Is Monsanto Satan? The Pleasure and Problem of Conspiracy Theory

In this contribution to It’s Your Fault, The Cubit’s series on blame in contemporary society, Alan Levinovitz explores the widespread animus toward Monsanto—and how that animus shapes the work of writers who, like him, cover food culture and policy.

For more on blame, read the introductory post or explore the full series.

In one of the Grimm brothers’ less popular tales, Satan visits Martin Luther’s study at Wartburg Castle to stop him from translating the New Testament. Luther, long accustomed to encounters with the devil and his minions, chucks an inkwell at Satan’s head, leaving a dark stain in the study. As the Grimms tell it, tour guides show the stain to visitors until, after hundreds of years, it finally fades away.

Belief in Satan, like Luther’s inkstain, has faded over the centuries. According to Barna data, the majority of modern Americans—and modern Christians—do not believe that Satan walks among us, preferring instead to identify the great deceiver as a symbol of evil. People today would likely blame the inkwell incident on madness. And we now see madness itself, once blamed on the Evil One and his servants, as emerging from the chaotic causal nexus of biology and circumstance.

But Satan has not disappeared. We need him too much. In the ongoing struggle with inexplicable suffering, there is no greater comfort than finding a target for simple, righteous blame. And so the list of Infernal Names, now secularized, grows ever longer: Big Government, Big Business, Big Pharma, Big Food. These are complex systems, of course—too complex to serve as satisfying scapegoats. But through the alchemy of capital letters we transform them into fairy-tale caricatures of corruption and deceit, villains that help to make sense of it all.

My own Satan has always been Big Business. For many years, I nurtured a hatred of profit-driven corporations and banks, engines of greed that deploy deceitful agents to visit iniquity on an unsuspecting public. I delighted in exposés of corporate malfeasance, and I found it difficult to conceive of investment bankers or advertisers as anything more than shells of humans, animated by an unholy desire to accumulate wealth and serve their masters. I saw my own occupation—professor of religious studies—as ideally situated for objective critique. I had traded the hollow promise of great riches for the intrinsic good of seeking truth.

So it came as quite a shock when people began calling me one of Satan’s minions.

It all started with MSG. While I was living abroad in China, I found that many expatriates insisted they were highly sensitive to MSG, yet multiple double-blind, placebo-controlled trials had led allergists to conclude MSG sensitivity is largely psychosomatic. In itself, this wasn’t surprising: the mind is well-known for having powerful positive (placebo) and negative (nocebo) effects on health. What surprised me was the dogmatic fervor with which my companions denied these findings. I noticed that similar dogmatism attends most debates about diet and health, and my fascination with the quasi-religious foundations of culinary culture led me to write various articles and a book.

The accusations began almost immediately. Again and again, online commenters accused me of being paid by Big Food to spread propaganda. And while Big Food consists of quite a few multinational corporations, commenters most often blamed my corruption on Monsanto, the agricultural biotechnology giant. Monsanto’s legendary depravity goes back for decades—they made Agent Orange for the government—earning it the nickname Monsatan (see #Monsatan on Twitter), a dedicated resistance campaign, Millions Against Monsanto, and yearly protest marches in over 40 countries.

Like most people, I knew how bad Monsanto really was, despite not having thought too hard about it. (It is the 3rd most hated company in America.) I knew Monsanto sues farmers into oblivion, caused a rash of suicides in India, suppresses negative media coverage, and pays politicians, and scientists to lie on its behalf.

But there was one story I didn’t believe, because I knew it wasn’t true: Monsanto hadn’t paid me. So I did what any academic or journalist would do, and started learning more about the company that supposedly had me on its payroll. In the process, I discovered that very little coverage of Monsanto included extensive discussions with representatives of the company. When it did, or when the coverage wasn’t completely negative, comment threads exploded with accusations of bribery. In one high-profile example, anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva suggested that journalist Michael Specter and The New Yorker were Monsanto shills after Specter published a less-than-flattering profile of her activism.

David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, responded to Shiva’s criticism with a letter that the magazine subsequently released to the public. Remnick’s letter opens by acknowledging the futility of arguing with someone who believes in a great deceiver possessed of near-infinite power.

“I should say,” writes Remnick, “that since you have said that the entire scientific establishment has been bought and paid for by Monsanto, I fear it will be difficult to converse meaningfully about your accusation that the story contained ‘fraudulent assertions and deliberate attempts to skew reality.’”

This is why believing in Satan is so dangerous—and so tempting: If he really exists, we can protect our most deeply held beliefs by blaming any opposition on the work of a great deceiver. There is no need for dialogue. In fact, dialogue is inadvisable, because the deceiver is so powerful that any contact risks corruption. Best to avoid it entirely, lest you end up like Bill Nye, the Science Guy, who changed his mind on GMOs after visiting Monsanto.

Under most circumstances, the reasonable explanation would be that Nye was persuaded by argument and evidence. But for those who believe in Monsatan, the better—the only—explanation is that Nye was coerced, just as the best explanation for my skepticism about the dangers of grains or MSG is that the industry has paid me.

Shiva’s logic, the logic of believing in Satan, is really just the logic of conspiracy: simple, irrefutable, and empowering. Scholar of apocalypticism Michael Barkun puts it well:

[The conspiracy theorist’s view] is frightening because it magnifies the power of evil, leading in some cases to an outright dualism in which light and darkness struggle for cosmic supremacy. At the same time, however, it is reassuring, for it promises a world that is meaningful rather than arbitrary. Not only are events nonrandom, but the clear identification of evil gives the conspiracist a definable enemy against which to struggle, endowing life with purpose.

Unfortunately, reassuring narratives of good and evil are incapable of communicating complicated realities. Annie’s Naturals is owned by General Mills; Burt’s Bees is owned by Clorox. Merck has defrauded the government; it has also developed a remarkable cure for hepatitis C. Independent university researchers—and activists!—can falsify data; corporate researchers can do excellent, unbiased work.

Monsanto may well be as bad as its detractors assert (tobacco companies certainly proved worse than anyone imagined). But the current climate makes it impossible to find out. Widespread belief in Monsanto’s irredeemably evil nature discourages unbiased reporting. I know this because I experienced it myself.

For a time, I wanted to write about the company being blamed for my work. I interviewed scientists who had worked there. A complicated picture emerged, of a large (but not too large—about the size of Whole Foods) multinational that employed a wide variety of people, some of whom cared mainly about making money, and others who cared mainly about doing good science. I saw a company that litigated fiercely, but no more fiercely than Sony, Disney, or Apple, and I wondered why people—myself included—felt that seeds should be governed by different intellectual property laws than, say, tractors.

But then I realized I would never write that story. It wasn’t worth it. Why risk associating myself, even in passing, with Satan? Other journalists have told me they feel the same way. “I’m not proud of the chilling effect it has on me,” says Nathanael Johnson, who writes about food and the environment for Grist.

“There’s a real problem. If you don’t want to be a biased reporter, you have to talk to Monsanto, but just talking to them will be perceived as selling out. You can’t do the same piece that a tech reporter might do about Apple—even though Apple is the biggest corporation in the world and much more litigious.”

This is tremendously problematic, not least because it means the public conversation about important issues will be dominated by zealots. Take GMOs. On one side there are the activists, wearing gas masks and waving anti-Monsanto signs emblazoned with skulls. On the other are those who come to believe that any opposition to GMOs springs from deep-seated idiocy; the work of anti-science demons.

It would be nice if none of this rancor affected reporting, but that’s wishful thinking. Journalists, editors, and publishers care about accuracy, but they also worry about their audience. When that audience insists on believing in Satan, stories will be far more likely to feature him—even if he doesn’t exist.

Like David Remnick, I fear it will be difficult to converse meaningfully with people for whom belief in a great deceiver endows their life with purpose. But as an academic and a journalist, the only thing I fear more than damaging my reputation is an environment in which meaningful conversation is rendered impossible by fervent belief in comfortable falsehoods. I enjoy believing that investment bankers are soulless agents of Big Banking, but not as much as I enjoy believing the truth.

The solution, as I see it, is for journalists to chuck their inkwells at Satan’s head. When confronted with the Evil One, we should remember that purity of vision usually reflects ignorance, not reality. We should challenge our own presuppositions, the better to challenge those of our audience.

And we should never make the conspiracist’s mistake, and fear that contact with the enemy can only end in corruption. Occasionally these efforts will confirm the existence of pure, naked evil. But in my own experience, most often the story ends like Luther’s, and Satan simply vanishes—a happy ending for those who value knowledge, in all its chaos and messiness, over fairy tales.