Thursday, September 16, 2010

Behind Conspiracy Theories

America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy.
—John Updike, Problems and Other Stories
US author [1932-2009]  

Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe. 
—Frederick Douglass [1818-1895],
American social reformer, writer and statesman

Many people believe in conspiracy theories. The logic of most conspiracy theories is that the government has some sort of covert operation that has either kept something under wraps, or sanctioned something illegal or nefarious, done under cover of "night" to hide their activities.

The Roswell UFO Incident about aliens is an example of the first, the assassination of a public figure is an example of the second. (The first greatly explains the popularity of The X-Files, a TV show that aired between 1993 and 2002.)  I will not pass judgment on conspiracy theories or the persons who hold them. I am not so much interested in the veracity of conspiracy theories but in the reasons they take root in our collective imaginations.

I will leave the sorting out of truth and error to the experts, to marshal the facts and debate the various conspiracies in front of an audience or on the Net. My interest is looking at why conspiracy theories hold so much fascination for so many people. 

Some of the most famous conspiracy theories include the assassination of President John F. Kennedy [November 22, 1963], the death of Elvis Presley [August 16, 1977] and subsequent sightings of him post facto, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales [August 31, 1997], and, most recently, the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City [September 11, 2001]. You will notice that all four cases involve death, and, in particular, what is called untimely death.

The first three, President Kennedy, Elvis Presley, and Princess Diana, involved the untimely death of charismatic international leaders. Millions of people can remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news about the deaths of these legends. Millions of people had placed their hopes, faith and desires for a better world on these world-known leaders, and with their death came the loss of hope and feelings of despair. Such might be natural breeding grounds for conspiracies to thrive.

At the White House: Diana, Princess of Wales with the Regans at the White House, November 1985.
Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library.
If one examines conspiracy theories, you find some root causes: a distrust of the official government account of events, a general mistrust of government, a seeking of the hidden truth, a need for justice, and a sense of dissatisfaction or foreboding of the way society is headed.

In short, many thinking people share some or all of these traits, but, perhaps not to the same degree as those who put a lot of faith and energy in government-led conspiracies. That is, we do not entirely trust the intentions of governments, realizing that self-interest or bowing down to powerful special interests motivates much of what they do. But we might not share the view that governments always have nefarious motives.

When you question how difficult it is to fabricate a Conspiracy of Silence, that it would take the combined efforts of many independent organizations operating at arm's length—the media and the judicial and legislative branches of government—the conspiracy proponents remain undeterred, much in the same manner that religious adherents remain unconvinced by counter arguments.

That might be telling for two reasons. Many people distrust government, and many people have a need to search out for truth, seeking justice. Ultimately, people need to believe in something besides themselves. So, with the loss of a major charismatic unifying figure, such as President Kennedy, Princess Diana, or Elvis, people feel a sense of loss and, in some cases, alienation from the society in which they reside.

Equally compelling, conspiracy theories speak of helplessness and powerless and the search for meaning. There might be a direct correlation, or at least a relationship, between lack of faith in government and the level of conspiracy theories circulating worldwide.

That being said, it might be a worthy and practical endeavor for governments, the media and universities to discuss the social contract between government and the people, if only to explain its importance. If governments were more open, honest and sincere, and truly cared about the people they governed, instead of the trappings of power and of the next election, less conspiracy theories would be circulating.
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Note: I would like to hear your stories and views on what you consider important, whether it's the economic crisis, the erosion of democracy and humanity or anything that affects the human spirit. Many of us are going through very difficult economic and trying times. The Poor, the working poor, the struggling family should not be stigmatized. You can help make a change and a difference in society. Everyone should be able to live life with dignity. I love to hear your stories. 

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