Essay : The Jews as Contested Ground in Postmodern Conspiracy Theory - Richard Landes
Normally conspiracy theories remain at the margins of a culture. But when conspiracism moves from the margins to the center, and from passive responses to active ones-Nazis and communists in the twentieth century-it can produce convulsions of paranoia and violence that leave tens of millions dead. After World War II, Western culture appeared to have definitively marginalized conspiracy theory. And yet, at the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been an aggressive rise in (traditional) Muslim conspiracism, and a remarkable vulnerability to conspiracy theory in the West. In response to 9/11, a "postmodern" and politically-correct conspiracism has developed that reverses the normal pattern: it accuses "us" and exonerates "them." Thus highly self-critical Westerners acknowledge the accusations of paranoid jihadists. As always with modern conspiracy thinking, the Jews, especially the Zionists, stand at the center of the storm.
Introductory Remarks: Two Anecdotes
The following are two anecdotes from a relatively calm, nonradicalized American campus.
First: I once suggested to a colleague that we have a conference on conspiracy theory. He blanched somewhat and said, "But how could we control the audience?"
Second: I was on a panel in 2000 with three rap artists and an African American professor. The topic was apocalyptic themes in hip-hop music. The notion that the U.S. government was injecting AIDS in African American communities came up so often that a member of the audience asked, "How many on the panel believe these AIDS conspiracies?" The three rap artists all said they did. I said I did not. The African American professor said, "I don't want to answer that, because if I say I do, I'll lose credibility with my colleagues, and if I say I don't, I'll lose credibility with the brothers."
Between them, these two anecdotes reveal two extremely important elements of conspiracy theories:
First, conspiracism is volatile: mere talk about conspiracies and the passions they arouse can hold an audience in thrall. In James C. Scott's terms, conspiracies are "hidden transcripts," pushed out of what is permissible to say publicly. Just to speak of them is to court an eruption of hidden transcripts into the public sphere. And given that the Shoah was perpetrated by a people in the grip of mass paranoia, who believed in a giant Jewish conspiracy, this is no small matter.
Second, conspiracism is far more common than the public record registers: more than the three rap artists, the professor's response reveals both the depth of the belief and its communitywide validity. No one can question it without being viewed as having abandoned the community; in this case, without becoming an "Oreo." This suggests that within certain communities, there exists a public transcript at complete variance with that of the larger culture, a variance that needs addressing.
Conspiracy Thinking: Definitions and Dynamics
A conspiracy theory seeks to explain either one extremely important event (singular conspiracy) or a whole pattern of events (global conspiracy) bypositing a small group of conspirators who (a) carry out a nefarious deed of great damage to the public, and (b) where necessary, manipulate the public to blame the wrong agents. Most singular conspiracy theories tend to work on the principle of cui bono (to whom the good? i.e., who benefits?) and explain past events as plots carried out by those who benefited. Why did Roosevelt let Pearl Harbor happen? Because then he had his excuse to go to war.
Much of the culture of past conspiracy theory is passive and fatalistic; who can fight such powerful hidden forces? The "explanations" are cognitive and emotional consolation prizes: "Now we know why we're losers, and it's not our fault."
Most global conspiracy theories seek to explain larger cultural phenomena, particularly modernity (the earliest modern conspiracy theories began in the late eighteenth century with the Masons [Illuminati] blamed for democracy in America and France). Because they warn about a conspiracy in progress, they frequently involve a critical question of timing-how far advanced is the conspiracy? Some global conspiracies, because they have not yet succeeded, can, under the right circumstances, provoke believers to action. The most powerful large-scale conspiracy theories convey a sense that the final stages have been reached; that a great battle looms; that if action is not imminent, it will be too late.
All global conspiracy theories contain the three basic elements of apocalyptic movements: (a) they are radical and stunning revelations about the otherwise opaque and troubling present; (b) they are part of a larger cataclysmic final transformation of the world; and (c) they are about to happen,imminent. Among the cataclysmic variety of apocalyptic scenarios-that is, the ones that imagine huge destruction as part of the process-almost all involve elaborate global conspiracies at work. Indeed, one might argue that the most powerful active cataclysmic apocalyptic movements who believe that they are the agents of this huge devastation and utopian rebirth, have global conspiracy theories as a central element of their discourse (Nazism, communism, global jihad).
Psychological Dynamics: Appeal?
From the perspective of modern, empirical thought, most conspiracy theories seem irrational. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for example, are transparent forgeries whose sources historians can track down and reveal to the impartial reader. But such rational maneuvers have limited impact on believers who readily argue, as did Hitler about the Protocols, that even if they are forged, they represent a higher truth. Conspiracy theory's perennial appeal demands explanation.
Conspiracy theories explain catastrophes as the work of men who appear beneficent but secretly conspire to bring about those catastrophes. They assume the worst of these connivers who are so consumed by the desire to dominate others that they will stop at absolutely nothing to achieve their goal. Conspiracy theories simplify the moral universe: the bad things that happen to us are not our fault, they are the fault of evil others.
Future-oriented conspiracy theories seek to warn an innocent victim population of the plots that these unscrupulous "others" are setting in motion against them. In particular, global conspiracy theory tends to scapegoat. As René Girard has pointed out, scapegoating emphasizes the innocence of the accuser and the guilt of the designated victim. "Conspiracism," notes Chip Berlet, "is a particular narrative form of scapegoating that frames demonized enemies as part of a vast insidious plot against the common good, while it valorizes the scapegoater as a hero for sounding the alarm."
Conspiracy theories work on several psychological levels. Cognitively, they offer a gratifying worldview that explains everything. All details cohere, unnoticed or unexplained facts fit into place, and patterns emerge. Everything connects, gains shape, texture, and color. To the believer, now semiotically aroused with his new hermeneutic, the troubling world makes sense, compelling sense. Conspiracy theory is Gnostic: it is powerful hidden knowledge, available only to the initiate; it is powerfully attractive, and even true if only by virtue of being stigmatized by the dominant culture.
Moreover, conspiracy theories tend to engage in systematic projection of bad faith onto the conspirators. The articulators of and believers in conspiracy theories live in a universe of "cognitive egocentrism" where everyone is driven by libido dominandi: everyone wants to dominate and, as Eli Sagan puts it pithily in describing the basic political axiom of the premodern political world, it is "rule or be ruled." The only motivation possible among the conspiring "enemy" is a ruthless lust for power.
The emotional blandishments of conspiracy theory are at least as attractive as the cognitive rewards. They offer above all freedom from any responsibility: failures, setbacks, and sufferings are not the victim's fault; they are the work of the conspirators. The dualistic moral universe of "us" and "them" provided by conspiracy theory yields stark and simple contrasts with no gray areas. Conspiracy theories are a quintessential expression of what might be called a hidden transcript of resentment.
Furthermore, conspiracy theory demands and justifies extreme action. Anything is permitted when struggling for one's very existence against some agent plotting to destroy "us." By projecting one's own desire to dominate onto the "other," one absolves oneself of these tendencies and permits oneself to have these desires purely "in defense" of the innocent self. At their worst, they are "warrants for genocide."
Conditions for Conspiracy Theory
Conspiracy theories are always present at a low level in any society (and, following Sagan, they are justified in premodern conditions where the aristocratic elite is indeed engaged in a successful conspiracy to take and hold power). The real question is, when do they take over and drive a culture to act on paranoid fears? Or, to consider a problematic scenario suggested to this author by Anthony Kauders in 2006, how do these theories go from the public sphere of private conversations-coffee-shop and tavern culture-to part of the public discourse? To take a graphic example from the French Revolution, when, and how, did the paranoid chatter of the sans culottes become the policy of the Committee of Public Safety? When does paranoia dominate the public and political discourse?
Specific conspiracy theories tend to arise from cataclysmic events-Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, 9/11-and unless they are connected to a larger plot, remain relatively low-key. Collective or global conspiracy theories, on the other hand, tend to arise in civil societies, among a group that might be called Nietzsche's "blond beasts at bay." These formerly dominant predators who, at the advent of civil society, lost the authoritarian powers granted them by aristocratic societies (honor killing, trial by combat, privileges before the law), tend to imagine modernity as an unfinished conspiracy designed to replace their (now former) aristocratic dominion with a new and far more vicious form of universal slavery.
The antimodern conspiracist simply cannot believe that anyone can be stupid enough to actually believe in things like "freedom" and "democracy." To paraphrase the forgers of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion: slogans of freedom are ruses to trick (Gentile) nations into disarming and thus make it possible for the militarily weak (Jews) to seize power. As the forgers put it:
Political freedom is an idea but not a fact. This idea one must know how to apply whenever it appears necessary with this bait of an idea to attract the masses of the people to one's party for the purpose of crushing another who is in authority. This task is rendered easier if the opponent has himself been infected with the idea of freedom, SO-CALLED LIBERALISM, and, for the sake of an idea, is willing to yield some of his power. It is precisely here that the triumph of our theory appears; the slackened reins of government are immediately, by the law of life, caught up and gathered together by a new hand, because the blind might of the nation cannot for one single day exist without guidance, and the new authority merely fits into the place of the old already weakened by liberalism....
In all corners of the earth the words "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," brought to our ranks, thanks to our blind agents, whole legions who bore our banners with enthusiasm. And all the time these words were canker-worms at work boring into the well-being of the GOYIM, putting an end everywhere to peace, quiet, solidarity [sic!] and destroying all the foundations of the GOY States. As you will see later, this helped us to our triumph: it gave us the possibility, among other things, of getting into our hands the master card-the destruction of the privileges, or in other words of the very existence of the aristocracy of the GOYIM, that class which was the only defense peoples and countries had against us.
Thus, antimodern conspiracy theories seem to be a natural companion of modern societies, a kind of toxic refuse churned up by the effort to impose equality before the law on an obviously recalcitrant aristocracy.
The danger of falling prey to such thinking is clear: when one credits the frustrated fantasies of those one wishes to dominate, one ends up unleashing the very powers one thought to contest. Germans who viewed Hitler as the savior who would snatch them from the jaws of the rapacious Jews, fell into the very trap they fled. For Hitler's voice was precisely the voice that, in their paranoid fantasies, the forgers had projected onto the Jews. Thus, when Hitler read the Protocols, it inspired him: "We must beat the Jew with his own weapon. I saw that the moment I read the book...down to the veriest detail I found the Protocols immensely instructive [on such topics as] political intrigue, the technique of conspiracy, revolutionary subversion, prevarication, deception, organization."
When modern societies fall into conspiracy theory-when, for example, those in power invoke a clear and present danger as a pretext for eliminating any criticism (since criticism is part of the conspiracy)-historically the consequences have been grave. The French revolutionary terror, repeated on a colossal scale by the Russians, Germans, and Chinese in the twentieth century, represents the catastrophic results that can ensue from the intoxicating grip of such madness. Given the destructiveness of conspiracy theories, successful modern societies have developed a healthy resistance to their swan song.
Conspiracy theory seems to be a low-level constant, a marginal but enduring discourse in all cultures. The key factor, in terms of conditions under which conspiracy theory takes over public discourse, concerns less what produces such thought than what makes it spread. Indeed, meditating on Scott's work suggests that conspiracy thinking may be a major dimension of most "hidden-transcript" discourse in most cultures, especially in ones where the conspiracy has won and installed an aristocratic minority that monopolizes power. Conspiracies tend to enjoy success at moments of crisis, when distant events create chain reactions that bring ruin upon many (e.g., the Great Depression).
The Scapegoating Function
Conspiratorial narratives that accuse marginal and vulnerable groups as the conspirators, tend to operate as scapegoating mechanisms, focusing anger and hostility on designated victims that distract from the real suffering these "scenarios" try to explain. At their extreme, such narratives appeal precisely because they absolve the guilty and victimize the innocent.
This type of scapegoating conspiracy theory inevitably leads to seriously self-destructive behavior, misidentifying the source of the suffering and often strengthening it by attacking a victim chosen by the agents of the suffering. As a result, although attacking the mistaken foe may offer immediate if temporary psychological relief, in the long run it intensifies the grip of those who actually impose the suffering. When European populations rose to the paranoid call of rumors about witches and Jews and lepers poisoning their wells and ruining their lives, they placed themselves squarely into the vice grip of an ecclesiastical Inquisition that blighted European life for centuries.
By alleviating the need for self-criticism-indeed, declaring self-criticism a betrayal of the cause against the conspirators-conspiracy theory relegates the seduced cultures to a cycle of failure and depression: when serious consideration of past errors cannot take place (i.e., history is dishonest), societies have flat learning curves. Moreover, rendering all relations with the "other" necessarily antagonistic makes it difficult to solve problems with positive-sum outcomes (win-win). Conspiracy theories are the crystallization of a whole worldview of what anthropologists call "absolute scarcity"-every relationship, every event is zero-sum, every motive is hostile, every exchange is an attack, and everyone is a suspect.
Given its destructive capacities, conspiracy-theory discourse rarely appears in the public space; and when it does breach the public transcript, silence, contempt, and hostility beat it back to the private sphere posthaste. One of the keys to determining the severity of a conspiracism outbreak is monitoring what happens when a conspiracy-theory discourse goes public. If the public accepts rather than rejects it, the dominant culture in which such a narrative "takes" is in for a rough ride, especially if that narrative is a global or future-oriented conspiracy theory.
But for conspiracy theory to influence mainstream society it must have the means of disseminating its message en masse. Many who think conspiratorially never divulge their views to others since they rarely find friendly ears, or if so, only those of other outcasts. Access to means of mass communication for people whom the "gatekeepers" normally keep out of public discourse vastly increases the ability of conspiracy theory to "take" among a larger audience of people. Thus, print, telephone, and especially the Internet have immensely increased the scope and nascent power of conspiracy. Indeed, given the Internet's capacity to bring together likeminded people from all over the world to exchange conspiracy theories and anomalous "facts," the number of identifiable conspiracies, and the heat their discussion generates, have grown exponentially over the past fifteen years.
If anything, the Internet represents a petri dish for conspiracy theories. This is especially evident in the increased number of conspiracies pertaining to the last few presidents. Bill Clinton had more than all the previous ones-Nixon and Kennedy included-and Bush surpassed Clinton's record in his first term. Additionally, the Internet provides a semblance of authenticity, much like television in its early stages: to those who thirst for "stigmatized knowledge," if it is on the Internet, it must be true.
Conspiracy Theory in the Arab and Muslim World
It is something of a given that the Arab and Muslim media are full of conspiracy thinking. Indeed, anyone bold enough to defy Edward Said's prohibition on seeing Arabs as different from Westerners, notes among the most salient features of Arab culture a propensity for conspiracy theory: everything is part of a plot; every action has secret and malevolent motives. The frequency with which even quotidian political events are conceived as moves in a grand conspiratorial chess game confirms what observation has shown: this is a culture where the political axiom "rule or be ruled" dominates.
Nor is this kind of thinking a recent phenomenon. After World War II, for example, the Nazi conspiracy theories about the Jews-in particular, their foundational conspiracy theory, the Protocols-were the beneficiaries of the legendary Arab hospitality. The Protocols conveniently provided the perfect escape from confronting their military humiliations: the failure to wipe out any trace of an independent state made by dhimmis. This same need for evasion accounts for why one of the major debates in the Arab world today is whether the United States is a pawn of Israel or vice versa.
Daniel Pipes's 1998 book The Hidden Hand describes the role of conspiracy theory in the Arab world. There he finds a mentality that pervades almost all forms of thought, and contributes fundamentally to both the insolubility of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the economic stagnation of the Arab world. But he also finds that conspiracy theory works primarily as a depressant: the forces are so great, the Arabs so victimized, that nothing can be done. Pipes finds this quality dominant: "Conspiracy theories induce a sense of hopelessness. The enemy looms larger than life, demonic, massively competent, and forever plotting; in contrast the conspiracy theorist underestimates his own power." This coincided with a widespread perception of Islam as a fatalist religion-Insh'Allah.
Since 2000, however, things have changed significantly in the Arab and Muslim world on two major levels. First, the intensity, variety, and sophistication of the conspiracies' representations have risen exponentially. The elaborate film and TV series depicting horrendous, bloodthirsty Jewish conspiracies to destroy Arabs and Islam have brought public discussion of these themes to a new and vivid prominence. Similarly the variety of conspiratorial narratives, borrowed from the Europeans (e.g., blood libels) and given new twists (e.g., baked goods for the Purim holiday, rather than Passover matzah, made with Christian or Muslim boys' blood), appear in mainstream Arab media.
A cursory glance at the content of a sample of such outlets (from Palestinian Authority TV to Al Jazeera to Al-Ahram) reveals a degree of paranoia, hatemongering, and conspiracism with few parallels in recorded history. Indeed, future historians will probably find that the anti-Semitism in early twenty-first century Arab and Muslim society was even more fevered than that of the Nazis.
Right after 9/11, Muslim conspiracy theories about the Mossad's culpability for the attacks mushroomed. This phenomenon should have been a wakeup call to the problem of an entirely different mentality that operates in the Arab and Muslim world, a mentality where conspiracy is not relegated to a discredited fringe but publicly embraced by prominent elites.
Even in moderate, pro-Western Muslim circles one finds pervasive, almost naïve recourse to conspiracy theory. In a recent statement by the apparently genuinely moderate Muslim Canadian Congress (MCC) (they oppose shari'a law in the West), their spokesman Tariq Fatah expressed approval at the recent preemptive arrest of Muslim terrorists in Canada. While attacking these extremists, he also remarked: "It is ironic that Muslim extremists are portraying themselves as anti-imperialist, when in fact Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are nothing more but a creation of the CIA"  (emphasis added). Thus the conspiracy theory-with all its profound misunderstandings of how things "work"-allows Tariq Fatah, by reducing al-Qaeda to a U.S. creation, to exclude it from the Islamic fold.
In addition to the new intensity of conspiracy thinking since 2000, there has been an even more alarming switch in the message directed to the "victims": from passive fatalism to active resistance. Indeed the emergence of global jihad has accompanied, fed, and ridden on the wave of this intensified conspiracism. The turn of the millennium has shifted the gears of the Muslim world's reaction to the conspiratorial narratives: from the fatalistic Insh'Allah to the defiant and proud Allahu Akhbar!
This shift to the offensive, already in motion among certain, relatively marginal jihadi figures such as Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinain disciple of Sayed Qutb, as well as Bin Laden, and organizations such as Hizballah, Hamas, and al-Qaeda, first encountered success in the public arena with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in the fall of 2000. From that point on a new and more aggressive form of conspiracy theory and attendant demonization of the "conspirators" took on worldwide proportions: from the outbreak of the intifada, to the convening of the Durban Conference, to blaming the U.S. government and Israel for 9/11. It continues to spread, from the Middle East to Europe, the United States, Far East Asia and beyond.
Like most active cataclysmic conspiracy theory-there is a massive conspiracy out there that can and must be fought-this Muslim jihadi one has heavy doses of apocalyptic rhetoric, symbolism and, accordingly, absolutist logic. Muslims are under worldwide attack; their very existence is at stake; they must exterminate or be exterminated. Suicide terrorism first received its justification as part of a desperate and mighty apocalyptic battle between good and evil; and after 2000, received large majorities of support in demonstrations and public opinion polls. In other words, in the Arab world since 2000 conspiracy theory has both become more influential in the mainstream and become operational, a highly ominous development.
Conspiracy Theory in the West
The situation in the West differs from that in the Middle East. As a culture, democracies have considerable resistance to conspiracy theory as well as to apocalyptic narratives, especially cataclysmic ones. It is arguable that these resistances are indispensable elements of a successful civil society, and that when they fail-as they did in France in 1793, or Russia in 1917-tyranny and terror result.
Before 2000 there were certainly important elements of conspiracy theory at play in Western culture-the two most popular examples being the Kennedy assassination and UFOs-but voicing these conspiratorial narratives was a ticket either to obscurity or Hollywood. Observers noted a considerable increase of conspiracy thinking in the 1990s, but it still lay below most people's screens. Whereas Westerners may have played with conspiracy theory for fun (X-Files), Arabs and Muslim killed for it (Iraq-Iran war). For the modern, post-Holocaust Western public sphere, conspiracies are a last resort to explain reality; in the Middle East, they are the first and often only resort.
But conspiracy thinking cuts deeper into Western attitudes than simple contrasts with the Arab world suggest. Nazism and communism both imploded on their paranoia, and totalitarianism, with its apocalyptic paranoias, is a Western invention. The lack of scholarly attention to the subject may understandably reflect the profound unease that nonconspiracists feel when getting involved in these exceptionally intricate and overheated explanations for reality: just in order to refute them, one must learn an enormous amount of detail. But they must be understood, especially now that the Internet has drastically changed the dynamics at such a dangerous and critical juncture. For just as communicating conspiracy theories through cyberspace makes them widely available, a serious culture war between a "progressive secular Left" and a "conservative fundamentalist Right," each willing to demonize the other, makes them highly attractive.
The approach and passage of 2000 have played a significant role in intensifying conspiracy-theory culture in the United States: the mythical imagination-UFOs, unknown underground races, scientific experiments gone awry-combined with the politics of impeachment to foster an ever-expanding menu of outrageous explanations from which to choose. In particular, the events of 9/11 have fostered an immense range of conspiracy theories not only in the Arab and Muslim world but in the West as well. Indeed, arguably these have penetrated farther and affected people more than any previous case of presidential conspiracy theory.
Democrats have the same (if not greater) hostility to the current Republican president as did the Republicans to "Billary." Indeed this hostility has prompted Charles Krauthammer to coin the expression Bush Derangement Syndrome (BDS), which he describes as "the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency-nay-the very existence of George W. Bush." Considering the deranged behavior of the Republicans resulting from Clinton's trysts in the back corridors of the White House, and before that the ferocious attacks on virtually every American president, one might identify BDS as Presidential Derangement Syndrome, Version 43.2.
The increasing hostility between "liberals" and "conservatives" in the United States, a reflection of the larger "culture wars" that plague every modern culture to some extent, feeds conspiracy theory by encouraging the combatants to indulge their desire to believe the worst of their opponents. In the case of the most recent, current, and still "living" conspiracy theory-namely, Bush and 9/11-both personal and national animus play a prominent role. This is true both of Europeans across the political spectrum with their deep resentment of the United States' "world hegemony" as well as people on the American Left.
This animosity is critical in imagining a president capable of, at worst, plotting to destroy three of the most important American sites while killing thousands if not tens of thousands of Americans, all for motives that range from sagging polls, a desire to avenge his father in Iraq, Halliburton contracts in war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan, to plans for a new fascist world order. The degree of bad faith that these conspiracies accept as "assumed" in the logic of the argument says a great deal about how they view their fellow Americans, and leadership. The existence of a conspiracy of such magnitude-entailing active planning and cooperation-would require at least the following phenomena:
- A president and a tiny inner circle capable of thinking in these terms about politics, power, and American citizens, planning the exploit during the first nine months of the administration, and keeping it secret from everyone else in the cabinetMultiple members of the FBI and CIA willing to collaborate on such a malevolent and radically unconstitutional deed, without a leak before or after the factA president, chosen to bring good times to rich people, carrying out so damaging an attack-both to the economy and the prestige of the United States-during his presidency for either petty or megalomaniacal motives
In other words, people who believe in this conspiracy theory have an immensely low opinion of the people in the U.S. government. In a sense, they must consider these elites to be pure evil, every bit as unprincipled and predatory as earlier aristocracies who would, indeed, sacrifice commoners' lives with little hesitation. One might even argue that this particular conspiracy, when attributed to an American president, represents one of the most terrible of all such theories, far worse in its moral implications than the theory linking Roosevelt to Pearl Harbor.
Conspiracy theorists are not ignorant of the counterarguments. But for them, it explains the reluctance of people to believe their conspiracy theory rather than a reason not to believe it. As Paul Griffin, author of The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions about the Bush Administration and 9/11,writes: "It is very difficult for Americans to face the possibility that their own government may have caused or deliberately allowed such a heinous event." Of course, someone like Griffin, an American professor, needs to address such a problem. For French journalist Thierry Meyssan, whoseL'effroyable imposture, or German author and former politician Andreas von Bülow, whose Die CIA und der 11. September, both became bestsellers, there is no such need: European dislike of the United States, and particularly of George Bush make their arguments self-explanatory.
But of course Griffin (whose work is riddled with errors and inconsistencies), and other 9/11 conspiracists feel no need to explain how so many people in the government could get involved in such morally aberrant behavior without anyone leaking it. It goes without saying that for Griffin and others, this is a real, and even likely, possibility. Like all conspiracy theory, this one assumes that people in power are naturally evil.
The success of conspiracy theories about 9/11 represents a relatively new stage in Western conspiracy theory. Unlike the Arab and Muslim world, where conspiracy theories were already mainstream before 2000 and became virulent afterwards, in the West such theories were banished from the mainstream: in the postwar period the very mention of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a legitimate book stigmatized the speaker.
9/11 conspiracy theories, however, have invaded the public sphere-coffee houses, taverns, dinner conversations, TV personalities, books and journals, and even elected officials. Although mainstream media still refuse to give these notions credibility, they simmer just under the surface. On 4 June 2006, the first conference on 9/11 conspiracy took place, and an article about it in the New York Times topped its list of "most emailed."
These theories about Bush show all the signs of serving the normal functions of conspiracy theories: demonizing and scapegoating the target while exculpating major sources of the problem. In other words, far more than a real battle of "facts," these theories represent a major piece in a chess game of culture wars, in which one sees the near enemy-here the Republican administration-as much worse than the far enemy-in this case global jihad. Indeed, recognizing this near evil-as in Noam Chomsky's Fateful Triangle-enables denying the very existence of the far enemy. Behind the 9/11 deception Bush has launched a "false war on terror."
We have met the enemy and he is us. As for those Muslims out there who rant and scream about wanting to massacre us, they are artifacts of our imperial arrogance. When we stop oppressing them, they will stop wanting to kill us.
Moral Equivalence, Multiculturalism, and "Progressive" Conspiracy Theory
If the preceding analysis is correct, then there is a need for serious thought about two major issues: what is it that makes Western culture susceptible to conspiracy at this time and what can be done about it? Two points are in order here. First, moral-equivalence multiculturalism plays a significant role in a divisive culture war precisely at a time when the genuinely multicultural tolerance of civil society is under attack. Second, the Jews may be the key to unraveling this dysfunctional knot that so endangers the West's-and the world's-experiment with human freedom.
Moral Equivalence and the Culture Wars
Some forms of multiculturalism provide valuable, if not critical, dimensions of civil society-tolerance and respect for the dignity of difference, for the "other." This tolerance, however, extends to those also committed to practicing it. It participates in a social contract in which all parties agree to maintain civic standards. Predatory or intolerant behavior does not qualify for "respect." Civil society, with its tolerance, self-criticism, positive-sum preferences, and efforts to grant as much freedom to everyone as possible-precisely because it takes so much effort to sustain-must acknowledge and value accomplishment.
On the other hand, multiculturalism informed by "moral equivalence" poses a serious problem to civil society. The notion that all cultures are equal-that one's own culture has so many flaws, both current and inherited, that one cannot judge other cultures by its standards-ironically renders society particularly susceptible to the kind of paranoid thinking that informs much conspiracy thinking. When moral equivalence is taken to mean that Westerners are as bad (or worse) than the products of authoritarian cultures that despise tolerance (e.g., Bush = Saddam Hussein, Blair =Ahmadinejad), one assumes the worst of one's own culture and gives undue credence to the products of another culture that is steeped in conspiracy theory. In so doing one opens the gates of paranoia: I cannot believe that Osama bin Laden would do 9/11; I would sooner believe that the president of the United States did it.
Moral equivalence certainly has its appeal. Since the early 1980s it has dominated both media and academic discourse about the Middle East, making it forbidden, on pain of accusations of racism, to identify primitive cultural traits (such as warrior honor-shame culture) and their current pathological forms (honor-killing one's daughter when she is raped by one's son), or to discuss the less savory aspects of Islamic imperialism and their lengthy pedigree (such as Dar-al-Harb and dhimmitude). At the same time, moral equivalence feeds a self-critical faculty that borders on self-hatred.
During the 1960s among many French intellectuals cultural relativism came to supplant the liberal virtue of "tolerance"-a precept that remained tied to norms mandating a fundamental respect for human integrity. When combined with an antihumanist-inspired Western self-hatred, ethical relativism engendered an uncritical Third Worldism, an orientation that climaxed in Foucault's enthusiastic endorsement of Iran's Islamic Revolution. Since the "dictatorship of the mullahs" was anti-modern, anti-Western, and anti-liberal, it satisfied ex negativo many of the political criteria that Third Worldists had come to view as "progressive." Similarly, Lévi-Strauss's unwillingness to differentiate between the progressive and regressive strands of political modernity-for instance, between democracy and fascism-suggests one of the perils of structuralism. By preferring the "view from afar" or the "longue durée," the structuralists, like the anti-philosophes of yore, denigrated the human capacities of consciousness and will. Instead, in their optic, history appeared as a senseless fate, devoid of rhyme or reason, consigned a priori to the realm of unintelligibility.
Moral equivalence constitutes an important dimension of multiculturalism as it is currently practiced, with its constant refrain, "Who are we to judge?" Or, still more imbalanced: "What we do is oppression, what they do is their culture."All cultures, this line of reasoning runs, have their own sets of values, and to imply a hierarchy of values is a form of cultural imperialism that must be renounced so as to live in peace with each other (itself a judgment that not all cultures are willing to make). In a therapeutic act of goodwill that displays their generosity, stupidity, and secret condescension, Westerners say: "Don't worry, we are as bad as you are...even worse." Said's Orientalism appeals fundamentally to such sentiments.
This kind of "therapeutic approach" is the intercultural strain of a peculiar trait of modern civil societies, namely, their extraordinary willingness to be self-critical. Self-criticism lies at the core of modern society's abilities; without open criticism and the ability to change one's mind and learn from one's mistakes, there would be no modern academy, no science and technology, no meritocracy, no approximation of equality before the law, none of the transformative elements that permit a civil society. But self-criticism can become pathological, a kind of intellectual form of beaten-wife syndrome: "If he's angry it must be my fault." At its extreme it has a kind of messianic quality to it, a kind of masochistic omnipotence fantasy, in which if everything is our fault, then by changing ourselves we can fix everything. Thus there is the spectacle of a culture (the West, with Israel in the lead) willing to publicly self-criticize at levels never attained in the recorded history of civilizations.
At these heightened levels, self-criticism produces not mere moral equivalence but moral inversion: "We (Israel, the United States, the West) are not only as bad as you are, we're worse." This brand of moral disorientation has fueled the massive failures of the "progressive Left" since 2000: its hate-fest at Durban in August 2001, which turned a conference against racism into a Muslim-led assault on Israel and the United States; its feeding frenzies over al-Durah and Jenin; its boycotts and divestment campaigns against Israel even as genocidal wars rage around the world. When Chomsky declared, in the wake of 9/11, that Americans were the worst terrorists, he opened the door to the conspiracy theories that teem through Western culture today. 
To appreciate the depth of this perverse double standard, a thought experiment is helpful. What would be the reaction of a left-wing, Bush-and-Sharon-hating, 9/11 conspiracist to the suggestion that Hamas planned the Gaza Beach massacre of 9 June 2006-that is, deliberately blew up a Palestinian family of seven at the beach so as to accuse the Israelis-because of sagging polls, the threat of Mahmoud Abbas's "peace referendum," and a desire to embarrass Olmert before his trip to Europe. Cries of racism and shrill indignation would drown out the ample evidence one might provide that Palestinian leaders systematically sacrifice their own children for public relations advantages. And yet this same person, without hesitation, embraces far worse thoughts about his own administration's engagement in conspiracy, an administration that is the political product of over two centuries of sustained effort to purge such vicious behavior from the elected elites-a self-destructive satire worthy of Molière.
Patterns of Projection
In that sense, 9/11 actually constitutes a new direction in the history of conspiracy theory. Normally, conspiracy theories operate so as to scapegoat someone else and assert both one's innocence and one's right to violence. This depends on a projection of what psychologists call cognitive egocentrism: "they" think like "we" do. 9/11 conspiracy theory, as part of a larger project of morally equivalent multiculturalism, actually reverses this process: "They don't think like we do, their elites would not engage in conspiracies, while ours would. It's not Osama, it's Bush."
Indeed, left-wing "progressives" who believe in 9/11 conspiracies systematically project goodwill onto the cultural "other" -"Islam is a religion of peace.... Bin Laden and Hamas have good reason for their anger, and if only we'd stop attacking them, they'd stop attacking us...." The next step after blaming Bush is exonerating Bin Laden: Bush is creating an Islamic bogeyman who does not exist; the U.S. government's behavior since 9/11 presents a greater threat than Bin Laden. Bin Laden is an agent of the United States. "Bush is ten times worse than Bin Laden." Meanwhile, the "other" -global Islamism, particularly in its dominant Salafism- systematically projects bad will onto Westerners (concessions and apologies cannot be sincere or meant to help, they are either a trick or a sign of weakness).
This Möbius Strip of cognitive egocentrism-we believe the best of them, they, the worst of us-is exceedingly dangerous. Policies based on it tend to backfire to the detriment of those who earnestly seek to make them work. They have brought the Trojan Horse of the Oslo "peace process," the current French response to their own intifada in which the role of Islam cannot/must not be acknowledged, and the Anglican bishops' dialogue with Islam in which two supersessionist ("chosen") religions agree to attack their monotheistic ancestor, the Jews, for thinking they are the chosen people.
Why would this liberal cognitive egocentrism, i.e., projecting one's good intentions, lead so quickly to hell? Why is "good-neighborliness" not working right now?
Partly because of the role of demopaths: people who use the language of democracy, human rights, and tolerance, not because they believe in these notions and are willing to make the sacrifices involved in guaranteeing them for others, but because they can use them to disarm the West itself. Demopaths "use democracy to destroy democracy."
And when you let them in, they plan to push you out. Currently, the largest collection of demopaths and their dupes can be found in interactions between Islamists and Westerners. From the West's point of view, it is dialogue and moderation; from theirs, it is dawa, the verbal dimension of jihad of conquest.
Given the radical instability of sustaining such an intensely inaccurate view of reality, those who insist on seeing their enemies as innocent must find an explanation for the evil that continues to flourish despite their well-meaning efforts. And this gives rise to the peculiar postmodern twist: "We're the evil ones." If Bush was responsible for 9/11, then the world does make sense: they may well be angry with us, but it's because of what we do. They are angry with us for our aggressive imperialist leaders; if we stop them, everything will be better. Get out of Iraq, withdraw from the West Bank, give money and programs to the "lost territories of the [French] Republic," open dialogues and change the rules so that Islam can have a full place at the table of tolerant nations.
And in assuming that this way will work, its proponents consider any failure the fault of their fellow Westerners who confront rather than accommodate Islamist demands. The extreme result of such an approach, all too often reached, has "left-wing" conspiracists adopting the conspiracy arguments of Muslims that Bush, not Osama did 9/11.
The British case after the London bombings of 7 July 2005 (7/7) shows the classic pattern of conspiratorial denial and projection of responsibility. An April 2007 poll of five hundred Muslims indicated that 24 percent strongly believed or suspected that (a) the Muslims identified as the bombers did not commit the bombings, and (b) British security forces were involved in some way, with 68 percent believing that the Muslim community did not bear any responsibility for the emergence of extremists willing to attack UK targets. Indeed, in another poll of British Muslims by ICM Research in the immediate aftermath (July 2005), 58 percent felt that Tony Blair was "a lot" responsible for the London bombings because of his invasion of Iraq.
These attitudes came readily together in the writings of "progressivists" such as Ghali Hassan. He at once accused the British government of carrying out the bombings to create fear and hatred of, and institute repressive measures against Muslims, and excused, if not justified, violent "resistance" to Blair's terroristic occupation of Iraq. So conspiracy-minded Muslims refuse to acknowledge what their fellow Muslims have done "in the name of Allah," then accuse the British of inventing these deeds so as to spread Islamophobia, and finally, attack the Blair administration for the Iraqi invasion that justifies the terrorism that Muslims did not commit. In some ways this is akin to the Palestinians denying the Holocaust and then accusing Israel of doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to them. Nor is there any shortage of Western "progressives" such as Jacques Martin who press the same lines of attack.
Now it may serve Muslims either to keep silent on these matters (New York, London, Madrid) or to blame someone else. But, in the long run, it deeply undermines their ability to deal effectively with so predatory a religious phenomenon as al-Qaeda. Similarly, when the Western "Left" embraces this kind of thinking with regard to Western elected officials, "progressive" conspiracism (far more mainstream among Europeans) clouds the West's ability to think clearly about the dangers it faces.
These converging streams of conspiratorial thought and mobilization at the turn of the new century represent a genuinely self-destructive turn of events. For the Western dupes, this willingness to believe the worst of their own culture is considered the height of self-criticism and evidence of one's progressive commitment to overcoming Western imperialistic/nationalist/racist impulses; for Islamist demopaths, this is standard procedure: demonize the enemy by projecting your own plans onto him. The Möbius Strip of cognitive egocentrism produces a single conclusion: the West is attacking itself. Both positions are poisonous; together they are weaponized poison because they make it nearly impossible to properly identify the problem or admit the evidence. Thinking creatively about our future-a global issue-will require engaging with empirical reality.
The Jews, Conspiracy Theory, Culture War
So far the "Jewish question" has been addressed here only obliquely. Jews and Israel, however, play an important role in the current thrash of cultures that grows so abrasive in this age of "advanced" globalization.
In the last millennium of Western and Middle Eastern history, the more fevered the conspiracy theory, the more the Jews play a key role- from blood libels to global plots to enslave mankind. This same fevered quality is again evident in postmodern anti-Zionism: Israel, whose behavior on both the battlefield and the street has set standards that few nations can match (for example, the refusal to use air power in Jenin in 2002, thus forcing soldiers to go house-to-house at risk to their lives), becomes the embodiment of a war criminal (the "Jenin massacre"); the Palestinians, whose behavior sets new lows in moral degradation (suicide terrorism, genocidal indoctrination of children), become the "chosen people."
Indeed, to take up a repeated Arab/Muslim claim today, the Arab-Israeli conflict lies at the core of the global problem. This is true, but not because Israel's existence prohibits peace, but because attitudes the world over toward Israel embody all the contradictions that paralyze the ability to discern and think clearly about the empirical reality. There is an inability to distinguish the demopaths from the democrats, the enemies of the freedoms of tolerance from those genuinely committed to those progressive values.
Israel is the knot in the Möbius Strip, and at the heart of that knot lies the paradigmatic issue of anti-Zionist Jews, whose harsh criticism of Israel and its Jewish supporters registers on outsiders as an affirmation of the claims of the Arab and Muslim world. Any "liberal" who defends Israel gets exiled from the "progressive" camp and labeled "neocon," and any "radical" criticized by those "neocons" gets relabeled a "liberal" and treasured for his or her contribution to diversity. The result is a catastrophe for any real liberalism, any ability of people with good intentions to work with reliable information about matters of great importance. Israelis, Jews, Zionists- all committed to the progressive value of self-criticism-become the driving wedge of a culture war that is fueled by a consistent inability to distinguish friend from foe. This is the siren song of postmodern conspiracy theory: "we" are to blame, our "enemy" is innocent.
But if the status of the Jews is a driving wedge of this (potentially fatal) culture conflict, it may also represent the route to resolving both the internal conflict (Right and Left) and the clash of civilizations (Islam and modern civil societies). If the Anglicans-or Jostein Gaarder-had the generosity of spirit not to harbor supersessionist resentments against the Jews (we have replaced you as the chosen people), they could turn to the real and dangerous supersessionists, the Muslims, and, instead of entering in a private and deadly Judeophobic pact with them, insist that the measure of their ability to get along with the Jews be the mark of their sincerity in participating in a civil society.
The same applies to the French and their Muslims, whose aggressions against the "Republic" began soon after they turned on the North African Jewish communities with which they had shared neighborhoods from the time they immigrated.
Finally there is the world community, which, if it wants a genuinely multicultural, civic globe in the twenty-first century, must face the Muslim and Arab world, rise above their compulsive self-flagellation, and say: "Learn to live in peace with Israel. As long as you harbor fantasies of revenging your honor, as long as you treat your own commoners like cannon fodder, and as long you will not accept the consequences of your failed aggressions, do not come to us with complaints about how ‘they' oppress ‘you.'"
But that would take a great deal of courage. For to turn this around, Western elites need both to genuinely self-criticize, and stand fast in the face of the hostility that inevitably arises when one asks hard questions of demopaths. What an irony: the survival of the truly great Western civilization depends on the ability of Western intellectuals to overcome their resentment of the Jews (and Americans) lest they fall into the fevered oblivion of conspiratorial paranoia. And how ironic that when the Jews finally can say something important to help the world act sanely, all they can do is beat their breasts.
Nietzsche and God are laughing. May we all not weep.
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