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Skeptics Gone Wild: Navigating America’s Conspiracy Theory Culture

Why conspiracy theories may not be as irrational as some might think.

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These allegations are well documented. So is candidate Reagan’s alleged pre-election promise to the Islamist students who had taken 52  American hostages in Iran: that if they didn’t give President Carter the hostages, Reagan would sell them weapons to fight Iraq. We know, too, that after Congress refused the Reagan administration money to depose Nicaragua’s democratically elected government, the administration took the dirty money from weapons sales to Iran and funneled it to Nicaraguan rebels themselves.

There is a strange void in the official conversation about these facts. Every article I’ve read on conspiracy theory at some point nods toward Watergate and Iran-Contra to say, yes, there are real conspiracies. And then the issue is dropped.

“We confirm things like the Gulf of Tonkin,” says Florida State University historian Lance deHaven-Smith, “and it’s in the news one day, and it never gets any further coverage. It comes out later, and people don’t go back and rethink their view of history.”

DeHaven-Smith is the author of  Conspiracy Theory in America , a new history of possible executive high crimes in America published by the University of Texas Press. He got interested in the subject after writing a book about the disputed Bush-Gore election in Florida, and started looking for research on high-level corruption in American politics. He figured that with so many well-documented examples, there would be studies. He found nothing. Studies of police involvement with organized crime, yes. Studies of the politics of scandal in Iran-Contra and Watergate, yes. But that was it. No conclusions, no analysis of patterns.

This lack of study has serious consequences for our democracy. We know, for example, that the Bush administration came to power in a questionable election, lied about Iraq, blew Valerie Plame’s cover and built an illegal worldwide network of kidnapping, detention and torture. And yet the idea that this same administration may have had advance knowledge of 9/11 is, in polite discussion, beyond the pale.

“Unless you can ask the question, you can never interrogate the policy, the war on terror, the policymakers, the policy leaders,” deHaven-Smith told me in an interview. “If you have to accept what the government says about it, if you can’t interrogate that narrative, you’re locked into a war on terror. And a lot more than that: a national surveillance state, the consequences of which are profound. Not saying that it’s an inside job, but there’s some questions about this.”

In Conspiracy Theory , deHaven-Smith argues that this reluctance to question power is a relatively new phenomenon. It began, he writes, around the time of the Kennedy assassination, and inaugurated a new era in American political life.

Throughout most of American history, large swaths of the American press and political establishment have been extremely suspicious of the government. DeHaven-Smith argues that America was founded, in fact, on conspiracy theory: the Founders’ fear, described in the Declaration of Independence, that King George III would crush the colonies’ fledgling democracy and institute a despotism.

(Similarly—though deHaven-Smith doesn’t make this point—Texas’ War of Independence can be read as the result of dueling conspiracy theories: the Texan fear that Santa Anna would take away their liberties, and the Mexican fear that Texans wanted to split Texas from Mexico and join the United States.)

But after Kennedy’s death, and CIA Document 1035-960 advocating propaganda war against “conspiracy theorists,” something changed. A new figure entered the American political arena: the conspiracy crazy. In subsequent years, as American foreign policy became ever more bipartisan in its expansionism and militarism, as presidents stopped standing up to the military, as scandals broke at the highest levels, the term “conspiracy theory” appeared more and more in the nation’s leading newspapers. By the mid-1970s it was appearing in 20 to 30  New York Times  stories a year, having acquired its current connotation of foolish speculation and unhinged paranoia.

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