Which “conspiracy theories” the media decide to care about and which they don’t is largely a function of who is advancing those conspiracy theories, and whose interests they serve. The Atlantic (9/17) published a 12,000-word cover story by Kurt Andersen on the history of conspiracies and “crazy” ideas. In exploring how “America lost its mind,” Andersen let everyone in corporate media off the hook, saving most of his ire for obscure hippies, rednecks and postmodern academics.
The piece uses the term “conspiracy” or “conspiracies” 45 times, but somehow—in all the hand-wringing over their dangerous effects—omits the two most pernicious and consequential conspiracy theories of modern times: that Saddam Hussein had a hand in 9/11 and that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction. Fake Moon landings and healing crystals may be easier to deride, but their actual effect on politics, globally and domestically, is thus far (thankfully) fairly trivial. The same can’t be said for the dual conspiracies that Iraq was working with Al Qaeda to knock down the Twin Towers and was—despite all evidence to the contrary—building an active nuclear, chemical and biological weapons program.
This omission by Andersen could possibly be because one of the most visible and high-profile promoters of these two grand conspiracy theories was the man who commissioned the piece from him: Atlantic’s editor-in-chief, Jeffrey Goldberg. Goldberg and scores of other high-status pundits—many of whom have moved on to even cushier, better-paying jobs—never have to account for the conspiracies they pushed that led directly to the devastating US invasion and occupation of Iraq.
How the most blatant confidence-eroding episode of the past 20 years could escape a 12,000-word piece on the erosion of trust in elite institutions is unclear. Goldberg and Co.’s theory that Saddam was working with Al Qaeda—which was floated by Goldberg everywhere from Slate (3/2/02, 10/3/02) to NPR (2/4/03) to the New Yorker (3/25/02) in the build-up to the Iraq War—was a textbook example of a conspiracy theory, complete with cherry-picked evidence, dubious inferences, rejection of contradictory evidence and ideological blinders. Yet somehow, when Andersen and others review America’s obsession with conspiracy, this one is curiously absent from the inventory.
Consistent with this power-indemnifying approach, throughout the piece Andersen aims down. Never does he meaningfully address elite failures driven by wishful thinking and unverifiable ideologies—no dissection of how the global economy was wrecked by an unexamined belief that housing prices could keep rising forever or, for example, the widespread faith that deregulated markets will inevitably lead to shared prosperity. To the extent Andersen does address elite delusion, he does so in starkly partisan terms, leveling boring liberal critiques of “crazy” Republicans’ climate denial and hyper-religiosity. Their role in disastrous bipartisan policies, like preventive war and casino capitalism? Suspiciously absent.
In addition to the glaring things it doesn’t say, what the article does say is thin and weakly substantiated. Oddly, for a piece on the perils of runaway solipsism, the author repeatedly writes in first-person singular, drawing broad sociological conclusions from personal or anecdotal experience:
I first noticed our national lurch toward fantasy in 2004.…
America had changed since I was young….
I remember when fantastical beliefs went fully mainstream, in the 1970s….
Today I disagree about political issues with friends and relatives to my right, but we agree on the essential contours of reality….
America didn’t seem as weird and crazy as it had around 1970….
I really can imagine, for the first time in my life, that America has permanently tipped into irreversible decline, heading deeper into Fantasyland….
Andersen vaguely feels or experiences things, so they must therefore be true.The piece is sparse on data, or anything resembling rigorous examination of whether the US has indeed become “crazier” than it once was—beyond glib “kids these days” assertions. The only statistical point of reference given over any time scale is what percentage of GOP presidential candidates believe in evolution. For a piece whose entire premise is that the Enlightenment’s scientific method has been sadly abandoned by a bunch of feel-good hippies, it’s not a particularly scientific approach.
But Andersen’s task isn’t rigor or material explanation—it’s flattery. The point of the piece is to vaguely allude to a moral panic of lowering intellectual standards, while reassuring readers that they’re too smart to fall for that “craziness”—and in the process getting everyone in power off the hook.
The overreliance on tautological and ableist labels like “crazy” (six uses), “insane” (four uses) and “delusional” (five uses) speaks to the intellectual laziness at work. Andersen refers to the Weather Underground and other anti-war leftist groups as “unhinged,” falsely claiming they “set off thousands of bombs in the early 1970s.” (The Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland lists a total of 540 bombing incidents in the United States between 1970 and 1974, many of which are attributed to anti-Castro Cubans and other far-right groups.)
But he does not comment on whether the killing of 3 million Indochinese by the US government they fought against was “crazy” or “unhinged.” Lip service is paid to the CIA’s use of ESP to feign some attempt at balance, but no mention is made as to the normative mental properties of torture, dirty war, executions, coups or the propping up of fascist governments. Presumably in Andersen’s calculus, these things are entirely rational and level-headed.
Like an overwrought Aaron Sorkin character, Andersen is nostalgic for some mysterious time when the media were dispassionate arbiters of truth, though when this was is never specified:
The word mainstream has recently become a pejorative, shorthand for bias, lies, oppression by the elites. Yet the institutions and forces that once kept us from indulging the flagrantly untrue or absurd—media, academia, government, corporate America, professional associations, respectable opinion in the aggregate—have enabled and encouraged every species of fantasy over the past few decades.
Again, “media, academia, government, corporate America, professional associations, respectable opinion in the aggregate” were largely behind the idea that racial hierarchies justified slavery and segregation, that World War I would make the world safe for democracy, that fighting self-determination in underdeveloped countries was necessary to prevent Communist world domination, and a whole host of objectively terrible things throughout history, so it’s unclear what time frame Andersen is referencing. His Paradise Lost narrative relies on a fall from Eden that never was, largely because this shift from the “sane” to the “insane” is the crux of the piece, and without it it’s just the discursive musings of a stodgy radio show host without much to say.
Has “America lost its mind”? Maybe, but without showing what exactly is “sane” and “insane,” and which conspiracies are worth mocking and which worth ignoring, nothing is really asked, much less answered. If Andersen wishes to trace back the cynicism against “the mainstream,” he can start by examining how the most vocal fabulists among us are not only still employed, but editing his cover story in a major national magazine.
This article originally appeared on www.fair.org.