Immediately after an official story is created, there is usually an alternate or “underground” theory about the same events, purporting to be the “real story” that somebody doesn’t want us to know. This instinct to question the official story is very healthy, and should not be discouraged. Skepticism is the prime motivation behind critical thinking and analysis. Certainly, many of the “official stories” we’ve heard to explain major news events do little to dissuade those that immediately call them into question. The result is often what have come to be known as “conspiracy theories,” a moniker used with contempt by the establishment and mainstream media and even avoided by those alleging a conspiracy themselves. Conspiracy theorists are immediately branded as paranoid by the establishment, for whatever reasons, and some say that this is a media conspiracy in itself.
Conspiracy theories are usually compelling. Conspiracy theories give meaning to tragic events that would otherwise be more horrifying because there was no one to blame, no cause to invoke, or no reason for the death and destruction. For example, if lightning strikes an airplane and it crashes, killing all aboard, it is only worthy of our attention for a day or so. However, if a theory arises that it was not really lightning, but a bomb or sabotage that brought down that plane, that story has legs for years, especially if the theory accuses what we perceive as a villainous establishment of victimizing innocents. No one wants to face the fact that suffering occurs due to unfortunate accidents or random forces of nature. Everyone wants to hear that there was a sinister force behind the tragedy, because then we can solve the mystery, bring the perpetrators to justice, and prevent the dastardly event from every occurring again. While researching his role in the 1997 movie “Conspiracy Theory,” Mel Gibson interviewed many “conspiracy theorists,” acknowledging that the longer he spoke with them the more believable their theory seemed to become.
None of this is intended to suggest that conspiracies do not exist. Let us not forget the wise axiom, “just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get me.” However, it is important to recognize that there is a strong motivation for us to see conspiracies where they may not exist, and also to see conspiracies as much more vast than they may really be. Ockham’s razor is best not forgotten, that, all things being equal, the simplest explanation is often the right one. The same critical thinking, analysis, and skepticism should be applied to the contrarian or conspiracy theory as to the official story, addressing evidence to the contrary of the theory as fairly as evidence in support of it. Too often, neither the official story nor the conspiracy theory attempts to do so.
Ultimately, I believe that conspiracy theories are often harmful to the cause of achieving political change or reform, because they distract the great majority of people from focusing on the problem itself and its solution, and instead focus all of the intention on ferreting out conspirators. That is not to say that understanding the cause of a problem cannot help with its solution. However, in many cases, the cause is irrelevant. In a representative republic with officials chosen by majority vote, the solution ultimately lies in winning over the majority of the citizens, not in finding the culprits behind dark plots or conspiracies.
The Council on Foreign Relations is a perfect example. The basic tenet of this conspiracy theory is that the CFR is a front for a conspiracy by international bankers to secretly corrupt the United States with a socialist agenda, undermine the sovereignty of the United States, and ultimately bring the American people under the rule of one world socialist government. Books have been written about this conspiracy, political organizations have been formed to fight it, infiltrators have attempted to expose it, and, at one time or another, most of the world’s problems have been attributed to it. I don’t know if these allegations are true or not. Like Mel Gibson, I find that the more I listen to people arguing for this conspiracy theory, the more believable it sounds. In the end, it really doesn’t matter.
Doesn’t matter? An organization bent on corrupting the American people with socialism and bringing them under international rule doesn’t matter? No, their “conspiracy,” if that is what people want to call it, doesn’t matter. What matters is whether or not the American people will give it their consent. Ultimately, this is still a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. If you think that the American people do not want socialism, then try to get signatures on a petition to phase out Social Security and Medicare. Once it’s time to give up the promises of government benefits, the missionary zeal against socialism dissipates rather quickly, even amongst the so-called “Constitutionalists.” Conversely, if 70% of the American people DEMANDED that their representatives introduce legislation to phase these programs out or face unemployment by the next term, the legislation would be introduced and passed with all of the self-righteous blustering with which they presently give us more socialism.
Ultimately, the American people get what they demand. Right now, most Americans are demanding some type of government “solution” to healthcare. Similarly, when the unemployment rate goes up, Americans typically DEMAND that their government does something about it, instead of demanding that government cease interfering with the free market. The unfortunate reality for conspiracy theorists is that the majority of people AGREE with the CFR agenda. Without that agreement, it would be powerless.
Another popular conspiracy theory concerns the past two presidential elections. It alleges that the Republican Party stole or fixed the vote in crucial states (Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004) to give George Bush a victory over his opponents. Again, I don’t purport to know whether this conspiracy theory is true or not. However, to me it is again irrelevant. While I agree that the candidate who gets the most votes should be the winner, no matter how narrow the margin of victory, the Bush presidency is still one that is basically the result of an equally divided nation. No one alleges that Al Gore or John Kerry won Florida or Ohio by a landslide. Everyone acknowledges that both elections were extremely close when it comes to overall votes. They were so close that in most statistical models they would have been considered an even draw. However, proponents of the conspiracy theory tend to characterize the Bush presidency as one that was obtained by a great fraud, against the will of the majority of Americans. The ugly truth is that about half of American voters WANTED George Bush in office – twice! Certainly if he had only obtained 25% of the vote, it wouldn’t have mattered much how hard those chads were to poke out. Today he would be where he belongs, shoveling out stable stalls in Crawford.
A final example is of the mythical conspiracy by “Big Oil.” This one is popular among the disgruntled from every political party, race, color, and creed. “Big Oil” is blamed for fixing the price of oil and gouging the American public, suppressing alternative energy innovations to maintain their monopoly, carrying out assassinations, coup d’états, and all manner of diabolical intrigue. “Big Oil” is behind most of our problems, until a few facts are examined. For one, government-owned oil companies account for about 70% of the world’s oil supply. The American oil companies play a very small part, with the largest, Exxon, accounting for only 2% of world supply. Oil prices are set on an exchange, just like the prices of stocks, so the buyers really have a lot more control than the sellers. Most importantly, the publicly traded “Big Oil” companies are not owned by a shadowy group of billionaires – we own them! Over 98% of Exxon is owned by average Americans, in their 401K retirement accounts. The ultimate irony – WE ARE “Big Oil.” In the end, this one doesn’t even stand up to critical analysis. Monetary inflation necessitated by government spending on those social programs we aren’t ready to give up is a much better place to lay the blame for high gasoline prices than on the mythical ogre, “Big Oil.”
I do not condemn the conspiracy theorists. I do not know whether the conspiracies are real or not. I suspect that many of them are partly true, that none of them are wholly true, and that a few of them are just plain nuts. However, the vast conspiracies that are accused of being at the root of our problems here in America all have one thing in common: they need our consent in order to succeed. If “the bankers” are conspiring against us, they can be completely defeated with legislation requiring a 100% reserve requirement. If there is a socialist conspiracy, it can be defeated by legislation to phase out the social programs and reinstitute property rights. If the American people want these things, the government can still be made to give them to us.
However, we must recognize that right now, the American people are not demanding these things. In fact, the American people are actually demanding more socialism, and as recently as the last presidential election, about half of them were still behind the war in Iraq. While the conspiracy theorist is searching for cryptic documents and incriminating photographs to prove his conspiracy, he is not convincing his neighbor next door not to go to the Barack Obama rally and cheer while Obama promises universal healthcare. Therein lies the problem. It was suggested by one Break the Matrix member that conspiracy theories themselves were a conspiracy – to distract us from taking the action necessary to solve our problems. That’s probably the most dangerous conspiracy of all.
 One objection I have to the idea of this being a “conspiracy” is that it doesn’t fit the definition. According to Webster, a conspiracy has to be a secret agreement, and I don’t believe anything about the CFR is a secret. You can go to their website (http://www.cfr.org) and read their very public positions on most of the issues, and their long term goals are hardly shrouded in mystery.