Tag Archives: Ides of March

The Trouble with Conspiracy Theories

By Lee Harris via The American Magazine

Perhaps the problem with conspiracy theorists is not that they have gone too far, but that they haven’t quite gone far enough yet. But, if James Tracy is any indication, they are getting very close.

Samuel Johnson once heatedly remarked to a man he was conversing with in a coffeehouse, “I can give you an argument, but I cannot give you an understanding.” There is no evidence that the great sage made this comment to a conspiracy theorist, but I have often been tempted to repeat it when I am talking to one, especially after I have exhausted every argument I can think of to show the conspiracy theorist the error of his ways.

tin-foil-hat-3Today I would like to offer Johnson’s remark as a word of caution to anyone who has encountered the various conspiracy theories that have cropped up in the wake of the Newtown tragedy. Of these there have been several, but I would like to focus on the theory put forth by James Tracy, a media professor at Florida Atlantic University, who on his website Memory Hole has argued that the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, did not really happen.

Normally when you hear this kind of thing, you are tempted to argue with the assertion, to adduce evidence to show Tracy, for example, that he is wrong. But if you yield to this temptation, you will quickly find yourself at the same point to which Samuel Johnson was driven. For no matter how many arguments you may give him, you cannot give the conspiracy theorist even an ounce of understanding.

The first obstacle you will encounter in your effort to refute the conspiracy theorist is his maddening habit of sly equivocation. Here’s an example of what I mean: “While it sounds like an outrageous claim,” Tracy writes on his website, “one is left to inquire whether the Sandy Hook shooting ever took place — at least in the way law enforcement authorities and the nation’s news media have described.”

Please note the force of Tracy’s qualifying phrase “at least” and consider how one might apply this caveat to what is among the most uncontested facts in world history, namely, the assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March in the year 44 BC.

FeaturedImageNow the ancient historians have told us that Caesar said to Brutus the famous words “Et tu, Brute?” as his former friend plunged his dagger into Caesar. But suppose the ancient historians got this wrong. It may well be that Caesar did not utter these touching and pathetic words, but something akin to “You dirty bastard! I always thought you were a slimy piece of donkey dung” — except, of course, in Latin. This would be sufficient grounds for asserting that Caesar was not assassinated the way ancient historians have told us — but it doesn’t in the least mean that Caesar didn’t end up lying just as dead beneath the bust of Pompey as the ancient historians all reported him. By the same logic, both the law enforcement authorities and the nation’s media may have gotten many facts and details wrong about the Newtown massacre, but that is hardly reason for concluding that no massacre ever happened.

But there I go talking about logic and reason, which is precisely what the conspiracy theorist wants you to do. Because that is where the conspiracy theorist will trap you. Since this sounds like a bit of a paradox, I had better explain it, and to do this, I will assume the role of Tracy. Ahem.

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