In an opinion piece for The New York Times, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari attempts to clear up our thinking about conspiracy theories, a major feature of modern political culture, which, like so many others, has been aggravated and blown out of proportion by the advent of social media.
Instead of tracing the complex history of conspiracy theory and its various components, as Harari did for human knowledge itself in his best-selling book, “Sapiens,” he focuses on one particular aspect of it, which he calls “global cabal theory.” More precisely, he defines this as a particular type of theory that depends on the belief in “a single group of people who secretly control events and rule the world together.”
Can Joe Biden Rewrite the Rules of the Road?
In limiting the discussion to the idea of global all-powerful cabals, he neglects the most common and confusing use of the conspiracy theory meme, which has been popularized by media personalities as diverse as Alex Jones, Rachel Maddow and even European leaders such as Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron.
Jones has built a business out of finding or inventing conspiracies that enable him to present alternative explanations of news stories that result in some form of a catastrophe or public tragedy. It functions like the improvised American religions set up to extract money from people seeking to believe a narrative concocted by a charismatic preacher with a divine channel toward understanding the ways evil functions in the world.
Establishment Democrats in the media, especially those who work for MSNBC, have been running a conspiracy theory show for the past four years, led by Rachel Maddow. It draws its strength from the obvious fact that US President Donald Trump is an inveterate liar. This means that anything Trump denies may actually be true, including the idea invented to explain away Hillary Clinton’s ignominious defeat to a charlatan politician that could only be explained by collusion between the 2016 Trump election campaign and Russia’s Vladimir Putin in person.
Johnson’s stab at conspiracy theory in early 2019, months before he secured the serious and sobering responsibilities of prime minister in the UK, was simply part of his fanciful discourse defending the incontrovertible “truth” of Brexit. Worried at the time that Parliament might find the means of canceling the sacred result of the 2016 referendum to leave the European Union, he blurted out: “I think that people will feel betrayed. And I think they will feel that there has been a great conspiracy by the deep state of the UK, the people who really run the country, to overturn the verdict of the people.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Any coordinated activity by a group of people that produces an outcome disagreeable to the speaker
Harari’s piece is puzzling. It leaves the reader wondering about his intent as well as why The New York Times chose to publish it. His point seems to be we must never take conspiracy theories seriously because they can’t be true. But this contradicts his explicit assertion that conspiracies do exist: “There are, of course, many real conspiracies in the world.” This is nothing more than the truism that people do conspire for a lot of different reasons.
Instead of citing some of these and exploring how they work and why they occur, he dismisses these very real conspiracies with the following reasoning: “Sometimes a corporation, a political party or a dictatorship does manage to gather a significant part of all the world’s power into its hands. But when such a thing happens, it’s almost impossible to keep it hush-hush.”
Harari seems to be saying that a global cabal theory can’t be true because at some point the truth will spill out, for the simple reason that some people are chattier than others. To make his case convincing, he had to fabricate a straw man hypothesis that supposes the existence of a conspiratorial system with the capacity “to puppet master nearly eight billion” individuals. Because that sounds impossible, the idea must be false.
There are several problems with this reasoning. The first is that effective conspiracies do not require 100% secrecy. The “Omertà” system of the Mafia — the law of silence — actually does attain close to 100% obedience from its members. Its perfect record is sometimes broken not because of disobedience but due to the existence of a higher authority, the law itself, that sometimes captures a potential squealer. But in a conspiracy that controls the law itself, no higher authority exists to induce the confession of a rat. No logical reason exists why such a conspiracy couldn’t exist. There is even historical evidence that such conspiracies have existed.
In today’s world, an effective conspiracy with potentially global reach can, without compromise, allow squealers to emerge publicly, simply because it knows how to control the media and the news. Powerful systems of government easily undermine the credibility not only of eventual rats but also of dissidents and objective investigators, those who have effectively seen through the facade. This has never been easier than in this era of “alternative facts.”
The assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Senator Robert Kennedy, in the 1960s have both produced numerous and sometimes conflicting conspiracy theories. Any of those theories may be mistaken in its details because so much has been so carefully hidden. But that doesn’t mean there was no conspiracy. It simply means that no single theory may tell the complete truth. But in both of those historical cases, there have been witnesses and even insiders who have blurted out facts at odds with the official narrative. For a logician, this means that the official narrative is just one more competing conspiracy theory.
Thanks to the ability of the operatives of any true modern conspiracy to manage the media, none of this contradictory testimony, credible or not, ever achieves the status of courtroom truth. The established media understands that it can be harmful to their reputation for seriousness to give too much credence to anything that can be branded a “conspiracy theory,” even if it is the result of serious investigative reporting. It is all part of the now well-honed skill set described by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky: manufacturing consent.
Yuval Noah Harari has no time for Chomsky’s analysis of complexity. He concludes on this upbeat note: “Realizing that no single cabal can secretly control the entire world is not just accurate — it is also empowering. It means that you can identify the competing factions in our world, and ally yourself with some groups against others. That’s what real politics is all about.”
The New York Times has every reason to frown upon conspiracy theories. More than ever, The Times has become an organ of the establishment whose essential role is to manufacture consent for the dominant power structure that functions at the cultural level like a cabal but at the pragmatic level like an ordinary competitor in a wide-open commercial game. By failing to distinguish between those two functions — the pursuit of business interests and the construction of a common culture with shared symbols and rules — Harari ends up trivializing the very idea of conspiracy, hiding its cultural reality.
Does that mean Harari is a complicit member of a conspiracy in which The New York Times plays a crucial role? Like anything that concerns conspiracies, the answer can only be both yes and no. Conspiracies are essentially elaborate games played according to a set of rules that everyone recognizes but only a few on the margins even try to understand. Once the game is underway, everyone agrees that the players’ action must be motivated by their shared consent to achieve something within the rules.
Thinkers like Harari and the stable of editorialists at The New York Times are there to tell us a simple message: Learn the rules so that you can play the game. And, especially, don’t get distracted by the meaning of the rules. Harari makes this absolutely clear when he says that everyone’s task is to join their preferred teams. But team members don’t just “ally” out of self-interest. They identify with the team they join. That is how the team achieves the optimal level of consent that makes it competitive.
For Harari, that game logic defines politics. But politics plays a dual role. It defines culture and is defined by it. In the end, culture is the true cabal.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.