Cover-ups and conspiracies
There is a good summary of many of the themes we’ve been discussing in this recent piece in the NYT:
One claim here is that ‘conspiracy theories wouldn’t exist in a world in which real conspiracies don’t exist’. The examples given of the latter are Watergate and the Iran-contra Affair. In both these cases a large part of the overt conspiracy was the cover-up: the collusion between small (or smallish) numbers of people to conceal what had happened and to provide deceitful or dissembling justifications for the facts that were in the public domain. I think that a lot of what we refer to as conspiracies, particularly in democratic politics, are primarily cover-ups: attempts to rewrite the past in order to conceal the true version of events, which for some reason or another looks bad for the people involved. Sometimes what is being covered-up is itself a conspiracy: say, a criminal enterprise like a plot to break in to the headquarters of a rival political party. But often cover-ups do not overlay original conspiracies: accidents, cock-ups, random acts of violence – including most assassinations – can provoke cover-ups that attempt to hide the failure of the authorities to notice what was going on or to take appropriate measures to guard against the undesired outcome. This was something raised by Michael Newton’s excellent talk on the Kennedy assassinations: the real FBI and CIA conspiracies that have been conclusively proven concerning JFK’s assassination were attempts by officials to cover their tracks once the event had happened, which is very different from proof that the FBI and CIA were responsible for the event itself. The key thing about ‘cover-up’ conspiracies is that they are primarily reactive: they are attempts to reassert a control that has been lost. But most conspiracy theories posit a different kind of conspiracy: pro-active conspiracies that are about elaborate and often implausible forms of control, through which conspirators are able to impose their malign will on a world of otherwise disconnected events.
So there is still a gap to be explained between the existence of conspiracies and the existence of conspriacy theories, if the conspiracies that exist are invariably of a very different kind – and reveal a very different picture of political reality – than the ones imagined by conspiracy theorists. It can be a significant mismatch. Cover-ups tend to reinforce the cock-up view of history, even if the cock-up is itself a low level conspiracy that was permitted by neglect higher up the chain (neglect is a cock-up, not a conspiracy). Conspiracy theories tend to reject the cock-up view. They assume that what happens lower down is evidence of deliberate planning higher up. That is why they are so often implausible.