Sunday, May 21, 2006

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Can I speak to the manager?

I can't remember when and how my opinion of the Iraq war changed, but it wasn't helped when I dug up a statistic that should not exist. I was reminded of it by a blogger who noted the first Canadian woman to die in Afghanistan.

Occasionally I hear about people who take to reading the news regularly (a horrible habit) and become obsessed with the endless suffering that pervades the world. But the world has been this way for a long time. What overwhelms me is the sheer lunacy of the witch's brew we've stewed for ourselves, a lunacy that consists not so much of extravagant wildness, as quiet disconnection from reality. When I consider the idea of women in combat, or men marrying men, or Catholics singing Marty Haugen music, or the existence of Wal-Mart, I just shake my head in wonder.

But when the mere shock is over, the question that follows in my mind is: "who's giving the orders here?" To go through it one by one: who decided that women should don uniforms and die in battle, who decided that marriage was not what we all used to think it was, who decided that the Children of God should sing the spiritually-degrading outpourings of liberal Protestants, who decided that all general stores should be owned by the same plutocrats and pervaded with the same psychotic mentality? Whose idea was all that?

So far as I can tell, the conspiracy theorist is unique to our age. What I mean is this: paranoia is not new, conspiracy theories are not new, but conspiracy theory as a hobby is not something for which I can find a parallel. The curious fellow full of facts about the assassination of JFK or the activities of 33rd degree Masons simply does not call to mind any antique predecessor; his particular strain of thought has its origins in John Robison and Fr. Augustin Barruel, who published their pertinent works around 1800, and the attitude is reminiscent of a Baconian (or any anti-Stratfordian), but I can't see anything further back. Since the possibilities for collecting relevant information were vastly more limited in olden times, I suspect that conspiracy theory as a serious hobby has not even been possible for very long.

But I also think that the impetus has not always been present. The old conspiracy theories that I can call to mind, are all rather straightforward in character. In the old Roman empire it was apparently a standard proceeding to accuse an enemy of eating babies, practicing black magic and so forth (the Arians charged St. Athanasius with these things, for instance). In the Medieval period I gather there was much fear that prominent personages were secretly atheists or Muslims (I do not even say these suspicions were without foundation), and of course there was the witch craze later. The common thread to all these theories, is that certain well-known things are not what they seem. The reputable-seeming bishop has really just got back from a dinner of roasted children, the king or the scholar who professed his faith in a cathedral had in fact no faith at all (I must re-iterate the frequent plausibility of this particular theory), the harmless-seeming old lady has really been putting the hex on fellow-villagers, inflicting mysterious diseases upon them, etc.

Whereas the problem today is, we cannot even say how things seem. Once we realize that fundamental truth that the newspapers are a pack of lies, we find ourselves unsure even as to appearances, much less realities. The thing about modern conspiracy theories is that instead of suspecting malfeasance of certain public agents, they suspect public agency of certain malfeasants - that is, the question is not so much about secret evils, as secret power. And the thing that follows from this, is that conspiracy theories are thereby firmly grounded in reality.
They may be wrong about this or that point, they may generally be the product of overheated imaginations, but when we are constantly deluged with artificial phenomena that are as inexplicable as the weather, it is merely common sense to suppose unknown agencies - to feel the force of unseen hands. Why is our art so ugly? Why do we have so many ugly buildings? It may not be a Masonic plot, but it could well be a plot of architects; what it cannot be, is happenstance.

Or suppose you hear a man speaking; you recognize his opinion. It is the repackaged nonsense of a newspaper editorial you have read yourself. But in turn, you recognize the intellectual parentage of that editorial; this particular 20th century writer comes to mind, and in turn his predecessors in the 18th and 19th centuries are manifest. Because you happen to know something about the subject in question, you know more about the origin of a man's thought than he himself - only four things are necessary: an organ of public opinion, a man who accepts its authority, a certain trivial knowledge on your part, and a rudimentary ability to notice patterns and affinities of idea. There is nothing of a conspiracy in this, but this sort of thing is the very pattern of modern life: a few central figures - puppet-masters if you wish to be theatrical about it - and millions of people whom they somehow influence, without those millions ever suspecting their existence. The reason that modern conspiracy theories have a "centralizing" tendency - that is, a habit of supposing these obscure, octopus-like organizations with a tentacle in ten thousand pies - is that modern society itself exhibits this centralizing tendency. That tendency may not be evil in itself; that is not the point. The point is that we are unsure, to a degree without historical precedent, who is actually running things. It is not even easy to answer, what it means to "run things." Is it the men who make our laws? Well, just what are the laws, now that you mention it? I had a student job in the law library once, and I can tell you the United States Code is a huge nasty mess - and that's all I can tell you about it. The leaders of big business? And just what are the big businesses, never mind who is leading them where? Is it the government educators - well if it comes to that, just what are they teaching the young folk anyway? Even a lot of parents are a bit unclear on this score.

Indeed, my problem with a lot of conspiracy theories is not their radicalism, but their lack of it; for instance, it seems rather pedestrian to be terribly worked up over who shot JFK. To take for granted that the assassination of a mere president is an important historical event, is a greater manifestation of gullibility than any mere trust in the Warren Report (or whatever Report it was, concluding that Oswald acted alone). We have to know what it means to rule such a society as ours, before we can talk about its rulers.