Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Normalising Conspiracy

The International, released this year, is a conspiracy thriller very much in the American cinematic tradition. Conspiracy thrillers first became part of the popular mainstream in the 1970s, probably due to the Watergate scandal which took down the Nixon presidency and paved the way for the neoconservatives and their puppet Gerald Ford, but herein lies a tacit but significant distinction - Hitchcock's movies were 'horror' movies, not 'conspiracy thriller' movies, a distinction of genre classification but a telling one. The 'conspiracy thriller' as a genre was invented in the 1970s.

While most of Hitchcock's movies contain some sort of conspiracy they aren't referred to as such. The Trouble With Harry is a farcical story where a body discovered on a hill is buried, dug up and reburied several times over and all the characters who (falsely) believe themselves to be responsible for the man's death persuade others not to tell the authorities, which would make them accessories to murder or at least manslaughter. The film is of course a comedy, but this sort of 'domestic conspiracy' is a common theme in virtually every movie Hitch made, and they are some of the most popular and critically acclaimed films of all time.

When the conspiracy genre began identifying itself as such the influence of Watergate, and probably the assassinations in the 1960s, meant that the majority of such films and TV shows portrayed governmental conspiracies. There were exceptions, such as Chinatown and some other film noir, but All the President's Men, Capricorn One, The ODESSA File and the rest mostly overlooked the role of corporate interests. The International is somewhat different, in that the organisation being investigated is an international bank, mostly based on BCCI, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, who had connections to everyone from the Triads to Al Qaeda to the Iran Contra affair, though some plot elements appear to be adapted from the Banco Ambrosiano scandal. However, the presence of conspiratorial storylines in films beyond the explicitly named genre is widespread.

IMDB's top 250 films include in the upper echelon of the list the first two Godfather films, the mafia being the most widely portrayed conspiracy in film and TV history (though never referred to as such); Pulp Fiction, which is also about organised crime; The Dark Knight, a film where a terrorist conspires to blackmail not only organised criminals but also the hi-tech vigilante fighting them; several Star Wars films, a saga in which two groups of religious fundamentalists wage holy war against each other across an entire galaxy; Goodfellas; Fight Club; The Usual Suspects; Se7en; Leon and so on. We love conspiracy in our entertainment, that much is in no doubt.

A glance at the top rated movies for the 1990s compared the 2000s does show that while the immediate post Cold War period was riddled with conspiratainment, the new century is less so. This is in part down to the popularity of 'independent' media producers like Alex Jones, who provide conspiratainment for as many people as vote on IMDB, but aren't recognised by such populist websites. People are still getting their fill of conspiracy, just not so much through Hollywood movies. Nonetheless, the James Bond film franchise (the longest running in western cinema) remains commercially and critically successful.

One might argue that this is because these stories are fictional, but a great many of them were inspired by real life events. Capricorn One sought to capitalise on very real scepticism about the reality of the Apollo program, Executive Order is about the JFK assassination, 'Jedi' is clearly derived from 'mujahideen' and so on. Beyond that, real life news is full of conspiracies, they just aren't called that. Pop music legend Michael Jackson died around six weeks ago, and the press is still writing almost daily stories alleging some sort of plot or conspiratorial deception. Secret lovechildren, allegations by close relatives that he was murdered for his money, or by his doctors, or because he was going to make a public stand on Iran, and any number of other suggestions have found their way into the reporting on this. Even a relatively minor celebrity, David Carradine, couldn't die without allegations that he'd been murdered by an organised crime syndicate.

More recently a Brazilian TV show host and state legislator has been accused of ordering several murders so he could break the story on his show and boost his ratings, similar to the co-opted terrorist group in Network. Virtually every major media organ has run this story in the last few days, and not a single one has questioned the plausibility of such a plot, and none have referred to it as a conspiracy. This is typical of the coverage of major crimes, see the equally recent UK jewel heist for example, and betrays a prejudice in how we commonly use the word and react to such events.

As noted, when applied to films the word is less problematic. This is partly due to the association between 'conspiracy' and 'theory', the ultimate implication being that conspiracies are only ever theoretical. This is nonsense, obviously, but that's the association most commonly driven into people through repetition. As such, fictional stories in films can happily be called conspiracies because they are theoretical, whether applied to governments or corporations. 'It is just a story' is an easy and often repeated response to anyone suggesting the themes of such films might be true.

However, 'domestic' conspiracy stories aren't referred to as such whether in the fictional realm of horror movies or the real life realm of crime reporting. People lie, cheat, steal, defraud on a virtually daily basis. Not all people, obviously, and not as a constant behaviour, but nonetheless pretty much everyone has planned in secret to do something bad, or forbidden, or illegal along with other people. As such, we're all conspirators, but conspirators unwilling to confront the reality of our behaviour.

This is particularly obvious in the use of the 'collapse' metaphor, most common when discussing finance and economics. The value of assets, the markets, confidence in financial institutions, and even the financial institutions themselves have been described as 'collapsing' or 'collapsed' in the last couple of years. Along with describing near-worthless assets as 'toxic' the vocabulary for describing the meltdown of the last few years is all organic analogies, all descriptions that imply the economic problems are either accidental, or incidental. No one is to blame, 'shit happens', don't bother trying to hold anyone responsible - that is the message of this vocabulary, adopted by economists, journalists and officials alike. Needless to say, virtually no one uses the word 'conspiracy'.

A useful parallel can be drawn with what happened to the twin towers of the WTC on 9/11. Their destruction is almost invariably described as 'collapses', even by those who advocate the theory that it was a controlled demolition. This is an example of doublespeak, from the mouths of those claiming to be concerned with the truth. Either the buildings collapsed, or they were demolished. Either it was incidental (the unpredictable result of planes flying into them) or it was deliberate. Not just in language, but practically speaking too due to the time necessary to set up such large buildings to be demolished. It would be more accurate to refer to them as demolitions if that is what you believe happened, or 'disintegrations' because 'demolition' implies the use of conventional high explosives, which may not have been the case.

What this vocabulary conveniently ignores, particularly when talking of a collapse in confidence, is the role of propaganda. It was in August 2007 that it became clear that the US sub-prime mortgage market 'collapse' was going to affect the global financial system when it was announced that securities back by these mortgages were found in the coffers of everyone from BNP Paribas to the Bank of China. Officially it took until October 2008, well over a year later, for the UK and US economies to enter a recession. Note also the doublespeak of describing a 'system' as suffering a 'collapse'. Why do systems collapse? Sabotage. For months and months the words 'meltdown' and 'crisis' appeared in every news outlet on a daily basis, financial analysts were given free reign to make catastrophic predictions. Then we saw the destruction of Lehman which was directly caused by the same banking cartel who have subsequently profited from buying up Lehman's assets for pennies.

The Goldman Sachs/Fox News response to suggestions that the bank may be deliberately manipulating markets for profit was to label such claims as 'conspiracy theories'. Back in January 2003, shortly before the UK helped invade Iraq, Bilderberg member Tony Blair likewise said that claims that the war was about oil were a 'conspiracy theory'. The phrase is used as a defence by the very people involved in making such plans that should legally and historically be termed conspiracies. If we refer to the Goldman directors, Rupert Murdoch, Blair and so on as a covert aristocracy (or agents thereof) they would sound ridiculous if they responded saying that was just an 'aristocracy theory', yet 'conspiracy' and 'aristocracy' are words of near identical origins. The suffix '-cracy' or '-cracies' from Greek simply refers to a structure of power or system of governance, hence autocracy, democracy, meritocracy and so on. 'Conspire' from Latin means 'to breath with' (con spire) and 'aristo' from Greek means the 'best' or 'most qualified' hence Aristotle.

Nonetheless, it doesn't matter how much banks, insurance and energy companies defraud their customers, their actions will not be referred to in the mainstream as a conspiracy, and people rightly calling them such will be labeled as conspiracy theorists. Destructions will be called collapses, carefully maintained systems will be described using organic metaphors and despite having abundant legal machinery with which to attack the criminal cabal, very few people will approach it realistically, because they lack the vocabulary with which to do so.

Despite this, conspiracy theories are quite widely held beliefs, particularly regarding 9/11. A Time magazine article from September 2006 noted:

A Scripps-Howard poll of 1,010 adults last month found that 36% of Americans consider it "very likely" or "somewhat likely" that government officials either allowed the attacks to be carried out or carried out the attacks themselves. Thirty-six percent adds up to a lot of people. This is not a fringe phenomenon. It is a mainstream political reality. - Time

The very fact that Time was reporting on this issue without screaming 'conspiracy theory' is a sign of some progress, that regardless of the truth or falsity of any given allegation or interpretation of events, there is room to discuss them as competing possibilities. The Time article does present it as a binary issue, referring to two worlds, one where people belief the 9/11 Commission's version, and another where they believe in a Bush administration conspiracy, which is fallacious. Within the 9/11 Truth movement there is tremendous variety, both in terms of claims as to what really happened and in terms of the quality of the investigation. However, there being room for discussion and debate does not by itself explain the popularity of conspiracy theories, and associated political/historical viewpoints which are incorrectly labeled as conspiracy theories. As with the arrival of the 'conspiracy thriller' genre in the 1970s, there are reasons why this happened.

For one, the end of the Cold War circa 1990 was also the end of a certain political paradigm, of duelling superpowers with apparently opposed ideologies. What became abundantly clear was that the notion that the USSR (Communism) had lost and the US (Capitalism) had won was at best simplistic and at worst untrue. The promises of the 'free world' turned hollow, and much of the hatred and paranoia whipped up against the great 'Communist conspiracy' by free world propagandists became introspective, was refocussed on our own society.

Alongside this was the coming of age of various rules on declassifying papers. The thirty year rule in the UK, for example, meant that papers from the early days of the Cold War in the 1950s and 60s became available in the 80s and 90s. For earnest researchers this provided abundant confirmation of official deceptions, felonious plots at high levels of governments and so on. Gladio is a good example of this, as people had long suspected governmental/military involvement in various terrorist acts in the Cold War period. This was confirmed by Giulio Andreotti in August 1990, less than a year after the 'collapse' of the Berlin Wall.

A faction within the aristocracy responded with a new official conspiracy to replace communism - Islamofascism, and new conspirators to replace the USSR - Al Qaeda. That both are horrendous misnomers, if not outright lies, isn't necessarily important. What is important is that people believe in them in huge numbers. They might quibble over quite what Al Qaeda is and quite what the Islamofascists believe but their existence is mostly undisputed. It has the key facets of a conspiracy theory - a secretive band with agents of influence in dozens of countries is trying to take over the world, and yet you will struggle to find a single mainstream article naming it as such.

So not only is being involved in (domestic) conspiracy perfectly normal, so is believing in some or other conspiracy theory. Regardless of what you believe about 7/7 or 9/11 or 3/11 or Mumbai, chances are you believe in a conspiracy of some sort. A quick glance at the most commonly searched terms for the CIA's online reading room shows that UFOs by far outstrip any other topic. Alien conspiracies are also very popular, particularly in 1990s hit show The X-Files. The release of yet further British Ministry of Defence files this week only adds to the conviction, and the number of people who believe in them.

However, much of the dispute will revolve around the content of the files, whether or not the witnesses actually saw what they claim, what might cause the phenomena seen in the photos and so on. Very little attention will be paid to the fact that the MOD clearly has thousands if not tens of thousands of previously classified files relating to UFOs, dating from the period when the evidence for such entities (particularly extraterrestrial life) was officially denied and ridiculed. Consider this - if it was so ridiculous and scant, why did they classify it in the first place?

Consider also the testimony presented in this video, from a presentation by The Disclosure Project at the National Press Club in Washington DC in 2001. Think not only about whether the witnesses are reliable and telling the truth, but also whether such a meeting would have been possible a few decades earlier.