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Exploring the Crazy Conspiracy Theories Bubbling Up Around the BP Disaster

You've heard the latest one, right? The one about how President Obama deliberately blew up the Deepwater Horizon to pass an energy bill?

You've heard the latest one, right? President Obama -- or maybe it was Obama working hand-in-glove with BP -- deliberately blew up the Deepwater Horizon, sent 11 workers to their deaths, destroyed the country's biggest fishery, and smeared the coasts of five states with endless tides of oil.

Why did he do this? Why, to pass the new energy bill, of course.

This is the Conspiracy Theory Of The Week (TM) on the far right this past week -- our little dip into the alternate, fact-free, gravity-free reality zone of the rabid right. Tracking the loony parade of right-wing conspiracy theories became something of a personal enthusiasm last spring, when the right wing's Bizarro World stories took a quantum leap for the weird. Up until the inauguration, these confections had almost always been wrapped around a kernel of factual truth; but there came a point -- it was somewhere in the early phases of the health care debate -- when that chewy middle suddenly became optional. Some new level of outrage and irrationality had been breached; and beyond that point, the new stories being told had absolutely no relationship to any observable reality at all.

Fascinated, I hit the books. The most useful one out of the several I read turned out to be Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History by British historian David Aaronovitch. While carefully dissecting the anatomy of over a dozen of the past century's most famous conspiracy theories, Aaronovitch also draws some thoughtful insights about the nature of conspiracy theories: how they start, who believes them, and what psychological purpose they serve.

Aaronovitch defines a conspiracy theory as any story that assumes that things happen due to the deliberate, covert actions of powerful others -- even when the preponderance of evidence points to the conclusion that the events were almost certainly accidental and unintended.

Unfortunately, the right wing doesn't hold the franchise on conspiracy theories -- a lot of progressives are quite ready to believe all manner of sordid things about the Bush regime, for example. But as Dr. Robert Altemeyer observed, there are distinctively conservative habits of mind (suspicion, fear of strangers, fear of change, faith in strong leaders, paranoia) that do seem to lend themselves to conspiracy thinking. It's no surprise we're seeing it out of them -- but we also need to be more acutely aware that we're hardly immune to the siren song of crazy paranoia, either.

Why do people believe this stuff? It turns out that it's a complicated issue, with several answers. Some of those answers have to do with the internal state of the people who believe them; others have to do with the cultural and political environment they're trying to navigate. This post covers some of the external factors that create a climate that predisposes people to suspend their judgment and believe the worst. Next week, I'll follow up with a second post about what goes on inside people's heads that untethers them from reason just far enough to be swept away by their fears.

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Broken Trust
People are far more likely to believe in conspiracy theories when they've already been objectively, seriously, undeniably lied to by people in power. Conspiracy theories are always a clear sign that people's faith government and private institutions has been repeatedly shattered, but never mended. If they lied to us then, we can never be sure they're not lying to us now.

It's not just the Gulf of Tonkin, or Watergate, or Iran-Contra, or being lied into Iraq. It's also the way our own bosses treat us at work, and Wall Street doctors the books, and the media leaves essential facts out of news reports. The current generation of Americans, left and right, has learned the hard way that people in power lie to us -- constantly and habitually. Since they won't trust us with the simple truth, there's no reason to trust them in return.

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