By Theory Possessed   /   Spring 2023   /    Thematic: By Theory Possessed

The Monster Discloses Himself

On the allurements of conspiracy theory.

Phil Christman

THR illustration; Shutterstock photos.

It’s all wrong. The wrongness is pervasive; you could not, if asked, identify the it or the its that went wrong. Wrongness leaches into everything, like the microplastics you read about, which may or may not be reducing sperm count in men, which may or may not be good, in the long run—it’s something to do with the environment. Someone wanted you to feel one way or the other about it, but you can’t remember who or why or whether you agreed with him. Everyone speaks so authoritatively, whether it’s on the evening news or a podcast, in an Internet video or a book, or even in one of those Twitter threads that begins (irksomely, you once felt, but now you don’t notice) with the little picture of a spool. Authority makes them all sound the same; it crosses all their faces and leaves many of the same furrows. Only afterward, trying to add it all up, do you half-remember that none of them agreed with each other. But the wrongness you can be sure of. It is like God, undergirding all things.

One day, you stumble across something—a long video, an article, a conversation (How rare those are! You must make more time for them…) with a learned friend. The same self-righteousness of authority crosses his face, the tinniness of certainty issued from his mouth too, but this time what he says sticks. It seems to explain the wrongness. Or not even explain it, really—just make it stand still. It was this thing that was wrong. The monster disclosed himself. He was something small and definable—a vaccine, a chemical—that spreads until it can’t be isolated, or he was something large and indefinable—“wokeness,” “CRT”—that terminates in many small, sharp wrongnesses. Or maybe it was the second sort of thing, but epitomized in a single image, so that it sounds like the first: The Cathedral. The cabal. But for a second, you could see the wrongness. How clarifying, simply to see it. You felt something like desire.

As you read on, as you watch more videos, as you continue to talk with your learned friend, you experience, for perhaps the first time in your life, the joy of scholarship. What was school, anyway? A punishment for being awake, a reminder that for every minute of playground, life will exact an hour of sitting still in a hot room that stinks of others’ lunches digesting. How can one doubt the existence of malign conspiracies in a world that answers the miraculous sharpening of adolescent senses with the sense-insulting colors, shapes, smells, of school? School never gave you this feeling, the feeling that “there is a world inside the world,” as Don DeLillo writes in Libra (1988), his great novel of the John F. Kennedy assassination. You start to become, as DeLillo depicts Oswald becoming, a sort of secular monk:

He spent serious time at the library. First he used the branch across the street from Warren Easton High School. It was a two-story building with a library for the blind downstairs, the regular room above. He sat cross-legged on the floor scanning titles for hours. He wanted books more advanced than the school texts, books that put him at a distance from his classmates, closed the world around him. They had their civics and home economics. He wanted subjects and ideas of historic scope, ideas that touched his life, his true life, the whirl of time inside him. He’d read pamphlets, he’d seen photographs in Life. Men in caps and worn jackets. Thick-bodied women with scarves on their heads. People of Russia, the other world, the secret that covers one-sixth of the land surface of the earth.11xDon DeLillo, Libra (New York, NY: Viking, 1988), 13.

You read like Oswald, obsessively. You marshal for yourself the rough narrative of history that education should already have given you. You become that precious and imperiled thing, an autodidact.

Where the Lizard People Meet

The American autodidact illustrates on the educational level a more general point about American political economy. He (it is so often he) thinks himself free from the formal, recognized strictures of School, and he is. Unfortunately, this does not mean that he is free in general—rather, without extraordinary luck and discernment, he is completely at the mercy of whichever informants an unregulated marketplace has put in his path. Just as deregulation and the stripping away of publicly funded alternatives represent “freedom” for those with a junk product to peddle, and the slashing of the Environmental Protectional Agency’s enforcement budget means an oilman’s freedom to jack up the global temperature, the autodidact is free to be mobbed by infotainers.

I once asked a sociologist why a particular pop social theory, one refuted many times in detail by scholars, continued to survive. She answered, “It’s hard to see social structure.” She was right—even the term “social structure” is already a metaphor. (Society is not a building with a blueprint.) But if structure is hard to see, we will tend, in its absence, to blame the misshapen quality of our own lives on whatever and whomever we do see, particularly to the degree that those people are not like us—which is to say, like us in exactly those traits we most long to overcome, suppress, or repress. And the poorer someone is, the more visible that person becomes. The richest people in your city live in places you can’t even drive to, because you don’t know the gate code. The poorest live in tents and ask you for money.

Though he figures in a million conspiracy theories, and though he is a conspirator, DeLillo’s Oswald is himself—unlike you—no conspiracist. He is a Marxist. (I say “DeLillo’s Oswald” in part because he is a fiction, and in part because the Kennedy research community has disclosed a passel of other Oswalds.22xSee, for example, Richard H. Popkin, “The Second Oswald,” New York Review of Books, July 28, 1966, Many other texts have taken up and elaborated Popkin’s suggestion. In JFK and the Unspeakable (New York, NY: Touchstone, 2008), James W. Douglass offers a good introduction to the general theory of which the figure of the Second Oswald forms a part. Douglass does so with a moral passion and eloquence that most readers will find undeniable, even if his arguments are plausibly deniable. ) Marxism is a theory of social structure. The secrets it reveals are more like gravity or evolution: patterns of which we form a part, that produce us, and that therefore we couldn’t observe before. Obviously, those who own the means of production would want to continue to do so; it’s a good life. Their behavior is predictable and, if ethics are bracketed out, rational, at least in the short term, and if you grant Marx’s argument that the rate of profit tends to fall. Marx gives us a theory of social structure, though Marxists, in practice, imitate conspiracy theorists (not to mention Baptists and health food nuts) in one way: their attachment to schism. The closer they get to fully possessing History with their models, the more they must mount grandiose defenses over every last detail, because there are no longer any minor ones.

The most successful mass-entertainment conspiracy theories, in turn, imitate Marx, much as Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, imitated the Catholic Mass. They run the story backward, scramble it, play it against itself. They, too, posit rich people—capitalists—as the source of many evils, but in a way that still allows them the sour satisfaction of scapegoating the poor and the powerless as well. “Elites”—now redefined to mean many people who may lack wealth, and whose position in society is precarious, such as educators, librarians, and arty-looking baristas—are forcing on hard-working everyday Americans, some of them “elite” by any definition that involves actual power, various unpalatable propositions: that racism exists; that gender is a powerful idea, not a hard fact; that Native American genocide was bad; that the man who owns your workplace may not have your best interests at heart. Simultaneously, “elites” manipulate the powerless, inviting mass immigration and stirring up discontent, because by doing so, they initiate a process of social breakdown they think will leave them the only powerful agents left standing. (Over what?) This is a slight reskinning of the narrative various anti-Semites have long promulgated about Jews, who promoted Marxism, so the legend went, because it would make nations weaker and leave the Jewish people in a position of power. (One must again ask: Over what?) It is easier to posit a group of quasi-inhuman bad actors, engaging consciously in a pointlessly indirect but destructive scheme, than to accept that this world is the rational outcome of uncoordinated profit-seeking by people who want what almost any of us want, and that, up to a point, a person can’t help wanting: total insurance against ruin, for ourselves and for those close to us. But once a person has posited the existence of such cold-eyed, unsleeping enemies, has imagined himself shivering under their reptilian gaze, it feels dangerous, in turn, to entertain doubts about their existence: to return to earth. There is a world within the world, and that world is not, as it is for the Marxist, a metaphor. It’s where the lizard people meet.

Paranoia on the Page

What most confirms you in your new direction is this: People keep trying to stop you. Your friends roll their eyes; your relations avoid you. One or two of them do something worse: They patiently correct you. What feels worse than patient correction?

In less intimate settings, you get attacked, you get wearily sighed at, for merely asking questions. People start to fight you—over politics—in a way that nobody has fought with you over politics before. Because you are not a political person. (You say so, incessantly.) This isn’t politics, that impenetrable form of sports fandom for people whose parents paid their tuition. This is reality. It’s as simple as that.

The mainstream media has little to say about your new line of inquiry. Every Google search yields multiple “Explainers,” which always, after considerable double talk, explain only that you are wrong, about some heap of details. The great wrongness, the thing you initially set out to understand, they never say a thing about. It starts to feel coordinated.

Social media takes you further than Google, but it’s all so inconclusive, and meanwhile, everyone makes fun of you. It turns out there is a name for your position, usually a derogatory one. You don’t like being named. You don’t like being a this. Again: You’re not a political person, one of those people who give names to themselves, then fight over the names. But eventually you embrace the name, because it helps you find more of what you’re looking for.

In Gloria Naylor’s 1996 (2005)—in some ways an extraordinary book, in more ways a regrettable one—the belaureled author of The Women of Brewster Place (1982) and Mama Day (1988), a National Book Award winner and Guggenheim Fellow, a canonical American novelist, describes her experiences as a victim of gangstalking and of government-sponsored mind-control attacks. “Gangstalking” is a (mostly hypothesized) practice in which a large, frequently changing group of people surveils and harasses a particular person over a period of time. (Determining how the subject of a gangstalk might distinguish such a group from the ordinary set of people and annoyances one encounters as one goes about one’s day is an exercise left to the reader.) Government-sponsored mind-control attacks are pretty much exactly what the phrase implies. Naylor called the book a “fictionalized memoir”; to my knowledge, she never made any statement separating the fictionalized elements of the book from the nonfictional. So I have only 1996 to go on, and in that book her experiences begin when she notices that, well, Jews—not the same people, but all Jews—are casing her South Carolina writing retreat. She somehow knows they are Jews, even when they drive by quickly, at a distance.33xGloria Naylor, 1996 (Chicago, IL: Third World Press, 2005), 43.

She also knows how this sounds. She even depicts two of her persecutors having the following exchange: “The woman is seeing Jews everywhere. You’re telling me that doesn’t show that she’s an anti-Semite?” says one spy. His colleague responds, “Yuri, she’s being followed by Jews. Everywhere.”44xIbid., 43–44. If 1996 more often featured this level of self-awareness, I would wonder whether it is truly, as it seems, a document in which a great sensibility disintegrates, or whether it is a wickedly clever literary game. Perhaps Naylor-the-author is playing with an American audience’s excessive readiness to attribute daffiness, paranoia, and anti-Semitism to black people. (Doesn’t a black woman have excellent reasons for paranoia?) I really tried to entertain this possibility as I read, but if it was Naylor’s intention, she camouflaged it awfully well.

Eventually, Naylor-the-character returns to New York City. There the harassment continues: for example, a plague of people slamming their car doors all day, distracting her from writing. The reader sees easily enough what is going on. If you decide to notice every instance of some trivial and random phenomenon—if you underline, mentally, every slammed car door, every vehicle driving past your house, every street encounter with a local person you sort of know and sort of don’t—you will find, first of all, that that phenomenon becomes irritating past endurance, and then that the mere persistence of this random thing feels like a personal attack. (One wonders whether such afflictions as “wind turbine syndrome” operate the same way.)

Naylor-the-character then finds that she is experiencing strange, unwanted thoughts that seem to appear in her head from nowhere. To an experienced sufferer of mental illness—the author of this essay, for example—these passages provoke deep sympathy. Unwanted and intrusive thoughts are a common symptom. Lots of people have them, but they are humiliating to talk about with those who don’t. The thoughts thus increase the isolation that causes them to fester; in the worst cases, they turn into obsessions with which the victims come to identify, and thus, they fulfill themselves.55xA harrowing but instructive example can be found in Jessica Schulberg’s article “Kip Kinkel Is Ready to Speak,” Huffington Post, June 12, 2021, (Naylor, with more of the strange honesty that compels her to keep stacking the deck against herself, reports that one of her unwanted thoughts is I hate Jews.) She sounds like someone who has never experienced unwanted thoughts before, and then, late in life, is mobbed by them. She is totally unprepared.

Rather than attributing these thoughts to stress, overwork, or oncoming mental illness, Naylor-the-character theorizes that the government is beaming sentences fully-formed into her brain. She learns that there are public patents for technologies that could form, hypothetically, the very earliest stages of such a weapon; that one former CIA agent has attested to their existence. (Old spies say a lot of things, and are surely as likely to go crazy as anyone else.) She learns that the future possibility of such weapons is mentioned in certain weapons treaties—which just sounds like covering all one’s bases. If such technologies existed, they would certainly already have been sold back to us—like LSD, the Internet, and drones—as a lucrative if risky consumer good.

There are further developments in 1996, but not many. Naylor seeks out a psychologist; he finds that someone has bugged his office. (Given the actual history of FBI surveillance of black writers, it wouldn’t shock me if this bit were true.) She goes down various research rabbit holes. Most importantly for Naylor, she discovers that, even in her isolation, she isn’t alone. Cut off from her old social life by her experiences, she finds an invisible college of companions on the Internet. The book ends with Naylor writing the opening sentences: Her life is now a closed loop. Ignoring every other explanation, she embraces being a this.

Worlds Within Worlds

Like Naylor, you do have your doubts. You’re not a fanatic, whatever your former friends say. In the spare time that has opened up to you, now that those friends ignore your invitations, you zealously continue your research.

Gradually you find, in your inquiries, that your initial ideas were oversimple. You had glimpsed the monster, but seen him from the wrong angle. There was a world within the world, but still further worlds within that one. Perhaps there is only one world after all, but one infinitely muddled, a network of networks nested in one place.

In Thomas Pynchon’s novels—you have tried to read one by now; that guy did too many drugs—the eeriest moments often come when the conspiracy suddenly bifurcates. There are two conspiracies, or more, some of them involving the same people. Sometimes Pynchon’s characters play this double game out of mere cynicism; they are hedging. That’s one of the things people unhindered by principles do. They attach themselves to every possibility. Nor is it an accident that one finds so many people thus unhindered near the center of power. They are the only people morally flexible enough to stay there.

In Joseph Ellroy’s American Tabloid (1995)—you liked that one a little better than the Pynchon, though you could have done with less swearing—the Kennedy assassination emerges not from a single agency within the bowels of the American deep state but from a chaos of various overlapping plots. The spies and operatives who set the conspiracy in motion are so good at “compartmentalizing” (a word that repeats throughout the novel) that they lose the ability to fully see what they’re doing; their freedom to manage events comes at the cost of any stability in their goals. To stay close to the center of events, they sacrifice control over outcomes. A similar dynamic arises in one of the earliest modern works of conspiracy fiction, Honoré de Balzac’s History of the Thirteen (1839). After a bravura opening section, describing the devilish wit and cunning of the thirteen men from every sector of Paris society who have drawn together to advance each other’s interests at no matter what cost to themselves, Balzac depicts them doing…not all that much. (They poison one guy and help another sneak into a convent.) In Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971), two clandestine political sects, influenced by Balzac’s novel, traipse about Paris exchanging messages and playing theater games. By the end of the nearly thirteen-hour film, their activities have led to violence and even death, but their goals and political beliefs remain unclear to the viewer and perhaps to the characters themselves.

The most successful conspiracy, the one easiest to maintain over the long term, might be one with few or no goals beyond its own perpetuation. It would be a live-action role-play, an alternative reality game, perhaps an art project. Perhaps it would even present itself as a series of cryptic messages around which a loose-knit interpretive community gathers, one dedicated to the uncovering of another conspiracy, and which exists only in-game.

The Lies That Got Away

As you watch your single conspiracy shiver into a mass of details, possibilities, smaller overlapping plots, you feel that you have reached a perilous moment. Do you search for one truth or for many? Are you pursuing facts, or meaning? A world within the world, or just…a world?

In Tom O’Neill’s Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties (2019), an editor at a film magazine commissions O’Neill, an entertainment reporter, to write a commemorative story on the thirtieth anniversary of the Manson cult murders. As the book opens, it is 1999; Manson is ancient news. Yet an impressive number of famous actors who may once have known Manson refuse to speak to O’Neill, as do many of the cops and lawyers associated with the initial investigations and prosecutions. Those who do grant interviews speak cryptically, referring to various buried secrets, undisclosed links between Charles Manson and the demimondes of Hollywood and Laurel Canyon. For the first hundred-odd pages of the book, the reader can dismiss many of O’Neill’s findings in this way: The only people who love gossip more than actors are cops and lawyers. To be able to say, well into one’s retirement (and perhaps one’s cups), that one always knew there was more to the story, that more people should have gone to prison, that one just had a bad feeling about this or that unindicted person: This is some comfort after a perhaps violent and morally compromising career. A person can dine out forever on such talk.

Then O’Neill catches Vincent Bugliosi in a lie, and the reader shivers.66xTom O’Neill with Dan Piepenbring, Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties (New York, NY: Little, Brown, 2020), 145–48, with further corroboration 134–37, 146–48. (The details are hard to remove from their context, but briefly: Bugliosi, the lead prosecutor in the Manson trial, and—mainly because of Helter Skelter (1976), his book about the case—the best-selling true-crime author of all time, suborned testimony from a witness, Terry Melcher, that he knew was false.) One remembers, perhaps, that this same Bugliosi wrote Reclaiming History (2007), the most exhaustive defense of the Warren Commission’s Oswald-as-lone-assassin theory of the murder of JFK. Reclaiming History is a long book: how much of it is true? The mind tingles. But the reader of Chaos only knows that Bugliosi lied about Manson.77xFor a further example, see Ibid., 164–66.

From this point, O’Neill finds mystery after mystery, anomaly after anomaly. Eventually the hand of the CIA shows itself, as it does in so many American stories. (One occasionally feels that the real job of the Cold War CIA was simply to show up at the edges of stories so often that the vigilant citizen would be driven to paranoia.) O’Neill encounters not just A Conspiracy, but conspiracies, so many that they become a problem for each other:

I could poke a thousand holes in the story, but I couldn’t say what really happened. In fact, the major arms of my research were often in contradiction with one another. It couldn’t be the case that the truth involved a drug burn gone wrong, orgies with Hollywood elites, a counterinsurgency-trained CIA infiltrator in the Family, a series of unusually lax sheriff’s deputies and district attorneys and judges and parole officers, an FBI plot to smear leftists and Black Panthers, an effort to see if research on drugged mice applied to hippies, and LSD mind-control experiments tested in the field…could it?88xIbid., 394–395.

Clearly, O’Neill would like to be telling the last of these stories. But he is finally too honest a writer to pretend that he has more than eerie but circumstantial evidence—or evidence, simply, of the same thought, What could I get away with if I made a bunch of people take drugs? occurring independently to two different bad men. The reader admires O’Neill’s honesty, and shares in his disappointment.

Enter the Mono-Conspiracist

You, like O’Neill, lose a bit of the clarity you enjoyed in those first sparkling months. You thought you saw the monster, but you saw him wrong. Perhaps he is, after all, something mundane, a coatrack casting a shadow. Perhaps there is only one bewildering world.

If you choose this option, you return by degrees to a shared world, with friends and colleagues. You have a few strange opinions on the side, as does nearly everyone. Occasionally you remember the eeriness of those months, the sense that a heap of facts had come to life, had opened its eyes and glared at you with intention. But you move on. You get new hobbies.

Or you don’t. By now, you know the term “limited hangout.” Richard Nixon uses it on the White House tapes to describe a planned leak of seemingly secret information, from which further secrets have been redacted.99xRichard Nixon, Watergate Trial Tapes Exhibit 16—US v. John N. Mitchell, et al.,, 59. To the necessary limitations of all human knowledge, the concept adds a sinister twist: Now you feel you can’t be sure whether every theory similar to your own isn’t a ringer, a plant. Hasn’t everything in your life, up to now, been a limited hangout? Even your questions, your voiced and unvoiced doubts: Do they come from within? Or did they seep in, like the plastics?

So you continue to look for the single conspiracy, the plan under all plans. You decide that the UFO people are here, and that they have changed everything, most of all in the effort they have provoked from all the world’s crowned heads to prevent us from realizing that they are here and that they have changed everything. That a presidential candidate most notable for an almost creepy personal discipline is secretly ordering hits and supping on children. That the CIA’s various experiments with brainwashing and mind control were successful—that’s where serial killers come from.1010xThe locus classicus for this theory is Dave McGowan’s Programmed to Kill: The Politics of Serial Murder (Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2004). That the Satanic ritual abuse cases of the 1980s were mostly or partly real.1111xThe case for Satanically Panicking can be found in Ross Cheit, The Witch-Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology, and the Sexual Abuse of Children (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014). I find the rebuttal of this book by James M. Wood, Debbie Nathan, Richard Beck, and Keith Hampton—four of the writers Cheit impugns—to be fully persuasive, but your mileage may vary: “A Critical Evaluation of the Factual Accuracy and Scholarly Foundations of The Witch-Hunt Narrative,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 32, no. 6: 897–925. That the Knights Templar evolved into the Masons and continue to manipulate important events to their benefit. Any number of things. Even in your moment of clarity, the details blur once again. Bin Laden was already dead when the Navy SEALs found him, and also, he’s still alive.1212xSee Michael J. Wood, Karen M. Douglas and Robbie M. Sutton, “Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories,” Social Psychological and Personality Science 3, no. 6, January 25, 2012, Your story changes constantly, but your identity is stable: You have become one of the several things popularly referred to by the imprecise term “conspiracy theorist.” It’s not that you believe in the existence of malign, as yet undisclosed conspiracies—a person who merely confesses a belief in the existence of the NSA, or the Mafia, admits that much. No, your political theology—for that is what it has become—is that of the mono-conspiracist.

Most likely, as you further pursue this line of inquiry—a line of inquiry that can go on forever and include everything; it astonishes you that anyone can consider the conspiracy research community to be ignorant or unlettered—you find yourself turning more and more toward the occult to explain the persistence and power of the single conspiracy. There is an observable homology to evil. Those who seek to have more power over others than anyone ought to have, or want to have, land again and again on similar strategies—torture, systematic lying, drugs, the manipulation of their victim’s environment. (These are the features that united Charles Manson and Louis J. West.) They tend, as the podcaster Matt Christman (no relation) has emphasized in his observations on the Jeffrey Epstein case, to violate moral taboos together—both because this is one of the few forms of conspicuous consumption left to people who already have everything, and because this gives them useful dirt on each other, which enhances the coordination that keeps their class itself from fracturing. Sometimes their search for power leads them toward means that smack of the occult: Jeffrey Epstein’s weird temple; the famous statue of Mammon at Bohemian Grove, “where the rich and powerful go to misbehave”; the strange rituals of Yale’s Skull and Bones secret society.1313xElizabeth Flock, “Bohemian Grove: Where the Rich and Powerful Go to Misbehave,” Washington Post, June 15, 2011, This tendency springs, I think, from the deep structures of the human mind, perhaps from the capacity for language itself. Language is like magic: It does and transforms things; it seems to turn nothings into somethings and lead into gold, but not predictably, and not with perfect success. It has powers both godlike and flimsy. Those who worship power above all other gods eventually find themselves literalizing that metaphor. For the mono-conspiracy theorist, on the other hand, these similarities, as they turn up, are simply proof of a common origin, frequently the Knights Templar or the Illuminati.

If, finally, there were one dark intelligence at the center of world history, that intelligence would have to be Satan, given the state of the world. And I do believe, like billions of the world’s Christians, in the existence of the Devil. But it is precisely those who have believed in such an entity the longest, as part of a disciplined tradition of theological reflection, who will tell you how fruitless it often is to invoke Satan as the direct cause of events. Before one turns to exorcism, one exhausts medicine and psychiatry. Satan is an accuser, a prosecutor; one of his oldest tricks is to make you see him in your neighbor.

The Facts Warrant Paranoia

Your story, in any case, is now over. It has entered a cul-de-sac. Whatever happens, whatever kaleidoscope of details follows from here, you can, in a sense, only reach one answer. You may exit your story, but you will progress no further in it.

So we turn now to the story of your estranged friend, who has watched your descent with alarm. What she knows: You have gone wrong. Your wrongness is universal and all-pervading. She can’t refute all of your arguments, especially since you keep changing your details. Some of it even sounds true. And when she does try to argue with you, she senses something horrible—the self-righteousness, the certainty, the tinniness of rant crossing her face, colonizing her vocal cords too.

Like you, she reads. And as she does so, the monster discloses himself. It is “conspiracy theory.” This is the name, simultaneously, for the habits of thought, the media ecosystem, and the affect that have ruined you. For her, as for you, the monster has stood still; it is, for the moment, one thing.

As your friend investigates further, however, she immediately runs into problems. How are “conspiracy theories” to be separated, isolated, contained? What distinguishes them from ordinary political thought, from the attempt to understand what is happening in the world?

In her enlightening and empathetic study of flat-earthers, Off the Edge (2022), Kelly Weill cites the social psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen to define the “conspiracy theory.” Such a theory “explains correlations between events and actors; the perpetrators must have acted deliberately; multiple people must have been involved in the plot; the plot must be ominous in its deception…and the cover-up must be ongoing.” This is clear enough. What is not clear is why such a belief would automatically be bad or irrational. Weill herself concedes that “belief in conspiracy theories is highly common,” and that her own suspicion that Timothy McVeigh had yet-unnamed accomplices in his 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City “means [that she] can be classified as a conspiracy theorist.”1414xKelly Weill, Off the Edge: Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2022), 4. But Weill is hardly alone in this reasonable belief. Van Prooijen’s definition doesn’t explain why such theories are inherently bad or unreasonable. Anna Merlan, in her excellent Republic of Lies (2019), takes this point further, citing the large number of secret actions by the US government, the covert harassment of American political dissidents (particularly black and Native American organizations), and, again, MK-ULTRA. Others cite as well the Tuskegee experiments, in which black patients were knowingly denied treatment for syphilis. “If you were paranoid,” Merlan writes, “you might think there is something at work in the use of the term ‘conspiracy theory.’ Something sinister, perhaps?” You might indeed.1515xAnna Merlan, Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power (New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 2019), 26.

You might, and your friend might, and I might, and if any of us were to turn to some of the academic authorities Merlan and others cite, we might find that impression reinforced. The political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, in American Conspiracy Theories (2014), offer the citizen-reader the following guidelines for when to believe, or reject, a conspiracy theory:

The bottom line is that citizens should believe accounts from properly constituted epistemic authorities rather than theories that either (1) directly conflict with the epistemic authorities or (2) assert knowledge that has yet to be deemed authoritative by the epistemic authorities. A conspiracy theory may be true, but people are not justified in believing it until the appropriate epistemological authorities deem it true. Therefore, well-evidenced conspiracy theories may—should they reach a certain evidentiary bar—provide the grounds for investigation, appeal, and reassessment, but they should not be believed outright.1616xJoseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent, American Conspiracy Theories (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), 25.

Already one can see problems. In a conflict between holding a justified belief and holding a true one, wouldn’t one prefer to hold the true one? Is there really a secure distinction between believing an idea “outright” and entertaining it, considering it, testing it? Who is allowed to decide when the evidence has met “a certain evidentiary bar”? And where are these “properly constituted epistemological authorities” to be found? Here is the definition Uscinski and Parent provide:

An appropriate epistemological authority, therefore, is one that is trained to assess knowledge claims in a relevant area and draw conclusions from valid data using recognized methods in an unbiased way. Physicists, for example, are the appropriate authority for making and evaluating claims pertaining to physics, whereas historians are more appropriate for making claims about history. Having expertise relevant to the subject area is key. Watergate, for example, is referred to as a conspiracy because it was deemed as such by Congress, courts, and many other investigative bodies whose hearings and evidence are open to inspection. Many of the conspirators—including Nixon—admitted to their crimes in open forums.1717xIbid.

Leave aside the question begging that nearly every term in this definition—“trained,” “relevant area,” “valid data,” “recognized methods,” “unbiased way”—commits. A certain humility before experts is a necessary part of social life, but what Uscinski and Parent advocate here sounds to me more like self-infantilization. Most people would say that the FBI constitutes an “appropriate epistemological authority” when it comes to crimes committed on US soil—it is, in fact, part of the apparatus that defines crime as such in the first place. This does not mean that a person who believed the FBI when it falsely accused Angela Davis of murder was practicing better mental hygiene than one who did not. Properly constituted epistemological authorities are made up of people, who possess interests and, yes, biases. The realization that one has biases, that one cannot escape them, is one of the first steps toward truth, and the admission of these biases a necessary act of charity toward one’s readers. An agency—or, for that matter, a work of political science—that affects an above-the-fray, view-from-nowhere style gives us, in that very affectation, a reason to believe it is hiding something, if only from itself. Uscinski and Parent remove all doubt on this latter point when they accuse Senator Bernie Sanders of conspiracy theorizing for his famous claim that the “one percent” has “rigged” America’s economy.1818xIbid., 93. This is not a conspiracy theory; it’s almost a tautology. What do Uscinski and Parent think lobbyists do all day?

A better account comes from the historian Kathryn S. Olmsted. In her book Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11 (2008), she emphasizes a point that too much scholarly writing on conspiracy theories concedes and then ignores: Some conspiracy theories are prima facie believable because they rest on considerable historical precedent. She points, for example, to Operation Northwoods, a scheme to destabilize Fidel Castro’s Cuban government. Agents of national security openly theorized about murdering both Cuban and American citizens as part of a “false-flag” attack that would then be blamed on Castro. Olmsted cites Operation Northwoods, which President Kennedy eventually vetoed, as a reason why some Americans might believe that 9/11 was an inside job.1919xKathryn S. Olmsted, Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), 2. Indeed, during my own lifetime, a formidable number of seemingly outrageous claims about American history, once relegated to the alternative media, have turned out, as documents were declassified and guilty parties spoke, to be simply true. The CIA, at the very least, hid the involvement of the Nicaraguan Contras in cocaine dealing.2020xNick Schou, “The Truth in ‘Dark Alliance,’” Los Angeles Times, August 18, 2006, Richard Nixon really did sabotage the 1968 Paris Peace Talks in order to give himself a fleeting electoral advantage.2121xJohn A. Farrell, “Nixon’s Vietnam Treachery,” New York Times, December 31, 2016, See also Seymour Hersh, The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House (New York, NY: Summit Books, 1983). During the Cold War, the CIA actually covered Western Europe with stay-behind paramilitary networks and weapons caches, of which some of the latter were later linked to right-wing terrorist actions.2222xClare Pedrick, “CIA Organized Secret Armies in Western Europe,” Washington Post, November 14, 1990, The FBI and the Chicago police conspired to murder the Black Panther Party activist Fred Hampton.2323xRanjani Chakraborty and Melissa Hirsch, “Why the US Government Murdered Fred Hampton,” Vox, June 2, 2021, Jeffrey Epstein existed, and two presidents rode on his plane.2424xLauren del Valle and Eric Levenson, “Jeffrey Epstein’s Former Pilot Testifies Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, Prince Andrew Flew Aboard Epstein’s Private Plane,”, November 30, 2021, If I am not yet certain that Allen Dulles had Kennedy killed, if I don’t believe at all that the CIA invented serial killers to sell more anomie, it is not because I think that these people or institutions are too fundamentally decent to do such things. The history of American covert politics convinces me otherwise. In fact, the history of American overt politics convinces me otherwise.

Indeed, when we turn our attention to other First World democracies, we routinely find the sorts of plots that we would reject as fantastic, even impossible, in a US context, widely accepted as real historical episodes. The Marc Dutroux case, in which Belgium’s justice system incompetently prosecuted a particularly vicious instance of pedophilia and murder, could be described, with only some exaggeration, as a Belgian Pizzagate that actually happened.2525xSee, e.g., Olenka Frenkiel, “Belgium’s Silent Heart of Darkness,” The Guardian, May 5, 2002, When Americans read the works of the great Sicilian crime novelist and journalist Leonardo Sciascia—particularly his sinuous, elliptical study on the 1978 kidnapping and murder of Italian prime minister Aldo Moro—we read of a world in which all important political events are controlled, if somewhat messily, by a conglomeration of bad actors that includes the Christian Democratic Party, the Mafia, and the Roman Catholic Church.2626xLeonardo Sciascia, The Moro Affair and the Mystery of Majorana (London, England: Carcanet, 1987). And we never doubt this picture. We instantly recognize it as the kind of thing that is likely to happen in this vale of tears. We praise Sciascia’s bravery and clearheadedness, and we wonder what silences even he must have kept to avoid catching a bullet during the Years of Lead. Is it not American exceptionalism, of a rather Pollyannaish kind, to assume that such things could never happen here?

The facts warrant paranoia. At least, some of the facts warrant some paranoia. We cannot reject “conspiracy theories” en bloc.


You, your friend, and I all find ourselves in a pretty pass. Your mono-conspiracism has made you impossible to talk to, and it may well have led you to disgrace yourself. In recent years, members of the conspiracy-theory fan community—there is nothing else to call it—have stalked bereaved parents and plotted to steal elections. Even the most benign conspiracists spend a lot of time gossiping about strangers who may well be harmless. You need to extricate yourself from this community.

If you have fallen victim to a grave cognitive distortion, your friend has committed a lesser one of a similar kind. Like so many in the liberal center (that dwindling but stubborn remnant), she has turned to the concept “conspiracy theory” as a single explanation for an apparent (but probably only apparent) rise in motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, demonization, and other logical errors that have always been with us.2727xUscinski and Parent’s book—which isn’t all bad—convincingly demonstrates that the level of conspiracism in American life has been basically stable for at least the past century and a half. Nor are you entirely wrong in feeling that she throws around the term “conspiracy theory” to avoid reckoning with the many excellent reasons one may have for failing to register all one’s opinions with one’s local epistemological authorities.

I have, in my turn, found myself almost persuaded by both of you. I have read the words “Jeffrey Epstein suicide” and felt as though paranoia were a positive duty. I have read of Alex Jones’s persecution of the bereaved, and sworn off the entire world of “parapolitics.” You think I’m a patsy, or worse. Your friend thinks I’m as crazy as you are.

The hope of democracy is that we will, knowing all this, find a way to trust each other again, or at least, in the absence of trust, to halfheartedly will each other’s good. Perhaps we will stumble one day on some key, some insight, that will help us to do this again. But for now, real blood has been shed, and more blood is threatened, and each of us really does have enemies, and every day, another you unwittingly begins talking himself into being one of them. And so we all stand jabbering at each other, accusing like Satan, united only by the self-righteousness that crosses every face, which we don’t see because we are no longer looking at each other, or at anything. There is only the wrongness.