In the movie JFK, Kevin Costner plays Jim Garrison, the real-life lawyer who brought the only criminal case to trial in the assassination of our 35th president (and namesake of the movie). While the movie’s faults are legion (not the least of which is the credibility it lent to some of the more absurd conspiracy theories about the assassination), there’s an interesting — and valid — point made when Costner gives his closing argument in the trial: the moment you have two or more people involved in something, that is by definition a conspiracy.
When you look around in today’s media-saturated world, conspiracy theories abound. By the expansive definition of “conspiracy” used in the movie, conspiracies absolutely do exist. I’m not trying to make an argument that the official version of any event is necessarily the whole truth, and I readily concede that there are times when skepticism of the official version (or at least portions of the official version) of events is absolutely warranted.
Modern conspiracy theories generally involve arguing that some group of powerful, wealthy, connected people with a vested interest in covering up the “truth” put out an official story that we shouldn’t believe. The motivations of the conspirators — depending upon the event — range from maintaining the status quo or upending some rule they don’t like. The conspiracy theorists argue that mass shootings, for example, are really just false flags planted to get people motivated enough to allow the government to take away guns from law abiding citizens while the anti-vaccination movement maintains that they’re being silenced because too many people (pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, doctors and nurses) make too much money off of the vaccines to look at the supposedly harmful side effects truthfully.
I’ll grant you that the proponents of the conspiracy theories about mass shootings and vaccinations are quite harmful. There are no shortage of stories from either survivors or grieving families of the deceased who have found themselves being harassed and threatened by people who believe that their trauma is just an act. The health risks of vaccines are minimal compared to the overall health benefits of those same vaccines. (And I’m saying that knowing that I can’t rule out the possibility that my father might be alive today had he not gotten a particular vaccine about 2.5 years before he died. But that’s the stuff of another entry.
I’ll even concede that some conspiracy theories can be tempting. When George W Bush ascended to the presidency in 2001, he definitely wanted to help rehabilitate his father’s legacy as presidency and taking out Saddam Hussein was definitely a part of that agenda. The September 11 attacks provided more than enough popular support for that goal. (And, when you consider that there were nineteen hijackers, that definitely meets the definition of “conspiracy” from the Oliver Stone movie.) That doesn’t mean Bush (or any other member of the US government at any level) was in on it.
One fatal flaw of modern conspiracy theories, is the size and scope of the hypothesized conspiracy itself. As more people are “in the know” about the truth, the harder it becomes to conceal it. There is, for example, an entire industry dedicated to revealing rumors about the next big product releases from Apple despite the company’s best efforts to keep their product plans quiet. And Apple’s stock price is at least partially dependent upon those rumors.
Which brings me to the train wreck that is the White House under Donald Trump. I think there are fewer leaks in the lean-tos built by the contestants on the TV show Survivor than there are in this administration. And Trump isn’t exactly wrong for not appreciating the fact that the press is getting information not necessarily intended for public consumption. There’s even a recent story in The Onion that’s poking fun at the leaks.
The issues Trump is facing in maintaining an efficient, smoothly working operation are identical to any issues that a sufficiently wide-ranging conspiracy would have to deal with. Keeping people silent, especially when they don’t have some massive motivation to be quiet, is quite difficult if not impossible.
I’m not seeing much coming out of the White House that I can honestly say is a good thing. But the more I think about it, maybe the leaks should help us put to rest the notion that these conspiracy theories are anything other than an occasionally amusing distraction.