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Skeptics Gone Wild: Navigating America’s Conspiracy Theory Culture

Why conspiracy theories may not be as irrational as some might think.

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This is all pretty perverse. Do people really believe in fringe conspiracy theories because they want to believe things that are false?

New York Times Magazine  article titled “Why Rational People Buy into Conspiracy Theories” comes up with this answer: It helps them deal with feelings of powerlessness, and “It feels good to be the wise old goat in a flock of sheep.” In a 2008 essay on 9/11 Trutherism, legal scholar and Obama confidant Cass Sunstein argues that Truthers can’t figure out what’s real because they only talk to each other, and so they’re never exposed to alternate explanations. His solution to this problem, echoing CIA Document 1035-960, is to “draw their poison,” i.e., to pay government agents to introduce diverse viewpoints onto Truther message boards, or censor them entirely: a secret conspiracy to combat belief in secret conspiracies.

I don’t have any particular love for Alex Jones, but there is something revealing about the need to bring the man up for the sole purpose of putting him down. If you’re inclined to cynicism, an equally good question is: Why would  The Huffington Post , or  Gawker, or whoever, cover Tornado Trutherism at all if it’s so self-evidently crazy and offensive? Why invite Alex Jones on your show if you don’t want him to be Alex Jones?

Because while the man is deeply wrong on his facts, that’s a different question from whether he’s crazy. I can’t shake the notion that even in his insanity—sincere or staged—there’s a kernel of truth. Jones makes me feel unsettled in the same way that Israelites hearing the apocalyptic rantings of Daniel or Elijah must have felt unsettled. The words are crazy, but the worldview they express is genuinely troubling. We are probably not wrong in the suspicion that we don’t really know what’s going on. Even the most absurd conspiracy theories point at an abyss yawning beneath our feet.

I suspect that the core objections to conspiracy theory are essentially faith-based, rational-sounding apologia that follow from emotion, not the other way around. Take the Truther claim that the Bush administration had a hand in 9/11. What I feel first in response, long before reasoned argument, is deep offense. It hurts to think about. Only afterward do the reasons come: No, they could never have kept it secret; we would have found out. But these are merely justifications for how I  feel.

America is an irrational place, a country built on idealism and myth. For a long time, one of our most treasured myths has been that “it”—the appalling tragedies and incomprehensible inadequacies that afflict the rest of the world—can’t happen here. We are taught this in school just as we are taught not to pick our noses in public. The belief is woven into the fabric of what we grow up to recognize as civilized American life.

Even as we are inculcated with this sense of American exceptionalism, we are also learning about the rest of the world and about history, in which questions of power were and are answered by naked force. We learn about plots and coups, about popular reformers killed with right-wing knives and bullets, about powerful men and women subverting democracy for their own ends.

But not here. Even if no one ever tells us explicitly, we learn that America is different. Our system is immune to such subversions.

We learn this despite the fact that ever since JFK died in Dallas, the American system has been rife with examples of powerful people co-opting it for their own purposes. The Joint Chiefs of Staff really did propose to Kennedy, in 1962, a series of “false flag” terrorist attacks against American citizens to provoke a war with Cuba. In 1964 Lyndon Johnson really did lie to Congress, saying that the North Vietnamese had attacked American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. Richard Nixon, leading up to the 1968 election, really did promise the North Vietnamese that if they dropped out of peace talks with the South he’d get them a better deal. It wasn’t Nixon’s last attempt at stealing an election.

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