Sometimes conspiracy theories point toward something worth investigating. A few point toward the truth.
The challenge in thinking about a case like the suspicious suicide of Jeffrey Epstein, the supposed “billionaire” who spent his life acquiring sex slaves and serving as a procurer to the ruling class, can be summed up in two sentences. Most conspiracy theories are false. But often some of the things they’re trying to explain are real.
Conspiracy theories are usually false because the people who come up with them are outsiders to power, trying to impose narrative order on a world they don’t fully understand — which leads them to imagine implausible scenarios and impossible plots, to settle on ideologically convenient villains and assume the absolute worst about their motives, and to imagine an omnicompetence among the corrupt and conniving that doesn’t actually exist.
Or they are false because the people who come up with them are insiders trying to deflect blame for their own failings, by blaming a malign enemy within or an evil-genius rival for problems that their own blunders helped create.
Or they are false because the people pushing them are cynical manipulators and attention-seekers trying to build a following who don’t care a whit about the truth.
For all these reasons serious truth-seekers are predisposed to disbelieve conspiracy theories on principle, and journalists especially are predisposed to quote Richard Hofstadter on the “paranoid style” whenever they encounter one — an instinct only sharpened by the rise of Donald Trump, the cynical conspiracist par excellence.
But this dismissiveness can itself become an intellectual mistake, a way to sneer at speculation while ignoring an underlying reality that deserves attention or investigation. Sometimes that reality is a conspiracy in full, a secret effort to pursue a shared objective or conceal something important from the public. Sometimes it’s a kind of unconscious connivance, in which institutions and actors behave in seemingly concerted ways because of shared assumptions and self-interest. But in either case, an admirable desire to reject bad or wicked theories can lead to a blindness about something important that these theories are trying to explain.
Here are some diverse examples. Start with U.F.O. theories, a reliable hotbed of the first kind of conspiracizing — implausible popular stories about hidden elite machinations.
It is simple wisdom to assume that any conspiratorial Fox Mulder-level master narrative about little gray men or lizard people is rubbish. Yet at the same time it is a simple fact that the U.F.O. era began, in Roswell, N.M., with a government lie intended to conceal secret military experiments; it is also a simple fact, lately reported in this very newspaper, that the military has been conducting secret studies of unidentified-flying-object incidents that continue to defy obvious explanations.
So the correct attitude toward U.F.O.s cannot be a simple Hofstadterian dismissiveness about the paranoia of the cranks. Instead, you have to be able to reject outlandish theories and acknowledge a pattern of government lies and secrecy around a weird, persistent, unexplained feature of human experience — which we know about in part because the U.F.O. conspiracy theorists keep banging on about their subject. The wild theories are false; even so, the secrets and mysteries are real.
Another example: The current elite anxiety about Russia’s hand in the West’s populist disturbances, which reached a particularly hysterical pitch with the pre-Mueller report collusion coverage, is a classic example of how conspiracy theories find a purchase in the supposedly sensible center — in this case, because their narrative conveniently explains a cascade of elite failures by blaming populism on Russian hackers, moneymen and bots.
And yet: Every conservative who rolls her or his eyes at the “Russia hoax” is in danger of dismissing the reality that there is a Russian plot against the West — an organized effort to use hacks, bots and rubles to sow discord in the United States and Western Europe. This effort is far weaker and less consequential than the paranoid center believes, it doesn’t involve fanciful “Trump has been a Russian asset since the ’80s” machinations … but it also isn’t something that Rachel Maddow just made up. The hysteria is overdrawn and paranoid; even so, the Russian conspiracy is real.
A third example: Marianne Williamson’s long-shot candidacy for the Democratic nomination has elevated the holistic-crunchy critique of modern medicine, which often shades into a conspiratorial view that a dark corporate alliance is actively conspiring against American health, that the medical establishment is consciously lying to patients about what might make them well or sick. Because this narrative has given anti-vaccine fervor a huge boost, there’s understandable desire among anti-conspiracists to hold the line against anything that seems like a crankish or quackish criticism of the medical consensus.
But if you aren’t somewhat paranoid about how often corporations cover up the dangers of their products, and somewhat paranoid about how drug companies in particular influence the medical consensus and encourage overprescription — well, then I have an opioid crisis you might be interested in reading about. You don’t need the centralized conspiracy to get a big medical wrong turn; all it takes is the right convergence of financial incentives with institutional groupthink. Which makes it important to keep an open mind about medical issues that are genuinely unsettled, even if the people raising questions seem prone to conspiracy-think. The medical consensus is generally a better guide than crankishness; even so, the tendency of cranks to predict medical scandals before they’re recognized is real.
Finally, a fourth example, circling back to Epstein: the conspiracy theories about networks of powerful pedophiles, which have proliferated with the internet and peaked, for now, with the QAnon fantasy among Trump supporters.
I say fantasy because the details of the QAnon narrative are plainly false: Donald Trump is not personally supervising an operation against “deep state” child sex traffickers any more than my 3-year-old is captaining a pirate ship.
But the premise of the QAnon fantasia, that certain elite networks of influence, complicity and blackmail have enabled sexual predators to exploit victims on an extraordinary scale — well, that isn’t a conspiracy theory, is it? That seems to just be true.
And not only true of Epstein and his pals. As I’ve written before, when I was starting my career as a journalist I sometimes brushed up against people peddling a story about a network of predators in the Catholic hierarchy — not just pedophile priests, but a self-protecting cabal above them — that seemed like a classic case of the paranoid style, a wild overstatement of the scandal’s scope. I dismissed them then as conspiracy theorists, and indeed they had many of conspiracism’s vices — above all, a desire to believe that the scandal they were describing could be laid entirely at the door of their theological enemies, liberal or traditional.
But on many important points and important names, they were simply right.
Likewise with the secular world’s predators. Imagine being told the scope of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged operation before it all came crashing down — not just the ex-Mossad black ops element but the possibility that his entire production company also acted as a procurement-and-protection operation for one of its founders. A conspiracy theory, surely! Imagine being told all we know about the late, unlamented Epstein — that he wasn’t just a louche billionaire (wasn’t, indeed, a proper billionaire at all) but a man mysteriously made and mysteriously protected who ran a pedophile island with a temple to an unknown god and plotted his own “Boys From Brazil” endgame in plain sight of his Harvard-D.C.-House of Windsor pals. Too wild to be believed!
Where networks of predation and blackmail are concerned, then, the distinction I’m drawing between conspiracy theories and underlying realities weakens just a bit. No, you still don’t want to listen to QAnon, or to our disgraceful president when he retweets rants about the #ClintonBodyCount. But just as Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s network of clerical allies and enablers hasn’t been rolled up, and the fall of Bryan Singer probably didn’t get us near the rancid depths of Hollywood’s youth-exploitation racket, we clearly haven’t gotten to the bottom of what was going on with Epstein.
So to worry too much about online paranoia outracing reality is to miss the most important journalistic task, which is the further unraveling of scandals that would have seemed, until now, too implausible to be believed.
Yes, by all means, resist the tendency toward unfounded speculation and cynical partisan manipulation. But also recognize that in the case of Jeffrey Epstein and his circle, the conspiracy was real.
Retired Pope Benedict XVI made a rare public statement Thursday with an essay on the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse crisis, linking it to a breakdown in sexual morality in the 1960s and warning against an excessive focus on the rights of accused abusers.
The retired pope’s words are in striking contrast with the Vatican’s policy under Pope Francis, which has increasingly emphasized the rights of the accused and reduced punishments for abusers on appeal.
Pope Benedict’s statement could provide encouragement to proponents of the “zero tolerance” approach to clerical abuse, which requires the removal from ministry of any priest found guilty of even one instance of abuse of a minor. Bishops in the U.S. and a handful of mostly English-speaking countries promote zero tolerance for use by the church at large, but the Vatican hasn’t endorsed the policy for global application... Pope Benedict’s essay also deviates from statements by Pope Francis, who generally has played down sexual morality and attributed the abuse crisis largely to a culture of “clericalism,”or excessive power in the hands of the Catholic hierarchy.Pope Benedict wrote that his 6,000-word essay, published Thursday by German, Italian and English-language outlets including the Catholic News Agency, was in response to an international summit on sex abuse held at the Vatican in February.
“Since I myself had served in a position of responsibility as shepherd of the church at the time of the public outbreak of the crisis, and during the run-up to it, I had to ask myself—even though, as emeritus, I am no longer directly responsible—what I could contribute to a new beginning,” he writes, noting that he obtained the permission of Pope Francis to publish his thoughts.
describes an ’80s private-school party scene in which heavy drinking and sexual encounters were standard fare.
.. Judge wrote about the pledge he and his friends at the all-male school on Rockville Pike in North Bethesda, Md., made to drink 100 kegs of beer before graduation. On their way to that goal, there was a “disastrous” party “at my house where the place was trashed,” Judge wrote in his book “God and Man at Georgetown Prep.” Kavanaugh listed himself in the class yearbook as treasurer of the “100 Kegs or Bust” club.
.. “I’ll be the first one to defend guys being guys,” Judge wrote in a 2015 article on the website Acculturated. He described a party culture of “drinking and smoking and hooking up.” During senior year, Judge said he and his pals hired a stripper and bought a keg for a bachelor party they threw to honor their school’s music teacher.
“I drank too much and did stupid things,” he said in his memoir.
“Most of the time everyone, including the girls, was drunk,” Judge wrote in “Wasted: Tales of a Gen X Drunk,” a memoir of his alcoholism and recovery. “If you could breathe and walk at the same time, you could hook up with someone.
.. Judge seemed to some friends to stay fixed in the experiences of his adolescence. Over time, his politics shifted from left to right, and his writing often focused on his view of masculinity (“the wonderful beauty of uncontrollable male passion”) and his concern that gay culture was corroding traditional values.
.. In one column for Acculturated, Judge wrote that it is “important that for some brief moments in his life — preferably when he is young — a man should be, at times, arrogant, a little reckless, and looking for kicks.”
.. Maryland state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), one of Judge’s classmates at Georgetown Preparatory School
.. ‘Bully’ may be an overused term, but he regularly belittled people he perceived as being lower on the high school hierarchy.”
.. I just had an instinct and desire to get into trouble, and science and psychotherapy are useless to explain it. I just liked causing trouble.”
.. Judge has written about his Prep years as a time of drunken debauchery. Beach Week, a summertime excursion with classmates, was a nonstop roller coaster of drinking, sexual encounters with girls from other prep schools, blackouts and more drinking. “It was impossible to stop until I was completely annihilated,”
.. on Monday mornings during senior year, the boys would tell their Marriage and Sex teacher, Bernie Ward, about their excesses.
“The drinking was unbelievable,” said Ward, who later spent two decades as a radio talk-show host in San Francisco and served six years in federal prison for distributing child pornography. “It was part of the culture. A parent even bought the keg and threw one of the parties for the kids.”
.. The faculty at Prep, he said, had morphed from “tough guys” to “hippies and leftists.”
.. “Doctors have called it attention deficit disorder, psychiatrists have cited my behavior as a cry for attention from my distant, drinking father, but at the end of the day I simply had a problem with authority,” Judge wrote in “Wasted.” His behavior when he was drinking was, he wrote, “not dignified.”
.. Judge sent a vituperative email wishing him the same fate as Matthew Shepard, the gay college student who was beaten and left to die in Wyoming in 1998.
.. Judge has described living for years in the basement of his parents’ home in Potomac. Public records list his home at an address in Georgetown that turns out also to be the address of a UPS store.
.. Mark’s brother Michael to write in Washingtonian magazine about how the family “did come to fear one of its members. . . . Mark is a solipsist: spoiled as a child, always gazing inward, unable to recognize any pain but his own.”
.. Judge’s views about men and women seemed grounded in midcentury notions. In his high school yearbook, he cited a Noël Coward lyric, “Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.”
.. In 2003, a student named Eric Ruyak reported to school authorities that a Jesuit priest who was a teacher at Georgetown Prep had touched him inappropriately. Some Prep alumni, including Judge, rallied around the teacher
.. Numerous alumni told me that Judge was going around saying I was emotionally unstable and a sexual deviant,”
.. An investigation by Jesuit authorities later confirmed Ruyak’s account. Orr was placed on a leave of absence from his order. When another Prep student later alleged that Orr had sexually abused him, the priest was arrested. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced in 2011 to five years of probation.
“For years, I couldn’t shake Judge,” Ruyak said. “He would write about the case to advance his agenda about the school being a nest of liberalism and homosexuality. This guy did unbelievable damage to me when I was a kid.”
The Catholic Church needs leaders who can purge corruption even among their own theological allies. The pope is failing that test.
During the Catholic Church’s synod on the family in Rome in 2015, a rough-and-tumble affair in which Pope Francis pushed the assembled bishops to liberalize Catholic teaching on remarriage and divorce, one of the attendees, by the pope’s own invitation, was the retired Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels.
Danneels was a natural pick in one sense: One of the church’s prominent liberals, he had been part of a circle that supported Jorge Bergoglio in the run-up to his election as Francis, and in a synodal fight with conservative bishops, the pope needed all the allies he could get.
.. In another sense, though, Danneels was a wildly inappropriate choice, because at the conclusion of his career he was caught on tape trying to persuade a young victim of sex abuse not to go public with allegations against the victim’s uncle, Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Bruges, Belgium.
.. hauling a cover-up artist out of retirement for a synod on the family was a statement that ideological loyalties mattered more to him than personal misconduct: Sex abuse might be bad, but what really mattered was being on the correct side of the Catholic civil war.
.. after years of failed American attempts to get Rome to take action, Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, placed the already retired McCarrick under some form of sanctions — moving him out of his residence, restricting contact with seminarians, limiting public appearances. It further claims that despite being told that McCarrick was a sexual predator, Francis removed those sanctions, raised McCarrick’s profile and relied on him for advice about major appointments.
.. noting that McCarrick appeared at many events, including with Benedict himself, in the period when he was supposedly under sanctions.
.. given the distracted and ineffectual way that the last pope ran the church, it’s very easy to imagine a distracted and ineffectual attempt to restrict McCarrick being subverted and ignored by the cardinal and his allies in the hierarchy.
.. In which case it’s also easy to imagine a scenario in which Francis didn’t technically “lift” those sanctions so much as acted in ignorance of them, or of their seriousness. He might have been given some knowledge, by Viganò and others, of the allegations against McCarrick but either assumed they couldn’t be that bad (at this point the cardinal mostly stood accused of imposing himself on seminarians, not teenage minors) or else chose to believe a denial from the accused cardinal himself. Why? In part because of perceived self-interest: Francis needed allies, McCarrick was sympathetic to the pope’s planned liberalizing push, and the pope wanted his help reshaping the ranks of American bishops.
.. In this scenario Francis would be guilty of self-deception and incuriosity but not as nakedly culpable as Viganò implies. And if it’s easy to imagine this scenario because of the Danneels example, it’s also easy to imagine because that’s how things have proceeded consistently in the church since the sex abuse scandals broke: If a given predator or enabler is “on side” for either conservatives or liberals, he will find defenders and protectors for as long as events and revelations permit.
- That’s a major reason John Paul II refused to investigate Father Marcel Maciel, the wicked founder of the Legionaries of Christ — because the Legionaries were conservative, and apparently a great success, and that was all that mattered.
- It’s why many conservative Catholics unwisely defended John Paul II-appointed prelates like Boston’s Bernard Law in the early 2000s.
- It’s why a notorious traditionalist priest, Father Carlos Urrutigoity, could find a welcome from conservative bishops in Pennsylvania and then Paraguay, despite a trail of abuse allegations.
.. Now it’s why certain organs and apostles of liberal Catholicism are running interference for McCarrick’s protectors — because Francis is their pope, the liberalizer they yearned for all through the John Paul and Benedict years, and all’s fair in the Catholic civil war.
.. But the inevitable, even providential irony is that this sort of team thinking never leads to theological victory, but only to exposure, shame, disaster. Indeed, the lesson of these bitter decades is that any faction hoping to lead Roman Catholicism out of crisis should begin with purges within its own ranks, with intolerance for any hint of corruption.
.. Francis, alas for everyone, did the opposite. Elected by cardinals eager for a cleanup at the Vatican, he wanted to be a theological change agent instead — which led him to tolerate the corrupt Roman old guard (whose names fill Viganò’s letter) and to rehabilitate liberal figures like Danneels, McCarrick and Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga of Honduras (a dubious figure with a predator among his underlings and a scandal at his seminary) who deserved the sidelines if not a penitent’s cell.
.. purge the corruption he has tolerated and to supply Catholicism with what it has lacked these many years: a leader willing to be zealous and uncompromising against what Benedict called the “filth” in the church, no matter how many heads must roll on his own side of the Catholic civil war.