In my previous post on this topic, I referenced the case of Joy Karega, whose employment at Oberlin College came to an end, due, to anti-semitic posts on her Facebook page as well as her advocacy of the theory that the CIA and Mossad, deliberately created ISIS as part of a larger policy agenda to destabilize Syria. In that post I also addressed the general issues regarding First Amendment rights of College and University Faculty when they act in the capacity of private citizens, as opposed to their official capacities as employees of education institutions.
In this post, I will address the conceptual issues related to “conspiracy theories” and “propaganda” as they relate to academic freedom of College and University Faculty with respect to teaching and research. In a subsequent post I will examine the substance of the claims that ISIS was a deliberate creation of the CIA and Mossad, as well as other similar false flag theories about 9/11/. While the stronger versions of these claims cannot be justified, there are nevertheless substantive problems with mainstream accounts of 9/11. The history of the US relations and that of some of our key allies with Islamic Extremist groups, is one that should be disturbing to people of all ideological persuasions.
The labeling of an argument as a “conspiracy theory” is often used as way of providing immediate justification for dismissing a view point as unworthy of consideration or refutation, and the person proposing it as a crackpot whose arguments consequently deserve no further response. Similarly, the label “propaganda” often connotes an aura of falsehood and misinformation, or at best, a conscious misrepresentation of facts to convince people to take, or not take, a particular action. But it is not always clear what it is about alleged conspiracy theories or propaganda that qualifies for immediate rejection.
In this post I will use the word conspiracy theory to describe a constellation of “theories” (see also “None Dare Call it Conspiracy” ) which assert that a sinister and shadowy network of elites at the highest echelons of government and industry secretly plan, control and manipulate world events to their advantage behind the scenes. Wars, coups, invasions, revolutions, terrorist attacks, financial panics are explained as a result of the machinations of a vast conspiracy in which elites appear to act against their own interests by allegedly promoting groups that on the surface seem to have agendas opposed to these very same elites. The standard villains are the Illuminati, Free Masons, The Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations and on occasion even the Kiwanis. By promoting their opposition, elites strengthen their position by creating chaos and disorder. In some instances, the Conspiracy is ultimately directed by some malign supernatural entity or perhaps Reptilian Lizard Space Aliens. The larger conspiracy is then taken as a means of explaining smaller conspiracies about specific events. What is not explained however, is how a seemingly all powerful, pervasive malign conspiracy has yet to successfully fully establish its power. Underlying all this is a starkly Manichean World View, and its appeal is to those who are prone to see social reality as a stark battle between good and evil, leading to a literal or secularized version of Armageddon.
This kind of theorizing is generally the provenance of the far right and anti-semites. It’s roots go back at least to the social anxiety engendered by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. It reached its apotheosis in the Fascist movements of Inter War Europe and is influential among some circles of Trump supporters. Yet some aspects of this kind of conspiracy theorizing is also at times present on the far left. The view that a cabal of hyper capitalists with no allegiance to any state plot to secretly manipulate the world is consistent with vulgar and crass versions of Marxist theories of Finance Capital, the Capitalist State and Imperialism. Baathist States and other Middle Eastern regimes have had a propensity to see Zionists and Imperialists under every bed. Regardless of whether the theory comes from the “left” or the “right”, there are similar characteristic errors both logically and empirically.
Logically, conspiracy theories rest on a series of false dichotomies: Either world history and events are explained by the conspiracy, or they occur at random. Holes or contradictions in the official version are used to prove that the conspiracy theory is true. From an empirical perspective, the empirical evidence for the conspiracy is often thin, taken out of context, or assigned a level of significance that is not warranted. Casual or accidental connections are interpreted as causal and substantive connections. Leaving aside the often invidious connotations of conspiracy theorizing, conspiracy theories are in many instances, just bad theory and a way of avoiding the tough slog of serious analysis. Conspiracy theories are the social science equivalent of junk sciences such as Intelligent Design and Young Earth Creationism. Were it not for the potentially negative social consequences of Conspiracy Theories, we might dismiss fantasies of Reptilian Lizard Space Aliens running the world as nothing more than mildly entertaining, bad Science Fiction.
But that does not necessarily mean that all aspects of conspiracy theories are false, or that the official view of specific events is necessarily true. The reason conspiracy theories gain traction and persist is because they often contain a grain of truth while establishment narratives themselves often rely on poor reasoning and thinly sourced material, or promote outright falsehoods. Governments do in fact, at times, spin false narratives which are glibly reported by the mainstream media. In the US, it is generally accepted that countries deemed to be our opponents act in a calculated, Machiavellian fashion, engage in false flag operations, plot to subvert the US electoral process, that the press of hostile foreign powers engage in propaganda, or even that foreign intelligence agencies launch sinister facebook meme attacks. On occasion, it is also acceptable to acknowledge that in the past the CIA or the FBI might have engaged in such tactics. But to make those arguments about US policy and the conduct of the US National Security State today is to depart from the range of acceptable and respected opinion.
That the Tri-Lateral Comission and the Council on Foreign Relations exist and exercise considerable influence over elite opinion and policy formation is in fact, true. That they are all powerful and are capable of engineering and manipulating world events, is not. Whether they are malign or not, is an ideological judgement. Their real interest does not lie in promoting wars and revolutions, but in maintaining stability and order in the interest of hegemonic powers and global capitalism. They are the modern equivalent of the Concert of Europe.
The alternative to conspiracy theorizing is not “randomnness” or blithe acceptance of establishment narratives. The alternative is sound state centric realism and World Systems Analysis. Rather than dismissing every argument that is critical of the established and accepted narratives as “conspiracy theories”, we would be better served by focusing on what the evidence is for a particular assertion and how the evidence fits into a larger framework of understanding structural power in the context of an evolving world system. Hence it is important that critiques of structural relationships in the world system be grounded in empirical evidence and sound reasoning.
To that end, it is also helpful to understand the nature of Propaganda. In some cases, propaganda relies on outright falsehoods or exaggerations. But most propaganda is more subtle. It may rely on facts that are true but organizes and presents these facts in a way that is deceptive. Propaganda functions by presenting a distorted view of the world in an effort to shape people’s attitudes, and in some instances, lead to action. Simply put, propaganda is a form of thought control and social manipulation. A good analysis of how propaganda functions is provided in this article. Though we often think of Propaganda of something that is engaged in by totalitarian regimes, it is in actuality an activity that is used by ostensibly democratic governments as well as social movements. Where the goal of Propaganda is manipulation, the goal of academic inquiry is explanation and critique.
Where does this leave us with respect to the complex issue of academic freedom. I have argued that conspiracy theorizing is at its core, bad theory. It’s not bad theory however because it critically examines the actions or intentions of the surface state. It’s bad theory because it is engaged in a fashion that is not conducive to good inquiry. We can’t simply declare specific theories or hypotheses in the social sciences “conspiracy theories” and banish them. We have to judge theorizing in the context of teaching and research in the framework of disciplinary standards. That sometimes means that we have to make difficult judgements between a provocative hypothesis that challenges the status quo versus nonsense. That’s a judgement for tenure committees and academic journals, and not, absent extreme circumstances, faculty disciplinary committees.
In my next entry on this topic I will attempt to explore this difficult issue through an examination of 9/11 false flag theories and theories about the origins of ISIS.