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Turtles all the way down

Monday, June 17, 2013

The recent revelations in the Washington Post and UK Guardian concerning the US Government’s PRISM programme raise the question: when is a conspiracy theory not a conspiracy theory?
For a long time some people around the world claimed the US Government was monitoring all our electronic communications in a Big Brother quest for world domination. Without evidence, this belief was labelled a conspiracy theory and those with such beliefs disparaged as cuckoo. Now there is evidence the US Government is involved with monitoring (or at least recording for future analysis) much of the electronic information each of us produces. Does this new evidence dissolve the conspiracy theory?  First some facts. What is a conspiracy theory? Conspiracy theories correlate to times of social anxiety. They give meaning to dramatic and vague occurrences, providing narrative to the relations between events, individuals, and larger social institutions. Conspiracy theories fall under the study of myths and rely on a cultural logic that says the absence of evidence is evidence. From an anthropological perspective, conspiracy theories—or narratives concerning plots, hatched by a real or imaginary power and groups—are universal, found in all cultures and stages of human history. 


The cargo cults of Melanesia and the millennialist movements of colonial societies such as the Ghost Dance of Native Americans and the Xhosa cattle-killing of South Africa are good examples to look up. Now before anyone thinks it is only crazies or the exotics who believe in conspiracy theories, it’s worth recognising that the War on Terror itself is a conspiracy theory produced and embraced by the US political class. Any discussion of the long history of US atrocities, policies, and the destabilisation of elected foreign governments during the 20th century was, and is, ignored. Instead, Bush and his cronies fed the world a story about a singular demonised enemy—Al Qaeda—out to attack American exceptionalism, first led by Saddam and then Osama. Under PRISM, the enemy could now be any of us, even people who believe they have nothing to hide. By recording our electronic communications, the US Government can now take that information, search through everything we’ve ever done, and paint any of us as villains. Who’s crazy now? The US Government is itself lost in a conspiracy theory about the rest of the world, all potentially out to get them. That isn’t necessarily a surprise. Academics have been writing about a “paranoid style of American politics” since the 1960s. 


The thing about conspiracy theories then is that they leave us with an explanation of events that is more often than not rooted in paranoia rather than hard evidence. As such, a useful way to understand conspiracy theories is as fissures to identify power struggles in society over meaning and morality. So rather than Obama as Dr Evil, or the complete innocence of the US Government, conspiracy theories suggest we should be looking somewhere in between for truth(s). For example, which is more likely—that the US Government believes they act in their country’s interests, or that a group of people—including everyone in the NSA, FBI, CIA etc—is engaged in a vast conspiracy for their own benefit (or Dr Evil’s), with no one on the inside ever exposing it? Not even Edward Snowden? The problem the US Government, and in particular its various wings like the NSA has is they cannot be the judges of their own actions. Their oversight must be transparent. Yet, due to the secret nature of its business, supposedly no one else can monitor them.


So the NSA grew its power, always believing, as it was the good guy, that anyone seeking to restrict it needed to be opposed. All in the public interest, of course. In other words, the NSA drank their own Kool Aid and became both architect and purveyor of conspiracy theories. This brings us back to the question: when is a conspiracy theory not a conspiracy theory? A conspiracy theory is not a conspiracy theory when it is the cultural logic directing realpolitik. Once paranoid myth-making becomes the engine of political action, Governments no longer make decisions based on evidence. Instead they run on evidence of things unseen, using fear and moral panic to maintain power. Philosophically, it raises a similar analogy to that scientific story about turtles and “infinite regress.” But instead of the complexity of the cosmos resting on “turtles all the way down,” we see the complexity of the endless War on Terror rests on conspiracy theories all the way down. 


Dr Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at UWI, St Augustine.


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