How to Grapple With Conspiracy Theories

A few years ago, the Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky gave the inaugural lecture for The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom. In a talk titled, “Is Freedom for Everyone?” he asked, “Who said that even if it is good for other people, it is good for us that they will be free? Maybe it is dangerous for us.”

Invoking Mrs. Thatcher’s legacy, he gave a confident answer.

“Speaking about this dissident or that one, about human rights in Poland, or Czechoslovakia, or the Soviet Union, or any other part of the world, she was not doing it simply because she was passionate and sympathetic with it, but rather because she too saw the big picture,” he said. “She understood, exactly as Ronald Reagan did—and with all their differences, on this they were like twins—that there was only one way to win this battle with commu¬nism, one way to win the Cold War: and that was by promoting democracy and building allies on the basis of their belief in human rights and freedom.”

Imagine Mr. Sharansky’s shock at last week’s news that Mrs. Thatcher spent the weeks prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall instructing Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to prevent it. “The reunification of Germany is not in the interests of Britain and Western Europe.” Mrs. Thatcher said. “It might look different from public pronouncements, in official communiqué at NATO meetings, but it is not worth paying ones attention to it. We do not want a united Germany.”

She added, “In the same way, a destabilization of Eastern Europe and breakdown of the Warsaw Pact are also not in our interests. Of course, internal changes are happening in all Eastern European countries, somewhere they are deeper than in others. However, we would prefer if those processes were entirely internal, we would not interfere in them or push the de-communization of Eastern Europe.”

I submit that this revelation is a lesson to democratic peoples about how much trust to put in their government and its leaders—the answer being “not very much.” It isn’t merely that Mrs. Thatcher cared more for the geopolitical interests of Britain than the freedom of Eastern Europeans, or that she turned out to be wrong about there being a tension between their freedom and the West’s security. The point is that her actions contradict the very core of the persona and intellectual arguments that she successfully sold to the world. Put another way, if you can’t trust the Iron Lady to oppose the Soviet Union against those it enslaved, who can you trust?

Be assured that I am not going to start alleging paranoid conspiracy theories. The most popular recent examples—that the September 11 attacks were an inside job, and that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States—are beyond the bounds of reasonable political discourse, full stop.

But just think, the conspiracy theorist might say, how you would’ve reacted before last week, if I’d asserted that Margaret Thatcher conspired with Mikhail Gorbachev to delay the fall of Eastern European communism. You’d have ignored me at best—more likely you’d have called me a loon! Or say I alleged, before documents proved it, that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI broke into Martin Luther King’s home, spied on him almost 24 hours a day, and wrote him an anonymous note urging him to commit suicide. Or to cite a recent example, imagine that I suggested, prior to this week, that ACORN staffers in two offices funded by taxpayer money tried on separate occasions to help college aged kids cheat on their taxes, open up a brothel for underage El Salvadoran girls, and funnel the profits into a Congressional campaign. You’d have said I was crazy.

The conspiracy theorist would have a point!

And rebutting their kind requires answering that challenge—glad as I am that Truthers and Birthers are ridiculed and dismissed, it is important that we’re clear on why they deserve no better. It isn’t that it’s unpatriotic to question one’s leaders, or that governments never hatch abhorrent plots, or that leaders never present one face to the world and another behind closed doors. It would be ahistorical and dangerous for a free people to believe all those things. Conspiracy theories ought to be dismissed based on the evidence.

Thanks to Popular Mechanics, the 9/11 report, and other fact-finding operations too numerous to name, it is established that the Truther nonsense, implausible from the get-go, is utterly refuted—anyone who believes otherwise isn’t engaged in a clear-headed, good faith examination of the evidence. The same can be said for the Birthers, never mind the nonsense being published by World Net Daily, a publication that dismisses not only public documents from Hawaii, the statements of its officials, and common sense, but that also hasn’t any way to explain announcements of President Obama’s birth that appeared in two Hawaii newspapers.

Why go through all that trouble, rather than dismissing conspiracy theorists –who always seem to miss the actual conspiracies—out of hand? Why not simply tell them that they are disloyal loons who ought to think better of the folks chosen to lead them?

I’d say that every democratic people must navigate a strait that passes between twin dangers—on one side, credulity and leader-worship that blinds it to the machinations of duplicitous elected officials; and on the other side, paranoid lies whose unchecked spread threatens a polity’s health and sanity. The safest way to navigate that strait is to skeptically investigate conspiracy theories, and to dismiss them on two most devastating grounds of refutation: a dearth of evidence that they are true, and a preponderance of evidence that they are false.

That may seem like a lot of work to go through for the sake of confirming what is regarded as obviously true. Usually it will be. But every so often, events in this world remind us that truth can be stranger than fiction.