CANTERBURY, ENGLAND — Conspiracy theory has captured the public imagination. Often we are less interested in what politicians say or do than in attempting to decipher the hidden agenda that motivates their behavior.
Every Supreme Court nomination turns into a search for the skeleton in the closet or a trace of a conspiracy. No sooner was Harriet Miers nominated before rumors suggested that President Bush used her as a fall guy whose failed nomination would make it more difficult for liberals to discredit her more conservative replacement. The president may have more than one conspiracy up his sleeve. It has been suggested that the avian flu scare is promoted by the White House to distract the nation from a messy war in Iraq. Others hint that the pharmaceutical industry is behind it to profit from an explosion of demand for flu vaccines.
Conspiracy theories are now so influential that the US State Department's website desperately tries to contain the damage these theories cause to the reputation of the United States. It recognizes that conspiracy theories have "a great appeal and are often widely believed." Indeed, the theory that American foreign policy is the outcome of a carefully elaborated secret plot concocted by a cabal of neoconservatives is widely believed both inside and outside the US. Preoccupation with conspiracies is no longer confined to the margins. Virtually every unexpected event provokes a climate of suspicion that breeds rumors and conspiracies.
After hurricane Wilma, which knocked out the power of millions of Floridians last month, rumors claimed that powerful people in the region got their power switched on before the rest. These rumors are positively benign compared to the ones unleashed by hurricane Katrina. The rumor that officials had deliberately flooded black neighborhoods in New Orleans is still believed by a significant section of the population. When director Spike Lee announced that he was making a film about the flooding of New Orleans, he stated that he wouldn't be surprised if conspiracy theories of government involvement in the flooding were confirmed.
Conspiracy theory offers an explanation of the causes and motives for otherwise inexplicable developments. Such theories are appealing because they provide us with a semblance of control over powerful forces that influence our lives. Today, acts of misfortune are frequently associated with intentional malevolent behavior. Nothing happens by accident. Human malevolence is suspected to be at work behind the death of Princess Diana in a car crash, or a sudden electrical blackout. Unexplained illnesses or a spillage of chemicals are frequently blamed on the self-serving irresponsible acts of politicians, public and business figures, doctors, scientists - indeed all professionals.
People always search for meaning. But in our confused and ever changing world we feel particularly perplexed when it comes to making sense of the problems that confront us. One of the most important ways in which an absence of meaning is experienced is the feeling that the individual is manipulated and influenced by hidden powerful forces - not just by spin-doctors, subliminal advertising, and the media, but also by powers that have no name. That is why we frequently attribute unexplained physical and psychological symptoms to unspecific forces caused by the food we eat, the water we drink, an extending variety of pollutants and substances transmitted by new technologies and other invisible processes. As a result, global warming is not simply a climatic phenomenon but an all-purpose evil that can account for a bewildering variety of destructive events.
We seem to be living in a shadowy world akin to "The Matrix" trilogy, where the issue at stake is the reality that we inhabit and who is being manipulated by whom. In previous times such attitudes mainly informed the thinking of right-wing populist movements who saw the hand of a Jewish or a Masonic or a Communist conspiracy behind major world events. Today, conspiracy theory has become mainstream and many of its most vociferous supporters are to be found in radical protest movements and among the cultural left. When Hillary Clinton warned of a "vast right-wing conspiracy," it became evident that the politics of the hidden agenda have been internalized in everyday public life. Today, the anticapitalist and antiglobalization movement is no less wedded to the politics of conspiracy than its opponents on the far right. From their perspective a vast global neoconservative conspiracy has turned into an all-purpose explanation for the many ills that afflict our times.
The simplistic worldview of conspiracy thinking helps fuel suspicion and mistrust toward the domain of politics. It displaces a critical engagement with public life with a destructive search for the hidden agenda. It distracts from the clarification of genuine differences and helps turn public life into a theater where what matters are the private lives and personal interests of mistrusted politicians. A constant search for the story behind the story distracts us from really listening to each other and seeing the world as it really is.
• Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent, England, and author of "The Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right."