Are conspiracy theorists simply overenthusiastic dot-joiners or do they sometimes uncover nuggets of what could conceivably be the truth asks NOEL ROONEY.
As US journalist HL Mencken once famously opined, “the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the population alarmed (and thus clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with a whole series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Our Henry would no doubt recognise the contemporary political atmosphere as one rife with the little critters: the Russians, the Chinese, the Bug and its lurking descendants, people who don’t believe in the Bug, dissidents in general, and of course (perhaps more so than in Mencken’s pomp) conspiracy theorists.
Conspiracists have become the hobgoblins du jour of the political establishment and the news media, somehow presented as a threat on a similar level to the countries the international community doesn’t like. And, interestingly, they are segmented in the market of fear in much the same way. If you lean left on the illusory spectrum, then the Russians and the conspiracists are about neck and neck in the race to destroy democracy; if you lean right, the Chinese are the real worry and the tin foil hats adorn the also rans.
What all sides agree on
– at least those who inhabit the corridors of power – is that conspiracy theorists are a considerable nuisance. It’s not a good look on the international stage if a country’s population believe the Earth is flat, or that their own leaders – along with everyone else’s – are shapeshifting lizards. And the conspiracists are a nuisance in another, more chronic way; they just will not let sleeping dogs lie.
I was reminded of the above recently when I read some new material on the apparent suicide of Vince Foster in 1993. Foster, the highest-ranking member of the US administration to die violently since John Kennedy, was found in a small, obscure park on the edge of the DC beltway, a gun in his hand and an obvious entry and exit wound consistent with suicide. And that was the story that the media (with some brave, or foolhardy, exceptions) reported, and everyone accepted.
Everyone, that is, except those pesky conspiracists. In the years since Foster’s untimely demise, a veritable industry of investigation and speculation has grown around the tragic event. Some of it belongs to the core themes of the Conspirasphere; in this case, the Clinton Body Count, a popular perennial of the last 30 years (FT424:24). Some of it, however, has emerged as a coherent alternative narrative to the official story, one that relies on evidence allegedly suppressed by official investigators over the years.
One of the crucial pieces of evidence used by both sides to support their narrative was the suicide note, found several days after Foster’s death, in a briefcase that had already been searched, and emptied, by investigators. The note had been ripped into 28 pieces, one of them missing; the part where Foster’s signature might be expected. Curiously, whoever had ripped the paper up had left no fingerprints behind.
The note was assumed – by everyone – to be genuine, and so it remained for two years. But then a potential bombshell struck. Three handwriting experts, all very experienced, and one of them considered a world authority, were given a copy of the note. It is still not entirely clear how they came to be in possession of it, but no one has raised any doubts over the authenticity of the note they examined.
The experts held a press conference in Washington in October 1995. Each had examined the material independently, and each had, independently, come to the conclusion that the note was a forgery, and not a particularly professional forgery at that. It should be noted here that, even if the note was a forgery, it doesn’t amount to concrete evidence that Foster was murdered; nonetheless, the discovery of the forgery cast, at the very least, some doubt on the matter and, in conjunction with other evidence, much of it disputed to this day, could be offered as circumstantial evidence of foul play.
The press conference was not well attended; few US journalists turned up, and the discovery was hardly reported in the US media. It was, however, covered in the UK; partly because an eminent UK journalist, Ambrose EvansPritchard, was involved in setting up the examination in the first place. Not that the UK media stood up as one and cried ‘J’accuse!’ The anomaly was reported and the reader was left to connect the dots.
It took a little while for the story to leak into the American sphere, but when it did, dots were connected aplenty. The affair of the suicide note that probably wasn’t became central to the theory that Foster was murdered because he knew too much. This regularly happens in conspiracy theory; some signal anomaly in an official narrative is identified, and becomes the smoking gun in the minds of those who doubt the mainstream version of events. It eventually becomes a canonical part of the conspiracy process; not just around the actual incident but as a general icon of the grand narrative.
Once untethered from the specific event, such icons take on a new identity; they become the brightest stars in the various constellations of the C-sphere. There are folk whose entire education (their red pill awakening) is composed of these bright, disconnected nuggets of anomaly. That’s partly why so many tropes of the C-sphere can seem interchangeable (and consequently irrational) to the outside observer.
And yet: there are legitimate, lingering doubts about the investigation into Foster’s death. The suicide note speaks to those doubts. We should perhaps remind ourselves that, occasionally, conspiracy theorists find evidence that some would prefer suppressed. Or to put it simply: the reason we have conspiracy theories is, at root, because we have conspiracies.
The reason we have conspiracy theories is because we have conspiracies