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?
Jesse 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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