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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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DeHaven-Smith thinks the phrase “conspiracy theory” itself has made it virtually impossible to talk about high crimes by America’s elite.

He calls it the conspiracy-theory conspiracy theory. “I think the political class has a stake in the legitimacy of the system. They don’t allow these things to be discussed.”

Lack of discussion doesn’t make anything go away. Without light shining into the dark places in our national psyche, into our history, dark things grow there.

When I hear Alex Jones talking about weaponized tornadoes and FEMA camps, when I hear tea party mutterings about Obama’s plan to buy up all the bullets, I think of the most dyed-in-the-wool conspiracy theorist I’ve ever met, a college acquaintance named Jeremiah, like the Old Testament prophet. Jeremiah believed in every conspiracy theory I’d ever heard of, and many I hadn’t. He had melded them all into one grand anti-establishment narrative. He was one of the only people I’ve ever known who believed in the lizard-people conspiracy theory: that a race of evil aliens from the planet Nibiru, dressed as humans, controls events on earth.

One day, I remember, he was talking about a theory that the Queen of England has to bathe daily in the blood of aboriginal children, I guess to keep her lizard skin smooth.

This was too much. “Oh for God’s sake, Jeremiah,” I said. “Come on.”

He looked at me. He half-smiled. “Look,” he said. “I’m not saying they  are lizard people. I’m just saying that for all they care about us, they might as well be lizard people.”

This, now, is a lens I can’t escape. Was the West fertilizer plant destroyed by missile? Might as well have been. Is President Obama recording my phone call? Might as well be. Are shadowy figures manipulating the world economy for personal gain at my expense? Might as well be.

This is not, I know, a healthy habit. It leaves me—it leaves all of us—open to manipulation by men willing to peddle crazy. Think of David Dewhurst blaming the Texas media for riling up pro-choicers during Wendy Davis’ epic filibuster.  TakeLouie Gohmert accusing Barack Obama of being in league with the Muslim Brotherhood (claims that are even now being used as propaganda by the Egyptian military). Think of the goddamn Birthers.

And yet I can’t help myself. I think we know, we members of the neglected commons, that something is wrong. This knowledge fuels the inchoate rage that launched the Occupy movement and the tea party. Consider their rants not as literally truth, but as reflective of a paradigm describing the vast asymmetry in power and accountability between the powers that be and the rest of us. Not science or satire, but dark poetry.

Contributing writer Saul Elbein is a freelance journalist in Austin

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