Monday, September 12, 2016

Real Conspiracies and Conspiracy Stories that Sell – Part 1

Finally, I am able to resume the blog. I apologize for my long silence.

I attended a symposium a little while ago on UFOs, parapsychology, and other related topics. The symposium was attended by first class researchers and writers, and it made me think a lot about the notion of conspiracy in the UFO world. The two notions of UFO and conspiracy are inextricably linked to one another, particularly in the United States. One must be aware, however, that it is much less the case outside the U.S., even in neighboring Canada. In Europe and elsewhere, research on UFO tends to focus on the new physical science aspects, the social dynamics, and to a lesser degree on the paranormal dimension.  
This post is looking at what we actually know about conspiracies, and how this knowledge could be helpful to make an assessment of UFO conspiracies, which are otherwise opaque in nature, and their place in framing our understanding of the phenomenon.
A number of authors in the U.S. have studies the belief in conspiracy theories in general, and on UFOs in particular. For instance, one can refer to Michael Barkun’s A Culture of Conspiracy (2013), the edited volume of Debbora Battaglia E.T. Culture (2005), Jodi Dean’s Aliens in America (1998), UFO Crash at Roswell (1997) by Saler, Ziegler and Moore, or the classic book by David Jacobs The UFO Controversy in America (1975). These books and others, in one way or another, look into why people believe in conspiracies, why conspiracies are enduring even if no substantive facts emerge or when counter-proofs are provided, what kind of people believe in conspiracy, and how conspiracies theories evolve and mutate. These questions are certainly legitimate social science research issues to study, and these books provide a very illuminating analysis of the American society, and of the inner social dynamics of the UFO buffs’ world.  

What has been much less done is to study UFO-related conspiracies from the point of view of the sociology of conspiracy; to try understanding whether UFO-related conspiracies make any sense from a sociological perspective. After all, conspiracy is a real social phenomenon with its own dynamics like project management, or bureaucracy. The sociology of conspiracy is in fact quite old and can be traced back to an article from the well-known sociologist Georg Simmel in a 1906 issue of the American Journal of Sociology, entitled “The sociology of secrecy and of secret societies”.

Simmel wrote that: “The keeping of secret is something so unstable, the temptations to betrayal are so manifold, in many cases such a continuous path leads from secretiveness to indiscretion, that unlimited faith in the former contains an incomparable preponderance of the subjective factor. For this reason those secrets societies whose rudimentary forms begin with the secret shared by two, and whose enormous extension through all times and places has not even yet been appreciated, even quantitatively—such societies have exerted efficient disciplinary influence upon moral accountability of men. For there resides in confidence of men towards each other as high moral value in the companion fact that this confidence is justified”. (p. 473)
Here are some of the insightful observations from Simmel about how secrecy and conspiracy decorticated. First of all, secrecy is one of the oldest form of social dynamics. As soon as you have three people or more, then we have at least three pairs of people who have their own unique one-on-one relationship, who will inevitably not share 100% of the relationship with the other pairs. Hence, secrets are born. This observation at the micro level also stands at the macro level. People have work and family secrets that do not cross into the other realm. Similarly, large organizations have secrets that are shared only internally to their members, and it can become a key issue of competitiveness between organizations, like between Apple and Samsung. The same can be said of intelligence agencies that have a hard time sharing information with each other because they want to protect their own sources.

The second point is that secret information becomes valuable because only those who are in have access to it. It is true in creating special relationship between individuals. The secret moments are what make their relationship special and valuable. This is also true for large organizations, which compete against each other. Conversely, once the secret is spilled, the information loses its value. Sometime, it is not the content of the information that actually brings value, but simply the existence of a secret. The classic example is Freemasonry, which has it rituals published in many different books over years, while its true value is in “having been there” when the ritual is performed. The real value in this case remains in the common experience rather than in its content.

A third characteristics is that secrets are very hard to keep! Bragging about being part of a secret is a phenomenon that goes back to beginning of time, and it is how the police today very often catches small time criminals. Then, revenge against those who wronged you, or selfish calculations to obtain favors in exchange for information are the story of modern spy recruiting. For instance, Oleg Penkovsky was profoundly disgusted with the actions of the Soviet Union and became a volunteer spy for the West who had a key role during the Cuban missile crisis. Richard Ames simply sold crucial American secrets to the Soviet Union for money.

Large organization based on secrecy are well aware of those problems and try establish various measures to protect their secrets. One of those measures is to ensure that those entrusted with secrets are sharing the values behind the secrets. For instance, the secret of the cryptographic work done against German signals during World War II at Bletchley Park was a very well guarded one, and this many years after the war was over. The people were fully dedicated to protect Britain and the Western world against fascism, raid bombing, and U-boot attacks. They had very strong motivations to keep it secret. The Mafia, on the other hand, tries to keep secrets based on family values, and try to recruit among family members. But their goals are much less noble, and eventually someone talks. That’s what gangsters’ stories are made of. The Watergate scandal was easily uncovered by two journalists because of the immorality of what was done. People were willing to talk and provide proofs.

Another measure is fear and intimidation. This can work up to a point, but eventually people reach a point where they have nothing to lose, and they spread the secret. Once again, organized crime is a classic example of using fear and intimidation, and yet people eventually talk. Witness protection programmes have been created to give these people a second chance after they reveal the secret. State intelligence agencies can use the threat of prosecution and jail time, or even worse, if people reveal their secrets, and yet we have people like Snowden who was willing to risk it all.

Lastly, organizations are using secrets as a way to get people motivated to keep secrets! It is essentially done by getting more secrets over time, and moving one closer to the inner circle. Cults are classic examples of it, but organized crime is the same. Intelligence agencies provide high clearances as people get promoted to upper ranks. Yet, this does not always work. For instance, Oleg Gordievsky, the Soviet resident in London, which was a pretty high position in the KGB, defected to the West when he could.

Ultimately, the morality or immorality of a secret is often a defining characteristic as to whether a secret can last for long, assuming that people in are essentially normal people. A secret that supports a cause that is construed as noble and moral will last long. The exception are immoral secrets that are kept by profoundly depraved people, like in the case of pedophile rings. Such secrets tend to be held closely because of the serious consequences for those in if the secret is revealed. But it also imposes a limitation on the size of the secret group, as when the circle enlarges too much, sooner or later someone will have problems with his/her conscience. Many modern-day terrorist plots were stopped in this manner, as the circle becomes larger.

In light of those sociological characteristics linked to secrets and conspiracies, how well the UFO secrets and conspiracy fare?

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