When media theorist Marshall McLuhan met up with architect R. Buckminster Fuller, he famously said: “I have read your books and am ready to join your conspiracy.” This declaration of loyalty to a cause was especially apropos in Fuller’s case because his bestseller Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth was all about pirates and their secret dealings, out of sight and out of mind vis-a-vis the landlubber chroniclers. “To conspire means to breath together” was something else Fuller liked to say.
At the time of this writing, English speakers had promoted the word “narrative” to an everyday journalistic tool, such that one either subscribed to “mainstream narratives” or else believed some alternative story that might contradict that of a certain clique. In the latter case, one might be branded a “conspiracy theorist” by the mainstreamers, which was a euphemism for “kook” or “crackpot”. Fuller got this treatment too, as some of his narratives tended to diverge widely from those most accepted.
My advice was to embrace the “conspiracy theorist” label as the proper mindset of any detective. People do in fact collude to spin out narratives to their own advantage and poking holes in a story is a way of discovering hidden truths, or secrets. “Collusion” was another keyword in journalism at this time. Let me explain.
At the start of the 21st Century, the classic conspiracy theorist was someone attempting to poke holes in the most popular narratives surrounding events of September 11, 2001. These detectives were called “truthers” and included a long list of disbelievers. Their tendency was to fight the label “conspiracy theorist” as a put down, an attempt to marginalize and dismiss. They did not embrace the label as the mark of a thinking, questioning human being.
However, the existence of competing alternative narratives did not begin any time recently. I grew up during a time when military industrialists were hard at work in Asia. Ordnance left over from World War Two was shipped to future battle sites in the Pacific region. Colonel J. Fletcher Prouty, on active duty at the time, marveled at the powers of forethought that seemed to be at work behind the scenes, as the next wars were in the planning phase even then.
Colonel Prouty, the author of several books and interviewed on Youtube, was one of those who poked holes in the “lone gunman” theory, regarding the assassination of president Kennedy. He believed a lot of people working together were required to pull that off, along with the coverup that would have to come later. Untruths take energy to sustain. Those questioning the lone gunman theory of Kennedy’s murder were considered the archetypal “conspiracy theorists” of the 20th Century.
School teachers believed in teaching “critical thinking” and hoped their students would not automatically believe every narrative they came across. Education was about developing antibodies against “junk science” for example. A more literate population is by definition less gullible.
Sherlock Holmes and every clever crime solver thereafter combined to define the role model “hole poker” with respect to deceptive stories. Detectives would cross-check stories to find the inconsistencies therein. They employed tools of logic. School teachers hoped their students would learn similar skills. This was true of my teachers at least.
The question was: might theorizing about conspiracies become a mainstream pass time of responsible adults? Could humans become investigative journalists, fact checkers, even hole pokers when discrepancies were found?
The internet helped critical thinkers find one another and compare notes. The so-called “truther movement” became a source of many films in documentary format, aimed at countering competing journalistic accounts. These films did not all agree with one another, as different factions of truther came to different conclusions. Likewise the theories about Kennedy’s assassination went in several directions. Prouty’s focus was motive. Why was he killed?
The dominant narrative around the wars in Korea and Vietnam, in the accounts I was seeing, had to do with competing ideologies. Social Darwinism, influential in many circles, was leading humans to believe in a fundamental inadequacy of life support and a corresponding need to divide and conquer one another. If too many “dominos” were to fall, the military industrialists might find themselves deprived of their role.
Fuller and his co-conspirators, such as McLuhan, offered a competing narrative according to which humans might continue to enjoy rising living standards if they could only wean themselves from Social Darwinism. What was meant by “rising living standards” would need to be spelled out in terms of a shared vision of what the future could hold. Fuller’s primary focus was shelter and systems for shelter manufacture and delivery. He foresaw the aerospace sector becoming a primary source of future “livingry” by which he meant the opposite of “killingry”.
Conspiracies that challenge the Social Darwinist narratives have the potential to avert future wars and put humans more securely on the track to global prosperity. Conspiracy theorists do tend to conspire (breath together), meaning they work together and encourage one another regarding their various alternative narratives. They apply what they learned in school, about detective work and critical thinking, to counter narratives that would be logically incompatible with their own.
To some degree, the word “conspiracy” is redundant as any theory will have its subscribers and promulgators. What we come down to are “theorists” who work on competing narratives. The theories with the longer half-life stand up as consistent, explanatory and predictive. Other theories fall apart, as too full of holes. Theories based in science and logic have a better chance of withstanding the test of time.
In sum, theorizing is the birthright of every human and a goal of education is to help people become stronger theorizers. Discovering one’s peer group and collaborating therewith is a natural part of this process. People band together, like music groups, to coauthor their specific narratives.
Speaking of music groups, I’d like to switch back to the time of the American Revolution and cite Thomas Paine for his theory about what it means to be prophetic. He points out how little singing or poetry-making seems to go on in the Bible, and suggests this is because what we mean by a “prophetic voice” is closely akin to “one who sings.” A poetic vision brings us a future. Prophecies may be self-fulfilling.
Music is potentially prophetic. Poetry, sometimes in the form of lyrics, likewise has this capability. In claiming that “conspiracy theories rock” I’m circling their ability to “rock the boat” while providing a kind of “rock and roll” soundtrack to our shared task of cultural evolution and wealth creation. To “roll” is to “revolve” or “bring in the new”.
So should value every theory equally? Of course not. Life is finite and we have only so many hours in a day, so which theories one works on, or works to poke holes in, will depend on one’s personal hopes and dreams for the future. That being said, there’s no shame in theorizing, nor in prophesying, as that’s just what people do. We each construct our own theory of what’s real and what’s illusion, what’s credible and what’s not. That’s a function as natural and organic to our nature as breathing itself.