Power, Violence, and Conspiracy Theories

Hannah Arendt stampIn a column for The New York Times, Roger Cohen takes a look at the culture of conspiracy theories in the Arab world and comes to the conclusion that “minds resort to conspiracy theory because it is the ultimate refuge of the powerless”. What he was writing, though, could have just as easily been said about our own conspiracy culture.

To prove his point, Mr Cohen looks at the ridiculous conspiracy theories that seem to find an invisible American hand behind everything. What he finds is that with the twisted logic of the conspiracy theorist, “there can be no closure because events stream on endlessly, opening up boundless possibilities for ex post facto theorizing”.

To demonstrate that the twisted logic of the conspiracy theorist can be used to reach any conclusion, no matter how crazy, Mr Cohen uses their same reasoning to ‘prove’ that it was Iran, not the US, that invaded Iraq in 2003!

I know it appears that the United States was behind the invasion. What about “shock and awe” and all that? Hah! It is true that the deception was elaborate. But consider the facts: The invasion of Iraq has weakened the United States, Iran’s old enemy, and so it can only be — quod erat demonstrandum — that Tehran was the devious mastermind.

We see this same desperation in as they try to explain how Wikileaks is a conspiracy against Muslims. You see the same twisted logic when Hamid Gul says that America committed 9/11 against itself or when Zaid Hamid says 26/11 attacks were carried out by ‘Hindu Zionists’.

But what is happening in Pakistan is more than merely the powerless trying to make sense of the world around them. What is actually happening is that a powerless but ambitious group of people are using these conspiracy theories to manipulate a public that is desperate to find some sense behind all the chaos. By redirecting attention away from the real problems, problems that these powerless but ambitious souls have no solutions for, they manipulate the people’s emotions. It is part of a cynical strategy to get people to put their faith in these charlatans and give up power over their own lives.

The German political philosopher Hannah Arendt, in her book, On Violence theorized that violence is a tool for multiplying strength, but it is destructive only, not productive. Power, she says, corresponds to the human ability to act together towards a common purpose. Thus violence can destroy, but can never create power.

People like Ahmed Quraishi know too well what governments and covert agents are up to with their conspiracy theories. He has even said so himself, defending the release of the fake Wikileaks story by saying that “we can manipulate too”. He follows up this astonishing admission of manipulation by calling for a blatant authoritarian regime in Pakistan that will “enforce discipline” and “tolerate dissent but not chaos”.

This is where the true intentions of our conspiracy theorist set becomes clear – manipulate through propaganda as long as possible. When that stops working, resort to violence.

Conspiracy theories and coercion. These are the tools of the powerless, would-be tyrant. He is powerless because the truth is that, as Hannah Arendt observed, all power lies with the people. That is why would-be dictators and their pawns like Ahmed Quraishi must resort to the tricks and threats of the powerless. That is why the democracy is not only the best revenge, as Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto has said, but is also the antidote to conspiracy theories and coercion, the antidote to tyranny in all forms.

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