The landscape Beyond Flat Earth: European Liberals vs Conspiracy Theories by Milosz Hodun entered in 2021 is a familiar one to those aware of conspiracy theories. While the COVID-19 pandemic turbo-charged conspiracy theories, the days of them being thought of as “harmless lunacy”, as Beyond Flat Earth contends, were already long in the past. The book aims to present conspiracy theories from various perspectives and demonstrate and present proposals for solving them. Published by the European Liberal Forum, a think tank affiliated to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe party, the book is entirely uncritical of the European Union and this is reflected in how it approaches conspiracy theories. This is not a tactical or even a nuanced support. It’s European politics as fandom, with less critical analysis applied than you would get from a pop culture fandom.
Beyond Flat Earth attack on conspiracy theorism is without any critique of power or any concept that conspiracy theories may arise out of material conditions. The decline of the organised working class in the West, and the implementation of austerity policies, go not only unremarked upon but completely unnoticed in all of the book’s essays. The book dodges complex arguments about how conspiracy theories arise and develop, and instead focuses on the low hanging fruit of debunking them. While this is not an ignoble aim in of itself, it appears unserious when what should be the intellectual vanguard of European liberalism is too timid to dig beneath the surface of conspiracy theories.
This lack of intellectual curiosity can be seen as early as the introduction, the book sets out its stall clearly. “Not only stopping conspiracy culture is at stake, but also protecting open democracy and the European Union itself. By the conspiracists Beyond Flat Earth is seeking to correct, the European Union is characterised as an “elitist” organisation, led by “inhumane bureaucracy” and is “the perfect surface for populist forces to project their conspiracy theories onto.”
There is no recognition in Beyond Flat Earth’s rebuttal that any of these arguments have a grain of validity. There’s no suggestion that perhaps the best way to undermine conspiracy theories about the EU would be to improve transparency and democracy within the institution itself. The idea that the EU is elitist is itself presented as being entirely without merit and just as much of a conspiracy theory as any other mentioned in the book.
One major structural flaw is the refusal to accept that sometimes conspiracies do exist. Often this refusal is partisan in nature. Watergate, COINTELPRO, the infiltration of police officers into the protest movement, are all, in the general sense of the term, “conspiracy theories”. But all of them happened. None of these are seen as worthy of mention. The authors prefer to focus on Reptoids, faked moon landings and other obviously laughable conspiracy theories than dare to address that our governmental structures may ever be anything but benign in their activity. This is also demonstrated in the way the authors lump all “conspiracy theories” together in a way that elides careful examination. This is well illustrated in the chapter ‘Conspiracy Theories AKA Alternative Cultures’ by Tomas Stawisznski:
This is precisely the link that UNESCO experts are unaware of, and that all of us who claim to be committed to rationality and science, who do not order bizarre books from small online bookshops, who do not belong to eccentric Facebook groups, who do not declare a desire to participate in conferences on the harmfulness of vaccines, on the MK Ultra programme or on the influence of the Bilderberg Club on the fate of the world, are often unaware of. It has nothing to do with a question of education or knowledge of the scientific method. Among the staunch creationists and believers in biblical literalism we watch in “We Believe in Dinosaurs” there are also people with doctorates in molecular biology – which demonstrates a truth that has long been well known: the human mind is so flexible that it can reconcile almost anything, including water and fire.
It is clear here that the intent is to treat all of the theories mentioned as equally absurd. The creationists and the vaccine conspiracy theorists certainly are. The former are motivated by faith and hence not open to fact based arguments and the latter reject all evidence of the effectiveness of vaccines to focus on deliberately distorted, or entirely invented, data about their supposed harmfulness.
Bilderberg is more complicated. Certainly it’s a favourite topic for the more stereotypical conspiracy theorists, who believe that world communism is imminent via the secret agendas of elites. But one might think that an informal networking event featuring “approx. 130 political leaders and experts from industry, finance, labour, academia and the media” and operating under Chatham House rules might be of relevance to those with an interest in democratic accountability. Especially when that event has political leaders and corporate lobbyists staying together in the same place for three days. Not for Stawisznski however. He sees the very idea of worrying about unelected elites as worthy of contempt.
Jon Ronson has mentioned in his book Them: Adventures With Extremists that many Bilderberg attendees find the conspiracy theories hilarious. I can believe they do. Not just because of the ridiculousness of many of those theories, but also because having people running around shouting about black helicopters is a very good way of making sure people don’t take those trying to talk about the unsexy business of the mixing of corporate lobbyists and elected politicians seriously. Much of the discourse about the World Economic Forum has followed a similar pattern, with wild conspiracy theories on one side and liberal minded conspiracy debunkers on the other. If the only argument happening is one between those who believe there are interdimensional demons intent on enslaving the world’s population, and those that don’t, any genuine scrutiny elites may face falls by the wayside.
Perhaps the most telling of Stawisznski’s examples is that of MKUltra. It undoubtedly sounds like a science fiction plot. The CIA operating an illegal human experimentation programme and operating on US citizens without consent, illegal torture camps overseas… The only issue is that MKUltra has been proven to be substantially true.
Hodun must know this. This theme keeps repeating throughout the book, as it states in the chapter ‘From UFOs To Conspiracy Entrepreneurialism’ by Wilbert Jan Derkson :
As the Cold War was defined by two opposing superpowers trying to undermine each other without resorting to direct confrontation, due to the threat of nuclear annihilation, it became a period in which espionage and intelligence gathering were integral parts of the US national security policy. Hence, it was in 1947 that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was founded with this goal in mind. During the Cold War days, its primary mission was to combat the communist threat worldwide, resulting in covert operations all over the globe. As the nature of the CIA’s activities required to be secret, it is no surprise that this organisation has taken a central role in countless conspiracy theories throughout the decades. It is now publicly known that the CIA has intervened in the domestic politics of numerous countries.
Take for example the infamous Operation Condor, in which the CIA conspired with a number of Latin American governments – often dictatorships – to prevent communist takeovers in the region that the US considered to be its ‘backyard’. This fact has been used by many anti-American governments today to accuse the US government of meddling in their domestic affairs. For example, the Venezuelan government largely blames their disastrous current economic and political situation on secret operations orchestrated by the CIA to destabilise the country. Next to the CIA, other controversial intelligence organisations such as the National Security Agency (NSA) were also founded during the Cold War era. Their legacy has caused the US government to be accused by US citizens and people worldwide of being the big antagonist in countless conspiracy theories.
There’s a strange lack of detail on what conspiracy theories Beyond Flat Earth is talking about here. The book’s cold delivery when assessing the CIA’s activities (which are by virtue of having existed more well documented than any of the conspiracy theories challenged in Beyond Flat Earth) demonstrates the book’s unwillingness to intellectually engage with the subject of conspiracy theories beyond debunking the more absurd ones. This encapsulates the problem with this theoretical approach.
Beyond Flat Earth is an anti-conspiracy work entirely stripped of analysis or even history. Conspiracy theory is bad. That’s it. This is not to say, to be clear, that conspiracy theorists aren’t an issue. Conspiracy theorists are a major issue for not just liberals but those to their left. Beyond Flat Earth will not be the final word on conspiracy theories, but it serves as a good reminder of how ill-equipped liberalism is to deal with the growing threat the rapid rise of conspiracy theories poses to liberal democracy.