Tinfoil hat time

by Daniel on November 14, 2003

Robin Ramsay, editor of the excellent Lobster magazine, and co-author of an equally excellent book about Harold WIlson, makes a useful distinction between “Conspiracy Theory” and “Conspiracy Research”. According to Ramsay, the difference is that conspiracy theories are simple, interesting and leave you thinking that you understand it all, while consipracy research is difficult, boring and leaves you thinking you understand less than you did before you started. Given this, it is hardly surprising that the theoretical side of the academic discipline of Parapolitics is both far more popular than the empirical, and largely worthless.

However, the pollution of the well of parapolitical research by the theorists is pretty unfortunate, as means that the “loony” label tends to stick to a few dedicated journalists who often ask questions that really desperately need to be asked. The final stage in the disgraceful attempt to smear Gary Webb for uncovering documented evidence of Nicaraguan Contras with good political connections being given carte blanche to smuggle cocaine into Southern California, for example, was to paint him as a “consipracy theorist”. The attempt to rebrand conspiracy research as “parapolitics” (the study of those parts of the political process in democracies which involve illegal or covert activity) is probably a dead duck as with most rebrands, but men of good sense and good intention can do their bit to help by not making things worse.

Which is why I have a bit of a problem with this post from Daniel Drezner‘s site.

Fair do’s to the bloke; it’s a real feather in his cap to have been invited along by the British American Project; they have an enviable record of selecting the best and brightest. But there are legitimate critiques to be made of the way that the BAP and the various groups associated with it (Chatham House, the Council on Foreign Relations, and indeed yes, the Bilderberg Group) go about their business.

The issue is that of the “democratic deficit”. The ideal of a democracy is (arguably) to allow as much and as equal opportunity as possible for any citizen to participate in the political process. This ideal is always going to be beset by compromises for all manner of reasons (not least, the need for someone to actually go out and work for a living), but a not inconsiderable obstacle to widespread participation is that the political class inevitably ends up becoming something of a clique. If the people in charge of industry, government, education, media and the military all know each other (and they do), then there is a lot of scope for them to trade off favours between each other, and to have their discussions and debates in private. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, and it does not necessarily lead to corruption or even inefficiency – that’s where the conspiracy theorists go wrong. But it is, by definition, a political process in which it is impossible for the public at large to take part. It also means that the public debate on an issue is not necessarily the debate which matters, to the detriment both of the quality of policy decisions and general trust in institutions.

It’s a genuine problem of governance in a democracy, and laughing at it doesn’t make it go away. It’s actually the chief reason why I’m opposed to the UK entering any monetary union; having a fair degree of familiarity with central bankers, I simply don’t like the idea of important isssues being decided by them out of sight of the public, in an unaccountable institution. And the British American Project is an institution dedicated to making it worse. It’s an organisation that throws promising young people together (the full title was “British American Project For The Successor Generation”), encourages them to keep in touch, prints a private newsletter detailing their career achievements, and generally promotes networking among them. It’s in many ways the political elite’s equivalent of my old business school alumni network, except that the business world doesn’t claim to be part of the democratic process.

Obviously, there are plenty of advantages in having good understanding and relationships of personal trust between the leaders of the US and the UK, and the BAP does good work in this direction. But equally obviously, there is a cost in terms of democratic deficit, and my personal assessment is that the BAP handles this deficit pretty badly; better than the Bilderbergers but still pretty badly. A lot of good could be done by opening up the process and publicising who the BAP Fellows are (without making it absurdly difficult and leaving it to parapolitical researchers) and what they’re talking about at any one time. A small, but avoidable amount of harm is done by having sarcastic asides in their FAQ, and by self-styled libertarians asking us to believe that it is absolutely ridiculous to suppose that when politically involved thirtysomethings get together, even for merriment and diversion, they might possibly be up to something which the rest of us would like to know about.



Joshua 11.14.03 at 2:28 pm

“Are you now or have you ever been a member of the British American Project?”

Yeah, I can think of a reason or two why the fact that the rest of us might like to know about what any given group might be up to ought not to be taken as dispositive of their right to freedom of association and privacy.


dsquared 11.14.03 at 2:32 pm

Don’t be silly. I happen to believe that the Communist party did itself a whole load of no favours in those countries where it operated a secret structure, and it’s pretty silly to pretend that it wasn’t an anti-democratic movement, but if you can find any argument in my post to the effect that the BAP’s “freedom of association and privacy” should be banned, rather than criticised, I’d like to see it. It’s the difference between my telling you you’re wrong, or my deleting your post.


Dan Hardie 11.14.03 at 3:03 pm

Fair point, but do these strictures apply to Fellows of the 21st Century Trust? Irish technology lobbyists living in Paris, to take an entirely random example?


Thomas Dent 11.14.03 at 3:45 pm

If what they’re getting is such great policy training, why would they want to keep it a secret?

Or, if they do want to keep it a secret, why have a website openly displaying the fact that they’re secretive?


Henry 11.14.03 at 4:26 pm

Dan – I’m a 21st Century Trust fellow as well, and perhaps some of the same criticisms could be made. But I really don’t think that they’d stick. First, the 21st Century Trust puts out open calls for its conferences, advertising for potential participants in newspapers, the Economist, and elsewhere. Which means a much less “clubby” atmosphere. Second, it provides a lot of online “information”:http://www.21stcenturytrust.org about its meetings and who’s talking at them. And third, my very strong impression from attending a couple of Trust events is that they’re less interested in practice in recruiting Future Young Leaders than in getting people who have something interesting to say on the subject in question to come along. So a lot of people from the voluntary sector, a fair scattering of interesting eccentrics. Not a power-brokers club by any stretch of the imagination.

But if anyone wants to do an expose on the Bohemians club in San Francisco …


Dan Hardie 11.14.03 at 5:11 pm

If the 21st Century Fund people are more open than the BAP people (who in turn are models of disclosure compared to Bilderberg) fair enough. I’m afraid I don’t actually buy Henry’s argument about ‘people from the voluntary sector’ being the opposite of ‘a power-brokers’ club’. NGOs have plenty of power in the world’s crisis zones, and they are pretty largely unregulated, compared to power elites in developed countries- as Alex De Waal argued very powerfully in ‘Famine Crimes’.

I’m with D-squared on this one, or with what I think D-squared is saying: you can’t stop these networks without suspending the freedom of association, but it’s perfectly healthy to object to them and seek to counter their influence. Democracies will develop elites, but we ought always to be challenging the elites’ composition and their received wisdom. If we don’t, we get things handed down to us by the elites’ fiat- I’m thinking, for example, of the twelve countries currently in the single currency, ten of whom didn’t scruple to hold referendums on the subject. (I know the RoI did.)


zizka 11.14.03 at 5:25 pm

I branded myself as a conspiracy theorist over a year ago (“Sensible Conspiracy Theories”). My basic idea was that “some things are conspiracies, and some aren’t”. Anti-conspiracy theorists make the absurd claim that there are no conspiracies at all, and believe that calling someone a conspiracy theorist is an effective rebuttal rather than just a smear.

A conspiracy exists, as I define the word, when an enormous discrepancy exists between the public activities and statements of some group (the “cover”), and other, non-public, activities which would be condemned if they were known about. (Completely secret conspiracies by unknowns with no public face at all are rare, as are openly-nefarious organizations whose operations are all carried on secretly. For example, al-Qaeda has a lot of above-board people secretly supporting it).

My definition allows for secret charities, etc., since their activities would not be condemned.

The operative word in my definition is “enormous”, which is a pure judgement call. There’s a discrepancy between public professions and actual acts and goals for every political actor. Especially in democracies, where politicians have to convince some 51% of the population that they will satisfy their demands, even though the demands are mutually contradictory, excessive, and often incapable of satifaction in any possible world.

Since politics has this essential dishonesty to it, etiquette requires players to tolerate or ignore the conspiracies of most of the other players. In many cases the conspiracy theorist is simply uncool, rude or lacking in suave rather than actually wrong. For example, the small independent farmer has been doomed since 1950 or so everywhere in the world, and everyone knows this, but politicians continue to say all kinds of things to solicit their votes.

Conspiracy theorists are always accused of having too much faith in reason, logic, and order, and not understanding how complex and chaotic the world really is. The accusation of logic is correct, but the conspiracy theorist’s real error lies in relying entirely on fact and logic and foregoing the additional processing required by political etiquette. He does what is “not done” and is thereby excluded from polite society.

As far as I can tell, almost everything Dick Cheney has done in the last 20 years is conspiratorial. Nothing he says or does can be taken at face value.


Shane 11.14.03 at 7:43 pm

First off, you say:

_A lot of good could be done by opening up the process and publicising who the BAP Fellows are (without making it absurdly difficult and leaving it to parapolitical researchers) and what they’re talking about at any one time._

Agreed. But I don’t see the need to tag Gary Webb as a “conspiracy researcher” instead of just an investigative journalist. (From what I recall a couple of years back, his work on this was reliable.) The latter is more easily understood and with less baggage. The fact that governments have and will engage in covert, illegal activities doesn’t persuade me to accept a taxonomy of good conpsiracists and bad. Granted, “conspiracy theorist” is a clumsy descriptor and can mean, in common usage, little more than “government critic.” But there is a habit of thought, a political economy, a strain of crankishness, something that rightly inspired this term in the first place. I think Thomas Pynchon caught this in _V._:

“A phrase (it often happened when he was exhausted) kept cycling round and round, preconsciously, just under the threshold of lip and tongue movement: ‘Events seem to be ordered into an ominous logic.’ It repeated itself automatically and Stencil improved on it each time, placing emphasis on different words — ‘events _seem_’; ‘seem to be _ordered_’; ‘_ominous_ logic’ — pronouncing them differently, changing the ‘tone of voice’ from sepulchral to jaunty: round and round and round. Events seem to be ordered into an ominous logic. He found paper and pencil and began to write the sentence in varying hands and type faces.”

The short of it is, yes, the “democratic deficit” is real, as was the John Birch Society, along with its contemporary inheritors (e.g. Jim Marrs and Alex Jones – both from Texas, I’m embarrassed to say).


neil 11.14.03 at 7:58 pm

The main thing I object to on Drezner’s site is all those interjections from the “editor.” Does he really have an editor go over his posts, or is he just talking to himself?


Jeremy Osner` 11.14.03 at 8:09 pm

The latter.


msg 11.14.03 at 9:16 pm

Tinfoil has many uses. Even as radar deflector it can be applied in more than one way—as a hat, and as what the military used to, and may still, call ‘chaff’.
Scattered bits of tinfoil confuse the enemy. Crop circles and the ‘Illuminati’, the Phoenix program and alien abductions, the Nazca lines and pyramids on Mars, JFK as mafia victim, JFK brutalizing prostitutes, The Tri-Lateral Elders of The Vatican’s Masonic Inner Circle Commission.
Once it starts to open up too far, when it looks like the real skinny’s getting too close to the surface, ‘somebody’ dumps a barrel full of noise into the mix, and careful rational testimony gets drowned in the confusion. Who exactly was it that stepped on Gary Webb so hard?
Imagine trying to get someone to believe you if you had actually been mind-f**ked by the CIA. Aside from having a f**ked-with mind, where would you go? When 87% of the clinically diagnosed paranoid-schizophrenics in America are on the street and testifying to much the same thing? To what august body would you present yourself?
The mind-set of the elect is understandably self-protective. We all feel deserving, most of us accomodate our sense of worth to what we actually have, or have a likely prospect of attaining. But that works all the way up the scale. Only the rarest of exceptions feels unworthy of great wealth. Scions of my acquaintance all learned to hide that sense of merit and reward from the less-endowed.
My quibble isn’t with the privately-gathered gifted and privileged, it’s with the idea that this social-darwinism is anything more than a biological gambit. The sabotage of darwinian biology for social cohesion, generation after generation, and then suddenly a flourish of cape and wand, sim-sala-bim, hey presto, and— neo-darwinism! The fit must guide us now.
There are people missing from those groups of the fit, that would be the brief version. They must be remembered and accounted for, even if they can no longer be named.


Tom T. 11.15.03 at 1:29 am

A conspiracy theorist may well feel no obligation to produce any evidence in support of his theory, because all such evidence is presumptively kept hidden. A responsible researcher, by contrast, would likely feel obliged at some point to come forward with some sort of evidence of his hypothesis, or at least some concrete indication of the concealment of evidence.

I have no knowledge of the BAP and my comments are not directed at Daniel or at any specific example. I’m just trying to suggest, in general, a functional method for distinguishing the tinfoil-hat types.


markus 11.15.03 at 4:20 pm

Curiously enough, as a German I find neither the BAP nor Bilderberg (from what little I’ve read following the links here and at DD) particularly troubling. I’d say this sort of thing goes on all the time. Now it may be that I’m just de-sensitised or that my innate German desire for submission to authority takes control over my rational thought which clearly sees your argument. I don’t know.
However, I’d argue that there is a rational component to my lack of concern. This sort of thing really _is_ going on all the time, cabinet meetings, CEO meetings etc., down to a group of local activists having a meeting closed to the public. I’d say this is fine as long as the democratic process ensures that those ideas plotted in secrecy must pass the polls in some form or other, since I don’t mind having to fight a policy paper/proposal, whose exact circumstances of creation/writing are not accessible to me.
So, while I support your criticism on principle and cheer for any reporter who finds out what goes on in there for the benefit of the public, I remain unconvinced that this is (a) an exception from the normal democratic process and (b) potentially more harmful because of its secrecy.


Mark Steen 11.17.03 at 2:01 am

Harold Wilson’s distinction obviously shows that his mind is controlled by positivistic aliens and/or an oil syndicate

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