There is a strange seduction about a mystery, the lure into the unknown. When we have a part of a story, there is an innate temptation to fill in the picture. It has been said that humans are meaning-making creatures and have an innate capacity for story. We listen to each other’s stories, we tell each other stories about ourselves, about what happened. Fiction, non-fiction, all of daily life. Stories are in music, television. We watch an enormous amount of stories. And then we sleep, dream, and get a stream of stories directly from the well. Hermann Rorschach showed us that we even make images and stories out of ink blots. We make story seemingly out of nowhere and with the smallest bit of stimulation. Just a few words or images and our capacity for story really takes off.
One of the fascinating ways in which story takes flight into a seeming universe of alt-facts is the persistence of conspiracy theories. It seems that conspiracy theories today are no longer activities on the outskirts of society. Finding free range on the internet, access to these stories has proliferated and amplified into the mainstream. Consider the obvious fact that the current president began his political career peddling the birther conspiracy theory in a racist and bigoted effort to delegitimize President Obama.
The thing that impresses me is how often conspiracy theories are at bottom pretty useless. It seems that the more one goes into a conspiratorial narrative, the less one knows, and that the narrative itself does little to change what we’ve already established from known facts. As for my previous well known example, the birthers – the theory that Obama is a foreigner and Muslim is merely excessive to the known fact that he is – gasp! -black. So that is what I have in mind here, a class of conspiracies that really provide what I would call excessive narrative. These are stories that can at best give form to lurid fears, or at worst, detract from truths that may in fact be more alarming. For example, it is somehow easier for homogenized white America to dismiss Obama as a foreign interloper than to wrestle with the idea that the future of America will no longer be dominated by the white racial mythology. That simple reality is bigger and more mysterious to the social order of the nation than some damn conspiracy. Before I get to Kremlingate, let me break down a few more recent conspiracies:
Pizzagate originates among alt-right websites trying to connect the dots between real world sex trafficking, real world allegations against disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner, and reading into coded language in the John Podesta/Hillary Clinton leaked emails. The story, to keep it rather simplified, implicates all of the above mentioned figures, plus Dennis Hastert and Bill Clinton, in a massive sex trafficking ring using pizza parlors across the country as fronts for the operation. This conspiracy narrative has been promoted heavily by Michael Flynn, Jr., Alex Jones and Infowars, and a congerie of the internet’s dark alleys. One man reading this on the internet actually went to Comet Ping Pong, a Washington D.C. pizzeria with a gun demanding to know where the kids are – which goes to show, as Hillary adroitly pointed out in a tweet, that fake news has real world consequences. Infowars, for their part, still has not been sufficiently disabused of this story and continue to insist that the Clintons are mass murdering pederasts. This allegation is linked to a great number of stories about the murdering, thieving Clintons, and their money laundering Clinton Foundation and foreign blood money, all in an attempt to tar the famed political family with salacious allegations.
But here’s the thing, what does any of this lurid accounting achieve? We don’t really have to resort to nightshade theorizing to understand what is plain in the light of day. Yes, the Clintons made a fortune from politics just as they helped the rest of the donor/managerial class. They certainly were not champions of the working class. The Clintons in many respects were more insidious to labor than Reaganomics. Hillary began political activity campaigning for Goldwater, after all. Her activities with Goldman Sachs, Monsanto, Walmart, tell us the story of the crooked Wall Street liberal. Isn’t this enough to call her Crooked Hillary? Do we have to bring in a wild salacious story about pizza parlor pederasts into this? Theorists want to raise hell about Benghazi, but the real scandal is somewhere else in plain sight – its public record that Clinton helped assassinate Colonel Gaddafi in Libya with drone strikes which crippled his escape attempt during the 2011 Arab Spring – an event in which no one in America is upset about. Aren’t these plain scandals enough? What could we learn from any of these conspiracy theories? That the Clintons are shady and use politics for personal gain? We’re knocking on an open door. Benghazi, Pizzagate – these are mere excesses to the truth. As Matt Taibbi wrote in Insane Clown President, “This being America, as ordinary people tune out their corrupt leaders, they will replace official propaganda with conspiratorial explanations even more ridiculous than the original lies.”
We know what happened with the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11, but this story goes another step, suggesting that the attack was really a deep state false flag operation to motivate the United States into an adventure in neocon imperialism. There are variations of this basic story which go, in simplified form, like this:
It goes that Osama Bin Laden, or another unknown operative working within the deep state of American intelligence, orchestrated the attacks as a false flag operation. (Now, false flag operations themselves are not too crazy – it is a storied tactic of warfare. The United States has seldom been in a war in which they did not do two things – claim to be the innocent party and claim that they were fired upon first. The Gulf of Tonkin Incident is another false flag in recent history — the government told us a tall tale in which the Vietcong fired on a US vessel, which justified the Vietnam War. In reality, it may have just been some glitch on a sonar screen. It didn’t matter – they got their war.) It further says that the WTC did not collapse because of the planes burning in them, but fell as if in a controlled demolition.
Again, I think this theory is rather excessive and useless. I have to object that this elaborate conspiracy requires a great faith in the competence of American intelligence to coordinate a vast number of conspirators – in the planes, within the deep state, and in total collusion with the rather new neoconservative administration in power – such the even after all these years, there has been no Snowden-style leak, no revealing Wikileak, no sign of incompetence of the deep state that would have them show their hand in masterminding the attack. It doesn’t pass the smell test.
And again, the problem is what is this narrative from the night achieve that isn’t already in clear daylight in recorded history? The results of 9/11 – the patriot act, the surveillance state, the erosion of democratic institutions – make it seem like it may have been a plan by the government, but the truth turns out to be even stranger. History already records that the neocons were planning a regime change in Iraq among other places in their Project for the New American Century. We also know that on Aug. 6, 2001, the CIA briefed the president on a potential threat involving Al-Qaeda and airplanes. This was a briefing that was ignored by Bush, and not because he was planning it, but the more likely and more frightening fact that he was incompetent. This entire theory is motivated by a common logical fallacy called post hoc ergo propter hoc – or causality fallacy – because of the observable results, we inferred its cause to be the same and induced that narrative into the evidence.
Another thing is that these theories of conspiracy completely ignore the plain as day reasons for the attack that were unambiguosly articulated by Osama bin Laden himself. Bin Laden, a former militant operative working in collaboration with the CIA in Afghanistan in the 1980s, listed his grievances with the U.S. in a published manifesto, a document that few people pay attention to. If we did, we may actually learn something about America’s neoimperialism abroad and how the nation appears to its discontented rivals. Bin Laden planned to undermine American power by driving Americans into a security state and perpetual infighting, planting the seeds of its destruction – reading American history, he theorized that the states may fight against each other like in the Civil War. His grievances – American bombing of power and clean water in Iraq, economic sanctions, the suppression of Palestine, the collusion with the corrupt Saudis. Would America learn about any of this from their attack? No. Bin Laden’s religious fundamentalism and reactivity begat further fear and reactivity in America, so it seems like feedback loop of fear has persisted to this day, everywhere eroding reason, democracy and liberalism, which is how terrorism as a tactic wins. The real scandal is here: how we ignore the facts – that 9/11 was blowback from bungled CIA black ops turned Frankensteinian about – and instead believe the fuzzy-headed simplicity that radical “Islamofascism” hates the West.
Would a sudden revelation that it was an inside job shift our relationship with others or the world? It seems we are content enough to erode our own democratic institutions and will use really anything as an excuse to do so. I don’t have to believe it was an inside job to plainly understand that the real danger of terrorism is not from the terrorists, but the hawkish, paranoid, reactionary government well content to suppress democracy. It has really always been that way.
The Bilderberg Group / Bohemian Grove / Cults of the Monied Elite, Etc.
This is one of those countless conspiracy theories around a narrative that there is a cabal of super wealthy elites who are the puppet masters of the whole society. Bilderberg is one of those conferences where venture capitalists convene – like Davos, Bohemian Grove, Martha’s Vineyard, et cetera, where Alex Jones revs up his shakey handicam and night vision goggles, ready to raid their compound and get the scoop on their latest in super-rich orgies and blood sacrifices. There are other versions of this story involving paranoid fantasies of the Illuminati, the Masons, tips from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the
Rothchilds and countless others.
One particularly bizarre version of this is from David Icke, a guy who mistakes science fiction movies for documentaries, who says that these same elites from Angelina and Brad to Michelle and Barack, are literally alien reptilian shapeshifters flickering their lizard inner eyelid membranes visible only when watching staticy videotapes. (Yes, Angelina is a reptilian shapeshiter – this is why she wore a vial of Billy Bob Thornton’s blood around her neck – she took a sip every time her chameleon disguise started to slip and threatened to reveal her hideous scaled form (egads!) and voila – back to her presentable red carpet glamorous self!) These dudes have apparently watched a lot of science fiction movies, one part V, two parts They Live and a dash of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Money is a force that is always mystified. Casinos, Wall Street and churches – everywhere money takes on a dimension of sacred power. Send a dollar to your televangelist and God will send back thousands. Follow your bliss walk across the coals for Tony Robbins, and personal fortune will soon follow. The Chinese call upon luck rituals and magic, propitiating the ancestors for fortunes, and so on. And so too there is a long history of belief in the super rich’s conspiracy against the world, puppet masters orchestrating reality itself. And usually these are personified as an other – if not antisemitic in the old fashioned sense, then really, literally alien – who in brainwash the masses.
Ok, again, so what does this narrative do for us that we don’t already know in the plain light of day? It’s well established that literally eight people own as much wealth as the bottom half of the world combined. The Walmart family has as much wealth as the bottom 43 percent of the US combined. There really is wealth inequality, and banks really do run nations, and corporations, which the court has decided are people, have bought interest in the branches of government. It’s less the result of a secretive cult than simple capitalism. Paranoid fantasies about cults and aliens adds nothing but post-truth excess.
One thing to inquire about any kind of narrative, be it in regard to a conspiracy theory or not, is to ask what does the story serve? What idea is it in service of? Often, if not in a purely excessive form as I described above, it can be in the service of fear, often playing on a high degree of suspicion, particularly in regards to foreign cultures, or other things that may appear complex to an outsider like high technology, the internet, or corporate or government bureaucracies.
Conspiracy theories tend to have a “self-sealing quality,” says Arthur Goldwag, author of The New Hate. The theories tend to not be disabused by contrary evidence, nor are they particularly suited for reasonable debate with rival theories. Contrary evidence tends to lend reason for the theorist to double down on the conspiracy narrative. The theorist also treats the narrative preciously, safeguarding it with a dogged attachment. They pride themselves on their heroic striving for this exclusive knowledge and how they alone, or they the few, know the truth and the rest of the world is duped. For what is at bottom of the narrative is really the attachment to a perceived moral high ground. The other identified in the conspiracy is a nefarious crook. And the theorist is a kind of martyr detective trying to wake up the good people to defy the lies of the evil other. Arthur Goldwag gives a rundown of conspiracy traits,
Conspiracy theory is moralistic; it describes an ongoing battle between the forces of wickedness and those of virtue (though the good are often so naïve that they fail to realize that they are even at war). Conspiracy theory is monistic. …. (simplifying complex phenomena). Conspiracy theory is magical: the antagonists have superhuman powers of prognostication and the ability to influence at a distance; they make use of esoteric curses and spells and mysterious symbols and equations. Conspiracy theory flatters, congratulates, and exalts the conspiracist, who is gutsy and clever enough to crack the code, to see things that other don’t, to break out of the matrix. The conspiracist discerns the subtle interconnections between the Nizari Assassins and the Templars and the Masons, the Bilderbergers and the Rockefellers, the Jewish bankers and the UN.” (66-67 The New Hate)
Richard Hofstaeder described the paranoid character of Right Wing populism in America in his The Paranoid Style in American Politics. He had in mind the hysterics of McCarthyism, Birchers, Beechers of the 1950s and 60s – the kind of folks who fretted about an international communist plot to sap and impurity our precious bodily fluids. Today, it would extend to hysteria over FEMA Camps, death panels, birtherism, chem trails, and wild absurd paranoia that paints the liberal public as a Soros-funded Trojan horse for the Islamic caliphate. But the virulence of conspiracy theory is not confined on the right. The left has its share of paranoid hysteria as well – urbanioa, vaccinations, and various cold war related narratives to name a few. Lately, it may be that the counterpart to Pizzagate is Kremlingate.
This is currently a developing story, so I don’t have all the details here nor will I give a full explanation of Kremlingate. But the idea is that Donald J. Trump has a secret alliance with Russian oligarchs, Russian oil, and he is a puppet of ex-KGB Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Or, another version is that Trump is a conspirator with Russian interests because he’s being blackmailed by Russian intelligence, the FSB, over a story about urinating Moscow hookers. Allegations of Russia hacking the DNC, the Clinton emails, Russian agitprop in cyberspace, the obviousness of Putin’s interest in Trump, and Russia’s interest in disrupting all Western democracies (it’s been said that Germany was also hacked recently). Trump’s appointment of oil-friendly and Russia-friendly Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and of course, the controversy over Lt. General Michael Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador. The points are there, but there is little as yet to connect these dots, which make it ripe for post-truth conspiracy theorizing on both sides of the isle.
Let us test the story against what we know about the psychological function of conspiracy theories. Let us suppose for a moment that Kremlingate is about as truthful as Pizzagate, and we are seeing things that really aren’t there, making up lurid fantasies about Trump just as pernicious as Pizzagate. Let us assume for a moment, that despite all the lies of Putin and all the bullshit of Trump, that the both of them are telling the truth, that yes, they have some ideological agreement and mutual desire to thaw American-Russian relations but no further connection, and that Kremlingate is really a red-baiting hysterical post-truth conspiracy dreamt up in the wee hours in the morning by Trump’s deep state rivals, set out to delegitimize the president by connecting him to America’s traditional and historic rival power. This red-baiting angle has all of the hallmarks of a moral agenda – that Trump is crooked, boorish, misogynistic sexual deviant, and a foreigner who betrays the values and narratives we have about the meaning of being American. He’s “un-American,” a racist bigot to the new McCarthyites in the (yikes) Democratic Party. It paints Trump as a wicked villain seeking to destroy the state.
But wait a second, what new information does it tell us? What does this conspiracy theory add that we didn’t already know? Nothing. Nothing at all. It’s a bit excessive, like post-truth, like alternative facts. In short, we don’t need to believe that Trump is a boorish, racist, misogynist billionaire Manchurian candidate seeking to destroy the American state, because he really is a boorish, racist, misogynist billionaire, plus a demented malignant narcissist and paranoid ignoramus seeking to destroy the American state. Yes, it’s true, he’s all of those things. We’re knocking on an open door. Trump’s rivals from the populist left don’t need a Russia conspiracy to hang him with. They already have enough homegrown evidence to hang Trump with. I mean, yes, his rise is totally incredible, he’s basically a walking X-File full of incredible I-Can’t-Believe-This-Is-My-President shit. But we don’t need Mulder and Scully in order to close the case on this one. Our country, sadly, is more than capable of doing this to ourselves. And our flimsy attempt to find a conspiracy sidesteps the soul searching this country desperately needs.
Which begs the question – why Kremlingate? What does the Kremlingate narrative really serve if not the people? It serves the deep state. If Trump can be ousted by political insiders pulling the rug out from under him, appealing to our conditioned Russophobia gives the deep state a reason to perform a soft coup, to scapegoat a failing president, and to go on with their imperial status quo. (Let me break it down like this: either there is something grievously true about this conspiracy, or there is a conspiracy against Trump by the deep state. Put another way, either Trump is a Manchurian candidate, or there is a force making him to look like he is one. There is a saying that goes like this: when your friend and your enemy tell you the same thing, you’d best pay attention. I’ve heard progressive journalist Glenn Greenwald caution about a CIA soft coup brewing, and I’ve heard conservative and Trump ally Roger Stone say the same thing.) They really have every reason to do precisely this. And this exact performance would appease the angry masses, who once having purged the figurehead from the state apparatus, would go back to their normal lives, back to labor, back to consumerism, back to the momentum of the empire of illusion. It would, in essence, short-circuit the brewing radical forces of the populist left whose fire has been ignited by the country’s experiment with flimsy fascism.
With conspiracy theories, it is important to ask – what does the narrative serve? What idea or class, or whose interest does the conspiracy narrative serve? These theories tend to say more about the tellers projecting their wild fantasies than the persons these theories are about. (Poor Richard Gere!) Kremlingate is not a story emerging from revolutionary forces. It is the antithesis of revolutionary forces. Kremlingate serves a peculiar American complex – Russophobia. It conjures old paranoid fantasies of the Cold War, the Red Scare, McCarthyism and the arms race, when acusing the opposing candidate of Russian ties was the nuclear option. It serves the broken remnants of the bellicose cold war democrat who just failed to win the presidency. It emanates from the wreckage of the Clinton campaign and her allies in the state department, which is rather hawkish on Russia. In fact, many political watchers were warning of Cold War 2.0. Clinton was their cold war candidate, prepping for a Syrian proxy war and NATO showdown. But now we have the liberal press going wild. Keith Olbermann ranting tirelessly about Trump’s supposed treason. Liberals and Democrats sneering at the mention of Russia. Knee-jerk reactions against any thought of peace with the rival state. And this from your supposed peacenik liberals? And why not – because these paranoid fantasies are powerful emotional forces that would be more than capable of conjuring up an old fashioned narrative like Soviet mind control, MKULTRA, black ops of the CIA and the sixteen other spy agencies of the United States. It presumes that the Russian other is like an omniscient Bond villain – a chess master manipulating world events for its own nefarious purposes. Trump as Russia’s golem, part of Blofeld’s master plot to implode America with a belligerent brainwashed billionaire. The real world is a lot messier than an overly elaborate plot from an episode of Mission: Impossible. Are we in a Cold War hangover or what?
Orrrrrrrrrrrrrrr … it’s all true …
How do we get out of this morass of post-truths? Of course, we need well-researched, well-founded investigations. We need facts, not fear and fantasy. And we should be suspicious when we fantasize. Fear, anger, bigotry, victimization, martyrdom, resentment – these tend to be the engines of cloudy thinking and wild fantasies in a large confusing world. And really, Trump – a great conspiracy theorist himself – to his great fault has not tried very hard to be truthful or credible or transparent. He has not made great effort to heal the great divides of the nation, or instill confidence, nor does he appear capable of doing so.
The fact remains, regardless of any of these conspiracies, that it’s rather the easy thing to oust Trump. The man has no experience, doesn’t know government, plays fast and loose with the law, he has an infighting administration, a growing list of enemies, the West Coast threatening to secede, apparent mental instability, foreign governments finding him laughable, and the economy, the environment, and the global public are on the brink. So, I think it’s not a big deal even to oust Trump given any number of reasons. The much harder thing is to repeal and replace the system that paved the way for Trumpism. This is a much harder discourse to engage in.
The final note I want to mention about all scandals – real or unreal – is this – they tend to obscure as much as they reveal. Scandals, while revealing one thing, tend to serve the purpose of obscuring something else from consciousness. Watergate wasn’t the significant scandal – the Vietnam War was significant. Monica Lewinsky was not the significant scandal – globalization was significant. Trump isn’t the significant scandal – the crisis of capitalism is significant.