Conspiracy Theory in America (book review)

Lance deHaven-Smith: Conspiracy Theory in America (University of Texas Press 2013, “Discover America” Series)

This book by a professor of political science from Florida, USA, summarizes how the Americans have viewed the political conspiracies of their rulers from the 18th to the 21st century. The starting-point for author deHaven-Smith is that the founding fathers of the USA where conspiracy theoreticians. He shows that the constitution of the USA with its division of state powers and its famous checks and balances is based on a conspiracy theory and thus that “conspiracy” is a keyword in America’s political history.

The American constitution was designed to regulate and limit the possibility of high crimes that might destroy or actually would destroy the republic and end in tyranny. It used to be politically correct (to use a slightly anachronistic term) to suspect politicians and statesmen of conspiracy. Charles Beard (1874-1948)  was according to deHaven-Smith the last Amercan political scientist who shared the original American perspective on conspiracies. After the second world war, American political science has been heavily influenced by, on the one hand,  the liberal Austrian philosopher K.R.Popper (1902-1994), who delivered an original and  devastating critique of “the conspiracy theory of history” (thus not particularly of the role of conspiracy theory in America’s history); and, on the other hand, the works of Leo Strauss (1899-1973), another, but conservative, European philosopher with a very different approach to politics; like Plato and Machiavelli, Strauss would allow political leaders to commit high crimes and tell the people “noble lies” whenever necessary for what they held to be a good cause.  The different and contradictory intellectual premises and views of Beard, Popper and Strauss are brilliantly elucidated (and aptly summarized in a figure and table) in the third chapter in of the book (“Conspiracy Denial in the Social Sciences”).

“Significantly, although we speak of conspiracy theory as if it were an objective reality understood similarly by everyone who uses the term”, deHaven-Smith writes

“its meaning varies from one theoretical context to another. Consequently, people are often talking past each other when they differ on the issue. When speaking of conspiracy theories, Beard, for example, means hypotheses about specific actions by identifiable persons or groups that result in identifiable advantages for these groups in law or political institutions. In contrast, Popper usually means a superstition-like belief that large societal calamities, such as wars, financial crises, famines, and the like, were caused by such amorphous categories of people as economic classes, races, ethnic groups, and so on. Strauss does not use the term “conspiracy” at all, but speaks instead of “noble lies,” so for him a conspiracy theory would be an ill-considered speculation, probably be a non-elite and perhaps partially or fully true, casting doubt on a noble lie. Thus for Strauss we might say a conspiracy theory is a “dastardly truth.” ”

The disagreements between these three accounts of conspiracy theories are “subtle and complex”, deHaven-Smith adds, because “such is the nature of differences between divergent philosophical perspectives.”

Of course, “Conspiracy theory in America” is not only a book about the history of some political ideas. It is also a political work in a the best sense of that word.  deHaven-Smith describes how, after the murder of President Kennedy 1963, and as a result of a veritable campaign by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the notion of “conspiracy theory” took on its present derogatoriness. Among other things, he clarifies the role of the CIA’s dispatch number 1035-960 from 1967. This document was later (in 1976) obtained by a Freedom of Information request and published by the New York Times.   “Essentially”, writes deHaven-Smith, the

“Dispatch 1035-960 instructed CIA agents to contact journalists and opinion leaders in their locales about critics of the Warren Commission [the official commission on the murder of JFK]; ask for their assistance in countering the influence of “conspiracy theorists” who were publishing “conspiracy theories” that blamed top leaders in the U.S. for Kennedy’s death; and urge their media contacts to criticize such theories and those who embrace them for aiding communists in the Cold War, trying to get attention, seeking to profit financially from the Kennedy tragedy, and refusing to consider all the facts.”

The combined effect of the post-war turn in academic political science and the subsequent political indoctrination campaign was that anyone — and not only any American, because the propagandistic use of the term ‘conspiracy theory’ has also spread to Europe and other parts of the world — who thinks that the leaders of our goverments is still capable of high crimes in this modern, democratic and technological era, risks to be labelled as a conspiracy nut and politically marginalised.

In the later parts of the book deHaven-Smith goes on to develop and explain the concept of “state crime against democracy” (SCAD) as a tool to be used in the analysis of present-day high political conspiracies. deHaven-Smith’s SCAD construct is not completely new for the book in question here; it has previously been used by, for instance, the authors of a special issue of American  Behavioral Scientist in their effort to make sense of e.g. the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington. (See ABS Volume 53 Number 6, February 2010.)

The political science of prof deHaven-Smith can actually help its students, both academics and laymen, to understand what is going on in America and even in world politics in this period where the American superpower is declining.

Mikael Böök
Master of Social Sciences

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