two words, part one

I want to talk about two words - two overused, misused, misunderstood words. I want to talk about Conspiracy Theory.

It seems like any ideas that people haven't heard before, don't know about, and haven't read about it in any mainstream sources - any story that challenges an Official Version of events - is labeled "conspiracy theory," and discarded, unexamined.

Governments, of course, will always dismiss challenges to their own versions of events. They have every reason to defend their Official Story and deride - censor, harass, imprison, or kill - anyone who challenges it. I'm not talking about that. And I'm not talking about wingnuts who, for whatever authoritarian, fascist reasons, feel obligated to defend everything their government says and does, and generally oppose rational discourse of any kind.

I'm talking about otherwise open-minded people who, when faced with an alternative explanation, or even with questions about the Official Version, simply shut down, and refuse to even consider another version of events. They apply the "CT" tag, and that's the end of the story.

I would rather we didn't discuss the specifics and validity of any alternative theory - of anything. The only people who are qualified to do that are those who have actually studied them - not people who've heard a snippet of information here and there. I'd like instead to discuss the label of CT itself: why people use it, what it means. And what conspiracies really are.

My Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines conspiracy as "the act of conspiring together, an agreement among conspirators," and offers the word "plot" as a synonym. Following down the page to conspire, we find "to join in a secret agreement to do an unlawful or wrongful act or an act which becomes unlawful as a result of a secret agreement".

Therefore, an event such as the terrorist attacks of September 11th was a conspiracy. Did people conspire? Certainly. Did they join in a secret agreement to commit a wrongful act? Absolutely.

Yet when citizens who have studied the details of the event say, 'You know, the Official Version leaves many important questions unanswered, we should really dig a little further,' they are dismissed as Conspiracy Theorists. That is, nuts. Wackos. Tin-foil heads.

Again, from the government and the wingnuts? Sure. But why this response from otherwise progressive people, who know full well that the government deals in lies and propaganda for its own purposes, who normally don't believe a word issued from either government or mainstream media sources...? Why are so many progressive and liberal people so willing - seemingly determined - to accept the Official Story, to swallow it whole with no questions asked, and equally determined to shut out - and attempt to silence - anyone who challenges that version?

I'm not only referring to 9/11. I recently heard a progressive American dismiss the idea that the 2004 presidential election was fixed by labeling it a conspiracy theory. He seemed to feel that because Robert Kennedy, Jr.'s article is refutable - whether or not the refutation is accurate and factual** - the stolen election is, therefore, a conspiracy theory.

In truth, it is. Those of us who believe the 2004 election was fixed do indeed believe that people conspired to fix it. And we are indeed dealing with theories, as we don't have a video tape showing people in the act of throwing the election. But the CT label means more than that, of course. And for some, that label is all it takes. It's a conspiracy theory - meaning, it's supposition, it's exaggeration, it's wishful thinking, it's paranoia.

Think of everything this US Government has done, all it has lied about. WMDs, the occupation, mission accomplished. The Plame case, the fake news reports. Katrina. Abu Ghraib. Spying on US citizens. The Patriot Act in bookstores and libraries. The Medicare prescription mess. Stem cell research, and lack thereof. Attempts to privatize social security. Shall I go on? There's so much more. And you believe they would do all that, and way more, but they wouldn't fix an election? And if they didn't do it themselves, that some of their lackeys and corporate sponsors wouldn't fix it for them? And we're wackos?

Why? Why are people unwilling to even entertain these ideas?

Perhaps I can take a stab at a partial answer to this question by examining my own feelings and behavior at a particular time. It wasn't long after September 11th that Allan, my partner, became interested in the questions that were circulating about 9/11. And it wasn't long after that that he became an activist in what I'll call the 9/11 Truth Movement: people who have dug deeper into September 11th and find the Official Version of events non-credible.

Although many of the questions Allan early on raised were very valid, I dismissed them offhand. For me, it was too soon. I was still crying. I was still mourning. I couldn't process it. In addition, when I looked at the information he would bring to my attention, it was often attached - by association, on the same website - to ideas that were offensive (anti-Semitism) or ridiculous (Area 51) to me. I especially disliked what I called the "woo-woo" aspect of the theories: loaded, biased language, full of dark innuendo, as if the truth couldn't even be spoken.

Allan and I had some bitter arguments about this. He thought I was being close-minded - the only real sin in our household - and I thought he was being gullible. In fact, I was the gullible one. Why was I willing to believe the government's version of events, when I don't trust or believe a word they say about anything else?

We both learned from these arguments, in a very practical sense. When Allan helped edit Paul Thompson's 9/11 Timeline (also a book), he encouraged Thompson to omit the "woo-woo" and stick to the facts - to use cool, straightforward language - to seek light, not heat.

For my part, I'm proud to say Allan was right. The more I opened my mind, the more I set aside my fear or scorn or whatever it was that was blocking my mind, the more I saw that questions about 9/11 were valid, and should be asked, and had to be asked.

More relevant to this post, I also saw how people who knew almost nothing about these events - who only knew the Official Version - were ready and willing to pounce on and dismiss anyone who questioned that version.

Is my initial reaction to the key, the reason that otherwise open-minded people won't listen? Is it too much to think about? Too upsetting, too damaging to their world view? Is it, as journalists say, ok to rock the boat, but never ok to say the entire ocean is in trouble?

Or are they more concerned with PR than with the truth? So fearful that they'll be tainted by association, they make a preemptive strike of their own, labeling the truth-seeker a wacko. And rather than seeing if the wacko might actually have something worthwhile to say, they stop up their ears and shut the door.

Who do you think knows more about a topic: the person who has read about it daily, examined multiple sources, compared details, sifted through conflicting versions of events? Someone who has made this a prime interest for three, four, five years? Or a person who has only heard accounts on CNN and read The New York Times?

If the topic was stem cell research, or MP3s, or contemporary painting, the answer would be obvious. But if the topic is voter fraud or 9/11 - or anything else for which there is an Official Version of events - the knowledgeable researcher becomes a Conspiracy Theorist.

Next: "two words, part two" - commonly held, mistaken beliefs about conspiracies.

** [Kennedy responds to Salon's Manjoo here, and election fraud author and activist Robert Fritakis responds to Manjoo here (I can't find the original source, but this is the entire column).]

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