These days, the term* “conspiracy theory” connotes a kooky opinion held by paranoid people. The truth is more serious. Conspiracy Theory in America by Lance deHaven-Smith (University of Texas Press, 2013) offers a different view of conspiracies, a startling professional analysis of questionable operations in the federal government. It isn’t the book’s recounting of conspiratorial incidents that makes the book important. It’s the implications for current American mass politics and belief systems. After all, the Founding Fathers of American democracy were conspirators—against King George.
The book’s cover offers this:
Ever since the Warren Commission concluded that a lone gunman assassinated President John F. Kennedy, people who doubt that finding have been widely dismissed as conspiracy theorists, despite credible evidence that right-wing elements in the CIA, FBI, and Secret Service–and possibly even senior government officials–were also involved. Why has suspicion of criminal wrongdoing at the highest levels of government been rejected … as paranoid thinking akin to superstition?
The book explores how the negative connotation of the term “conspiracy theory” entered American political speech due to a documented CIA effort to put a pejorative label on suspicions regarding President Kennedy’s assassination. deHaven-Smith defines his own narrower category of official collusion: SCAD (State Crime Against Democracy), meaning corruption of government including election tampering, assassination, and malicious prosecution.
Weaving a review of two centuries of conspiratorial actions into the drama, deHaven-Smith offers credible evidence of possible recent SCADs, including both Kennedy murders, Johnson’s Tonkin excuse for Viet Nam, Nixon’s Watergate, Reagan’s reputed pre-election (“October Surprise”) arrangements with Iran with the subsequent documented Iran-Contra fiasco, the 2000 and 2004 elections in Florida, and finally the invasion of Iraq as justified by nonexistent “weapons of mass destruction.”
The hard message is that the “conspiracy-theory” label discourages us from talking.
It discourages talking about the loss of empirical evidence regarding the many previous events, and from demanding proper investigations of current events. It’s possible that American militarism has been maintained by SCADs that protect covert operations. Only by accident did we get information about other SCADs, such as Watergate, and the CIA program to stigmatize the term “conspiracy theory.”
The nature of our democracy is that leaders manipulate mass opinion, reinforce patriotism, revere the Founders, and deny analysis that might penetrate presumed assumptions. Is democracy preserved by fooling the people into believing they rule themselves?
deHaven-Smith describes how political theorists of the mid-1900’s suggested that modern democracies are vulnerable to totalitarianism because science eroded traditional beliefs—the beliefs that supported established laws and norms. Apparently, those theorists (Popper and Strauss) thought science requires promoting a lie or preventing critical discussion. I claim those notions not only disempower the individual; they also also generate a neurotic society. Neurosis, after all, is a separation of a person from himself brought about by a prohibition of internal dialog. A therapist induces the patient to talk so he can hear himself. A healthy society needs open discussion of critical issues. The public can stand the truth if it’s the whole truth.
In a concluding chapter, deHaven-Smith notes there is a large element in our society that believes state manipulation of domestic politics is necessary, even though it is usually illegal. They distrust popular control, but are pleased to have the government secretly snoop anywhere (Patriot Act). Political reform, says deHaven-Smith, should apply the rule of law to the government itself. For example, war requires a congressional declaration, something not done since WWII, never mind Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Thousands of lives lost but we can’t talk about why? Or if we do, we’re regarded as kooky?
If we can’t talk about it, we’re powerless. Like the current Congress.
* I previously used the term “conspiracy theory” in its literal sense, meaning an opinion about a group of people, without regard to its pejorative implication. I am grateful to Chris, who suggested I read deHaven-Smith’s analysis. It’s not the only book by deHaven-Smith on American politics.
Thanks for making me aware of the book & ideas in there. Tough stuff to hear — and very uncomfortable to think about — but important.
Excellent spellout, Don, re what science is and isn’t – in contrast to belief. Couldn’t believe that one-fourth of us don’t know that the earth goes around the sun…..I still hear so many denying that climate change is ongoing. Thanks for your thoughtful piece. Lucia Mouat