The Theory that Can’t Be Disproven

In Jesse Walker’s book, he talks about how there comes a point in the life of a conspiracy theory when the absence of proof of the conspiracy is evidence of the conspiracy. So, like, if I came to you and was like “Why did you let them redesign the back of the penny?” and you were all “They redesigned the back of the penny?” under normal circumstances, that would be evidence that you didn’t let them do anything, because you didn’t even know it happened. But once we’re in the impenetrable fortress of the conspiracy theory, I’d be convinced that you were just faking not knowing that the penny had been redesigned and that they had told you to keep your mouth shut. How high does it go? How high does it go?

I’ve been thinking some lately about when I went to see Gordon Belt and his wife talk about Confederate religious beliefs and how Southern ministers would preach against the Confederate soldiers, even to their faces, because they were convinced that the only reason the South was losing the war was because of sinfulness in the Confederate camps.

When researching my upcoming Thanksgiving piece, I found a hilarious but terrible piece in the New York Times about how Jefferson Davis kept calling for these days of Thanksgiving, even as late as March of ’65 and the Times was all “How obvious does God have to make it that He’s not on their side?! And yet, here they go again, offering thanks to a Dude who has plainly abandoned them.”

This is something we don’t really talk about when we talk about the Confederacy–but it is yet another reason the people in power in the Confederacy should thank the gods every day that they did not win the war, because, in losing, all sins could be foisted off onto those Damn Yankees, but, if they’d won, there would have been a reckoning for how soldiers were treated while the powerful sat on the sidelines playing armchair quarterback.–but the Confederate military had a bit of religious cult to it. Soldiers’ heartfelt religious beliefs, which under normal circumstances brought them comfort, were used to assign blame on the soldiers for the battles lost.

But it’s a conspiracy theory, right? If only you act right enough, God will favor you with victory. So, if you don’t have victory, it must be because you’re not acting right enough. Not because God doesn’t make those kinds of deals. It’s an arrangement that can never be disproven. The absence of the favor of God is proof that God is withholding it until we act right.

The amazing thing is that this conspiracy still carries so much cultural weight. You’d think that, after something as traumatic as a civil war, when men must have known they were behaving how their pastors and commanding officers had told them to behave, they’d be suspicious of this idea that “the men” just weren’t godly enough. But no, rather than ever looking at who benefits from keeping you chasing your tail, striving for a goal that can’t be met, they look to the people who must have failed to earn God’s favor and heaped the blame on them for the loss.

And yet, we still have a ton of people in our culture who think God is withholding “victory” in some way until we’re all acting right enough.

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3 thoughts on “The Theory that Can’t Be Disproven

  1. Blaming the ‘soldiers’ is easier for an elected official than blaming the generals {at least the popular ones like R. E. Lee at Gettysburg for example} or accepting personal responsibility {in Davis’ case, many} bad decisions.

    It is a very human trait. The Old Testament prophets link various defeats of Israel to the people ‘turning their faces from God’ or otherwise displeasing Him. The Romans of the Republic looked for religious explanations for particularly disastrous military defeats. After the battle of Cannae in 216 BC there were public sacrifices of several foreigners. As late as around 208 BC there is a similar sacrifice of foreigners after a crushing defeat of a Roman army by the Cimbri and Teutones.

    This conspiracy idea is not restricted to societies where religion is a major factor. Revolutionary France and Russia have the same sort of conspiracy mindset when their armies are beaten or steel and food production didn’t meet expectations. This mindset fueled the Terror with a hunt for aristocrats and other traitors who undermined the Revolution. And many of the failures of Stalin’s regime were attributed to ‘wreckers’ who sabotaged the people’s machinery or improperly planted the people’s wheat.

    Conspiracies are a convenient tool of the establishment to deflect from its own responsibility.

  2. Southern ministers would preach against the Confederate soldiers, even to their faces, because they were convinced that the only reason the South was losing the war was because of sinfulness

    How did their heads not explode from the irony? The entire Confederacy was based on sinfulness. I’m just saying.

  3. when men must have known they were behaving how their pastors and commanding officers had told them to behave, they’d be suspicious of this idea that “the men” just weren’t godly enough. But no, rather than ever looking at who benefits from keeping you chasing your tail, striving for a goal that can’t be met, they look to the people who must have failed to earn God’s favor and heaped the blame on them for the loss.

    I can attest to the fact that this has continued far into the 21st century in some denominations, and I believe it’s one reason people fell so hard for those tent revival con men turned “televangelists.” Even if they *knew* they were following the commandments to the letter and walking right in the sight of God, that residual Protestant guilt and their tendency to look up to preachers as having a more direct line to God have made them continue to believe that they must stiil be Doing It Wrong because Preacher says so every Sunday (and Wednesday) without fail. The growth of the Prosperity Gospel (which seems to be an updated way for this century’s con men to justify *their* gold-plated doghouses) is even more proof. You’re not a good enough Christian or you’d make more money/have smarter kids/have a hotter wife, so come back next Sunday with your debit card and I’ll tell you again.

    Some days I’m surprised folks go to church at all. They just must have more trusting natures toward people (not God) than I do.

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