There Be Dragons
One of the unexpected storms the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it is a fairly rousing public debate about conspiracy theories and the value (or lack thereof) of conspiratorial thought. Long time conspiracy theorist David Icke has been part of the controversy, as he was thrust into mainstream culture with an interview that set off sparks and was later banned from YouTube. In this highly unusual and disturbing time of the coronavirus and the unprecedented lockdown, the veil between the mainstream cultural worldview and its margins has thinned considerably, and all kinds of dragons- 5G, Bill Gates, Plandemic, vaccines, New World Order, bioweapons- are flying around in places they don’t usually fly. I’ve seen vigorous debates on the validity of conspiracy theories on the FB pages for many progressive communities, including Game B folks, Integral Theory, and those who gather around the work of Charles Eisenstein, for example. There’s also been a steady stream of members of the literati stepping forth to condemn conspiracy theories and conspiracy thinking, looking to put the stinky genie back in its bottle. Mark Manson’s rather condescending dismissal of the whole thing, for instance, has been fairly typical of many of these responses.
Through observing these debates, and going into other historical literature, I’ve been able to glean at least eight core arguments against conspiratorial thought that come up repeatedly. In this piece I want to respond to each of those arguments and offer a counter perspective. There’s a partial truth in a lot of them, and I’ll speak to that. But I also want to make a case that a more sophisticated type of conspiratorial thought solves most of those critiques/problems. And a few of them I think are just plain wrong, and I’ll offer evidence for that view. My colleague Son of Korg recently wrote his own piece describing a more mature version of conspiratorial thought, and this is a companion piece of sorts to that.
From Courtly Intrigue to UFO Disclosure- A Brief History of Conspiring
Before we get those key repeating arguments against conspiracy theories, I want to set a general background around the history of conspiring. It’s a funny thing for critics to reject any notion that people conspire behind the scenes in order to achieve some goal, when this has been a basic fact of human life since at least the ancient world. Espionage is sometimes called the second oldest profession, and it was practiced throughout the kingdoms of India, Egypt, Greece, Rome and China. Sun Tzu delineated five different kinds of spies in his classic book The Art of War. In the Book of Joshua in the Bible, the Israelites send spies into Jericho as they begin their foray into Canaan (Joshua 2:2-21). Spycraft continued to develop throughout the Middle Ages, particularly in Elizabethan England, and it exploded in the 20th century with the help of new technologies. The recent TV show The Americans is about a kind of spy called a “resident spy”, basically a double agent that lives a totally false life in a foreign country. Espionage, intelligence gathering, and spycraft have been with us for a very long time, and all those people doing it were conspiring.
Then we can turn to the royal courts of history and the whole notion of courtly intrigue. The history of royal courts is full of machinations, poisonings, double crossings and so on. It was a hot bed of conspiring. How many of Shakespeare’s plays for instance contain some sort of courtly intrigue. Abraham Lincoln is said to have repeatedly read Shakespeare’s political plays, such as King Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth, because they were so accurate in their understanding of political intrigue and the scheming that takes place at the highest levels of political power. A close cousin to courtly intrigue is the power behind the throne, the eminence grise, a person very close to ruling power who is really the calling the shots but is doing so from behind the scenes and within the shadows. In Game of Thrones this type of political animal was portrayed in the character Varys, the feared “master of whisperers” who had a network of informants stretching far and wide. The whole series Game of Thrones was one giant meshwork of conspiring and counter conspiring, and the creators had much to draw from in the history of royal courts and the rise and fall of earthly kingdoms.
In case we think that all this conspiring is from a bygone era, the last few years alone have brought revelation after revelation of secret worlds being exposed. One doesn’t even need to go back to the greatest conspiracy hits of the last fifty years- such as COINTELPRO, MKUltra, Watergate, Pentagon Papers, Iran-Contra Scandal, lies about WMD’s in Iraq, CIA drug running into America, or the big tobacco cover up - to make the case that people are still conspiring together in secrecy to achieve some (often morally dubious) goal. The Jeffrey Epstein saga would be case number one in the steady stream of recent revelations. We now know of the blackmail/underage sex ring he was running, with his various posh dwellings all fully wired for video. We know of the who’s who list of global elites he knew or cozied up to or brought to his island. And what do blackmailed people do? They do what their shadowy blackmailers tell them to do. Eric Weinstein’s solo monologue on his experience meeting Epstein, and all of the troubling questions that still remain around Epstein and his life, is worth a listen. We also know now that there really are pedophile networks in the Catholic Church, and that the truth of it is even more horrific than imagined. And how about UFO’s, and the startling admission by the US Military that Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAF) are real and in our skies. A few years ago you had articles like this one (and dozens more like it) mocking the idea of ‘UFO disclosure’, and yet here we are. We also now know that there are sex cults in Hollywood (NXIVM) that include human trafficking and human slavery, and that Hollywood is full of serial sexual abusers- Weinstein, Cosby, Spacey- and that many knew but turned a blind eye. The idea of geoengineering used to be considered the stuff of conspiracy fantasy, and yet now we have articles opening talking about it as a solution to global warming. Heck, there was even a study that came out in 2019 which found that drinking water with fluoride in it maybe does damage child intellectual development! What’s next, the frogs really are being turned gay?
If we go back a decade and add to these more recent revelations, we know the NFL conspired to cover up its concussion problem, we know that a group of major food companies conspired to ignore the negative health consequences of their sugar filled products, we know that Johnson and Johnson conspired to keep it quiet that there was asbestos in their Baby Powder, and we know via Edward Snowden that we really are living under a system of mass surveillance. The philosopher Dan Coady basically sums it up when he writes, “People do conspire. That is, they engage in secretive or deceptive behaviour that is illegal or morally dubious…Conspiracy is a common form of human behaviour across all cultures throughout recorded time, and it has always been particularly widespread in politics…Virtually all of us conspire some of the time, and some people (such as spies) conspire virtually all of the time”. Despite all of the vocal disapproval of conspiracy theories these days, people really do conspire. So what’s wrong with conspiratorial thought then? Let’s look at some of the most recurring critiques against it and respond to those.
Eight Arguments Against Conspiratorial Thought
The first argument that I often hear is conspiracies don’t happen that often, and they rarely succeed. This is an argument Karl Popper famously made in his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper’s pejorative writings on conspiracy theories have proven to be very influential, and this was one of the arguments he made against them. I hope the previous section of this piece has already offered enough examples to refute this argument. But if not, let’s add one more recurring piece of history as evidence- coup d’états. If you scroll through this Wikipedia article outlining the history of coup d’états going back to the ancient world, you can see that they happen often. And they’re often successful too. Coup d’états happen a lot, and a coup d’état is a prime example of people conspiring together in secret to achieve some (often morally dubious) goal. And if we’re talking about secret societies plotting a coup d’état, we might as well mention The Black Hand, not only because they had a cool name, but because they had a role in igniting WW1. Groups conspiring in secret against other groups has been with us for a very long time.
The next argument I often hear is some form of, “The elites can’t do something as complex as pulling off a conspiracy. The world is complex and messy, the elites barely know what’s going on”. I would argue that the complexity of the global world-system with all of its parts- such as banking, NGOs, financial institutions, think tanks, global trade, travel, communications, etc.- itself refutes this argument. The elite “superclass” of individuals who run this world and meet regularly at Davos and summits (G8/G20) and the Bilderberg Meeting and in think tanks, have already proven that they can create and maintain something extremely complex and highly dynamic. They are enmeshed with (and fed by) the world’s best universities and the world’s largest foundations, who grant money for research and development, utilizing the world’s brightest minds in a number of fields to further advance the world-system. These people are hardly the Goofy hyuck yuck doofuses that people using this anti conspiracy theory argument make them out to be.
Not only are they sophisticated and capable of upholding a system of great complexity, they also know how to game that system. We saw this with the surprising Panama Papers revelations in 2016, exposing how the elites use shell companies and tax havens to hide their money and avoid paying taxes. Or take this article by Matt Taibbi on the Libor scandal, proof that the elites are capable of highly complex conspiratorial actions. Taibbi begins his article with these memorable lines- “Conspiracy theorists of the world, believers in the hidden hands of the Rothschilds and the Masons and the Illuminati, we skeptics owe you an apology. You were right. The players may be a little different, but your basic premise is correct: The world is a rigged game. We found this out in recent months, when a series of related corruption stories spilled out of the financial sector, suggesting the world’s largest banks may be fixing the prices of, well, just about everything”. Not only are our elites capable of great complexity and sophistication, they’re fully capable of conspiring in complex and sophisticated ways too.
The next argument that people often make against the conspiratorial viewpoint is that “People can’t keep secrets. There’s no way that conspiracies of great magnitude, sometimes supposedly involving thousands of people, could be kept secret”. Although this one is often repeated and does seem reasonable at a certain common-sense level, it really doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, especially when it comes to the workings of intelligence agencies, militaries, and governments. First, you do have classified information, which is precisely for the purpose of maintaining secrecy. And according to this 2019 article in the Atlantic, the US (for example) classifies a lot of information. Another technique that helps maintain the secrecy of covert or classified operations is compartmentalization. Operators working on a secret operation only get enough information to complete their own tasks, but they’re not told how that fits into the wider operation, or what that operation even is. One of the benefits of this is that if an operator were ever caught by an enemy group, they wouldn’t be able to divulge the wider operation because they wouldn’t know it. Compartmentalization is a key factor in maintaining the secrecy of classified and clandestine operations.
Governments are able to keep large operations secret. The stealth bomber was kept secret for a decade before being revealed, for instance. The US military also managed to build a nuclear facility on Greenland during the 1960s without the Denmark government knowing, during Operation Iceworm (it was later abandoned). Several NATO governments managed to hide a series of clandestine “stay-behind” paramilitary networks that were a part of Operation Gladio in the years following WW2. Or how about one of the most famous and well-known secret operations of all time, the Manhattan Project to build the nuclear bomb. There were over 130,000 people working on the project from 1939 to 1946, and there were leaks- over 1,500 according to this article- but most were inadvertent slips and all of them were investigated. Leaking secret information is serious business that can lead to serious jail time, and militaries and intelligence agencies are constantly on the lookout for anyone doing it.
It might not only be the risk of jail time that helps prevent leaks from happening. In a recent episode of The Higherside Chats podcast, UFO researcher Richard Dolan was asked if he ever gets retired and aging military veterans, ones who had held top level security clearances and worked on secret projects, to tell their story near the end of their life. As they approach their death, do they ever want to tell the things they know so they can set the record straight, or leave a legacy behind? Dolan responded that he always asks them, but they’re usually too scared to say anything. They say that if they told him anything on the record they’d be scared for their life, or the lives of their loved ones. We can all infer what this means, and Dolan didn’t really expand on it, but it sounds like very credible threats of physical harm might also be involved in maintaining state and military secrecy. How exactly the sausage gets made is hard to know, but it’s true that secrets are routinely kept at the highest levels of state power.
The next two arguments against conspiracy theories often portray a strawman version of conspiratorial thought. It takes the most unsophisticated expressions of conspiratorial thought and then rejects the whole realm based on these weakest forms. The first argument is that “Conspiracy theorists need certainty and can’t stand complexity. They believe simple stories to help explain a world that is too complex for them”. The second related argument is that “Conspiracy theorists hold their beliefs with a mythic certainty”. Taking the second argument first, many people hold many beliefs with mythic certainty. Some people believe in science and progress with mythic certainty. And there are definitely people who believe in certain conspiracy theories with mythic certainty (“It’s all the Jesuits”; “It’s all the banksters”; “The Jews run everything”). This has more to do with developmental psychology and the structure of consciousness (Jean Gebser), or order of consciousness (Robert Kegan), that someone is largely operating from, than it has to do with conspiratorial thought in general. Yes, some people are going to hold a simple black and white version of a conspiratorial worldview that lacks nuance, and they’re going hold onto it as tight as the folks who think the Bible is the literal word of God. There’s no getting around that, that’s a stage of development that will always be with us to some degree, because people will always be going through that stage. But when I listen to conspiracy podcasts for instance, such as The Higherside Chats, Grimerica, Tinfoil Hat, Conspiranormal and Jay’s Analysis, I hear people constantly adding to their understanding, often changing their working maps due to new information, and I hear voices that are highly skeptical or suspicious of various conspiracy data (such as QAnon, as I wrote about).
We here at Limited Hangout promote the epistemological practice of ontological flooding, where one opens to the full range of data and experience, never fully committing to a final explanation, always incorporating new information and seeing how it may or may not fit within the greater tapestry one is holding open in their minds. This would be both a complex form of thinking, and by definition it’s not being held with mythic certainty, as the process is by nature fluid and open-ended. Do some people crave certainty and so believe a simple (conspiratorial) story to explain the world? Sure, some do, of course. But if we were going to steel man conspiratorial thought we’d have to look at sophisticated researchers such as Richard Dolan’s work on UFO’s and the national security state, or Jay Dyer’s work on Hollywood and its machinations, or Joe DiEugenio’s work on the JFK/MLK/RFK assassinations, or Joseph P. Farrell’s research into occluded history. This is very thorough and well documented work and its miles away from the characterization of conspiracy theorists as halfwits in need of a simplistic story to quell their fear. These two arguments against conspiracy theories (“mythic certainty” and “simplicity in a desire for certainty”) are certainly possible with conspiratorial thought, but they do not characterize it in any fundamental way.
The next two arguments against conspiracy theories come from James A. Lindsay in a 2019 essay he wrote for Areo Magazine called ‘Should Universities Teach Conspiracy Theories as Knowledge?’ Lindsay’s real target in the essay is what he calls Grievance Studies, but he makes a pair of arguments against conspiracy theories along the way. Lindsay outlines (via Jonathan Rausch) what constitutes genuine knowledge production. It must meet two conditions. First, “No one possesses special authority…Experts must be able to be checked and double-checked, criticized, and overturned when reason and evidence warrant”. And second, “No one possesses the final say. At no point is it possible to say that any question of knowledge is absolutely and finally settled”. Lindsay then says that of course, conspiracy theories don’t meet either criteria. Why? There are no special authorities in the world of conspiratorial thought as far as I can see. You have some ‘big names’, such as David Icke or a William Cooper, but I hear just about nobody repeating everything they say as scripture. There’s plenty of disagreement in the world of ‘alternative research’. There’s competing views on say, who might’ve been involved in the JFK assassination, or whether or not UFO’s are material or interdimensional, or how the buildings came down on 9/11. The space is also filled with independent researchers, digging away in books and old documents to put out new angles or fresh takes on classic conspiracy subjects. One such researcher going by the name of Recluse, just published his first book Strange Tales of the Parapolitical, after years of diligent research. There are hardly authorities who can’t be challenged in the realm of conspiratorial thought, and there’s plenty of updating of theories as new declassified documents or FOIA requests or other avenues bring new data to light. Are there going to be people who say, “The Illuminati run everything, and if you don’t see that you’re just a sheeple!” Sadly, yes, but this kind of close-minded certainty is not inherent to conspiratorial thought, just as rabid Christian fundamentalism is not inherent to the field of theology.
The last argument against conspiracy theories that I want to highlight is, “People just aren’t that evil. Evil doesn’t exist in the way conspiracy theorists think it does”. This one is very important, and in some ways might be (often unconsciously) underlining much of the current dismissal of conspiratorial thought. The modern West rejected the notion of evil when it moved into its stage of post-Enlightenment scientific materialism. All cultures at all times in all places including the West up until two hundred years ago, believed both in the reality of the spirit world and the existence of malevolent forces within it. This has been rejected in the modern worldview, and I think in hindsight this was a big mistake. In a 2016 book called Reviving Old Scratch- Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted, progressive theologian Richard Beck says that when the modern West got rid of the notion of evil, it shifted its understanding of evil into the new category of “structural evil”. Yes ‘evil’ exists, but it exists in the unjust material structures of modern society. This kind of structural inequality is and can be very real, and to understand and unpack and contest it is important. But I think we also need to reintegrate the more cosmic notion of evil or Thanatos, forces at work in the cosmos that can overtake (‘possess’) human beings and human behaviour. The Bible describes these forces in this way- “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).
I don’t think we need to take a grim tour through the brutal dictators and violent right-wing regimes and gulags and death camps of the last two hundred years to prove this point. We know those stories, or at least enough of them to know that humans are capable of awfully cruel and wicked behaviour. In his book Shake Hands with the Devil, General Romeo Dallaire spoke about his experience during the Rwandan genocide, and explained why he titled the book what he did. He says that when the killing began he saw something change in peoples faces. A bloodlust came over them, and they were gone. Dallaire said it was like looking into the face of the devil. I think we lost something important when we moderns rejected the notion of cosmic forces of evil, ones that can overtake humans and use us a vehicle for its manifestation. How can we make sense of MKUltra’s trauma-based experiments on humans, or John of God having woman slaves and a baby farm, or Jeffrey Epstein using kids as sexual bait in a blackmail operation? If we don’t believe in the reality of dark cosmic forces, I guess we just shake our heads in muddled disbelief that people could really do such things. But if we reintegrate the reality of evil into our understanding, then we know that people can be overcome by dark forces and do truly terrible things when under its spell.
Is Conspiracy the New Heresy?
As we come to the end of this investigation into whether or not conspiratorial thought is of value, I want to bring up one point that the philosopher David Coady made in his article entitled ‘In defense of conspiracy theories (and why the term is a misnomer)’. Coady makes the very interesting claim that conspiracy has become “the new heresy”. He says that the pejorative way the term conspiracy theory is used these days functions “similar to [the one] served by the term “heresy” in medieval Europe. In both cases these are terms of propaganda, used to stigmatize and marginalize people who have beliefs that conflict with officially sanctioned or orthodox beliefs of the time and place in question”. Are we witnessing, in today’s full-throated rejections of conspiracy theories, the rebirth of a kind of latent religious fundamentalism? One that says, “The world is not full of evil, it’s not full of sinister people plotting sinister things, and you better not say otherwise, or you’ll face ostracism or worse”? It’s certainly an interesting point to consider given the fervent tenor of many of the contemporary screeds against conspiratorial thought.
Whatever the reason may be for the current rejection of conspiracy theories, one consequence of making this kind of thought taboo is that it makes it easier for actual conspiracies to thrive. A culture where people are immediately dismissed for discussing the possibility of a conspiracy, would make great cover for pulling off actual conspiracies. What if there was say, a global criminal syndicate pulling off a myriad of clandestine activities, and that criminal syndicate also owned the media. Wouldn’t it be an incredible tool to use the bullhorn bully pulpit of the media to shame and ridicule as ‘conspiracy theorists’ anyone who was catching wind of your activities? I think we need to be very careful in this current rush to banish conspiracy thinking, that we don’t give bad people the protection they need to undertake their covert criminal enterprises. As Eric Weinstein said in a recent interview with Rebel Wisdom when the topic of conspiracy theories came up, “Conspiracies happen and you need to be able to go after them”. If we forbid the possibility that conspiracies are real and happen, we become severely weakened in our ability to spot the ones that are occurring and go after them. On that point alone I think conspiratorial thought should be allowed in the public sphere, although we should always encourage it to show up in its most sophisticated forms. Hopefully this piece has contributed in some small way as to what that might look like. So to all those on the margins of today's Gated Institutional Narrative, the heretics ridiculed by the media and literati as conspiracy theorists, may you continue to bring what is still shrouded in darkness into the light. Given all of the crazy things that have been revealed in the last few years alone, the next few years should prove to equally remarkable.