(The birthers keep spewing new variants of their insanity. This essay is a discursive, wide-ranging response. Unfortunately, this piece has grown beyond my ability to finish in one day; I may return to this theme tomorrow.)
When did I first become interested in conspiracy theories? A long time ago in a (San Fernando) Valley far, far away.
When I was a tyke in the '60s, one of my Mom's friends possessed a copy of a weird, slim volume called Were We Controlled?
, which claims that Lee Harvey Oswald was hypnotized. I read much of it but didn't believe it. That volume crossed the boggle threshold of a nine-year-old.
As the 1970s wore on, I read up on JFK lore -- not obsessively, but to a fair degree. Three facts became clear: 1. This event had a genuinely important mystery lurking behind it; 2. Some assassination books (like David Lifton's Best Evidence
) seemed iffy; and 3. Some books in this genre were pure crap.
Much, much later in life it became clear that the James Jesus Angleton faction within the intelligence community killed Kennedy. ("I don't know who shot John," Mother declared with a preternaturally straight face.) There's a lot of evidence to support that view, but you won't find it easily.
The assassination debates no longer seem worth following. Why bother? The case is beyond the point of rescue. The controversy has been commandeered by deceivers and fanatics.
By "deceivers," I mean guys like Gerry Posner
and Vince Bugliosi
. This blog contributed to Gerry's downfall -- and Cannonfire will happily perform the same service for good old Vince, if the opportunity arises.
By "fanatics," I mean anti-Semites like Michael Collins Piper, right-wing wackos like Alex Jones
, and ill-educated fools like John Hankey (who may have the excuse of youth). He's the guy who made a viral video called JFK 2
, a popular work which blames the assassination -- and damned near everything else that has ever gone wrong in American history -- on the Bush family. That movie is demolished here
All of which brings us to the great problem.
During the 1970s, while reading up on Kennedy lore, I also stumbled across its ideological converse: Right wing conspiracy literature. The John Birch Society version of reality. That material seemed far less dangerous at that time than it does now, because it was relegated to the political fringe and seemed likely to stay there.
Basically, we're talking about anti-Jewish paranoia with the Jews cut out. In the 1970s, the example of Nazi Germany was nearer, and undisguised anti-Semitic conspiracy theories revolted most Americans. Post-war fascists, being a clever lot, decided to gull a new generation by pouring the old brew into new bottles with misleading labels. Instead of brazenly shouting "Jews control the world!
" the new conspiracists would cross out the word "Jews" and substitute a more polite term -- usually "international bankers." Or "cosmopolitans." Or "communism." Or "freemasons." Or "Illuminati." Or "aliens."
Ah yes. "Aliens." That euphemism proved particularly useful in the 1988-1998 period, the decade of UFO chic.
In that era, the man who did more than anyone else to hook the American public on paranoia was a rotund alcoholic named Milton William Cooper. You might call him the "voice in the wilderness" who paved the way for Alex Jones; naturally, the two men hated each other. Coop's genius move was to trade on the two meanings of the word "alien."
He spoke to massive audiences about the "alien" threat to our planet. At first, he intimated that his villains were extraterrestrial. As his lectures wore on, he revealed that the "aliens" were completely materialistic, that they controlled all the banks, that they controlled the media, and that they had "interbred" with the Rothschild family. A book called The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion
gave the inside scoop on the alien conspiracy. Just to underline his point, Coop told his listeners that the evil aliens all had big noses. Fortunately, the "big nose" aliens had a natural enemy -- a race of benevolent star-farers known as "the blondes," who were the saviors of humanity.
I think you get the picture.
Alas, Cooper's audience did not. No matter how thuddingly obvious the metaphor, thousands of ninnies across this land actually thought that when Cooper said "aliens," he meant creatures from another planet.
Yes, skulls really do achieve that level of thickness.
The Cooper madness taught me the dangers of conspiracy theory. Let's put the matter candidly: Kids coming of age in the 1990s were just plain fucking stupid
, much stupider than their parents were.
In the days before the internet, I collected reactionary conspiracy codswallop much as other people collect comic books or trading cards. Does anyone else out there recall the broadsides from an entity called Cosmic Awareness Speaks? The ravings of a memorably-named madman named Dr. Peter Beter? Did you know that Lyndon LaRouche used to write very different material under the name Lyn Marcus? The gonzo propaganda mills churned out tons of literature, and it was all very bizarre. And weirdly charming.
After a while (around the time of the Oklahoma City bombing) the charm began to wear off. The anti-Clinton crazies turned my stomach. The true believers who kept making excuses for Cooper revolted me. The militia maniacs scared the shit out of me. The literature of conspiracy wasn't fun anymore.
Yet it kept coming. And coming and coming. What we may call the Alex Jones weltanschauung has become the "official" unofficial view of political reality. This view informs many programs on The History Channel. It's all over Fox News. It's all over the radio.
We may call this ideology "conspiracism." As I like to say, all isms
But is ideology
is the right word? We might do better to speak of it as a religion. People who become immersed in conspiracism describe conversion experiences
-- always a dangerous sign. They refer to "taking the red pill" -- a metaphor derived from the film The Matrix
We've become a nation of pill-poppers. Paranoia is our smack.
The Republican party keeps this monkey on our collective back by selling nonstop conspiracism. They don't traffic in JFK theories (obviously) and they steer clear of overtly anti-Semitic notions (usually); otherwise, conspiracism is how they attain and maintain power. I'm not sure if the GOP adopted this strategy disingenuously (the 1996 election taught them that it pays to sell inchoate fear), or if genuine paranoids have taken over the Republican leadership.
The GOP became the conspiracy party as an inevitable result of being the Jesus party. Conspiracism is the secret ally of fundamentalist Christianity. We see this alliance in the publications of Tim LaHaye (who popularized paranoia about the Illuminati), Hal Lindsey, Jack Chick and William Schnoebelen. We see it in such works as Pat Robertson's The New World Order
. We see it whenever creationists argue that all of the world's scientists have plotted to deceive the faithful. We see it whenever an evangelist scries hidden Satanic messages into pop tunes, Disney movies or Harry Potter books.
Similarly, as this video
demonstrates, the deniers of global warming rely on John Birchian conspiracy theory to explain why the vast majority of scientists believe that human activity can change the world's climate.
Back in the mid-1990s, I often told friends that the world was heading toward a dangerous dichotomy. Soon, the citizenry would be given only two choices: The Dan Rather version of reality and the Willis Carto
version of reality. And that would be it
. No third choice.
Forget the great dissenters of the 1960s; it will be as if the '60s never happened. If you are a dissenter, you go into the Carto camp: That's your home. If you support the Establishment view, you go into the Dan Rather camp: That's your home. Those are your choices. There are no other camps
Fifteen years later, the names have changed but the false dichotomy remains the same. You can plug in other names. Katie Couric and Alex Jones will do. Or perhaps David Broder and Glenn Beck.
The larger point is this: The conspiracists have commandeered the great American tradition of maverick thought. Either you accept every word in the New York Times
(even when the grey lady prints crap from someone like Judy Miller), or you can listen to the ravings of loons like Sharron Angle and Michelle Bachmann. You can side with America the Bad or with America the Mad.
Since both the Becks and the Broders accept some form of neo-liberal economic ideology, rebellion is a mirage. There is
no genuine alternative in this country; samisdat writers and the mainstream pundits will lead you to the same place. Conspiracism is itself a conspiracy: It functions as a device to co-opt the alienated and the angry.
Many Americans sense that something has gone seriously wrong. They understand that lies forced us into the Iraq war. They became infuriated by the decision to bail out Wall Street. They know that they have been screwed over by the financial elites and by their purchased legislators.
Those same elites understand that all potential rebels need to be channeled away from left-wing solutions. Conspiracism sidetracks the oppressed into a form of "dissent" that can only strengthen the oppressors.
The conspiracy theorists are
the conspiracy.(More soon.)