Tuesday, March 05, 2019

It’s easy to laugh at conspiracy theorists. They often seem like harmless nutters. It’s good fun to swap stories about people who believe that the moon landings were faked, the Vatican is hiding information that proves Christianity is false, the US government is concealing the technologies it has obtained from crashed alien UFOs, or that big business is keeping the wraps on perpetual motion machines, water engines and everlasting light bulbs.

Conspiracy theories tend to share a number of themes. These include the involvement of the rich and powerful, and a cover-up of important truths that would undermine wealth and power. Apparently disparate phenomena are actually connected. The crimes of the powerful are not just evil and self-interested, but lurid and repellent; they don’t just have sex orgies, they have orgies involving satanic rituals and kidnapped children. And despite the fact that the rich and powerful have successfully covered up whatever it is they have done (sometimes for hundreds of years), they’ve inadvertently left clues that have allowed a small band of fearless and dedicated investigators to discover the truth and to publicise it, if only anyone would listen…

No-one illustrates this better than David Icke, the former footballer and sports commentator turned New Age guru turned conspiracy theorist. Icke reveals the existence of a massive, long-running conspiracy that has lasted for thousands of years. This involves most politicians that you’ve ever heard of, the British and several other royal families, plus conspiracy favourites the United Nations, the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Rothschild family, the World Bank, and so on.

Unsurprisingly he is obsessed with Georg Soros, who he cites as a ‘kingpin’ of the Deep State, the New World Order, and part of the ‘motley crew’ of Zionists and others responsible for fake news and worldwide protests. When Icke presents he uses a giant portrait of Soros, unconvincingly photo-shopped to look like he has reptile eyes.

As well as mixing in some ‘alternative medicine’ stuff, and support for ‘free speech’ for Holocaust denial, Icke cites the notorious anti-semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a source, though he claims that the references in the book to Jews are actually coded clues to the real conspirators, an alien race of shapeshifting lizards who have interbred with humans. Well, it makes a change from coded references to Jews.

So mockery and amused tolerance seems an appropriate response. Why dignify this mish-mash of unbelievable untruths and shameless plagiarism from pulp science fiction by treating it seriously? Some don’t. ‘Rationalist’ debunkers characterise Icke as more nutty than antisemitic, taking at face value his coy and half-hearted denials of antisemitism, including references to ‘Rothschild Zionism’ and assertions that it’s only ‘some’ Jews that are involved in the conspiracy.

Nevertheless, it’s a more significant phenomenon than many on the left recognize. Icke rakes in millions from his books, and draws large audiences at his rally-like talks. It’s easy to assume that no-one with half a brain could be taken in by any of this; the rise of Trump should make us aware that this is not so. It’s always been possible to live in a parallel ‘cultural universe’, refusing to admit as valid mainstream assertions and beliefs. Frankly, that’s what many of us on the left have of necessity done for years, though thankfully not with the same content. The internet has made this easier, as have changes in the structure of the mass media to allow for more explicitly partisan channels like Fox News. It’s easier than ever to construct an intellectual world in which you only see and hear hear evidence that corroborates your core beliefs. The rest of us stay sealed off from these worlds.

Or perhaps we aren’t. In December 2018 Alice Walker, the distinguished Black author and activist, cited Icke’s book “And the Truth Shall Set You Free,” as ‘on her nightstand’ in an interview with the New York Times, and subsequently defended the recommendation and praised Icke as “brave enough to ask the questions others fear to ask, and to speak his own understanding of the truth wherever it might lead.”

It’s not hard to find other examples of people praising Icke for his ‘brave’ views on Israel and Palestine; a few minutes with a search engine will turn up lots of them. Sometimes such praise is embedded in other stuff that’s critical of American imperialism, the banks, and the super-rich. Surprisingly, although Icke belongs on the lunatic fringe of the far right, it’s not all that uncommon to find left-wing friends sharing some of his blander, more mainstream pronouncements. (I note in passing that Icke appears to despise Tommy Robinson as an agent of Israel and ‘Zionist Terrorism’.)

Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising. There is no clear boundary between conspiracy theories and...well, theories about conspiracies. On the left we understand that the media often lies and distorts to serve political ends, and that the rich and powerful cover up their crimes. We know that states agencies really do engage in clandestine activities. Lots of things that sound rather like conspiracy theories have turned out to be true, including some of the weirdest and most fantastic; try searching for ‘Rawalpindi Experiments’, or Project MK Ultra. I don’t know of any compelling evidence that either the CIA or Mossad carried out the 9-11 attacks, but there really have been false flag operations carried out by the US, the British and Israel (and other states). For the most part the rich and powerful don’t manage their domination of political institutions through secret societies and targeted assassinations, but sometimes they do - spend a little time researching the history of the ‘Propaganda Due’ (P2) organisation in Italy and elsewhere.

Engagement with opposition to the actions of Israel seems to lead inexorably to this murky domain. The Israeli state really has often engaged in clandestine operations, both at home and abroad. Israel, like other states, including the Saudis - maintains lobbyists in Washington, Westminster, Brussels and a host of other capitals. There are also networks of non-state organisations that act in support of Israel and/or political parties and movements within Israel - especially the settlers and the extreme right. Many of the participants in these networks are Jews (though in the US Evangelical Christians are increasingly important within pro-Israel lobby organisations). So it’s not too hard for critics of Israel and Zionism to use language and images that either derives from, or overlaps with, classical antisemitic conspiracy theories. And when they come across someone else who appears to share their antipathy to Israel’s machinations, and who is persecuted or attacked for their views...well, why not click that ‘share’ button?

So where does this leave us? What do we do about our friends and comrades who think that Icke’s “exposes” of Zionism and “the elite” actually sound quite sensible? Well, you can start by telling them about Icke’s views on other things - the reptile overlords, or ‘alternative medicine’, or free speech for Holocaust deniers. But - as Alice Walker’s refusal to disavow Icke suggests, don’t get your hopes up. People come into the left in all sorts of ways, and from different directions. Lots of young people have never heard of The Protocols, and may not understand why someone who appears to be against the banks, the ‘elite’ and the US government may nevertheless be an enemy rather than a friend. In the end there’s no substitute for a proper, class-based analysis of wealth and power; in the short term it’s necessary, if nonetheless exhausting, to keep pointing out the real allegiances of these false friends.

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