I used to frown on terms like ‘evil‘ because of how they have been abused. During my childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, such terms were used to sketch out the world in broad strokes: America, good. Soviet Union, evil. Common people, good. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, evil. Telling the truth, good. Lying, evil.
My parents had a rather unsophisticated view of the world. It was all ‘us vs. them’. ‘Light vs. darkness.’ This was made even worse by their belief in conspiracies–the Illuminati, Bilderbergers, Skull & Bones, the so-called ‘Order,’ the Trilateral Commission, multinational corporations–the list goes on. They had most people in their organization convinced of ‘plots’ and ‘ploys’ of ‘the sinister force’ that were behind everything evil. They maintained that fluoridation in the water was a secret plan to ruin people’s bodies and minds. But this was nothing compared to the grand-daddy plot of all: The International Capitalist-Communist Conspiracy.
Based largely on the work of Antony Sutton, Elizabeth Clare Prophet taught that Wall-Street financiers knowingly bankrolled the Bolshevik Revolution, and agents of their successor firms either had influence or were directly ensconced behind the scenes in the Soviet government during the Cold War. She maintained that international banks and arms merchants were profiteering at the expense of the common people on both sides.
In spite of her mostly right-wing political, social, and religious attitudes, she wound up espousing a classic leftist conspiracy theory (with her personal twist). She and Noam Chomsky would have no doubt seen eye-to-eye on a number of things. This in spite of the fact that Chomsky sees conspiracy theories as “more or less the opposite of institutional analysis, which focuses mostly on the public, long-term behaviour of publicly known institutions.” So I found it incredibly interesting, watching the documentary The Corporation, (which featured Chomsky) that IBM was implicated in providing ‘computer systems’ (actually punch-card readers) which helped the Nazis track prisoners and ‘undesirables’ during WWII. Vindication for her theory, right? Not exactly. What makes conspiracy theories attractive is that they provide a simple narrative to explain the brutal and sometimes baffling course of history. They re-cast the spontaneous confluence of interests in a sinister light. Most importantly, effects we observe are the same as if the conspiracies existed. So whether or not someone or a group of ‘someones’ at IBM really wanted to help Hitler kill Jews, we can’t say for sure. What we can say, is that they wanted to sell ‘computers,’ and this desire helped kill Jews.
It’s the same with international bankers and multinational corporations. They are looking for markets, and once a company or bank grows past a certain size, some of their customers are going to be on opposing sides of conflicts. But this is far less likely to have been planned than to be a by-product of circumstances and corporate self-interest (shareholder interest by proxy). There is no ‘military-industrial complex‘ per se–to use Eisenhower’s term–only people who want to make money. Put another way, structural ‘evils‘ in the modern world are the simple result of politico-economic evolution.
Conspiracy theorists are the political equivalent of ID (‘intelligent design’) proponents. What both fail to appreciate is the power and scope of both random mutations (effect of millions of small individual decisions on circumstances), and natural selection (decided by contests of skill in marketing, team-building, beating competitors, success in designing better products, not to mention lobbying and bribery). This is not to say that conspiracies are impossible, or that nefarious planning doesn’t exist–it most certainly does. But we also know that plans often don’t work out, less so the more complex and far-reaching they are.
The perception of conspiracies is supported by the tendency of conspiracists to conflate levels of analysis. We have to separate personal and micro-economic interests from macro-economic effects. Same with political acts. Someone shot John F. Kennedy for their own reasons. Things happened afterwards. Whether or not they were the things the assassin wanted to happen is anybody’s guess. Trying to connect the two is a fool’s errand. Only if every thought and deed connected to the incident could be analyzed would we ever know the truth. And that can never happen. Perfect fodder.
Take the stock market: As anyone who has tried to predict movements in the stock or commodity markets knows, you can’t plan them, and there doesn’t need to be an obvious reason for them. Try finding someone to blame. Absent direct causation such as when an interest rate shift, lawsuit, or important product announcement takes place, there is no such culprit. Absent a distinct ‘market mover,’ price swings are the aggregation of countless information streams. They’re the ultimate abstraction: they’re everyone’s fault and no one’s.
In the face of this complexity (in a human created system, no less) some people’s imaginations fail. They assume that there must be a reason. Like ID proponents baffled at the development of an eye, they can’t understand how it came to be progressively. (‘What good is half an eye?’ As Julia Sweeney sardonically remarked, it turns out to be about half as good and conveys a distinct survival advantage.) When economic problems arise, conspiracists look for someone to blame. The absence of a reason leads to an absence of reason. It must be those evil international bankers, evil defense contractors, or the evil multinational corporations, or China, or immigrants, or Wal-Mart–anything but what any decent economist could tell you it is: circumstances and aggregated self-interest. (In the future, we may, through agent-based modeling, gain a better insight as to how economic information aggregates, and may be able to assign fractional responsibilities.)
So the conspiracists demonize the corporations, failing to understand that corporations are us (both consumers and shareholders). They demonize immigration, like Lou Dobbs and his increasingly misguided populist rants. Dobbs has become the latest spokesman for a group of North Americans who don’t want to evolve and compete with hard-working and ambitious Central Americans. In other words, he thinks he is supporting people, but he is actually opposing their growth and evolution. Protectionists and anti-globalists are in the same boat. They are trying to turn back the clock to a simpler time, to protect simpler and less-efficient methods, which ultimately hurts everyone. By fighting attempts to make the economic system more transparent and efficient, everyone’s standards of living are lowered.
What works in the favor of both ID’ers and the deniers of politico-economic evolution is they offer their audience short-term or localized comfort. But this comes at the expense of real knowledge or global prosperity. Every new discovery or advance creates both winners and losers. Just as animal evolution has required the deaths of trillions of less-than-perfect specimens, politico-economic evolution requires the death of old and sometimes comfortable ways of doing things.
I’m not arguing that we should fail to preserve what is good about the past as we evolve our methods. Nor that we shouldn’t moderate the speed of change. Too much change can be traumatic. That’s why it’s called evolution, not revolution. But we must insist on objective methods for evaluating things like sustainability and progress. A few people might mourn the loss of jobs, handicrafts, or local customs. But far more will appreciate the benefits of affordable goods. Displaced workers will learn new skills and get better jobs. Handicrafts will be admired in museums after we’re long dead, while products for the living will give them better lives now. In the future, much of the uniqueness that has been lost in the commoditization of products will be reintroduced with a proliferation of custom fabrication. Food will be improved by combining the best organic and local methods with the efficiency of mass-production and global distribution.
Conspiratorial thinking is a form of intellectual inertia. The world of knowledge is moving at breakneck speed. We have at our disposal today more and better information than ever. Many people’s minds can’t keep up. Factual questions can be settled in 15 seconds or less on the net. But fewer people seem to respect the knowledge they encounter. Ten years from now, fact-checking could be automated and probably be down to a thousandth of a second and the precision of facts will be even greater. In a further refinement of hypertext, every phrase could be be color coded in real-time as to its sourcing and authenticity. An example of how this might work: if I wrote something today which referred to someone being alive, and they later died, that portion of my text would then automatically be flagged by the net as currently inaccurate–even though it was accurate when it was written. Every statement could be thus evaluated. Subjective, controversial, or scriptural-based statements could be flagged by the context engines as obvious errors. Even if religions want to use such tools in reverse, they still won’t be able to hide what they’re doing: Witness absurdities such as Conservapedia or Qube.
I can’t help but conclude that all this immediate knowledge is threatening people’s sense of control. People used to be able to walk around with their heads full of opinions, and they could insulate themselves from inconvenient information. With facts beyond dispute, there will no longer be a place to hide. As automated fact-based news analysis becomes commonplace, Drudge, Dobbs, O’Reilly, Coulter, and other demagogue pundits will finally get their comeuppance!
As the proliferation of knowledge increases, people with an agenda, whether it be religious or political, will have no choice to either evolve and change or to step up their attacks even further. Their greatest tools thus far have been post-modernism, deconstructionism and relativism in academia, as well as the kind of magical thinking which defines religion and the ‘New-Age’ movement. We will no doubt see even more of these techniques used.
But no matter how hard they try, as Philip K. Dick said. “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
Consensus society will have to abandon intelligent design and conspiracy theories. It will have to abandon religion. Those who can’t face facts will eventually be chased back into their own heads. Or into virtual fantasy worlds they create for themselves to preserve their warped realities. (Think Second Life meets the ‘second coming of Christ’).
Cognitive dissonance will clearly become far more difficult to preserve in the real world.
But still, residents of the ignorance-sustained fantasy worlds will continue their attempts to spill over into this one. There’s too much power and money involved for them to surrender quietly to knowledge. All across America, this confusion and ignorance is proliferated deliberately in the evangelical megachurches and home-indoctrination-centers, and by organizations such as the Discovery Institute. It’s also standard operating procedure for radical Islam and other backward faiths which routinely destroy schools and murder teachers.
These groups and institutions are peddling ignorance as strategy, a kind of hedge against a future they refuse to face. And that’s evil.
Note: Clearly, I saw epistemic warfare on the horizon in 2007, but I never thought it would remain this severe in the 2020s. Back then, I still held out hope that we’d turn the tide. I’m only left to wonder, how much worse can it get? Will Zuckerberg’s Metaverse be “Second Life meets the Second Coming of Christ?” Or can it be made more rational? Don’t hold your breath. –Sean Prophet, August 2022