Sunday, November 08, 2009

On the origin of conspiracy theories, from Politico's "Arena" section.

This is how populist conspiracy theories arise: The people see something, and call it the result of conspiracy, while the elites see the same thing, and call it something different--something more benign, or at least more random. Something that won’t rile up the folks.

But the masses will get riled up anyway, because they don’t trust their betters. And so out of that credibility gap, between the masses and their masters, conspiracy theories will flourish.

Most of the media coverage of the Fort Hood shooting, for example, seems scrupulously undecided between various possible explanations for the killer’s motives. Was he overstressed by his experiences at Walter Reed? Or was he a spontaneous jihadist? We might never know, say the chattering clases.

Well, here’s a bet: The American people will know in their own minds. They will conclude that the alleged shooter, Nidal Hasan, was some sort of sleeper terrorist. On Main Street, folks’ll figure that he was part of a sinister network that reaches back to the Middle East.

By conrast, President Obama and the governing caste will be at pains to discern no larger pattern, to draw no larger conclusion about America and the Islamic world. Out of a desire for order--and perhaps more than a little snobbery--they will be quick to label conspiracy theorists as mere paranoid ranters. And so the establishment will see no need for changes in immigration policy, security procedures, or ethnic profiling.

We have seen this conspiracy dynamic before, in the 40s and 50s, as America struggled to comprehend a vast new enemy. And we are seeing it again now. And oh, by the way, American politics changed substantially during that earlier era.

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