More On Conspiracy Theories

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OPEN UNIVERSITY SEPTEMBER 7, 2006

More On Conspiracy Theories

by Bill StuntzI agree with Eric Rauchway that conspiracy theories aren't crazy, at least not all of them. More important, Eric is absolutely right about the central attraction of such theories--they impose order on an otherwise disorderly world. To say X is to blame for this or that tragedy is to say that tragedies don't happen without some blameworthy choice--and hence that, if one avoids such choices or if nations avoid picking leaders who make such choices, one can avoid all tragedies. Of course, it isn't so. Some awful things do happen because someone made a blameworthy choice--but other, equally awful things happen for no obvious reason: part of the awfulness of those events is their sheer arbitrariness.

One way to measure whether a society is prone to buy conspiracy theories is to look at the society's imprisonment rate divided by some measure of its crime rate--i.e., to see how punitive the society is. Societies with justice systems that punish sparingly may do so because they believe that bad events are often not the fault of anyone; societies that are quicker to punish criminal defendants and punish them more severely may do so because they believe the opposite. If there is anything to this idea, the United States today is clearly in the latter camp, almost uniquely prone to blaming and punishment, and hence, maybe, prone to buy conspiracy theories. Here is one measure: The number of prison inmates per homicide in the U.S. has risen more than eight-fold in the past thirty years.

Perhaps the same spirit that gives rise to America's massive prison populations also gives rise to a political culture that always looks for scandal in the wake of some disaster. The New Orleans levees must have failed because of official racism; 9/11 must have happened because the government made it happen or chose to let it happen; the dot-com bubble must have burst because unscrupulous corporate executives manipulated the stock market, and so on. All these are views many Americans share. It seems interesting to me that, at the same time such views seem to have become more common, our justice system has become vastly more punitive.

Is there anything to this connection? Eric, you know much more than I do about various sorts of political paranoia and their strength or weakness at different times in American history. It does seem to me that ours is an unusually paranoid time, on both the left and the right. Ours is also a stunningly punitive time, measured by the number of young men we incarcerate. Maybe that isn't a coincidence.

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