Nota bene: In case people aren’t familiar with my work (which is quite possible), let me state for the record once again that my use of the terms “conspiracy theory” and “conspiracy theorist” are not meant pejoratively. I define a conspiracy theory as “any explanation of an event which cites a conspiracy as a salient cause” and conspiracy theorist as “anyone who believes a conspiracy theory”. My work to date has centred on showing how using general, non-pejorative definitions of “conspiracy theory” and “conspiracy theorist” allows us to analyse the wider class of conspiratorial explanations and show that our suspicion of conspiracy theories is not warranted. Why not read my book and find out more?
I am about to say something very annoying and it’s all Lee Basham’s fault: I am not here to render judgement about whether you should believe Ben Rachinger’s conspiracy theory. Rather, I’m here to shine a light on the epistemic issues. If you come away from this post with an opinion about the theory’s truth or falsity… Well, bully for you!
Why am I saying this? Well, it’s because I increasingly see myself more as someone who talks about how to talk about conspiracy theories, rather than an arbiter of whether said theories are warranted or unwarranted. It’s all Lee’s fault; he has been pressing me to keep to a studied agnosticism for s whole and just focus on providing people with a toolset and I’m finally convinced. My thinking conspiracy theory x or y is warranted doesn’t necessarily tell you that you should believe x or y. Rather, by explaining my reasoning and illustrating the necessary tools, you can come to your own conclusions. My role really should just be the whole teaching critical thinking about conspiracy theories, and we need a lot more of that than we need the whole “Person like Matthew tells you what you should think about this particular conspiracy theory!”
So, let’s talk about the Rachinger allegations, shall we?
In short, Ben Rachinger, a former Young Nat (more on that in a subsequent post) got involved with Cameron Slater, aka Whale Oil, aka Canon Best Blogger award winner, aka a co-conspirator in the #dirtypolitics scandal of last year. Rachinger was either co-opted or volunteered to get involved in a spot of dirty politicking but eventually got cold feet about it. You can read about his exploits at Medium (and/or a decent summary of the findings to date at Carrie Stoddart’s blog here and here).
The whole point of the #dirtypolitics (which was named because it came out of Nicky Hager’s book, “Dirty Politics”) reveal last year was to show how elements of the National Party were using Cameron Slater and Company to attack the Opposition in order to make the Prime Minister, John Key, seem like the kind of guy who only says nice things and doesn’t engage in attack politics (a strategy that only works because hardly anyone watches Parliamentary TV and thus they don’t realise just how nasty that nice Mr. Key is in the debating chamber. He literally is someone who laughs at the notion children are going hungry). I reviewed Hager’s book at the time and found it to be mostly good.
Rachinger’s allegations about his particular role in the #dirtypolitics saga provides more evidence of those dodgy dealings. On the face of it, they are quite damning and show that, on some level, the publication of “Dirty Politics” did nothing to stop #dirtypolitics. Still, before I go into full fisking mode of Rachinger’s claims, let’s take a step back and look at the landscape under which these allegations are being made. To do that, we unfortunately need to talk a little bit about Ben Rachinger.
Rachinger is, unfortunately, his own worst enemy when it comes to presenting and defending his case. The material up on Medium comes across clearly and concisely; it makes for interesting reading. However, Rachinger does not take criticism of his narrative well. For example, Carrie Stoddart and Giovanni Tiso have both questioned (in different ways and on different points) both the inferences he draws from the evidence and the legitimacy of his evidence (particularly whether he is acting ethically in releasing parts of it). Rachinger’s response in both cases was to attack the questioner, and imply that they were using attack lines from a group who are out to smear him. This is a common tactic of his: on more than one occasion he has taken criticism of his argument to be criticism of his person, and then claimed such criticism originates from a third party, variously made up of people on the Left and/or the Right.1 I presume it’s more than one campaign, although the notion of Cameron Slater and, for the sake of a hyperbolic example, Giovanni Tiso sitting down to chair the “Stop Ben!” committee is an amusing thought. I can say that if there really is an organised smear campaign working against Rachinger, I am not privy to it (despite what certain conspiracists have said, I am not currently funded by the Establishment and do not wish to serve them).
Such a campaign is not, however, beyond the bounds of possibility. Rachinger has pissed off a lot of people, some of whom are either powerful or, at least, think they are. It would certainly be in the interest of these people to smear Rachinger, in the same way it was in the interest of John Key’s Government to smear both Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hager for their revelations. Given that Rachinger, if we accept his story, will have got on the bad side of Cam Slater, and given that we know Slater holds grudges and, if we accept the claims of Hager in “Dirty Politics” that Slater goes out of his way to get revenge, then some of the opprobrium Rachinger is currently suffering might well be the product of Slater and his political machine. However, given that Rachinger’s modus operandi when questioned is to take offence and sometimes apologise later, it’s also easy to believe that the group of people who are saying “Be cautious around Ben!” or “Be skeptical of what he’s saying!” are not out to smear him but are worried about his very public behaviour towards his critics.
This is a shame, because critiquing Rachinger’s claims is vital if the story is going to have legs. Such criticism should not be seen as negative. There is, unfortunately, a tendency by leakers and people involved in revealing malfeasance to believe that the evidence stands for itself. It does not; philosophers talk about this kind of problem with respect to the Duhem-Quine thesis, the idea that bits of information (the evidence) do not tell us which one interpretation, which would tie the information together, is the best. Rachinger’s evidence is tied into, and affects, the way he tells the story and interprets key events. As such, criticism of his narrative by-and-large plays the role of working out whether Rachinger’s interpretation is the best, or whether – in a worse case scenario – he is just leading us on.
Think of it this way: Rachinger’s claims are extraordinary in two important senses.
- They are claims that challenge our assumptions of how our civic society works, particularly the way in which our current government operates.
- They are claims which are routinely pooh-poohed or dismissed by influential members of our society, and segments of the population think we have grounds to trust those influential members and thus distrust the kind of claims Rachinger is making.
Rachinger’s claims are extraordinary and by critiquing them we can either show them to be false, or the evidence – properly considered – provides for an alternative interpretation, or that his claims are true. Both Stoddart and Tiso, by critiquing Rachinger’s interpretation of the evidence, are aiming to work out which of those three options is the most likely. They are to be commended for doing this vital work because, at this stage, it is not work we are seeing be done by the traditional media.
Which itself is an interesting question. At this particular point in time Rachinger has eleven posts up on Medium. However, there is precious little talk about his claims going on outside blogs and Twitter. So. what’s going on? Why might people be ignoring Rachinger’s revelations (if we put to one side the claim that there is an organised and conspiratorial smear campaign going on against him by both the Left and Right)?
Well, maybe it’s an example of what Lee Basham calls a “toxic truth”: Rachinger’s claims are the kind of thing you don’t report on or investigate because, although true, they are toxic and thus threaten your place, your standing and the very structure of the society in which you think you live. A toxic truth in this case is evidence so extraordinary that you don’t want to acknowledge it because you:
- Don’t want to reconsider the kind of society in which you live, and
- You don’t want to piss off the people who pooh-pooh such truths.
Say, for example, you are a journalist in Aotearoa and someone approaches you with clear and unequivocal evidence of wrongdoing? Who do you go for to comment? Well, obviously the Prime Minister, John Key, the joking version would go. Yet the reason why that joke might be funny (in the hands of a more skilled comedian) is a problem: we currently live in a media cycle where the PM is the go-to person for comment on any issue. The question then is, do you want to endanger that relationship, especially if the evidence of malfeasance adversely affects his office or person? Probably not, Basham would argue. And even if you, the good and honest journalist, decide to sally forth and publish that damning evidence, will your editor even allow you to go to print?
That hypothetical is just one example of what Basham’s terms a “toxic truth”. Since the #dirtypolitics fiasco of last year there has been a lot of talk about toxicity in the way our media covers political events and scandals (albeit not in these particular philosophical terms). So, maybe Rachinger’s allegations are being ignored because they are too toxic?
Another viable option is that they are being ignored because they merely tell us what we already know (or suspected): #dirtypolitics, on the part of Slater and Co., did not stop post the General Election last year, and we kind of already knew that (or, at the least, suspected it). Rachinger’s evidence supplements the case set out by Nicky Hager, but does not change the details. Those of us still outraged by #dirtypolitics want to know more, but for those already burnt out on the topic (or not that interested in it to begin with) it adds little new information.
The third option is that the evidence is just too technical for a lot of people. Words like “threema”, “TOR”, and the like turn off some readers (or so some claim). I’ve never been entirely convinced that this is true, but then again I am a technically-minded kind of person. Your mileage might vary.2 Whatever the case, at the moment what seems like it should be a story is turning out to be the kind of thing which is big on Twitter but not elsewhere (I say, aware that as soon as I publish this post, the situation will likely change and make me look like an idiot). Maybe its something about the story itself? Let us, then, take a look at the content (and inferences) of Rachinger’s allegations.
Next time: The Lauda Finem attack, the Israeli connection, and Slater the Fantasist.
- My own experience with Rachinger is interesting in this regard. I have been following his work for a while (as one does when planning to write a book on local conspiracy theories) and someone pointed out to me that Rachinger’s list of followers looked to be inflated with bots. Of the approximately five and an half thousand followers he had at the beginning of the year, about four thousand of them were accounts which had only tweeted once and followed just one person, to whit Ben Rachinger. I followed this up and verified that, yes, my source was correct. When Rachinger decided to make a big issue out of his follower count being 95% genuine, I raised the problem with him. I was attacked for carrying out a smear on him. Oddly enough, at the same time he had a conversation with someone else where he admitted that those four thousand-ish accounts were, indeed, not genuine (but that he also hadn’t created them).↩
- For example, a prominent blogger told me off for using the term “false dilemma” in an argument, claiming that it’s talk like that which makes the Left look out-of-touch to the ordinary voter. I laughed and laughed and laughed.↩