Conspiracy theories and political ignorance
spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).
Am I being paranoid, or is there a plot afoot to spread conspiracy theories about absolutely everything? If there is, Michael Meacher must be in on it. Having informed us that GM food is a corporate conspiracy, the former Environment Minister now claims that America’s war on terrorism is really a ‘political smokescreen’ concealing a secret right-wing plot.
Meacher suggests that the Bush Administration knew about the September 11 terrorist attacks but allowed 3,000 Americans to be killed in order to create ‘a convenient pretext’ for the Washington hawks’ pre-planned wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The ‘overriding motive’ for this alleged conspiracy was to achieve US domination of the globe and its oil supplies.
Meacher’s ‘revelations’ are a tired rehash of the sort of gossip and paranoid fantasies that fill internet chatrooms. They reveal rather less about secret oil-funded policies than about the impoverished state of public debate. Ours is an age of intellectual and political illiteracy. The unthinking assumption among many is that everything the authorities say must be a lie, that every policy statement conceals a conspiracy and that every denial is a cover-up. This is not political criticism, but anti-political cynicism. The ubiquitous assertion that ‘it’s all about oil’ is not an argument at all, but an emotional spasm. Meacher’s latest outburst puts him on the same infantile level as the graffito near my daughters’ school, which reads: ‘Blair killed Dr Kelly – Bush is killing everyone for money (Iraq + oil).’
The untimely death of David Kelly has provided the latest ‘convenient pretext’ for an army of conspiracy theorists to launch wild strikes. Media reports that Dr Kelly ‘apparently committed suicide’ – the standard formulation used whenever an inquest has yet to determine the cause of death – have been seized upon as evidence of ‘something suspicious’. Some even assert that he must have been assassinated. As for the overwhelming evidence of suicide given to the Hutton inquiry, well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?
These fiercely held opinions draw their conviction not from any known facts but from the ignorant, conspiracy-mongering atmosphere in which everything is discussed today. Of course, politics is a dodgy business, and governments do lie, especially when justifying foreign wars. But the irony is that those who claim everything is a conspiracy are letting the authorities off the hook. All that conspiracy theorists expose is their own inability to challenge what the powerful say and do in public. Instead of criticising policies head-on, they fantasise about invisible motives and hidden agendas. Rather than question what a Bush or a Blair stands for, they speculate about who might be paying the politicians to say what they do.
Meacher’s mumbo-jumbo is a case in point. There are good reasons for criticising the US-UK interventionist wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead of engaging with those arguments in the real world, however, many people prefer to campaign against an imaginary war in which President Bush monopolises the world’s oil like a Bond movie villain. Meacher even insists that, while opposing this fantasy war, he supports the real one being fought in Iraq ‘on humanitarian grounds’. If ever there was a bogus argument for war that needed to be exposed, it is surely the humanitarian one.
Downmarket populist notions about conspiracies are now commonplace across the political spectrum, from right-wing American militias to a Labour leftwinger like Meacher. They have also become the staple diet of the more cynical, self righteous sections of our media, from the Mail on Sunday reporter who demanded to know whether the Prime Minister had ‘blood on your hands’ over Dr Kelly’s suicide (not, note, over the war in Iraq), to Radio 4’s Today programme with its endless crusade to find the next cover-up, whether that might concern Iraq’s WMD, GM foods, the MMR vaccination or some other sinister-sounding abbreviation.
In the absence of any wider political beliefs today, the common assumption seems to be that everybody must be motivated by petty greed or personal gain. No longer sure of what or whom we should believe in, many follow the advice on the T shirts and Trust No-One. All that we are left with is a nasty, negative view of human behaviour.
There is nothing positive about the sort of know-nothing naysaying that Meacher and Co pass off as political opposition. Simplistic conspiracy theories offer little in the way of understanding, far less resolving, real complex problems. All that they offer is a pseudo-intellectual endorsement of ignorance, fear and powerlessness, reinforcing the notion that we are the helpless victims of dark forces.
This article is republished from The Times (London)
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