New Yorkers Against Religion-Based Bigotry
NYARBB's position on "conspiracy theories"
- Summary of NYARBB's position
- Grand conspiracy ideologies
- Controversial or nonmainstream allegations of government wrongdoing
- Kinds of government-wrongdoing allegations that NYARBB will oppose (if unfounded)
- Some problems with the term "conspiracy theory"
Summary of NYARBB's position
NYARBB strongly opposes some kinds of what are commonly called "conspiracy theories" and takes a cautiously neutral stance on others. But we regard the term "conspiracy theory" itself as too ambiguous and loaded to be useful in communication between people of different points of view. Hence we will avoid that term in our literature.
The term "conpiracy theory" is commonly used to refer to two very different kinds of things: (1) controversial or nonmainstream allegations of government wrongdoing (e.g. Kennedy assassination plot theories and 9/11 "inside job" theories) and (2) what we will call grand conspiracy ideologies (e.g. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and claims about "the Illuminati," usually involving an alleged dystopian "New World Order"). Believers in grand conspiracy ideologies typically believe in many controversial or nonmainstream allegations of government wrongdoing too. But the converse is far from true. For example, polls by both ABC and Fox News in 2003 showed that a majority of Americans believe that Oswald did not act alone and that there was a government coverup concerning the Kennedy assassination. But it's unlikely that most Americans believe in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, "the Illuminati," or anything similar. Another example: Within the 9/11 Truth movement, dominated by people who believe that "9/11 was an inside job," there are quite a few people who believe in "the Illuminati," but also quite a few people who do not believe in any grand conspiracy ideology. Only the more extreme and improbable kinds of 9/11 "inside job" theories (e.g. "no-planes video fakery," rejected by the majority of 9/11 Truth activists) necessitate belief in a grand conspiracy ideology.
NYARBB strongly opposes what we call grand conspiracy ideologies. Although grand conspiracy ideologies themselves are not now mainstream here in the U.S.A., they do play a major role in the religious right wing, which does exert plenty of mainstream political influence (though it has had its ups and downs). Furthermore, when grand conspiracy ideologies themselves have been mainstream in various times and places (e.g. Nazi Germany), or when they've attained indirect mainstream influence (e.g. the "Satanic Ritual Abuse" scare of the 1980's and early 1990's), they've had extremely harmful consequences.
As for controversial or nonmainstream allegations of government wrongdoing, NYARBB will oppose some specific kinds of allegations that entail religion-based bigotry (and which we deem to be unfounded).
But we will take a cautiously neutral stance on most other controversial allegations of government wrongdoing, urging only that people examine carefully the arguments and evidence against any given controversial allegation, as well as the arguments and evidence for it, before promoting the allegation.
Regarding 9/11, NYARBB does not take a stand on what the U.S. government did or did not do, beyond rejecting obvious nonsense and urging our usual caution. But we support the call for a new and more truly independent investigation of 9/11, on grounds that have been endorsed by mainstream sources who do not promote "inside job" theories. (See NYARBB's position on 9/11, which also discusses the relevance of 9/11 to religion-based bigotry.)
Grand conspiracy ideologies
By a "grand conspiracy ideology," we mean a claim that some evil elite cabal, usually identified in terms of religion, secretly masterminds all or most significant world events and cultural phenomena and has been doing so for centuries, if not millenia. A notorious example is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, containing an alleged world-micromanaging plot by an elite Jewish cabal. Another example is "Illuminati" claims, in which the plotters are variously alleged to be atheists, "Satanists," occultists, and/or Pagans. More generally, a grand conspiracy ideology is a type of worldview which puts one or more conspiracies at the center of one's understanding of how society works.
Such claims can be extremely harmful. When they find their way into the mainstream, people get hurt. For example, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion inflamed the Nazi hatred of Jews. Even today, The Protocols are endorsed in the Hamas Charter, and thus are one of the factors hindering peace efforts in the Middle East.)
"Illuminati" conspiracy claims have taken their toll too. Here in the U.S.A. in the late 1700's, "Illuminati" claims gave rise to the Alien and Sedition Acts. Later, "Illuminati" claims were one of the inspirations for The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian forgery, created in approximately 1900. More recently, "Illuminati" claims were a part of the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare of 1980-1995, in which dozens of probably-innocent people were charged (and in some cases even convicted) of horrible crimes against children, and in which thousands more families were torn apart by highly questionable "recovered memories" induced via the "hypnotic regression" therapy fad of the 1980's. ("Illuminati" beliefs were held by many of the SRA scare's most fervent promoters, such as Ted Gunderson, and can be found in some of the books that launched the scare, such as The Satan-Seller by Mike Warnke.)
Although grand conspiracy claims feature an alleged evil elite, the vast majority of the people harmed by the claims are not elite. The vast majority of the Jews killed by the Nazis were far from elite. Ditto most victims of the "Satanic ritual abuse" scare. Most were ordinary middle-class and working-class people.
There are elements of truth in grand conspiracy ideologies. Very wealthy people are, obviously, quite a bit more influential in politics than the average person. Very wealthy people are, also, more likely to hang out with other very wealthy people than with anyone else. And they are likely, at least occasionally, to discuss ways to use their combined influence for their collective benefit, sometimes at the expense of the rest of us. There are valid reasons to be concerned about secretive gatherings of world leaders, such as the Bilderberg conference. Many "conspiracy theorists" also have valid concerns about the erosion of Constitutional rights.
But members of the ruling class do not agree on everything. They are unlikely to agree on a comprehensive, unified, centuries-long program for secret micromanagement of the totality of American (let alone world) culture. Among other differences within the American ruling class, it is religiously diverse. And it is dominated not by Jews, Pagans, occultists, or "Satanists," but by not-very-religious WASPS.
It is especially unlikely that democratic and civil rights movements are nothing but an evil elite plot to enslave us all, as alleged both in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and in "Illuminati" claims. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were not just anti-Jewish but also czarist anti-democratic propaganda, claiming that democracy was just a tool of the evil Jews. Similarly, today's "Illuminati" conspiracy proponents have often alleged that feminism and the gay rights movement are tools of "the Illuminati" to destroy "the family" and thereby destroy America. In fact, feminism and the gay rights movement are genuine grassroots political movements. Although there is some funding from wealthy sources, the vast majority of activists, including most of the leaders and pioneers, are unpaid volunteers from middle-class and working-class backgrounds.
At the present time, here in the United States, grand conspiracy claims are largely confined to the political fringes. But, even now, grand-conspiracy believers play a key role in more prominent forms of organized bigotry. For example, major religious right wing leaders such as Pat Robertson, Tim LaHaye, and John Hagee have espoused "Illuminati" claims.
Grand conspiracy claims constitute full-fledged political ideologies, not just "theories," because they tend to inform a person's entire political and social worldview. "Illuminati" claims, together with closed-minded religiosity, can inspire fanatical devotion to bigoted political movements such as the religious right wing, in much the same way that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion fueled Nazi hatred of Jews.
Hence the spread of grand conspiracy ideologies (e.g. the spread of "Illuminati" claims in the 9/11 Truth movement and in other milieux outside the religious right wing per se) is potentially a serious longterm threat to Jews and to various other categories of people commonly vilified in "Illuminati" claims, including gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender people, feminists, Pagans, occultists, Freemasons, atheists, and Satanists - plus possibly some ordinary mainstream folks too, in the event of another "Satanic ritual abuse" panic (of which there was a mini-resurgence in 2003 to 2006).
NYARBB aims eventually to develop detailed refutations of grand conspiracy claims, filling in gaps in those refutations that are already available online. (See the links page for NYARBB's Project Against Grand Conspiracy Ideology.)
Controversial allegations of government wrongdoing
NYARBB does not take a position for or against most controversial or nonmainstream allegations of government wrongdoing, but does urge caution about accepting or endorsing them. NYARBB recommends that people study carefully the arguments and evidence presented by both sides before taking a strong position for or against any controversial allegation. Too many advocates of controversial political allegations have neither studied the arguments of their most knowledgeable opponents nor carefully checked the facts themselves.
On the other hand, allegations of government wrongdoing should not be dismissed a priori on the mere grounds of having been labeled "conspiracty theories." Occasionally, some allegations that were initially dismissed as "conspiracy theories" have later proven to be legitimate. (See, for example, FO paper reveals British knowledge of torture flights by Ian Cobain, The Guardian, Thursday, January 19, 2006.) Many other so-called "conspiracy theories" are obviously nonsensical, but there are also plenty of so-called "conspiracy theories" that might be more reasonably possible, although, in many though not all cases, lacking in sufficient evidence to be endorsed as factual or probable. Each allegation should be evaluated on the basis of a careful examination of the strongest evidence and arguments both for and against it.
Alas, the U.S. government has indeed done some horrible things. For example, although we certainly shouldn't blindly believe every claim about the CIA's MK-ULTRA experiments, it is a well-established historical fact that the CIA's MK-ULTRA project did occur and did include some experiments on people without their knowledge or consent. Likewise the Iran-Contra affair is a well-established historical fact, as are CIA-sponsored overthrows of various governments overseas (e.g. Iran in 1953), plus assorted other ethically questionable CIA black ops, plus the recent torture of detainees.
And it is pollyannaish to assume (as many "conspiracy theory debunkers" have claimed) that the U.S. government has never committed any wrong that wasn't duly reported in The New York Times. The "someone would have talked" argument is applicable only to those allegations of government wrongdoing which (1) require large numbers of knowing conspirators and (2) are likely to bother the consciences of many of the people in the know. Even then, the "someone would have talked" argument is not an infallible silver bullet. (For example, the Tuskegee experiment went on for forty years, from 1932 until 1972, before it was finally exposed in the press - even though it had been contrary to prevailing medical ethics for at least twenty-five years, since 1947. And the leading whistleblower, Peter Buxtun, began complaining in 1966, six years before the scandal finally became front-page news in the mainstream press.)
As citizens and as taxpayers, we have the right and duty to hold our government accountable, lest it descend into tyranny. When things go seriously wrong, we have the right and duty to call for thorough, independent investigations of what the relevant government agencies were doing and how they were spending our tax dollars, even when there is not sufficient evidence to call for a full-fledged criminal investigation. Concerns about possible government wrongdoing should not be dismissed as mere paranoia.
At the same time, care should be taken to avoid endorsing unsubstantiated accusations, and to avoid putting forth speculation as fact. When examining any specific criminal accusations, we should keep in mind the principle of "innocent until proven guilty," even while acknowledging the need to keep an eye out for possible government wrongdoing and to hold government officials accountable.
Proponents of controversial allegations are often too quick to conclude that debunkers have evil motives or are government agents or other "paid shills." Likewise, debunkers are often too quick to conclude that proponents are just out for money and attention, or to dismiss proponents as crazy. In reality, only a small minority of "conspiracy theory" promoters make any significant amount of money from their work. Ditto for debunkers. Although clear cases of fraud do exist and should be exposed as such, and although there do exist political and social pressures in academia and in the mass media, it is likely that the majority of active participants on all sides of the debate about most controversial allegations are sincere about their stated beliefs. So, in most cases, we recommend an avoidance of ad homimen attacks, in favor of careful examination of arguments and evidence. Anyone who embraces a controversial political claim should listen carefully to the strongest arguments of the other side, not just look for excuses to ignore them.
See also NYARBB's position on 9/11.
Kinds of government-wrongdoing allegations that NYARBB will oppose (if unfounded)
NYARBB urges an extra dose of caution toward "conspiracy theories" of the following two kinds:
- Those allegations of government wrongdoing that also vilify particular religious groups, e.g. claims that some new religious group was created by the CIA as an MK-ULTRA mind-control experiment, or claims of "Satanic ritual abuse" as part of MK-ULTRA.
- Those allegations of government wrongdoing which may not be religiously bigoted in and of themselves, but which were originated by highly bigoted authors. For example, some widely-circulated but false and easily-debunked claims about the Federal Reserve System seem to have originated in the writings of Eustace Mullins, a notorious Jew-hater who has also resurrected the medieval blood libel (the claim that Jews ritually kill Christian children and use their blood in Passover bread). Although detachable from their Jew-hating context, Mullins's allegations about the Federal Reserve System are very much a part of the "evil Jewish banker" mythos.
NYARBB will likely take strong stands against unfounded allegations of these two kinds, as we come across them, in addition to our stand against grand conspiracy ideologies.
Some problems with the term "conspiracy theory"
NYARBB will usually avoid the term "conspiracy theory" in our public statements and literature. "Conspiracy theory" is one of those ambiguous and loaded terms which generate more heat than light when used in debates between people with different points of view. Its meaning, in practice, depends more on its connotations than on its literal meaning, and is sometimes at odds with its literal meaning.
For example, "conspiracy theory debunkers" use the term "9/11 conspiracy theory" to refer to nonmainstream beliefs about what happened on 9/11. On the other hand, 9/11 Truth movement activists, most of whom believe that "9/11 was an inside job," typically do not call themselves "conspiracy theorists." Instead, 9/11 Truth activists often use the term "official conspiracy theory" to refer to what is also called the "official story," i.e. the mainstream view as presented in official reports. In fact, every version of what happened on 9/11 involves a conspiracy (of at least the nineteen young men with box-cutters, if no one else); there is no "lone gunman theory" of 9/11. But people on both sides refer to the other side's views as "conspiracy theories," as a way of insinuating that the other side's views are nutty.
Another problematic example: Regarding alleged government coverups of alleged landings by aliens from outer space at Roswell, the currently accepted down-to-Earth explanation is that what was "covered up" was really a top secret military project to spy on Soviet nuclear tests. (See page 2 of this ABC News story, July 7, 2007.) Here, the difference between the "conspiracy theorists'" explanation and the "conspiracy theory debunkers'" explanation is not the "conspiratorial" dimension per se; both explanations involve the government hiding something and thus are equally "conspiratorial" (unless the "conspiracy theorist's" explanation is also tied to a grand conspiracy ideology, such as Milton William Cooper's or David Icke's, about the world being secretly controlled by space aliens; allegations of a coverup of alien spacecraft may or may not be tied to such an ideology). Rather, the key difference between the two explanations is simply that one explanation is other-worldly whereas the other explanation is this-worldly. (By Occam's razor, a this-worldly explanation is more likely, unless one can produce clear direct evidence of landings of alien spacecraft, as distinct from possible exotic-looking but this-worldly technology.)
Anyhow, conspiracies clearly do exist. If they didn't, the FBI could save a lot of money by disbanding its RICO unit. That being the case, there's nothing inherently more wrong with a theory about a conspiracy than with a theory about anything else that exists. When pressed on this point, "conspiracy theory debunkers" will often say that they reserve the term "conspiracy theory" for unfounded theories about conspiracies.
Yet very few people, even among die-hard Bush opponents, have used the term "conspiracy theory" to refer to George Bush's unfounded theories about Saddam Hussein conspiring with Al Qaeda.
Thus, the term "conspiracy theory" has come to mean something other than just a theory about a conspiracy or even an unfounded theory about a conspiracy. Nor does it refer just to grand conspiracy ideologies. Rather, the term "conspiracy theory" is most commonly used to refer to mistrustful political beliefs originated by people outside the U.S. elite, stigmatizing those beliefs as fringe primarily on that basis.
We reject the use of the term "conspiracy theory" as an a priori dismissal of an allegation or concern. If a belief is unfounded, then it can be shown to be unfounded without an appeal to elitist class prejudice. Furthermore, the ambiguities of the term "conspiracy theory" impede communication between people with different points of view about a given allegation. Hence it is best avoided in favor of more precise terminology, if one's aim is to communicate with people of other points of view.
Furthermore, there is a real danger that legitimate allegations of government wrongdoing - and legitimate concerns about possible government wrongdoing - may be stigmatized as "conspiracy theories." This danger grows ever more likely as ownership of the mass media becomes concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer mega-corporations.
It is legitimate to oppose unfounded conspiratorial allegations. But a blanket opposition to all "conspiracy theories" can set a dangerous precedent. It would be better for "conspiracy theory debunkers" to be more specific and precise about what kinds of claims they oppose, and on what kinds of grounds.
Some critics of the U.S. power structure have tried to defend themselves against being labeled "conspiracy theorists" by re-defining the word "conspiracy." For example, G. William Domhoff has written There Are No Conspiracies, which he points to here to defend himself against being labeled a "conspiratorial thinker." He denies the existence of "conspiracies" in a sense much narrower than standard dictionary definitions of the word "conspiracy", though broader than the kinds of "conspiracy" envisioned in what we call "grand conspiracy ideology." But he admits that the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals did happen, both of which clearly did involve "conspiracies" in the usual legal sense of that term (any crime committed by two or more people acting in concert). Instead of trying to re-define the word "conspiracy," it would be better to use a more precise term than "conspiracy" to refer to what Domhoff means by "conspiracy," which is only a small subset of alleged "conspiracies" in the legal sense.
"Conspiracy theory debunkers" have a valid desire to reject unsound political analyses, especially of kinds that often lead to bigotry. But the "conspiracy theory" meme is a too-wide paintbrush, too easily abused against possibly-legitimate concerns about this country's power structure and about possible government wrongdoing.
Suggested better terminology: (1) "grand conspiracy ideology" (to refer to a specific extreme subset of so-called "conspiracy theories," as discussed earlier), (2) "conpiratorialist mindset" (to refer to a general paranoid tendency to see conspiracies everywhere, whether as part of a grand conspiracy ideology or otherwise), and (3) "unfounded allegations" (simply to identify allegations, conspiratorial or otherwise, that one has deemed to be unfounded).
[Last edited May 24, 2008.]