Open Societies

‘[T]he historical record cuts both ways. It can be read … as an endorsement of the hypothesis that small groups of individuals secretly control large segments of what we take to be the “free world.” However, it should also be noted that when it comes to committing large-scale evil, secrecy is often largely unnecessary. Six million European Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals can be rounded up and systematically murdered without a global conspiracy. The “witches” of Salem can be tried and burned to death without a global conspiracy. And as the Monty Python comedy team … correctly points out, events such as the Spanish Inquisition are entirely unexpected; however, I might add, the individuals that perpetrate such events can be amazingly effective in carrying out the deeds they wish without much recourse to secrecy and conspiracy. If one wishes to be malevolent on a global scale, why waste time and energy maintaining a conspiracy when history shows that one can get away with it in the open?’(Brian L. Keeley, Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition!: More Thoughts on Conspiracy Theory in Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol. 34 No. 1, Spring 2003, p. 104–110.)Indeed; why hide the atrocities you can perform in public?For every malevolent conspiracy it seems we can show human ingenuity, in the nastiness stakes, that didn’t need secrecy… Or can we? Arguably the Holocaust was a conspiracy; there was an orchestrated effort by the Powers That Be in Germany to hide what was happening to the Jewish population. Whether it was fake postcards from the relocation camps to the redressed Tenerzin when the Red Cross came to visit, the Holocaust contains, at least, elements of conspiracy. I’m not much of a modern historian; for me history was most interesting around the time of the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. Thus everything I’m about to say in re WWII is more the explication of a thought experiment and should not be taken as history per se (although it might be). Indeed, if you know something about what really happened in re the hypothetical explanation I am about to give then please do inform me. Living in blissful ignorance isn’t something a blogger should be allowed to do.On with the show.Everyone knows the line about how you can meet all the Germans you like but you will never find one who professes to have had a family member supportive of National Socialism; in the same respect you can meet all the Germans you like but you’d be hard pressed to find one who knew what their government was really doing at the time. I suspect, and its somewht borne out by testimony collected by the Allies directly after the Second World War, that whilst there was a lot of Anti-Semitic feeling in Germany (arguably, Europe itself, and the UK, and the USA…) and people there where glad to see the back of the Jews it doesn’t entail that these same people would have been supportive of the eradication of the Jewish people. Getting rid of people from your borders is one thing; killing them off is another.Which is why the Holocaust has so many elements of conspiracy to it; the Nazis where hiding what they were doing.Yet, like so many historical conspiracies, it was found out. But the people who kniew, the Allies, weren’t really of concern to the Nazis. The Allies were the enemy, the people that the Nazis were at war with, a war that the Nazis were sure of winning. If the Allies knew of the Holocaust it didn’t matter; either the project would be completed soon or the war would end in German victory and the results would be the same for the Jewish people. Expending resources on hiding the Holocaust from a soon to be defeated enemy would be pointless.Conspiracies, then, do not have to globally secret but rather selectively.It reminds me of that old Bill Hick’s routine about the USA President-elect being shown a film of the Kennedy assassination and being told that it they do not toe the ‘Party’ line that the same will happen to them (a routine Penn and Teller, in their ‘Conspiracies’ episode of ‘Bullshit,’ attribute to someone else in a misguided attempt to condemn Conspiracy Theories everywhere). You only need to keep secrets from some people. Indeed, the bigger your conspiracy the larger the number of people who will be in the know will be (horrible sentence, that; probably suffering from a lack of syntax). Still, that doesn’t matter as long as the people who don’t need to know it stay not knowing it.Or something like that.


Josh says:

Yes, to what extent does the Polite Fiction dovetail with conspiracy? It’s been said that the German people at the time could have guessed what might have been happening to the people who were rounded up and carted off, but most chose not to think about it, or believe something less unpleasant.

horansome says:

There’s a whole set of posts to be written on the notion of Public Trust in Institutions (for those of you who want to bone up on the material then I recommend looing at the excised portions of Brian Keeley’s and Lee Basham’s articles); essentially the argument goes that we usually feel that we have no real grounds to disbelieve what our public institutions tell us, so if they tell us that the Jewish population is living happily in relocation camps then we should believe that to be the case. Thus you might argue that there is no ‘polite fiction’ in the sense that people are ignoring what is really happening because they have little grounds to think that what they are being told is false. Whether it is rational to trust public institutions is another matter entirely; SIS is (nominally) a public insitution but it (probably correctly) lies to the public about its activities all the time. We can guess to our hearts’ content as to what they are really doing, but unless we get some ‘hard’ evidence to prove it those guesses are probably worthless. Although you might argue that believing the official line when there is prior evidence of it being less than honest is worthless as well, although that belief may be slightly better in some epistemic sense.