The Trouble with Conspiracy Theories

The trouble with conspiracy theories is that nobody believes them. You have to be cracked before you take them seriously. Let me give you a couple of examples.

About a thousand years ago for me, back in 1967 or ’68, my five children and I took part in a peace march that some college faculty members, colleagues of mine, had organized in the city where we were then. The march was in honor of a visit to one of the local universities by Fr. Daniel Berrigan, S. J.

The leaders of the march included a Jewish English professor who was then on my doctoral committee at a local university and some other teachers whom I knew on area campuses. They nailed some anti-war demands up high on the door of our Catholic cathedral and then had the group march quietly back and forth in front of the church during Sunday Masses on this beautiful May morning.

My boys and girls, then ages 7 to 11, thought that being a part of all this was a lot of fun. The kids carried signs which some of our fellow marchers, nuns, had lettered. “No more war. War never again,” one said. My oldest boy had a sign which read, “When I grow up I want to be a conscientious objector.”

But when the 10:30 mass had concluded, a little episode occurred. A middle-aged woman who had attended the Mass, a stranger, spied our little family group with its signs and walked rapidly toward us. She swooped downward at my Matt who was then age nine. The woman grabbed little blonde Matt by his upper arms and drew him close to her face where she shook him hard.

“You little Communist:” the woman hissed wildly, and then she rushed on.

This incident shook me up, naturally. Just shortly before it occurred, I had begun to have misgivings about this particular protest march, my first. I had learned that the marchers planned, later that morning, to file through the sanctuary and interrupt the noon mass.

Now I was not much of a Catholic in those days. I was being seriously tempted to separate from the Church. But I was not about to disrupt the Mass, any Mass anywhere, to promote this or any other earthly cause. And so I had determined that the children and I would leave this event early. But at no point had it occurred to me that there might be an element of personal danger in what we were doing.

Matt was sobbing and so I soothed him. “She was just a crazy lady, Honey. Don’t cry.” And so the incident passed.

Driving home a little later I still felt unsettled by it, though. I decided that the children and I had just met, in the flesh, that Little Old Lady in Tennis Shoes that media journalists and my academic friends always made such sport of. And she was indeed exactly what everybody always said she was: A nut.

Some four or five years passed before I met this crazy woman at close quarters again. And then it was not she whom I had dealings with but a kind of duplicate of her. I was still a single-parent mother and the family breadwinner. But this time I was alone, sitting in my faculty office at a city college where I was in process of losing everything that I had struggled for career-wise for a dozen years — my associate professorship, my academic tenure, and the teaching job that was my only source of income for the family, this in a city where available teaching jobs had all vanished.

I was not in very good shape on this day that the second lady showed up. In fact I was in a state of stupefaction as the result of a long emotional and professional nightmare which had spanned the preceding two school years. During that period my life, already straining to carry the two-parent load, I had been relentlessly beat upon by the various interviews, memos, reviews, appeals, hearings and whatnot that must be resorted to by professionals who find themselves the target of a well- organized dumping movement or “purge.”

And at about midpoint in that same period, I had endured an agony which would have left me bewildered and numb, even if there had been nothing else going on to distress me. I had been notified by letter that my doctoral program, which after three years of concentrated study and passing of preliminary exams had finally reached the thesis stage, had been mysteriously terminated.

On the spring afternoon that this intense lady called on me at school, I was just days away from the exhaustion collapse that would pitch me into a local hospital for a week during the time of the college’s graduation ceremonies. But there she was, casting a wary eye around us as if the walls had ears (they did) and then slipping into the straight chair beside my desk.

She reached across to touch my hand lightly and spoke very low. “You don’t know me, Barbara, but that doesn’t make any difference. You will see that I’m a friend.”

I must have frowned or shown some other resistance to the intrusion, for she eagerly offered more. “Look, I know what’s been going on here with you — the threats, the bomb scares, the stealing your mail and disrupting your classes, all those torments you’ve had.”

I wanted to interrupt, to demand who this strange and knowledgeable lady was. But she rushed on, ever keeping a sharp eye on the door. Now she squeezed my hand.

“You must, must come with me to testify at a session of the State Legislature. There are a couple of members of the old House Unamerican Activities Committee who are still active. They’ll . . . “.

“No:” I burst out now. However the problem was not that my visitor’s suggestion lacked merit. Even though by that time I had been punched almost senseless by adversity, I saw the overall appropriateness of what she proposed. But I still lacked the wherewithal, the stamina, the strength and will to act.

In fact, the mere thought that after everything else I might have the bad luck to become a public figure, a storm center of controversy who would get ogled at on the evening news, filled me with an unaccountable dread. People no longer testified anywhere about the activities of Communists. It was unthinkable.

“Oh no, don’t ask me to do that, please,” I begged the stranger.

She paused, plainly desperately disappointed, then made one final try. “But, dear, you simply must do something to get help. You don’t have a husband to turn to.” Urgency made her grip on my hand tighter. “You’ve been just terribly brave to take them all on. But you can’t possibly win this alone.”

I kept silent and let it roll over me, but she leaned even closer. “And these people are ruining you. They will stop at nothing. Surely you’ve seen that. Try to think of your children.”

“The Dean!” My visitor had reared back, wide-eyed. “The Dean,” she squealed again. “Oh you poor thing!” The stranger reached over to grab me by my upper arms and pull me halfway around to face her. “Don’t you know? He’s one of them.

With that the strange woman disappeared, but not before scribbling her phone number on a slip and pushing it at me. I never called that number. But like I say, that was not because, like before, I considered the woman to be cracked. It was rather because I myself was cracking. I could do no more. I was finished, doomed to ride out the situation until it crashed.

I would go through with the interview with the Dean, hoping against hope, hoping for some last-minute miracle, and be disappointed. For the Little Old Lady in Tennis Shoes, as I had discovered at great cost since the time of that earlier peace march, was incontestably, undeniably right in her vision of our national circumstances. Only because my spirit was ravaged and sick did I fail to rally to her call.

How I Aged So Fast

Now it would be interesting to trace all of the ins and outs of what happened to cause me to become, in my late thirties, and while I was still wearing knee boots and hippie jewelry, a Little Old Lady in Tennis Shoes. In other words, a crackpot and crank. I have in fact put the whole story in an unpublished and unpublishable (unthinkable) account that gathers dust in my files.

In the present context I need to give the gist only. It is that on an ordinary teaching day in 1969, I chanced to overhear a faculty colleague of mine, a white man, telling a monstrous lie to some of our black students. This was a lie that would almost certainly lead to bloodshed. Shocked and puzzled — for this was at a time when we were marching for civil rights as well as for peace — I started quietly to observe carefully, and then analyze, the activities of this professor and a woman colleague of his who was always in accord with him at our many meetings.

“But wait now,” I interrupted eagerly. “There’s still a good chance I may save my contract. I have an important interview with the Dean on Monday. I feel certain that in view of my good record here, and all my publications, and the high marks my students just gave me in a survey, he will . . . “.

A couple of other teachers did the same thing, as I was to learn later. They took notice and then thought very hard about that duo who were so astonishingly skillful at getting into power positions on campuses all over our big

city, not only on our own. But I alone took the bold further step, the one that the careful analysis and my own moral integrity demanded: I opposed the pair politically. From that, everything else followed — the terrorism, the preternaturalization of events, and the wiping out of my future as a career academic.

The details are unimportant here. What really matters is not the process by which my awakening happened, but the reasons why it did not happen sooner — why, in short, my wising up, my emergence from darkness into light, took so infernally long. If we come to understand that, we will understand, as well, not only why traditional teacher types like me have become rarities in the nation’s colleges. We will understand precisely why the West as a whole — I trust I do not startle anybody — is doomed.

II. How I Became Paralyzed

The problem was, and is, as I have implied above, that the conspiracy theories we have are incredible. One’s mind simply cannot make them “work.”

Let me bring that down to cases. In my own struggles to understand exactly what it was that my private reflections had unleashed against me in that multi-campus college, I kept finding my path to insight blocked by this one massive and unbudgeable fact: What was going on in my days could not possibly be taking its directions from some foreign capital — Moscow or Havana or Peking, say. Not even armed with some wizardous master computer could the head of the KGB or some other terrorists force be controlling the events on my private scene.

For the conspiracy that had suddenly swung into action with the aim of ruining me was at once too small and too big for that. It was too small in that all of its components — the people, places and events taking part in it — were familiar and local, definitely “made in the U.S.A.” And at the same time, the conspiracy was much too vast in that it was obviously being supported and encouraged by the national media and by political and intellectual movements that were ongoing in all parts of the world.

I stayed perpetually dazed that what the IRA were doing in Londonderry, and what was happening between warring tribes in Africa, could work directly against my chances to make my rights to tenure hold firm in that very ordinary public college at home. Meantime — and this was the really mind-blowing part — my private thoughts, the plans and strategies which I had shared with no one, were often known in advance by my enemies.

And so, chilled beyond motion, I stayed trapped for precious months, for over a year, plodding along the treadmill reaches of the syllogism that I had concocted for myself out of some Thomistic habit of mind picked up during my Catholic schooling:

1. The Communist conspiracy is directed by foreign agents.

2. What is happening around me is plainly under local inspiration and direction.

Therefore: What is working against me is not a Communist conspiracy but only a local power grab.

Looking back on that baffled period now I am amazed at the naivety and blindness that characterized a presumably bright woman. For I was indeed in process of being knocked out of the action, as this entire nation was and still is, by the coordinated efforts of some exquisitely trained subversive agents. And I could have seen and understood that easily if, during those years, I had just been a better Roman Catholic than I was.

Is that a surprising twist? It should not be. For it is to men and women of faith, not to worldlings who instinctively trust their own and others’ human powers, to whom precious insights like the following are given:

For it is not against human enemies that we have to struggle, but against the Sovereignties and the Powers who originate the darkness in this world, the spiritual army of evil in the heavens. (Ephesians 6:12)

In other words, if I had been reading my Bible, instead of some “demythologizing” critiques of the Bible by trendy theologians; and if I had re-read the full translations of the key encyclicals of the modern popes, instead of relying on the false or tampered Papal statements which the disinformer journalists, moles, slip into the wire services; and if I had really prayed with faith, thus gaining consolations for myself and a power-edge over my teacher enemies — I would not have been so dumb, so vulnerable. At the very least I would have constructed a better syllogism:

1. The Communist conspiracy is directed by agents of foreign governments in collaboration with local subversives.

2. The conspiracy which is working against me is too total to be of local and/or foreign inspiration.

Therefore: The conspiracy which is working against me is pan-national, supra-global, transcendent, supernatural.

Why I Could Not See

In relation to the whole myopia problem generally, I feel moved to record that with me as with most other liberals, it had its roots in that habit of mind that I share most characteristically with my fellow Americans. This is my rational and scientific bias.

As a people we Americans get called pragmatic, and we are that. We tend to be both practical and positivistic. We are certain that we are acting most intelligently when we are acting rationally and with complete emotional detachment upon matter or data which is observable and quantifiable.

Now all of that makes us the least likely nation in the world to discover a conspiracy at work in our midst. Conspiracies are by their very nature un-isolatable, indemonstrable and virtually unseen. So when we are truest to form, we Americans have about as much chance to spot the agents in a Red conspiratorial apparatus as swooping seagulls have to spy fish in a city’s sewer system. We look for the wrong shapes in the wrong places at the wrong times. We do not even know what to look for, since another trait of Americans, over-confidence, makes us look down on “scare literature” — unless perchance it relates to material concerns (health, crime, finances, food supply, etc.)

This foolish blindness to immaterial and covert realities is less severe among less educated (less rationalistic) Americans, and it is at a minimum among convinced super-naturalists, which is what devout and committed Christians are. The reasons ought to be obvious. Where a genuine spirituality is in the picture, much more of reality is admitted into an individual’s mental processes and taken seriously by him. Hence unseen and hidden realities like conspiracies are not beyond imagining. Literary history soon teaches one that the spiritual intelligence is generally keener than the other kind and makes shrewder and more accurate moral judgments.

So that is why I largely blame the weakness of my Catholic faith during the period under review — the weakness being in me, understand, and not in the Faith — for my failure to wise up earlier and, once fully aware, to make a better showing. For if I had then been fully under the sway of traditional Catholicism, the faith of my childhood, rather than that liberal Catholicism, Catholicism for the small-faithed, that was washing through our days then, falsely claiming legitimacy, I would have vaulted easily over, or around — or burst right through — that aforementioned unbudgeable fact which had my poor brain stopped cold.

The conspiracy was at once local and cosmic, commonplace and stupendous — just plain eerie — was it? Then (I would have reasoned in my informed believer’s way) it could not possibly be operating on earthly energy alone. It had to be getting supernatural assistance. And I would not have had to re-read Pius XI’s “Atheistic Communism,” with its grim warning about occult forces (para. 18), to figure out that the fantastical intelligences directing it all were diabolical. The frightening paranoid climate that we were all living in at that college then — in days full of suspicion, class warfare, confusion, vandalism, accusations, personal betrayals, violence, rebellion and a hundred forms of double-dealing — was already proclaiming that fact loudly. With faith unstopping my worldling’s ears, I would have heard it.

But as it was, the conundrum factor, the conspiracy’s peculiar box-within-box makeup, successfully prevented my penetrating it. Likewise has this factor long shielded America’s internal enemies. For if one wishes to figure out how the contemporary conspiracies “work,” and to see clearly the pattern of their overlapped coilings and uncoilings and their calculated dormancies, then one is almost forced to become part of them.

This foolish blindness to immaterial and covert realities is less severe among less educated (less rationalistic) Americans, and it is at a minimum among convinced super- naturalists, which is what devout and committed Christians are. The reasons ought to be obvious. Where a genuine spirituality is in the picture, much more of reality is admitted into an individual’s mental processes and taken seriously by him. Hence unseen and hidden realities like conspiracies are not beyond imagining. Literary history soon teaches one that the spiritual intelligence is generally keener than the other kind and makes shrewder and more accurate moral judgments.

So that is why I largely blame the weakness of my Catholic faith during the period under review — the weakness being in me, understand, and not in the Faith — for my failure to wise up earlier and, once fully aware, to make a better showing. For if I had then been fully under the sway of traditional Catholicism, the faith of my childhood, rather than that liberal Catholicism, Catholicism for the

Whether one does this as a terrorist or a fifth-column activist, or only as a dedicated counterforce, a patriot, the effects is the same. Action brings the revelation. The thing being so subtle, that is the only way. To be a naive dupe nets no light at all.

Unless one lays hold of the small but explosive bit of information that we are moved to offer here: This is that the worldwide Marxist revolutionary effort — so shambly of organization, benign in certain of its aspects, attempting to fuse a number of irreconcilable elements, and with its fortunes linked to the military and economic successes of certain key states — is not the main conspiracy.

That movement is but a comparatively respectable-looking cover or screen — a front, if you will — for the totally malevolent and stunningly well-organized diabolical conspiracy behind it.

It is this infernal hookup between the two covert conspiracies that the cracked ones see, the “religious nuts.” Cracking, I finally saw it too. The cracking was no more than the splitting of my secular humanist’s thick skull against the monstrous evil at the center of our times, the force that our President has recently called the “focus of evil.” (March ’83 speech to the Evangelicals.) A mere observer of events before, I became a kind of stunned seer.

Back On My Feet Again

All that I write about here happened years ago, of course. I am middle-aged myself now. I have not yet bought my tennis shoes, or joined the Blue Army of Our Lady, though I suspect that I shall do those things eventually.

Naturally I am full of dread for my children and grandchild. Give and take a little here and there, my five have been dazzled and taken in (as I was at their age) by the liberal-humanist vision. But unlike me, they have never been lovingly nourished by the only counter force in the world that is suitable opponent to this monstrous thing — namely, that body of clear and unambiguous teaching that delivers grace to human souls, Catholic Truth. So my poor kids have no way in the world to know that this poisoned air we all breathe now is not the only air there is.

I worry also about some younger Catholic friends of mine. These friends are the ages now that my own former college students would be, and their mindset is so like mine of years ago that I squirm with embarrassment for them, even while my alarm for their spiritual safety increases. These younger Catholics — most are married couples or idealistic priests in mind career — have during the past couple of years been under considerable pressure to merge their ranks, which are dominated by Pro-Lifers, with those of the resurrected peace movement.

Non-Catholic peace activists appear to have used on my Catholic friends, and fairly successfully, an argument from “consistency”. This compelling line holds that to be Pro-Life automatically requires one to be anti-war, antinuclear arms, and, ultimately, strongly opposed to the Reagan Administration’s foreign policy vis-a-vis Soviet and Marxist governments worldwide.

My friends for some reason do not detect the fallacious logic which has been employed in order to convince them that to be Pro-Life is, ergo, to be anti-U.S. And small wonder that they do not, when a majority of U.S. bishops have been similarly taken in by the moral arguments of activists from the Red front groups. Our time is not — to put it blandly — an age of light! It may turn out that when the Catholic metaphysics toppled in our universities, that was the truly fatal hour. After that the West itself was done for.

To me this spilling over of the Catholic Pro-Lifers, children of the Kingdom, onto that other turf, the World’s, looks depressingly familiar. And it is the pristinely cerebral or “spiritual” approach of the secular activities which gives away the sinister character of the new morality game. It appears to be time to warn the faithful. The naturalist zealots are messing with the real Catholics again, and the devils are off in the shadows somewhere, grinning their administrative approval.

Yes, tell all the People of God. It’s Here-we-go-again time on the steps of Catholic cathedrals everywhere. So perhaps, after all, it is time for me to buy my tennis shoes. Inevitably — for now they even have the support of bishops — they will think of marching through the sanctuaries during the sacred mysteries. And this time I plan to be there — to fight.


  • Barbara Nauer

    Barbara Nauer manages Words 'N Pix editing and design services in her hometown of Peoria, IL. She is retired from a 35-year teaching career in universities, colleges, and K-12 schools. Ms. Nauer has held teaching appointments at St. Louis University, Southern Illinois U., Loyola of New Orleans, Webster College, and community colleges in several cities. Her free-lance writings have appeared in National Review, Wanderer,, New Oxford Review, and more. She has authored two books, Rise Up and Remember (Doubleday, 1976) and Jimmy Swaggart: Dead Man Rising (Glory Arts, 1997).

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