In 1974, I was a visiting, junior-year political science student (one of only 16 young men) at all-women Smith College, and I took a course at neighboring University of Massachusetts at Amherst, taught by a self-avowed Marxist economics professor. I don’t remember his name, but I do remember his constant reference to a then-well-known book — “The Power Elite.” The thesis of the book was that there was an elite cabal led by leaders of the banking, corporate, military and political segments of America that ran our country for its own political, economic and social gain; that ordinary people had little or no influence.
I sized up this presumption by connecting the dots. For this conspiracy to work, I surmised, many disparate parts of society that are often at odds — governments, corporations, political leaders and social influencers would have to be involved in this vast conspiracy. And I determined, after my somewhat rigorous analysis, that the book and the Marxist professor, for that matter, were complete bunk.
Very little of the world operates in lock-step coordination and much of what does hold us together into some semblance of whole are the values that many of us buy into. So, if there was coordination, it was through the principles of freedom, opportunity, equality, fairness, hard work and the loose concept of the American Dream. Through these values, a culture developed, and people acted in accordance with the culture. If there were violations of those values — such as the sin of racism — it was because a counter-culture emerged from the corruption or misinterpretation of those fundamental values. In my opinion, that’s how society operates, not by some vast dystopian scheme or invasion by the Borg, the unidimensional conquerors depicted in episodes of “Star Trek.”
But, some people in the world thrive on conspiracy theories. They do not buy into the fact that, by and large, people don’t want to hurt other people and that much conflict comes from misunderstanding, misinterpretation or misplaced fear. From time to time in our country we have fallen victim to demagogic inklings of “the Chinese conspiracy” or “the Irish conspiracy” or “the Jewish conspiracy” or “the Communist conspiracy” or “the Immigrant conspiracy.” These conspiracy theories have faded only as thoughtful people chose to embrace our core values and push back against these fabrications, much as I did against the false narrative of “The Power Elite.”
The thing about conspiracy theories is that they have the power to let people off the hook. Those who have been denied the good life that is part of the social contract promised by the American Dream often need a scapegoat. “The Power Elite” is keeping me in check so that I can’t realize my true potential. It’s not me. I have no personal responsibility. I am not locked into my own anger and resentment, which impedes my reaching out to others to seek help to achieve my dreams. Nobody cares, and someone else is causing this and victimizing me.
To be clear, I am not talking about generations of poverty that have been brought about by institutional racism. That, too, is a viscous cycle that is influenced by a thought-driven reality, but victims of racism and generational poverty are not embedded in a mindset or circumstance that they can control or easily overcome. Poverty is a very complicated subject and will be the subject of my next blog.
This blog is about the current spate of conspiracy theories and, in particular, QAnon, which has been described by the FBI as a potential domestic terrorism threat. The thesis of QAnon is that an elitist cabal of pedophiles, including celebrities and major retailers, are engaged in sex-trafficking and otherwise bringing down our American way of life.
According to ABC News, the MIT Technology Review reported that the movement is growing so quickly that “It’s too late to stop QAnon with fact checks and account bans,” as have been done recently by Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets. Many in both the Republican and Democratic parties are baffled at why more leaders — including the President — don’t publicly denounce this conspiracy theory, which is so undocumented and far-fetched that, if it were something drummed up and spoofed on SNL, it would be laughable. But it is very real and, in its current form, sad and dangerous.
Why dangerous, you might ask. Why not just innocent free expression? We need only turn to history to understand how undocumented conspiracies can have a negative impact on society. My family knows so well.
My family comes from a small Polish town where Jews and Gentiles generally got along. Nonetheless, every Passover my grandmother, who was one of the dentists in the town, would invite a prominent Polish Catholic family to dine with her family at the Passover Seder, the ritual celebration and retelling of the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. Fortunately, my parents and grandmother survived the Holocaust (1939-45) and moved to Cleveland, and my grandmother was able to relate this story to me and my two brothers.
The reason why my grandmother invited a non-Jewish family to celebrate Passover is that a long-held conspiracy theory in Eastern Europe was that Jewish families kill Christian boys around Passover and use their blood in the baking of matzah, the traditional Passover unleavened bread. This belief was so deep and held for so many years, passed on from generation to generation, that it fomented a deep hatred and distrust of Jews. Over time, it was conflated with the notion that Jews controlled the banking system and media, and it ultimately fanned the flames of hysteria that Hitler relied on to convince ordinary Germans, Poles, Ukrainians and others to hate (and kill) the scapegoats — the Jews.
From the Middle Ages through the 1940’s, blood libels (as this conspiracy theory was called) justified violence against and the killing of Jews. Even during my grandmother’s generation, occasionally a Christian boy would go missing around the time of Passover, and violence would be levied against Jews in retaliation. Miraculously, the Christian boy would ultimately turn up. But the damage was done, and the hatred continued. In the 1930’s, when my mother was in dentistry school, Christian students would stick pins in her back while screaming “Bailis,” one of the rally cries of the blood libels.
If we allow this type of modified blood libel to continue in our country, shame on us. QAnon will ultimately lead to more expansive scapegoating and conjuring of the notion of a “Deep State.” In our country, which celebrates the core value of free speech, we cannot quash this organization or suppress its freedom of speech. However, we can vocally and vigorously dispute, disavow and condemn. All thoughtful Americans should do so. If we do, like the bully who no longer has a pulpit, this scourge will ultimately go away. But if we do not, this movement will grow into more anger, resentment and, yes, violence.
Albert Einstein said, “If I were to remain silent, I would be guilty of complicity.” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we remain silent about things that matter.”
This does matter. Let us not remain silent; let us not be complicit!
Stuart Muszynski is President and CEO of Values-in-Action Foundation, a character education and social-emotional learning non-profit organization based in Mayfield Village, Ohio, serving 2,500 K-12 schools in all 50 states.