It is the evening of March 8th, 1971.
At Madison Square Garden, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier meet in the ring for the first time. Billed as the “Fight of the Century,” this boxing match is often remembered as a cultural flashpoint; a singular event that became emblematic of the deep political and social divides of 1970’s America.
The bell dings. Their gloves touch. America’s youth culture and the silent majority begin to beat the absolute shit out of each other.
In a quiet Pennsylvania town, another historic event is taking place.
A Temple University religion professor and several accomplices jimmy the lock to an office building, slipping in under the cover of night.
The flickering static of black and white images exchanging blows on TV held captive any eyes that might have noticed flashlights penetrating the darkened halls.
Probing orbs of light merge into a single beam. In the dim glow, American civilians lay eyes for the first time on thousands of classified FBI files depicting the full history of what was––up until this moment––a top secret operation: COINTELPRO.
Since 1956, under the operation name COINTELPRO, the FBI had been systematically surveilling, infiltrating, and disrupting American political organizations that were deemed subversive. Why? An internal document signed by FBI head J. Edgar Hoover encouraging agents to step up the interrogation of anti-war activists and student dissident groups speaks for itself: “It will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”
Hoover wanted to induce distrust and chaos. If the ability to trust one another is fractured within an organization, accomplishing systemic change to any power structure becomes impossible.
The list of COINTELPRO targets included the standard milieu of left-leaning individuals and organizations including feminists, anti-war demonstrators, communists, and environmentalists. The list also demonstrated a striking focus on the African-American population, often bordering on the bizarre.
At one point every single African-American student on the Swarthmore college campus was under FBI surveillance. Again, from the mouth of J. Edgar Hoover: “I cannot overemphasize the importance of expeditious, thorough, and discreet handling of these cases. . . . Increased campus disorders involving black students pose a definite threat to the Nation’s stability and security.”
I could write a novel about COINTELPRO, and plenty of people have. Beyond invasive surveillance and counter intelligence operations, the program frequently fomented violence and even resulted in the outright assassination of American citizens. It is diametrically opposed to what America’s self-proclaimed values are. But that isn’t the point. The point is that all of this, inarguably, is factually accurate. This happened.
Despite the fact that this is a known event, it is still casually referred to as a “conspiracy theory.”
The conventional definition of a conspiracy theory is “a belief that some covert but influential organization is responsible for a circumstance or event.”
The fact that this definition fails to differentiate between whether this belief is grounded in reality or fantasy is a dangerous oversight.
COINTELPRO happened. So did the moon landing. You can easily verify that both of these events legitimately transpired.
When someone engages in the fantasy that Stanley Kubrick assisted the United States government in faking the moon landing on a soundstage in Calabasas, they are entertaining a conspiracy theory.
When someone educates themselves about COINTELPRO and the history of our federal government upholding white supremacist power structures through covert means, they are learning conspiracy fact.
Our lack of distinction between actual historic events, and what could essentially be boiled down to problematic folklore, is dangerous in how it affects both sides of the conversation.
First, it allows irrational ideas that are grounded in science fiction, and frequently bigotry, to flourish. If COINTELPRO, the Tonkin Gulf Incident and MK Ultra are referred to as “conspiracy theories that turned out to be true,” it makes actual conspiracy theories like PizzaGate viable by association, i.e., it’s just that they haven’t been proven true yet.
Second, it can make legitimate critiques of power structures easily dismissable. The longer that these historic events remain submerged in the murky depths of “conspiracy theory” the easier they are for the general public to ignore, or for those in power to dismiss as fiction.
America’s history of counter-intelligence subverting political movements has been thoroughly imprinted onto the popular consciousness, to the point where it is a frequent knee-jerk reaction to cognitive dissonance. When the January 6th insurrection in our Capitol occurred, it was only a matter of hours before social media was flooded with claims that the violence had been incited by ANTIFA infiltrators.
This notion has been thoroughly disproven, but conspiracy theories are notoriously hard to pin down and authoritatively refute. The fact that COINTELPRO can be pointed to as an example of one that has been “proven” is dangerous. And when authority is this unclear, and disinformation this rampant, mutual agreement upon the words we use and the connotations they carry is paramount.
Muhammad Ali lost the fight against Joe Frazier that night. He contested his loss, calling it “a white man’s decision.” His vocal criticism of white supremacy and the power structures it upholds were a major reason the United States government deemed him a dangerous individual, and a subject of COINTELPRO surveillance.
A key reason COINTELPRO was able to gain such a widespread surveillance network was due to loosely defined terms. What “subversive” or “agitator” actually meant didn’t matter. In fact, it was better that they didn’t really mean much of anything. The word was poison, and once you were deemed to be an “agitator,” you were an enemy in the eyes of the state.
When words remain nebulous and loosely defined, at best they lose their potency as a legitimate accusation. At worst, they can be used as a libelous shorthand to cast aspersions.
When the term “conspiracy theory” ceases to carry any meaning, how can we possibly use it to dismiss truly dangerous fallacies, and what factual revelations about those in power will we simply disregard?