Take the case of explaining the past two decades of US “free-trade” schemes among countries in the Americas: FTA, NAFTA, and soon FTAA. These schemes began with two nations, then three, and soon four and more. The first was the 1989 Canada-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA) which set the subservient conditions of member nations to US economic dominance. The essence of the FTA is that US corporations get unrestricted commercial rights and resource ownership in Canada, and in exchange, Canada gets to obey US trade laws.
Why would Canadians have agreed to this? Well, we didn’t, but historians would explain it by saying something like, “Globalization made Canadians choose free-trade.” Conspiracy theorists would say, “Don’t be naive. Look at the facts.” In a decade of political opinion polls, and in three consecutive national elections (1984, 1988, 1993), a majority of Canadians had consistently said that they do not want American “free-trade” schemes. How has it happened that such a clear, strong democratic decision by so many millions of Canadians could be overthrown?
In the 1984 and 1993 federal elections in Canada, the successful parties had explicitly campaigned against free-trade, but when elected they reversed themselves. The 1988 vote was also not straight: of the two anti-free-trade parties, the minor one in mid-campaign began to attack the leader of the major one. It is reasonable to see such facts and to surmise that orthodox explanations are not the real explanations.
Let’s look in the library to see what can be found. From 1976 to 1979, more than a decade before the FTA, US Ambassador Thomas Enders was crisscrossing Canada promoting free-trade. Who was Thomas Enders? He was hired by the US government in 1958 as an “intelligence research specialist.” In 1969 he was in Yugoslavia, in 1971 Cambodia. His jobs there were to rig Lon Nol’s election and to use a local intelligence network to pick villages to be bombed by B52s in President Nixon’s secret war. From 1976 to 1979, he was in Canada weaving a web of political and business connections to promote the American version of “free-trade.” In 1981 Enders became President Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, working on the invasion of Grenada and the illegal proxy wars against Nicaragua and El Salvador. One of his jobs was to coordinate operations with Oliver North and Duane Claridge, head of the CIA’s covert operations in Latin America.
Considering these facts, which is more likely—that Enders was in Canada promoting free-trade as some kind of personal hobby, or that he was under orders, promoting free-trade as one more operation in a career of covert operations? At the time, Quebec’s populist premier, Réne Lévesque, said of Enders, “He’s the bum who launched the bombs in Vietnam. He’s a damned spy. He must be working for the CIA” (quoted in Lisée, 1990, p. 207).
The idea of NAFTA first appeared in public in 1979, to everyone’s surprise, as Ronald Reagan’s core policy when he announced his candidacy for President. But, curiously, it was then never again mentioned in his campaign. In 1979, Reagan’s campaign was run by Michael Deaver and Paul Hannaford, who reportedly also ran a public relations firm that represented the right-wing Guatemalan group Amigos del Pais and its leader Roberto Alejos, who had provided the ranch used for CIA training of Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion forces in 1961. In early 1980 William Casey became Reagan’s campaign director. Casey began his career directing OSS espionage operations in Germany and China in the 1940s, and he ended his career as director of the CIA. It is not common for US presidential candidates to be so managed by those so linked to covert operations.
The information in the proceeding two paragraphs comes from library sources. “Free-trade” comes from the dark lower bowels of Washington sometime in the early 1970s. It seems to have been conceived and promoted, in part, by conspiracy rather than by forthright democratic processes.
This exemplifies how conspiracy theory arises: 1) significant political or economic events change power relationships in our society; 2) contradictions are noticed by ordinary citizens in the explanations of these events; 3) concern and curiosity are aroused; 4) further information is sought under the presumption that power is being abused and deception is being deployed. Most of the evidence discovered is circumstantial, as it must be when investigating conspiracies.
“Free-trade” was definitely not the democratic choice of Canadians, and maybe not of Americans or Mexicans either. There is a history waiting to be written about these “free-trade” schemes. Orthodox, school-book historians will probably not write that history, and mainstream journalists will not dig it out. Conspiracy theorists might. (Did anyone notice that the NAFTA treaty was not legally passed by Congress as a treaty?)
Conspiracy theory has a special focus on contradictions, discrepancies, and missing facts. The natural sciences similarly seek to find faulty explanations by focusing on facts that don’t fit the orthodox explanations. If we want more truthful explanations of events, whether of scientific events or of political and historical events, then we must compare competing explanations.
One explanation usually fits the available observations better than the other. By the principle of fit, the explanation that encompasses more of the observations should be preferred. This principle can favor conspiracy theories. For example, one gunman cannot shoot a bolt-action rifle as fast as the shots were fired at JFK. The vast majority of eye-witnesses heard shots coming from different directions.
We can discover mis-explanations and find better ones by focusing on the facts that don’t fit. For example, Galileo concluded that moons around Jupiter are discrepancies to the then-orthodox geocentric theory. Galileo was called a heretic for writing that. Mark Lane’s book,Rush to Judgment, includes hundreds of facts that did not fit the Warren Commission’s conclusion that a lone gunman killed Kennedy. Lane was called a conspiracy theorist for writing that.
The pejorative force of the “conspiracy theory” label comes from its ad hominem attack on the author’s personality. It is true that conspiracy theory authors doubt the orthodox explanations and suspect that there are other explanations for events. Such doubt and suspicion, which is the same kind of doubt and suspicion as motivates many scientific discoveries, gets labeled paranoia.
Think for a moment. Most of the US population believes that a conspiracy, not a lone gunman, killed JFK. A society could not function if that many people were “paranoid.” That word is pure pejorative. Real paranoia includes: 1) fear, 2) of a prominent person, 3) whom you think threatens you personally, 4) using invisible means, like the evil-eye, x-rays, or laser beams. Conspiracy theory entails doubt and suspicion, but that is far from clinical paranoia. For example, I believe the Iran-Contra conspiracy theory, but I have no emotion of fear, certainly no fear that Oliver North is out to get me, using invisible rays of some kind.