Venting Spleen Column

Z Magazine - May 1992

by Michael Albert

[[Text Omitted]]...

[B]ack in January in my Venting Spleen titled "Conspiracy?...Not!" I tried to take conspiracy theorists seriously and make a case that the kind of thing they did, while sometimes useful for digging up important facts or for assessing individual guilt, was quite misleading for understanding the underlying "whys" of contemporary trends so that we might actually improve our lives.

I argued that conspiracy theories largely "disregard the structural features of institutions" pinning all causal responsibility on conspirators themselves. "Personalities, personal timetables, secret meetings, and conspirators' joint actions claim attention. Institutional relationships drop from view." In contrast I said that institutional theories "claim that the normal operations of some institutions generate the behaviors and motivations leading to the events in question.... Organizational, motivational, and behavioral implications of institutions gain most attention. Particular people, while not becoming mere ciphers, are not accorded priority as causal agents."

Next, I contrasted institutional and conspiratorial analyses of the Gulf War and the media. Finally, I noted what I thought were some of the reasons why people were attracted to conspiracy theory (positively, conspiracy theories do often uncover real crime and connections that are proximately involved in oppressive dynamics, they are often addictively dramatic, and engaging in the research and debate they promote can be a learning experience, and, less positively,"[conspiracy theories] allow us to admit horrors and express indignation without rejecting the basic norms of society," and they can provide "scapegoats for our frustrations." I also commented that I was worried that the new passion for conspiracy was distracting activist attention from serious analyses, promoting liberal "replace the individuals" notions of change, and even nurturing hope for a hero/ redeemer to replace the bad guy conspirators.

"Conspiracy?...Not" attracted a lot of mail, mostly outraged that I should be so critical of an important and growing thrust of progressive thought and activism. Well, some time has passed, and I have come to the conclusion that, indeed, my piece was flawed. I was assuming sensible conspiracy theory with people engaged in debate and investigation of real connections and evidence. But at its edges, conspiracy theorizing has begun to slip over into the paranoid, idiotic, and downright destructive. How can serious radicals claim that since Kennedy's assassination the country has been held hostage by a cabal of bad guys--and that before the cabal all was basically well so that our main agenda item needs to be reversing this coup. In fact, since Kennedy the country has been at root

capitalist, racist, and sexist--just as it was before Kennedy. There have been plenty of changes, of course. Many of these have been for the better, often as a result of tireless efforts by activists. Other changes have been for the worse, sometimes as a result of the machinations of the Reagan/Bush wing of the ruling establishment. But there was no glorious past nor is there a present divide between what our country's leaders do and what the basic defining institutions of our society foster.

Before and after Kennedy we have had the same basic societal institutions, though with some important changes in secondary structures and the relative power of various constituencies, to be sure. Moreover, these basic institutions--economic, political, and social--permit a range of outcomes. This range is not all that wide, but there is an important gap between the worst and the best that our social structure permits. Since we are sliding toward the worst, and have been on that slide for over a decade, people understandably want to know why. The downswing reflects, superficially, the will of some political Leaders--though it hardly makes sense to call them a cabal--but mostly it parallels the ability of corporate elites as a whole to swing the balance of social and economic power more dramatically in their own direction in tune with the dictates of the institutions they administer. What we need to understand to explain events and trends as well as develop sensible strategy and program, is how power is manifested in our society, how institutions lend and/or curtail power to various actors and constituencies, and what changes in institutions might alter power balances in favor of the currently weak and excluded. This type of understanding, as I argued in "Conspiracy?...Not!", has nearly nothing to do with the behind-the-scenes machinations of individual politicians and especially rogue agents who are merely the proximate actors, not the scene setters, of the play whose plot we must change.

Yes, we sometimes have to point out and even highlight these actors' behaviors, especially if they are stars. Their actions are, after all, what is before our eyes and the eyes of the country (if we look hard enough). It is what we have to use as evidence. But what we have to use this evidence to understand is the script that lies behind the actors, and the script in this case flows from the interstices of institutional power, not from the will of some malevolent conspirators operating outside the bounds of the system or even against it.

Now what was the proximate cause of my wanting to devote another column to conspiracy theory? The answer is a tape of a talk by David Emory, and the revelation that he appears every so often on progressive radio, in particular on the Pacifica network stations in California. Below I comment on some of Emory's claims. I freely admit that I am not totally sure I have them all exactly right. His formulations are so convoluted and divorced from reality that I have a hard time following. Should Emory wish to correct the record by succinctly re-stating any claims he thinks I may have butchered, Z will certainly publish the letter, with my reply, of course.

Emory informs us, with an eloquent, convincing radio persona, that all the presidential elections since Kennedy's assassination have been rigged by the CIA and other secret forces. How?

They killed JFK and RFK. Beyond that, they put George Wallace out of action, narrowly failing in killing him. Then they got Nelson Rockefeller (by a heart attack, no less), and finally Allard Lowenstein (whatever relevance that may have). Ironically, Emory leaves out that the one election that arguably was stolen outright was when Kennedy won against Nixon via some ugly shenanigans in Chicago.

Further, Emory tells us that the CIA et. al. also programs serial killers. The idea, according to Emory as I hear him, is that the conspirators want to create anti-gun hysteria to disarm the population, leaving it unable to defend itself from Gestapo repression after the collapse of the economy during the country's slide ever further down the road to Latin America-style inflation. Emory proves these claims by noting that the pathologist for Rockefeller also worked on Kennedy; that the Texas serial killer was in the Navy, in turn involved in mind control operations; and that a prominent gun control organization was founded by William Colby.

If Emory refuses to permit common sense and elementary facts into various parts of his picture of the world, so it goes. He is just one person, after all. But what about his audiences? And what about Pacifica?

Emory eloquently runs off a long string of events and connections that sound plausible on the road to these types of conclusions. So if you're listening in your car it sounds pretty damn good. Who can dredge up counter-evidence under such circumstances? Who is going to think. wait a minute, if George Bush is trying to promote gun control so he'll be able to impose martial law, why does he oppose gun control? Why does he refuse to ban assault rifles? If the CIA is running the gun control lobbies. why would the have Colby openly support those lobbies, thereby attracting everyone-s attention to their secret? If we're heading toward Latin America-style inflation, as Emory claims. how come inflation has been steadily dropping over the last ten years? The problem is, once conspiracy theories get our attention, we can all too easily get caught in the details, until the forest disappears for the trees, and then, worse, even the trees disappear and we are left only with fabrications.

Emory tells us that the Hill-Thomas affair was a CIA production to divideand-conquer the population, in this case women and Blacks. Who, when listening to this, thinks. well, hey, if that reasoning is night then couldn't it follow that the ClA founded SDS and ran the antiwar movement to set people against one another, thereby realizing, by analogy, that the kernel of logic in Emory's claim is only a slim kernel and that the overarching claim is just silly.

If Emory's style of argument is deemed acceptable, then how would Emory refute someone arguing that since Pacifica gets some funding from the Ford Foundation, and since the Ford Foundation is run by McGeorge Bundy, an ex-CIA hand according to Emory, Emory too (because he appears on Pacifica stations) must actually be a CIA plant?

Continuing, Emory tells us that John Lennon was assassinated to interrupt his Central America activism. What listener will wonder in the fifteen available seconds between this claim and the next, why the CIA missed so many other more active activists? Finally, in one of his most outrageous moments, Emory seems to claim that an explosion in California in 1944 was actually the first atomic bomb run, a trial preparatory to later use of the bomb in World War II.

So, you're listening, and maybe you know that nerve gasses have been tested in populated areas, and you believe that the government has no moral scruples, and so you figure, well yeah, that's probably right, they would do that, of course.

Then, later, when you're defending Emory's claim against someone who doubts it, you find yourself having to argue that hundreds of scientists have lied for nearly 50 years without one of them breaking rank. In fact, in 1944 scientists didn't have the foggiest idea how to put together an A-bomb.

If I had a conspiracy theorist approach to understanding events and trends, I'd no doubt make something ominous of the growth of this kind of thinking and its widespread dissemination. In fact, I don't think there is any grand plan behind the rise of conspiracy theorizing--bad times breed it.

But I do believe that conspiracy theorizing, even at its best, detracts from the difficult but worthy task of trying to understand society in order to change it. That the ridiculous claims of paranoid conspiracy theorizing such as those outlined above should get serious attention from left institutions, forums, or individuals is self-defeating, no matter how understandable in the current context, just as it would be self-defeating for leftists or anyone of good will to lend credibility or exhibit respect for the foolish ramblings of any ideologue or cultist, regardless of precise affiliations.


[Please note: the original text contained a spelling error of "Emory" throughout that has been corrected here as a courtesy to all concerned. -CB]

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