There are no whole truths: all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil. Alfred North Whitehead, Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead (1954).
We are all, in some fashion, conspiracy theorists. Scenarios that disturb our sensibilities invoke the spectre of something out of the ordinary, a plan hatched behind closed doors, perhaps. Did that moon landing really take place? (Probably, but why the uneven shadows suggesting a studio set?) Why did the crops fail that summer? The work of witches or venal deities perhaps?
One might assume these to be marginal phenomena. Far from it. Conspiracy theories appeal precisely because they offer standard explanations couched in the language of plausibility. They are weapons; they offer a means of subversion. They are also explanations of faith. The modus operandi of a conspiracy theorist is, in fact, to unearth the truth.
They (the supernatural, the authorities, the state, the officials) are the liars; we flounder in the eternal dark. Then come the messiahs, with their exposés. Director Oliver Stone becomes a warrior in search for truth, his JFK a speculative journey into the “true” reasons behind John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
In the US, the 911Truth campaign ratchets up its campaign “to expose the truth about 9-11”. The mission statement of the organisation has all the ingredients of the classic conspiracy theorist: a marginal voice clamouring for the truth; the veneer of respectability (they believe in “investigative” reporting, no less). Their aim is clear: exposing “the official lies and the cover-up surrounding the events of September 11th, 2001 in a way that inspires the people to overcome denial and understand the truth”.
Conspiracies tap into an existing substratum of suspicions. Thierry Meyssan’s The Horrifying Fraud, a French best seller, supposedly corroborated what many have suspected: existing accounts from the US authorities on the terrorist attacks that day could not be trusted. French suspicions of American intentions naturally bolstered sales. Form triumphed over substance.
Conspiracy theories can be, to a certain extent, “respectable”. Their advocates are often far from the stereotype of marginalised loons cooking the books of history. In the United States, the constitutional system, carefully debated and crafted in the Federalist Papers (1787-1788) by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, was considered by some a plot, another scheme to deceive a nation in its infancy.
At least that was the opinion of an author (possibly Samuel Bryan) calling himself the “Centinel”, who penned a set of anti-Federalist papers in the Independent Gazetteer and the Freeman’s Journal between October 1787 and November 1788.
Considered by American scholar Ed Hunt to be an exemplar of conspiracy theory, the framers were accused of various “conspiratorial projects”. Popular appeal (that phantom behind American political legitimacy) had been embellished; the ratification process had been unduly rushed to prevent careful scrutiny; information had been suppressed, public discussion quelled; the system of checks and balances outlined in the papers would amount to “a many-headed hydra of despotism” worse “than the scourge of any single tyrant”.
Closer to home, Peter Botsman of the Whitlam Institute called the Australian Constitution, in a 1999 work, a “great constitutional swindle”. Sounding much like the author “Centinel”, he considered the Australian document to be a similar fraud, the work of individuals who had fabricated “consensus”, side-stepping “imperfections” and freezing the status quo.
The framers, Botsman would lead us to believe, could not be trusted. Botsman asserts that it was Tasmanian Attorney-General Andrew Inglis Clark, not Sir Samuel Griffith, who composed the critical draft of the Australian Constitution adopted in Sydney in 1891.
The Bush administration, backed by Tony Blair’s evangelism and John Howard’s inventiveness, brandished their own conspiracy theories. Subterfuge, the invisible terrorist, submerged in darkness, resident in caves waiting to strike, became the eponymous image of a modern conspiratorial world. This would spread to states, considered an organised conspiracy of rogues against freedom-loving nations - hence an “axis” (signifying a bond, a compact) of evil.