Monday, January 16, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 


Some weeks back I wrote a “Something Thoughtful” on the various conspiracy theories that surround the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. A Baconian wrote in to say that it was merely “Stratfordist” propaganda to refer to alternative authorship theories as “conspiracy theories”…. but he then went on to declare that conspiracies happen much more often than most people realize. He even called in George Bernard Shaw’s famous light-hearted quip that “all professions are conspiracies against the laity” as part of his evidence. Apparently he saw no contradiction between, on the one hand, denying that he supported a conspiracy theory and, on the other hand, lecturing me on the ubiquity of conspiracies.

Oh dear. You could go cross-eyed if you attempted to argue logically with a dedicated conspiracy theorist. I must make it plain from the outset that examining conspiracy theories interests me about as much as watching paint dry. But after criticising Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery and some works by Italian post-modernist cyber-punks - all of them fictions involving conspiracies - it seems appropriate to make a few points about the wretched things.

First point – yes, there have been real conspiracies in history, and doubtless there have been some successful ones that were never detected – the type that conspiracy theorists would like to see everywhere. But most real conspiracies that I know of had short-term and very specific goals, such as political assassination. Brutus and his mates really did conspire to kill Caesar. John Wilkes Booth had accomplices in his assassination of Lincoln. Ditto Klaus von Stauffenberg in his (regrettably unsuccessful) attempt on Hitler. At this point a conspiracy theorist steps in and says “Therefore Lee Harvey Oswald must have been part of a conspiracy too.” No. It doesn’t necessarily follow. Look up Captain Felton, Charlotte Corday or Leon Czolgosz. Nobody doubts that these assassins acted entirely on their own. Assassination may be one aim of conspiracy, but conspiracy is not necessary for assassination. As for ideas of long-standing super-criminal conspiracies lasting centuries -  they belong to romantic fiction, or worse.

Second pointthe existence of “secret societies”, or societies with secretive habits, does not automatically argue for some conspiracy unknown to the general public. I won’t elaborate on this point or I will be committed to writing many pages on Freemasons, the Orange Lodge, Jesuits and God knows what else. Yes, there are criminal conspiracies aimed at committing common crimes. (Isn’t that what criminal association is all about?). Yes, there are terrorist networks and Mafia-like entities. But the people who aim to dominate the whole of society by coercive means tend to do so openly, and without hidden conspiracy. Fascists, Communists, Nazis and others often used secretive means to attain their ends, but by and large their intentions were plain to see and the wider society could easily know what they were up to if it had bothered to watch.

Third pointMost conspiracy theories are violations of the truth, but only some are really harmful. Others are harmless crackpottery. Nobody will die if we are led to believe that Bacon or Oxford or Southampton wrote Shakespeare’s plays, nonsense though these propositions are. Nobody will die if some people believe that the Mafia or Cubans were firing from the grassy knoll. But many people did die because others accepted the fictitious conspiracy in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as if it were a fact. Those who believe in harmless conspiracy theories are harmless cranks. Those who believe in harmful ones are fanatics.

Fourth pointConspiracy theories appeal to people who want to be “in the know”. There’s nothing more satisfying than imagining you are part of an elite group which knows more than the general public knows. Therefore the constant appeal of conspiracy theories which say that most of us have been deceived; and that something occult and hidden is at work which is accessible only to those clever ones who have cracked its code. They’re oddly elitist things, conspiracy theories. They allow their believers to imagine that they are Sherlock Holmes while the rest of us are Dr Watson or Inspector Lestrade.

Fifth point – Despite appealing to people who see themselves as an in-group, conspiracy theories are often the revenge of the powerless on the powerful. This means they are often the revenge of the uneducated or the semi-educated on the educated. For those who do not understand how a society works, and especially how social change works, (in other words, the uneducated), any unwelcome social change must be the result of deliberate planning by malignant people. That is, a conspiracy. Naturally, there have been powerful people who manipulated and exploited the credulity of the uneducated, especially when scapegoats were wanted (hello Black Hundreds). But conspiracy theories still allow the uneducated and powerless to imagine they have cracked the code of the powerful.

Sixth point - Retrospective conspiracy theories depend on confusing consequences with intent. At this point I was going to quote from a recently-published book in which an author asserts that Europe’s rulers in 1914 deliberately sent young men off to die in their millions, as a cynical means of culling excess population. There is an evil result – the death of millions in the First World War – so the writer assumes there was an evil intention. A conspiracy. But this reads intent into consequence. No matter how alien or repugnant the process may now seem to us, the fact is that Europe’s rulers in 1914 thought they were acting from high patriotic motives and were sending young men off to do a noble duty. There was no conspiracy. [ I have not quoted the book as it is mainly an admirable piece of work; the author made her comment as a brief aside; and I don’t wish to quarrel publicly with her. You can start a conspiracy theory about this if you like.]

Seventh point. I could, of course, be quite wrong in everything I’ve said here, and especially in the second point above, that I made so shakily. I believe Freud is credited with saying that even a man with a persecution complex really can be persecuted. Perhaps some conspiracy theorists are right about the conspiracies they claim to have uncovered. Perhaps some of the wackier conspiracy theories I’ve heard will one day be proven – by as-yet-undisclosed evidence – to be perfectly true. But I’m not holding my breath.

I shall just sit here quietly in the TV studio where they faked the Apollo moon landings, reading the collected plays of Francis Bacon as I fondle the rifle with which the CIA-trained Cuban Mafia took out JFK. (It was all planned by the Jesuits and the Freemasons, you know.)


  1. I can't wait to see you in the movie directed by Oliver Stone where you sit in a TV studio with your automatic rifle waiting to take out a political figure.

  2. Hello, Nicholas.

    I'm just writing you this note to say thanks. I was a student of yours back at Rosmini and you were a tremendous influence on me. As I just graduated with my PhD in Philosophy from the University of Auckland (I wrote my dissertation on the epistemology of conspiracy theories, which is why I chose this post to comment on), I thought I'd send you a message to say "Cher cher."

    Matthew Dentith

    1. A delight to hear from you Matthew and I am pleased that the grind of that long-ago classroom has led to such great results.