The Clinton Conspiracy Test

I once got into a flame war with a 9/11 truther. It was totally by accident. He had stolen the email distribution list from one of my colleagues and had sent me some nonsensical garbage in which he “proved” mathematically that concrete floors have the same air resistance properties as a silk parachute. I fell for the bait and challenged his absurd equations. He questioned my ethical integrity while proceeding to steal my distribution list. Fortunately, tech support was able to shut him out of our system, and that was the end of it. But it did get me thinking about conspiracy theories and their followers.

I grew up with a lot of conspiracy arguments. The biggest ones involved the Kennedy assassination. That event, a very traumatic one for my contemporaries, spawned an entire industry of books, movies, and TV shows dedicated to “the truth.” From Castro to Sam Giancana, no one was exempt from being a possible part of the plot to kill Kennedy. I’m surprised Walt Disney’s name didn’t get dragged into it. I read and dissected the evidence for each argument. They all contradicted each other except for universal bashing of the Warren Commission Report. After many years I came to the following conclusion: either no one really knows what happened or the Warren Commission got it right.

In my lifetime, many true conspiracies have been uncovered. Exhibit A is the conspiracy to falsify justification for the Vietnam War. This is especially relevant since Bush used the same playbook to drag us into Iraq. The conspiracy to falsify votes to get Kennedy elected is another one. The Watergate conspiracy is yet another. My favorite is one that didn’t get uncovered: the Jimmy Hoffa case. As best as I can tell from official and unofficial inquiries, Hoffa’s probable assassins are dead, and the person most likely responsible for their deaths is also dead.

This led me to my Clinton Conspiracy test. I don’t pay attention to any conspiracy theory that can’t pass this test. It’s simple, really. For any proposed conspiracy, I consider three things:

1. How many people know the truth?
2. What are the costs for each of them for keeping the secret?
3. What are the consequences for revealing the secret?

I call it the Clinton test because it is the clearest example of how conspiracies can unravel. Only two people knew what went on in the Oval Office closet—Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski. Clinton had everything to lose and nothing to gain if the truth got out. Monica, however, was another story. First of all, she had little to gain by keeping quiet and plenty of  incentive if her secret was revealed. So she blabbed to Linda Tripp. She had to brag to somebody, anybody. It’s like criminals who boast of their exploits on Facebook or Instagram. Tripp was about to get fired, so she recorded Monica and tried to use the info to keep her job. Only Tripp’s boss saw more career advancement in blowing the whistle than keeping a secret. From two people to three to four to the whole world. Thus did the most powerful man in the world get exposed for being exposed.

Contrast this case with Hoffa. Although we don’t know how many people were involved, they fit into two groups—those who ordered the hit, and those who carried it out. Prevailing wisdom states that those who did the deed were themselves silenced. But either way, the price for talking is death. Those who ordered the hit face the same consequence. Hoffa had friends who would avenge his death if they knew. Therefore, we have no solid evidence as to what happened. Nor will we. The Clinton test assures us of it. This simple test guides us in evaluating everything from 9/11 to Obama’s birth certificate.

It also helps to consider what consequences provide the best motivations to conceal or reveal secrets. These are fame, money, and life. Consider the Area 51 conspiracy theorists who argue that the government has alien bodies stashed away in a freezer in New Mexico. At least one scientist would have had access to these bodies. The reward for revealing proof of alien life would be a Nobel Prize and long-lasting fame. What scientist, or freezer mechanic for that matter, would keep such a secret? Area 51 fails the Clinton test. The same is true for 9/11. The number of people, particularly military, who would have to keep quiet numbers in the hundreds if not thousands. And military honor codes ensure that some of them would talk. The fact that the Army couldn’t keep what happened at My Lai out of the papers is proof of that. Same with Abu Ghraib. As long as we have military academies and their honor codes, conspiracies involving the military will get uncovered.

All of this makes the current conspiracy story about the Jade Helm military exercises in Texas worth considering. First, because even without the Clinton Conspiracy test, it is ridiculous. Even Ted Cruz thinks so. And second, because of what this tells us about conspiracy supporters. For those who haven’t heard, this theory claims that the government will use suppression of an ISIS threat to Texas to swoop in and declare martial law. Obama will then use his executive powers to grab everybody’s guns. Or something like that. It’s hard to follow because so many versions of the story keep circulating. Some of them are even being promoted by Texas officials, to include the governor. We all know a significant number of military personnel live in Texas. Some of them still revere the Confederate flag and would spill the beans in a heartbeat if such a conspiracy were real. Yet so many people in Texas believe in the Jade Helm conspiracy that the Pentagon had to issue a denial. Why do they believe a story over evidence?

Part of the reason is our brains are hard-wired to reject anything that doesn’t match our internal dialogue. So once people embrace a narrative like “the government is evil and will stop at nothing to promote its socialist, black helicopter, UN, or fill-in-the-blank agenda,” they reject any evidence to the contrary. That’s why the antivaxxers cannot be persuaded by evidence. They think the government and big pharma are locked in a secret deal to make money. They imagine that everyone in government or industry is evil. They believe in an us vs. them binary universe. They cannot believe that many people who work for governments and companies have integrity and would never be complicit in plots that would hurt innocent children. Facts do not matter to conspiracy enthusiasts. They feel good because they know the truth while we “sheeple” are led astray by the evil ones. As for me, we can adopt our thinking patterns from Robert Kennedy Jr. or from Bill Clinton. One way feels good. The other way feels right. Real truth is a choice. But it requires the belief that there are actually good people in the world anywhere you look. And that is just too scary for some people to accept.