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The Energy of Conspiracy Theorists

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Tuesday, Jun 23, 2009

More on conspiracy mongering. Coming up with conspiracy theories is a pathological way of dealing with too much information (which threatens to bury us, confront us with our utter insignificance), with often strikingly inventive and ingenious results. But perhaps more often, the results are pernicious and hateful, prompting deranged people to commit crimes in the name of their disturbed theories. If the hypothesis that conspiracies derive from stunted creative energy with no socially sanctioned outlet holds, would creating these theories provide an outlet for such people’s unstable pent-up energy, their alienation and feelings of powerlessness? Does it help them let off steam, defusing the danger they otherwise represent? Or do the theories necessarily harden them in their madness, providing justification to go further, to act, to murder a bunch of celebrities on Cielo Drive, or a guard at the Holocaust Museum. 


This article by Mark Oppenheimer, the first of a series, (via the Atlantic’s Ideas blog) promises to investigate what drives Holocaust deniers to reject history in favor of nebulous and despised conspiracy theories. The first installment contains this remarkable exchange between the author and Bradley Smith, a 79-year-old Holocaust denier.


Once we were both seated at the coffee shop, I tried to ask Smith about possible flaws in the works of great Holocaust historians.
“You’ve read all the standard accounts,” I asked, “like Lucy Dawidowicz and Raul Hilberg?”
“Yeah,” Smith said, “that’s what I started with, I read Hilberg. I didn’t read them very closely. Because I’m not really interested in the history of the period.”
I was a little shocked. “I mean, you read Lucy Dawidowicz’s book on the period? You read David Wyman?”
“Not thoroughly,” Smith said. “Wyman, I didn’t read. He came a bit too late.”
I was astounded. “But that’s kind of amazing, right? Because here are these classic works of Holocaust literature that purport to show it all and you say you haven’t read them closely. So you have read Arthur Butz, who’s a nobody in the field, closely, but you haven’t read the great titans in the field closely?” 
“You know what? I’m not interested in the story,” he replied. “Revisionists have written very detailed documents about the holes—”
“So what are you interested in?”
“In a free exchange of ideas.”
“But you aren’t interested in trying to find out which ideas are right?”
“Not particularly. You know what I’m really interested in? Every generation has its taboo, and I happen to be here with this taboo. I happen to be here with this one. And I can see how it’s exploited, and who benefits from the exploitation.”


Smith wants to reason backward to some crazy version of the “truth” by starting with the bad incentives of supposed “exploiters” of history, all while regarding history itself as insignificant. But if history doesn’t matter, what is even at stake? As he says, the “free exchange of ideas,” but what that really means is his freedom to be recognized as different in a culture that seems to encourage sameness and at times projects images of a homogeneous people all believing the same things. (“The Nazis were evil.” “Everybody loves the Beatles.”) It’s a grandiose way of signaling resistance to the normative culture of our time (to borrow a phrase Amitai Etzioni uses in this TNR article). What is at stake for him in his Holocaust denial is not history at all or even his urge to disseminate anti-Semitic propaganda. Rather, it’s nothing other than his own reputation as a stalwart nonconformist. Holocaust denial ends up seeming like the extreme version of hating Coldplay because they are popular.

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