no matter how weird or fantastic,
captivate a public always hungry for a new hoax.
SEVEN CONSPIRACY THEORIES FOR THE MODERN AGE
ADMIT IT: conspiracies are a guilty pleasure. Today’s most popular conspiracies are a mix of new and old — some based on current events, others classic chestnuts that simply, even with time, refuse to die.
• The faked moon landing. (Your Editor’s wife’s favorite.) It doesn’t get any better than this one: the giant leap for mankind was actually a footstep in the desert. Not when you mix politics with outer space, along with a stinging deflation of “Right Stuff” mythology. Not when NASA spent $15,000 to counter public impressions that the moon landing never happened. Among questions posed by skeptical lady theorists: how could the flag be pictured fluttering on the moon with no atmosphere or wind on the surface? Hmm. (And her best argument: You’ve been to Disneyland haven’t you)
• Princess Diana plottings. You could fill more than one book with these popular theories: Diana was pregnant with Dodi Fayed’s child at the time of her death, Diana was actually supposed to marry Bill Clinton, the British royals are actually murderous Freemasons, and so on. (To name just a few popular ones.)
* Contrails out to kill us. Those harmless-looking white lines of condensed water vapor from airplanes that line the sky are actually a toxic substance sprayed on us by the government. Once again, NASA is among the handful of federal agencies putting on a PR offensive to counter the claims.
• The United States is bankrupt, broke. This is the fault of an “invisible govern-ment of monetary power,” a financial elite “whose sick-brained policies have now spawned depression, war and revolution,” one scribe writes.
• The clones are coming. Thanks to genetic engineering, no “real” folks will be sent out to fight in times of war — clones will. If you can’t recruit the perfect soldier, just have a scientist make one in the lab.
• The “real” reason Titanic sank. That was no iceberg. It was a German torpedo. Since then, the American and British governments have covered it up.
* The alien autopsy. This “oldie but goodie” seems to sprout a sizzling new development every week . In the latest, theorists say the CIA actually staged the entire thing years ago, anticipating it would be exposed as a fraud, and, therefore, discredit those annoying UFO reports.
BY: DENNIS MCCAFFERTY
C AN ANYONE DOUBT WE LIVE IN THE GOLDEN AGE OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES? No longer confined to churning out their latest revelations on creaky typewriters and cranking up the old mimeograph machines to distribute copies, modern-day conspiracy theorists deploy 21st- century tech tools to get the word out and — thanks to a ubiquitous and insatiable media —enjoy far more than their requisite 15 minutes of fame.
THEY’RE EVERYWHERE No event is too minor nor too intimidating — whether it’s an alien invasion cover-up, Watergate, Koreagate, Iran/Contra-gate, the various Clintongates and, lest we not forget, Moongate (the one about the moon landing being faked, of course. An abundance of Web sites — the Conspiracy Nets and the Conspiracy Planets out there —post a fresh helping of panic every day. Indeed, if you’re counting by Web matches, the topic of conspiracy on the Internet is an even bigger draw than Britney Spears. (And did you happen to know that Spears is actually Satan? At least that’s what one online conspiracy theorist contends.)
It’s quite a niche, a niche built by those who add confusion to events in need of clarity and offer alternative realities to that which once seemed concrete. How seriously do people take this stuff? Seriously enough for NASA to shell out some $15,000 to convince the public that it really did land men on the moon. Seriously enough that the line between conspiracy theorists and esteemed newsmakers has become irrevocably blurred. Before the Web, the designation of “pundit” was pretty much limited to the George Wills of the world. Now, the perpetually stressed-out, 20-something producer for that non-stop cable news station has lots of broadcast minutes to fill, and filling them with the latest, wild-eyed conspiracy — regardless of its basis in fact —gets the job done.
Rising star Alex Jones of Austin started with a local cable-access program, now hosts a radio show broadcast in 80 cities and regularly appears on “Good Morning America,” “20/20 Downtown,” “60 Minutes,” The Discovery Channel, A&E, Court TV and a host of other top national outlets. His site, Infowars.com, gets a staggering 2 million visitors a week. And Jones is only 30 years old. He got started by watching C-SPAN in college, instead of ESPN, actually tracking down the bills discussed, so he could read them himself.
Jones concluded that the so-called partisan wars between Democrats and Republicans were nothing more than “Shakespearian theater,” public posturing to really deceive the people. Now, he rails against the “new world order,” a conspiratorial assault on the nation’s constitutional freedoms under the pretense of the war on terrorism. As with many of his colleagues, Jones scoffs at being labeled as a conspiracy theorist. But he doesn’t protest, either. “I have one of the most diverse audiences imaginable,” Jones says. “That’s because I expose both conservatives and liberals. The news media says those calling for a halt to the new world order are conspiracy theorists. Well, this new world order is all around the place. Before, half of my phone callers were saying I was a kook. Now, those same people are calling me to apologize, saying this thing really exists. All I’ve done is wake people up.” Jones is following the lead of more established theorists, such as Kenn Thomas. Thomas started Steamshovel Press as a small newsletter in 1988, and, from there, cultivated a multimedia enterprise as the Web bloomed. He has published a dozen books and a niche magazine with 3,000 paying subscribers. He has also appeared on Fox and TNN. His theory fodder has inspired “X-Files” episodes and the Mel Gibson movie “Conspiracy Theory.”
Not that the rewards come without risks: “A couple of days after returning from a speaking engagement in Washington, D.C.,” Thomas says, “I came home and the door was locked at the knob, unlocked at the deadbolt. I always lock at the dead-bolt and keep the knob unlocked. How’s that for a Mel Gibson scenario? I have reason to believe that one of my writing partners and one of my book publishers were both killed through the use of clostridium bacteria, which also has been found in a large percentage of those weird cattle mutilation cases
We’ll just have to take Thomas’ word for it, which leads us to ask where all this be-gan . Conspiracies are hardly an invention of modern times. Shakespeare made his name by packing his pages with deliciously deadly plottings, to the point where even his name is the subject of a lingering conspiracy, one proposing that the Bard didn’t actually pen all of those plays. But conspiracies go back further than that. They’re as old as the Scriptures, which are loaded with conspiratorial designs. Think back to the unfortunate, sibling-organized demise of Joseph and his Techni-color Dreamcoat.
University of Maine at Macbias English assistant professor Marcus Librizzi, who teaches a course on the subject, argues that America is a nation born from conspiracy —“bathed in suspicion against government and how it might, without our vigilance, remove our liberties,” he says. This is consistent with the history of nations throughout time: think back to the Aztecs’ rocky revenge tactics against Montezuma, Julius Caesar’s ‘Et tu, Brutus?’ moment of discovery, the “Royal Ripper” buzz that linked the British Royals to a Freemason crew that killed as part of a secret ritual, and the witchhunts of Salem, which neatly segued to the witchhunts of Washington in the mid-2Oth century.
These days, conspiracy theories fly even more furiously. It’s not like Shakespeare’s day, when the latest messy piece of history had to be meticulously woven into an elaborate script in iambic pentameter. We have no time for that today, with thousands of conspiracy theorists flourishing, all competing for Web users’ time.
Shortly after Minnesota Sen.Paul Wellstone’s plane crashed last year, speculation immediately flooded newsrooms and Web sites, suggesting he was murdered. The come one, come all” approach to this sort of thing has resulted in some wild rumors going around: Princess Diana was murdered by a Satanist cult, America is bankrupt , unemployed lawyers killed Nicole Simpson and framed O.J. in the process. The contrails conspiracy is all the rage these days, insisting that when airplanes leave white lines of condensed vapor in the sky, they’re actually composed of a toxic substance manufactured by the government to spray undesirables. You also have the mind-control theories, quite popular amid this conspiracy chatter. It seems like everybody was a Manchurian candidate: Jack Ruby and Mark David Chapman, for starters.
WHAT’S THE DRAW?
The inclusive aspect of conspiracies is what attracts fans, experts say. Sure, many theorists side with a political party and draw lines in the sand (remember Hillary Clinton’s “vast right-wing conspiracy”). But many, like Jones, simply scout for a good story to tell and then latch on with a tight grip.
“Conspiracy theories are great, equal-opportunity doctrines,” says Jeff Hyson, a popular-culture specialist and assistant professor of history at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “People from both the left and the right can line up with them. We’re always trying to rethink the past in a way that’s satisfying to the present. That means we remember some facts and disregard the others. That allows us to recreate an interpretative framework that leads to a satisfying explanation of how the past turned out the way it did. People don’t want to accept the randomness of history.”
Let’s face it: a sizzling conspiracy can be a lot of fun — a guilty pleasure, perhaps, like a good, dime-store mystery novel. “Conspiracy theorists know how to tell a good story,” says Mark Fenster, co-author of “Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. (University of Minnesota Press) “That’s key to their success. They bring meaning to an event. They often have an implicit hero and always-explicit villains. It works in novels and film, right? So it works for these guys.” Author Jonathan Vankin has made a cottage industry of chronicling the conspiracy community . In 1995, he published “50 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time.” By 1998, he had creased the number of conspiracies to 60. Then in 2000, he republished it with co-author John Whalen as “70 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time” (Kensington).
Vankin is a big fan of the faked moon-landing theory. “Yeah,” he says, chuckling. “that’s the one where we all thought the astronauts were on the moon. But they were really filming the ‘landing’ in a desert in Nevada, and the astronauts were act-ually getting lap dances from showgirls somewhere in Vegas.” Remember, “What happens in Vegas, Stays .... ....” He said he feels NASA’s recent effort is a smart move. One of the things that fuels conspiracy theories is that they’re always treated like nonsense when a key element of society feels that they aren’t,” Vankin says. “When the government is silent and ignores it, it just confirms there’s a conspiracy out there.”
However, the surge in popularity, for now, hasn’t translated into untold fortunes for conspiracy theorists, experts say. Thomas says his business pays for itself, but little else. The payoff is essentially the satisfaction gained in convincing the people. And in the golden age of conspiracy, it’s easier than ever to reach them.
“With the Kennedy assassination, it took a couple of years for the conspiracy theories to get out there,” Vankin says. “It took that long to infiltrate the public mind until, by the 1970s, it was a popular. school of thought. These days, the theories emerge instantly. The day after Princess Diana died, we got e-mails at my Web site within literally minutes of the first report that she had died, saying that this was a British intelligence operation. They contended that the British royal family wanted her wiped out.” In the end, it seems wise to stop worrying and learn to love con-spiracy theorists. After all, if something in your life is that troubling, a reason-able explanation for it probably exists. If not? Someone will be happy and ready to invent one.
Dennis McCafferty is a freelance
writer from Herdon, Va.
The AMERICAN LEGION Magazine
November .2004. (Pgs. 54-58)
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