Modern conspiracy theories: daft or dangerous?

Credit: Sheila Scott - “Maybe there is something in this chemtrails mind control stuff after all...”

Credit: Sheila Scott – “Maybe there is something in this chemtrails mind control stuff after all…”

Thomas McDonald
Writer

As The Glasgow Guardian readers will be aware, the elusive leafleteers responsible for the Holocaust-denying notices found across campus last term have struck again, this time darkening the Boyd Orr bulletin board with new leaflets attacking the practice of psychiatry and linking it to a sinister Jewish-run conspiracy. The group responsible for the production of this material is presumably directing events from afar, being an uncontactable Australian organisation whose cause célèbre is the chemtrails conspiracy: the baseless belief that the white trails emitted from aircrafts are in fact dangerous chemicals being sprayed into the atmosphere for nefarious ends. This brand of paranoid basement-dwelling speculation seems to exist alongside vicious anti-Semitism, Christian fundamentalism and links to neo-Nazi organisations in the sum of this group’s activities and beliefs. Should the morbid fascination take you, you can explore them for yourselves with reference to the news articles covering the subject in this paper. It’s all very shady, and all oddly familiar.

Naturally, one’s first reaction is to laugh. Glasgow (and Edinburgh) has on its hands the menacing outreach of foreign agents promoting the vilest of ideologies and all but the most humourless amongst us scoff, as well we should. We consider ourselves firmly in the moral mainstream, a safe distance from such a manic fringe. This is a natural reaction and in many ways an effective response: those who seek to treat such issues with too much lofty condemnation serve to go some way to legitimising these thoroughly discredited beliefs. What is interesting, however, is just how tirelessly this combination of the ridiculous and the sinister persists in our society. Conspiracy theories of this kind usually exist on the very outskirts of sensible discourse but never seem to be stamped out entirely. It’s good that we laugh at the clowns, but why can’t we laugh them away?

We students, for one thing, are a famously reactionary crew, suspicious of authority and the well from which the most radical, and often baffling, movements spring. Picture the conspiracy theorist, and your mind most probably settles on those proponents of right-wing politics, opposed to the establishment and concocting all manner of theories from the comparatively plausible “pharmaceutical companies are withholding important cures” to the outlandish “the government is concealing its discovery of aliens” by way of “9/11 was an inside job.” All unsubstantiated, but all somewhat indicative of a familiar mindset. Has this extremely right-wing group, then, targeted the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh in some attempt to exploit these hotbeds of reactionary suspicion? After all, any paranoid slavishly opposed to Western authority (and with poor critical faculties) could, given a healthy bed of prejudice, see our government’s support of Israel as an invitation to the kind of anti-Semitism this group purvey. One merely needs to look at the recent troubles of the modern Labour party to notice that uncomfortable link.

But of course, it’s unlikely that anyone who managed to read the leaflets was convinced by anything printed thereon: mercifully ubiquitous decency ensure as much. Nevertheless, this group have still selected the well educated student body of a top university as a target for their hateful nonsense. Following the link found on the leaflet, I visited the group’s website and spent a tedious train journey home sifting through several bewildering pages concerning the alleged Jewish psychiatry conspiracy. What struck me was the register of the language – the group seem fond of an academic tone, citations from leading “experts” and pithy quotes from Goethe and Voltaire. Idiots who are not idiots, it would seem.

We should consider ourselves lucky that our society now receives this idea of all-penetrating Jewish conspiracy only from pick-nose paranoids who also see credit in the ridiculous chemtrail conspiracy, for it was not always so. From being accused of poisoning drinking wells and kidnapping Christian children in Medieval Europe to deliberately visiting financial ruin on European nations in the 20th century, the history of Jewish persecution is certainly storied – explore it thoroughly, and you may be in danger of weeping. These Holocaust deniers draw on a rich tradition and, in light of this, their beliefs no longer seem to originate from some outlandish nowhere, but from our own (relatively recent) history. The dark rise of the little man with the even smaller moustache proves that this thankfully fringe belief once occupied the moral mainstream we now laugh from. I do not wish to insult our readers’ intelligence by explaining that anti-Semitism is a dangerous thing. Rather, the point here is that mad conspiracy theories do, in some sense, contain an inherent danger. The anti-Semitic conspiracy theory is merely one apposite example given the recent developments at our university, one that constructs the outlandish upon a nevertheless solid foundation of historic prejudice.

By examining the group’s arguments for their imagined psychiatry conspiracy we see further evidence of precisely this tactic. The group cite the Rosenhan Experiment, a contested, but by all accounts legitimate, experiment published in 1973 examining the effectiveness of psychiatric diagnosis. A group of actors were instructed to feign mental illness and attempt to commit themselves into major American mental institutions, thereby exposing the prevalence of phony diagnostic techniques. Reasonable criticism of this premise becomes instantly irrelevant when one sees how Dr. Rosenhan’s findings are unrecognisably distorted into such mutant conclusions as “[psychiatry] is an atrocious method of incarceration, coercive control and deactivation of political dissidents and especially, God’s people, by Big Brother State on behalf of the established (dis)order.” But remember, there is a bed of rational scepticism upon which this bizarre edifice is erected. The perceived cultural link between Jews and psychiatry goes back to Sigmund Freud and can be observed in almost any Woody Allen movie you care to name (although the group’s examination of this in a section entitled “The rise of the Antichrist” doesn’t so much toss credibility aside as launch it into outer space). Furthermore, psychiatry, pharmaceutical companies and shadowy government are all entities we do and should suspect if we are thinking, informed people. That this also makes us a target for such sinister organisations should give us pause for thought.

The conspiracy theorist never bases their beliefs on nothing and perhaps the reactionary student body of Glasgow University exhibits a weakness worth preying on. You will scarcely find a student at this University who will say they are happy with the government and, in that most basic respect, they are suddenly on this side of this fanatic crew. “Let’s oppose the government together!” they propose, “You blame their greed, we blame their Judaism!” At this age and within this community we are perhaps at our unshackled best when it comes to activism – the call to “question everything” is an almost tired mantra, but some restraint and an appreciation of just where unfettered distrust can lead would probably do us well. Let us appreciate the imperfect, irrational brains we have – we know that an errant axe murderer is one of the least likely explanations for that midnight clatter in the back garden, but there remains a dark corner of our minds within which it will forever be the most. Herein lies the birth spring of such hateful conspiracy theories as we have recently seen; a quick and customary acknowledgement of this, and we can get back to chuckling at how anyone could be that daft.