People who think the U.S. government was complicit in 9/11 or in the JFK assassination sometimes complain that those who dismiss them as “conspiracy theorists” are guilty of inconsistency. For don’t the defenders of the “official story” behind 9/11 themselves believe in a conspiracy, namely one masterminded by Osama bin Laden? Don’t they acknowledge the existence of conspiracies like Watergate, as well as everyday garden variety criminal conspiracies?
The objection is superficial. Critics of the best known “conspiracy theories” don’t deny the possibility of conspiracies per se. Rather they deny the possibility, or at least the plausibility, of conspiracies of the scale of those posited by 9/11 and JFK assassination skeptics. One reason for this has to do with considerations about the nature of modern bureaucracies, especially governmental ones. They are notoriously sclerotic and risk-averse, structurally incapable of implementing any decision without reams of paperwork and committee oversight, and dominated by ass-covering careerists concerned above all with job security. The personnel who comprise them largely preexist and outlast the particular administrations that are voted in and out every few years, and have interests and attitudes that often conflict with those of the politicians they temporarily serve. Like the rest of society, they are staffed by individuals with wildly divergent worldviews that are difficult to harmonize. The lack of market incentives and the power of public employee unions make them extremely inefficient. And so forth. All of this makes the chances of organizing diverse reaches of the bureaucracy (just the right set of people spread across the Army, the Air Force, the FBI, the CIA, the FAA, etc. – not to mention within private firms having their own bureaucracies and diversity of corporate and individual interests) in a short period of time (e.g. the months between Bush’s inauguration and 9/11) to carry out a plot and cover-up of such staggering complexity, close to nil.
Another reason has to do with the nature of liberal democratic societies, and the way in which they differ from totalitarian societies like Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, whose leaders did conspire to do great evil. The point is not that the leaders of liberal democratic societies are not capable of great evil. Of course they are. But they do not, and cannot, commit evils in the same way that totalitarian leaders do. There are both structural and sociological reasons for this. The structural reasons have to do with the adversarial, checks-and-balances nature of liberal democratic polities, which make it extremely difficult for any faction or interest to impose its agenda by force on the others. In the American context, the courts, the legislature, and the executive branch are all jealous of their power, even when controlled by the same party. The Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, CIA, FBI, etc. are all also notoriously often at odds with one another, as are the various departments within the executive branch. The same is true of private interests – the press, corporations, universities, and the like. All must work through public legal channels, and when they try to do otherwise they risk exposure from competing interests. Unlike traditional societies, in which the various elements of society agree (if only because they’ve never known any alternative) to subordinate their interests to a common end (e.g. a religious end), and totalitarian societies, which openly and brutally force every element to subordinate their interests to a common end (e.g. a utopian or dystopian political end), liberal democratic societies eschew any common end in the interests of allowing each individual and faction to pursue their own often conflicting ends as far as possible.
Now I do not claim that liberal democratic societies in fact perfectly realize this ideal of eschewing any common end. Far from it. The liberal democratic ethos inevitably becomes an end in itself, and all factions that refuse to incorporate it are ultimately pushed to the margins or even persecuted. (John Rawls’s so-called “political liberalism” is nothing more and nothing less than an attempt to rationalize this “soft totalitarianism.”) But that does not affect my point. The imposition of the liberal ethos may involve an occasional bold power grab on the part of one faction (as Roe v. Wade did in the case of the Supreme Court). It may involve attempts culturally to marginalize the opposition (as in the universities and entertainment industry). But the other factions know about these efforts – they are hardly carried out unobserved in smoke-filled rooms – and never roll over and play dead, as they would in a totalitarian society. Liberal ideologues must work through the very adversarial institutions that their ideology calls for, which is why these alleged arch-democrats are constantly complaining about the choices their fellow citizens democratically make (electing Bush, voting for Prop 8, opposing gun control, supporting capital punishment, etc.). For them to impose their egalitarian ethos on everyone else through force of law takes generations, and a series of public battles, before the other side is gradually ground down. The evil that results is typically the result of a slowly and gradually evolving public consensus to do, or at least to give in to, evil – not a sudden and secret conspiratorial act.
So, structurally, there is just no plausible way for an “inside job” conspiracy of the JFK assassination or 9/11 type to work. There is simply not enough harmony between the different institutions that would have to be involved, either of a natural sort or the type imposed by force. And this brings me to the sociological point that the liberal ethos itself, precisely because it tends so deeply to permeate the thinking even of the professedly conservative elements of liberal democratic societies, makes a conspiracy of the sort in question impossible to carry out. “Freedom,” “tolerance,” “democracy,” “majority rule,” and the like are as much the watchwords of contemporary American conservatives as they are of American liberals. Indeed, contemporary conservatives tend to defend their own positions precisely in these terms, and are uncomfortable with any suggestion that there might be something in conservatism inconsistent with them. The good side of this is that contemporary American conservatives will have absolutely no truck with the likes of Tim McVeigh, and will condemn right-wing political violence as loudly as any liberal would. The bad side is that some of them also seem willing to tolerate almost any evil as long as there is a consensus in favor of it and it is done legally. (Same-sex marriage? Well, the courts imposed it without voter approval. But what if the voters do someday approve it? Will conservatives then decide that it’s OK after all? Some of them already have.)
The point, in any event, is that just as the structure of a liberal democratic society differs from that of totalitarian states, so too does the ethos of its leaders. They generally like to do their evil in legal and political ways, through demagoguery, getting evil laws passed, destroying reputations, and other generally bloodless means. Occasionally they’ll resort also to ballot-box stuffing, and maybe the odd piece of union thuggery or police brutality. But outright murder is extremely rare, and usually folded into some legitimate context so as to make it seem justifiable (e.g. My Lai or the firebombing of Dresden, atrocities committed in the course of otherwise just wars). Do ideologically motivated sociopaths like General Jack D. Ripper of Dr. Strangelove fame sometimes exist even in liberal democratic societies? Sure. But hundreds or even just dozens of Jack D. Rippers, occupying just the right positions at just the right times in the executive branch, the FBI, the FAA, the NYPD, the FDNY, the Air Force, American Airlines, United Airlines, Larry Silverstein’s office, CNN, NBC, Fox News, The New York Times, etc. etc., never accidentally tipping off hostile co-workers or fatally screwing up in other ways? All happily risking their careers and reputations, indeed maybe even their lives, in the interests of the Zionist cause, or Big Oil, or whatever? Not a chance. Indeed, the very idea is ludicrous.
Of course, some conspiracy theorists will insist that the adversarial, checks-and-balances nature of liberal democracies and their tolerant ethos are themselves just part of the illusion created by the conspirators. Somehow, even the fact that conspiracy theorists are perfectly free to publish their books, organize rallies, etc. in a way they would not for a moment be able to do in Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia is nevertheless just part of a more subtle and diabolical form of police state.
Here we’ve gone through the looking glass indeed, and come to a third and more philosophically interesting problem with conspiracy theories, one that can be understood on the basis of an analogy with philosophical skepticism and its differences from ordinary skepticism. Doubting whether you really saw your cousin walking across the bridge, or just a lookalike, can be perfectly reasonable. Doubting whether cousins or bridges really exist in the first place – maybe you’re only dreaming they exist, or maybe there’s a Cartesian demon deceiving you, or maybe you’re trapped in The Matrix – is not reasonable. It only seems reasonable when one is beholden to a misguided theory of knowledge, a theory that effectively undermines the possibility of any knowledge whatsoever. The difference here is sometimes described as a difference between "local" doubt and "global" doubt. Local doubts arise on the basis of other beliefs taken to be secure. You know that you are nearsighted or that your glasses are dirty, so you doubt whether you really saw your cousin. Global doubts have a tendency to undermine all beliefs, or at least all beliefs within a certain domain. You know that your senses have sometimes deceived you about some things, and being a philosopher you start to wonder whether they are always deceiving you about everything.
Notice that unlike local doubt, global doubt tends to undermine even the evidence that led to the doubt in the first place. Doubting that you really saw your cousin doesn’t lead you to think that your belief that you are nearsighted or that your glasses are dirty might also be false. But suppose your belief that you sometimes have been fooled by visual illusions leads you to doubt your senses in general. You came to believe that your perceptual experience of a bent stick in the water was illusory because you also believed that your experience of seeing the stick as straight when removed from the water was not illusory. But you end up with the view that maybe that experience, and all experience, is illusory after all. You came to believe that you might be dreaming right now because in the past you’ve had vivid dreams from which you woke up. You end up with the view that maybe even the experience of waking up was itself a dream, so that you’ve never really been awake at all. Again, the doubt tends to swallow up even the evidence that led to the doubt. (Philosophers like J. L. Austin have suggested that this shows that philosophical skepticism is not even conceptually coherent, but we needn’t commit ourselves to that claim to make the point that it does at least tend to undermine the very evidence that leads to it.)
I suggest that the distinction between ordinary, everyday conspiracies (among mobsters, or Watergate conspirators, or whatever) and vast conspiracies of the sort alleged by 9/11 and JFK assassination skeptics, parallels the scenarios described by commonsense or “local” forms of doubt and philosophical or “global” forms of doubt, respectively. We know that the former sorts of conspiracies occur because we trust the sources that tell us about them – news accounts, history books, reports issued by government commissions, eyewitnesses, and so forth. And there is nothing in the nature of those conspiracies that would lead us to doubt these sources. But conspiracies of the latter sort, if they were real, would undermine all such sources. And yet it is only through such sources that conspiracy theorists defend their theories in the first place. They point to isolated statements from this or that history book or government document (the Warren Report, say), to this or that allegedly anomalous claim made in a newspaper story or by an eyewitness, and build their case on a collection of such sources. But the conspiracy they posit is one so vast that they end up claiming that all such sources are suspect wherever they conflict with the conspiracy theory. Indeed, even some sources apparently supportive of the conspiracy theory are sometimes suspected of being plants subtly insinuated by the conspirators themselves, so that they might later be discredited, thereby discrediting conspiracy theorists generally. Overall, the history books, news sources, government commissions, and eyewitnesses are all taken to be in some way subject to the power of the conspirators (out of sympathy, or because of threats, or because the sources are themselves being lied to). Nothing is certain. But in that case the grounds for believing in the conspiracy in the first place are themselves uncertain. At the very least, the decision to accept some source claims and not others inevitably becomes arbitrary and question-begging, driven by belief in the conspiracy rather than providing independent support for believing in it.
Now, while “global” forms of skepticism might be fun to think about and pose interesting philosophical puzzles, it would hardly be rational to think for a moment that they might be true. Seriously to wonder whether one is a “brain in a vat,” or trapped in The Matrix, or always asleep and dreaming – not as a fantasy, not in the course of a late-night dorm room bull session, but as a live option – would be lunacy. Certainly it would make almost any further rational thought nearly impossible, because it would strip almost any inference of any rational foundation. But something similar seems to be true of conspiracy theories of the sort in question. The reason their adherents often seem to others to be paranoid and delusional is because they are committed to an epistemological position which inherently tends toward paranoia and delusion, just as a serious belief in Cartesian demons or omnipotent matrix-building mad scientists or supercomputers would. Their skepticism about the social order is so radical that it precludes the possibility of coming to any stable or justified beliefs about the social order.
Am I saying that news organizations, government commissions, and the like never lie? Of course not. I am saying that it is at the very least improbable in the extreme that they do lie or even could lie on the vast scale and in the manner in which conspiracy theorists say they do, and that it is hard to see how the belief that they do so could ever be rationally justified. But what about government agencies and news sources in totalitarian countries? Doesn’t the fact of their existence refute this claim of mine? Not at all. For citizens in totalitarian countries generally do not trust these sources in the first place. Indeed, they often treat them as something of a joke, and though they might believe some of what they are told by these sources, they are also constantly seeking out more reliable alternative sources from outside. Moreover, these citizens already know full well that their governments are doing horrible things, and many of these things are done openly anyway. Hence, we don’t have in this case anything close to a parallel to what conspiracy theorists claim happens in liberal democracies: evil things done by governments on a massive scale, of which the general population has no inkling because they generally trust the news sources and government agencies from which they get their information, and where these sources and agencies purport to be, and are generally perceived to be, independent.
On such general epistemological and social-scientific grounds, then, I maintain that conspiracy theories of the sort in question are so a priori improbable that they are not worth taking seriously. That does not mean that the specific empirical claims made by conspiracy theorists are never significant. In my college days I read a great deal about the JFK assassination case, and was even convinced for a time that there was a conspiracy involving the government. While I no longer believe that – I believe that Oswald killed Kennedy, and acted alone – I concede that there are certain pieces of evidence (e.g. the backward movement of Kennedy’s head, Ruby’s assassination of Oswald) that might lead a reasonable person who hasn’t investigated the case very deeply to doubt the “official story.” (I’ve also examined a fair amount of the 9/11 conspiracy theory material, though I must say that in this case this has only made the whole idea seem to me even more preposterous than it did initially, if that is possible. They don’t make conspiracy theorists like they used to.) But in my judgment, in the vast majority of cases the alleged “evidence” of falsehood in the “official story” is nothing of the kind, and where it is it can easily and most plausibly be accounted for in terms of the sort of bureaucratic ass-covering, incompetence, or just honest error that is common to investigations in general (whether by police, insurance companies, or whatever).
If one is going to claim more than this, then just as in these other sorts of investigations, one needs to provide some plausible alternative explanation. The “I’m just raising questions” shtick is not intellectually or morally serious, certainly not when you’re accusing people of mass murder. And given the considerations raised above, it is hard to see how conspiracy theories of the sort in question could ever be plausible alternatives.
Why, then, do people fall for these theories? Largely out of simple intellectual error. But what makes someone susceptible of this particular kind of error? That is a question I have addressed before, in a TCS Daily article which suggested that the answer has something to do with the (false) post-Enlightenment notion that science and critical thinking are of their nature in the business of unmasking received ideas, popular opinion, and common sense in general. Some readers of that article asked a good question: How does this suggestion account for the existence of conspiracy theories on the Right, which generally sees itself as upholding received ideas and common sense?
I would make two points in response. First, consider some standard examples of such right-wing conspiracy theories, such as those involving Freemasons or Communists. These can be understood in two ways. On one interpretation, the idea would be that Freemasons, Communists, or whomever, given their ideological commitments, have actively sought to get themselves and their sympathizers into positions of power and influence so as to promote and implement their ideas, and that they have done so subtly and by using duplicity. But there is nothing in this idea that conflicts with anything I’ve been saying. In particular, there is nothing in it that entails that any single massively complex event was engineered in detail by a small elite manipulating, with precision, dozens or hundreds of actors across a bewildering variety of conflicting institutions and agencies in the context of a society that is to all appearances reasonably open, all the while skillfully covering their tracks to hide their actions to all but the most devoted conspiracy theory adepts. Rather, it just involves like-minded people working systematically and deviously to further their common interests in a general way over the course of a long period of time – a phenomenon that is well-known from everyday life, and does not require belief in any radical gap between appearance and reality in the social and political worlds. In short, it does not involve belief in any “conspiracy theory” of the specific sort I’ve been criticizing.
The alternative interpretation would be that Freemasons, Communists, and the like have done more than this, that they have indeed conspired to produce individual events of the sort in question, in just the manner in question – that they conspired across national boundaries and bureaucracies to engineer World War I, say, or various stock market crashes, or whatever. Here the right-wing sort of conspiracy theory does indeed run into the problems I have been identifying, and is as a consequence just as irrational as its left-wing counterparts. And this brings me to my second point. As I said earlier, given the hegemony of liberal, post-Enlightenment ideas in modern Western society, even many conservatives can find themselves taking some of them for granted. Ironically, this sometimes includes even those conservatives most self-consciously hostile to liberal and Enlightenment ideas, namely paleoconservatives (the sort, not coincidentally, who are most likely to be drawn to conspiracy theories). And it does so, even more ironically, precisely because of their awareness of this hegemony. Because they quite understandably feel besieged on all sides by modernity, and utterly shut out of its ruling institutions, they are tempted by at least one modern, post-Enlightenment, left-wing illusion, and the most beguiling one at that: that all authority is a manifestation of a smothering, omnipotent malevolence. Like the Marxist or anarchist, they find themselves shaking their fist at the entire social order as nothing more than a mask for hidden forces of evil, and even the most absurd conspiracy theories come to seem to them to be a priori plausible.
The overall result is something eerily like the old Gnostic heresy, on which the apparently benign world of our experience is really the creation of an evil demiurge, and where this dark and hidden truth is known only to those few insiders acquainted with a special gnosis. (Into the bargain, the demiurge was often identified by the Gnostics with the God of the Jews.) For “world” read modern Western society, for “demiurge” read Freemasons, Communists, or Zionists, and for “gnosis” read the vast labyrinth of conspiracy theory literature. Alternatively, it is like the Cartesian fantasy of a malin genie who deceives us with a world of appearances that masks a hidden reality. Certainly these similarities should give any traditionalist pause; and the conspiracy theory mindset is in any event a very odd thing to try to combine with the traditional Christian anti-Gnostic emphasis on the public and open nature of truth, and the Aristotelian-Thomistic rejection of any radical Cartesian appearance/reality distinction in favor of moderation and common sense.
Anyway, if the question is how, given that (as I argue in the TCS Daily article) conspiracy theories are essentially an artifact of certain key modern, post-Enlightenment attitudes and assumptions, right-wingers could ever accept them, the answer is that here, as elsewhere, conservatives and traditionalists are too often not conservative and traditional enough.