America's Obsession With Conspiracy Theories
Those wishing to make the fashion statement "I am a
raving crackpot" need look no further than the classified ads
of the latest Spin<> magazine. Mixed in among ads for
Scooby-Do T-shirts and "term paper assistance" is a tiny ad
asking you -- no, ordering you -- to "rage against the
regime!" with a T-shirt protesting the "AIDS fraud." AIDS,
the shirt itself explains, is a "lie," merely an "American
Invention to Discourage Sex." It's all fraud, all lies -- all part of some nefarious plot.
For some people, everything is.
For all the seeming irrationalities of this or that theory of conspiracy -- the baroquely elaborate plots, the vehement scapegoating of seemingly innocuous characters, the obsessive cataloging of minutiae -- the world of the conspiracy theorist is an eminently rational one.
In this world, nothing happens by chance. Everything -- from the outcome of presidential elections to the hiring practices of the Texas School Book Depository -- is carefully planned and masterfully executed. "How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster?" a famed political analyst once wondered. "It must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man."
The conspiracy theorist here, of course, is Joseph McCarthy. But, to anyone who has ever spoken for more than a few moments to a devoted conspiracy buff, the logic is all too familiar. Conspiracy theorists don't start their inquiries with the obvious questions -- Who killed Kennedy? Who bombed the Murrah building in Oklahoma City? -- but by asking about motives: Who would gain from killing Kennedy? Who would gain from the Oklahoma City bombing? Once you find a motive, you've found your man -- and the evidence will adjust itself accordingly.
Indeed, the world of the conspiracy theorist is a simple one,
uncomplicated by the ambiguities of human psychology and
unaffected by the laws of chance. In this world, people are
either bad or good, and are motivated either by a lust for
money and power or by a simple faith in the truth. The
world contains evil simply because the bad people have
power. Were the seekers of truth able to shine a light on the
bad deeds of the wicked, a righteous populace would
undoubtedly rise up as one to depose the usurpers of their
freedom. And then, presumably, we would have something
close to paradise on Earth: Our political system would work
as the charts in the civics books say it should; political
violence would cease; drugs would vanish from our cities;
the trains would run on time. It's a political fantasy as
simple and seductive as a fairy tale. And, of course, as
In the wake of the Oklahoma bombing last year, I spent a good deal of time poking around on the paranoid fringes of the Net, digging up stray militia manifestos and instructions on how to make bombs, and listening in, as it were, on the discussions taking place in the more politically minded Usenet newsgroups.
Everywhere I turned the discussion looked more or less the same: conspiratorial theorizing and apocalyptic bluster dominated by those who blamed the U.S. government for the tragedy, arguing that the bombing was a kind of "Reichstag fire" -- that is, a bombing orchestrated by the Clinton administration to make racist extremists look bad. One
Usenet contributor suggested that the Bureau of Alcohol
Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), expecting an attack, had used
the day care center in Oklahoma City's federal building as a
kind of "human shield" to protect them from terrorists;
another even suggested that the BATF "had warnings about
the bombing and collectively took the day off -- yet failed to alert others in the building, particularly those in the day care center."
The most avid conspiracists in this instance were on the right. But in the world of conspiracy theorizing, ideological distinctions don't seem to matter much. The discussions in alt.politics.white-power tend to be similar, at least in spirit, to the discussions in alt.conspiracy -- and even to those in alt.politics.radical-left.
Where on the political spectrum could one place the peculiarly paranoid politics of the group of a hundred angry Texans who rallied on the steps of the Texas state capitol this January, demanding that their country stand up to a vicious foreign invader -- the United States of America. "Legally, we never ceded the soil of the Republic of Texas to any foreign nation," Richard L. McLaren, the chief ambassador and consul general of the alleged Texas Republic, told the press. As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram<> reported, the budding historical revisionists were especially peeved that Texas Governor George W. Bush had refused to step down and
hand the reins of power over to them. "What a sad statement that is," complained John C. VanKirk, the President of Texas, "an alleged elected official who is determined to operate a government in outlawry."
Curiouser and curiouser. But it seems a little silly to pretend to be surprised when would-be founding fathers don camouflage and join militias and start fretting about computer chips in their buttocks and the metal strips in twenty-dollar bills. These are strange ideas, to be sure,
but they're no more strange than the run-of-the-mill Kennedy assassination theories that have floated around the edges of respectability for decades, involving everything from Oswald doubles and switched bodies to mysterious dart-shooting umbrellas.
While only a few serious buffs could tell you off the top of their head the exact locations of Kennedy's entry and exit wounds, most Americans believe the assassination involved some sort of conspiracy. More than 2,500 books have been published on the subject, and you can pick up a wide assortment of assassination videos at your local Blockbuster. More than a few Americans must spend their Saturday nights looking for typos in the Warren Commission report, getting into heated debates over the firing characteristics of
Mannlicher-Carcano rifles, building scale-model replicas of
Dealey Plaza in the attic.
Belief in a Kennedy conspiracy unites everyone from sixties-style leftists to libertarians to former spooks to nostalgic liberals hungering for a return to Camelot. Debates on the Usenet newsgroup alt.conspiracy.jfk<> get remarkably specific -- typical topics include everything from Dan Rather's alleged role in the alleged cover-up to a certain "Dr. Angel and the missing frontal bone."
And it's not only geeky white guys like Oliver Stone and Timothy McVeigh who believe that hidden powers rule the world. According to every poll that's been taken on the subject, a vast majority of African-Americans believe that
O.J.Simpson deserved his innocent verdict -- thus at least
partially buying into Johnnie Cochran's theory of an elaborate police conspiracy and concomitant coverup. More
than a third -- inspired more by the preachings of Louis
Farrakhan than by ads in the back of Spin<> -- believe
the government deliberately created the AIDS virus to use
in a genocidal campaign against blacks. And nearly two-
thirds believe the government runs drugs in black neighborhoods. (Never to be completely outdone on the
paranoia front, the CIA has blamed such rumors on "Soviet
disinformation campaigns" and the work of other hostile
intelligence services.) For a time, rumors spread in the black community that the food served at Church's chicken
franchises was laced with chemicals designed to render
their mostly black customers infertile -- all in the service of a Klan-organized genocidal campaign.
Sure, it's bizarre, but belief in the bizarre is as American as apple pie and tabloid television. Americans, for example, not only believe in UFOs, but, according to polls taken over the last twenty years (including a recent poll conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University), about half of all Americans are convinced that the government is hiding the truth about alien visitors from the public.
In one document posted on the Internet -- kind of a classic in the genre -- Jon Roland of the Texas Militia Correspondence Committee outlines the conspiratorial designs of what he calls the "shadow government," made up of financiers, government officials, and (in some indefinable way) space aliens. "UFOs and aliens seem to be involved," he writes. "Perhaps only as a manufactured opportunity/threat, but more likely the people in charge of dealing with the matter are using a real situation to expand their power."
Among devoted conspiracists, of course, everything is connected to everything else. The "mystery tramps" arrested after Kennedy's assassination in Dallas are somehow connected to the men in black who have allegedly been pestering UFO
researchers ever since the first UFO made its appearance in
Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. All the plots have become
In recent years, as Michael Kelly has suggested in
The New Yorker<>, a group of devoted theorists have
developed something close to a unified theory of conspiracy,
an elaborate "fusion paranoia" that obliterates conventional
political divisions. Drawing on an ideologically diverse set of sources, ranging from Noam Chomsky to Lyndon LaRouche,
they've constructed a vision of the world in which "the
Jonestown massacre is linked to the murder of Martin
Luther King Jr.; Woodstock never happened (it was faked by
the media); J. Edgar Hoover set up Teddy Kennedy at
Chappaquiddick; government agents are brainwashing
Americans through drugs and mesmeric techniques; Dan
Rather's 'Kenneth, what's the frequency?' mugging is
traced back to the CBS News anchor's 'extremely curious
behavior in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963.'" I'll stop
here: There's already enough intrigue for a whole season of
The X-Files<>. Curious readers are invited to track down
a copy of Paranoia<> magazine in their local bookstore,
where they will find articles on everything from FEMA
detention centers to "Masonic symbolism in the JFK
"There is no left and no right here," Kelly
observes, "only unanimity of belief in the boundless,
cabalistic evil of government and its allies."
Conspiracy is nothing new in American politics. Indeed, one could almost say that America was founded in paranoia. In some respects the American Revolution was less an independence movement than a desperate and defensive attempt to defend the rights of America's colonists from the nefarious plotting of a royal cabal. It's no wonder that contemporary militiamen look back with such fondness on the Founding Fathers; they share a similar worldview.
Once you get past the opening rhetoric, the Declaration of Independence, for example, becomes a list of plots and crimes. The British monarch is accused of everything from "call[ing] together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records" to sending "hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance." To the hypervigilant eyes of the colonial elites, such things proved not, say, that King George was a poor politician with a penchant for the occasional backhanded maneuver, but that he was a sinister plotter trying to establish "an absolute tyranny over these states." The British, not surprisingly, regarded the colonists as a bit touchy.
In the nineteenth century, conspiracists warned of the dastardly secret intrigues of everyone from the Freemasons to the International Bankers. Anti-Catholic crusaders denounced "prowling" Jesuits and told one another lurid tales of corruption and vice behind monastery walls. Populists denounced the "treachery" of the "secret cabals of the international gold ring" that was threatening to bring America to ruin. By the mid twentieth century, the main enemy had migrated abroad. America's conspiratorial right wing, having set aside the Masons, fulminated against the evil powers of world communism and that other deadly force -- the United Nations.
But if the nature of the paranoia hasn't changed much since the early days of the Republic, the current conspiratorial upsurge does have some unique features. The growth of the militias -- which have emerged as a social phenomenon only since Waco -- has been remarkable: It's rare for conspiratologists to be quite so organized. According to Beth Hawkins, an investigative reporter for Detroit's Metro Times<>, by the fall of 1994 the Michigan militia "credibly could claim 10,000 members." The Militia of Montana (MoM) claims similar numbers, though perhaps not as credibly.
These are the success stories, but militias of some size are said to be operating in thirty-nine states. A couple thousand here, a couple thousand there -- pretty soon we're talking about real numbers. The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith (ADL) has estimated that there are fifteen thousand militia members nationwide. Other observers put the figure much higher. "If you count just the people who are arming
themselves against the day when U.N tanks roll through
the heartland to establish the one-world order, estimates
range only as high as 100,000," Time<> magazine
reported in the wake of the Oklahoma bombing, almost
Perhaps I'm being alarmist, but 100,000 seems to me rather a lot. Particularly when you start talking guns. In their heyday in the sixties, America's much dreaded Communist Party had fewer members than that; left groups today struggle along with memberships in the low hundreds. And the reds were then (and are today) armed only with pamphlets and their own big mouths; the militias pack both ideology and ammunition on their belts. If anything, the notoriety of the Oklahoma bombing has added to their appeal: According to the ADL, the militia movement has continued to grow since Oklahoma.
Militia-style paranoia has seeped deep into American politics. Inside the beltway and on the air, the country is awash with rumors about Vince Foster's suicide and conspiratorial accusations of BATF misdeeds at Waco. Last summer, our elected officials listened more-or-less politely while cammie-clad militiamen, appearing on Capitol Hill to testify before a Senate subcommittee, accused the government, among other things, of plotting vast and nefarious "weather wars" to disrupt the lives of Midwestern farmers.
The only political action Kennedy assassinologists tend to advocate is the opening of the assassination files, which might not be such a bad idea -- at least it would give them something to do. But the paranoia of the contemporary right can actually make a political difference. Consider the fate of the supremely innocuous Conference of the States -- intended to bring together governors from across the nation for several days of discussion last fall, but ultimately scrapped because of paranoid fears that the conference was really a secret constitutional convention, part of an insidious plot to turn the country over to an emergent one-world government.
A number of states have passed militia-style resolutions asserting their sovereign rights under the U.S. Constitution. The Oklahoma state legislature, going one step further, has declared itself firmly against a one-world government and has demanded that the "United States Congress cease any support for the establishment of a 'new world order.'"
Government officials have found themselves grappling with even odder outbursts of paranoia. Last year, Indiana transportation department officials were compelled to alter the maintenance codes marked on the back of highway signs, because some state residents were convinced that the markings were coded messages designed to assist invading U.N. troops. "People were calling, saying that we were part of the U.N. takeover plan," a spokeswoman for the department told the New York Times<>. "And then they were painting over the signs. It got so we couldn't ignore it." The signs are now being changed, which the department hopes will "reassure those in the motoring public who had these suspicions." Somehow, this isn't reassuring to me.
The flip side of the conspiracist's much vaunted skepticism -- the proto-democratic suspicion of experts and official explanations -- is an extreme, desperate, almost childlike willingness to believe almost any explanation that seems properly cynical, to seize on almost any possible solution, no matter how far-fetched. "When people cease to trust the authorities," writer Christopher Hitchens has noted, "they often become not more skeptical but more credulous." It's easy enough to understand why. Skepticism is not a comfortable thing -- it's hard to live a secure life when all your core beliefs are up for grabs. Thus the relentless, almost obsessive, search for the Truth.
The Truth Is Out There, the tag line of The X-Files<>, serves as a kind of credo for everyone who's ever cobbled together a serviceable conspiracy theory of their own. But it's a misleading slogan: The true conspiracists need precious little confirmation from the world "out there" to be convinced they are right. For them the truth is not so much out there as in<> there, buried within a system of thought that exists in a realm of its own and has its own logic -- slightly unhinged, to be sure, but internally consistent and all-encompassing enough to survive more than a few challenges from the putatively sane. It doesn't take much confirmation from "out there" -- a strange coincidence in the news, a sympathetic nod from someone in the government or the media -- to convince the conspiracist he's found the secret key to unlock political mysteries past and present.
Despite their different targets, all variants of conspiracism share what historian Richard Hofstadter, in his influential 1964 essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics<>," called "the same crusading mentality, the same sense that all our ills can be traced to a single center and hence can be eliminated by some kind of final act of victory over the evil source."
The necessary corollary of the belief in conspiracies as the
motor of history, as Hofstadter went on to note, is the belief that ingenious conspiracy hunters can be the brake. If a dozen men control the world, the one man who reveals
their secret can put himself at the flash point of history.
And the world had best take notice. "If the warnings of those
who diagnose the central treachery are not heeded soon
enough, we are finished," Hofstadter continues, summarizing the conspiratorial logic, "the world confronts an apocalypse of a sort prefigured in the Book of Revelation<>."
Sound dramatic? It is. The world of the conspiratologists is
undeniably a heroic place, a world in which one man -- if
diligent enough in his search for the truth -- has the
potential to save humanity from impending doom.
Of course, since the heroism is mostly in the mind of the hero, the bold maneuverings of the self-appointed saviors of
humanity often have an unintentionally comic air about
them. When a reporter for Time<> magazine knocked on
the door of former Michigan Militia "commander" Norman
Olson shortly after the Oklahoma bombing, he was greeted
by a bathrobe-clad would-be warrior in a state of high
alarm, distressed to have been pulled away even for a
moment from his phone and his fax machine. "Why are you
bothering me?" he demanded of the reporter. "Can't you see
I'm trying to stop World War III?"
Militia commanders may take their cues from military manuals; assassinologists patch together their personal style of heroism from espionage fiction and detective whodunits. Jim Garrison's On the Trail of the Assassins<> -- the book upon which Oliver Stone's 1991 film JFK<> was based -- is filled with scenes that seem to have been grafted from B detective movies, and dialogue that's as likely to have been imagined as remembered. "That might have been good enough for the Warren Commission, Dean, but it's not good enough for me," Garrison reports himself saying amid one dramatic showdown.
A few pages later Detective Jim gives Dean an ultimatum: "I leaned forward. 'Read my lips,' I said. I spoke with careful deliberation. 'Either you dance in to the Grand Jury with the real moniker of that cat who called you in to represent Lee Oswald, or your fat behind is going to the slammer. Do you dig me?'"
Politics, properly a collective endeavor, thus descends to the level of individual heroics -- or, as in the cases of Garrison and McVeigh, mock heroics, strange and oddly isolated crusades that by their very nature do more harm than good. This is not simply a symptom of a paranoid American mind-set, but of a political system so constricted in its range of options that it pushes many Americans to a kind of imaginary politics. In a winner-take-all two-party system, only the politician with the vaguest and broadest appeal has a chance. The two-party system is hell on mavericks -- except in the case of "mavericks" like Ross Perot, whose politics are safely centrist in their eccentricity, and mavericks like Colin Powell, who aren't really mavericks at all.
In countries with parliamentary systems, even those who get considerably less than a majority of the votes can achieve some kind of political recognition, resulting in a bewildering variety of parties ranging from the German Greens to England's whimsical Monster Raving Loony Party. It's hardly utopia, but it's a step in the right direction.
In America, those with odd ideas end up retreating from the world of real politics to the safer havens of their own minds -- to a kind of politics of the imagination, a politics responsible to no one and indifferent to its real-world consequences. Alone and isolated, those with odd ideas get still odder; their political visions become at once more pure and more apocalyptic. But, as Freud reminded us, the repressed has an uncanny knack for forcing its way back into our conscious life -- and often in the ugliest possible way.
First stop: paranoia. Next stop: the gun store.