Before we unprofessional leftists get too high on our horse, blithely scoffing at Beck or Palin’s staged chicanery, let us acknowledge our own home-grown “conspiracy theories.” Agreed, ours are more realistic, indeed evidence-based, but they’re still self-serving, wide-ranging projections, often presuming more than they prove. Was Iraq only about oil? Is Obama merely the pawn of Wall Street, the Pentagon, or big business? Have safety-first, corporatist advisers rotted his once politically agile brain? Okay, some conspiracies have the ring of truth.
Whatever, I distinguish a good, rousing conspiracy theory from its dark, hissing cousin, the Big Lie, the readily disprovable trickery fueling misdirection, war games or fear-mongering. What a growing list: death panelists, WMDs, Saddam’s 9/11 linkage, phantom al Qaeda behind Afghan surges, or a Kenyan-born, Muslim, racist president who hates America.
The best conspiracy theories “explaining” who killed Kennedy, what drove Vietnam, Afghan and Iraq invasions, the Twin Towers destroyers, power trips by predatory elites, or the climate change con job are: 1) about something empirical, and 2) aren’t ultimately open to proof, or disproof, thus comprising a symbolic, moral narrative. Unlike crude propaganda, leading with its chin while scorning truth, great conspiracy theories are plausible, at least for the targeted group. I imagine them like underground fires, timed to emerge here and there to inform otherwise inexplicable, threatening mysteries. Only a hardened few don’t take comfort some clique is out to get them.
Armed with an obsession or agenda, conspiracy fabricators aim, fire and kablooey: public confidence in officialdom, even majority rule, is shaken by undeniable, looming urgencies (Armageddon in a mushroom cloud). Call in the Marines. Blame the other the Devil or socialists, atheists, secularists or fat cats, Bush-Cheney or Islamic fanatics. After all, if only shadowy agencies hold real power, then media politics are surface theatre, pantomimes desperate for interpretation by broadcast wizards (pick your favorite pundit).
Thanks to 24/7 media-driven, scorched-earth politics, modern times pivot on tectonic lines between paranoia, tribalism, and conspiracy theories. Every faction is convinced, not without cause, some predator lurks. Whether Alaska, Arizona, South Carolina, or New York, menacing groups (illegals, terrorists, bureaucrats, or anti-mosque Christians) covet your job, home, flashy TV, virginal daughters or religious community center. Only hordes at the gate justify Palin’s jungle creed paranoia: never retreat, reload.
Fundamentalists shudder that godless secularism has “stolen their country,” and bemoan lost good old days, as if Joe the Plumbers ever owned more than their sideyards. Billionaire Tea Party-backers shake well-coiffed heads at regulation, labor unions, and “government takeovers.” Mystified liberals claim racist citizens use birthplace fairy tales to plot against a legitimate president. Leftists posit the world’s a plaything for all-powerful, greedy corporations who run governments and wars, grabbing everything of value. My issue isn’t that conspiracy theories never touch the truth, only that they often reduce highly complex, multi-varied systems to one-note fixations.
The Tea Party wins today’s prize not only for ingenious delusions, but improbable imbecility. No self-respecting conspiracy theory should stand when websites depict the president’s birth certificate, confirmed by Hawaii’s Republican governor. The anti-NY mosque conspiracy theory is a flash in the pan, doomed by ethnic hatred, false equivalence (Manhattan Muslims = 9/11 terrorists), and defiance of our Constitution (no court intercession). Likewise, Truther fantasies that institutional, even American operatives helped demolished the Twin Towers, presume competence (from the war-mongering Bush-Cheney bumblers?) not in evidence, contrary to observable reality. I address not the physics of implosion, only the political presumptions.
Divisive Wedges That Unify
Most significantly, I find what divides the country simultaneously unifies two surprisingly coherent left-right factions, both capable of asserting dicey theories as if unassailable. Like any symbolic narrative, projections start with assumptions (or base emotions), then invent an explanatory sequence (naming enemy, motives, evil goals), select “facts” (past or looming: Obama wants to ban guns, kill granny), circling back to reinforce opening assumptions (faith, prejudice, or belief). The insatiable need is for secret “answers,” known to the chosen few and hidden behind the common surface, regularly cementing “us vs. them” divisiveness.
For ultimately conspiracies are attempts to answer the biggest political mysteries of all: 1) who’s really in charge, 2) how does this secret elite work, and 3) what tactics remain to be feared and fought? In general, those embracing similarly coherent (however delusional) political narratives share a like-minded worldview and perceived threats.
Not without reason, thus, does the white, tight, God-fearing right thinks history is against them and their under-educated children: demographic shifts threaten yesterday’s majority. Ironically, only education and flexibility solve out-of-date skill-sets (as industrial, building trades, blue-collar jobs wither) but millions of Tea Partiers sabotage their children’s only salvation: government. Having installed tax-hating Republicans means less public services, shredding public education and dumping retraining programs. The decimation of unions, another conservative gift to America, reduces every worker’s bargaining power against burgeoning super-corporations.
Never have so many disempowered organized to vote for so many reactionaries who undermine their own economic self-interests. More high tech outsourcing, complex tax codes, and corporate subsides, here we come! What saves Joe the Plumbers when construction gets outsourced to well-trained itinerants willing to work for lower wages (and budgets get tighter)?
All Theories Not Equal
Not all conspiracy theories are equal, especially rightwing fantasies struck dumb by one-dimensional religious tunnel vision. Thus Beck’s fake revivalism this weekend, manipulating religious terms to obscure demagogic aims (tipped off by the “non-political” headliner Palin, the GOP True Believer). Contradictions abound, too: every Tea Party “pioneering spirit” decides his/her own truth (rugged individualists, every one) yet are so insecure they need big crowds and mass protests to quell their isolation (“you are not alone,” chimed Sarah P.). Only in America are radical individualists addicted to slavish identification with mass movements and McCarthyite circuses, with media confirmation by no talent celebrities.
Two final thoughts to muse on, the first about empty nostalgia from Thomas Sowell: “All that makes earlier times seem simpler is our ignorance of their complexities.” And the second from President Kennedy, whose murder set off unprecedented conspiracy theories: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” Palin, Beck, and the Tea Party to a tee.