In defence of conspiracy theories
Every corporate newspaper columnist eventually takes a shot at their favorite whipping boy, the conspiracy theorist. And they use that term like it’s a bad thing
by Kevin Potvin
In the years leading up to the French revolution, big festivals dominated public entertainment—festivals in which characters from the ruling monarchy were often mocked and ridiculed. Royalty tolerated these insults, even underwrote the costs to produce the shows—a totally unprecedented move. Historians today believe they did so in order to allow accumulated public resentments to dissipate before they spilled over into revolutionary fervor. It didn’t work; it only lead to complaints about bread and circuses we still here echoed today when governments try to buy our votes, but it’s a fascinating first attempt at government spin control nonetheless.
Or consider what began popping up in village squares all around Europe in the 11th century: larger-than-life statues of important figures from the Bible, each depicted in rich colours and long flowing robes, each with the same peculiarity: their right hand was held palm forward with the first two fingers up and the other two tucked down under the thumb.
Historians tell us the problem for the Roman Church, as it attempted to colonize the vast pagan lands surrounding it, was how to instill authority in locally recruited priests—the young village men who spoke the local dialect and knew the people. The solution was to use the glamorous statues to endow the hand signal with great prestige, then instruct the locally appointed priests to use the hand signal when they returned from their seminary so the prestige and authority of the impressive statues would rub off on them. Thus was born the first corporate logo and the celebrity endorsement, the first Nike swoosh that today is seen depicted on the world’s greatest and most virile athletes—and also on crappy overpriced merchandise in stores we’re meant to buy because it carries that symbol that Tiger Woods was wearing.
I mention these things to make this point: what would you think if you were there in those places at those times, and read this analysis? You would be sure the writer was a paranoiac, someone overanalyzing everyday situations, a conspiracy theorist, you would call him. But it’s not conspiracy theory, is it, it’s just history. And so it is also just the writing of history when we look, for example, at the rise of popular monarchy-praising movies like The Lion King and Da Vinci Code, and conclude that these films, produced at huge expense underwritten by a wealthy elite, serve to legitimize blood-line successions in ostensibly secular and non-manarchical nations, like the Bush family and the Clinton clan in America, and the Martin family and, soon enough, I predict, the Trudeau bloodline in Canada.
That doesn’t sound too conspiracy theorist, does it? But what if I were to suggest that films like the Matrix, the remake of the Manchurian Candidate, and Syriana, are produced and financed by the wealthy elite and directed at disgruntled intellectuals for the same reason the monarchy underwrote the costs of the festivals in pre-revolutionary France—that is, the films are meant to dissipate resentments, to blow some steam off the accumulating anger intellectuals are expressing about the mounting injustices and unsustainable imbalances in their surrounding societies, before they start touting the benefits of revolution?
Maybe they are just films produced as films, mere art in the end, but they nonetheless could be serving that role inadvertently, at least, could they not?
But could it really all be so accidentally beneficial for the wealthy elites that that seething resentful mass of intellectuals is found seated quietly in theatres gloating about vindication, instead of leading charges at whatever our Bastille might be today? In an era when the disparity in wealth between the richest elite and the rest is possibly at its widest in human history, and when inheritance in both wealth and prestige has become, as a result, the top-of-mind issue among that wealthy elite, is it so outlandish to propose that that elite is nervous about its position on top of such a relatively high mountain and would do what all nervous elites do, propagate through the media messages that serve to enhance their own security?
A future historian would certainly say this is what they are doing in our own time with films such as these, so why can’t we say it? Is it paranoid conspiracy theory to suggest such films are explicitly created for pre-emptive counter-revolutionary purposes, or is that just the writing of history in our own time?
A good historian looking at a distant time and place knows that everything he has as evidence before him has meaning and everything is somehow connected—or will be once he has finished writing his history. A 12th century scrap of paper with a partial list of sexually degrading acts found in the manuals of priests learning how to take confessions is at first so discordant, we can’t begin to fathom how it came to be. Do we therefore throw it away, assume it has no meaning for us? Of course not. The piece of paper means something very important and it completely alters how we understand late-pagan culture in Europe and the frame of mind of the vanguard of the Church confronting it.
So when we get hold of executive compensation contracts from the heyday of the Enron era, and find CEOs holding out for things like a new dishwasher on a contract already worth several hundreds of millions of dollars, and find that also to be confusingly discordant, do we throw that information away because it doesn’t make sense? No, we use that evidence to totally recreate what we think about corporate executive officers operating at the vanguard of our advanced capitalist economy, and to understand the demeaning service-sector society surrounding them, the very one we ourselves populate.
No doubt the Church would be terribly unhappy with what we would have had to say about their priests if we found those confessional manuals back when they were in circulation, and they would have argued articulately and vehemently against any less-than-flattering conclusions we might have drawn up because of them. So too do sycophants in the media today argue strongly against any unflattering conclusions we might draw about the executives in charge of our largest enterprises, based on what we learn about a few of them and their odd, even twisted, personal proclivities. But those denials, then as well as now, mean little against the hard evidence. Who owns the media in which those denials are made after all? Just as in the days of the Church, it is the same people being unflatteringly portrayed who have control over where and when, if ever, such portrayals will see the light of day. Of course their media will tell us to look away and ignore the evidence. That’s what they bought the media to do.
Almost all that is dismissed as conspiracy theory today is really only good or poor attempts at writing history in our own time. But why is it that when we are talking of the histories of whole different places in whole different times, we easily accept that this or that group of powerful people made this or that important event happen, yet when it comes to histories of our own time and place, we automatically reject any suggestion of any group of people making any important event happen? Throughout history, every important event always has some group of people behind it, and these events always offer revealing meanings about the kind of societies in which they occur. It is the same today.
To be dismissed as a conspiracy theorist today because one merely looks for the group of people behind a contemporary event and tries to surmise the meaning the event carries for one’s own society, is to be confronted with that unthinking mob, the kind that has in the past been easily directed outside at night with pitchforks to hunt for devils to kill. Invariably, it isn’t the devil they’re sent out to get at all, or even any stark raving mad lunatic; it’s just that guy who’s been causing the local village landlord too many problems with all his questions.
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