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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.

The following article first appeared in the Texas Observer. 

con·spir·a·cy the·o·ry
noun: conspiracy theory; plural noun: conspiracy theories
1. a belief that some covert but influential organization is responsible for a circumstance or event.

In 1967, the Central Intelligence Agency began to worry about the proliferation of dangerous theories about President Kennedy’s 1963 assassination. The Warren Commission Report, released three years earlier, had concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed the president with two of the three shots he fired from the Texas School Book Depository in downtown Dallas.

Anyone with even passing knowledge of the subject will recall that there was much about the Kennedy assassination that was, shall we say, odd. And so the Warren Commission Report, which blamed the whole affair on the unstable (and by then conveniently dead) Oswald, was greeted with widespread skepticism. As much as 46 percent of the American public, according to contemporary polls, doubted that Oswald had acted alone. Some suspected that Oswald had done the bidding of the CIA. Others claimed that Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s vice president and successor, had orchestrated the assassination.

Such speculation, CIA agents wrote in Document 1035-960, declassified in 1976 and marked “Concerning Criticism of the Warren Report,” was not only cause for concern  to Johnson, the CIA and the members of the Warren Commission, but it also posed a threat to “the whole reputation of the American government.” Even considering such heresies was deemed dangerous. The agency resolved to fight back by “provid[ing] material countering and discrediting the claims of the conspiracy theorists.”

With “conspiracy theorists,” the CIA gave currency to a coinage that until then had been obscure: that American elites might control the political process through extralegal means like assassination. And even as they named it, the CIA moved against it: Document 1035-960 proposed that the agency use “propaganda assets” to discredit conspiracy theorists using newspaper and magazine articles planted with “friendly” editors.

In a sense, the CIA failed miserably. Not only does a majority of the country now believe that the official account of JFK’s assassination is wrong (59 percent, according to a 2013 poll), but we are now living in a golden age of conspiracy theory. According to a recent poll conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University, 63 percent of registered voters believe in at least one conspiracy theory (though, as we’re going to see, that term is a little problematic). The same poll found that one in four Americans is a so-called Truther, believing that the Bush administration had advance knowledge of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. (Among New York City residents, that number is closer to 50 percent.)

This state of affairs is now, as it was in 1967, quite uncomfortable for some people. Numerous hand-wringing articles try to explain the American affair with conspiracy theory through cognitive bias, civic cynicism and the echo-chamber effect of self-selecting Internet communities.

But trying to explain away anyone’s specific conspiracy belief, or conspiratorial thinking in general, misses the point—the point being that there’s no longer anything especially irrational about believing that shadowy actors are subverting American democracy. Think of that CIA dispatch, advocating a propaganda campaign against the suspicious. Picture the president, slumped forward in the back seat of his limousine, a bullet through his neck. As he lays dying something new is being born, a creeping miasma of suspicion that will spread across Dallas, across Texas, across America.

The trouble with a phrase like “conspiracy theory” is that it’s the rare phrase that can be used both as a neutral description and as a dismissive put-down. In one usage, it describes an allegation that some action was planned by secret plotting: for example, that the Bush administration conspired in 2003 to lead the country into war in Iraq. In the other, it’s straight-up pejorative. To label something a conspiracy theory is to place it beyond the bounds of what rational people are willing to entertain. In the mainstream press, “conspiracy theory” translates as “crazy talk.”

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