Exploring the Definition and Misconceptions
The term “conspiracy theory” is overused today. Anytime someone simply speculates about something criminal or wrong they are likely to be hit with the label. “Did person X murder person Y? Did person Z help cover it up?” This is not a conspiracy theory, even if journalists and talkshow hosts throw the words around while reporting on the case. Conspiracy theorists generally like a very broad definition of the term, because that makes everyone who has ever made a guess about anything seem like a fellow traveler, but I believe we need to be more narrow and precise in our discussions of the topic or all meaning will be lost.
The definition of conspiracy theory that I offer is one that fits with the way most people use the term, off the top of their head. If you walked up to a random person and asked, “Can you tell me a conspiracy theory that you have heard of?” the answers would be things like, the assassination of President Kennedy, the 9-11 Attack, the Moon Landing, the Coronavirus, the Sandy Hook and Parkland school shootings, etc. No one, unless they are trying to be funny, is going to say, “Person X murdering person Y, with the help of person Z.” Even if person Y is extremely famous. Two people may meet the legal definition of a conspiracy, but their alleged actions are not a conspiracy theory.
The first definition at dictionary.com is a reasonable one:
“a theory that rejects the standard explanation for an event and instead credits a covert group or organization with carrying out a secret plot”
This definition hits on some elements that we should keep in mind, namely:
- The rejection of a standard explanation, official story, or investigative findings.
- The existence of a covert group or organization, which can control government officials, the news media, scientists, and other academics to a very large degree.
- The advancement of a secret plot or objectives.
To this list I would add a fourth criteria that is often assumed but not acknowledged: the need for multigenerational coordination.
WHAT ABOUT “REAL” CONSPIRACY THEORIES?
I have seen several lists online claiming to be “conspiracy theories” that turned out to be true, or something to that effect. When you look at the details, however, the events they list are not typically things you would have identified as a conspiracy theory before it was proven; they are just something that was kept secret for a time. To give a recent example, after rejoining Twitter years ago with a “nomagicbullets” blog account, ConanLiberty told me that “Obamagate” is real and would be proven so, just like, “The Mafia was once a “conspiracy theory”,” before it was proved real. When I pressed him to cite who identified the Mafia as a conspiracy theory and in what context, he could not do it. All he could say was, “The Mafia was considered a conspiracy theory in the 60’s. That is a fact.” When I pressed him again for a real citation, not just a vague reference to a decade, he retreated to a frequently used line on the Internet; he told me to go back and research it myself. Such is the sad state of “facts” in America today, where a “fact” is anything you want to believe and it’s the other guy’s job to disprove you. But, I digress.
It is true that J. Edger Hoover, the longtime Directer of the FBI, who ran the agency until his death in 1972, denied the existence of the Mafia for decades. Some have speculated that the mob had proof of Hoover’s homosexuality and blackmailed him into leaving them alone, but no actual proof has ever surfaced to back up this story. A more likely explanation is good old fashioned wishful thinking. Hoover liked high-profile, easy targets, like John Dillinger or Bonnie and Clyde, who could be taken out and permanently ended. His FBI also fought organized crime, in various forms, in various cities, but he didn’t want to believe there was a national network between many of these groups. Additionally, Hoover devoted much of his time and the FBI’s manpower to the fight against real and imagined political enemies, particularly communists, which overshadowed and obscured his vision on many fronts. Regardless of his motives, however, the point remains the same. The Mafia was never a conspiracy theory just because Hoover refused to deal with it for many years and after November 14, 1957, when 58 mobsters were arrested at a national meeting in Apalachin, New York, even Hoover had to admit that a national network between organized criminals existed. But this is the problem with people like ConanLiberty, who kind of know something about a piece of history, with little context, and pretend that they know everything. Even worse, they see it as a point of pride to not back down from their beliefs, rather than taking pride in learning the truth.
APPLYING THE DEFINITION IN THE REAL WORLD
Getting back to the definition of a conspiracy theory, let’s consider the assassination of President Kennedy as an example. There have been several investigations, most notably the Warren Commission and the HSCA, which have conclusively demonstrated that Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shots that hit and killed JFK. In more than half a century there has been no credible evidence to show that anyone else was involved in the shooting or directing the shooting. So, this case clearly meets the definition of a conspiracy theory on every point. The, “theorizers,” who often like to call themselves, “researchers,” who claim you cannot trust, “the official story,” are saying, whether they admit it or not:
- The scientific facts, official investigations, journalistic reporting, and historical research are all wrong.
- Some unnamed group was not only able to shoot President Kennedy, but they were able to fool, bribe and/or intimidate every serious expert who has looked at this, from Chief Justice Earl Warren on down to the patrol officers in the Dallas Police, along with reporters, historians, and technical experts/scientists.
- This unnamed group was able to advance some combination of objectives by eliminating JFK that was worth risking their lives for, since they could have faced treason charges and executions if caught.
- This unnamed group, who would all be out of office by now and probably dead, was confident that subsequent generations, who had nothing to do with the plot and nothing to gain from it, would continue to go along with the coverup indefinitely.
We would have similar results if we applied these points to other conspiracy theories, like the idea that the world is flat or that the Holocaust was faked, but these points would not hold up against every act of speculation or every real or imagined secret thing that has ever happened. Take for example, the Mafia. Though some, like Hoover, may have denied it for a time, for their own motives, plenty of establishment figures in the news media and college history departments, as well as local and international law enforcement, knew the Mafia existed. Saying it existed was not a rejection of all standard explanations, official stories, or investigative findings. The Mafia was, and is, a secretive organization, where the membership and duties are not publicly known, but this is not 100%, people do “rat” them out, and they cannot control every official or stop all their actions from being known. They may be able to advance some plots and objectives, when the people involved keep their mouths shut, but these are small scale operations that do not require control of the news media, historians, scientists, and future generations.
So, the next time someone tells you that conspiracy theories are real, and many have been proven so, you need to ask what they really mean by this. What are they looking at and does it actually equate to the kinds of things that we normally call, “conspiracy theories?” Does it meet all four of the points above, or any of them? In reality, all conspiracy theories are fake, because they assume a level of control and secrecy that simply is not possible. Conspiracy theorists fundamentally misunderstand the way the world actually works. There are always competing interest groups and interests within groups, which make such vast and perpetual conspiracies impossible.