My two score years in the West have led me to conclude that, of all the factors impeding the political thinking of its elites, few are more pernicious than the set of prejudices amalgamated with the notion of “conspiracy theory.” Last week in this space the estimable Tom Piatak wrote that, in American politics, “being wrong on significant matters seems to carry little penalty, while being right on significant matters seems to carry little reward.” Time and again one sees a truth respectfully laid out for appraisal proclaimed a falsehood only to be universally accepted a decade later, and yet the peculiar sentence pronounced on the heretic who had dared to uncover it is never repealed. Like the writer Józef Mackiewicz, who testified before the US Senate in 1952 that Stalin’s henchmen, and not the SS, had been responsible for the Katyn massacre of 22,000 Polish officers in 1940, he is to live for the rest of his life with the stigma of conspiracy theorist. When, some fifty years after the fact, Moscow finally admitted responsibility for the war crime and the truth told by Mackiewicz became the stuff of school textbooks, the writer had been long dead.
Since 1917 Russia has been ruled by conspirators. “How could Stalin,” I’m sometimes asked, “have so thoroughly concealed his 1930’s secret plans for a surprise conquest of Germany that in the 1990’s even the savviest of our compatriots regarded this truth of history as an urban myth?” Indeed, hundreds, if not thousands, of senior army commanders had been privy to Stalin’s plans, and yet none of them ever spoke out even after the great conspirator’s demise. The answer is that a conspiracy culture becomes so pervasive in closed societies that many decades, if not centuries, must pass before the truth comes out. Yet, in the West, should a scholar venture even a fleeting reference to this occult truth in the court of his peers, he is judged a conspiracy theorist and branded as such for life.
The problem, of course, is that Western societies are becoming increasingly closed in their turn. Their smoke-filled rooms are becoming darker and, even more significant, less numerous. The clubhouse ethos of increasingly powerful fiefdoms like the CIA, and of unelected national and foreign policy makers in supranational corporate environments, is now more reminiscent of the formative years of the Lubyanka than of the good old days of Tammany Hall. A conspiracy culture is plainly in the making, yet woe to the historian, the journalist, or the politician who points this out in any but private discourse – and even then, perhaps, with the furtive glance of a Soviet paterfamilias at the microphone concealed in the chandelier of cheap imitation crystal.
A Russian cartoon is making rounds on the internet. Two cows are seated at the dinner table, and one says to the other: “People are feeding us so they can milk us and eat our flesh!” The other replies: “Oh, stop it with your conspiracy theories! Do you want cows laughing at you?”