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Reflections on the Klinghoffer Conspiracy

It was a chilly night outside the Metropolitan Opera House, and the controversial opera The Death of Klinghoffer was set to open in under an hour. One woman who stood amongst the protesters caught my attention. She was probably in her fifties, and judging from the quality of her fur coat, I could easily imagine her attending an opera on any other night. Perhaps Carmen. Or maybe Aida. Tonight, however, she stood quietly on the sidewalk outside holding a sign above her head: Gelb, are you Taking Terrorist $$$$$?

Peter Gelb, the director of the Met, is almost certainly not. And I do not think that Hamas’s accountants list the Met – the same Met that will perform Hansel and Gretel next month – under their tax-exempt charitable donations. And I don’t think she really disagrees.

A caveat: I have not seen the opera. I have read the libretto and I have listened to the soundtrack. To be sure, I empathize with the protesters: I recognize the legitimate anxieties they feel in seeing anti-Semitic murder represented on the stage of high culture. I am sympathetic to the pain Klinghoffer’s family still lives with. And I believe that the work raises important questions as to the role art should play in our society.

Which brings me back to the woman in the fur coat. Why does she and others like her jump to paranoid conspiratorial protests, especially when more substantial debates can be broached. And it’s not just about the opera. I detect a similar conspiratorial subtext in the old argument that Obama’s 2009 speech to the Islamic world is proof of his Islamic faith, and in the claim that Obamacare is not just bad policy, but proof that Democrats want to turn the US into Soviet Russia.

The examples are endless: For some, the serious mistakes of the Secret Service prove how poor a manager the President is – for them, any long-entrenched, pre-Obama structural problems of the agency are non-existent. Or consider Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa elected to the Senate this week. On several occasions, she has publicly accused the Obama administration of deliberately using Agenda 21 –  a non-binding U.N. resolution committed to sustainable urban practices –  to justify pursuing Orwellian controls over citizens.

It is, therefore, tempting to dismiss these individuals as attention-seeking doomsayers. It’s tempting to explain the habit away as a childish and uncritical response to social or political anxiety. But simply labeling something a conspiracy does just that, and only that – it doesn’t help us understand the cultural mindset behind it. Which raises the question: why are people so attracted to spreading bizarre claims?

For Ed White, writer for the Oxford American Literary History Journal, conspiracy theorists and alarmists can be spotted by their razor-sharp focus on an external “enemy.” The motion of current events for these people is not rooted in any functional system’s normal patterns, but brought about by the enemy itself. For them, the production of an opera that disturbs them deeply becomes part of Gelb’s personal plot to spread terrorism.

Theorist Gordon Wood’s answer is more complex, and more surprising. This kind of rhetoric, he argues, stems from the very intellectual movement that prized reason and order, the Enlightenment, which in the 18th century, helped orient political theory, science, and literature towards an embracing of a humanistic worldview, one in which phenomena could be studied and grasped, categorized and explained. Systematic cause and effect became king; structure and formalism became the language of the intellectual elite. This meant that when modern democracy began to take shape in America, that is, when government and administrative bodies ballooned to tackle more aspects of life, and when the social interactions between levels of the federal government and between officials and citizens became more complex, the inclination to impose Enlightenment-style human order emerged. Enlightenment ideas emphasized cause and effect, and political systems needed to fit that notion too. There was a need to recognize deliberated, man-made patterns behind everything. Paranoia was not a return to pre-modern ignorance and religious suspicion, but an embrace of a modern, secular mindset. Rational analyses, according to Wood, helped create irrational suspicion.

Another important concept White raises can further explain conspiracies: Republicanism, the core belief that locates sovereignty in “We, the People”. It’s the same in every State of the Union address and in every campaign speech: political leaders, from both sides of the aisle, remind the public that it is they – the citizens – who matter. The economic and political successes of the nation rise and fall with the Spirit of the People. It is American tenacity and resilience that drive us forward, they say. The political structures we build, and the systems and policies that operate our day-to-day lives, don’t matter nearly as much as the American spirit. Progress and stagnancy are tied to the human element. And it is the same ideal behind the American Dream, the concept that with hard work and sheer will, individuals can climb social ladders. Personal economic success and failure, our national narrative claims, hinges on how much work we put in. And if we believe that it is human endeavor that moves us forward and backwards, it is only natural to search for the human element behind every disaster or uncomfortable development.

The idea that it is We, the People, who control our national and individual destinies, holds immense power in our society.

It seems that We had better get used to the sound of accusations ringing in the newspapers and on TV. They are here to stay.