In recent days the media has discovered, at last, the online community that promotes the idea that Schapelle Corby is innocent of smuggling drugs into Bali. Predictably they have been written up as ‘conspiracy theorists’. A colleague’s description – ‘Schapelle truthers’ – is more economical. It makes the connection with the signature counter-knowledge movement of the last decade, which holds that powerful forces within the US government either directly engineered the 9/11 bombings of the World Trade Centre, or allowed them to happen.
I first became aware of them a couple of years back, when I first started talking with the workers who moderate the comments thread of mainstream media organisations. A relatively small core of campaigners were well-known to many of the people employed to scrub clean the big news and commentary sites. On any story related to Corby’s imprisonment, there was a good chance that they would show up to make their arguments. This was especially true during periods of heightened interest, like the annual will-they-won’t-they speculations about her possible parole.
As with the 9/11 truth movement, there is no single, uniting belief about how there came to be marijuana in Corby’s boogie board bag. It’s true, as today’s SMH report asserts, that the idea of corrupt QANTAS baggage-handlers is widely-held, but Australian and Indonesian law security and law-enforcement officials are also suspected of complicity in various places, as are members of the Corby family.
Over the last week we’ve seen an extended bout of sneering at the irrationality or gullibility of Schapelle truthers. This is one of a few standard responses to conspiracy theory. Bachelard and Lallo’s Herald piece fits this mould: they argue that those who uphold Corby’s innocence are held up as a counterproductive ‘cult’. They are accused of ‘cyberbullying’, and also, in some unspecified way, of damaging the efforts of human rights campaigners who are seeking, more rationally, to address broader issues around sentencing and treatment of those convicted of drug offences in Indonesia. David Penberthy’s column for the News Limited websites is even more openly contemptuous. He’s especially exercised by the fact that all Corby’s supporters have done is to challenge the authority of the Federal Police. In time, no doubt, a second standard response will emerge: the conspiracy theories will be held up as symptoms of some broader social and cultural anxieties. This kind of liberal pathologising affects a greater sympathy for conspiracists while still firmly placing them beyond the pale.
It’s far more enlightening to ask ourselves how some things come to be regarded as conspiracy theories, and other things admitted as legitimate ways of thinking and talking about the world. One way to do this is to try to pinpoint exactly what separates Schapelle truthers from mainstream political discourse. Is it simple disagreement over what we consider to be settled fact? If so, why don’t those who deny Australia’s frontier wars come under similar opprobrium? Is it the claims of collusion and cover-ups? The value we place on investigative journalism is indicative of the fact that we all believe that such things take place, and need to be uncovered, with doggedness and frequently in the face of skepticism. It would be odd indeed if it were simply the paranoid cast of the theories that excluded them from the mainstream, since the Australian government is currently risking conflict with Indonesia to ensure that a few refugees never enter our country. Is it simply the intensity with which a belief is held in the face of contending evidence? If so, any climate change skeptic should be in the frame as well.
The further we think on it, the more we realise that definitions of conspiracy theory tend to be quite circular: they are simply those versions of events that cannot and will not be accommodated within the consensual versions of politics and history. That’s partly because conspiracism is used as a way to define legitimate knowledge by acting as its limit. Conspiracy theory is an idea, or accusation, that is used to define the possibilities of dissent, and to rule out some styles of thought in advance. It is a strategic move in cultural or political contests. To pronounce something as conspiracy theory is an act of power, and left and liberal intellectuals do it just as often as the mainstream media do. Jack Bratich’s book, Conspiracy Panics, does a great job of showing how mainstream reporters and intellectuals do a great job of defining as conspiracy theory even well-documented stories that challenge the American consensus on race or power.
The most scandalous thing about the Schapelle truthers’ stories, I would suggest, is a claim they mostly share: that at some point, the tone of reporting and commentary on Corby abruptly changed. I agree. At first, she was portrayed as a damsel at the mercy of the Indonesian justice system (whose basic illegitimacy is taken as given in much Australian commentary). As long as the reporting was framed in this way, the vast majority of the Australian public shared their view that Corby herself had been framed. Later, it became clear that neither her nor her family could comport themselves in a way that made this an easy story to tell. Her father was revealed as someone who had long acted outside the law. Her mother’s children had several fathers. Her sister attempted to cash in on the attention the family was getting. So began an exaggeration of those traits that respectable opinion uses the word ‘bogan’ to distance itself from. Gradually, broad public opinion shifted.
The tenacity of the Schapelle conspiracy community in adhering to the older of these ‘truths’ affords us a certain kind of leverage. We can see how complex and messy events are reduced to familiar narratives, and how these narratives in turn inform our attitudes to our regional neighbours, to basic questions of justice, and to one another. To be clear: I am not coming down one way or another on the question of whether Schapelle Corby ‘did it’. I am not arguing that the conspiracists are right, and that broader public opinion is wrong. I am rather saying that by keeping one way of understanding those events alive, Schapelle truthers prevent more recent versions closing out, and erasing the history of their own making. In doing this they make us aware of the filters that so much of our understanding passes through, and how our own convictions about who deserves compassion, or punishment are formed.
An important one, that Australians always have trouble acknowledging, is class. Andrew Bolt, as so often he does, belled the cat on this. He associated Corby, “the big-eyed former bar hostess” with the “deep, feral resentment of the mob of any check to its licence”. He insisted that neither his nor former John Howard’s children would ever be caught smuggling marijuana, and that “this isn’t ‘our’ Schapelle”. Despite having squealed like a stuck pig in 2012 after being rapped over the knuckles for his racism, Bolt doesn’t mind the people he habitually refers to as ‘barbarians’ being subject to forms of punishment he can’t possibly imagine the nature of.
Bolt’s language of abjection shows how, finally, Corby has become a proxy for petty-bourgeois resentment towards the ‘underclass’ who are permanently locked out of Australia’s prosperity. The Schapelle truthers remind us that before she became a counter in this game, Corby was instead an avatar of the discomfort of a settler nation in its region. The truth may be difficult to attain, but that doesn’t mean we need to adopt the consensus.