I guess I’m a conspiracy theorist now. This comes as a shock, not least to me, because rejecting conspiracism was among my first worthwhile political instincts, and because I’ve spent much of my career batting away kooky claims about malign forces working secretly to direct the course of history for their own benefit. But in an effort to take down Tucker Carlson, the New York Times has now so widened the definition of a conspiracy theorist as to catch me in its dragnet.
I hail from Iran, where state TV might casually suggest, for example, that Pepsi is actually a Zionist acronym (“pay each penny, save Israel”), or that the Jews created lovable Jerry from Tom and Jerry to rehabilitate the reputation of mice, given their own rat-like disposition. Growing up there honed my loathing for the conspiratorial cast of mind. I proudly remember the contempt with which I dismissed the LaRouchies I came across in Seattle as a University of Washington undergrad.
Conspiracism blames complex social and economic developments on the almost-providential power of individual malefactors. It makes no room for the possibility of accidents and coincidences. And it paralyzes authentic political action; if the conspirators are as powerful as the conspiracy theorist believes, then there is no point in trying to improve conditions; the Secret Bad Guys are always at least ten steps ahead of the Good People, after all.
In the Middle East, conspiracism was (and is) promoted for the benefit of the class of people Theodor Adorno called the “semi-erudite,” those who aren’t totally ignorant but are nevertheless confused enough by reality’s complexity to be susceptible to overly personalized accounts of what ails the world: It isn’t industrial development and female education that have caused fertility rates to decline in Egypt over decades, but the Americans and Zionists poisoning our water, etc., etc.
But something new and disturbing has taken place in the West in recent years: Our elites have succumbed to a different kind of conspiracy fever. As I’ve written in these pages, this elite variety of conspiracism is “designed to shield Western power centers from criticism from below.” It frames widespread discontent among working- and middle-class people as the evil handiwork of foreign powers (above all, Russia), niche online communities, and evil demagogues.
Maddeningly, one of the central tenets of this new conspiracism is that every criticism of our political order is a conspiracy theory.
Which brings us to the Gray Lady’s multipart investigation into Carlson. One part of the series was devoted to the Fox primetime host’s promotion of “conspiracy theories.” A team of reporters led by the Times’ Nick Confessore “watched or read transcripts of 1,150 episodes of ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight,’ which is every show Mr. Carlson hosted from Nov. 14, 2016.” The team “analyzed every show and determined that many included language” suggesting “that there is a ‘ruling class’ intent on controlling the lives of ‘normal people’ and censoring anyone that stands in its way” (among other categories of conspiracy theories).
Got that? The notion there exists such a thing as a ruling class is now to be treated as a conspiracy theory. It is such an outlandish and wacky falsehood, the very phrase ruling class must be presented in scare quotes, lest the thoughtful Times reader be forced to confront it straight-on. There is no ruling class in America today, much less one that uses information control to stay in power.
By the Times’ standards, any number of iconic philosophers and serious social and political theorists must now be treated as frothing conspiracy theorists. Aristotle, who defined the six classical regime forms, each with a different ruling class? The Alex Jones of his time. Marx, who identified the ruling class with capital? Nutjob. James Burnham, who defined the managerial ruling class? Conspiracist loon. And so on.
How do you “prove” to a Nick Confessore that there exists such a thing as an American ruling class today, of which he and many of his senior Times colleagues are members, alongside the “narrow elite” identified by sociologist Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart (2012)? The claim that we don’t have a ruling class is so unempirical, so mindbogglingly stupid, that trying to prove the contrary is futile. You can’t win. The more you try, the more frustrated you get, and the more smugly superior the Times writer feels.
It is like arguing with a moon-landing denier or 9/11 truther. But worse than that: In this case, the conspiracy theorist calls you a conspiracy theorist.