Sunday, February 28, 2010
ON CONSPIRACY THEORIES
We all have encountered conspiracy theories growing up. They probably scared us, and in some cases traumatized us. But if we were lucky we were able to confront our fears, examine the theories in the light of day, and reject the false ones as the lies they were from the very beginning.
Unfortunately, conspiracy theories are directly connected to our prejudices and fears, and can actually inspire us to do and say dreadful things. They can convince us it is our duty to speak evil of others and even kill them. Our normal reaction to conspiracy theories is that we must attack what they tell us to fear. We will take action in the name of goodness. For the good of all. To protect the world!
I recognize the fear in myself that sometimes makes me feel weak and threatened by “others” whose ethnicities, religions or ways of thinking are different from mine. “They do this,” or “they are like that.” Fortunately for them, I have come to believe that I need to practice restraint. But I have my limits. I will fight like a madman and gladly give my life to protect my loved ones, or even strangers whose lives are threatened.
History is full of the dark side of conspiracy theories. If we learn anything from studying them, it is that some of the worst atrocities in the world have been committed in the name of religions that have spread (or been the victims of) conspiracy theories themselves. Enemies have been identified and then “demonized” all too quickly.
Catholics have been demons. Protestants have been demons. Jews and Muslims have been demons. American Indians and immigrants in America of all nationalities – Irish, Italian, Polish, Chinese, Mexican, you-name-it – have all been identified in conspiracy theories as demons. In more recent American history blacks, communists, socialists, fascists, gays, pro-choicers, pro-lifers, and liberals and conservatives of every stripe have been demons. The fingers of false conspiracy theories have gone in all directions, always with deadly consepqneces. Those that turn out to be justified (and thus not false) do indeed save the world from evil. But it’s the false ones I’m concerned with here.
We’ve recently witnessed the publication of two wildly popular novels about conspiracy theories that may or may not be true. I’m talking ab out Dan Brown’s books about the possible conspiracies by the Catholic Church (Da Vinci Code) and the Masonic Order (Lost Symbol). Both organizations, historically, have done enormous good in the world, and at times have been horribly persecuted in the name of conspiracy theories.
I would argue that the Christian Church has also done irreparable damage to the world during the Crusades and the Inquisition, which makes the scary parts of Da Vinci Code even scarier. (One could argue that the mess we face right this moment in Islamic countries is the logical consequence of those medieval religious wars.) But I grew up a Protestant boy (Church of Christ) in the Midwest, where anti-Catholic feelings were acted out daily by kids my age on the few Catholics in our schools.
In addition, I was a member of DeMolay, the Masonic order for young men. So my youthful perception of the two organizations featured in Brown’s books was skewed towards Catholics being bad and Masons being good. My more restrained and balanced view of things came about much later, when I actually studied history and gained some maturity. By then I had spotted the demonizing conspiracy theories creeping out of the cracks in both organizations, and indeed in all organizations that accept some people and exclude others.
Needless to say, at this point in my life I have to struggle daily not to demonize anyone who does not share my enlightened view, to wit: we all possess in ourselves good and evil, there are two dies to every issue, things are not always what they seem, Justice can be achieved without resorting to violence, we must try to understand why our enemies hate us before attacking them, and the gap between rich and poor must be closed but not at the expense of democratic principles. I would enjoy demonizing anyone who does not agree with me on these views. But I try not to.
Regarding Dan Brown’s books and conspiracy theories in general, Adam Gopnik says (in the Sept. 28, 2009 issue of the NEW YORKER, p. 22):
“… the conspiracy theories out there today – the ones about the socialist fascists who are coming to get you at the behest of the alien President [Obama] – are not cute. The old ones [about Jews, blacks, gays and Muslims, along with Catholics and Masons, et al] weren’t either.”
“Fear and hatred underlie conspiracy theories. They always have. You can draw them away from reality, but you cannot really drain them of rage.l”
Exactly. And it's the rage in conspiracy theories that most intrigues me. I feel it in myself. It comes out in my dreams. The raw force of rage thrills me and repels me at the same time. I suppose good psychotherapists could get to the root of it. The best I can do is to recognize its source in any anger I may have retained from times when I felt helpless and vulnerable.
Intellectually I assure myself that it is based on ignorance, just as I think the present anti-Obama theories are. But I wonder if not knowing something for what it is provides a refuge for my not knowing about it. In that space of unknowingness I can imagine all sorts of idiotic nonsense that I can rally around.
It does not surprise me at all that former President Carter points to racism to explain the rage in the recent “town hall meetings” (and their “tea party” rhetoric) that showed people jumping up to scream out their feelings in ways that show they are out of touch with reality. Having grown up in Jim Crow country, I fought for civil rights almost as soon as I could walk, and I continue that fight today. But I sometimes catch people (and even myself) saying things that show how deeply my prejudice is against African Americans. (“Why do so many of them misuse the English language,” I ask, “or become so wealthy and famous as athletes and international pop stars?” Deep prejudice? You bet.)
Am I anti-Semitic, too? As a child piano prodigy whose teachers in New York and California were, for the most part, Jewish refugees, and now, having lived for many years in the very heart of the entertainment capital of the world, Malibu and Hollywood, I sometimes complain of drowning in Jewishness and blame Jews (half-jokingly?) for being too bright, too talented, and too wealthy.
As Gopnik says, you can try to educate and maybe draw people away from reality (as we have from the old theories about evil Rome and Masonic secrecy), but by then the rage that fueled the conspiracies in the first place has done its damage. What frightens me about the present situation is the ease with which fear mongers and their witless followers can spread their bile.
The other day I learned a word I had never heard before, applied by an author to the God of the Old Testament – who would of course be the God of the New Testament and the Holy Koran, as well. But the author was trying to express his disdain for the frightening, wrathful, resentful, jealous, and all-too-human God of the O. T. as opposed to the more loving and forging God of the N. T.
The word in question is “acrabilious” and it means “to be filled with black bile.” (If you’ve never heard the word before, my spell check hasn’t either, and automatically underlines it as misspelled!) I think we all experience times when we are a bit acrabilious, especially when we become angry at a person, a group or a plan that is well-meaning or even harmless, but for some unknown and irrational reason we become so filled with rage by it that we cannot control ourselves from spitting out vitriol and stomping holes in the floor like Rumpelstiltsken. If only we could slink off somewhere, as he did, and either disappear or show more respect, understanding and love towards the object of our rage!
I guess I am a hopeless idealist when it comes to working through our problems, and especially if they are conspiracy theories that need to be proven true or nonsense. False conspiracy theories were dangerous in days when Chicken Little and the Little Boy Who Cried Wolf were alive. They are dangerous still today.
Let’s keep our eyes on conspiracy theories that prove to be true, such as the ones involving terrorists in a nuclear age, rather than those that indict a bright articulate, unusually thoughtful, and wildly popular President of the United States.
Glenn T. Webb
Palm Desert, CA