Have you ever found, in looking up the phone number of someone with a very common surname, that the letters forming that name gradually tend to lose their resolution and sense of being letters, instead falling back to a state of pure black ink, blank graphics on the page? Something similar happens to words as conceptual objects: in its most extreme form, we call the result a cliche, which ultimately is a phrase that evaporates thinking in lieu of hardwired thought-associations. It’s not only cliches that shunt thought into these grooved ruts of mental habit; words and terms we normally think of as merely descriptive can also fall into them. Such words or phrases need to be retired, or re-employed in ways to refresh their capacity to bear meaning – a process much harder to accomplish than to describe.
Such a fate seems to have overcome the word conspiracy – which now primarily evokes anxious folks in the darker corners of libraries, scribbling to the very edges of the pages of faded notebooks or fulminating in a public square about the nefarious dealings linking the Knights Templar, Elvis, and the judges on American Idol. Hillary Clinton was having a rhetorical bad-hair day when she uttered her infamous line about the “vast right-wing conspiracy” – had the proper neural conditioners been applied, the tangling of her mental circuits that allowed her to use the word conspiracy would have let her know that, to be taken seriously, nearly any other word would be better suited.
And predictably, the media – which never met a cliche it didn’t like – jumped all over her. Yet, words aside, it should be perfectly obvious that what she described is real. Because all a “conspiracy” really is, is an organized effort to get something done, with an accompanying effort to keep others in the dark. That there was an organized effort against Bill Clinton is numbingly obvious and impossible to deny; that it was “vast” depends on your definition, but certainly that effort involved more than a small handful of people. And that it was primarily drawn from the right (despite the existence of a significant anti-Clinton bloc on the left) again is ox-stunningly obvious.
Yet (old-school Variety headline to follow) the “vast conspiracy” remark became a frequently returned-to landmark in the game of Pillory Hillary, Grill Bill so popular in those years. And the simplest way to shut down discussion of any action that isn’t solely down to one person (that is, discussion of nearly everything that matters) is to accuse the speaker of buying into “conspiracy theories” and claim that, hey, it’s not as if all those people got together one day in a smoky room and unilaterally decided to, say, fail to mention labor history in nearly every school textbook. The assumption is that the only way things happen, other than flowing inexorably from the will of one individual, is through a movie-stereotype, secret, all-controlling, never-seen agency. Note also that results achieved by the organized efforts of your side are never described (by you) as a “conspiracy” – even if a degree of confidentiality (i.e., “secrecy” to everyone else) made those results possible.
“Conspiracy,” in other words, is another term by which the discussion of large-scale social and historical forces is ruled out of court.