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HISTORY, POLITICAL THEORY, INTERNET

There are conspiracy theories and conspiracy theories

This entry was posted in 9/11, Controversies on 20 August 2013 by

“The reason there are conspiracy theories”, runs an old adage, “is because sometimes people conspire”. They do, which is one reason why the sneering condescension with which people talk about conspiracy theories is, well, unwise. It may make statistical sense (because the majority of conspiracy theories are unfounded), but it’s not good epistemology, because sometimes conspiracy theories are well-founded.

The critical difference is between theories we believe to be well-founded and those we believe to be unfounded or mistaken. To take just one obvious example, the official US explanation of the 9/11 attacks is, in a literal sense, a conspiracy theory: it says that a certain group of Al-Qaeda operatives conspired to launch a daring attack on the United States, an attack that could have been foiled if key government agencies had been more perceptive and acted more decisively. My guess is that most people prefer this explanation to the alternative conspiracy theories for various reasons — the scale of the investigation, the membership of the Presidential Commission, etc. But in the end it comes down to preferring one theory over another.

An example is a conspiracy theory that turned out to be correct was the theory that the British, French and Israeli governments had colluded to invade Egypt in order to overthrow Colonel Nasser and seize back control of the Suez Canal (which Nasser had nationalised).

And this week, another conspiracy theory focussed on the Middle East has turned out to be well-founded. Malcolm Byrne, the director of research at the US National Security Archive has confirmed that the August 1953 coup that overthrew Mohammad Mossadegh, Iran’s populist prime minister, and reinstated the Shah of Persia — an obnoxious puppet of the US and the UK who was to remain in power for another twenty-six years, before fleeing the country in January 1979.

As John Cassidy reported in a recent issue of the New Yorker, “Six decades to the day since a pro-Shah mob, led by Iranian agents recruited by the U.S. and the British, marched on Mossadegh’s residence, Byrne published extracts from internal C.I.A. documents that, for the first time, explicitly acknowledge how the agency masterminded the change of government in Tehran”.

Theories about the C.I.A.’s involvement in the coup (which served as a template for subsequent clandestine operations in Guatemala, Cuba, and other countries), have been around for decades, and were often ridiculed by establishment figures. But an internal C.I.A. account of the coup, which was written in the nineteen-seventies and kept secret until Byrne obtained it, now confirms that the conspiracy theorists were right all along. “The military coup that overthrew Mosadeq and his National Front cabinet”, the report states, “was carried out under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government”.

The moral? The fact that a particular explanation of an event or a phenomenon is a conspiracy theory doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s wrong. It may turn out to be the best explanation in the long run.

2 Comments

  • stephen bollom says:

    The critical difference is between theories we believe to be well-founded and those we believe to be unfounded or mistaken. To take just one obvious example, the official US explanation of the 9/11 attacks is, in a literal sense, a conspiracy theory: it says that a certain group of Al-Qaeda operatives conspired to launch a daring attack on the United States, an attack that could have been foiled if key government agencies had been more perceptive and acted more decisively. My guess is that most people prefer this explanation to the alternative conspiracy theories for various reasons — the scale of the investigation, the membership of the Presidential Commission, etc. But in the end it comes down to preferring one theory over another.

    I agree with the opening ideas here, but I would want to see your project (which looks very interesting) to evaluate how information can be assessed quantitatively and qualitatively by the public. Also I question the perhaps simplistic binary categorisation of people’s opinions on a matter such as 9/11. I would argue that a majority of people are ‘undecided’ and skeptical of both conspiracy theories, at the same time generally uninformed or misinformed about the central documented facts relating to the events.
    So one of the first issues raised by those who delve into the official narrative of 9/11 is around the supposed impartiality of the Presidential Commission (i.e. Zelikow’s role etc.). We are immediately confronted with issues of reliability of information sources, and these in turn impact our ability to form an accurate opinion about 9/11. The issue ,for me, is one of information flows in society, and the institutions that are charged with validating the unfolding narrative of history: these are the media, academia, government, schooling. I would suggest that people question 9/11 (and official narratives in general) because there are significant contradictions coming from the different sources of (‘validated’) information within society. Democracy is threatened by these omissions and distortions, not by the theorists who elaborate upon them. Who has role of arbiter of ‘truth’ in controversial histories? At which point is the boundary between trusting authority (be that government or establishment media) to give a complete and accurate account of what is happening in the world, and insistently holding those authorities to account (including the media)?
    I cannot answer that.
    To start with a broad categorisation of ‘conspiracy theorists’ on the one hand and non conspiracy theorists on the other is problematic from the start, due to the insinuations and inferences inherent in that term: it immediately evokes an a priori picture of someone committed to a highly speculative and unsubstantiated theory. Prof Lance de Haven Smith has sought an alternative, less loaded term for these issues; ‘alleged SCADS (State Crimes Against Democracy)’.
    I will be interested to follow your project.

  • Matt H says:

    If you think it was only “proven” in August of 2013 that the CIA (and other Anglo-American intelligence entities) overthrew Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 than you are probably a fool or a propagandist, and most certainly a terrible reader. More dangerous (or idiotic) is the implication of your post, that the only intelligence/covert-military conspiracies “proven” are the ones that are admitted to by these very organs through internal review.

    (Do we extend this benefit of doubt to the Iranian government, say? Or the Russians.).

    I would love to ask types like yourself at what point in history do you believe elites stopped conspiring against their subjects (and the rich stopped conspiring against the lower classes)? Did this benign state of affairs begin as a uniquely Anglo-American virtue and seed outward? Is it a uniquely positive outcome of having a democratic constitution? Because any historian would be forced to admit that the vast sum of human history is those in power attempting (and usually succeeding) to pull the wool over the eyes of the masses.