Well, we’re in conspiracy-theory season again, if it has ever gone away in America; with Trump refusing to distance himself from the ludicrous ‘QAnon’ version of current events – Democrats as Satanic paedophile abusers and blood-suckers, and the like. How many Americans genuinely believe that? Never mind, it’s probably worth a few votes to the Republicans, with Trump presented as sent by God to purify the land again. (Wasn’t it cunning of God to choose such an unlikely angel for the job?)
Luckily we don’t have anything quite so gross in Britain, beyond David Icke and his ‘Prince Philip as an alien reptile shape-shifter’ theory (look it up); with the most ludicrous ‘conspiracy’ being alleged against the Labour party in our recent election being the relatively mild – albeit damaging – one that the party was ‘anti-semitic’. But it may come. I’ve noticed that the new Labour leader Keir Starmer’s allegedly lenient treatment of Jimmy Saville when he was head of the Crown Prosecution Service is cropping up occasionally in the blogosphere. The Tories are probably saving that one up.
Conspiracy theories are of course a bane of politics, dangerous in at least three ways. The first is that they may be believed and acted on, with damaging results (Nazi Germany). The second is that even if they are disbelieved they may undermine trust in politics, with no-one being certain which versions of events to believe, and so doubt being cast on everyone, including those who are telling the truth; thus producing cynicism and apathy in the electorate.
The third is that they undermine trust in conspiracy theories; which may not all be as wrong as QAnon’s and Icke’s obviously are. A little thought should convince anyone that people do conspire, even in everyday life, for good – planning a surprise party, for example – or for ill – robbing a bank. It shouldn’t be surprising that politicians and others in public life do so too. To take just a couple of recent examples: it is surely undeniable that there was a conspiracy, or a number of them, involving wealthy newspaper owners and right-wing ideologues – and possibly the Russians – to bring about Brexit in 2016, and – with the addition of what can be called an ‘Israel lobby’ – to discredit Jeremy Corbyn in 2019. That is emphatically not to say that these conspiracies were responsible for the outcomes of those events, even when – as in these cases – the results were what the plotters had wanted. We need to examine other factors too. But they existed.
The problem is that when anyone raises this possibility he or she is immediately accused of being a ‘conspiracy theorist’, with all that phrase’s crazy Ickean baggage attached to it. That in fact is the best defence that genuine conspirators have against being found out: just label your discoverer a ‘conspiracy nutcase’ and you’ve won half the battle. Academics for long avoided this area for fear of being tarred with this brush. I was nervous of it when writing my own history of the British secret domestic intelligence agencies; and even when it came to publishing it I felt I had to include the word ‘Paranoia’ in the title. And yet covert plots and counter-plots are clearly important in every country’s history.
The answer to these problems probably lies in education: teaching children to question what they’re told, certainly, but not to doubt or dismiss everything; to know when they’re being indoctrinated rather than educated; to think critically but also rationally; and to weigh up what they read in the popular press and on Facebook. It would be helpful, too, if the print press could be taken out of the hands of wealthy right-wingers – later it could be left-wingers – and policed more effectively than it is at present to prevent the sort of downright lies we saw employed against Labour last year. But that’s a sticky subject, involving as it does the idea of a ‘free press’, which the worst conspiracy-mongers can always hide behind.
Besides, maybe Hilary Clinton was involved in a child sex ring acting out of the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C in the 1990s. We shouldn’t dismiss even the craziest conspiracy theory entirely out of hand. Otherwise it might be embarrassing for us when the alien shape-shifters take over. I’m allowing for an 0.1% chance of that.