Conspiracy theories are – according to the comedian David Baddiel in his excellent TV programme on ‘Holocaust deniers’ the other evening – ‘how idiots get to feel like intellectuals’. I rather liked that! (All the more so because Baddiel didn’t try to drag Jeremy into it.)
I suppose it’s the originality of their thinking and the extent of their researches – often published at great length, and extensively footnoted – that make ‘conspiracy theorists’ feel they’re up there (here!) with the intellectuals. Unfortunately, without proper academic training, most of them, they don’t usually bring with them the critical balance that education, at its best, should provide. (Maybe the arch Holocaust-denier David Irving is an exception; but I understand that he dropped out of all his university courses, which weren’t in History in any case.)
An old ‘conspiracy’ has recently resurfaced in the Swedish news recently. Apparently the murderer of prime minister Olof Palme is to be authoritatively revealed shortly (https://www.theguardian.com/news/audio/2020/feb/14/who-killed-swedish-prime-minister-olof-palme?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other). That mystery has been surrounded by ‘conspiracy theories’ ever since the event itself 34 years ago, which weren’t quieted when a man was arrested and imprisoned for it in 1988, but then exonerated and released the following year. Suspicion has fallen on the South African secret services, the CIA, the Swedish security service itself, and a dozen other agencies. Palme was of course a prominent and effective critic of apartheid and of the Vietnam war, and a man who broke with his upper-class upbringing to become a social democrat. (So he was a class traitor.) He had powerful and undoubtedly ingenious enemies. Maybe we’ll find out soon whether any of the ‘conspiracy theories’ surrounding his murder have any basis in truth.
For the problem with dismissive comments like Baddiel’s, and of those who immediately dismiss all talk of ‘conspiracies’ as the ravings of disordered and uneducated minds, is that people do ‘conspire’, at every level of society – that hardly needs to be demonstrated; I’ve done it – and at the highest level of politics. Baddiel himself shows how Nazis conspired to cover up the Holocaust at the end of the War. We saw plenty of conspiring during the recent Brexit referendum and the British General Election. (I’ve blogged about this before: https://bernardjporter.com/2018/02/03/conspiracy-theories/.) It would be beyond belief to think that politicians, newspapers and rich bastards didn’t indulge in this. And to dismiss such explanations by associating them with – for example – the Jewish blood libel, or David Icke’s claim that Prince Philip is a shape-shifting alien, is to unfairly cut off several avenues of quite legitimate enquiry. There are conspiracies and conspiracies. The question to be asked, in every case, is how effective they are. For what it’s worth, vis-a-vis the Palme murder my money’s on the South Africans. But we’ll have to wait and see.
By the way, David Irving went to my school, though I don’t remember him. I do hope he wasn’t taught by my – much revered – History masters. From my memories of the school more generally, however, that could be where he first learned about ‘conspiracies’.
Agree 100% with this post, Bernard. New terminology is required.
Finely & crucially differentiated, by a noble & distinguished historian!
What a pleasure to find this blog.
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Those who deny the existance and importance of conspiracies have clearly never been members of a golf club.
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