How the humble conspiracy theory became all-powerful
On my return journey from Paris on the Eurostar, a happy Texan began chatting to me. After we’d established what he thought of the French (“Too prissy”), he began to share some secrets.
“Listen, friend, I’m tellin’ ya - I’ve seen the wonders of the world, and the official version of events doesn’t hold up” he explained. “How could primitive societies have built the pyramids?”
The only other possibility seemed to be that they were built by a friendly crew of aliens.
“And you think we’re the first civilization to have reached this level of technology? No way, Jose. Ancient societies were much more advanced than us” he intoned wisely.
Really? If so, then they probably would’ve used up some of the Earth’s resources. So why don’t the geological records indicate this?
“There are things we don’t understand!” he interrupted, agitated.
Still, I liked the Texan. By the time we reached St. Pancras, he’d managed to explain half a dozen mysteries of the universe to me with far more narrative panache than boring old science.
And it’s not like he’s the first person to overindulge in conspiracy pie. Conspiracy theories are intellectual candy, speculative fantasies to feast upon. But to have your entire world-view based on conspiracy theories is like eating a cake made entirely of frosting. Which, to a Texan, probably sounds very appetizing.
As well as pornography, cats and extreme opinions, the internet has proven itself to be the ideal habitat for yet another one of humanity’s odd passions. The humble conspiracy theory, knowledge’s disturbed uncle whose uncanny knack of twisting the truth is somehow weirdly captivating, is fast becoming our favoured form of discourse.
Before the internet, I imagine conspiracy theorists once congregated in comic book stores and disused warehouses to share alternative explanations of gravity and the sinister origins of pasta. Forming a community of conspiracy nuts was difficult, pre-internet. You needed a genuinely baffling event to bother with the whole thing.
But thanks to what was once optimistically called the information superhighway - now more of a spaghetti junction of half-truths - conspiracy buffs can pig out on every kind of outlandish hypothesis you can imagine.
Even when better, more rigorous explanations are readily available, alternative theories can flourish online. See those trails emitted by aeroplanes? That’s the government spraying the population to keep us docile. You know the way the ground appears flat? That’s because the Earth actually is flat.
It’s not like conspiracies are new. Knowledge has always been shrouded with mystery. Since learning was a taboo - and, for millions, still is - those denied access to the ‘inner circle’ of secret information have always elaborated imaginatively on the hidden truth.
But today, we face a different problem. Reams of competing information networks, with their own rules, hierarchies and histories, demand our attention. Increasingly-complex technology creates more and more subdivisions of knowledge. And sprawling, secretive governments have repeatedly proven that they can and will hide important information from their own people.
Conspiracies speak of our love of stories. Secrets, cover-ups, mystical forces from ancient religions to aliens - they have all the ingredients of blockbusters. Many contain elements of truth.
But it seems like conspiracy theories are now the only theories making any headway. They’ve become shields against uncomfortable truths. We’d rather believe that the government orchestrated 9/11, than confront the possibility that no-one is in control.
Meanwhile, over in Battlestar Galactica - sorry, I mean America - the conspiracy theory has become the official position of the government. The power of the conspiracy theory has been hijacked by the usual plutocrats for the usual reasons. Government by the rich for the rich always needs some kind of smokescreen, and the Republican’s favourite fairytale of a secret liberal intelligentsia fits the bill perfectly.
Of all the conspiracy theories out there - including the one about the global elite being a race of space-faring reptiles - this is the most ludicrous. Sure mate, there’s a powerful cabal of liberals hell-bent on spreading even-handedness.
Donald Trump, the world’s richest clown, has cast doubt upon any and every source of information available, other than himself. The sheer volume of ‘alternative facts’ is, in a way, admirable, each one casting him further and further from the shores of reason. Having attempted to compose fiction many times, I know all too well how difficult it is to come up with believable storylines.
Conspiracy theories offer elaborate alternate worlds where we can be at the forefront of knowledge, part of the inner circle, of a parallel world. Everyone talks about escapism, but what we secretly crave is reality. Trump’s appeal to the inner conspiracy buff in us is a demand to accept a simplified view of the world, one with a comfortingly unambiguous cast of heroes and villains. It’s our world, but with the complicated stuff left out.
If enlightenment is the liberation of reality from the illusion of the self (probably worth reading that again), then conspiracy theories are the absorption of reality by the self’s anxiety. Our personal perspective engulfs the wider world, so that our point of view is the only one that matters.
Ultimately, following the plodding progress of backstage politics, the fiddly world of social policy and the impenetrable realm of science can be very boring.
Much more fun to believe in a sensationalist narrative starring Hollywood heroes and evil villains. And from there it’s a short hop to believing whatever you fancy, regardless of the evidence – a position that suits demagogues like Trump very nicely. After all, while I never asked the Texan on the Eurostar how he voted, it probably wasn’t Democrat.