Robin Yassin-Kassab

Inland American Conspiracies

with 14 comments

Amreeka March-May 2016 075

outside Colorado Springs

A shorter version of this piece was published at the New Arab.

From the canyon walls of Manhattan island to science-fiction California, coastal and urban America is more diverse and sophisticated than almost anywhere else in the world.

As for inland America, the stereotypes are true, but other things are also true.

In April we were travelling to talk about our Syria book, in New Jersey, then Boston, then over to LA. From there inland to Colorado, high desert at the mountains’ beginning where you can suffer sunstroke and frostbite in the same afternoon.

The cities here exemplify American modernity. They are clean, bright, spacious, and architecturally befuddled. At the same time they bear an emotional trace of the recent Wild West past. One of our talks was in a town called Golden (for the metal, and the craze), at the Colorado School of Mines.

Another was at a liberal arts college in Colorado Springs, a conservative city boasting a US Airforce Academy, lots of retired soldiers, weapons factories, and a concentration of evangelical churches. It also houses the 47-acre HQ of Focus on the Family, a media and lobbying organisation which militates against abortion and gay marriage and promotes creationism instead.

Before we spoke a woman came up and introduced herself as “an international poet”. She told us she cared about Syria very much. “And it’s so obvious what the solution is! An international Sunni-Shia peace conference.”

Later a crag-faced man pursued the same theme. “They have to solve their religious problems,” he decreed. “At base, this is about Sunni and Shia. It’s the same conflict that’s raged since the start of Islam.”

I tried to explain that the conflict at base was between a revolution and a tyrant, and it didn’t go back all those centuries, though of course powerful actors on all sides had instrumentalised sectarianism to serve their interests, particularly in the regime’s case, to divide and rule. Those in power will always exploit communal tensions when they need to disarm a challenge, and every society suffers such tensions. “In America, for example, there are racial divisions. Isn’t that so?”

A profound and lasting silence in response to my question. Wrong audience for this.

My co-author Leila overheard a conversation at a shop front. “That guy’s bringing Syrians in,” said one man, perhaps referring to Obama, under whose rule a mere 2500 Syrians have been granted shelter. “Well they won’t be coming here,” his companion replied. “And if they do we’ll soon make them wish they were back at home in Syria.”

In the city council, councilor Andy Pico had proposed a resolution declaring “opposition to the relocation of refugees to the city.” “We have a responsibility to our citizens to ensure their safety,” he said. “We need to be sure the people coming here have been screened.”

And so he did his bit to feed the election season hysteria that has cast every Syrian, every Muslim, every immigrant as a potential criminal or terrorist.

This version of WASP America was not at all comforting, yet we were staying with friends who didn’t fit the ethno-ideological bill, and who were happy living there, moving unharrassed within their own networks. It seemed to sum up America: even inland, very different people coexist. Communities and their subgroups, in one way at least, enjoy more autonomy than they would in Europe. There’s a suburb of Colorado Springs called Manitou Springs, once home to hippies, now less counter-cultural but still full of crystal healing shops and (legal) marijuana dispensaries.

Next we flew to Chicago, brutally post-industrial, wind howling between its towers. Between the gusts you can hear the ghosts of the proletarians washed up here from Poland, Russia, Ireland, the American South. Parts (not Downtown) looked like parts of London or Manchester. A kind of normality, as far we were concerned, until we caught the bus to Madison, Wisconsin.

We were hosted very kindly, and in way that seemed deeply protestant. “Thank you for your witness,” one woman told me, though she didn’t attend our talks and therefore didn’t know precisely what we were witnessing.

We gave a talk in a radical bookshop, then answered questions.

The first came from somebody who believed the United States had installed Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran. Another speaker focused on the New Yorker’s recently published report on documents incriminating the Assad regime in war crimes. “Why are they talking about it now?” she wanted to know. “They’re planning something. It’s boots on the ground, regime change, something…” This habit of thought – whereby the real torments of far-away people are dwarfed in significance and impact by the imaginary machinations of the only state that matters, the American one – is depressingly common.

A third speaker argued (against my cynicism) that you don’t need to believe in conspiracy theories, you only have to read the documents published by the Project for a New American Century. These writings call for Syria to be dismantled. Surely that’s the cause of what’s happening there now.

It’s a strange analysis that prioritises the fantasies projected by a neo-con, Zionist thinktank (which folded in 2006) over the current concrete acts of millions of Syrians (and Russia and Iran). Strange and part-way racist, as if white people’s (especially Jewish) words enter the cosmic fabric so inevitably as to determine brown people’s history for years to come. The writings, protests and battles of Syrians mean nothing in comparison.

That’s what I said in response. The speaker left the bookshop.

Our hosts took us for a drink, kept bending our ears. “Most Americans don’t realise that they live in a dictatorship,” one said, “that every move they make is being watched.” Someone warned Leila to beware of Amtrak (the train company), because once you’ve been in one of their carriages they have your image, they follow you everywhere. Someone else drove off in a car with ‘9/11truth.org’ stuck on its bumper.

A few days later Democracy Now, America’s flagship leftist channel, spent an hour sycophantically interviewing journalist Seymour Hersh, a man who can’t be bothered to make up sensible names for those who feature in his conspiracy theories (Hersh told Russian TV that Syria’s rebels are led by a group called ‘shawarma al-shawarma’, or ‘the meat sandwich of the meat sandwich’).

Of course, conspiracism is not just an American problem. After a talk in Montreal, Canada, a student approached: “Why didn’t you talk about the Rothschild bank?”

“What should we have said?”

“That the Rothschild bank controls all global finance, and Assad refused to do business with them, so they attacked him.”

Wrong on so many levels, I didn’t know where to start. I said something about Assad’s neo-liberalism, his obvious desire to do business with the world’s banks.

The boy’s reply was swift: “Why didn’t you talk about the Qatari pipeline?”

Neither is conspiracism an issue only with rustic, or poorly-educated, or youthfully enthusiastic types. The bourgeois-intellectual pages of the London Review of Books, at least when they treat the Middle East, are dripping with it too.

Much of the British left is convinced that the revolutionary communities of Damascus gassed themselves in August 2013, that there’s a Western regime-change plot afoot against President Assad, that Putin is the victim in the Ukraine, that the Turkish coup attempt was a false flag operation. It was the left which spread the idea that Syrian revolutionaries were ‘all al-Qaida’ before the right applied the slur to Syrian refugees. And the right is as prone to its hyper-nationalist and Islamophobic conspiracies as ever. To some extent the Brexit vote was mobilised by such myths as the supposedly imminent arrival on British shores of 70 million Turks.

Arabs and Muslims are notoriously vulnerable to conspiratorial thinking, in part because in a previous generation so much politics was actually done by conspiracy, and in part through intellectual laziness. It’s always been simpler to blame ‘the Jews’ or ‘the Shia’ for all ills than to actually address the ills. But not really simpler. Conspiracy theories don’t merely promote complacent inaction, they create new tragedies too. In north western Pakistan, for instance, where word spread that the polio innoculation was a UN poison to render Muslims infertile, a new generation has been stunted by the disease.

Perhaps there’s more excuse for conspiracism in regions where the people are subject to the traumas of poverty, dictatorship and war. If so, its increasing prevalence in the educated, prosperous West is more difficult to explain.

Could it be that technical and economic developments are undermining not just our political culture but even our intelligence? The huge expansion of media production, moving our fantasy worlds as well as our historical and personal memories onscreen and online, means we need use less of our brains. No need to remember a phone number or a line of poetry, no time to mull over a novel. We follow updates and let the algorithms do the thinking. Because most of us are more comfortable now with mobile phones and websites than books. Books are generally fact-checked before publication, while internet success is measured only in clicks. Books demand reflection and sustained concentration, an attention to nuance. With the new technology, by contrast, gratification – informational, emotional, sexual – is only a thumb-click away.

There’s nothing more gratifying than a total theory which explains the whole world in under a minute. And nothing easier. You don’t need to study detail, there’s no need for rigorous logic, not even for coherence. As with Trumpism (or Trumpery?), you only need a slogan, a meme.

The internet is growing into our collective brain. An internet search for ‘the illuminati’ provides almost 13 million results. ‘Syrian revolution’ comes up with about half that (and half of those will be conspiracist approaches). This is the problem we’re up against.



Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 9, 2016 at 10:50 pm

Posted in USA

14 Responses

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  1. good piece. as an English socialist (and leave voter!) I can only speak of my experience here but my feeling is that a lot of the rise of conspiracy among the left can be attributed to the collapse of the class based political forms that would have previously drawn these kinds of people in. A class based politics, even if often crudely used, does at least hopefully ground you in material conditions, trying to understand how and why people are where they are, trying to see wider forces.

    When that fell apart around about the 1980s (a good example is support for the Argentinian junta among some as a result of the Falklands War) there developed a more individualistic, identity based and neoliberalised politics. without an appreciation of class, it becomes that what is needed is to deliver the facts to people, the ‘truth’. This liberal politics is rife on the left here and also seems that way in the US. So what happens when these supposed facts don’t win people over (as is usually the case)? The liberal left declares – these people are voting against their interests! they’re brainwashed by the right wing media! the more right wing you are the less you are persuaded by ‘facts’! we’ve got studies about it! This opens the door to conspiracy, it’s not that our political approach is wrong, our view of the ‘facts’ wrong, our political solutions wrong and our lack of understanding of and contempt for those who aren’t swayed by our arguments that’s wrong. It’s down to a conspiracy that conveniently allows us to be right without the bother of winning any arguments or persuading anyone.

    One of the areas where this is strongest is the repulsive fake anti imperialism you identify, where without class, without solidarity, politics collapses into a mess of blather about sovereign states and international competition, individualised into picking political leaders to cheerlead. Ordinary Syrians (and others depending on the situation) vanish and all that remains are Assad, Obama, Clinton, Putin. In the conspiracy mindset, the US is more powerful so must be at the heart of the conspiracy, so we should support Assad. His accommodation with neoliberalism and the US torture regime disappears and those who oppose him must be entirely the agents of foreign powers, terrorists, etc.

    Without a class analysis, the alienated liberal leftist adrift in the ocean of their seemingly intractably right wing family members, co-workers, people in the shops, on the streets, the right wing media that’s consumed, gratefully grasps the crooked branch of conspiracy. I think you’re right to point to the internet – it allows the conspiracy theorist to get around their political isolation and circulates them around a self reinforcing swamp.

    The far right is similarly alienated (crank theories about a leftist/feminist dominated society), but we wouldn’t expect them to be on our side anyway.

    That’s my view at least.

    But thanks Robin for the work you and Leila al-Shami and countless others have done writing and arguing and helping to keep us informed on Syria. Your book is excellent and been invaluable to me, keeping me grounded in the struggles of ordinary people fighting for a better world. I’m not sure if it is reassuring or depressing to know that sections of the left are routinely wrong when it comes to revolutions (just look at the history of the USSR) but that’s the way it is. Let’s hope that in spite of the efforts and wishes of the fake anti imperialists that Syrians will one day soon have rid themselves of the regime.

    Sam Marsh

    Sam Marsh

    August 10, 2016 at 11:29 am

    • Thanks, Sam, for an excellent comment.

      Robin Yassin-Kassab

      August 10, 2016 at 11:43 am

  2. Welcome to ‘Murica, where our greatest ‘left’ intellectuals are hardcore conspiracists and the best friends of the Syrian revolution are … hawkish loons like John McCain or other Republicans.

    Have to dissent from the previous commenter re: the virtues of class-based analysis. Stalinists and Trotskyists both propound class-based analyses and yet both fall into insane conspiracy theorizing when it comes to Syria with most of the former claiming Obama is on the verge of invading Damascus to overthrow Bashar al-Assad while the latter either agreeing with the Stalinists or — in a mirror image of that view — claiming that Obama and Assad are working together as one hand to destroy the revolution and the FSA.

    A ‘class-based view’ of the world is still an ideology-based worldview and that’s where the trouble really begins. You’ve got to start with a reality-based view of the world before you figure out where class and all the rest of it fits in from there and you have to keep in mind that where all those things fit in constantly changes. This is the basic reason why folks like Charles Lister or Robert Ford are so much more analytically insightful on Syria than the dogmatic allegedly ‘class-based’ stuff you find on various leftist websites (even the pro-revolution ones) despite the fact that neither of them is a lefty or a Syrian.

    In some ways, people who aren’t leftists pick up on stuff leftists ignore or don’t find to be terribly important because their worldview/ideology/party line takes precedence over everything else. For example, I find it hard to believe that any American leftist could write a refreshingly thorough and painfully honest piece such as this because who but a pro-revolution and anti-authoritarian Syrian could really detail the massive, positively insane contradictions between what people in this country think is happening in Syria versus what is actually going on in Syria? How many Americans with a class-based worldview know what it’s like to be starved to death, barrel bombed, tortured for months or years on end by their own government? Probably zero, or close to it. And yet many of these ‘enlightened’ few have a fixed view of what is going on in Syria that can’t be swayed or modified even slightly by any amount of facts, evidence, thorough argumentation, or even testimony by people who actually lived through the events they think they know everything about.


    August 10, 2016 at 9:31 pm

    • without wanting to be too glib about it, if the sorry remnants of the Marxist Leninist current had a decent class analysis they wouldn’t be conspiratorial Assadists etc. The fact you wrote ‘allegedly’ class based sort of makes that point doesn’t it? In my view (and as I say, this is based on my experience here in England, can’t speak for more generally) they turned away from the working class a long time ago. iirc the late Ellen Meiksins Wood wrote a good book about it back in the 80s, The Retreat from Class.

      The CPGB degenerated into social democracy/liberalism (partially a result of their Popular Front obsessions I suspect) way before it finally disintegrated. Similar story with the Trotskyists – lost their bearings after the 70s heyday. It’s no wonder whatever’s left of these isolated groups end up in mad contortions today.

      I don’t see why you think a class analysis of society wouldn’t be based in reality. We live in class societies. It’s certainly useful for trying to understand Islamism and Assad’s neoliberal pivot for example. There’s a number of valuable points made in Robin & Leila’s book along those lines if I remember it right.

      But I do take your point generally on the failings of the left and its ridiculous dogmatism.

      Sam Marsh

      Sam Marsh

      August 12, 2016 at 7:50 am

      • What I’m suggesting is that most of the folks talking about ‘class analysis’ — even those who are on the right side of the barricades in Syria — are not actually engaged in genuine, open-minded analysis, following the facts where ever they lead, and being open to drawing conclusions that would force them to revise their sacred principles or political preferences. I think this becomes apparent when you study closely what they write about U.S. policy towards Syria, especially on the question of a no-fly zone or other forms of imperialist intervention that comrades like Robin and Leila (like the rest of the opposition and the rebels) have called for but they oppose. A perfect example is this polemic against imposing a no-fly zone on the regime written by a socialist active in the solidarity movement. This is not to say that there is any one 100% correct position on the question but it’s the method (or lack thereof) underpinning the position that tells us whether it’s a reality-based or ideology-based view. This is a much broader problem than this or that Marxist-Leninist or Trotskyist current in this or that country or even the overall “weakness of the left.” For example, Yanis Varoufakis, ex-finance minister of Greece — says the Gulf states fund ISIS and calls for such (non-existent) funding to be cut off, and he was elected and served in a governing, popular new left party. And he’s famous for his alleged anti-dogmatism/”erratic Marxism.”


        August 12, 2016 at 5:10 pm

  3. and thanks, RS. I agree with you. But still there are a few noble exceptions from the Western left tradition. Clay Claiborne for instance http://claysbeach.blogspot.co.uk/

    Robin Yassin-Kassab

    August 11, 2016 at 12:29 am

  4. Absolutely, there are certainly exceptions. My point was simply having an allegedly class-based worldview really does nothing to ensure that such a worldview is actually reality-based.


    August 11, 2016 at 2:24 pm

  5. RS, I’ve got no disagreement with any of that really, I think we’re basically on the same page.

    The only thing I’d add is that from what I know of him Varoufakis exemplifies the kind of leftism I was criticising in my first comment. Class politics, class solidarity disappears and you find yourself at the head of the state imposing savage neoliberalism. An all too familiar story.

    It not exactly to do with our discussion in particular, but I’d just like to share this great quote from Martin Glaberman I was reminded of recently if you’re not familiar with it, which I think is very apt in relation to the left and the Syrian Revolution:

    “It’s [essential] to reject the idea that nothing can happen until white workers are no longer racist. I don’t know what anybody thinks the Russian workers in 1917 were. They were sexist. They were nationalist. A lot of them were under the thumb of the church. But they made a goddamn revolution that began to change them. Whether there’s a social explosion or not doesn’t depend on any formal attitudes or supporting this particular organisation or that particular organisation. It may not happen. In which case we all go down the tubes”

    Sam Marsh

    Sam Marsh

    August 12, 2016 at 7:24 pm

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