18 May 2011
The Strauss-Kahn scandal and the conspiratorial compulsion
Like many people, I can't help thinking conspiratorially about last weekend's arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the International Monetary Fund president and once-likely Socialist candidate for President of France. Unlike some of those other people, I don't feel strongly that there was a conspiracy behind Strauss-Kahn's arrest at Kennedy Airport for the attempted rape of a hotel maid, but I can't help imagining the "who benefits?" scenarios. Is it a conspiracy against Strauss-Kahn personally, or against the Socialist Party, or against France, or against the IMF itself? Is it a conspiracy by rivals in his party, or by the rival party of President Sarkozy, or by a rival faction in the IMF, or by powerful forces in Europe or the U.S.? The cynical irony of it all is that the apparently impartial exercise of criminal justice so far has probably only fueled conspiracy theory. We don't expect a powerful person like Strauss-Kahn to be treated like a common criminal, so when he is, we're tempted to assume that some arbitrary, self-interested power is behind his treatment. We assume the word is run in conspiratorial fashion normally, and we also assume that any disruption in the normal routine is also a conspiracy. We know that conspiracies actually exist in the form of cover-ups, but the fact that we know there are such things as cover-ups only encourages conspiracymongering. But because facts are still covered-up, we often think conspiratorially in terms of abstractions like "power." Because we often don't know what our leaders and representatives are actually doing, we work from assumptions of what "power" does. "Power" comes to be seen not as a tool available for anyone's use, but as a malignant entity in its own right, with its own interests. Many among us long for order without power and end up advocating the unilateral disarmament, so to speak, of some legitimate powers for the (perhaps unintended) further empowerment of others. Conspiracymongering reflects not just a fear of complex systems but an essential ignorance of how actual power is made and used in public life. Given Americans' reportedly poor performance on civics on a recent "national report card," any greater receptivity to conspiracymongering in this country should be no surprise. It's a response to powerlessness compounded by ignorance, and the remedy is not to fight "power" but to take power -- to relearn our just powers and take responsibility for them ourselves instead of entrusting them to surrogates (like the major political parties) whom we'll end up distrusting anyway. Anything short of that means living in a dreamworld of perpetual fear, or the powerless wargame of the conspiratorial mind.