What drives these people to their delusions? There are different psychological factors at play. Some conspiracy theorists are undergoing mid-life crises, or have experienced life-changing medical tragedies. Others are web addicts who've lost the ability to discern legitimate news from internet flotsam.
But by far the biggest category of conspiracy theorist is what I call the "failed historian." He is someone who views human history through a rigid and all-encompassing ideological template. Some are Marxists. Others are Islamists, or Chomskyites, or radical Tea Party conservatives, or white supremacists. Whatever the details of their belief system, they all have a shared need to reconcile everything they know about the world with their totalizing world view. A conspiracy theory is a tool that lets them do that : It allows them to eliminate the painful cognitive dissonance that inevitably arises between fact and theory.
The most obvious example here in Canada is the militant left-wing campus radical, whose ideology requires him to trace every species of evil in the world to Washington or Tel Aviv. For these extremists, 9/11 caused a significant psychic wound -- since it was an act of horrific evil that plainly was the work of America's enemies. Conspiracy theories alleging that America actually perpetrated 9/11 on itself act as a balm for these people: Having told this lie to themselves, they can sleep soundly, knowing that the world is as it should be, with America as the world's monopolist on the creation of all human suffering, including its own.
Many left-wing JFK conspiracy theorists are motivated by similar inclinations. Lee Harvey Oswald was a socialist, and an admirer of the Soviet Union. For fellow travellers, it was far more comforting to imagine that the evil he performed could be laid at the feet of the CIA. Some left-wing conspiracy theorists are similarly drawn to the theory that U.S. astronauts never landed on the moon, since they instinctively reject any historical episode that serves to glorify America.
The same goes, on the other side of the political spectrum, for Holocaust deniers, who typically are admirers of the Nazi power cult and its associated doctrine of Aryan racial purity. By using conspiracy theories to wish away the Holocaust -- the signature evil of the 20th century, and Hitler's greatest crime -- they subconsciously rehabilitate their precious Nazi ideology in their own damaged minds.
Because the engine of conspiracism is the psychic gulf between what is wished for and what is, conspiracy theories are especially prominent in Islamic societies such as Iran. This is because the Koran, the associated doctrines of Shariah, and the entire arc of early Islamic history have created the expectation that Muslims will rule over infidels as conquerors -- and that Muslim societies, having been enlightened by the Seal of the Prophets, always would be more militarily successful and technologically advanced than infidel societies. But the real world that Muslims see in the Middle East and Central Asia is precisely the opposite: Their societies are poor and backward compared to those of the West. (Tiny, successful, infidel Israel epitomizes this reality, which helps explain why so many Muslims refuse to acknowledge its existence.)
Sunday, September 26, 2010
"What drives these people to their delusions?"
Prompted by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech at the UN, the National Post's Jonathan Kay wonders what motivates conspiracy theorists: