How government and media use the phrase to suppress opposition.
Biden’s “National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism” report last week declared that “enhancing faith in American democracy” requires “finding ways to counter the influence and impact of dangerous conspiracy theories.” In recent decades, conspiracy theories have multiplied almost as fast as government lies and cover-ups. While many allegations have been ludicrously far-fetched, the political establishment and media routinely attach the “conspiracy theory” label to any challenge to their dominance.
According to Cass Sunstein, Harvard Law professor and Obama’s regulatory czar, a conspiracy theory is “an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role.” Reasonable citizens are supposed to presume that government creates trillions of pages of new secrets each year for their own good, not to hide anything from the public.
In the early 1960s, conspiracy theories were practically a non-issue because 75 percent of Americans trusted the federal government. Such credulity did not survive the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Seven days after Kennedy was shot on November 22, 1963, President Lyndon Johnson created a commission (later known as the Warren Commission) to suppress controversy about the killing. Johnson and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover browbeat the commission members into speedily issuing a report rubberstamping the “crazed lone gunman” version of the assassination. House Minority Leader Gerald Ford, a member of the commission, revised the final staff report to change the location of where the bullet entered Kennedy’s body, thereby salvaging Hoover’s so-called “magic bullet” theory. After the Warren Commission findings were ridiculed as a whitewash, Johnson ordered the FBI to conduct wiretaps on the report’s critics. To protect the official story, the commission sealed key records for 75 years. Truth would out only after all the people involved in any coverup had gotten their pensions and died.
The controversy surrounding the Warren Commission spurred the CIA to formally attack the notion of conspiracy theories. In a 1967 alert to its overseas stations and bases, the CIA declared that the fact that almost half of Americans did not believe Oswald acted alone “is a matter of concern to the U.S. government, including our organization” and endangers “the whole reputation of the American government.” The memo instructed recipients to “employ propaganda assets” and exploit “friendly elite contacts (especially politicians and editors), pointing out… parts of the conspiracy talk appear to be deliberately generated by Communist propagandists.” The ultimate proof of the government’s innocence: “Conspiracy on the large scale often suggested would be impossible to conceal in the United States.”
However, the CIA did conceal a wide range of assassinations and foreign coups it conducted until congressional investigations in the mid-1970s blew the whistle. The New York Times, which exposed the CIA memo in 1977, noted that the CIA “mustered its propaganda machinery to support an issue of far more concern to Americans, and to the C.I.A. itself, than to citizens of other countries.” According to historian Lance deHaven-Smith, author of Conspiracy Theory in America, “The CIA’s campaign to popularize the term ‘conspiracy theory’ and make conspiracy belief a target of ridicule and hostility must be credited…with being one of the most successful propaganda initiatives of all time.” (In 2014, the CIA released a heavily-redacted report admitting that it had been “complicit” in a JFK “cover-up” by withholding “incendiary” information from the Warren Commission.)
The Johnson administration also sought to portray critics of its Vietnam War policies as conspiracy nuts, at least when they were not portraying them as communist stooges. During 1968 Senate hearings on the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara denounced the “monstrous insinuations” that the U.S. had sought to provoke a North Vietnamese attack and declared that it is “inconceivable that anyone even remotely familiar with our society and system of government could suspect the existence of a conspiracy” to take the nation to war on false pretenses. Three years later, the disclosure of the Pentagon Papers demolished the credibility of McNamara and other top Johnson administration officials who indeed dragged America into the Vietnam War on false pretenses.
Condemnations of conspiracy theories became a hallmark of the Clinton administration. In 1995, President Bill Clinton claimed that people who believed government threatened their constitutional right were deranged ingrates: “If you say that Government is in a conspiracy to take your freedom away, you are just plain wrong…. How dare you call yourselves patriots and heroes!” The same year, the White House compiled a fevered 331-page report entitled “Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce,” attacking magazines, think tanks, and others that had criticized President Clinton. In the following years, many of the organizations condemned in the White House report were targeted for IRS audits, including the Heritage Foundation and the American Spectator magazine and almost a dozen individual high-profile Clinton accusers, including Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers. Despite Clinton’s protestations that he posed no threat to freedom, even the ACLU admitted in 1998 that the Clinton administration had “engaged in surreptitious surveillance, such as wiretapping, on a far greater scale than ever before… The Administration is using scare tactics to acquire vast new powers to spy on all Americans.”
Some “conspiracy theory” allegations comically expose the naivete of official scorekeepers. In April 2016, Chapman University surveyed Americans and announced that “the most prevalent conspiracy theory in the United States is that the government is concealing information about the 9/11 attacks with slightly over half of Americans holding that belief.” That survey did not ask whether people believed the World Trade Centers were blown up by an inside job or whether President George W. Bush secretly masterminded the attacks. Instead, folks were simply asked whether “government is concealing information” about the attacks. Only a village idiot, college professor, or editorial writer would presume the government had come clean. Three months after the Chapman University survey was conducted, the Obama administration finally released 28 pages of a 2003 congressional report that revealed that Saudi government officials had directly financed some of the 9/11 hijackers in America. That disclosure shattered the storyline carefully constructed by the Bush administration, the 9/11 Commission, and legions of media accomplices. (Lawsuits continue in federal court seeking to force the U.S. government to disclose more information regarding the Saudi government role in the attacks.)
“Conspiracy theory” is often a flag of convenience for the media. In 2018, the New York Times asserted that Trump’s use of the term “Deep State” and similar rhetoric “fanned fears that he is eroding public trust in institutions, undermining the idea of objective truth and sowing widespread suspicions about the government and news media.” However, after allegations by anonymous government officials spurred Trump’s first impeachment in 2019, New York Times columnist James Stewart cheered, “There is a Deep State, there is a bureaucracy in our country who has pledged to respect the Constitution, respect the rule of law… They work for the American people.” New York Times editorial writer Michelle Cottle proclaimed, “The deep state is alive and well” and hailed it as “a collection of patriotic public servants.” Almost immediately after its existence was no longer denied, the Deep State became the incarnation of virtue in Washington.
The media elite can fabricate “conspiracy theory” designations almost with the flip of a headline. A week after Election Day 2020, the New York Times ran a banner headline across the top of the front page: “Election Officials Nationwide Find No Fraud.” How did the Times know? Their reporters effectively called each state and asked, “Did y’all see any fraud?” Election officials answered “no,” thus proving that anyone who subsequently questioned Biden’s victory was promoting a groundless conspiracy. While top liberal politicians denounced electronic voting companies as unaccountable and dishonest in 2019, any doubts about such companies became “conspiracies” after that headline in the Times. The Times helped spur a media cacophony drowning out anyone complaining about ballot harvesting, illegal mass mailing of absentee ballots, or widespread failures to verify voter identification.
Actually, “conspiracy theory” accusations helped Biden win the 2020 presidential election. As Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) recently noted, if Americans believed that the COVID-19 virus was created in a Chinese government lab, Trump would have likely won the election because voters would have sought a leader who could be tough on China. But the lab origin explanation was quickly labeled a pro-Trump heresy. The Washington Post denounced Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR,) for suggesting the virus originated in the lab, which supposedly was a “conspiracy theory that was already debunked.” Twenty-seven prominent scientists signed a letter in the Lancet: “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin… Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus.” The Lancet did not reveal until last week that one of the signers and the person who organized the letter signing campaign ran an organization that received U.S. government subsidies for its work at the Wuhan Institute of Virology lab. President Biden has ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to take another look to seek to determine the origin of COVID-19.
Will “conspiracy theory” charges provide a “get out of jail free” card for the FBI and other federal agencies regarding the January 6 clash at the Capitol? After Fox News’s Tucker Carlson featured allegations that FBI informants or agents may have instigated the ruckus, the Washington Post speedily denounced his “wild, baseless theory” while Huffington Post denounced his “laughable conspiracy theory.” It doesn’t matter how often the FBI instigated terrorist plots or political violence in the past 60 years (including the plot to kidnap the Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer last November). Instead, decent people must do nothing to endanger the official narrative of Jan. 6 as a horrific private terrorist event on par with the War of 1812, Pearl Harbor, and the 9/11 attacks.
“Conspiracy theory” is a magic phrase that expunges all previous federal abuses. Many liberals who invoke the phrase also ritually quote a 1965 book by former communist Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Hofstadter portrayed distrust of government as a proxy for mental illness, a paradigm that makes the character of critics more important than the conduct of government agencies. For Hofstadter, it was a self-evident truth that government was trustworthy because American politics had “a kind of professional code… embodying the practical wisdom of generations of politicians.”
Much of the establishment rage at “conspiracy theories” has been driven by the notion that rulers are entitled intellectual passive obedience. The same lese-majeste mindset has been widely adopted to make a muddle of American history. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the court historian for President John F. Kennedy and a revered liberal intellectual, declared in a 2004 article in Playboy, “Historians today conclude that the colonists were driven to revolt in 1776 because of a false conviction that they faced a British conspiracy to destroy their freedom.” Was the British imposition of martial law, confiscation of firearms, military blockades, suspension of habeas corpus, and censorship simply a deranged fantasy of Thomas Jefferson? The notion that the British would never conspire to destroy freedom would play poorly in Dublin. Why would anyone trust academics who were blind to British threats in the 1770s to accurately judge contemporary perils to liberty?
How does the Biden administration intend to fight “conspiracy theories”? The Biden terrorism report called for “enhancing faith in government” by “accelerating work to contend with an information environment that challenges healthy democratic discourse.” Will Biden’s team rely on the “solution” suggested by Cass Sunstein: “cognitive infiltration of extremist groups” by government agents and informants to “undermine” them from within? A 1976 Senate report on the FBI COINTELPRO program demanded assurances that a federal agency would never again “be permitted to conduct a secret war against those citizens it considers threats to the established order.” Actually, the FBI and other agencies have continued secretly warring against “threats” and legions of informants are likely busy “cognitively infiltrating” at this moment.
“Conspiracy theory” will remain a favorite sneer of the political-media elite. There is no substitute for Americans developing better B.S radars for government claims as well as wild-eyed private balderdash. In the meantime, there’s always the remedy a Washington Post health article touted late last year: “Try guided imagery. Visualizing positive outcomes can help clamp down on the intense emotions that might make you more vulnerable to harmful conspiracy theories.”
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