A History of Pretend Histories – Part 1

The intellectual head games that a person can play when weaving a conspiracy theory relies heavy on the person’s imagination. In order for the conspiracy to be as superficially consistent as possible, one has to make it bigger and more complicated, necessitating levels of complexity that increase by orders of magnitude with each new level.

The conspiracy theorist divides the world up into three categories:

  1. The Perpetrators. The theorist concludes that this group is responsible for the given conspiracy, and are emblematic of evil, oppression, and need to be brought down. There is no upper-limit to how big this group can get.
  2. The Dupes. The theorist assumes that most people are generally ignorant of the “truth”, and they blindly accept everything they are told by “Them”. There is no upper limit as to how stupid the theorist thinks the dupes are. “Sheeple” is a common pejorative used by the theorist.
  3. The “Truth”. The theorist lumps him/herself in this tiny category of intrepid investigative journalists who have uncovered the evil, dark secret, and it is their solemn duty to bring “Them” down as publicly as possible. There is no amount of evidence, science or fact that can detract from the theorists’ “truth”. That’s the remarkable thing about truth: in the post-modern world that we live in, truth is mutually exclusive from fact, and the theorist knows this well.
Pictured: How to alienate people you’re trying to convince

But what the conspiracy theorist has not realized is that his/her days may be numbered. I’m certainly not suggesting that the practice of weaving conspiracy theories is going away (Science-Fiction novelist William Gibson once said, “Conspiracy theories are popular because no matter what they posit, they are all actually comforting, because they all are models of radical simplicity. I think they appeal to the infantile part of us that likes to know what’s going on.“), nor are the conspiracies themselves (yes, they do happen!). But what often gets unnoticed by the theorist is that the relevance of the theory dies away after time, most often affecting the generation that was alive during or immediately after the event in question.

There are generally two types of conspiracy theories: the event-centered, and the movement-centered. The latter would encompass ideas about the supposed Jewish control of the world’s money supply, or the Freemason control of stone buildings with secret handshakes. The former would include specific events in history, such as the Apollo moon landing or the attacks of Pearl Harbor. Since the movement-centered theory is not dependent on a specific time, place, or collection of actors, pinpointing a precise beginning of the theory, and forecasting its end point, is difficult. However, in the former category, there is a clear beginning: the JFK theory starts with a dead president, the USS Maine theory starts with a sunken ship, etc.

So what indicators do we have to tell how long a conspiracy theory (true or untrue) will have traction with culture-at-large? Let’s start with one of the most recent conspiracy theories:

9/11

In 2006, one-third of Americans polled believed that the Bush administration was behind the attacks on the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the downed airliner in Pennsylvania. This 33% figure has wavered between 25% and 35% over the years, yet it still has yet to make a major dent in the mainstream media. As a movement borne entirely on the internet (especially after the release of the amateur film “Loose Change” which made most of the original conspiracy claims, and began as a fictional story, and was later co-produced by a man who believes the world is run by a satanic cult which kidnaps boys for politicians to molest) it seems to have been stuck to the virtual world.

There are a few instances of the “Truthers” (as they call themselves) trying to force their narrative onto mainstream media, but they routinely get beaten back (sometimes literally). There are a few fringe public figures, such as former pro-wrestler and Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, who have tried to get their voice heard, but basic (and I do mean “basic”) journalism has looked into their claims, found nothing, and abandoned the theory. This due diligence of the journalists comes on the heels of the Truthers’ attempts to be heard, and so has relegated the entire movement to the fringe, possibly for good. But make no mistake, it is a powerful fringe, and their supporters will make sure that they scream in your face how wrong and mindlessly stupid you are if you don’t acknowledge every one of their self-defeating claims. Chief among these is that the Bush administration is brilliant and evil enough to perpetrate it, but stupid enough to let these “obvious clues” out so that any 20-something with a Google education and Windows Movie Maker can see and expose on YouTube. Troll-bombed in 3…2…

“Do you believe that George Bush was responsible for 9/11….NOW? Ah yeah. I’m strong!”

The 9/11 theory has a sense of immediacy on its side: Anyone over the age of 18 probably remembers exactly what they were doing when they heard the news of the attacks. The world is scary, and those attacks were terrifying. It seems only natural that people would so desperately want to cling onto some sense of understanding, regardless of its veracity. The extra frightening thing is that sometimes we can have all of the answers and still be attacked so savagely. Truth is not always comforting.


9/11 is a useful exercise in how to analyze an event-centered conspiracy theory’s claims. When approached (or for some Truthers, perhaps ‘accosted‘ might be a better word) about a particular conspiracy theory, the common players are always there: “Them” and the “Victims”. There is always a “They” (the perpetrators), and there is always an “it” (the proposed explanation). The questions you need to ask involve degrees of likelihood, and if you ask them in order, the odds of a “no” answer increase dramatically.

Would “They” do it?
Could “They” do it?
Did “They” do it?
Lets analyze the 9/11 claims according to this rubric, in order. In complete fairness, I fully recognize that the first two categories necessitate some speculation. Since speculation does not equal proof, I want to make it clear that I’m not disproving anything in the first two questions, but I do think that it’s a useful game to play when encountering a conspiracy theory. There is speculation, and there is fact, but just as speculation does not equal fact, so too does it not equal intellectual laziness either. The trick is pointing out where the facts end and the speculation begin, and I ask your indulgence.
Would the Bush administration kill 3,000 of its own people, cripple its economy, risk political suicide (for the entire party) if discovered? The United States’ record on how it treats its own citizens is anything but rosy, but I have a hard time accepting their willingness to mass-murder their own people (internment, yes. Mass-murder? I’m unsure). Still reeling in the dot-com crash of 2000, it makes little sense for the largest economy of the world to purposely collapse the the buildings at the very centre of this battered economy. If any plot to kill 3000 Americans was uncovered, I think then that party, and everyone associated with it, would be finished….forever. But for the purposed of discussion, lets do as Truthers do, and just assume the absolute worst moral character of everyone accused by the theory: they are evil beyond reproach. The next question is much harder to answer:
Could the Bush administration pull such an endeavor off? Could they take the months necessary to plant bombs in the entirety of the towers without anyone noticing? Could they have launched a cruise missile into the pentagon in broad daylight without anyone noticing, and still manage to scatter the Pentagon lawn with parts of a Boeing 757 carcass? (Especially since ground-launched cruise missiles were banned in 1987, and last saw service in 1991, which necessitates another level of actors in the Truther conspiracy: the US Navy). Could the missile have the landing gear that was found on the lawn? (nope) Could all that debris found all over the lawn have been the parts of a missile or a plane? (A plane, it turns out) What happened to all the passengers? Were they paid off, and are living somewhere in hiding, or were they killed by federal marshals execution-style in order to shoot down the Pennsylvania flight with F-16s? Why bother to kill them at all if you’re just going to…well, kill them all? There are so many permutations of this story I have difficulty keeping track.
Not pictured: Cruise missile parts
Even if some astounding achievement in organization was maintained by a group that couldn’t keep a recording device secret, and they have expertly kept the complicit thousands (necessary for such an endeavor) silenced, then why was the Loose Change film even allowed to be distributed? Why are their filmmakers able to sell DVD’s and T shirts that supposedly expose the biggest cover-up in American history? This question of “could they” is just too big a leap of faith (and cynicism) for me. But just for fun, lets try to answer the last question.
Did the Bush administration commit this act? All signs point to the Truthers’ conspiracy theory being unnecessary. The “official story” is the one that makes the fewest assumptions and fits perfectly well with the existing physical evidence, eyewitness testimony, government and flight records, and satellite data. Osama Bin Laden proudly took credit for the attacks, and structural engineers, airline engineers, and explosives experts all agree: planes took down those buildings. The private cell phone calls tell the sad, but brave story of the passengers who fought back above the skies of Pennsylvania. There was indeed a conspiracy, and it just so happens to align perfectly with the physical evidence, and the “official story”.

Up next…
As I was writing this post about conspiracy theories, I found that the entry, like conspiracy theories themselves, got bigger and bigger in order to accommodate the whole story. So in Part 2, I’ll analyze some of the older conspiracy theories from the generations that came before ours, and some you may not have heard of. Hopefully we can gain a better picture as to why these event-centered theories last a certain length of time before being lost to the forgettable dustbin of history.

One Response to “A History of Pretend Histories – Part 1”

  1. justin Shaw says:

    Well after reading this piece it just sounds like you havent done the basic research yourself. 6 out of 10 of the 9/11 commisioners do not agree with the report themselves. or the fact that bush had a report on his desk in august stating the there was a plan to attack the US. Or the fact NORAD was told to stand down most concpiracy theories have the basis in fact because the facts are there for people who do there own research, if people dont research the fact then you can put out the informationn with out having to worry about the repurcutions.

    Anf from my research the physical evidence defys the laws of phyics, if it was a simple collapse of the buildings they would not have been pulverized to dust, and some how during the explosion caused by the impact a couple passports somehow survive with nothing more the being lightly burnt around the edges.

    Or the fact we havent see if the plane actually hit the pentagon, I dont deny the fact there was a plane heading towards the pentagon, but just because the is some debris on the ground but no remains of the engines at the crash site raises some questions.

    This is up there with the Popular Mechanics “Debunking” which its self has be debunked.

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  • Steve Thoms

    Steve is a professional music teacher living in Kitchener, Ontario. He studied recorded music production at Fanshawe College, and Political Studies/History at Trent University, where he specialized in political economy and global politics. He is an amateur astronomer, and an award-winning astro-photographer. Steve also runs the blog, Oot and Aboot with Some Canadian Skeptic." can can be followed on Twitter, @SomeCndnSkeptic.