Conspiracy Theory

I have different take on the topic, because of something you noted in the first part of the essay. Many have used the term conspiracy theory and its association with junky paranoid stories like pizzagate to deny that there could be any conspiracies of powerful people or within powerful organizations. This strikes me as incredibly dangerous. So in the interest of reasoned dialectic I will try to make the case that the exploration of a conspiracy theory can definitely be necessary and fruitful in clarifying and acting on important social and antisocial happenings. I will in fact argue that the proper and sane engagement with conspiracy theory can be critical to our very survival. By proper engagement I mean 2 things 1)refuting and exposing false conspiracy theories( for example the state propaganda that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, was connected to 9-11 and was a viable and immediate threat to the US), and 2) considering very seriously more plausible theories and not covering up uncomfortable facts.( The Neo-cons were pimps for US Imperialism, believed the Straussian notion that lying for their cause was fine, had very dubious and self serving interests in starting wars, and proposed outcomes that were laughably naive)


We need to start with the term conspiracy. If there are no conspiracies, if all conpiracies are non-existant paranoid delusions, then all theories about any given possible conspiracy are a silly indulgence. So first what is a conspiracy and do they actually exist? Here is a common definition:

conspiracy - noun (plural conspiracies)

a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful. the action of plotting or conspiring: they were cleared of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

Asking if there are conspiracies is like asking if people lie, steal, or start wars. I think our answer is pretty clear. There are many many conspiracies large and small to circumvent law and the well being of others, almost always for personal gain of those involved, but sometimes for ideological reasons. Every criminal act by 2 or more starts as a conspiracy.

One of the main contentions against conspiracy theories is that conspiracies cannot be large because people do not keep secrets well. This is shoddy thinking. In many of the worst and largest conspiracies, secrecy is either not needed, or the needed secrecy can be confined to a small group. The concentration camps of the Nazis were not publicly announced, the bombing of Cambodia in the Vietnam war was kept secret from the public, the catholic leaders hid widespread rape by priests, the investment bankers who got AAA ratings for shoddy real estate loans kept their ponzi scheme on the qt. If a large armed group with a unifying identity( a nation, religious sect or your standard horde) wants land and needs to remove the inhabitants of the land to get it for themselves they can generate a mythology that justifies the theft and simply exteerminate or marginalize the occupants. This is exactly what happened in the United States to the tribal peoples of Turtle Island and what happened globally in various forms throughout the age of European colonialism. Eventually the criminality of all these conspiracies was revealed, though only in a few cases have the mythologies that fueled them been widely rejected.In fact violent xenophobia and access to guns should have us all thinking about how to address the threat. Robert Anton Wilson actually listed several major historic conspiracies to show that conspiracies happen and sometime conspiracy theories are correct. I rememeber at least one in Italy involving hundreds of secretive insiders.

The other main argument about conspiracy theories is that they foolishly propose a super secretive globally powerful elite who are trying to control everything. (Partly an intellectual inheritance or mirror if you will of the myth of an all powerful God controlling everything) While the current global powers of US militarism and capitalism easily lends credence to that idea, and while there are doubtless many like Henry Kissinger who made shitloads of money channeling these paranoid delusions, this notion of an all powerful elite is not necessary to identify actual conspiratorial plans and actions, and to recognize where things are headed. The Kissinger/CIA operation Condor and subsequent mass killings were predicted and forseen and enacted, and recorded and largely ignored without need to invoke the illuminati, the Rothschilds or alein lizards. Greed, fear, denial, egotism cowardice and apathy are all that is needed. A simple respect for human life could have warned us and prevented this; just as a willingness to listen to the largest global anti-war demonstration in human history could have combined with a skeptical fact checking press and stopped the war in Iraq. The ideas of the Neo Cons should have been exposed and confronted as the highly fascistic conspiratorial criminality and madness they were. In fact the theoretic predictions by anti-war activists of what the war would cost in life and money was very accurate, the thoretic predictions of how it would fail to achive the stated goals was also accurate as were the theories of who would benefit. The fact that the mainstream press failed to take this widespread critical analysis seriously or to admit their mistakes when the accuracy of the leftist analysis proved true only added to the widespread mistrust of official sources and led to a less grounded kind of conspiracy theory ala Alex Jones, climate denial, birthergate, or russiagate. My main point here is that this is very serious stuff and many lives hang in the balance.


Sanity in the human world requires skepticism about governments, political parties, corporations, religions and other powerful organizations that would recruit us into believing that what they say and what they do is wise, good, true or necessary. Everyone agrees on the importance of this skepticism, the disagreements are about what to trust, what not to trust, and why. The biggest problem with any given conspiracy theory is whether the purveyor of that theory is trustworthy and whether they are encouraging honest open consideration of verifiable and relevant facts. Is the theory open to falsification. Will it admit mistakes? This can get very dicy when the mistakes are large and destructive, or when motives are mixed. There is a lot of money and power to be gained by selling junk to the gullible, and the media tools for doing so are constantly improving.

How does a valid and useful conspiracy theory emerge and are there examples of such theories. I think the case of the Catholic Church’s handling of priests raping children, and the exposure by the Boston Globe qualifies. This abuse had probably been going on for longer than we will ever know but in just recent generatons is illustrative in several ways. First is the way it generates shame and denial in its victims while endorsing the power and positive status of the abusers and those who conspired to cover up the crimes. Only thorough research by journalists willing to risk anger and outrage in a very catholic city revealed that there was more than an isolated incident and showed that priests were being moved around by bishops and cardinals to cover their crimes. There is a pattern here. First there are too many coincidences to ignore, then there is research based on a theory, and ultimately the process spreads around the world exposing a conspiracy of immense proportions and forcing major institutional change, reparations and greater transparency. Another example follows a different path but with similarities.. This was the theory held by anti-vietnam war activists that the FBI had illegally infiltrated and sought to undermine and incriminate anti war activists engaged in lawful dissent and organizing. A handful of activists in Pennsylvania decided to break into an FBI building, steal files and see if there was evidence for this theory. It was a big personal risk but they did find enough evidence to ultimately, through many other efforts expose a large secret program called cointelpro with many criminal aspects. Again the evidence looked like more than a coincidental pattern and generated a theory of conspiracy that led to exposure of facts supporting the theory , and exposing its dimensions to the public leading to at least some temporary reform. Unfortunately in the longer term it has led to an extreme crackdown on whistleblowers, leaked information and investigative journalism of the type done by Sy Hersch.

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I find this non-pathologizing discussion helpful, being conspiracy-challenged to my core. To belong, to be initiated, to be in the know and on the inside; these are motivations for which I have empathy. I may not escape the lemming stampedes, but I'm proud my thirst for Kool-Aid is still nil.

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Imagine my surprise when I found out that much of what RAW wrote was NOT made up.

Fortunately, I don't believe that we are surrounded by reptilians (funny pic that), nor that the earth is a pancake. However, cabals and conspiracies do exist, history is full of plots. And those are only the ones we found out about. Ha!

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Aug 25, 2020Liked by Erik Davis

Hi Erik. Great article. Looking forward to your commentary on Pynchon. I’m half way through High Weirdness and see lots of overlap, especially with Gravity’s Rainbow

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Now that everyone's writing about conspiracy due to Qanon (I know because I've been trying to collect them all), I am glad you've thrown your hat in that ring, this piece blows all those other ones out of the water! It’s a pleasure to read, especially after listening to you narrate it first. There are some fun ‘illustrations’ on this one (I don’t think you mention him in writing, but thank you for introducing me to Clarence Larkin. I am a sucker for nonsensically esoteric diagrams) and a few threads that I started following after reading. I also need to mention that though I am happy to support your writing regardless, hearing your RAW impression makes the paid subscription worth every penny! Is there more of that in the High Weirdness audiobook?

If you can't tell, I’m a huge RAW fan. I became became a fan of your work via RAW. To this day, I still find his ideas to be my most reliable map in understanding this confusing world we live in. I also discovered him when I was in my late teens. He unfortunately passed away before I reached my twenties. Although I’m sure he’d hate the idea and I never met him, I could never shake the fact that it felt like I had lost a ‘spiritual’ guide when that happened. I can't deny how his ideas are imprinted in my way of seeing things. Though I tugged back and forth with RAW since then, when 2016 happened, I've been constantly thinking, “are we in Chapel Perilous yet? What would RAW think of all this?“ All these ideas that he got me excited about: a shifting, malleable reality and the exponential explosion of information all seem to be happening, but devoid of the kindness and humanity RAW saw in this future. Despite this, I still feel like Bob’s writing is more necessary now than ever, and I couldn’t find an intelligent writer that saw that until I heard about High Weirdness. This is my long-winded way of saying that your work, including this entry, has been a healing breath of fresh air for a hopeless RAW fanatic to read. Thank you for keeping that torch lit!

And one more note, I don't want to get in the weeds on the whole Russia thing, but doesn't there seem to be some legs to that conspiracy being more than just a theory? I understand that liberals (especially neoliberals) are quick to try and find a Bad Guy to dump blame for all their problems on, and I think that behavior muddles exactly what kind of shady activities are going on and discredits the accusations in the eyes of some, but I don't think that means all the actual sober evidence gets thrown out with it, does it?

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And oddly no mention whatsoever of McGowan at all. Maybe because he clobbered the Dead mystique....?

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Dr D as in douchebag- does no wall the talk semi clever wordsmith jive and possibly very misleading-so Cali kid dualistic and wants to be Terrance badly-wants a job not tethered to truth -run does not know the subject posturing - heavy payback for hubris

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Hi Erik, I just read your "Wilderness of Mirrors" post via David Fuller and the Rebel Wisdom group I'm a subscriber of. I have comments, many comments...! First off, I love your writing style and really enjoyed hearing you speak on the similar subject matter on the Rebel Wisdom video Our Pandemic Psychedelic Trip. I agree with so much of what you shared in that video and what you further elaborated on here on this post.

I do have my criticisms of remaining strictly agnostic when it comes to some of the conspiracies (or lack thereof) that we find ourselves swimming in lately however. I ended up writing an article about some of my concerns last month when the RW video came out. Most of the criticisms are more narrowly focused on the RW approach of finding what might be wrong with those of us who get lost in the Forest Perilous (its just outside the chapel, or so I imagine). I share it with you here in the hopes that you might read it... in the long run I wish that there was a group of really smart, politically diverse, open minded researchers willing to address SPECIFIC questions within the conspiracy world:

Was corona virus made in a lab? This is a really excellent article on the subject: https://www.independentsciencenews.org/health/the-case-is-building-that-covid-19-had-a-lab-origin/

Could fire really decimate building 7 to the point of it crumbling at free fall speed? You get the point... Sure, we may not ever be 100% sure of the answers to these types of questions, but I honestly sometimes find that people (like yourself, and RW) tend to find reasons why people believe in conspiracies more interesting than the potential truth of the theories themselves. Of course you have every right to be interested in whatever floats your boat.

It feels like we are in the middle of an information war and it is indeed unsettling. I don't vibe with Q-anon or flat earth types, but I've definitely have some reservations with some of the narratives being accepted in our "new normal" post covid19 meme space.

Anyhow, a couple of short side notes before I share my article: I see that you have a Rick Griffin Flying Eyeball as a logo for your site. My father was Alton Kelley, (of Kelley - Mouse Studios) a close friend of Ricks when they were both still alive, and an artist of similar cultural heritage and fame. I also note that your site name is the Burning Shore... perhaps a nod to the Grateful Dead's/Bob Weir's Estimated Prophet? I saw the GD over 100x before Jerry's passing (and more shows since then)... I'm guessing we share more than a few interests. Do you go to Peru or Brazil for plant medicine ceremonies? Anyhow...nice to e-meet you. ;)

My article on conspiracy theorists: https://medium.com/@yossariankelley/a-critique-of-rebel-wisdoms-david-fuller-and-the-greater-sensemaking-communities-conspiracy-80d60221f026

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Just commenting on your first paragraph. I finished High Weirdness just this weekend and I have to say that I by far enjoyed the part on Robert Anton Wilson the best, which was kind of unexpected. I mainly bought the book because I like your work Erik and I am not a huge fan of any of the 3 people discussed in the book. I know more of Terrence's brother Dennis. I read the first 80 pages of the Illuminatus Trilogy and drifted off into something else (this doesn't always mean I don't like something, but I am always reading 3 books at once, which means stuff gets unfinished). I have read a single PKD book...

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