Issue #44, June 1999
A specter has haunted more than one continent this past year, the specter of Monica Lewinsky. Stories about Monica do not remain stories: they mutate into political facts and explanations. Repetition transforms and localizes stories, and another story emerges reinterpreted from the husk of its forebear. We live in an economy of stories where trading has been globalized, an economy where we seek the embodiment of power within these globalized mystery stories interwoven with images.
As the stories swirl, interpretation descends into conspiricism. Conspiracy lives within an empty shell of factuality, a shell that has long been deserted here by the self-sufficient simplicity of sexual attraction as explanation. Desire for an alternate world of cause and effect creates the image of conspiratorial desire, an image tinged with both attraction and loathing. A story of a secret and of desires becomes the story of how political power operates. Minimal factuality feeds maximal interpretive fantasy.
Monica Lewinsky is everywhere; she appears in the most unlikely contexts. According to news reports, in Serbia today both pundits and public graffiti repeatedly link Clinton, the current NATO bombing campaign, and sex with Monica. For insult, anti-war graffiti on a Montmartre wall in Paris reads "Adolf Clinton Aime Monica Chirac." For pseudo-analysis, in the words of one Russian tabloid, Moskovsky Komsomolets, Clinton's support for the Kosovo campaign stems from sexual frustration after ending his affair with Lewinsky. "Bill without Monica has become a complete beast" it declared, obviously forgetting Monica's testimony that the President held a telephone discussion of US infantry deployment in Bosnia while receiving fellatio. Even in her absence, Monica remains an explanatory power.
Lewinsky has become part of the fabric of hidden social meanings, as she has been ever since being first identified in the media. While American public opinion grappled with the implications of the Lewinsky-Clinton affair, opinion in the Middle East reinterpreted the story in a radically different form than appeared in the US media. We'll first examine Monica Lewinsky as the 'dark stranger' within American media imagery; then look at Clinton-Lewinsky in Middle Eastern public opinion; and lastly use that comparison to speak about conspiracism and political analysis.
Who is Monica Lewinsky? The American media have propagated concatenated images of her: a femme fatale, different from All-American girl power, and together with that of an abused but exuberant upstart. Behind these images lurks a suspicion: Monica is a stranger. Lewinsky does not belong to the genteel, self-controlled and rational "us," but rather is an external, alien presence; she constitutes a threat to a known and honored order, a menace to sanitized American politics.
Monica blazes with the energy of exotic sensuality: raven-haired and swarthy, thick-lipped with tons of diabolical lipstick. With her foreign, if not Gypsy mystique, she becomes an ominous Dark Lady. You can almost feel the musk-scented heat of the Bohemienne, glowing, drenched in perspiration. Lewinsky's erotic charm make her the Cosmopolitan Lady, easily suspected as a plotter. Photographs in the National Examiner depict her as a sultry dominatrix clad in a pitch-black dress with a necklace of pearls. Is she not an unmeltable Slav, ex-Soviet or a Jew? These elements represent superstitious, backward, and irrational force devoid of the internal conscience reserved for Protestants. No wonder that, in unison with Puritan prejudice, both the white militias and black extremists pigeonhole Jews, Catholics and sexual minorities.
With her elemental desire for sex, Lewinsky challenges pure America. The Dark Lady poisons the purest of the symbolically pure, the White House. She is also out to stain other national sanctuaries and, according to the National Examiner, invaded the "prestigious Smithsonian Institute" — the newspaper seems to mean the Institution — to "hunt for men." The National Examiner drafts her into a political bestiary as a "sex-crazed vixen," a woman "who would stop at nothing to satisfy her insatiable lust," and who — expanding into zoomorphization — uses sex to "keep her claws" in men. She is alternately a man-eater, a praying mantis, or just an immature nymphomaniac with her "oversexed teen's scheme." Monica's "non-stop stalking" gratifies her desire for power; she plots to "get the supreme representative of the People;" she becomes one of his "crutches;" and eventually "graduates from his seraglio."
The mystery and menace branded onto Lewinsky perpetuates itself far beyond the tabloids. If not as an aggressor, Monica appears as a freak in the tradition of attitudes towards strangers as the eccentric, the anomalous, the entertaining. Here belong the photographs by Herb Ritts featured in Vanity Fair: wearing a pseudo-imperial chiffon dress and an exaggerated make-up, she awkwardly smiles and embraces a pink poodle. A bestiarium theme re-emerges as the Monica kitsch matches the cheap glitz of the dyed dog. In traditional iconography a dog stood not necessarily for fidelity, but for dirty sex (as in the art of the Netherlands). A different, arch-decorous painterly quality dominates Annie Leibovitz's photos of Hillary Clinton for Vogue: high-brow, studied, sophisticated, reading (not a newspaper), brooding, doing nothing (not even smiling) in a more expressionless than nonchalant manner. It was a long way from the dowdiness of a "hyper law-student mode, intense and bookish" — Paglia's diagnosis — through the image of a Southern belle and into a regal serenity. The preciosity-ridden photos of the Christmas issue of Vogue are coupled with a boring, apologetic text that seems to sing an anthem: "Her Majesty Hillary I deigns to reign with clemency and style." What a contrast to the uneasiness and character of the parvenue assigned to Monica. Vanity Fair's jocular caption verges on the offensive: "We're stuck with her," comments the magazine on her half-wanted presence. Moreover, in a rare practice with style magazines, Vanity Fair hastens to publish a trial photo of Monica where she resembles a Stakhanovite (or Hillary before her public bloom): defeminized, if not beefy, with legs clumsily apart, clad in a modest, war-years ensemble, ready to fight, work, and be funny (the caption reads: "Employee of the Year").
For the media then, when Monica is not a beast, she is a comedian. An antidote to the everyday tedium of the mainstream, she fits that category which, as Hannah Arendt wrote, responds to the "demands of society, to be strange and exciting, to develop a certain immediacy of self expression and presentation [of] people whom society has always half denied and half admired." Eccentric, out of place, and gauche, Lewinsky became desirable because she was different, unpredictable and attractive. In what nearly amounted to a Year of the Affair, she was denied voice, remaining an aphasic statue, a suspicious mute, far from the chirping All-American girl power. Foreign words surrounded Monica's characterization. The New York Times used "zaftig;" Time described her as a "Schmosnia" kind of girl; journalistic coverage gave us her father's description of "my little farfel"; and readers puzzled over the Yiddish anatomy of Monica's "pulkes" to figure out just where family friend and attorney William Ginsburg had kissed her.
Barbara Walters extricated Monica's own schmooze and in the process over-acted her lack of understanding, not only for phone sex, but also Monica's out-of-control passion and irrationality. On a photograph to advertise the TV interview, a spectral, unpredictable, woman in black was juxtaposed with Barbara Walters in pale blue, an image of the reasonable and self-controlled American citizen. The implicit contrast was not hard to interpret: barbarian adventurousness versus propriety; ambiguous, lush pictorialism versus obvious restraint.
Walters manifested a deeply American faith in the objectivity and dispassion within the media, not only regarding public life, but in its reportage of private life. Through compassionate questioning and public confession, the effects of Monica's sensual intervention into public life might be controlled. If the entanglement of private and public life could not be reversed, then the Walters interview performance suggested that submission to a confessional examination could reveal the simple human-ness of history. Nathaniel Hawthorne might have scripted the conflict between evidentiary narrative and human passion embedded in the Walters interview. Monica, ethnic but de-ethnicized for the immediate appearance, was assimilated into an old American performance: like the mystery surrounding Hester Prynne, this mystery too could be resolved.
Conspiracy theorists have another version of this performance: they insist that the Beast was present, that it remains an animating force, and that it has a specific and exorcisable address. They have found the specter, the secret agent at whom it is necessary to spit repulsively even while repressing and denying one's desire. Their stories focus on an alleged subject and theories of causation which they perpetuate, whether using "right" or "left," "Western" or "Oriental" perspectives. When Hillary Clinton diagnosed the Affair as part and parcel of a "vast right-wing conspiracy," Monica's biographer Andrew Morton wrote that "these are sentiments with which Monica, in the front line of the war, entirely agrees." The "war" consisted of each side identifying, blaming and denouncing "malicious" and "evil-minded" forces — in the First Lady's version — or the "dysfunctional" and "sociopathic" — in the anti-Clintonite rhetoric. This moral struggle became an invisible contest for control of a society that was presumed not to recognize its own best interests. It is the patent invisibility of that cultural contest, together with a need for its simplification, that drives conspiracists into social reductionism.
Michael Parenti, one of the leading representatives of left conspiracist thought, argues in Dirty Truths that conspiracism and structural analysis are not mutually exclusive dynamics, and that political and corporate elites rely on often-hidden "planning" and "strategizing" as a form of conspiracy to maintain their power. To the contrary, conspiracism distinguishes itself from political critique based on structural analysis in that it privileges one action (even an actual conspiracy) within a multitude of acts that constitute the political environment. Historically, that focus has devolved on individual actors with stereotypical roles designated by gender, sexual, race, ethnic, religious or class markers. Domestic Monica is such a creature, one who diverts us away from a right-wing deployment of constitutionalism in the service of a rear-guard culture war. Domestic Monica served as a tactical gloss for this culture war, the location of an insidious internal corruption that needed illumination from the righteous.
That reductionist conversion into a social singularity relies on conceptual contractions, not perspectival expansions. The least complicated theory of human subjectivity is that advocated by Kenneth Starr. As Cynthia Ozick observes about his report-narrative, its motivation is one-dimensional. "All the President wants is 'fondling Lewinsky,' all that Monica does is 'seeking Clinton,' and all that Starr says is one obsessive sentence." The riches of personhood are reduced here to flat, stock characters. No one in the universe of Starr, including himself, has any inner life, dilemmas, dreams, or hesitations. Everybody is a closed circuit of public function and boredom. Paradoxically, it was due to a cruel investigation that human complexity returned when Clinton was seen as "a suffering individual" (Bobbie Ann Mason in The New Yorker).
Open ideologies expose a maze of humanity where good and evil, violence and benevolence, rationality and sensuous bodies mingle. Puritanism, by contrast, assumed a perfectionist vision of humanity and attempted to found a sanitized world. The Puritan interrogators of conspiracy today do not want to admit the openness of personality. Their monological view has been perpetuated not only by the "Independent" Counsel, but also by seemingly more independent political commentators throughout the political spectra.
The Egyptian city of Port Said celebrated today its spring feast in its special way, as it has manufactured dolls of the personalities they hate. In a huge public celebration they burned dolls of US President Bill Clinton and his alleged mistress Monica Lewinsky as well as burning a doll of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Clinton, who supports Israel, is considered the first US president whose doll has been burned by the people of Port Said, while Netanyahu's doll was burned last year.
— Egyptian news report, April 20, 1998
Conspiracism inevitably attends to the potentialities of ethnic difference. While there was occasional cross-over into the US media between the domestic and foreign versions of conspiricism — as in October 1998 when Louis Farrakhan suggested to a clearly startled Tim Russert on Meet the Press that Lewinsky was a Zionist agent — the Foreign Monica rarely appeared in the United States. Conspiracy reductionism thrives on local knowledge and commonly finds framing through pre-existing social conflicts. For Monica abroad, domestic allegations of vague social conspiracism become the springboard for foreign elaborations of the story.
Writing in February 1998 in Al-Ahram, Edward Said endorsed Hillary Clinton's characterization of the Lewinsky and Jones cases as a right-wing conspiracy. Said contextualized this within a nexus of American ultra-conservative forces, which he suggested had used the scandals to seize a weakened Clinton as hostage. Said concluded that "temperamentally and ideologically pro-Israel anyway, Clinton is not about to risk a full-scale battle with both the Christian and Jewish right-wing over a mere matter of Palestinian right" and he predicted a diversionary war against Iraq.
Said's analysis couched itself in an analysis of abstract political forces that had gained power by exploiting the fallibility of an individual leader. Clinton became the pawn of a divided yet monolithic bloc of right-wing Christians and their right-wing Zionist allies who were pushing him into a disastrous war scheme both to finish off Iraq and Clinton's own political career. Stripped to its central points, Said's interpretative essay for the Egyptian public offered a conspiracy theory of opportunistic warmongering, or a plan to kill Saddam Hussein and Bill Clinton with the same stone. Building from plausible political observations on American conservatism — for, in hindsight, the entire Clinton-Lewinsky affair was the manufacture of right-wing anti-Clintonism — Said hoisted the affair into the realm of international conspiracies, with Monica Lewinsky in an invisible supporting role.
Said phrased his political reading in moderate and rationalistic language in comparison to many other voices in the Arab press, beginning early last year when the story began breaking. His analysis of the Lewinsky affair situated itself within a lengthy spectrum in Middle Eastern public opinion, ranging from the attribution of an inchoate, opportunistic and indirect conspiracism to the positing of an orchestrated, targeted and direct conspiracy against Clinton.
Exemplifying this transition into specificity, a columnist in Syria's flagship government newspaper Tishrin asserted that the conspiracy's source lay in diplomatic tactics by the Israeli government: "Netanyahu pre-empted his visit to Washington by fabricating the sexual scandal against President Clinton so as to weaken his position and prevent him from exerting any pressure on him...Zionism has submerged the US administration in crises to force her to relinquish any effective and positive role in the peace process and has started threatening to oust President Clinton." The Arab press noted repeatedly that The Washington Post broke the Lewinsky story on January 21, 1998 when Netanyahu was meeting alone with Clinton for difficult talks (cyber-journalist Matt Drudge actually broke the story four days earlier).
Arguments in the Arab press for an anti-Clinton conspiracy varied between those who believed the scandal was generated in response to an emergent White House opposition to Israeli expansionism and those who viewed Clinton's misfortunes as political cash being converted by the Jews. The degree of unanimity concerning the existence of a conspiracy prompted one writer to observe that Arab analysts differed only on whether Israel's Mossad was behind the conspiracy or whether it was the responsibility of the American Jewish lobby. The former explanation finds currency in Gordon Thomas's new book Gideon's Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad, which states categorically that Mossad operatives taped Clinton's telephone conversations with Lewinsky and held them as a reserve blackmail weapon to prevent further searches for their White House mole, code-named "Mega." The latter explanation, assigning responsibility to American Jews, reverbrated with one Palestinian report alleging that the stained blue dress came straight out of the Anti-Defamation League's closets. Babel, Iraq's leading daily, blamed both Israel and the eponymous Jewish lobby, accusing them of conspiring to install a new and more pliable puppet: "The basic Zionist game plan has become clear.....that Clinton's scandal was aimed at replacing him with Vice President Al Gore from the Democratic Party who is known for his pro-Zionist stand."
Palestinian journalist Fawaz Turki critiqued this mode of conspiracy journalism in an Arab News essay entitled "Arab Conspiracy Theorists Run Amok," where he wrote of his contempt at seeing "...the public debate in the Arab media this time turn to a simple fantasy about Bill Clinton whose removal from office is being engineered by anti-Arab groups operating in tandem with the Jewish lobby in Washington...[We cannot] make our imaginations outfly reality or whimsically reorder that reality to make it conform to some delusional visions we harbor in the recesses of our so-called minds." Turki added with a sour, brutal and accurate note that "unfortunately, the West Bank does not mean so much to power brokers in this very powerful city that they would mount such an elaborate scheme."
News of Monica Lewinsky became a key explanatory device as Arab political comment grappled with its frustration at a lack of palpable progress given Hillary Clinton's favorable reference to Palestinian statehood in January 1998, together with the ever-poorer image generated by Netanyahu's unsuccessful visit to Washington and the Israeli government's stalling tactics against a second-round territorial withdrawal under the Oslo accords.
Major world leaders subscribed openly to the prevailing conspiracy theories. Referring to what was at that time still an emerging scandal, Rafik al-Hariri, then-Prime Minister of Lebanon, informed his parliament that "the Zionist lobby is twisting the arm of the president of the greatest country in the world." Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, which represents a quarter to a third of Palestinian opinion, concurred: "The Zionist lobby creates disasters for anyone who may cause it problems. It's aim is to prevent the U.S. president from exerting pressure on Israel. So they pushed him into a sex trap." And so, unable to escape the clutches of a Zionist oralist, poor Bubba found himself a sex slave to a Jewish dominatrix...
In an op-ed article in Filiastin al-Yaum, brigadier general Khaled al-Musmar of the Palestinian Authority government and a secular opponent of Hamas, echoed the same opinions: "Clinton has been bludgeoned into submission by a power which was clearly revealed in the Zionist American Congress which led to the terrorizing of the American President and the administration, through threats of sex and morals scandals which are disseminated by the obedient media in the US." Other senior Palestinian officials, like Bassam Abu Sharif, voiced similar notions.
Discourse of this sort makes intercommunal conflict the refracting lens that separates the narrative elements of this story in order to facilitate its retelling. Power — its presence, or the reasons for its absence — becomes the inevitable moral of the political storyteller, and sex becomes a cynical act of power. This, editorialized the rejectionist-front Hebron Institute, "is how we look at the circus in Washington these days, a circus with all Zionist actors entertaining the American people with sweet, sexy tales."
In these interpretive retellings, Clinton's sexuality represents the point of his subversion and control, the point at which political puppetry begins. This mode of historical explanation represents gains and losses through the erotic temptation of vulnerable men. It is hardly a fresh source of explanation in Middle Eastern politics. For example, in his autobiographical account and history of the 1952 Free Officers Revolt, Revolt on the Nile (1957), Anwar Sadat wrote that the two German officers he was hiding in 1943 were betrayed by two young Jewish women with whom they were found dead drunk, leading to his own arrest the next day for collaboration with the Nazis. After Camp David, when Sadat had become a respectable Nobelist and published an updated statesman's autobiography, In Search of Identity (1978), this traitorous pair had become de-ethnicized dancers.
Betrayal by an enemy slut, an everlasting version of Samson and Delilah, provides the basis for a masculinist conversion of sexual desire into an heroic and justifiable failure. The woman who gave too much pleasure to be resisted, and whose body is available, emerges in the end with a secret political agenda. The evil of her political masters finds a mirror in the evil of her body. Monica Lewinsky, in this antagonistic understanding, was no more than an enemy slut serving corruption on her knees. Bill Clinton was doomed from the moment he capitulated to Monica's enticements, because virtue, whether lapsed or absent, was his only defense against a far more profound and ancient corruption than his own.
On the opposite side, within Israel's theofascist settler movement, commentators heroicized Lewinsky's sexuality through biblicization. Given the weakening of the American presidency and a belief that Clinton was now unable to push for greater territorial concessions, right-wing Israelis compared Lewinsky to Queen Esther, the heroine of Purim who enchanted Persia's King Ahasuerus and prevented his wicked minister, Haman, from destroying the Jewish people. Salvation might arrive in regrettable form, but preservation of the Land of Israel was the greatest good. Using a double entendre, more secular Israelis joked that this news was only more evidence that Clinton would never turn his back on the Jewish people. One mainstream peace group, rather pitifully, erected billboards with a Hebrew message "We Support You, Friend" echoing Clinton's funeral speech for Rabin, "Shalom, Friend." Whereas Israel's right-wing annexationists rejoiced, its enfeebled peace camp lamented that secret sex meant an end to secret pressures. Israeli politics have pursued a lengthy decline into anti-rationalism; moreover, the moralisms upon which religious fundamentalism thrives have little personal meaning for Netanyahu, whose intra-party rivals several years ago leaked a videotape of Bibi frolicking in bed with his mistress. With a thirty-year occupation that can be justified only by biblicism, ethnic supremacism, and cumulative national psychic and budgetary investment, the political mysticism that generates susceptibility to conspiracism beshrouds Israel no less than its neighbors.
By attributing significance to Lewinsky as a locus of sex, ethnicity and political power, both Palestinians and Israelis acknowledged the ascendancy of the US presidency in the peace process, irrespective of whether they were antagonistic or welcoming towards that American presence and its outcomes. It is precisely this political assumption of American centrality that needs to be challenged. The Oval Office is not what determines the everyday lives of Israelis in the Mahane Yehuda market or Palestinians sitting unemployed at the Gaza Beach camp, nor does sex in the same Oval Office. Absent concrete evidence to the contrary, sexual conspiracism is a diversion into political anti-rationalism. A preoccupation with social absences and narrative lacunae, critical to Said's theory of contrapunctal analysis, emerges as another form of conspiracy theory. The evidentiary search for marginalized voices rendered invisible becomes conspiracism's search for an invisible and controlling marginality. And an absence of an identifiable central intelligence becomes irrefutable evidence of its presence.
But aren't there reasonable grounds for suspicion? Given that the Mubarak and Netanyahu governments resulted from successful assassination conspiracies against Sadat and Rabin, and that Assad and Hussein's totalitarian governments in Syria and Iraq emerged from successful politico-military conspiracies, a reasonable observer in the Middle East might easily believe conspiracy to be a feature of normal political life. Further, given that human nature functions with rough equivalence throughout human societies, why should we exempt the United States from the same form of political analysis? And the doors onto the search for formative conspiracies open wide...
Conspiracy obsessions are the end-time of the politics of reason, a nebulous world where explanations are the abject servants of faith. Conspiracism begins in the realm of empirical reasoning and then moves on to credit the unsubstantiated ends in a dark zone of exponentially-expanded interconnections and fantasized possibilities. It is a form of suppositional faith which legitimates preconceptions, often preconceptions that arrive with substantial evidence and truth. To assert that major business interests and the Central Intelligence Agency have played far too large a role in US policy decisions is one class of argument; to assert that Big Business and state security operatives conspired to assassinate Kennedy is quite another class of argument. The availability and non-availability of positive evidence separates the arguments. Any leap between the two relies on a faith that an invisible hand guides history, a faith that remains immaterialist despite its attempt to substantiate itself in a materialist history. That faith, in turn, encapsulates and expresses a visceral alienation, a reaction to the foreign-ness that Monica the Dark Lady embodies. Conspiracism is the unending pursuit of satanic animation to the world.
Why did Edward Said, in his profound sophistication, fall victim to a mild version of Monica conspiracism by characterizing it as political entrapment of Clinton? In discussing contrapunctal reading, Said writes in Culture and Imperialism that given an historiographically invisible history of anti-colonial resistance and the absorption of imperial facticity within cultural production, "we must therefore read the great canonical texts, and perhaps the entire archive of modern and pre-modern European and American culture, with an effort to draw out, extend, give emphasis and voice to what is silent or marginally present..." Thus references to Australia in David Copperfield and India in Jane Eyre become starting points for intellectual explorations of power and the appropriations of imperialism. Or, as Said continues, "in reading a text, one must open it out both to what went into it and to what its author excluded." This critical approach and its methodologies have generated a massive wave of cultural reinterpretation characterized by a new engagement with the subjects of narrative exclusion, or those who have been made invisible. It is one of the most ethical developments in cultural criticism, and one in whose practice we share.
The search for invisible subjects within ruling narratives or resistant discourses made invisible through colonialism, however, can be confused with an hypothesization of power's invisibility. Throughout its varieties, power remains manifestly visible, even if not transparent; indeed, power cannot ultimately instance itself without visibility. By confusing the invisibility of overruled subjects (Said's original sense) with invisible forces, channels or means of rule (Said's error), the emancipatory possibilities of counter-reading invert themselves: conspiracism now cannibalizes reason. Said and other participants in Monica Conspiracism seized on the private moments of two lives, revealed in the midst of a national panic attack over Presidential sexuality orchestrated by right-wing political forces, to reinterpret personal acts as aiding realizations of their political fears or visions. If Monica was an unconscious subject, under the terms of a relatively rational Saidian contrapunctal reading, her appearance might be believed to have created propitious circumstances for instigation of a major diversionary war. For less rational contrapunctal readings, those with looser consonance with facticity or plausibility, Monica was a conscious and evil agent seeking control of US policy as much as Clinton's dick.
Monica Lewinsky, in her humanity, became the invisible subject.
Imagining Monica Dreyfus
The idea of the subject underlying conspiracy theories is that of identity reduced to strict belonging to one and only one grouping. It was in the context of the Dreyfus Affair that Marcel Proust analysed the Hamletian dilemma as having changed into "to be or not to be one of them...the question is not as for Hamlet, to be or not to be, but to belong or not to belong." Proust's diagnosis of the change of being [ètre] into being one of them, belonging [en .tre] was developed by Hannah Arendt and Julia Kristeva and defines the human condition of today, although it was formulated around the time of the Dreyfus Affair where Proust was not only a witness, but also a participant. The logic of belonging forces us into the strict and unchangeable membership of a nation, gender, profession, sexual preference, of a "plot." What matters is admittance to a clan, an alliance which is to bring status, image and power over opinion. This is how we lose ourselves in the social, this omnivorous and reductive Blob, against which Arendt warned and where — to return to Hegel and Koj.ve — the dialectic of master and servant rules. Closing ourselves off from inner life, we enter a game of capital and spectacle, and a political order where politics is devalued and individuality is not only neglected, but absent.
Conspiracy theories plunge their adherents into a restricted realm of the social, as opposed to a public sphere of freedom which would cherish singularity. Conspiracism glorifies sameness — the same as "us," the ones who belong among our identity — and lives transfixed by fear, opposition and repulsion for the different. Social connections between the "ours" are looked for with elation and practised ardently, while the names of enemies, both in the past and present, domestically and worldwide, are filed away. Hospitality for the fellow-guests of this world is out of the question for conspiracists. Theirs is a style of insider knowledge, social bonding, exclusivist cultivation of togetherness, and the esprit de corps of followers. Conspiracy adherents stress the feelings of menace, embattlement, victimization, and demand the loathing of and resistance to any repugnant sect or "those people." To fight the "them," theorists and practitioners of conspiricism cannot but follow closely the alleged strategies of their putative rivals. Wars of words, moratoria on outsiders, and a "prosecutorial culture" (Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. apropos the Lewinsky Affair) are employed.
With speed and zeal, conspiracism reproduces by both budding and cross-fertilization, a Hegelian co-optation. Conspiracists enter a love-hate relationship and depend on each other in an ideology that needs and cannot survive the death of the enemy. There can never be one without the other. They absorb tricks in the detection and interpretation of the other and are unable to break out of encircling suspicions. The only objective of a conspiracist is to outmaneuver another conspiracist who turns out to be his double. Only the Manichean vision of the good "us" and the evil "them" is duly reversed. Both sides believe that they are acting in good faith and to make barbarians more similar to the "us." To discover the traces of conspiracy becomes an act of public benefit, which joins such disparate and multidirectionally opposed figures as Hillary Clinton, Edward Said, Ahmed Yassin, and Michael Parenti.
Conspiracies are then hatched to oppose and imitate conspiracies, spiraling ever-downwards towards the level of Stalinism and the Doctors Plot. An extreme semiotics emerges: each and every political development is taken as a sign of the conspiracy. Nothing is left as insignificant. Conspiracists desperately need each other for traces, exhibits, leaks, testimonies, or files of .minences grises whom they despise and adore. Theirs is a semiotics akin to such critical techniques as close reading, pla(y)giarism, intertextuality, and Derridean deconstruction, except that their use of these techniques is crude, uncreative and epigonic. Their analysis of a body of evidence centers on conspiracist readings, as if all roads towards understanding led only to this one possibility.
A conspiracist as omniscient ideologue identifies, reveals, or denounces the omnipotent villain. The detective-like objective is to exalt, enlarge and humiliate the allegedly all-empowered agent who is proven to weave webs everywhere in macro-and micropower, change the world into a Benthamite/Foucauldian panopticon, use the space for military purposes, and take hostage psyches and the collective imaginary. History and individual fate are to serve the One power-holder. He is the exclusive history-maker, a cruel world paterfamilias. Everyday reality is filled with imperialist traps, ambushes and torture-machines to make us into docile bodies. Such a vision not only characterizes extreme right thinking, but is also representative of Foucault, Chomsky, Zygmunt Bauman, and Said's "art of suspicions" and sociologies of invisiblized knowledge.
Whether conspiracism advocates "reasonable" sexual control or "liberatory" exposure, it is equally obsessed with Kabale und Liebe as they dwell on sex, erotic stereotypes, lovers spurned, and frustrations. In the view of conspiracists, perversions do not belong to their own territory, but to the foreign; hence the ascription of raving sensuality to Monica. A point of comparison here would lie in the medical discourse of von Krafft-Ebing who "diagnoses" an "abnormally intensified sensuality" in the others, in the Jews, as pointed out in the extraordinary analyses of Sander Gilman.
At the same time, conspiracy theories present themselves as those which cannot be more rational and empirically proven since their aim is to disclose "things as they are." Their mutual base is to be the chain of cause-effect, closed logic, and exposure of the tyranny of conventional logic, all of which sustain an illegitimate will to power. Their language of obviousness ("everyone knows that") leads to apparently common-sensical demands ("this is the only way for betterment") which are trapped in a militaristic thinking that divides the world into villains and good people ("this is their dirty war and our holy one").
In the canons of conspiracism, stories and images of the illuminati and the counter-enlightened are used to spark intellectual and emotional militancy, which can make very different ideologies strange bedfellows and comrades-in-arms. With a nose for perverse strangers, the voice of an emancipatory intelligentsia agitates for an end to all plots. But simultaneously, the erotic imaginary and seemingly rational framework of conspiracy theorists of different breeds quench a thirst for a least a little "perversity" and logic alike in the political spectacle. Thus the social phantasmagoria continues.
With the persona of a sharer of secrets and a gossipy friendship with Linda Tripp, Monica Lewinsky is not another Dreyfus. Yet like Dreyfus in fin-de-si.cle France, if ethnicity was nominally irrelevant to public issues of fact, it remained inescapably formative to Lewinsky's media representation. Conspiracism inevitably attends on the potentialities of ethnic difference, imaginary like any imagined communities and their menace. The thinking style of conspiracism makes only kith and kin matter, while the distant and strange are a little less human or eternal enemies. Instead of human ethos, ethnos becomes the leitmotif in the ever-multiplying image-ridden stories.
The Dreyfus case instanced a failure of French modernity to come to terms with a changing internal ethnos that contradicted purist understandings of national identity, a failure that France continues to repeat at this next turn-of-the-century in relation to its citizens of North African origin, newer "dark strangers." Representations of the Domestic Monica capture an American engagement with its own increasingly multiethnic self-identification. The contrasted nature of this identificational question was immediately apparent at the House Judiciary Committee hearings: an almost all-male and all-white Republican majority faced a vociferous Democratic minority composed of blacks, women, a Jewish homosexual and a couple white men. A new-old heterogeneity faced an older political hegemony: a once-foundational sense of the American political nation has been under prolonged challenge, and the Domestic Monica incorporates suspicions over the cultural outcome. Monica, simultaneously assimilated and yet alien to an older order, became a harbinger of its worrisome future.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the Panama and Dreyfus Affairs were presented as part of the threat of the international conspiracy in both rational and erotic terms, with Proust on one or Barre on the other extreme. As our century began with sentencing Captain Dreyfus to Devil's Island, it ends with desecrating or adulating the image of Monica in the corners of the globe, conspiratorially blaming her for all manner of evils or turning her into a heroine. The image of Dreyfus the spy continues to inform attitudes towards "the strange, the exotic, the dangerous...," quoting Arendt's analysis of French attitudes to the Jews at the turn of the century. When Lewinsky is portrayed as a sexual curio of the rootless internationalist tribe, the logic of sadomasochism toward the not "one of us," the not "belonging in here" starts its game.
Yet within the public workings provoked by the Dreyfus Affair, Arendt reveals a parallelism between the tricks of opposing camps, a "disturbing similarity between Dreyfusards and Anti-Dreyfusards." Both were in constant search and mobilization against secret centers of power: "a secret Judah and a secret Rome." The nihilism which characterized the nationalists was no monopoly of the anti-Dreyfusards. On the contrary, a large proportion of the socialists and many of those who championed Dreyfus, like Guesde, spoke the same language. When the Catholic La Croix remarked that "it is no longer a question whether Dreyfus is innocent or guilty, but only of who will win, the friends of the army or its foes," the corresponding sentiment might well have been voiced by the partisans of Dreyfus. The culture war that swirled about Dreyfus, rather than any facticity within the accusations against him, rendered a symbol of national passion into an invisible human. The fight over the Captain provided an opportunity for winning and hardening opinion, settling scores, and closing off dialogue. A war of stereotyped pictures, a clash of opposed contrapunctal stories, and a facile compartmentalization were practiced. Instead of a civil society, Gemeinschaft-spirited cliques and a siege mentality of political encirclements monopolized the scene. "Belonging" was the battle-cry. Zola, as a Dreyfusard and author of the open letter J'accuse, was portrayed by nationalist Maurice Barre as one of the uprooted: "It is fatal: deep inside — through his roots — he is not French because his father and a series of his ancestors are Venetian — he thinks differently from us."
There were suspicions that a romance of a high-standing official of France with a woman spy for Germany was at the genesis of the Dreyfus Affair. A series of cover-ups followed, first with the accusation of the Jewish officer, followed by accusations against Esterhazy (of Hungarian origin). The arch-serious Magazine Litteraire repeated this hypothesis of an ecran fume. in an issue marking the centenary of J'accuse. Both affairs, Dreyfus and Lewinsky, uncovered the forces of extremism, of refusal to compromise, of commitment to a belonging based in republican nationalism. Instead of fostering democracy as an everyday way of living in social polyphony, conspiracy theories decoyed public argument away from communication and negotiation. An intolerant reduction to sameness and national identity protectionism usurped the political arena. Obsessions with sexuality, national honor, and false public ethicism were driving forces in both Affairs. The quality of identification with and defense of those fallen from grace, the accused and the excluded, was equally lacking in each Affair.
In the unforgiving triangle of world police (Clintonites), sex police (anti-Clintonites who would otherwise be world police), and authoritarian police nations (Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic) whose revolution generates continual crises, we forget ourselves amidst conspiracy theories. But crisis does not stop at destruction; it can be creative, promising, and rewarding. Declines bring renovation, revival, and new life. When biblical prophets accuse Jerusalem of adultery and prostitution (Joycean Whorusalamin), they hasten to add that the city of sin will be saved. Augustine, too, knew the whirls of evil and realized that one does not reach the City of God without a spell in Babylon. These valorizations of crisis are not remembered by the pundits of American politics who are so fond of invoking both the prophets and the Founding Fathers; yet these same earlier visions of the perplexity of human nature, of humanity in perpetual crisis are disregarded. It is critical that politics and subjectivities become more elastic, heterogeneous and inclusivist. Politics based on frozen identity crystallizations, like the politics of conspiracism, contradict open and tolerant comprehensions.
Tomasz Kitlinski and Pawel Leskowicz, whose identities are mutating, interchangeable and possibly conspiratorial, are Fulbright scholars at the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies, New School University. They are available via Tompaul11@yahoo.com. Joe Lockard, an unitary academic narrator, is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective and can be found via firstname.lastname@example.org.