Pitzer Talks Conspiracies in New Speaker Series

Dr. Kathryn Olmsted speaks at the first lecture of the Pitzer series funded by the Monroe Center. (Meghan Joyce, The Student Life)

What do Lee Harvey Oswald, the moon landing, and 9/11 have in common? They’re all part of giant government conspiracies to cover up the truth.

Last Tuesday, Sept. 12, Kathryn Olmsted, professor of history at the University of California, Davis, gave a lecture titled, “Just Because You’re Paranoid Doesn’t Mean They’re Not Out to Get You: Anti-Government Conspiracy Theories in American History.” It was part of a lecture series hosted by the Munroe Center for Social Inquiry at the Benson Auditorium at Pitzer College.

This year’s series, titled “CONSPIRACY THEORY – CONSPIRACY FACT: Understanding a perplexing social phenomenon” focuses on “conspiracy theory theory: the theory of conspiracy theories, why do people hold them, what are they, how best to understand the nature of this phenomenon,” according to Professor Brian Keeley, the director of this year’s lecture series.

A professor of philosophy at Pitzer, Keeley is personally interested in the topic this year.

 “Conspiracy theories as theories are kind of interesting, as they are the only type of theories where evidence against them is taken as evidence for them," he said.

Olmsted’s talk was the second of eight total lectures this fall. The series looks at conspiracy theories from various academic lenses, with scholars from fields as wide as philosophy, anthropology, political studies, history, journalism, and media studies sharing their research on conspiracies and conspiracy theories.

Olmsted described how she got into the whole business of conspiracy theories. After publishing her first book, "The Secret Government: The Post Watergate Investigations of the CIA and FBI," she “discovered there was this whole subculture out there: many, many Americans who believed they were the victims of conspiracies by the CIA and FBI.”

There was a lot of interest around her book, and people began to send her mail with their own conspiracy theories.

“I became very interested in the relationship between real government conspiracies and conspiracy theories about the government,” she said.

Olmsted described various conspiracy theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination, the CIA, and 9/11 before touching on a current topic: Donald Trump.

“Donald Trump got his start in politics by spreading a conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not eligible to be president because [Obama had] actually been born in Africa, and [Trump] gained a lot of his support as he ran for president by spreading conspiracy theories and encouraging his followers not to believe anything that the government said or that the mainstream media said,” Olmsted said.

Keeley also noted that conspiracy theories are especially interesting today, “particularly with this last election where both of the major party candidates had an important connection to conspiracy theories.” Everyone is, of course, all-too-familiar with Donald Trump’s tweets during the election, and in the 1990s, Hillary Clinton was part of a right-wing conspiracy theory during the Monica Lewinsky trial.

Conspiracy theories have especially gained traction over the past few decades due to a “recent erosion of trust in government and media,” Olmsted said. This is with good reason too, as the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandal and showed that the government did indeed lie over and over to the public. Additionally, the post-Watergate Church committee unveiled startling facts to the public, including the CIA’s attempts to assassinate foreign leaders and the FBI’s systematic spying on Martin Luther King Jr. 

So what do we do about it? Who can we believe? Professor Olmsted shared with us one piece of final advice before the end of her lecture, “To be skeptical, to hold the government accountable, and to ask the right questions.” 

A short Q&A session followed, allowing many of the community members and students in the audience to ask Olmsted any other questions they had.

The next lecture is in two weeks on Tuesday, Sept. 26, at 4:15 p.m. in Benson Auditorium. Professor Lee Basham from South Texas College will be presenting a talk titled “Governing by Crisis: How Toxic Truths Subvert Mainstream Investigation.” Both students and community members are welcome and encouraged to go.