, as with the released Soviet Union Comintern documents) to reveal itself. And until it does, those of us who aren’t raving loonies, content ourselves with pointing out commonalities and trends, but refrain from getting our knickers in a wild twist.
I’ve run out of steam here. If you have anything to add, feel free to do so.
UPDATE: This post about the NYT’s sleazy attack on Daryl Issa seems apropos.