A Theory About Conspiracy Theories

When I submitted the first draft of this piece about the arrest of Turkish journalist Ahmet Şık to City Journal, their (extraordinarily good) editors returned it to me. They tactfully asked me to rewrite it because they could make no sense of it. What, they asked me, was real, and what was parody?
I hope the final version makes a bit more sense. I’ve done my best.
The key point is that two narratives are now dominating political life in Turkey, one about the so-called Ergenekon conspiracy, the other about the alleged conspiracy of Fethullah Gülen. I could not possibly say exactly which elements of either theory are true. The problem, I would argue, is that no one can: The lack of transparency in government here is too great.
The widespread belief in Turkey that there is a conspiracy is what we should be most worried about. Conspiracy theories take root when people feel they do not understand and cannot control the power centers of their society. Whether or not these conspiracy theories are true, they are not a joke–even if they sound like it. They’re a symptom.
We’ve of late had some vigorous discussion on Ricochet about the hallmarks of a conspiracy theory. Unsurprisingly, it’s hard to come up with a consensus definition. There is certainly a tradition of conspiracy-thought in America, too, but these ideas tend to be crowded out, fairly quickly, because we can look pretty closely at what our government is doing and we can usually understand it quite well.
Foreign observers struggle to understand which aspects of these Turkish conspiracy theories might be true. Fair enough, they should. But the larger question they might want to ask is why so many people here believe them. Let me offer one hint, among many. Have a look at this recent headline: AKP introduces Istanbul candidates to the general public.
Now ask yourself: Why is the AKP introducing its candidates to the public, rather than vice-versa? Why isn’t the public telling the AKP which candidates it wants? The answer is that political parties in Turkey are not democratic entities; they do not grow from the bottom to the top. The party leader decides who the candidates are, and then–it’s a miracle!–introduces them to the public. The opposition CHP has taken some steps lately to introduce more debate and transparency into the process, but we are still looking at a structure that is basically about behind-the-scenes horse-trading.
So indeed there will be an election–probably quite a free and fair one–in June. But will people feel, deeply, that they themselves created and completely control the government they elect?
How could they?

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