Discordian writer and prankster Robert Anton Wilson celebrated conspiracy theories as decentralized power incarnate. “Conspiracy is just another name for coalition,” he has a character say in The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles. According to Wilson, any sufficiently imaginative group of people can make a fiction real. Another statement of his sounds more ominous, read in the light of how we usually think about conspiracy theory: “Reality is what you can get away with.”
When historian Richard Hofstadter diagnosed what he called “the paranoid style in American politics,” he was quick to point out that it predated the “extreme right-wingers” of his time by several hundred years. Where Wilson thinks of conspiracy theory as a shining example of rational thought against a conspiracy of Kings and Popes, Hofstadter saw it as anti-Enlightenment, an extreme reaction in the U.S. to Illuminism, “a somewhat naive and utopian movement,” Hofstadter writes dismissively.
Perhaps the utopian and the paranoid style are not so easily distinguishable, in that they both “promise to deliver powerful insights, promise to transform how you see for the better,” says Kirby Ferguson, creator of the Everything is a Remix Series episode below. But no matter how dark or illuminated they may be, he suggests, all conspiracy theories share the common feature of being “constantly wrong.” Ferguson’s new film series, This is Not a Conspiracy Theory digs deeper into the “role of conspiracy theories in American culture,” he writes on his site.
Despite its ostensible subject, the project’s “ultimate purpose is to introduce people to the realms of systems science, which is where we can better understand the hidden forces that shape our lives.” Produced over eight years in an entertaining “conspiracy-like style,” the film champions skepticism and complexity over the certainty and pat, closed-circle narratives offered by conspiracists. Conspiracy theories—like the innumerable permutations of the JFK assassination, Chemtrails, or Roswell—are “too much like movies,” he says, to contain very much reality.
Ferguson’s vision of the world resembles Wilson’s, who wrote most of his work before the internet. Reality, he says, is a “massive, decentralized hive of activity.” Power and control exist, of course, but there is no man behind the curtain, no secret hierarchies. Just billions of people pulling their own levers to make things happen, creating a reality that is a sum, at any given moment, of all those lever-pulls. Are there no such thing as conspiracies? “To be sure,” as Michael Parenti argues, “conspiracy is a legitimate concept in law,” and actual conspiracies, like Watergate or Iran-Contra, “are a matter of public record.”
What differentiates suspicion about events like these from what Parenti calls “wacko conspiracy theories”? Maybe a section Ferguson left out of his “Constantly Wrong” episode at the top will illuminate. A conspiracy theory, he writes, “is a claim of secret crimes by a hidden group, and this claim is driven by a community of amateurs” who are more eager to believe than to apply critical thinking. Learn more about Ferguson’s new film here.