Conspiracy Theories

November 27, 2007, 8:46 am

Just before the Thanksgiving recess, my colleague Kathy Olmsted gave a paper in the department on her current research project, a history of conspiracy theories in the United States. The quality of the paper — quite high — and my behavior at the presentation — apparently not very good — are beside the point here. Instead, I want to focus on the audience’s response.

Kathy talked about the so-called Jersey Girls, the 9/11 widows who have crafted their own counternarrative to challenge the Bush administration’s official story of the World Trade Center attacks. At the end of her presentation, Kathy suggested that the Jersey Girls have succeeded because polls show that 30% of the American people believe in some broadly defined 9/11 conspiracy theory involving the Bush White House: either LIHOP or MIHOP, in the former case that the president’s men allowed the attacks to happen (Let It Happen On Purpose) or in the latter that they facilitated the towers’ destruction (Made It Happen On Purpose). Whether LIHOP or MIHOP, the point was to drum up support for the Iraq war.

Now this is where things got interesting. After spending an hour collectively laughing at the conspiracy theorists (“conspiracists,” I learned from Kathy, is the proper term of art), the audience, made up largely of members of the history department faculty and graduate students, all faced an uncomfortable truth: most of us are, depending on how you slice such things, now part of the 30%.

And I have to tell you, this is one of the things that has most outraged me during the past seven years: every time I’ve pooh-poohed some out-there allegation about President Bush’s misdeeds, telling myself that the conspiracists are getting hysterical again, time has proven me wrong and the people wearing tinfoil hats right. Stealing elections, falsifying intelligence, outing covert operatives, ignoring climate change, placing worthless cronies in positions of power, institutionalizing torture, “legalizing” warrantless wiretaps, failing to throw a drowning city a flotation device, too much graft to count, and on and on.

As for MIHOP and LIHOP, I really don’t know. I once would have laughed at anyone who suggested that the President of the United States had allowed an attack on American soil. But now I’m not so sure. Maybe I’m in the LIHOP camp. That I’m even considering such a thing leaves me cold. My only solace? Based on the response to Kathy’s talk, I’m in pretty good company.

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