fpb: (Athena of Pireus)
For me, personally, the final evidence of the guilt of British criminal Hanratty, of anarchist Nicola Sacco. and of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg - however different the circumstances - have been a personal shock. They are the undeniable proof that people can lie even in the face of death and eternity, that claims of innocence from the scaffold are no more reliable than from any other point. The case of Sacco's fellow-accused Bartolomeo Vanzetti seems even darker: he was probably himself innocent, but he knew that Sacco was guilty as Hell, and he deliberately died with a lie on his lips, for the sake of his imagined revolution. (And to add a further taste of futility to his false sacrifice, the historical fact is that the only party who benefited from his and Sacco's executions were the Communists, who had organized all the protests against their executions, and who were sworn enemies of Vanzetti's Anarchists and would have murdered him a good deal more nastily if he had ever fallen into their hands.) But perhaps the most significant of these is the lie of Hanratty, because that had nothing of the ideological justifications of Vanzetti and the Rosenbergs. Hanratty was not fighting for any "cause", however bad: he was a rapist and murderer with no ulterior motives. And he declared his innocence right to the point of death with a passionate intensity that deceived generations of activists including myself.
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A couple of days ago, I reported on the worrying trends among the orthodox rebels in the American Catholic Church. One thing I mentioned was the unlovely sympathy of at least one or two writers in the Roman Catholic Faithful newsletter for Lefebvrite schismatics and their paranoid view of the world (e.g. Popes John XXIII and Paul VI were Communist sympathizers). Thinking about it, I think this has a bearing on the issue of how conspiracy theories come to be.

Roman Catholic Faithful arose, as a group, in areas where the intellectual and ritual malfeasance of the "liberal" infiltrators in the Catholic Church had reached epidemic proportion. The experience of genuine Catholics in those dioceses was of trying to push against a rubber wall, that always snapped back the harder you fought against it. It can, without fear of exaggeration, be described as an experience of persecution and conspiracy: those in power - parish priests, diocesan bureaucrats, vicars, bishops - coming together to deny the man-in-the-pew what was due to them as Catholics; and nowhere for genuine Catholics to turn, for the authorities just reinforced each other and excluded any opportunity of reform or even of orthodox practice (orthodox priests from before the era of current management were got rid of one way or another, and notoriously orthodox congregations left without a priest or even closed with the excuse of a "vocations crisis" which the establishment itself had engineered). No doubt the generation in power did not regard this sort of thing as a conspiracy, just as vigorous executive action to enforce a progressive attitude. But try telling that to the person who cannot even get a hearing!

So the founders of Roman Catholic Faithful experience something which is, from their point of view, pretty indistinguishable from a conspiracy. They feel smothered by a group of men in power who work hand in glove with each other to force on them things they do not want and deny them even the shadow of justice. Then it develops. These rebellious faithful go to Rome; and for some reason or another they are disappointed. And they come to believe what their own enemies have told them (I quote)): "Rome will let ten thousand priests be shot rather than hurt one bishop." It is nonsense, of course. But they have had such an experience of constant rejection and ignoring that they take it seriously.

What happens to the mind of these people? That they project backwards, into an imagined past, the conspiracy which they feel to exist (and which, in some manner, does exist - at least as a convergence of interests and beliefs that leaves no space for opposition) in the present. They feel that if a conspiracy exists, then it was born as a conspiracy. They do not realize that it is often objective conditions that lead to such convergences of interests and beliefs. And they do not believe that, in so far conspiracies may have existed, they may have been penny-ante items taking place locally, not vast things that involve the world. This is part of a patter of historical ignorance. To them, the Church at present is what they experience, there and then, in Springfield or Rochester or Albany; but the Church in the past is the Church of the Popes, one single entity existing in Rome. Thus they assume that the current state of their diocese has a chain of origins that begins in Rome. They ignore purely local factors: they know nothing of how their church was fifty or a hundred years ago, or how certain local events in places such as New York or Philadelphia may have affected them.

But the basic element is the retrojection of present experience into the past. This is how conspiracy theories are born. It is an aspect of a greater feature of human thought, that events always create their own prehistory in people's minds. Like those interpretations of Russian or German history where everything concurs to the ultimate result of Communism or Nazism. It is a state of mind that I find inimical to good history, but there are a lot of historians who consciously or unconsciously cultivate it.


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June 2017

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