Conspiracy Nation

IN ONE OF those fits of examination to which all media are prone in the waning weeks of the year, Newsweek has discerned a crisis of faith in the land. As usual, it is the bad faith of the people that concerns them--in this case, the penchant of Americans for believing in outlandish conspiracies. "Aliens killed JFK," the headline treatment shouts. "The CIA started the crack epidemic. Kurt Cobain was murdered. Who comes up with this stuff? And why do so many people believe it?" Craziness, all of it. Well, except for the part about the CIA, whose complicity with Central American cocaine traffickers engaged in funding the Nicaraguan contras is fairly well established in Gary Webb's San Jose Mercury News series from last August. But I quibble.

"Conspiracy paranoia is surrounding us," write Rick Marin and T. Trent Gegax. The latter, as it happens, is a former City Pages intern who knows something about conspiracy; facts, and fact-checkers, used to conspire against him with alarming regularity. "A paranoid person might even say it's closing in, because these wacky theories aren't just spreading in the usual cheesy newsletters dense with type and craziness. Fomented on the Internet, mass-marketed by Hollywood (The X-Files, Independence Day), conspiracism has become a kind of para-religion." And: "[T]he ranks of the darkly deluded may be growing. A recent survey in George magazine indicated that three quarters of Americans believe that 'the Government is involved in conspiracy.'"

Here, beneath the wretched prose and the cloying sheen of irony, is the real nut of the matter: The portion of the American public that does not trust in the good faith of official power is vast and growing. For those Americans who aspire to live as close as possible to a state of real democracy--as ever, a small and embattled class--this is one of the few positive signs on the horizon. It's hard to imagine such a silly discussion happening in any other purportedly free country. Of course this government, like every other, routinely engages in conspiracy. It routinely funds any number of secret police agencies. It plays host every day to battalions of K Street lobbyists whose handsomely paid job it is to conspire against the popular will and the popular interest.

If there is a distinctly American pathology at stake here, it is the will to believe otherwise. Few ostensible democracies feature a public dialogue as stunted and willfully naive as ours. The American media deserve a great deal of the blame. Even in Israel, a state whose government is one of the few rivals of ours in sheer thuggishness, there is vigorous and relatively open discussion of the Palestinian question; compare it to the coverage of poverty and race in the American press and it no longer seems mysterious that so many people on the margins of society embrace mystical explanations of their fate. They are offered no other. When ignorance is the national religion, it hardly makes sense to blame the parishioners and absolve the priests.

The root of the conspiracist mindset lies partly in isolation, and in this regard the contemporary unbelievers are not so different from the adherents of the various agrarian populist movements of the late 19th century, who somehow got the fantastical notion that there was an organized set of financial interests acting in concert to take advantage of them. One might also see in the conspiratorialists a kind of rebellion against the ethos of our political and social life, in which nothing is purported to mean anything, or at least not anything relevant to the tightening straits in which most Americans now find themselves. Most people wish very sensibly to understand the meaning of what is happening to them. In the absence of concrete information, myths are sure to abound; in a people trained to equate patriotism with a blind filial faith in government, the myths are bound a good deal of the time to revolve around conspiratorial hijackings of that government: the United Nations. The Kennedy assassination. Fluoride in the water supply.

None of this is particularly surprising or, so far as the ruling classes are concerned, alarming. Government itself inveighs against government nowadays, which ought to tell us something. In the view of its owners, deriding government is harmless fun and useful diversion--up to a point. It isn't government, after all, that is reaping fabulous profits by slowly disinvesting in the United States and taking its wealth elsewhere. Of course one is never sure exactly when a loathing of the governors turns into a loathing of the system of government, and the latter may indeed pose a threat to what we are now far too genteel to call "the money power." This is the delicate balance that the punditry is presently fretting over, and with good reason.

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