Conspiracy theorists prisoners of solitude
In some ways, America has always been kind of a weird country. Or at least a country where weirdness flourishes.
That’s not surprising, because this country was founded and built by people who’d simply had enough of the Old World. When you’re escaping a sewer, anything else looks better, and you’re willing to try a lot of new ways of doing things.
One of the things we’ve tried is worship of the individual. The flip side of that worship, though, is the concern that other people are ganging up on us individuals.
Worries about conspiracies have long, deep roots in America. In the 1800s, there actually was an anti-Masonic political party, because some people thought the Masons were plotting a takeover. It gives a whole new sinister tint to the Shriners.
At other times, we had the Know-Nothing party, which had a real thing for Catholics and immigrants, among other groups. My guess is they didn’t want to be forced to eat fish on Fridays.
What makes the current era unique is the sheer number of conspiracy theories, the internet and a White House occupant who’s something of a conspiracy theorist himself.
If you want a read that will show you just how strange that world is, a new book, “Republic of Lies” by Anna Merlan, is a good place to start.
Merlin, who’s a very good reporter and writer, takes a tour of the various theories, everything from Pizzagate to Sandy Hook “truthers” to the Deep Staters. She’s pretty charitable with most of them, although her time with neoNazis left her deeply skeeved out.
She manages to accomplish a pretty amazing reportorial feat. She’s able to trace some of the conspiracies back to their very start. The Sandy Hook deniers, for example, got a lot of their beliefs from an ad from a casting company soliciting actors for disaster drills.
There are some organized conspiracy groups, but generally, conspiracy theories are the province of lone “investigators.” The problem is that a lot of those who call themselves that really don’t know much about how to investigate things, or what they really seek.
There’s a New York-based journalist named Ron Rosenbaum whose work often focuses on one of two areas, the Holocaust and the Kennedy assassination. The latter is sort of the granddaddy of conspiracy-theory-attracting events.
Years ago, Rosenbaum did a magazine piece about Kennedy assassination buffs. I did a paper on it and interviewed Rosenbaum, of whom I’d been a fan for years, during my research.
In the article, Rosenbaum talks about the concept of “dangerous knowledge.” Many conspiracy theorists purport to have discovered things dangerous to know, knowledge that puts their very lives at risk. It gives their avocation a kind of romance, a little frisson of B-movie excitement in their relatively humdrum lives.
There was one incident in the story that particularly struck me. Rosenbaum went to dinner with one of the leading theorists of the time and his assistant, a younger woman. During the course of that dinner, the woman told him about her life, which had been very difficult and unhappy.
It struck me that her past and her unhappiness may have been one of the keys to her obsession. Life often is a messy business, full of deep questions that often remain unanswered and events not understood. I suspected that the reason she got so deeply into conspiracy theory is that it was something she could give shape to, something that she could unlock with the keys she’d found, and it was a sort of distant remedy to the tortuous unknowns in her own life.
I bounced that off Rosenbaum during our interview. He said he had never actually thought of that, but liked my interpretation so much that he insisted it go in the paper I was writing.
In fact, I think what happened to that woman happens to most conspiracy theorists, no matter the conspiracy. It provides answers when so few other things do. People crave certainty. Even the weirdest, most unlikely conspiracy theory answers some question, as long as you don’t examine those answers so closely.
The problem is that conspiracy theorists tend to make a classic mistake among untrained researchers. They start with the conclusion — that a conspiracy exists — and then cherry-pick data that supports that conclusion.
And not only that; they spend years defending evidence that’s been thoroughly debunked. One piece of evidence for a Kennedy assassination conspiracy is the trajectory of one of the bullets, which the theorists said could only be explained if the bullet took a 90-degree turn in midair. It turned out that the bullet went through another person before hitting Kennedy, and the path of the bullet could be explained by their relative positions. Yet, you still see the so-called “magic bullet” theory taken seriously.
At the end of her book, Merlan blames conspiracy theories on several things, but one of them is that individualism.
“The worst conspiracy impulses, it seems, flourish in isolation,” she writes. “That, in a way, is the hardest condition to counter. Across the United States, there is an army of QAnon detectives or Sandy Hook deniers who sit at home, scrolling endlessly, sinking further and further into a construct of lies designed to provoke fear and fury. The bars maintaining their solitude are extremely sturdy; in a country of vast distances and weak social supports and community institutions, we have designed them that way.”
That, in the end, is the most tragic thing about conspiracy theorists. Like many other sad people, they live in a prison of their own making..
Tom Pantera is the news editor at the Wauneta Breeze. He has a passion for storytelling, obscure trivia and family. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org