It is far more easy to irritate and throw the people into revolt, than to appease them when once put in motion.
– Augustin Barruel, Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism
I. MYSTIFICATION. What is the commonality in the following? A declassified document made available to the press suggests that the assassination of John F. Kennedy was organized by members of the American Congress; the U.S. government’s recently released report on the “Roswell Incident” is purported to be just another machination to conceal the fact that alien cadavers still reside at Area–51; the Mafia and the CIA worked in complicity with the Swiss Guard at the Vatican to poison Pope John Paul I as the pontiff’s political agenda would have obstructed the international trade of arms and narcotics; a bestselling book by an self–taught archaeologist on the Dead Sea Scrolls affords “overwhelming evidence” that Christ was a political revolutionary whose blood lineage travels through to modern day monarchs; a newspaper reporter has interpenetrated Opus Dei and in his “special feature” supplies quotations from memoranda which “proves” that it is a secret society which operates to brainwash millions so as to induct a new age of global ultramontanism; the Bush administration planned and set into motion events that led directly to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 – and so on…
II. Obviously, the aforementioned are indicative of conspiracy.
III. PROLIFERATION. Considering the abundance of conspiracy theories which have arisen into the forefront within the last two decades or so – by book or by broadcast, it would be an interesting exercise to philosophically analyze the principal characteristics of the modern day form of a conspiracy theory; and to determine how it, like the many “metanarratives” of postmodernist commentators, comports itself as a surrogate religion, or an “ultimate reality”, by attempting to fill the spiritual vacuum left after the rejection of traditional religion in the West.
IV. REITERATION. Now TH2 is not here going to address those secular ideologies that, in their very modes of explication, in their beliefs and hopes and fears, can be analogized to traditional religious doctrines. One does not require a keen eye to discern the eschatological proclivities inherent to Karl Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat”. It is a pedestrian task to pinpoint how the ultraistic rallying call for the preservation, if not plain divination, of the environment by the radical ecologists intimates a kind of redemption for man’s “ecosins” against nature. Sigmund Freud’s postulation that an all–pervasive sense of guilt in humanity can be traced backwards in the distant past to a father, who was murdered by a “primal horde”, is just a psychologistic reiteration of the doctrine of Original Sin. Other worldviews can be included here as they provide elaborate, sometimes totalistic, explanations of man – his history, his nature, and his future. However, these secular ideologies are internationalist so to speak, wide–ranging and commonplace, formally taken as verities by many as they agglomerate themselves into the modern day super–religion of secular humanism.
V. MARGINALIZATION. The degree of acceptation of the modern conspiracy theory (i.e. an endeavor to explain the unknown or to acquire information withheld) is, however, nowhere as great in its scope. Their claimants are marginalized in a sense. Proponents of these theories are manifested in disparate groups, have variegated spheres of interest, there is myriad number of them and, unlike the secular establishment, no organizational schematic or centralizing factor exists to unify all the parties. Because the conspiracy theory introduces phenomena and eventualities in human affairs that are entirely unexpected, astonishing or even scandalous, they are automatically categorized as preposterous by those in the secular sphere. This discordance to the methodical ongoings of the secular day aggravates the assumptions and sensibilities of secularity by the fact that a conspiracy theory tosses into the arena the very thing which secularity finds inadmissible, deems ridiculous or simply abhors: mystery. In an age where science alone is hailed to be the panacea for human misery, where the mechanics of opportunism and utilitarianism reign in politics; where compilers of economic and social statistics effectively delineate a culture which moves forwards in uninterruptible cycles void of deviation from the norm; and where the media and psychobabblers extol that drone of catchphrases which equate evil and suffering with unemployment, diet, exercise and housing conditions – to all of these euphemistic determinisms the notion of mystery (which is the life–support system of the modern conspiracy theory) is considered a nuisance, or even a serious threat to national security if that theory (not only widely popular) poses a scenario with worldwide repercussions.
VII. REPLENISHMENT. This is where conspiracy theories find part of their appeal. The spiritlessness of secularity, and factoring in the general antagonism for traditional Judeo–Christian beliefs which now prevails (fostered not so much by an irreligious intelligentsia, but more so by heretics and apostates from within the Catholic Church over the last forty years or so), permits for the development of a spiritual vacuum to be replenished with some other explanation. Though not only with oriental philosophy, or the occult or New Age esoterica (which, too, attempt to satiate man’s spiritual propensities, however anomalous or fantastical they may be). Eastern views are excessively aprioristic and anti–material, with the spectre of all–out gnosticism always looming in the background. Yet there is a new brand of spirit, the spirit of the conspiracy theory, which possesses attributes of a dissimilar kind that can account for things that orientalism is inefficacious at providing (I will return to this later).
IX. COUNTERPOSITIONINGS. These counterarguments fired by the conspiracy theorists are made not so much because the testimonies of their opponents are logically sound and convincing (and I would hypothesize that not a few conspiracy theorists, when alone, know that they speak rubbish, for man’s conscience whispers to him at these quiet moments), but because that propensity towards mystery is steadfastly there, whatever its incarnation may be, however it is interpreted. Furthermore, because this condition of perplexity exists, since there is no extraneous standard or authority which discriminates between the truth and error of the two viewpoints, others will soonafter be attracted into the fray, submitting new variations and glosses on the original conspiracy theory. More denunciations will come again from the secular establishment. The conspiracy theorists will then issue another barrage of speculations, allegations, insinuations, and so on ad infinitum. But – and here comes the cruncher – because secularity is spiritless, devoid of, and leaving no space for, mystery, it is not even outfitted in the first place of supplying a sufficiently broad and final answer to resolve the predicament.
X. "THE UNKNOWN" = ONTOLOGICAL X. Most conspiracy theories today are just that, not at all extramental, productions of the mind minus interconnection to socio–political, economic, scientific or cultural realities, i.e. it is a secular gnosis. Effectively, the “unknown” that the conspiracy theory necessitates to sustain itself is, upon general examination, not really a quest for the mystery that works behind secularity per se. Contrarily, I posit that the recent burgeoning of conspiracy theories is an echo of the irreligious dilemma in modern Western society. It is a faint and unvoiced admittance of man’s lure to, and real need of, true mystery – not mystification and its associated vagaries. A mystery that must be theological in quintessence, and to which the secular “mystery” (the conspiracy as secular gnosis) is no match whatsoever. Speaking theologically, the “unknown” is an ontological X whereas the “unknown” in its secularist guise is an X that has been deontologized (“deconstructed” is the word now being employed), and made apprehensible only in a physicalist–immanentist fashion. Even if, say, a conspiracy theory was confirmed to be true, and if this was made public, others theories would surely emerge, simply because of that inevitable dissatisfaction that arises whenever a thorough explanation is supplied to some issue or predicament which appertains merely to the level of immanency. That compulsion for real mystery would still be present as it is intrinsic to man. Spiritual mysteries still supplant those of the pseudo–transcendent secularized sort. A vacuum will develop and subsequently be filled, then denounced or demystified. Another vacuum will form, refilled, and so forth. And is this not the great trick of gnosticism? Does it not infinitely tease and trick onwards to the spatiality of the “out there”? Or forwards into the temporality of the “event horizon”? The motto of a popular science fiction television program X–Files was: “The truth is out there”. The gnostic ontologism of the philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), perfectly aligning himself with that sense of a forward thrust into the future (emblematic of German philosophy), spoke of “time as the possible horizon”. As some commentators have deduced, Heidegger substituted time for God.
XI. PERSONALISM / INVOLVEMENT. There is another reason why the contemporary conspiracy theory, which I classify as secular gnosis, is so enthralling to many. With the mystery that is necessarily involved, with those collaborative spirits who work behind, a feeling of intrigue, excitement, anticipation, drama and perhaps tragedy come into play. Basically, the situation is very personal. The conspiracy makes an allowance for individual involvement, its is an interactive affair, it speaks directly to the person who investigates it, enticing him to greater participation as the implications of the theory, if it is true, will affect that person’s life in a monumental way. The priests of secular establishment cannot, of course, offer this personalism. There is nothing as drab and necessitarian as the worldview of pure secular humanism (i.e. nonchalant negation of the transcendent aspects of human existence). Neither can that hodgepodge of New Age worldviews intrude. This is because they find their antecedent in Eastern philosophy that, as most of us know, is terribly impersonal. Indeed, since orientalism ascribes reality to be an illusion, subjective and shadowy and intangible, it cannot in any significant way provide that real interassociation to, and hence a personal encounter with, physico–cultural externalities. With the conspiracy theory, however, the realness of people, events and phenomena (though they may not be in actuality) are nevertheless believed or assumed to be true.
XII. SCENARIO. Consider: just think of the feeling of adventure involved when someone purchases a book on a conspiracy theory. Perhaps this person is lonesome, discontented with his job, without friends, presupposing that his life is meaningless. Yet this book, which reads like a spy novel, has seized his attention. It has its worldwide ramifications, its cast of characters, all of them revolving around the elusive mystery and its concomitants. Upon reading this book, this drama, this new awareness of a so–called secret spirit which operates in collusion – this effectively begins to fill up that emptiness which an unsympathetic, mystery–denying secular society cannot. He draws the curtains, shutting out the cold blue lights of the secular metropolis, makes a cup of coffee, and sits in his favorite chair while he reads his book late into Saturday evening. He is fascinated, mesmerized at what he reads. He ruminates and reconsiders the thesis that the author presents to him. He intercompares this fact with that, this scenario with that one. In simpler words, he is becoming personally involved, engrossed with the conspiracy.
XIII. AS IF / AS IS. Now I am not denigrating or caricaturing this hypothetical person to evoke laughter and ridicule. To be sure, I would assert that there is something good and natural at what this person is doing – probing mystery, searching for a reason and truth, trying to comprehend the circumstance. However, because the conspiracy, or this secular gnosis, cannot by its very nature furnish him with a specific or final explanation, he will in most cases become despondent upon his realization that the book itself does not even wish to offer a final solution. Only inferences and possibilities are granted, leaving the reader dangling in mid–air, in a sort of suspended animation, as the answer is invariably “out there” and that “the future will tell” of the theory's veracity. In other words, the reader will discover that the conspiracy theory asserts that the truth is not really present, it is “not now”, not in a present tense and always relegated to a future tense. The conspiracy theory is grammatically grounded in the "as if" clause, the Als–Ob philosophy which was popularized by the philosopher Hans Vaihinger (1852–1933) . Thus this conspiracy theory turns out to be only a theory, a secular gnosis. In this context, it is not even a surrogate religion since a religion will delimit truths, it will distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil, it will tell of ends and means to them. It will speak of the beliefs “that are true”, not “as if” they were so.
XIV. DISTRUST / SUSPICION. If we dredge further into the subsurface we discover another reason why the contemporary conspiracy theory has continued to flourish without abatement. Indeed, it is so frequently overlooked as it is so apparent. It has to do with the West’s distrust or extreme skepticism of all authority, be it political, religious, parental or otherwise, especially since the antinomian Sixties. Our culture is increasingly becoming comprised of morally autonomous Kantians running all about, demanding this, calling for that, acting as if their dictates are universally applicable when their first principles contradictorily state that there are no absolute truths. Why should the conspiracy theorists and their adherents defer to the explanations of government officials, leaders, and others of reliability, when our media commentators, political pundits and philosophers insist (blatantly, stealthily or even inadvertently) that one should always be suspicious of any authority?
XV. POTENTIALITY. The offshoot of this phantasmagoric swirl of confusion is worse and somewhat disturbing when final consequences are factored in. Because we have one side the accusatory conspiracy spinners who incessantly doubt and disbelieve what the holders of power and authority tell them; and because, on the opposing side, the secular establishment will have the tendency to dismiss the conspiracy theorists as amateurs or fanatics, reckoning them disrupters of the system, an avenue is left open for an actually occurring conspiracy to operate without any hindrance or answerability. And if members of that conspiracy (political, socio–economic, scientific) possess a large measure of influence, the potentiality is there for their aims to reach fruition or for the unleashing of insurrectionist ideas seemingly benign at first sight.
XVI. HISTORY OF THE FUTURE. To use a historical example, proponents of the “official view” on the causes of French Revolution would condescendingly smile at the thesis put forward by Abbé Augustin Barruel who, in his Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, provided copious documentation contending that it was a combinatorial anti–Christian, anti–monarchical and anti–social conspiracy manoeuvered by the philosophes (Voltaire, D’Alembert), the French Masonic Lodges and the German Illuminists. There was a detailed and pre–planned conspiracy (drawn out over many years) in the manner that the Abbé spoke. Convincing documentation exists to evidence a conspiracy in the events which lead to the French Revolution. What is important to the conclusion of this essay, a general state of confusion was existent in European culture at the time that can in many ways be analogized to modern times. A situation where there was a stalwart disdain for legitimate authority, where truth was cast aside, where many writers were capriciously extolling their own theories on whatever subject matter, without historical consideration, qualification and forethought of social aftereffects. The circumstance was certainly ripe for a real conspiracy to function.
XVII. But is this really the state of affairs today? Time, that great truth teller, will tell.
NOTES / REFERENCES
1. For example: “Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is the political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat”. From the “Critique of the Goth Programme” in Karl Marx, Selected Writings, ed. D. McLellan (Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 565.
2. Canada’s most notorious environmental radical, David Suzuki, writes that we must “liberate land and creeks from rubbish, concrete and asphalt.” See his The Sacred Balance, Discovering our Place in Nature (Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1997), p. 154.
3. S. Freud, “Totem and Taboo” in The Penguin Freud Library, ed. J. Strachey (London: Penguin Books, 1990), vol. 13, pp. 216–217.
4. For the first time in the history of western civilization, especially after Nietzsche and Marx, those in the “public square” effectively and informally assume the non–existence or irrelevancy of God and/or any objective morality. It is Secular Humanism, sometimes called the “New Atheism”.
5. Herbert Marcuse, intellectual celebrity of the “New Left”, propounded this view in his One–Dimensional Man, Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), p. 189: “The technical achievement of advanced industrial society, and the effective manipulation of mental and material productivity have brought about a shift in the locus of mystification”.
6. M. Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. J. Macquarie and E. Robinson (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Incorporated 1976), p. 1. Originally published in 1926.
7. The Philosophy of 'As If': A System of the Theoretical, Practical and Religious Fictions of Mankind, trans. C.K. Ogden (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Limited, 1924).
8. In many cases, skepticism of authority works not so much to reveal an alternative and more promising view of the world – and convince others of it. Rather, it becomes skepticism for skepticism’s sake (a secret form of cynicism), often leading to a state of general perplexity, leaving listeners not knowing what at all to believe or who to trust. Still, arguments from authority are needed to form the basis of knowledge and belief.
9. Just before his death, Edmund Burke (1729–1797, author of the conservative classic, Reflections on the Revolution in France), personally knowing five of the conspirators, wrote a letter to Barruel commending him and confirming the anti–Christian plot commentated on in the first volume of the Memoirs. See introduction by Fr. Stanley L. Jaki to Abbé Barruel’s Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, trans. R. Clifford (Fraser, MI: Real–View–Books, 1995), pp. xix–xx. First published in 1798. Subnote that most anti–Catholic historians will score off this opus, which was a bestseller at the time of publication (in various languages). Read the introduction to the aforementioned book by Fr. Jaki and you will know why.