For a very long time – longer than I’ve been alive – the standard way for someone on the Right to begin a book or a speech, draw attention to a website, or launch a political campaign has been to say that something is deeply wrong with America’s present form of government.
It’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché that carries a lot of weight. Entering right-wing politics without declaring that America has gone astray from its founding principles, and that the government is trampling on our liberties, would be somewhat like joining a Pentecostal church but refusing to say that Jesus is Lord.
It isn’t that you couldn’t do it – just ask Jeb Bush. It’s just that you won’t get very far in either a religious or a political community if you don’t repeat and expound upon the core tenets of that community’s faith.
Now, among the people who are saying that something is deeply wrong with America’s present form of government, there are a lot of variations of belief about just what that something is. To people who aren’t on the right, this is often taken as evidence that right-wingers are blowing smoke.
I don’t see it that way. Rather, I think that the situation is more like the old story of the Blind Men and the Elephant. If different people can spend years pondering the decline of the American empire and come to different conclusions about what is happening and why, it’s simply because the decline is so big and multifaceted that a single person’s insights are never enough to understand it.
For example, watching a pair of right-wingers arguing over whether central banking or leftist jurisprudence is the true cause of their country’s loss of freedom over the last century is somewhat like watching the blind man with his hand on the elephant’s tusk saying to the blind man with his hand on the tail, “There’s no truth to your theory that the elephant is like a rope; clearly the object that it resembles the most is a spear.”
That being said, there is one strain of belief, common among the Right, which I wholly and unabashedly reject. I have no point of agreement with the people who think that the biggest threat to our liberties and our country’s well-being is a single, well-organized conspiracy working behind the scenes to subvert the US constitution, and that, one day, this conspiracy will emerge from the shadows and subject us all to a new and radically different form of government.
This is a theme that is played with many variations. Conspiracy theorists disagree about what the shadow group is, what sort of government it is trying to set up, which publicly-known organizations are front groups for it (Skull and Bones, Council on Foreign Relations, etc.) and why the shadow-rulers felt the need to pull off the Kennedy Assassination, the 9/11 attacks, and so forth.
My plan here is to discuss why I don’t believe these theories, and also to try to answer the question of just what it is about the conspiratorial worldview that makes it so appealing – and so wrong.
Consider, to begin with, one of the (relatively) less insane conspiracy theories: the one that claims that the United Nations is on the brink of taking over the United States, suspending the Constitution of 1787, and imposing martial law.
If the UN is on the brink of doing something like that, then they’ve been on the brink for a very long time. Controversy over whether it was a good idea for the US to create and join the UN has been an off-and-on theme in American politics since 1945. Before that, there was a similar controversy over the League of Nations at the end of World War I.
In both cases, the controversy started the same way: Americans were afraid of the establishment of a supranational governing body which might compel the United States to go to war without the consent of the US Congress.
The first time around, the more cautious faction won out – the Senate voted against ratifying the Treaty of Versailles, and the United States did not join the League of Nations. The second time around, owing largely to a belief that American isolationism was a factor in the rise of Nazi Germany, a great many Americans reversed course and became enthusiastic supporters of the United Nations.
But not everybody was happy about the new situation. Some American statesmen voiced reasonable fears of what might happen if the UN, in which the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin had an equal voice with the United States, began acting too aggressively in its new role as the policeman of the world. Indeed, there were good reasons, at the time, to think that a decision to grant plenary powers to the United Nations might end with a Marxist concept of human rights being enforced by the sword.
Except that that isn’t the way that history played out. The first real attempt of the UN to enforce its new ideals came with the partition of Palestine in 1947, which would have divided the Holy Land into separate Jewish and Arab states while leaving Jerusalem and Bethlehem as international cities. The plan didn’t work – the Arabs rebelled against the UN, which proved unable to enforce its authority, the Jews had to go it alone, and it’s quite the understatement to say that Israel has had a tangled relationship with its neighbours ever since.
Then there was the Korean War – this is the one that really scared Americans, because it involved President Truman sending US forces into a conflict on the basis of a resolution of the UN Security Council, without ever getting Congress to declare war. Then, after the Chinese crossed the Yalu in October of 1950, Truman’s refusal to allow General McArthur to strike any targets in China, not even the Chinese ends of the bridges that the PLA was crossing to get into Korea, on the grounds that doing so would be harmful to world peace, caused a lot of consternation within the halls of Congress.
As it turned out, Korea was indeed the beginning of a new way for the United States to make war, but the UN had little to do with it. In future conflicts – Vietnam, the Gulf Wars, Libya, Syria, Yemen, etc. – the President alone would decide when, where, and against whom a war would be fought, without having to go to Congress for declarations of war on specific foreign countries.
And what became of the United Nations? It was a big deal for about a decade, after which it subsided into a largely ceremonial role. That doesn’t mean that its new role is useless – there are benefits to having a deliberative body in which representatives of every nation in the world can talk out their issues under an air of equality. But nobody is ever going to go to war again because of a decision made at the UN. (I say “because of” since the UN can still play a ceremonial role in authorizing wars that were going to happen anyway).
Meanwhile, in America, a lot of the things that the most ardent opponents of the UN feared would happen under a world government ended up happening anyway under the ever-morphing American government. Even without the UN wielding real power, Congress still lost its authority over wars. The size and scope of the federal government were dramatically expanded. Policies that would have been revolting to nearly anybody in 1945 are now cheerfully supported by half the American populace, and grudgingly endured by the other half.
The cause of representative government in America ended up taking most of its blows on the domestic front. Back in the 1950s, the Warren Court decided that, by declaring itself the protector of every minority group who felt that its rights were being violated by more democratic institutions, it could become America’s Top Legislature (that’s what “interpreter of the constitution” is a euphemism for). The Justices then used that power to make a lot of dramatic changes to the way America was governed, going quite a ways beyond suppressing the racial injustices which originally motivated their power trip.
None of this had much of anything to do with the United Nations. The UN seemed threatening for a while, but the threats didn’t materialize, and the world moved on. The important struggles for American liberty between 1945 and today mostly happened in other contexts, and the supporters of limited government and the Bill of Rights usually lost.
Conspiracy theorists, unwilling to admit that they were wrong, have tried to frame all of this in terms of the United Nations anyway. The people who make decisions within the US government must be secretly controlled from somewhere, they say, and any day now the UN troops will be marching down our streets and herding us off to detainment centres.
The problem with that mindset is that no theories that elaborate are actually needed in order to explain the evidence. Or in other words, decision makers within the US government are perfectly capable of acting the way they do without taking covert orders from anybody else.
If you want to understand why Supreme Court Justices rule the way they do, then read their opinions. If you want to know how their worldview was formed, then just look at where they went to law school, what media they read, and who they hobnob with at the upper end of DC society. Then do the same thing with all the lawyers and appellate judges who determine which questions will make it to the Supreme Court.
The same thing goes for the army of neoconnish State Department officials who make America’s foreign policy. They are trained at specific universities, read specific media, hobnob with likeminded people, and come out of it all holding a specific worldview which just happens to give them a vastly inflated sense of their own ability to improve the world by forcing their ideology upon it.
Repeat the process with any other group of decision makers in American society, whether their decisions relate to law, politics, education, business, finance, medicine, the media, or whatever, and you will have an idea of what is going on.
There is no shadowy, centralized control system. The United States is simply run by a collection of human beings who act according to a combination of idealism and self-interest to implement agendas which they themselves don’t see as sinister, and which they aren’t trying very hard to conceal from the public.
Do conspiracies happen? In the dictionary-sense of the word ‘conspiracy,’ yes, they do. Over and over again, men of wealth and power conspire. They make plans, in secret, to do legally or morally questionable things which they wouldn’t have done if they had expected everybody else to find out. Sometimes, there is a leak and a public outcry: think the Pentagon Papers, or the Iran-Contra scandal, or all the lying and obfuscation about nuclear weapons in Iraq.
But the main fact revealed by these scandals is not that the schemers are controlled by any centralized force. Rather, it is that they are acting out of the same combination of idealism and self-interest that drives normal government and corporate activity, but with a bit more zeal/recklessness than is generally acceptable.
Politicians like Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon obfuscated the fact that the US was losing the Vietnam War because they knew that both of the other options – either admitting defeat, or escalating the war like Goldwater wanted – would be bad for their popularity. Ronald Reagan kept funding the Contras in defiance of Congress because his idealism impelled him to support the global struggle against Communism by fair means or foul. And so forth.
When I criticize the conspiratorial worldview, I am not criticizing the idea that some very unnerving things have happened in America in the last 70 years or so. I am just criticizing the idea that they are happening according to some sort of master plan, and that there is some sort of master planner whose machinations could be resisted if more Americans were in the know.
It is comforting to some people to think this way. It lets them feel more powerful than other Americans who aren’t aware of the conspiracy. And when a right-winger sees his side losing at politics over and over again, conspiracy theories help him feel like a victim of an evil mastermind rather than a member of a political faction which consistently gets beaten because of its poor organization and lack of courage.
And the conspiratorial worldview is great for people who want to engage in provisional living. If your feelings of patriotism revolve around making plans for what you are going to do in the future, when an imaginary foreign occupying force shows up in America, then guess what? Your patriotism poses zero threat to the forces that are doing America in right now.
Just think of what would have happened if one of the blind men in the old story had said: “I’ve got it! I know all about this elephant critter! It’s about two feet long, and it has four legs and a cold, leathery head, and its body is protected by a hard, bony shell.”
You would know, even if you were a blind man too, that he wasn’t feeling the same animal that you were. And you would also know that if you ever wanted to figure out what the elephant was really like, then you would be best off not listening to him.
So it is with the people who claim that the United Nations poses a serious threat to American liberties.