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On Believing Conspiracy Theories by Sebastian Morello

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On Believing Conspiracy Theories

“The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis” (ca. 1661/1662), a 196 x 309 cm oil on canvas by Rembrandt (1606-1669), located in the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm.

Photo: Public Domain.

The Delingpod, the podcast of James Delingpole, English libertarian journalist gone ‘barmy conspiracy theorist,’ is probably some of the best and most edifying listening out there at the moment. According to Delingpole, we are moving towards a global totalitarian social credit system through the emerging of a cashless economy and the intrusion of political measures into every part of civil society and private life, and the means to orchestrate this scheme are lockdowns and ‘death jabs’ (his term for COVID vaccines), which will eventually lead to an insect-eating slave population at the service of a ‘cabal’ that now runs ‘big pharma,’ ‘big tech,’ ‘big media,’ and the ‘deep state.’ 

And Delingpole might be right.

Of course, one should be cautious with conspiracy theories. After all, nearly everything I know, I know on trust. I cannot possibly verify by empirical experience and experimentation all on which I claim to possess certainty. I simply accept the received wisdom which my education and wider society has handed me, and I could not navigate my way through this life if I adopted a habitual attitude of suspicion towards such information. I must believe that what I see and what I am told is—on the whole—how things are, unless I have some reasonable reason for thinking otherwise. All knowledge, in the end, is belief, even if only belief in the relative objectivity of the data provided to our minds by our senses. Were I to hold that everything could be explained by reference to a secret treacherous plot, I would risk going mad.

Whilst we ought to have a predisposition towards trust and belief, and correspondingly a predisposition not to be sceptical (apart from some scepticism towards conspiracy theories), on the other hand the idea of conspiracy must be part of our account of our world if we are to render it intelligible. Conspiracy is, of course, a major motif of literature. We all know how, in ‘the Scottish play,’ Macbeth ascended to the throne, and how King Duncan lost that throne to Macbeth. Shakespeare’s account bears little resemblance to the real history of these kings, but the role of conspiracy fits so well in the play because the conspiracy is credible. In more recent times, the idea of governmental conspiracy against society has come to the fore as an important theme of Western literature. Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Benson’s Lord of the World are all obvious examples. Again, these stories work as conspiracy narratives precisely because they are credible, and they are credible because we know that conspiracies really do happen. The last century was indeed packed with governmental conspiracies, especially in the Eastern Bloc.

Conspiracy is a central principle in the repertoire of the historian. If the historian does not take the idea of conspiracy seriously, he cannot understand history. I am not talking here about odd, revisionist accounts of history; I mean mainstream historical research. From Julius Caesar’s death by the senators’ knives to Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives, we can make sense of history—including many of its pivotal moments—only by having recourse to the idea of conspiracy. Indeed, Jesus Christ’s death, that crucial moment (literally) on which our whole civilisation hinges, was brought about due to a conspiracy against him. 

The conservative, nonetheless, rightly wants to emphasise the precondition of communal trust and belief that is needed for a society to flourish and for individuals to be at home in the world. There is some irony, then, in the fact that arguably the most authoritative work in the canon of conservative texts, Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, is based on the thesis that the Revolution—and the Terror that he so prophetically predicted—was the effect of a conspiracy against Christianity and Christendom by the Jacobins, a group which Burke repeatedly refers to as the ‘cabal.’ Furthermore, Burke’s overall account of the cause of the Revolution (whether deemed a good thing or not) is generally accepted, at least in part, by all mainstream historians.

We are, then, in a rather odd situation. It seems that conspiracies are deemed believable when they arise in fiction. It also seems that conspiracies are thought to have really happened, and are considered an essential component in even a superficial understanding of history. But anyone who suggests that we may be in the grips of a conspiracy now is a ‘conspiracy theorist,’ a pejorative term that denotes a person who does not assent to all he is told by mainstream media outlets. 

Interestingly, conspiracies become orthodoxies depending on what such media outlets allow. Only a year ago, if anyone suggested that the virus from Wuhan may have come from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, he was called a ‘conspiracy theorist.’ We were told that the virus came from the people of Wuhan having a taste for bat. Now, however, it is thought almost racist to suggest that the Chinese have peculiar culinary habits, and the Institute of Virology is fair game. This shift has happened exclusively in relation to what the media has accepted as permissible discussion. So, how do you avoid the terrible experience of being labelled a ‘conspiracy theorist’? You simply agree with any account offered by the mainstream media.

By defending the idea of conspiracy, I do not want to suggest that one should, therefore, develop a hermeneutic of suspicion, like that found in Marx or Freud. I only suggest that it is quite reasonable to let the idea of conspiracy be one part of one’s wider examination of the world and its affairs. By rejecting the idea of conspiracy from the outset, you may risk making as much sense of your age as you would other ages were you to make such a prior commitment in your approach to the study of history.

Where does this leave us? The danger is that it leaves us in pure darkness. We may be inclined to make the idea of conspiracy a facet of our analysis because we do not wholly trust what we are told by institutions that purport to have moral and intellectual authority. But so too, we have a problem in the face of conspiracy theories that allege to account for what is really going on in the world: we can neither verify nor falsify these accounts. In turn, absolutely everything on offer becomes suspect. This may indeed be the situation in which we find ourselves, and the deeper meaning of the notion that we live in a ‘post-truth’ age.

Fortunately, the only clear path out of this epistemic abyss happens to be a wholesome one. You may not be able to make sense of what is going on in the world right now, and any explanation on offer may turn out to be a spectre, but you can still focus on concrete and immediate things. There are still parts of life that are not coated in layer upon layer of ideology. My advice: read an old book and learn a new skill. Over the past few months I read François-René de Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb and learned how to forage for wild mushrooms without killing myself (yet). My existence is so much richer as a consequence.

By all means, try to understand what is really going on, and I certainly recommend that you make the idea of conspiracy a part of your analysis. You will find The Delingpod to be a wonderful resource of alternative information and honest discussion. Nonetheless, without concrete, non-ideological, things—family, friends, hobbies, good books, and prayer—you will, in the current climate, go insane.

Sebastian Morello was trained in philosophy by Sir Roger Scruton, by whom he was supervised for his master’s and doctoral degrees. He is a lecturer, public speaker, and columnist, and has published books on philosophy, history, and education. He lives in Bedfordshire, England, with his wife and children.

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