The danger of conspiracy theories

It seems like a hundred years ago, but in 1996, I briefly infiltrated a group of conspiracy theorists–“sovereign citizens”–and wrote a few news stories and an analysis piece about them. They quit speaking to me after the first one was published, and I received threatening phone calls at the newsroom.

The group was newsworthy because it was causing a lot of problems for officials in that town, but we struck gold. Another reporter in the newsroom was a Marine–there are no former Marines–and when he saw the ringleader’s claim he was a retired Marine colonel, he made some phone calls. This “colonel” turned out to only be a low-level enlisted. (There are two tracks in the military: officers and enlisted. A colonel is the rank below a general–a big deal. This guy was probably a common infantryman, and probably wasn’t in very long.) When I printed this finding, he lost credibility. If he was lying about his rank, what else was he lying about?

This movement fizzled out after a couple of years, but this and other movements like it are back again.When researching this movement, I talked with as many history professors as I could. They generally said there are conspiracies in history, but conspiracies are very rare. They didn’t elaborate.

I can elaborate now. I’ve worked in government, and I’ve worked in private industry. Getting people to cooperate is hard. Getting people to keep secrets is really hard. Even when people are legally required to do something and they know they have to do it, getting them to agree on how to carry it out, then go and do it is extremely difficult. This is difficult even in the military, and military officers tend to be especially talented at doing those two things.

True story: I worked on a contract that involved sharing intelligence with very close allies. I’m not telling any deep, dark secrets here. We had a presidential directive, signed by George W. Bush himself, telling us what to share and when. (The exact instructions are classified.) We had another memo from the Secretary of Defense further clarifying it. We had documentation from another government agency telling how to do it. The only thing about this that kept it from being a conspiracy is that it didn’t have a specific goal it was trying to achieve. Omit that little detail, and I was a participant in a conspiracy.

Well, except that I couldn’t get people to do what the president literally told them to do. I even wrote up a “Dummies”-like guide, at the request of the Air Force Major in our office, explaining step by step how to configure servers to comply with what the president said. It helped, but two years after I moved to a different position, we still didn’t have it done.

That’s why I don’t believe conspiracies are the norm, or even common.

Today I work for a megacorporation. We can get some stuff done, but it’s not a fast process. We definitely can’t keep a lot of secrets, because people come and go too often. Can we conspire with other companies? I doubt it. In my experience, companies do business with one another because they can’t find someone less incompetent, or evil, or both. So they sign a contract with the least-bad option, then spend the duration of the contract hoping a less-bad option emerges by the time that contract is up. There are business deals that don’t feel like a shotgun wedding, but I don’t see many of them.

If you’re wondering why it seems like companies are always suing each other, I have news for you: It’s because they really are always suing each other.

So conspiracy is hard, because doing what they need to do together when everything’s out in the open is hard.

I won’t get into current politics, as that’s toxic, but the situation today is much like it was at the turn of the previous century, with sensationalism on both extremes of the political spectrum, widening extremism, an appetite for war, and accusations of conspiracy. And both sides thought the other side was going to destroy the country.

Neither side succeeded in destroying the country.

We can be part of the solution or part of the problem. The best way to be part of the problem is to get caught up in conspiracies, fill our minds with toxic muck, and isolate ourselves. The best way to be part of the solution is to realize that everything is cyclical and that two, four, or even eight years isn’t enough time to undo the 225 years that came before it. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to manipulate you.

The most important thing that I’ve learned in the last six years or so is that two people don’t have to agree 100% of the time about everything in order to work together and make progress.

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