Roger Cohen has a typically thoughtful piece in the NY Times this morning on Dominique Strauss-Kahn Conspiracy Theory.
And now we have the Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual assault case, viewed, it seems, by close to 60 percent of French society as a conspiracy against the putative Socialist presidential candidate — a sting operation that somehow placed a West African immigrant maid in a $3,000 a night Sofitel suite whose number, 2806, corresponds to the date of the opening of the Socialist party primaries in France (06-28).
Oh, s’il vous please!
A rough rule goes like this: The freer a society the less inclined it is to conspiracy theories, while the greater its culture of dependency the more it will tend to see hidden hands at work everywhere.
France remains a nation of Napoleonic centralism where the functionary’s mentality holds sway. The ingrained reflex of that mind-set is to look to the state for salvation, to believe in some all-orchestrating higher power.
The nation’s world-class private sector, believers in agency rather than dependency, follows the old principle of “vivre heureux, vivre caché” — to live happily, live hidden — and thereby allows the functionary’s order to prevail as reference point. In this view, personal responsibility does not loom large.
Cohen moves in more rarified circles than I do; apparently he hasn’t noticed that, as free from Napoleonic centralism as we are over here, the “functionary’s mentality” holds sway in certain quarters as well. I have heard Americans–and fairly well educated ones, too–expressing doubts that Osama Bin Laden was really killled and that the president who claimed to kill him is even an American citizen. To my mind, it isn’t the root premise of the particular strand of DSK Conspiracy Theory that Cohen cites that jumps the shark, the mere idea that DSK might have been set up. Politicians have been set up before, after all. It’s its supposition that the people who set him up would have arranged to have him booked into a suite with such an ominous, telling number. Omens and cosmic ironies are essentially magical and our susceptibilities to conspiracy thinking and magical thinking go together.
I’ve called conspiracy theory a “debased form of theology,” but it seems to me that if Cohen wanted to explore the deeper connections between Gallicism and Conspiracism, he might have taken a closer look at Deconstructionism and Post-structuralism, which are premised on such very “decodings” (though they are ascribed to the innate properties of language and literary and cultural forms, rather than to Kabbalistic messages from the cosmos). Maybe the problem with the French is that they estheticize too much–they assume that the text of life is as elegant and economical as the text of a good piece of fiction, in which nothing is wasted–in which, as Chekhov famously wrote, if there is a gun hanging on a wall in Act One, it gets fired in Act Three. If a would-be French president checks into a hotel suite whose number is the same as the date of the presidential primary, then something fatal to his presidential hopes really should happen there. Literature is full of calculated ironies.
Conspiracies–small ‘c’ conspiracies, I mean, the kind that really are carried out by criminals and policemen and politicians and spies–are less replete with artful touches. That’s because their authors want to hide their presence, not advertise it.