Claire Sterling was, at least for a time and by some, considered one of the foremost authorities on terrorism. Her 1981 exposé The Terror Network purported to prove that the Soviet Union was the organizing nexus for all international terrorism. Yet terrorism increased after Soviet collapse in 1989. Where did Sterling go wrong?
This week Morning Feature looks at conspiracy theories. Yesterday we explored a rational basis for why conspiracy theories are so pervasive in political discourse. Today we will explore conspiracies of conflation, a common fallacy in conspiracy theories. Tomorrow we will look at another common fallacy, conspiracies of convenience. Saturday we’ll explore how known people and groups acting on shared and often publicly declared interests can engage in conspiracies of commonality.
Note: This series will not attempt to prove or disprove any given conspiracy theory. The series isn’t about donning a tinfoil hat, but asking why we find them attractive, and how we make them.
Conspiracy Theory 102 – Conspiracies of Conflation
In 1981, freelance journalist Claire Sterling became a conservative icon with the publication of her exposé The Terror Network. The book presented a compelling argument that the Soviet Union was the organizing nexus for all international terrorism. Defeat the Soviets, the book implied, and terrorism will end. Yet the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, and terrorism is still a common tactic of political movements in many parts of the world. Sterling was hardly the first or last to propose a single villain lurking behind a spate of disparate events.
British mystery writer Arthur Conan Doyle, may have been among the first to portray an arch-conspirator in 1893, in what was intended to be his last Sherlock Holmes story, “The Final Problem.” That villain was of course Professor Moriarty, whom Holmes called “the Napoleon of crime,” quoting a Scotland Yard official describing American criminal, Adam Worth. Worth’s criminal career began in Boston and spanned three continents, until he was finally caught in Belgium in 1892.
More recently, Canadian journalist Naomi Klein proposed a different sort of arch-conspiracy in her book The Shock Doctrine, presenting Milton Friedman and his protégés at the University of Chicago School of Economics as the villains behind acts ranging from the Pinochet coup in Chile in 1974 to the Falklands War in 1982 to the Iraq War.
Conan Doyle was obviously writing fiction, although there was a kernel of truth beneath the fiction. But Sterling and Klein wrote non-fiction and both presented compelling yet arguably overreaching arguments, based again on kernels of truth. All offered conspiracies of conflation.
In informal logic, the term conflation denotes a comparison without contrast, linking persons, events, objects, or ideas in a way that obscures their differences and presents them as manifestations of a single entity. If their differences are trivial, there is often no problem. If you’re a baggage handler counting pet carriers being loaded on an aircraft, you don’t really care what four-legged furries are in those carriers. One cat is the same as the next, and indeed may be indistinguishable from a small dog another carrier. You can conflate them, for your own purpose of counting pet carriers, without worry.
But if you’re a passenger waiting for your pootie, one cat is not the same as the next. You want your pootie, not someone else’s. And your veterinarian probably has a file on your pootie, with your pootie’s own health history, allergies, etc. Treating your pootie as if he or she were Miscellaneous Pootie, without regard for your pootie’s own health history, would be malpractice.
We often see the same kind of malpractice in political discourse. For much of the Cold War period, U.S. foreign policy was plagued with what some have called strategic myopia, where every international issue was seen as part of the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. The specific local concerns of a given nation’s leaders or people were irrelevant; they were either “with us” or “being used” by the Soviets to undermine U.S. interests. It was an error of conflation.
The Bush Doctrine espoused a similar strategic myopia, positing what David Brooks and others described as a war of ideology between the West and “a perverted stream of Islam that stretches from Ibn Taimaya to Sayyid Qutb.” Again the specific concerns of a given group are obscured, and all such groups are conflated into a single entity that some have called “Islamofascism.”
Conflation simplifies … and magnifies
Conspiracies of conflation simplify the analysis. Rather than exploring what motivated the Red Brigades in Italy, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, or the Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua – each of which had its own issues and agenda – Claire Sterling treated them as a single entity, manifestations of the Soviet Union’s efforts to promote a global communist revolution. Naomi Klein glosses over the local economic and political issues facing Chile in 1974, or Britain and Argentina in 1982, and treats the Pinochet coup and the Falklands War as a single entity, manifestations of Friedman’s “Chicago School” efforts to promote radical, laissez faire capitalism. The Bush Doctrine ignored differences in the Islamic world so resolutely that in 2008 John McCain famously accused Shi’a Iran of training and funding Sunni Al Qaeda; like many Americans, McCain sees such groups as a single entity, manifestations of an “Islamofascist” effort to promote a worldwide caliphate.
More important, conspiracies of conflation magnify the threat. A collection of disparate groups or events that seem to share some common elements is a bunch of small problems. Each may be difficult to address, but none is so great a threat that the full weight of a nation must be brought to bear. But if those disparate groups or events are really a single entity – manifestations of an arch-villain’s worldwide conspiracy – then the threat is much more dire. Now the enemy is powerful enough to threaten our very survival, and nothing short of an all-out, whatever-it-takes effort will suffice to stop it. It’s very convenient if you’re in the whatever-it-takes business.
Note: To her credit, Naomi Klein stops short here. She proposes a body of very mainstream reforms, to be made through informed dialogue and ordinary activism.
A kernel of truth
Conspiracies of conflation are so attractive because most are based on a kernel of truth. While Milton Friedman and the “Chicago School” have not engineered every world event since the mid-1970s, radical laissez faire theorists have pounced on any opportunity to promote their agenda and they have often been well-positioned to do so, a pattern we’ll look at more tomorrow in conspiracies of convenience. Claire Sterling wasn’t entirely wrong either; to the extent that the goals of a political movement were consistent with those of the Soviet leadership, the Soviets might indeed offer some assistance, and we will explore that pattern Saturday in conspiracies of commonality. While neither Osama bin Laden nor any other single actor is behind every disaffected group in the Islamic world, the evidence does point to patterns of both commonality and convenience in some cases.
But we take dangerous risks when we focus on those kernels and leap to a conspiracy of conflation. We may miss important differences that blind us with strategic myopia, or inflate a threat beyond its real import and overreact in ways that create even worse problems. Putting the pieces together is important, but it’s equally important to be sure the pieces really are from the same puzzle.