Stand by your sham: Conspiracy theory (3)

What does it mean to disparage the case that Ilhan Omar married her brother in 2009 as a “conspiracy theory”? We saw in part 1 that the Daily Beast, the New Yorker and others have dismissed it by resort to this term or term.

Benjamin Wallace-Wells characterizes it as such in his New Yorker profile of Omar. Perhaps nothing more about the profile of Omar need be said than this: it represents an embarrassing piece of agitprop or fanboy journalism. Making the necessary changes, it might be drawn from the archives of Soviet Life or Tiger Beat. By contrast, however, Will Sommer pretends to contend with the facts of the Omar case in his Daily Beast article on it.

As a general matter, I can understand the reluctance to believe the story. It is almost unbelievable. Mark Twain observed long ago that we have no native criminal class except Congress, but he was talking about old-fashioned misconduct of the kind with which we are all familiar. In Congress, the Omar case presents a novel form of corrupt misconduct.

Daniel Pipes is a student of conspiracy theories. He has written two books on the subject. Having addressed fears of conspiracy in the Middle East in The Hidden Hand, he had enough material left over to write a history of conspiracy theories in Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From. He has posted excerpts from the latter book here; he has logged his writing on conspiracy theories here.

Thanks to Dr. Pipes I learned of Augustin de Barruel (1741-1820). Pipes dubs him “history’s most important conspiracy theorist.” De Barruel is the author of a four-volume history of the French Revolution. In it, “de Barruel made a systematic and well-documented case for secret societies having carried off the French Revolution; specifically, he saw it resulting from a plot that the Jacobins had meticulously worked out in advance. The Jacobins, in turn, incorporated three elements: Philosophes, Freemasons, and Illuminati.”

At pages 9-10 of The Hidden Hand Pipes defines a conspiracy as two or more conspirators jointly and secretly aiming to achieve a prohibited goal. “Conspiracies do occur,” he notes, citing, for example, the Sykes-Picot Agreement dividing up the Middle East during World War I, the Lavon Affair (you can look it up), and the Iran/Contra scandal. Pipes divides conspiracies into petty conspiracies (working within the existing order) and grand conspiracies (conspiracies that aspire to world domination).

A conspiracy theory is the nonexistent version of a conspiracy. I infer that if the conspiracy doesn’t exist as a matter of fact, we are left with a conspiracy theory. Characterizing a conspiracy as a conspiracy theory states a conclusion that should follow from an examination of the relevant evidence.

“Anyone might speculate about the odd conspiracy theory,” Pipes writes, “but the conspiracy theorist makes this a habitual practice. He discerns malignant forces at work wherever something displeases him; plots serve as his main method of explaining the world around him. He suspects a plot or cover-up when other, less malign explanations better fit the facts.” Following his categorization of conspiracies, Pipes also divides conspiracy theories into petty and grand: “Petty theories deal with limited aims, grand conspiracy theories involve fears of world domination.”

As the summary on his page promoting Conspiracy puts it, Pipes traces conspiracy theories through history to show that what he calls conspiracism – genuine and virulent belief in a conspiracy – dates back to the First Crusade and reached a peak in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, with the focus shifting from the Jews, groups such as Freemasons and the Rosicrucians, and back again.

In Pipes’s terms, the Omar case is obviously not a grand conspiracy but a petty one. It posits a minimum of two actors or conspirators: Omar and Ahmed Nur Said Elmi. It may also include Sahra Noor (who I am told hatched the idea of a fraudulent marriage) and Wilecia Harris (the Christian pastor who signed off on it). To determine whether the case represents a conspiracy or a conspiracy theory, however, we must determine whether the evidence reveals an actual instance of covert collusion or something fabricated in the imagination of an observer.

To take a prominent case of some relevance, the Russiagate hoax represents a conspiracy intended to defeat Trump as candidate and then as president. The underlying story peddled by the conspirators represents a conspiracy theory. The New Yorker (see Jane Mayer and John Cassidy, for example) and the Daily Beast (see Sommer et al., for example) peddled the conspiracy theory.

I hope to wrap this up briefly in part 4.

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