How Political Conspiracy Theories Take Root

How Political Conspiracy Theories Take Root

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Mayor Bob Filner raged against a “lynch mob” in his resignation speech Friday, echoing supporters who believe he fell victim to a tawdry plot born in San Diego’s halls of power.

“The hysteria ended up playing into the hands of those who wanted a political coup. The removal of a democratically elected mayor purely by rumor and innuendo. I am responsible for providing the ammunition. I did that and I take full responsibility. But there are well-organized interests who have run this city for 50 years who pointed the gun. And the media and their political agents pulled the trigger. That, ladies and gentlemen, is not what democracy is about.”

Filner’s speech, plus some of the public comments that preceded it, marked the zenith of conspiracy theories that have floated on the Internet for weeks. They mainly come from progressive Filner allies who warn of planted accusers with hidden motives and a compliant media.

Conspiracy theories certainly aren’t unusual here. In 1912, local union leaders warned, with very good reason, of a City Hall plot to eliminate their free-speech rights. And within just the past few weeks, a local journalist has become a major player in spreading theories about the death of prominent journalist Michael Hastings in a car accident.

Why do conspiracy theories like the Plot Against Filner take root? What ingredients do they need? And how does this one fit into the history of plots — real and imagined — against politicians?

conspiracy book coverJesse Walker, an editor at Reason magazine, provides a cultural history of conspiracy theories in the U.S. in his new book “The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory.” In an interview with VOSD, he spoke about the underpinnings of political conspiracy theories and the role played by very real histories of oppression.

What do you need to have in place for a conspiracy theory to develop?

Conspiracy theories emerge where three things collide.

The first is our natural tendency to find patterns and creative narratives, to try to turn all these stray signals we receive into some sort of coherent order.

Second is a situation that we’re suspicious of and makes us fearful.

And third is the fact that there are actual cases of people conspiring. There’s a reason why there’s a legal offense called conspiracy. It’s not like being afraid of some supernatural monster that people talk about but never shows up.

Conspiracy theories are sometimes actually true, correct? We even had a conspiracy that revolved around plans for the 1972 GOP national convention here in San Diego.

I have a chapter where I talk about the post-Watergate investigations that exposed bona fide misbehavior by the CIA and the FBI. They not only showed that conspiracies were real but lowered the bar for imagining far-out conspiracies. That’s part of why conspiracy theories are inevitable.

When conspiracies like the Filner plot get mentioned, some people accuse the believers of being mentally ill. Is that a real issue among conspiracy believers? Or does the tin-foil-hat brigade make up a small part of the whole?

When a story catches on with enough people, we’re not talking about mental illness. We’re talking about folklore. Even if it says nothing that’s true, it says something true about the anxieties and experiences of those who believe and repeat the theory.

Is it possible to change a conspiracy theorist’s mind? Or are they all dug in?

I’ve encountered conspiracy theorists who are very open to empirical evidence, and they’re constantly revising their theories in response to new information.

And there are other people who dig in their heels. They’re looking for the apparent evidence of what they’re already committed to believing. Of course, there are lots of non-conspiracy believers who have the same reaction to having their beliefs challenged.

Can a conspiracy theory — like Filner’s, perhaps — help a politician avoid responsibility for their own actions?

It’s certainly true that political figures, whether earnestly or opportunistically, can blame their problems on hidden forces as a way of sidestepping what they’ve done wrong.

Nixon is a classic example. He was filled with personal paranoia, some of which had to do with of genuine things that happened in the rough-and-tumble world of politics. But he used them as a way to justify unconscionable behavior.

One of the under-covered stories in the Filner drama is the fact that many of his defenders come from poor and minority communities that have been the subject of neglect from the powers that run this city. History shows they’ve been segregated into certain neighborhoods, redlined in terms of homebuying and forced — even today — to endure substandard public services. What does that history tell you about conspiracy theories that develop from these kinds of roots?

It’s not just about anxieties but actual experiences, both in terms of suffering from things that could be described as conspiracies.

In the book, I talk about how some of the stranger conspiracy theories that have caught on in the American black community, like the idea that Church’s Chicken was a Ku Klux Klan front to make black men sterile.

Blacks do have a history of abusive and high-handed treatment by white doctors and others, and things that were actual conspiracies like the Tuskegee experiments, in which black sharecroppers weren’t told for four decades that they had syphilis [nor treated for it].

When you’re at the bottom end of the totem pole and have a long history of abusive treatment and ongoing humiliation in the midst of some actual conspiracies, it’s easy to imagine more conspiracies.

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Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego and president of the American Society of Journalists & Authors. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga

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18 comments
Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga memberauthor

Actually, the book makes the case that conspiracy theories are hardly limited to the fringes but common in the center (you know, the non-loons) too.

Bit-watcher
Bit-watcher

Conspiracy theories regarding Filner? What is that all about? Filner, whether he actually believes there's one or not, is surely verbally adept enough to throw whatever red-herrings and distractions that he can into the foray to distract both the press and the public. He admits he supplied the ammunition, but others pulled the trigger? Puh-leeze! That's embarrassing. But, that's how he seems to be.

Bit-watcher
Bit-watcher subscriber

Conspiracy theories regarding Filner? What is that all about? Filner, whether he actually believes there's one or not, is surely verbally adept enough to throw whatever red-herrings and distractions that he can into the foray to distract both the press and the public. He admits he supplied the ammunition, but others pulled the trigger? Puh-leeze! That's embarrassing. But, that's how he seems to be.

Joshua Brant
Joshua Brant

Comments deleted. CONSPIRACY! DUE PROCESS!

Joshua Brant
Joshua Brant subscriber

Comments deleted. CONSPIRACY! DUE PROCESS!

tom fengler
tom fengler

Conspiracy theories are the sophistication of the ignorant.

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga memberauthor

Outhouses have windows? I thought they just had moons!

Bill Smith
Bill Smith

That looks like a young Carl DeMaio in the picture, sitting in the outhouse. I wonder what little Carl is doing in there? Now that is a conspiracy for you Randy!

La Playa Heritage
La Playa Heritage

Follow the Money for the Urgent 2 month timeline. The Conspiracy including Criminal Fraud claims regarding Sunroad, the Section 108 Credit Card expenses, overnight Police details costs, and other charges in the future. How about an investigation into the Conspiracy to hide the $616 million Successor Agency Non-Housing Assets through the Due Diligence Report (DDR). Any day now, after 2 years of Audits, the State Department of Finance (DOF) will give the City of San Diego a Notice of Completion (NOC) which will UNFREEZE the $1 Billion (as of June 30, 2012) in former CCDC/Civic San Diego Redevelopment Agency (RDA) assets which belong in the General Fund and Housing Trust Fund (HTF). Currently the Housing Assets and remaining Frozen assets are under the Operational Control of Civic San Diego staff and Council President Gloria. After the NOC, the City will write a $63 million check to the County Auditor Controller (CAC) from unspent Cash siting in the bank. Due to a lack of analysis by the Press, the City of San Diego will give up Known Debts by a refusal to add Line Items to the Recognized Obligation Payment Schedule (ROPS) spreadsheet. Including $144 million HUD debt, $372 million in Unmet Affordable Housing Needs, and $225 million each for the outstanding Petco Park and Convention Center Phase 2 debt.

La Playa Heritage
La Playa Heritage subscribermember

Follow the Money for the Urgent 2 month timeline. The Conspiracy including Criminal Fraud claims regarding Sunroad, the Section 108 Credit Card expenses, overnight Police details costs, and other charges in the future. How about an investigation into the Conspiracy to hide the $616 million Successor Agency Non-Housing Assets through the Due Diligence Report (DDR). Any day now, after 2 years of Audits, the State Department of Finance (DOF) will give the City of San Diego a Notice of Completion (NOC) which will UNFREEZE the $1 Billion (as of June 30, 2012) in former CCDC/Civic San Diego Redevelopment Agency (RDA) assets which belong in the General Fund and Housing Trust Fund (HTF). Currently the Housing Assets and remaining Frozen assets are under the Operational Control of Civic San Diego staff and Council President Gloria. After the NOC, the City will write a $63 million check to the County Auditor Controller (CAC) from unspent Cash siting in the bank. Due to a lack of analysis by the Press, the City of San Diego will give up Known Debts by a refusal to add Line Items to the Recognized Obligation Payment Schedule (ROPS) spreadsheet. Including $144 million HUD debt, $372 million in Unmet Affordable Housing Needs, and $225 million each for the outstanding Petco Park and Convention Center Phase 2 debt.

Guy Montag
Guy Montag

“… within just the past few weeks, a local journalist [Kim Dvorak] has become a major player in spreading theories about the death of prominent journalist Michael Hastings in a car accident.” Earlier today, Dennis Romero’s piece, “Michael Hastings: 5 Conspiracy Theories That Didn't Pan Out” was published by the LA Weekly. I agree that all of the 5 conspiracy theories discussed are easily debunked (although the FBI recently told MSN they will be releasing some material related to Hastings on Sept 9th). But those theories are just strawmen, easily cut down. Kim Dvorak and Alex Jones have just muddied the waters with their unsubtantiated theories. In contrast, LA reporter Michael Krikorian (krikorianwrites.com) has done some solid investigative work. However, the key question still unanswered is WHY Hastings’ car was speeding so fast that night. Maybe Hastings had reason to be scared (or maybe he was paranoid) and drove too fast, or maybe his car brakes/accelerator had been “hacked” or tampered with. Unfortunately, the LAPD never tried to answer that question or investigate the crash as a potential homicide. A Hastings family member told WhoWhatWhy, “The LAPD has done a really sloppy job investigating his case … they had to insert speculation throughout their field report to compensate for their lack of an investigation. … It’s so irresponsible and they were hoping for a mother lode of drugs in his system ….” Opps, nothing much found there! IF this crash was an assassination, we will never know since the LAPD failed to find any evidence of foul play since they never even looked for it. Note: My work-in-progress on the subject (currently mostly links and notes) is in the chapter “Michael Hasting’s Fiery Car Crash: Accident or Assassination?” (pp. 71 – 102) of my post “More Lies Borne Out by Facts, If Not the Truth” at the Feral Firefighter blog.

Guy Montag
Guy Montag

“…there are actual cases of people conspiring. There’s a reason why there’s a legal offense called conspiracy. It’s not like being afraid of some supernatural monster that people talk about but never shows up.” To riff off a campaign quote of President Obama, "I'm not against all conspiracy theories, just dumb conspiracy theories." Asked about the Hasting’s fiery car crash, Chris Hedges replied, "as a reporter that I would never make any statement like that, because it's purely conjecture. I would have to go report the story myself and smell it out. So I'm very wary of conspiracy theories that are not grounded in fact, and most conspiracy theories are not. Jay: 'But some are.' Right. Well, then they're not conspiracy theories."

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga

Actually, the book makes the case that conspiracy theories are hardly limited to the fringes but common in the center (you know, the non-loons) too.

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga

Outhouses have windows? I thought they just had moons!