Warmer: Do you always believe what you are told by your government? When something strange, unexplainable and/or fantastic happens, do you usually accept official explanations? Do you believe that there are many happenings from history that we haven’t been given all the information about? Do you think there are secret agendas affecting your life, country or even the world that we don’t know about?
Read the text below, and then answer the questions that follow.
What is a conspiracy theory?
Compiled from numerous articles by Roger Hartopp, updated 18 April 2020
Bear with me for the following paragraph. I know that it is a particularly sensitive issue with many people in Poland, and on more than one occasion has provoked arguments between Poles, especially those of a political bent. But I think it’s a good example of what this topic is about because, unless certain factors change, it’s not going to go away. So here we go…
On 10 April 2010, an aircraft carrying Lech Kaczyński, the President of Poland and his wife Maria, along with several important people, were attending an event marking the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, a mass murder of Polish intellectuals, politicians, and military officers by the Soviets during World War II, and not far from Smolensk in Russia. The plane attempted to land at Smolensk North Airport in thick fog and crashed, killing everyone on board. Conspiracy theories went into circulation immediately afterwards, such as being a political assassination, an act of war against Poland, or even an elaborate coup attempt, possibly orchestrated by Russia. The president’s brother, Jarosław Kaczyński, is a long-time supporter of the assassination theory. In 2012 and 2013, surveys indicated that at least one-third of Poles think it is possible that the Smolensk crash was an assassination. Fuelling the theories is the fact that to date, both the wreckage and flight recorders remain in Russian territory.
Conspiracy theories. They are the catch-all reason for anything strange, unexplainable, fantastic, or usually because of some kind of ‘missing link’ or evidence that would prove otherwise. Mysterious deaths of well-known celebrities (Marilyn Monroe?). The continual belief that Hitler didn’t die in a bunker in Berlin. According to how you interpret the cover of The Beatles’ final album, Abbey Road, there have been suggestions that this cover is telling us that Paul McCartney in fact died in 1968. (Check a website for the explanation.) Even more recently, one theory proposed that the 2020 Covid-19 coronavirus was actually a bio-weapon engineered by the CIA as a way to wage war on China (among many others, which are discussed in my official conversation lesson on conspiracy theories - see https://www.rogerhartopp.co.uk/english-conversation if you would like to join me for lessons). Others were convinced that the UK and US governments introduced the coronavirus as a way to make money from a potential vaccine.
But what exactly are conspiracy theories and how do they take form?
I’ll first turn to the Oxford English Dictionary for an explanation: a conspiracy theory is "the theory that an event or phenomenon occurs as a result of a conspiracy between interested parties.” (In other words, this is some form of agreement between a group of people which other people think is wrong or is likely to be harmful.) These acts and parties are generally the type that involves an illegal or harmful act that has been carried out by government or by other powerful actors. These parties are usually some kind of secret but influential agency that is typically political in motivation and oppressive in intent, and is responsible for an unexplained event. As a neutral term, "conspiracy" is derived from Latin con- ("with, together") and spirare ("to breathe").
So why do we have them? Well, people begin to formulate conspiracy theories to explain, for example, power relations in social groups and the perceived existence of evil forces. They often produce explanations that contradict what is generally understood as regards history or simple facts.
Although conspiracy theorists, particularly on the internet, are often dismissed as a ‘fringe group’, evidence suggests that, in America at least, there are quite a number of people who believe that there is something in many of the conspiracies, and this is across ethnic, gender, education, occupation and other divides. It is not limited to a particular group.
According to the political scientist Michael Barkun, conspiracy theories rely on the view that the universe is governed by design, and is made up of three principles: nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected. Another common feature is that conspiracy theories evolve to include whatever evidence exists against them, so that they become, as Barkun writes, a closed system that cannot be unfalsifiable – that is, something that is unable to be proved as being false, even if it may not be true. It then becomes, according to Barkun, ‘a matter of faith rather than proof’.
Conspiracy theories may have chiefly psychological or socio-political origins. Proposed psychological origins include a personal need to explain "a significant event [with] a significant cause.” However, some people prefer socio-political explanations over the insecurity of encountering random, unpredictable, or otherwise events that cannot be explained in any other way.
Although opponents of Jarosław Kaczyński would probably claim his obsession with the crash suggests a conspiracy theory of psychological origins, Smolensk appears to be a classic example of a socio-political explanation over an event.
Historically, the relationship between Russia and Poland has never been easy. At the end of the 18th century, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth ceased to exist, resulting in the elimination of sovereign Poland and Lithuania for 123 years. The partitions were conducted by Habsburg Austria, the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Russian Empire. When Poland became independent again after the First World War, it fought the Soviet army in 1919-21, inflicting a crushing defeat. Soviet Russia then invaded Poland at the start of the Second World War and split the country with Nazi Germany. After the war, Stalin had the eastern border of the country shifted west, with Poland losing considerable amounts of territory to the Soviet Union (much of it is now in Western Ukraine), and it wasn’t until 1989 that Poland was finally able to free itself from Russian influence.
There are many of the older generation who still remember the stories told to them by their parents of the horrors of the Second World War and the later Soviet influences that meant, for some forty years, Poland was effectively being ruled by Russia.
Because of this history, for many Poles, what happened at Smolensk cannot or will not be explained in any other way, especially if not all the evidence has been made available to Poland (despite Polish aviation experts going to Russia to look at the box and debris themselves). Indeed, ten years on since these tragic events, it is perhaps unlikely it ever will, even if the wreckage and flight recorders are made more easily accessible to investigators as hardliners will never be convinced that evidence would return untampered; in their minds, it’s all been in Russia for too long to believe otherwise.
1. Why is the Smolensk crash such a sensitive issue in Poland, according to the text?
2. According to the text, what are the reasons for conspiracy theories?
3. What is the definition according to the Oxford English Dictionary?
4. What three principles make up conspiracy theories, according to Michael Barkun?
5. What does Barkun mean by ‘conspiracy theories become a closed system that cannot be unfalsifiable’?
6. What are the two chief origins of conspiracy theory?
7. Why do many people prefer socio-political explanations?
8. What (possibly) makes Smolensk an example of a socio-political explanation, according to the text?
9. Why does the writer feel that some Poles will never believe the incident was an accident, even if the evidence becomes totally accessible?
to bear with me – to be patient with me, to consider what I am doing first before saying or doing anything. Bear with me while I try to establish a connection with our client in Milan.
political bent – to have a strong interest in politics and political issues, particularly if a person supports a particular political group. The debates about party leadership will interest those of a political bent.
elaborate coup – here, a sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of power from a government which has been very carefully planned and detailed. An elaborate coup was planned by the military, unhappy with the government sacking the army’s general-in-chief.
to wage war – to start a war against some other country or group of people in the form of military, economic or other actions designed to attack or destabilise. We need to wage war on benefit cheats; they cost the social services millions of pounds a year.
to occur – to happen. My allergy to pollen always occurs in the summer.
parties – here, people who are involved in a legal (or illegal) agreement. Both parties have agreed to further talks on the future of the organisation next week.
oppressive – here, an adjective to describe a society, its laws, or customs that treat people cruelly and unfairly. Many people see some governments in Africa as oppressive regimes.
to formulate – to make a plan or proposal that has been thought about very carefully. We need to formulate a new plan as to how we can get both parties to come to an agreement.
to perceive/perceived – to believe, believed. The English teacher was perceived as American because he was called Brad, but he was actually from Manchester.
Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth – a bi-confederation of Poland and Lithuania ruled by both the King of Poland and the Grand Duke of Lithuania
partitions – here, when a state was split into different independent countries or territories. The Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth came to an end when it was split into three partitions by Habsburg Austria, the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Russian Empire.