This post is in the same vein as xkcd 258, an attempt to come to grips with people’s insatiable appetite for “conspiracy” theories of one sort or another. In Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, she deals with the same issue in a slightly less facetious and slightly more enlightening manner. Before reproducing the relevant quotations, I’ll sum up her point in a few sentences. People are drawn more to consistency than they are to truth. To whit, people are more likely to believe a “plausible” apparently complete system even if it is at odds with reality. Thus believing that a small cabal of Jewish bankers was intentional destroying Christian civilization is more attractive than recognizing that a myriad of different factors had contributed to the disintegration of the social and political fabric of European civilization. That it is simply not the case is of little interest to many. In discussing Benjamin Disraeli’s self-aggrandizing Jewish conspiratorial mythology, she states:
It is well known that the belief in a Jewish conspiracy that was kept together by a secret society had the greatest propaganda value for antisemitic publicity, and by far outran all traditional European superstitions about ritual murder and well-poisoning. It is of great significance that Disraeli, for exactly opposite purposes and at a time when nobody thought seriously of secret societies, came to identical conclusions, for it shows clearly to what extent such fabrications were due to social motives and resentments and how much more plausibly they explained events or political and economic activities than the more trivial truth did.
She returns to the same issue in the context of totalitarianism, per se. Totalitarian propaganda has always focused on the “mysterious,” the conspiratorial as a way to undermine a reality that is clearly at odds with their ideology.
The effectiveness of this kind of propaganda demonstrates one of the chief characteristics of modern masses. They do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears
but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent in itself. What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which
they are presumably part. Repetition, somewhat overrated in importance because of the common belief in the masses’ inferior capacity to grasp and remember, is important only because it convinces them of consistency in time.
What the masses refuse to recognize is the fortuitousness that pervades reality. They are predisposed to all ideologies because they explain facts as mere examples of laws and eliminate coincidences by inventing an all-embracing omnipotence which is supposed to be at the root of every accident. Totalitarian propaganda thrives on this escape from reality into fiction, from coincidence into consistency.
As one might guess, she involves man’s need for a sense of self-respect as well. It is easier to accept that you have been victim of some superhuman calculated plot than it is to face a reality in which bad things happen beyond the control of any man. Of course, even these comments run the risk of being radicalized into some ideology of “self-respect”–in which all actions can be explained by man’s need for that warm fuzzy feeling. Actually, I think they have been.
These thoughts represent a powerful response to classical anti-semites as well as many modern conspiracy theorists. Do you really think Bush was competent enough to have executed all the evil that one hears about him? “No, but Cheney was!” *sigh…*
As usual, the worst consequence of these theories lies in their diversionary powers. Not in any sort of premeditated way (if I claimed that, I’d be making the same mistake that I’m berating) but just in the natural way that if people are too consumed in an ideological explanation of the world, they’ll fail to see what’s really going on. If people are so caught up with the Jewish bankers, the Jesuits, the Communists (outside of communist countries), the global imperialists and the Trotskyites (inside communist countries), the Freemasons, the Israel-Lobby, the Neo-Cons or whatever else might happen to be the crackpot conspiracy of the day, they blind themselves to the reality. Pre WWII it was the rise of totalitarianism, then Stalinism and the better but still awful Soviet Union that followed after him.
Though it seems that this sort of thinking has gone out of style compared to the turn of the 20th century, one never knows. Maybe twenty or thirty years from now we may discover what it is the current conspiracies are diverting our attention from.