In a Greek tragedy, the fall of the king was almost always the will of the gods. In contemporary America we often substitute … a conspiracy. (More)

Conspiracy Theories, Part I: “The Gods Are Abandoned”

This week Morning Feature marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John Kennedy with a look at the enduring attraction of conspiracy theories. Today we’ll explore Karl Popper’s view that such theories fill a teleological gap in modern culture. Tomorrow we’ll see several kinds of theories, including conspiracies of convenience and conflation. Saturday we’ll conclude with why we must be wary of conspiracy theories, especially those that affirm our deeply-held beliefs.

Once Upon a Complex

Even if you’ve never read it, you probably know the core conflict in Sophocles’ classic tragedy Oedipus Rex. It is the basis for the psychoanalytic term Oedipus complex, Sigmund Freud’s theorized stage of childhood development where sons want to possess their mothers, and daughters their fathers.

In the play’s backstory, King Laius of Thebes has been warned that he will be killed by his own child, and he tells Queen Jocasta to kill their newborn son Oedipus. Jocasta passes the order to one of her servants, who instead sends the boy away to be raised in another city. As the play opens, the Oracle warns Oedipus that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Not wanting to harm the couple who raised him, Oedipus flees to Thebes, where he kills Laius and marries Jocasta, as the Oracle prophesied. The gods send a plague on the city and, when the servant reveals that Oedipus is Jocasta’s long-lost son and their marriage is the cause of the plague, Jocasta commits suicide and Oedipus blinds himself.

One of my theatre professors cited Oedipus Rex as an example of a common pattern in classic Greek plays: a comedy is the success of the least capable man in town, while a tragedy is the failure of the most capable man in town. And, often, tragic hero’s fate was set down by the gods … much as a radical conservative Catholic group said this week’s tragic tornadoes in Illinois were divine punishment for the Illinois Legislature enacting marriage equality.

What really happened?

Teleology is the search for and/or presumption of “final causes,” and it often proposes causes beyond those we immediately recognize. Thus, a teleological argument presumes that there are no random events, no mere coincidences. In teleological analysis, everything happens by design.

For the ancient Greeks – and for some religious believers today – every event is part of a divine plan. But what fills that causal gap if we set aside religion? Karl Popper proposed that many people fill the gap with conspiracy theories:

I shall call this theory the conspiracy theory of society. This theory, which is more primitive than most forms of theism, is akin to Homer’s theory of society. Homer conceived the power of the gods in such a way that whatever happened on the plain before Troy was only a reflection of the various conspiracies on Olympus. The conspiracy theory of society is just a version of this theism, a belief in gods whose whims and wills rule everything. It comes from abandoning God and then asking: “Who is in his place?” His place is then filled by various powerful men and groups – sinister pressure groups, who are to be blamed for having planned the great depression and all the evils from which we suffer.

After the devastating tornadoes ripped through Oklahoma in May, Alex Jones wondered if President Obama was using a weather weapon to distract attention from media scandals, the conspiracy corollary to the radical religious claim that this week’s Midwest tornadoes were an act of divine judgment.

“Conspiracy entrepreneurs”

As we discussed in May, many conspiracy theories spring up almost organically, the product of what Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule called “our crippled epistemologies” and “information cascades.” Yet Sunstein and Vermule also propose another source for many theories:

Some such theories seem to bubble up spontaneously, appearing roughly simultaneously in many different social networks; others are initiated and spread, quite intentionally, by conspiracy entrepreneurs who profit directly or indirectly from propagating their theories…. Some conspiracy entrepreneurs are entirely sincere; others are interested in money or power, or in achieving some general social goal.

Alex Jones peddles conspiracy theories for profit, as have many “investigators” of the JFK assassination. Add to that list conservative activist Roger Stone, whose new book proposes that Vice President Lyndon Johnson orchestrated the assassination:

“He is facing political oblivion in November of 1963. He has the Senate investigation looking into Bobby Baker, who is his bagman in the U.S. Senate. He has the Justice Department looking into his wheeling and dealing with Billie Sol Estes, a flamboyant Texas con man. There are nine Time-Life investigative reporters on Lyndon Johnson, and they have a cover story coming out on the Saturday after the assassination on his epic corruption, his corruption of biblical proportions. So he’s a man staring into the abyss.” For the record, Stone claims that Malcolm Wallace, “a hit man for Lyndon Johnson,” was the gunman, not Lee Harvey Oswald.

But don’t call that a conspiracy theory:

“I don’t call it conspiracy purposefully because conspiracy is a pejorative term. It is used to denigrate those who question the government’s version of events,” he said.

Just like Jones and the radical Catholic group questioning the National Weather Service’s version of a tornado. Except that some people get upset about unfounded accusations of murder, so Stone will wear a bulletproof for his book-signing tomorrow … in Dallas, on the 50th anniversary of the assassination.

Stone isn’t a conspiracy theorist. Oh no. He’s an entrepreneur, and tomorrow we’ll see why he’s peddling a classic conspiracy of convenience.


Happy Thursday!