Sunday, April 28, 2013

We need a new word for people who work against the public trust within the boundaries of law; criticism of dismissing conspiracy theorists

To me, conspiracy theorizing is pretty weird because when you look at the definition of a conspiracy it's obvious we're surrounded by them once you strip out the risible language.  But it's hard to do because the risible language is built in.

A conspiracy is, according to, 1. an agreement to perform together an illegal, wrongful or subversive act, 2. a group of conspirators, 3. Law an agreement between two or more persons to commit a crime or accomplish a legal purpose through illegal action and 4. a joining or acting together, as if by sinister design.

That's . . . a pretty loaded definition because it leaves out of the realms of conspiracy anything that isn't illegal and even by the fourth definition, “as if by sinister design”. Conspiracy is, by a common dictionary, by definition at least sinister and usually illegal.

Going to, I tried to find a word that was like conspiracy but accounted for things that were not illegal – like the word whose definition is “people working together inside the law but against the public welfare”. In a note to the entry “collusion”, they note that “cooperation is always positive, collaboration is positive except in wartime (working with the enemy) and collusion is always negative (working together in secret for a dishonest purpose)”. Conspiracy is a synonym with collude.  There didn't seem to be anything like I was looking for.

Yet, I find that unsatisfying, too, because there are all kinds of behaviors that are legal but nevertheless highly manipulative, such as advertising and propaganda (which is just advertising with a political message we don't like, really – how is the manipulations of North Korea propaganda but what comes out of our smear-happy, negative campaigning, lie-athon that we call an electoral process NOT propaganda?). There just seems to be no word, other than conspiracy, to describe when a group of people, often totally legally and with legal ends, nevertheless engage in unethical behavior to achieve their ends.

So what do we call a group of people who legally lie (and often their lies form the very basis of law) to achieve their ends that are destructive and terrible yet totally legal?

To take a fairly extreme example, how does one talk about the lies and distortions used to start the Crusades. A letter from the Byzantine Emperor asking for mercenaries was turned into a lurid account of Turks murdering Christians and desecrating the tomb of Jesus. None of it was illegal. One could argue that the Catholic Church and various governments that supported the narrative of the Crusades were simply interpreting a complex political situation in terms that could be understood by their illiterate and uncultured knights and peasants.  Sure, it's specious reasoning, but you could make it and just barely not be laughably wrong.

Yet, somehow, the lies spread by Pope Urban II and the kings of Europe do not fit the definition of “conspiracy” because it wasn't illegal or subversive. What was it, then? Just religion?

But a lot of politics and business is like that. What they do is not technically illegal and, honest, there was no malice of intent. Even with the credit default swap stuff that tanked the economy in 2008. Not a conspiracy. Sure, there was a coordinated effort by every top bank in the world to sell as many credit default swaps as possible all to increase their own personal fortunes, but that's not a conspiracy! That's just business.

But it happens again and again. Every bubble in the history of the modern world has been engineered to benefit a few. Every war has it's winners, usually the guys who sell guns. Yet when a military contractor uses political influence to shape an aggressive foreign policy, it's not a conspiracy. Nothing either illegal nor subversive is going on. It's just politics.

There is a lacuna in our language then. If we use the word conspiracy to talk about political, religious and economic manipulation, we're called paranoid because the events we describe aren't illegal or subversive. There is no well-round word with which we can describe the legal forms of manipulation of our culture, business and politics that also describes the profundity with which the system is controlled by small cabals of like-minded individuals. Legally. Openly.

This really benefits the, oh, let's call them special interest groups that control our government. We can't really refer to their multifaceted, yet legal, manipulations of the public trust in language that does justice to the seriousness of their actions. And we can't talk about something unless we have words that substantially describe what it is we're talking about. In this lacuna of words, a lot of manipulation is not discussed. Worse, when people dare call it conspiracy – because the behavior resembles a conspiracy save for it's legality – the very idea that this kind of collusion occurs at all is attacked. People who bring up the concentration of power in a tiny group of people's hands are just crazy conspiracy theorists.

We need a word to describe the legal manipulations of the system against the public trust, one that conveys the seriousness of the issue but does not bring to mind the specter of conspiracy. Until we have such a word, the people out there who are acting together, within the system, but against the public trust will have an easy go at it because we can't even TALK about them.

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