How to build a conspiracy

The use of 'neocon' is analogous to a sophisticated-sounding epithet for all that ails the world.

protocols cartoon 298 88 (photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
protocols cartoon 298 88
(photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
Concocting an effective conspiracy theory is an art form. A vile one, to be sure, but an art form nonetheless. The most celebrated practitioners demonstrate a majestic ability to weave otherwise unrelated items of fact and fiction together into a cohesive, explanatory narrative. Some concoct imaginings of a rather benign, even enjoyable, nature. For instance, the author Dan Brown is surely one of the most financially accomplished professional conspiricists to have graced the scene in recent years. However, more in vogue these days even than the literary conspiracy, and more delightfully insidious, is the political conspiracy. As a service to all the aspiring conspiricists out there, and anecdotal evidence suggests there are many, here are some fundamental principles to bear in mind as you go about your craft. First, do not make any claims so brazenly stupendous that they can be conclusively proved not to be true. Keenly conspiratorial minds know that the most pungent ingredients at their disposal reside in the murky cesspool of ancient myth, superstition and theology. Their very longevity is a testament to their inscrutability, and utilizing these well-traveled canards will help situate your theory in the fertile soil of stereotypical convention. Consider the celebrated archetype of 20th-century conspiracy mongering, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This document, which purports to describe in damning detail an international Jewish plot to dominate the world, was first published in a Russian newspaper by Pavel Krushevan in 1903 (though evidence suggests it was initially fabricated in Paris in the late 1890s). An ingeniously malleable theory, it remains a staple for anti-Semites worldwide. The second principle of constructing a conspiracy dictates that you build upon your predecessors' work. Plagiarism is no vice in pursuit of your goals. Indeed, to crib another's ideas is a sign of great respect. The most celebrated conspiracies, those with an admirably long shelf life, are often regurgitations of older ones updated to harmonize with the vicissitudes of contemporary politics. As Thomas Jones explains in the recent issue of the London Review of Books, much of The Protocols text published by Krushevan was borrowed from an 1864 satire which itself was substantially appropriated from Eugene Sue's novel Les Mysteres du peuple, in which the villains were Jesuits rather than Jews. The third principle is less a principle and more an admonition. Use this toxic inheritance wisely. By wisely I mean you must understand that although, for instance, The Protocols enjoys a rabid cult following in parts of the world - and a mass following in others - it is decidedly uncouth to regurgitate its unvarnished message amongst polite company these days. And because we ultimately want your conspiratorial creation to reside in the mainstream of political discourse you must be alert and judicious about the manner in which you spew your venom. CONSIDER A recent exemplar of these principles: the resurrection of the term "neoconservative" in the lexicon of fashionable politics. Originally conceived as an insult by Michael Harrington in a 1973 article in Dissent to describe some former leftists who had distanced themselves from the left-wing radicalism of the Sixties, the expression has of late enjoyed a chic currency that would surely confound both Harrington and the writers at whom he targeted his prickly pen. For those who don't know (where have you been?), the contemporary use of "neoconservative" is analogous to a sophisticated-sounding epithet for all that ails the world. This reformulated narrative posits Leo Strauss, the deceased conservative political philosopher keen on the classical world, as the doyen of a secretive, cabal-like movement bent on world domination (what else could a cabal be bent on?). But don't concern yourself too much with the details as the slipshod use of the nomenclature suggests that they matter little to those who are propagating the conspiracy. For instance, consider a recent review essay in the respected on-line magazine Salon that buzzes with conspiratorial implication. The author, Gary Kamiya, takes the recent publication of George Packer's book The Assassins' Gate as an opportunity to repeatedly ascribe to Packer an Israel-centric interpretation of the war in Iraq. (Packer was quick to point out the fallacy of these charges). In Kamiya's account, two factors drove America to invade Iraq: "Paul Wolfowitz's desire to atone for America's failure to topple Saddam at the end of the first Gulf War, and the neocons' obsession with defending Israel." (Kudos to Kamiya for employing the more colloquially sinister "neocon.") Tracing the intellectual origins of the war, which Kamiya describes as evidence of the "neocons… out-Likuding the Likud," he finds the genesis of aggression in the minds of a handful of predominantly Jewish defense intellectuals who "shared a key obsession: Israel." As for Strauss, Kamiya charges that a "virtual cult" of his Jewish acolytes plotted from the bowels of the Pentagon under the auspices of the "secret" Office of Special Plans (which, Kamiya is wise to point out, has such a "cryptic name"). Of course the choice of words is downright odd, if not a bit shady, but that is what conspiricists do. And Kamiya does it with admirable grace. As such, no reader could mistake the cunningly implied theme of the essay: the Iraq War is, you know… a Jewish war. As we learn from George Orwell, thought corrupts language just as language corrupts thought, and "a bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better." Indeed, "neocon" has breached the levee of mainstream discussion primarily by dint of a repetition born not of enmity, but rather stupidity. It is a truism of the trade that there are infinitely more stupid people in the world than hateful people, and The Stupids are the linchpin upon which your success depends. Always remember that as the last refuge of men with no serious argument, The Stupids are more concerned with making a good show of their own moral purity than with formulating serious opinions about the serious challenges of our time. Keep it simple and appeal to their self-righteousness and unreason. In short, rely on the unthinking boilerplate that has come to define much of the antiwar movement's sloganeering. The neoconservative conspiracy theory, in all its splendid manifestations, succeeds on all these counts. The contagious potential of this artfully recycled narrative was captured, and legitimated, at the outset of its popularity a few years back by the historian Paul Buhle, who wrote in Tikkun that "It is almost as if the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion, successfully fought for a century, have suddenly returned with an industrial-sized grain of truth." As Buhle well knows - and you have hopefully by now learned - you can't keep a good conspiracy down. And, might I add, it is inspiring to see that he is doing his part to spread it around and lend this scourge credence. One can only hope his inspiring example continues to be heeded by others. The author is a writer living in Washington, DC.
Send us your comments >> Tim Allik Your columnist correctly points out that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a fraud and a fake. Many inaccurate and just-plain-wrong generalizations are made on the web about all sorts of ethnic and religious groups, including Jews. However, there is a distinction to be made between conjecture and fact. It's not a conspiracy theory to say that Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and Lewis Libby all have close ties to the Likud party of Israel, or that they all actively worked to push for the case for the Iraq war - the truth be damned, or that Larry Franklin, charged with passing classified documents to Israel, worked for Feith, or that both Feith and Perle have been cited in the past for allegedly passing along classified US documents to Israel. These guys do not represent Israel, just as Likud does not represent Israel. Most Israelis are for a two-state solution. Most American Jews voted against George Bush, overwhelmingly so. By implying that political criticism amounts to "conspiracy theories" and anti-Semitism, your columnist does the Jewish people much more harm than good. Have the guts to stand for the truth. The truth is this: Jews in Israel are diverse in thought and politics, Jews in America did not support the Iraq War on average more than any other ethnic or religious group did, and the Likud has close ties to the scandals currently unfolding in Washington. Gus Caldas, Gaithersburg, MD, USA: Please do not equate the evidence of wrongdoing in relation to the selling of the Iraq war to the American public to the "Protocols". The evidence of the war pimping is too great and will bring a whole lot of neocons down. Or is this investigation an anti-Semitic conspiracy? Jordan Thornton: Regina, Canada: Riiiight ... There is no group called the Partnership For A New American Century, they have no power in DC, and they are not primarily pro-Zionists. Everything that's happened over the past four years is all in our heads. Since the exposure of Bush/PNAC's many LIES, and the utter failure of its foreign policy, their Useful Idiot support has steadily dwindled. This has allowed us a clearer picture of just who it is that really supports their Fascism, and drives their policies. People are taking detailed notes. Watch the indictments closely. Randy Graham, US: It might be more helpful if Mr. Goldstein addressed the actual facts in the role of the "neocons" in orchestrating the war in Iraq. Is he trying to say that the "neocons" do not exist? Or that even if they exist as an ideological position, they played no role in selling the invasion of Iraq? Is he saying, in fact, that they have no links to the Likud Party? Is he trying to suggest that the alleged Jewishness of many of these "neocons" is a myth or completely irrelevant? I'm actually very interested in his answers. What he actually seems to say is that anyone who raises the question is, a priori, apparently an anti-Semite (or self-hating Jew) and their reasoning is simply a version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion dressed up in a modern raiment. His argument seems to be, "we know the Elders of Zion was an anti-Semitic fraud, ergo any discussion of "neocons" or Israeli interests in promoting the invasion of Iraq is a comparable anti-Semitic hoax. We know the "Elders of Zion" were imaginary. So apparently we can conclude that Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Lewis Libby, William Kristol, Eliot Abrams, Charles Krauthammer, etc. are also imaginary? Goldstein could argue, I suppose, that these men do not share enough ideologically to label them collectively as "neocons". He could try to argue that they have little influence on U.S. policy decisions. Or that they have little motivation to promote perceived Likud interests. He could argue that real the "neocons", assuming that they even exist, are powerful figures such as Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice. I would be interested to read and consider these arguments based on relevant facts. He eschews all of them in favor of a sweeping ad homonym attack against anyone who even seeks an answer to these questions.