October 1997
Capitol Ideas
by Tom Bethell

Conspiracy Talk

For starters, remember that Alger Hiss was part of one.

I went to see Conspiracy Theory the other day, hoping that it might shed some light on conspiracy theories. But it turned out to be a love story, mostly, and an implausible one. The line I liked best came from Mel Gibson, the taxi driver. Asked whether he could prove his various theories, he said no. "A good conspiracy can't be proved." If it could be, he added, something must have gone wrong. That puts conspiracies safely in the realm of imagination and conjecture. Surely we have to do better than that.

Let's try to explore this business about conspiracy theories. A lot of people seem to think that they live in a world of high-level plots which may not directly affect their lives but which explain the direction of events. How to respond? The American Heritage Dictionary defines conspiracy as "an agreement to perform together an illegal, treacherous or evil act." A secret agreement to perpetrate evil or crime seems to be the key. A surprise party is quasi-conspiratorial, but of course it is legal and benign. The same is true of a football huddle. But surprise parties and football huddles reveal the contours of conspiracy and it's useful to keep them in mind.

It's significant that those on the right often believe in conspiracies and that liberals love to deride the whole idea. They know perfectly well that real conspiracies exist, of course. In fact, they are among the first to encourage the Justice Department to prosecute businessmen who conspire to raise prices or restrain trade. Their amusement at conspiracy theories is nonetheless sincere and instructive. Meanwhile, note that perhaps the most derided conspiracy of our time -- the international Communist conspiracy -- was real enough. Alger Hiss was part of it. So was Whittaker Chambers, until he turned against it. There must be a fair number of old timers who worry today that Soviet documents will surface and expose their youthful collaboration.

Urban gangs, drug rings, and the Mafia are conspiratorial; so for years was the leadership of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (maybe it still is). They have spent a good deal of time planning criminal acts. Inform on them from the inside and your choice is the witness protection program or death.

Guy Fawkes of the Gunpowder Plot and John Wilkes Booth were implicated in conspiracies. Timothy McVeigh's alleged co-conspirator comes to trial soon. Lee Harvey Oswald was not so implicated, however, and I know I will be in trouble when I say that I believe he really was the lone gunman of the Warren Commission Report. Jack Ruby, too, had no partner. Nor did Sirhan Sirhan. James Earl Ray surely acted alone, too, although the King family is said to have doubts. I can only say that if Ray was involved in a plot to kill Martin Luther King, it's surprising that he didn't give his lawyers the details and bargain for a shorter sentence.

When revolutionaries seize power, they emerge from the concealment of conspiracy into open dictatorship. Lenin was one of the most successful conspirators of all time. After October 1917 he was transformed from Bolshevik ring-leader into something more dignified: Soviet leader. Another successful conspirator was Gamal Abdal Nasser. In 1952 he led the secret organization of army officers that deposed King Farouk. Then he became the first president of Egypt. Full pomp and honors were accorded to him by the United Nations and what we now call the international community. Many present-day heads of state, particularly African, have successfully made the transition from conspiracy to autocracy. The unsuccessful ones lost their heads.

A new book by Christopher Ruddy, The Strange Death of Vincent Foster (Free Press), alleges conspiracy in the Clinton administration. Another book along the same lines, by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, will soon be published by Regnery. I shall read their accounts with interest. But I have been wary of the case, realizing how much time can be wasted studying things that seem suspicious, but on closer inspection turn out to be unremarkable. I do remember thinking that President Clinton's comments, two days after Foster's body was found in Fort Marcy Park, sounded very odd. "I don't think there is anything more to know," he said. "I don't think there is anything else." "I don't think anything is going to come out of it." Yet the investigation had scarcely begun.

The press corps took the hint and ever since has seemed bored by the case. One thing that did "come out" after Clinton spoke was the Foster suicide note. It surely was forged -- but that doesn't necessarily imply foul play in his death. It may just have been a dishonest attempt to embarrass the Wall Street Journal (which had criticized Foster and others). It seems unlikely that Kenneth Starr would have failed to look into this case thoroughly, as Ruddy charges. But anything is possible. Above all, the media have not been on the case.

There's a certain amount of conspiracy theorizing on the left. Complicated charts of interlocking corporate directorships reveal the characteristic outlook. The CIA has been a not unreasonable target of leftist theories. The agency, like the KGB, was at one time (maybe still is!) involved in real conspiracies (to break the law abroad). Today, however, it is mostly right-wingers who believe in conspiracies -- plots supposedly hatched in places like the Council on Foreign Relations and the Rockefeller Foundation.

There is something quite absurd about such notions. The misdiagnosis is so great that you can see why liberals relish conspiracy theories. It is of course outsiders who must resort to the hazardous enterprise of conspiracy. Top-level establishment insiders with cushy jobs do not want or need to become law-breakers. Those who believe in such fantasies don't seem to realize that they are in truth worse off than they would be if their imagined conspiracies were true. Conspiracies can be exposed, plotters brought to justice. But if bad things (from the conspiracy theorist's perspective) are happening perfectly legally, as is the case, then there is nothing much that can be done about it. One possibility is to enter into a plot of one's own -- this time a real one -- in order to counter the opposition.

Those who hide in the woods wearing army fatigues, perhaps planning a raid on a military base for weapons, imagine there's a black-helicopter conspiracy to take over the U.S. They engage in small plots while imputing large ones to others. One is reminded of the LaRouche organization, which perceives a Queen of England-led conspiracy that is at least a great deal more imaginative than the rather dubious $290,000 mail-fraud conspiracy of which the top aides of Lyndon LaRouche were convicted (and for which, years later, half a dozen of them are still in jail, with sentences exceeding thirty years -- where is the ACLU when we need it?).

Conspiracy theorists often discern a pattern that is real enough, but don't realize that patterns can form without conspiracy. Birds fly in formation but don't meet in a field to agree on a flight-plan ahead of time. Liberals also fly in formation, but no secrecy or illegal plotting is required. They share the same goals, read the same publications, and communicate openly. Right-wingers who correctly see the pattern of liberal policies -- a constant striving to transfer private wealth and family authority from the individual to the state, to undermine religion and to reconstruct the world without God -- need to be reminded that those who run the country, as liberals still do, don't need to conspire at any point. The law is as they like it. To achieve this all-important result, they have invested much energy into making sure that the Supreme Court accepts their interpretation of the Constitution.

There's a poignant passage in the Blue Book of the John Birch Society, a bible of conspiracy theorists published in 1959. Robert Welch, founder of the society, wanted to expose Communist agents, and he saw the president of a famous university, not further identified, as a suspect. If he could keep him under constant surveillance, Welch believed, perhaps as a fly on the wall or with a bug in his office, he would be able to "prove it on him." Unlike the taxi driver in Conspiracy Theory, Welch did think proof was possible. But with all the surveillance in the world he would have been disappointed. No matter how sympathetic to the socialist cause this university president was, he would have known perfectly well by the 1950's that instructions from the Kremlin were unnecessary, indeed highly counterproductive, to its attainment.

A further point needs to be brought out. A lot of people on the right find it hard to imagine that their adversaries consistently do things that seem "bad," or evil, for good reasons. Liberals want to desacralize the flag, get prayer out of the schools, protect the rights of pornographers, abolish all laws against abortion, hand out condoms, promote sex-ed in the first grade, and to top it off raise our taxes! Bad, bad, and bad! Reliably, consistently, predictably bad. So bad, in fact, that it's hard to imagine that such people don't know that they are bad, and therefore have to act furtively, conspiratorially, to get anything done in concert with others. The awful truth, of course, is that liberals do think they are doing the right thing.

There is another caveat, however. Present-day liberalism departs from previous political ideologies in that it is never explicit about its purpose and perhaps is not conscious of having one. In the past, socialists would boldly say: Abolish private property! Let the state take over! Advance the revolution! Modern-day liberalism is not like that at all. Its method more closely resembles that of the cosmetologist: "Let us remove this defect." "Oh, and now let us remove that unsightly wart..." Yet if you keep track of all their operations on the body politic, they do form a consistent pattern.

The goal would seem to be the utter and total destruction of the Judeo-Christian tradition. But for those who go to the polls and pull the lever for (say) the pro-choice candidate or the one who will protect old-folks' benefits, it's not conscious. Modern liberalism is an undeclared revolution that is forever inexplicit and advanced step by step as ad hoc improvement. Its most effective operatives -- Alfred Kinsey and William Brennan are two who have recently been in the news -- smoothly integrate themselves into the system and disavow any revolutionary purpose. Kinsey's big lie was his pretense that he was merely a scientific observer of behavior, not an advocate of it; Brennan's that he was upholding the Constitution, not rewriting it.

Baudelaire said that Satan's cleverest wile was to make us believe that he doesn't exist. The modern revolutionary adopts the same strategy. There was a time when progressives believed that the workers shared their goals. So candor was embraced. Then, at a certain point in the mid-twentieth century, workers were understood to be far from revolutionary. A certain amount of dissembling was needed in order to win elections and advance the cause. In a minor way we see this in Clinton today, as when he says that the era of big government is over. He doesn't believe it for a minute, and it is not his agenda. So yes, we are confronted by a revolutionary force. And it is not entirely candid, or even conscious of its goals. But conspiracy is definitely not its modus operandi. The best advice is to pay attention to the broad shape of events. The process that created it is a more complex business.

Tom Bethell is The American Spectator's Washington correspondent.