Tinsel Wing

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Secrecy's Double Shield

The ACLU put on a great local seminar in my town on the NSA domestic spying. A heavily bearded chap meandered through the assembly, passing out copies of the "loosechange" DVD, which has become the primary means of disseminating the MIHOP (i.e., the Bush administration "Made It Happen On Purpose") theory of the events of 9/11.

More and more folks, some of them quite bright, seem caught up in this particular family of conspiracy theories. The Wachowski brothers outed themselves in a memorable scene in V for Vendetta, Sean Penn has got into the act, and two of my own siblings have been convinced MIHOP buffs for some while. I haven't ventured yet to pop the DVD into my player. I'm not eager to slide down the rabbit hole. Having spent far too much time monitoring the discourse of neo-Nazis and "Christian" Identity enthusiasts, I'm all too aware of how the self-reinforcing, self-justifying walls of a really juicy conspiracy theory can close in around a person.

But there's a simple reason why we are awash in whispers. The Bush administration has scattered the seed of secrecy as wide and deep as it knows how. It is their firm belief that the less the electorate knows about what its government is doing, the more smoothly their own business can be done. At the same time, they lack the skill, or perhaps the interest, to create detailed cover narratives for their deeds. They'd rather rely on a handful of focus group tested slogans. Human nature abhors a narrative vacuum. So from those scattered seeds, a lush botanical garden of stories has sprouted: speculations, justifications, and conspiracy theories. "Here's what George Bush is doing to protect us/ to destroy us."

But how to account for the secrecy overkill? How to account for the mindless, reflex classification of everything in sight, the Geheimnis freshly stamped on documents long since made public, the instructions to deny all FOIA requests if any pretext can be found to deny them?

The overkill sets two layers of shielding around high crimes and misdemeanors. The first layer: when every inch of the White House lawn is covered by heavy rocks, it takes a deal more work to locate and uncover the two or three dozen under which the Easter eggs of deep corruption are to be found. And the press, fortunately, is lazy.

The second layer: maximize the secrets and you maximize the conspiracy theories. Force opponents to guess what jiggery-pokery you're up to, and most of the guesses will be wrong. You can wait for three or four Bush-hating theories to grow around some covert policy, pick one of the ones that happens to be wrong, and let loose just enough information to debunk it. Thereby all the other "conspiracy theories", including the correct one, are discredited. Politicians and media alike grow wary of pursuing them, and concentrate on local highway projects or missing blondes respectively.

It has worked pretty well. There is, however, a downside for the burrowers in the dark. Once one of the conspiracy theories about secret X is verified, all the theories about secrets A, B, C, Y and Z gain credence, even the ones that posit corruption even worse than the real dog's breakfast you were trying to hide. As the truth about manipulated Iraq intelligence grows clearer, the public more disenchanted, and the media bolder, the day may come when the conventional wisdom will not rule even MIHOP entirely out of court.

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