Although his killing made the news and was officially acknowledged by the President, I’d wager most Americans don’t know who Ahmad al-Awlaki was. Members of our government sure did, though: before al-Awlaki’s death by drone strike and maybe even after, he was counted among the most dangerous people in the world. The San Bernardino mass murderers, the Fort Hood shooters, the Tzarnaev brothers, the so-called “underwear bomber,” and, depending on which account you’re reading, the 9/11 pilots were all said to have been inspired by al-Awlaki’s rhetoric. Google pulled his speeches from YouTube; even in Yemen, which was his last port in the international storm, he was wanted, dead or alive but preferably dead, by the police. In 2011, the Yemeni government and the CIA got the scalp they were after, proving once again that assassination is always the worst thing a regime can do if it is trying to keep dissent from resonating with a mass audience.
Al-Awlaki’s worldview, as it turns out, wasn’t too complex. While he was a cleric of sorts and did write and speak about religious subjects, he was mainly interested in geopolitics. Al-Awlaki believed that western authorities were privately determined to eradicate Muslims, and, therefore, Muslims had a moral obligation to fight back, by any means necessary and as violently as possible. It goes without saying, I hope, that this is repellent. It is not, however, unreasoned. Al-Awlaki was not into mayhem for its own sake; he wasn’t a cartoon villain. After reading Qutb and thinking long and hard about the world, he convinced himself that American authorities and the Israeli government and the societies they represented were fonts of evil, and wrongdoers had joined hands across the globe to smash the pious and downtrodden. In short, regardless of his stated affinity for world Islam, al-Awlaki was, at heart, a Western-style conspiracy theorist. Those who found his speeches online and were drawn to his messages — including those willing to become martyrs in the name of resistance — shared his conviction that the international order is illegitimate, pernicious, decadent, and kept afloat by lies. They were conspiracy theorists, too, and they either died or headed off to supermax with the belief that their cause was a righteous one.
Earlier this month, the Washington Post ran a story that claimed that conspiracy theory was on the wane. The Post can seem a little detached from time to time; this, though, had to have been a missive from outer space. Conspiracy theory has never been more prevalent than it is right now. It has moved from the margins — the province of John Birchers and moon-landing doubters and such — to the very center of public discourse. In 2015, most political action is motivated by one conspiracy theory or another. Candidates running for President of the United States now draw their biggest applause by vocalizing their suspicions: about Muslims, about Planned Parenthood, about global warming, about rogue police departments, about banks and the predatory one per cent. Even Hillary Clinton, who might be the most boring Presidential candidate of my lifetime, is famous for her belief in a vast right-wing conspiracy to discredit her family. Everybody wants to be the lone man (or woman) speaking truth to power and exposing the lies of the cabal in Washington, or on Wall Street, or the United Nations, or your municipal machine. Conspiracy is the bread and butter of modern political campaigns, and lest you think I think I’m an enlightened observer sneering at all the paranoia, let me assure you that I’m guilty of it, too. I, too, am desperate to see the mask torn off and the curtain pulled away and the spotlight shone on the seamy underside of whatever official story I’m being asked to swallow. And since it’s the modern condition, it is virtually certain that you, too, believe in some kind of conspiracy. You don’t need to be a bomb-chucker, or even a blogger. If you’ve ever felt like you’ve been jeopardized by the misrepresentations of those in power over you — and of course you have — you’re doing conspiracy theory. You’re sinking in an epistemological tar pit, but at least we’re going down together.
There are a few reasons why conspiracy theory has devoured public discourse since the millennium turned. Only one is incontrovertible, though (it is the prerogative of the conspiracy theorist to insist that such-and-such is beyond argument) and since I want you to keep reading, I’m going to discuss it last. I’ll start with something that’s tough to dispute: more people have greater access to partial information than ever before. Chances are, if you’re an American with an internet connection and an ounce of curiosity, you’ve bumped into alternative accounts of world events, and unless you’ve got no imagination at all, you’ve tried some of these on for size. They’re much more fun than sawdusty old mainstream accounts, and it’s always a thrill to feel like you’re privy to knowledge that’s been withheld from those who aren’t as enlightened as you are. Once you’re in, it’s hard to get out. Human beings prefer to listen to arguments that validate what they already know, or what they think they know, so one conspiracy theory blog post reinforces the next, and one radio-transmitted broadside against the powers that be, once entertained, makes it that much easier to accept the next one.
Alas, each step along the path of conspiracy theory renders us more inscrutable to those who aren’t fellow travelers. The more I convince myself that my alternate story is the correct one, the more committed I become to speaking in a tongue that can’t be translated to the rest of the world. The result is the strange public biome we’ve got right now: political actors who believe that their arguments are airtight, but who look to outsiders like madmen.
Mainstream journalism does bear part of the blame. Because of shrinking budgets, big news outfits have closed down overseas bureaus; accordingly, their programs are choking on second-hand smoke. It is possible to watch a program on CNN, or MSNBC, or FOX, or a local TV affiliate, and see nothing but talking heads, sitting at a table and mouthing off. Punditry is a poor substitute for actual reporting, and viewers are right to get suspicious and seek the real story elsewhere. But real reporters are, increasingly, screwed by the pace at which partial information now travels. If a correspondent has any journalistic ethics at all, she’s not going to tell your tale until she knows enough to get it right. This means she’s always going to be beaten to the punch by both the sensationalist press and the people on the ground with Twitter accounts. From the outside, it’s going to look like she’s holding back — like she knows something she’s unwilling to share, or, worse, that her corporate overseers have deemed unsharable. Actually, it’s far more likely that her bosses are pressuring her to tell an incomplete story as fast as possible, and to forego the kind of verification that would have been standard in the 20th century. So she makes mistakes — and those mistakes are, for conspiracy theorists, evidence of a cover-up.
All that is small beer, though, compared to the major driver of conspiracy theory. The expansion of the security state has driven a wedge between Western governments and the people they represent. Over the past two decades (and certainly since 9/11), authorities have become far more secretive, and the nebulous official explanations we’ve gotten about many major happenings have been delivered grudgingly at best. At the same time that our leaders have grown parsimonious about details, they’ve abridged our privacy rights in the name of national security. Constant surveillance is now a preoccupation of the authorities, and the federal government circumvents our elected representatives and operates through executive orders. Congressman Paul the Elder — a popular conspiracy theorist if there ever was one — suggested that we were headed toward an event horizon where the government knows everything about us, but we don’t know anything about the government. That’s a politician’s hyperbole, but anybody who has ever run up against the forcewall of government press agencies will assure you that nobody in power is talking anymore. They may believe that their silence contributes to national security. They may just be jerks. Regardless of their intentions, it always looks like they’re hiding something. And it’s not just the feds — from the schools, to the courts to the corporations, all American institutions have grown more authoritarian and inflexible, more suspicious of outsiders, and more determined to snoop on customers, associates, and employees. Paranoia is a reasonable, inevitable response to conditions like ours.
Conspiracy theory contradicts everything I’ve learned about the way people operate. For starters, human beings don’t conspire very well. Groups are fissiparous, everybody wants to be the top dog, and the bigger the secret, the harder it is for blabbermouths to keep. Yet I am drawn to conspiracy theory nevertheless. The rate at which conspiracy theories are proven true, or partially true, has accelerated since the 1980s, and it’s likely that this trend will continue. Edward Snowden exonerated those of us who believed that the domestic spying apparatus was larger and more insidious than anybody was willing to say, and his revelations were a shot of oxygen for dissidents everywhere. (Yes, I know that some conspiracy theorists consider him a “limited hangout,” but he was brave enough to blow a whistle, and he sure doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself over there in Russia.) Black operations and extraordinary renditions sound un-American, but did become downright common practices during the worst days of the Iraq War — and since they occurred by fiat and were sustained without legislative oversight, there’s no reason to believe they’ve ceased. Those of us who’ve dipped a toe into the muddy waters of Jersey politics are particularly susceptible to conspiracy theory; from Bid Rig to Bridgegate to McGreevey’s resignation, there’s always another story behind the story, and then a story behind the story behind the story, and so on until we go home, lock the door, and play video games.
Since we are all justifiably paranoid now, and there’s no escape from the fearsphere, and, as we’ve established, we’ve all gotten comfortable playing with fire, I thought it might be prudent to establish some ground rules for navigating the modern world:
Rule #1: Own it. It no longer makes any sense for anybody to dismiss ideological opponents as cranks or tinfoil hat-wearers. Remember always that you’re a conspiracy theorist, too. The stuff you believe in is as inscrutable to them as the stuff they believe is to you. You believe it’s different in your case, because you’re right and they’re wrong. Unfortunately, that’s the exact thing they believe, and they’re just as passionate about it as you are. If you knew only Swahili, and they knew only semaphore, you wouldn’t have any harder time communicating. There is no way you’re ever going to be able to have a conversation, which means that civility now depends on extradiscursive stuff like mutual respect and acceptance of our common humanity. Ergo,
Rule #2: Watch with all the dehumanization, buddy. It’s okay to believe that you’re on to something that few other people are, because if nobody had the courage to take that kind of leap into the unknown, there wouldn’t be any investigative journalism. It isn’t a problem to hold beliefs that are wildly at variance with the people around you; it isn’t even a problem to try to convince those people, loudly and obnoxiously if you care to, that you’re right and they’re wrong. But when you begin to disparage others for their reluctance to adopt your conspiracy theory — when you call them unenlightened, or idiotic, or mindless sheeple — you’re taking the first step on a dark and terrible path. Down that road is pain and alienation and maybe some violence, too. When you divide humanity into the enlightened few (which you’re part of) and the great unwashed, it becomes very easy to place yourself above your neighbor, and deny him the basic dignity that is the oxygen of civil society. Here’s a good way to know if you’re drifting in a dangerous direction: you compare yourself to any of the characters in The Matrix. You laugh, but I’m sure you’ve noticed otherwise intelligent people going on about the red pill and the glitches in the system and the rest of it. Because if you’re Neo, then the rest of the planet is either willfully or congenitally unaware — and you’re free to treat everybody else as a cowardly slumberer. Life is not a Hollywood cartoon, arrogance is never a pleasing trait, and, as a wise man once said, if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow. Our best bet is to proceed like we’re all in it together, and that “it” can be defined as a state of society where everybody is under suspicion and official stories keep flying apart like dandelions under the stiff wind of investigation. This is our best chance for peaceful coexistence. As for consensus, forget about it. No chance of that until the emergency state is dismantled.
Rule #3: Don’t disengage completely from the mainstream media. That includes the corporate-owned news channels. The real problem with them isn’t that their coverage is compromised by the ideology of its overseers, it’s that it’s driven (as it always has been) by public interest. It is no simple thing to manufacture a trending topic; try though news editors may, it will always be more economical to borrow one from the Internet. Yet journalistic integrity remains a real thing, and the practical skills and ethical standards of trained reporters have never been needed any more than they are now. People do not get into journalism for money, power and glory. They do it because they’re born storytellers, or because they’re dangerously curious about something, or because they’re compelled by the prospect of a life of travel and adventure and relative penury. Some reporters are gullible, but few of them are corruptible — if they were, they’d have been drawn to a more profitable line. Real reporting is a pain in the tush: an editor worth anything is going to insist on verification before running with a story, and those assurances can be awfully hard to get, especially if the correspondent is working on a sensitive story in a country with a disinclination to guarantee the safety of reporters. How many times have you, conspiracy theorist, sat in frustration in front of a CNN report and wondered aloud why the woman with the microphone won’t connect the dots? Chances are, she’d like to do that as badly as you would, but since what she knows doesn’t meet the standards of verification, she’s muzzled. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: news outlets get in far more trouble when they act in haste than they do when they play it cool.
Your corner blogger, by contrast, is free to speculate wildly, and his flamethrower prose has its own cleansing appeal. But no matter how trenchant it is, an analytical piece from a man sitting on his ass half a world away is going to be less valuable than a report from the ground — and that includes stories by correspondents whose paychecks are signed by companies that have a vested interest in the status quo. There is simply no substitute for eyewitness accounts — especially since physical presence has a funny way of turning ideological commitments upside-down.
Before a mainstream network or newspaper reporter is an agent of an imperialist interest, she’s a human being and a storyteller. Regardless of your beliefs, you should listen to her; you’re armed with enough skepticism to appreciate her position and to adjust your expectations accordingly. You don’t want to be one of those people who demand purity and consistency from your news correspondents anyway. A good reporter will be confused most of the time. That’s how you know she’s doing her job. The world is a mess, and that incoherence and destabilization ought to be inscribed in her stories.
Rule #4: Interrogate your motives. Ask yourself this question: If the conspiracies you entertain were ever proven, incontrovertibly and publicly, to be true, who benefits? Who profits by the embarrassment and ridicule of the orchestrators, and who loses popular esteem, and maybe even liberty? If it turns out that the answer is, in all cases, that you and your people are exonerated and/or exalted and your enemies are jailed, then there’s a good chance that revenge fantasies have stained your worldview. Now, it could always be true that the universe is arranged in a manner that holds you down, and if that’s the case, I feel for you. But even if you’re forever cursed, it still might be a healthy thing for you to try on a conspiracy theory in which your affinity group is among the bad guys. Trust me — somebody has beaten you to it.
Rule #5: Remember that you are (probably) not as persecuted as you think you are. There are Yazidis in the world, and they’re under the gun. You aren’t one of them. Hegemony is never as total as we might think it is during our darkest nights, and every American does have some latitude to act — however limited it may be by circumstance. We forget that. I know that I do, and as a white guy in this society without any outward signs of disfigurement, I should be able to make my influence felt. Of course, the alleged persecution of white guys by a conspiracy of “politically correct” elites, minorities, and opportunistic politicians has been a major driver of several notable presidential campaigns. There are men who feel victimized by a conspiracy feminists and their beta-male slaves who impinge on their rights to self-expression and self-determination; poke around the Internet, they’re pretty loud about it. You may shake your heads at these people, and I’m not going to stop you — but I do ask you to note the structural similarities of their arguments to those who shake their fists at the one per cent, or those who believe there is an international conspiracy to hold the Muslims down. It’s been a brutal year for the peacemakers, and we can all afford to step back, take a deep breath, and let a few of our grievances go. Should we do this, I think it’ll help our conspiracy theories, too. The more disinterested the reporter, the harder it is for his opponents to dismiss him as a crank with an axe to grind. Proceed as a truth-seeker, and not a self-appointed crusader for justice. As an American, you have no claim whatsoever to the moral high ground. You’ve spent your life enjoying the fruits of the two greatest (proven) conspiratorial arrangements on the globe — the dollar as reserve currency and the U.S. military control of the commons. You can afford to conduct your claims from street level, rather than a high horse.
Friends, we need no crystal ball to see that there is trouble ahead. In the history of the world, there has never been a better time to be a ragemonger than right now. Many of the communications systems we’ve set up are well calibrated to be carriers of vicious messages. Broadcast media rewards outrageous behavior, and gives people an incentive to play to captive crowds, throw punches against straw men, and film the reaction. In an atmosphere like ours, it is virtually certain that somebody, or somebodies, will ride a conspiracy theory to a position of great authority. Given how irresponsibly this could be done, we’ve all got to be doubly circumspect. My best hope is that the paranoia we’ve been forced to cultivate by 15 years of emergency authority will serve as a check against violent extremism of all kinds. May our uncertainty and destabilization be a reminder that the scariest man is the one who believes he’s got it all figured out.