The Rise and Rise of Conspiracism

One of the reasons that the extremes of left and right touch—think of Anders Breivik plagiarizing the Unabomber manifesto, or those far-leftists marching under the banner “we are all Hezbollah now”—is that they have a shared commitment to conspiratorialism.

Talking to experts in the British Muslim community, I was repeatedly told that we had not taken proper measure of the ubiquity and power of conspiratorial modes of thought, and so we had failed to see how stony is the ground upon which many counter-radicalization communications fall. Tarique Ghaffur, the assistant commissioner to the Metropolitan Police, has warned that “among young Muslims there is anger and a feeling of injustice, but there are also elements of denial: they have their own myths, and through the Internet it leads to a huge industry of conspiracy theories.” Dean Godson, head of the think tank Policy Exchange, was told by the chief constable of West Yorkshire that “an appreciable number of radicalized young Muslim men in Leeds believed that the London bombings were invented by the Jewish-dominated media.” Indeed, a Pew Research Center poll in 2006 found that 25 percent of British Muslims agreed with the statement “the British government was involved in some way” with the 7/7 attacks.

Conspiricism is a mode of thinking, not just this or that thought. Cognitive totalism is defined by the social psychologist David Mandel as “an excessive tendency to think in ‘black-or-white’, ‘all-or-nothing’, ‘fallen state or utopia’ terms.” Conspiracy theories “provide causal structures that allow simple, monocausal attributions to a particular scapegoat to appear plausible,” says Mandel. Each extremism provides its own specific monocausal attribution, of course; a paranoid account of the “threat” that is immune to criticism and which Ayaan Hirsi Ali points out also “appeas[es] the perpetrators conscience.”

So: why is conspiratorialism rife?

There is a synergy between three factors. First, the 1960s brought (along with much good) a prohibition on “judgement,” a skepticism about “truth,” and a commitment to relativist modes of thought. Some of the most influential social theories of the new left—Herbert Marcuse’s notion of “repressive tolerance” springs to mind—were little more than sophisticated conspiracy theories. It was not such a long journey from depicting liberal democracy as a meaningless fraud, a mere ideological camouflage for a totalitarian West, to full-blown conspiracism.

That journey sped up considerably when a second factor came along—the post-1989 collapse of much of the left into negativism (“anti-imperialism,” anti-Americanism, and anti-Israelism) and identity politics. Conspiracy theories, says David Aaronovitch, author of the magnificent Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, are “formulated by the politically defeated and taken up by the socially defeated.” Why? Well, for those “left behind by modernity” the conspiracy theory has one great virtue. “If it can be proved that there has been a conspiracy, which has transformed politics and society, then their defeat is not the product of their own inherent weakness or unpopularity, let alone their mistakes; it is due to the almost demonic ruthlessness of their enemy.”

Third, the Internet took conspiracism global. David Aaronovitch argues that cyberspace has enabled the “release of a mass of undifferentiated information, some of it authoritative, some speculative, some absurd.” The result has been a petri dish for conspiracism as “cyberspace communities of semi-anonymous and occasionally self-invented individuals have grown up, some of them permitting contact between people who in previous times might have thought each other’s interests impossibly exotic and even mad.”

And now, frighteningly, conspiracism is going mainstream. A Zogby opinion poll found that nearly two-thirds of New Yorkers under 30 agreed that the Bush administration “knew in advance that attacks were planned on or around Sept. 11, 2001, and that they consciously failed to act.” Scary.

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