Reclaiming the term ‘conspiracy theory’
A new book by an expert on authoritarian states is reclaiming the term “conspiracy theory.”
Sarah Kendzior’s They Knew: How a Culture of Conspiracy Keeps America Complacent re-examines the meaning of a “conspiracy theory” and how the term has been weaponized against individuals searching for the truth.
“It's limited the range of subjects that we discuss, and it has allowed powerful actors to escape accountability,” Kendzior said in an interview with The Blueprint, adding that dismissing legitimate concerns as conspiracy theories “cuts off examination of corruption.”
Examining corruption is something Kendzior has spent decades doing, dating back to her studies on the former Soviet Union and, in particular, Uzbekistan.
“It’s not an outlandish thing to say that a conspiracy exists,” she said, noting that they’re fairly common. “The term itself is neutral.”
According to Kendzior, a conspiracy theory is what happens when someone has incomplete evidence of a plot and they form a theory about how the conspiracy operates.
“You don't have complete evidence, because, of course, it's a plot,” she explained. “There's no transparency if people are lying or obfuscating, so you're trying to take what facts you have and form some kind of hypothesis of what is happening—a theory about the conspiracy.”
While the term “conspiracy theorist” has, in recent years, become more associated with extremists like Alex Jones — a figure Kendzior considers a “hateful propagandist and a liar”—she believes the idea of a conspiracy theorist is more akin to someone “seeking to make sense of the world.”
But Kendzior is concerned about topics being silenced simply because people don’t want to seem like an Alex Jones or a qAnon kind of person.
During one of Kendzior’s many appearances on MSNBC anchor Joy Reid’s news program in 2017, the author spoke a profound truth: “Hysterical is a word used to describe women speaking plain truth.”
Hysterical is a word Kendzior knows all too well. Labeled as an alarmist and conspiracy theorist herself, Kendzior recognizes that “hysterical” is ultimately a gendered term.
“I'm trying to just bring some logic and clarity to the situation so that maybe we could remedy it,” she said.
Too often, reporters write-off claims from conspiracy theorists as baseless or fact-free, a practice Kendzior believes is a mistake. She says that information dismissed as a conspiracy theory often includes seeds of truth, effectively shutting down meaningful discourse about abuses of power.
Normalcy bias and the power of preemptive narrative inversion
They Knew also examines the issues around normalcy bias—the idea that if a situation is truly dangerous, then surely somebody would intervene.
Just look at the January 6th insurrection. Kendzior pointed out that while millions of Americans watched the Capitol riots live on television, a lack of accountability and a sense of justice has left many doubting the severity of a crime witnessed by their own eyes.
“If what I'm seeing is that America's capital was attacked, and the people who did it got away with it and are running around holding rallies, what does that say about our institutions of accountability?” Kendzior asked. “It says that we're in very deep trouble, and I think that folks just don't want to reckon with that.”
One of the most powerful strategies for preserving a conspiracy, Kendzior writes, is by using what she calls preemptive narrative inversion. Just look at Pizzagate — while conspiracy theorists spread dangerous lies about an “elite pedophile trafficking network” in the basement of a pizza parlour in 2016, Jeffrey Epstein remained a free man.
“There’s this element of ridiculousness to it,” Kendzior explained, noting that anyone who debated Pizzagate six years ago was considered crazy. But making the idea of the world’s most powerful people engaging in pedophilia seem so outlandish, Kendzior believes, was part of the plan all along.
“It makes it very hard because the first association that somebody's hearing about Epstein, for example, would be Pizzagate. ‘Oh, this sounds like an Alex Jones kind of thing,’” she said. “And if you're trying to seem respectable, you won't even want to get involved in that conversation.”
‘The world is a white Bronco and the highway never ends’
Early on in her book, Kendzior writes: “The world is a white Bronco and the highway never ends.”
A statement she wrote ten years ago, Kendzior described it as the overwhelming criminality “being sold to us as spectacle” in what seems like a never-ending capacity.
The early 2010s saw the rise of videos documenting police brutality capturing the attention of Americans on social media. While many were beginning to reckon with the country’s violent and oppressive history, Kendzior was remarking how familiar it all seemed — considering Rodney King was recorded being beaten by police when she was 12-years-old.
“There's this refusal among white Americans to accept that this has been going on for all of American history,” she said, noting that victims are often treated as a spectacle and become both commodified and commercialized. “There doesn't seem to be any resolution, there's no accountability, there's no end to it, you know, you're just watching, like when you watched OJ Simpson on the run.”
And as long as there remains no incentive for those in the media and politics to change it, she added, people will continue to suffer by losing their sense of empathy as well as their sense of possibility.
Kendzior is direct and blunt when it comes to her analysis of American politics, a respect that she extends to her children, ages 15 and 11. Kendzior has taken her kids on trips to museums, presidential libraries, and other historic landmarks, not just in their hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, but across the country, in an effort to give her children an “honest recollection” of America’s history.
“What I find so refreshing about children are questions of morality,” she said. ‘When they hear about slavery, they don't say, ‘Oh well, yeah, that was just what people did back then.’ They're like, ‘Oh my God, people owned human beings, the president owned human beings, and people elevated that and they thought it was fine.”
With a career dedicated to bringing "transnational organised crime" to justice, Kendzior feels compelled to be honest with her children about the gravity of the threats to democracy facing their country.
“They have that innate moral sense that hasn't been compromised yet by a culture of apathy and acquiescence,” Kendzior said.
Kendzior pointed out that while she was raised to believe things were only going to keep getting better in the 90s after the Cold War ended and before 9/11, kids today are seeing the pendulum swing back in another direction, away from democracy and towards autocracy.
“I just try to make it very clear to them, there's a difference between what you expect to happen and what you accept,” she said. “You should expect it because this is the trajectory we're on, and it's an awful one. But we should be working to stop that trajectory and not think of it as inevitable and definitely not think of it as just or fair.”
The future of American democracy
Looking ahead to the November midterms and the 2024 presidential election, Kendzior believes political reporters need to recognize that half of Americans are independent voters, rather than pitting Democrats versus Republicans like a sporting event.
Not only that, but reporters need to grapple with the fact that autocracy in America would look much differently than in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia — one Kendzior says will “exploit the worst aspects of American culture” through systemic racism, the info-tainment complex, and widespread public suffering.
“I'm worried about the election day itself, because January 6 was unpunished and the attempted coup was generally unpunished, so of course they're going to try it again,” Kendzior predicted. “And I think it's going to come with more violence on more local areas, the same way that you've seen teachers threatened, hospital workers threatened, public servants and poll workers threatened.”
They Knew: How a Culture of Conspiracy Keeps America Complacent is available now online and in bookstores.