What’s behind America’s Conspiracy Theories?

By Peter McKenzie-Brown[1]

Editor’s Note: Our esteemed contributor Peter McKenzie-Brown was born in the UK, was raised in the United States, and is now a resident of Calgary, Canada.

I am old enough to remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1962 – one of only half a dozen dates that are clear in my memory. Glued to the television that night, I saw a nightclub operator named Jack Ruby murder Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV – the first murder ever broadcast live. It was a bizarre reality for those of us who lived it.

Kennedy’s assassination soon became the subject of widespread debate and spawned numerous conspiracy theories and alternative scenarios. Polls conducted from 1966 to 2004 found that as many as 80 percent of Americans suspected a plot or cover-up. Welcome to the strange world of zombie ideas.

Nobel laureate Paul Krugman defines a zombie idea as “a proposition that has been thoroughly refuted by analysis and evidence and should be dead — but won’t stay dead because it serves a political purpose, appeals to prejudices, or both.” Science notwithstanding, there are those who believe in a flat Earth, a hollow Earth, a geocentric universe or perhaps all three. An entry in the online Skeptic’s Dictionary offers other examples.

Hate speech is a special case in this range of thinking. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, it includes “communications of animosity or disparagement of an individual or a group” because of “group characteristic such as race, colour, national origin, sex, disability, religion, or sexual orientation.” Most liberal democracies – for example, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, The Netherlands, South Africa, Australia, and India – ban hate speech. In many ways, such countries enjoy greater freedom when you weigh the negative liberty to express harmful thoughts against the positive liberty a society enjoys if it disallows the intimidation of minorities.

Some people argue that the purpose of laws that ban hate speech is merely to avoid offending prudes. I cannot think of a single democracy, however, that excises comment from the public square merely because it provokes offense. Rather, hate speech has been so widely proclaimed unlawful because it attacks the dignity of a group.

Among the world’s great democracies, only in the United States is hate speech legal. With few exceptions, America’s Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that hate speech is constitutionally protected by the first amendment right to free speech. There have been a few exceptions to this. For example, in 1952 the United States Supreme Court upheld an Illinois law making it illegal to publish or exhibit any writing or picture portraying the “depravity, criminality, unchastity, or lack of virtue of a class of citizens of any race, color, creed or religion.” The case provided a legal argument against hate speech by making it possible to sue some offenders for libel. Especially in the world of social media, such a suit would be difficult to apply.

Despite the efforts of Facebook and other well-intentioned sites, hate speech in America now seems to be on the boil. As evidence, Humboldt State University compiled an online visual chart of a series of homophobic, racist, and otherwise prejudiced tweets sent out during an 11-month period; you can take a look at it here. If you are American, it will not make you proud.

Conspiracies: An important offshoot of conspiracy theory is the attempt to explain ordinary events or situations by invoking secret and unseen actions – often politically motivated – of sinister and powerful actors. The term has a pejorative connotation, implying that the appeal to a conspiracy is based on prejudice or insufficient evidence. Conspiracy theories resist falsification and are reinforced by circular reasoning: both evidence against the conspiracy and an absence of evidence for it are re-interpreted as evidence of its truth, whereby the conspiracy becomes a matter of faith rather than something that can be proved or disproved.

Conspiracy theories about moon landings followed conspiracy theories about the assassination of JFK. There were six crewed U.S. landings between 1969 and 1972 – unless you believe the conspiracy theorists who believe the moon landings were hoaxes. The gist of the argument is that the United States lacked the technology to transport humans to the moon and back. They claim that NASA faked the landings in order to make people believe the U.S. had fulfilled President Kennedy’s promise to land a man on the moon before 1970.

What is the evidence? Well, on the lunar landing videos you cannot see stars in the sky. NASA says that’s because the moon’s surface and the astronauts’ suits were so reflective that it was too bright for the camera to pick up the comparatively faint stars. Also, while planting the American flag in lunar soil, the flag appears to wave. With no air in space, how is that possible? NASA says it happened because the astronauts, wanting the flag’s pole to remain upright, moved it back and forth while planting it in the lunar soil. The rotation of the pole caused the flag to move back and forth as if rippling in a non-existent breeze.

Conspiracy theory is essentially the attempt to explain harmful or tragic events by ascribing them to the actions of small, powerful, and secretive groups. One classic example is the one I began this commentary with, the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Such explanations reject the accepted narrative surrounding those events; indeed, the mindset of many theorists is that the official version is further proof of the conspiracy.

Conspiracy theories increase in prevalence in periods of widespread anxiety, uncertainty, or hardship – for example, during wars, economic depressions and in the aftermath of natural disasters like tsunamis, earthquakes, and pandemics. This fact is evidenced by the profusion of conspiracy theories that emerged in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. Perhaps two thousand  volumes on the JFK assassination have been published, many of them purveying conspiracy ideas. Such notions have been spread through countless other media as well.

Perhaps conspiratorial thinking is driven by a strong human desire to make sense of social forces that are self-relevant, important, and threatening. The content of conspiracy theories can be emotionally powerful, and its alleged discovery can be gratifying to those who hold the associated beliefs. Factual support for conspiracy theories is typically weak, and they are usually resistant to falsification. The survivability of conspiracy theories may be aided by psychological biases[2] and by distrust of official sources. Such distrust did not develop in a vacuum. Starting in 1932 and continuing for 40 years, the U.S. Public Health Service working with the Tuskegee Institute studied the effects of syphilis on 399 African American men. The researchers conducting the Tuskegee syphilis study withheld treatment and allowed more than a hundred men to die, despite the discovery of penicillin as a standard cure in 1947.

At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist myself, that does sound like government conspiring against its own citizens.

An extraordinary commentary on these matters can be found in Kurt Andersen’s best-selling history Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire. His take on the past five American centuries involves a series of skillful deconstructions of myths and fantasies that have evolved since the country’s foundation. He dissects such matters as the Salem witch hunts and Scientology. As the story proceeds, he presents a picture of a country in such steep decline that the founding fathers would have wept into their beards.

“By my reckoning,” he writes in his introduction, reality-based people in the US “are a minority – maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half.” Only a third, he claims, “believe with some certainty that CO2 emissions from cars and factories are the main cause of Earth’s warming[3]. Only a third are sure the tale of creation in Genesis is not a literal, factual account. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts.”

“A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like humans today,” he says. That percentage also believe that government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of “natural” cancer cures, and that extraterrestrials have recently visited (or now reside on) Earth.

And the beat goes on. Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world,” he writes. At least half are certain Heaven exists, “ruled over by a personal God” – not an abstract force or universal spirit “but a guy.” More than a third of Americans believe global warming is “a hoax perpetrated by a conspiracy of scientists, government, and journalists.”

“A quarter believe vaccines cause autism,” he says. Twenty-five percent believe in witches. No more than a fifth believe the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables, he says – about the same number who believe that “the media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals” and that U.S. officials “were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.”

These myths are contrary to the growth of science, which has accelerated by leaps and bounds over the centuries of America’s settlement and growth. They will not go away, however. What can be best described as a national paranoia within “the land of the free and the home of the brave” is a loss to the country’s dignity, and to the integrity of the democratic alliances that have played such important roles in the world since the end of the Second World War.

[2] See Gorman SE, Gorman JG: Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts that Will Save Us. New York, Oxford University Press, 2016

[3] Although the number of people who agree that human activities are responsible for the Earth’s warming may be increasing.

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