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Conspiracy theories--a rant - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
Conspiracy theories--a rant
My mother is wild about The Da Vinci Code. She knows I love art and am basically never going to leave my job because I dig being in fairly close proximity to a whole lot of it. She knows I love religious history.

So why, she asks, am I not remotely interested in reading The Da Vinci Code? (Okay, she didn't ask, but judging from the bewildered tone in her voice when I said, "You know... really not," she was quite confused by the fact.)

Well, I'll tell you: It's pretty much for the same reason that that I roll my eyes at the mere mention of the phrase "grassy knoll."

Conspiracy theories don't entertain me. They drive me batshit. More seriously, they scare me. Not because I'm afraid of the Big Bad Conspiracy, but because a little knowledge of cults goes a long way when it comes to the way you see the world.

The cults, the conspiracies, and me
First, on the driving me batshit part:

Most conpsiracy theories involve a level of ability to keep and guard secrets over extended periods of time that I find highly doubtful, to say the least. They require everyone involved to be equally involved, and totally committed. They require a belief that everyone will remember secret codes and symbols without a cheat sheet, or that those cheat sheets will never fall into anyone else's hands. (Or the documents themselves will, and be decrypted.) They require cooperation between massive numbers of human beings far greater than any I have observed in the natural world. And then they expect me to believe that Uncle Clem figured it all out by stumbling over an insignificant piece of trash.

This just annoys me on a logic level, and on a characterization level. As a writer, I observe people. It's what I do. I'm an inveterate eavesdropper and a terrible snoop, though I try to limit both to strangers to whom it matters not one whit what I hear. I watch people interacting in the street and in the office. And you know what?

People are ornery cusses. People with good intentions might be able to keep a secret longer, because people with good intentions tend to get along with one another better, but those never seem to be the conspiracy targets. When was the last time you heard of a conspiracy to hand out fluffy bunny rabbits and make little children happy? No, the conspiracy-people are always ruthless and ambitious, full of evil intent. People like that honestly don't work and play well together, and would be even less likely candidates for being able to perpetrate a vast and unknown conspiracy for centuries.

It offends logic and human nature.

On a more ominous note, the obsession with conspiracies scares the hell out of me.

I've had a passing interests in dangerous cults for most of my life, and I've read arguments about "What's a cult? What's a new religion?" and so on. But the one thing that's stuck out to me about pretty much every dangerous cult going is that it subscribes to circular thinking and a siege mentality, with vast and shadowy conspiracies lurking in every direction. The conspiracies may be made up of Jews, Christians, Communists, Liberals, Conservatives, Big Business, whatever. Some might provide "evidence" of these conspiracies by listing members of the targeted group who have offended them in some way. But it's always Them-Against-Us... we're the True Believers and They want us stamped out before we can reveal The Truth.

This can't be addressed by reason, because conspiracy theories always explain away contradictory evidence with one simple panacea of an explanation: They control the record. Of course the truth isn't visible in it, and of course there are outright lies instead. They (whoever they are) have been diligently excising all mentions of the conspiracy. Only if you read whatever screed the cult holds as sacrosanct will you understand the nefarious depths to which They will sink.

Why does this scare me?

I mean, other than the fact that obviously, it's not uncommon for people to accept these delusions because they make some kind of sense of a world that feels like it's gone wrong.

I'll tell you: Because the logical end of conspiracy theorizing is mass murder, or an attempt at it. Even for the nonviolent conspiratologist, the only possible end is the destruction of the offending institution (government, religion, whatever). Conspiracy-based thinking is always destructive, because it externalizes and concretizes all problems--all my misery isn't because of impersonal and disconnected reasons; it's because I'm being attacked, and I'm going to fight back.

So basically, I think we're dealing with a very destructive human instinct to behave as though we're under siege (when we're not). That's not to say that there aren't destructive organizations out there or people who need to back off, but most of them are pretty open about it, at least once they get hold of any power whatsoever.

Anyway, I have to go now, but I didn't think I'd ranted about this subject previously, and figured I might as well do so.
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Comments
disturbed_kiwi From: disturbed_kiwi Date: February 17th, 2005 02:08 am (UTC) (Link)

I'd Just Like To Say

Despite the faulty writing, despite the tired conspiracies and the potential for buidling up things such as you mention in your worries, and of course the cardboard cutout characters with the subtle dialouge of a falling brick, I only hope to one day be able to write anything that grips the reader half as well as Dan Brown.

None of the ingredients explain it but somehow he makes it work.
straussmonster From: straussmonster Date: February 17th, 2005 02:21 am (UTC) (Link)
Ah, conspiracy theories. The offspring of the most fringe parts of the School of Suspicion. You'll note that they depend upon a level of planning and/or coincidence that far surpasses the absurd, but the conspiracy theorist is somehow able to see these connections that no one else has EVER figured out, and makes everything work out...and when it works out in a system that can explain everything, who has room to doubt?

*raises hand in the back of the room*
(no subject) - feylin17 - Expand
ashtur From: ashtur Date: February 17th, 2005 02:35 am (UTC) (Link)
I've always kept an eye on both the cults, and conspiricy theories. The latter out of humor value as much as anything. To a certain, very limited extent,there is a teeny grain of truth in there. To wit: powerful people will tend to gravitate to one another, and at times, do things that advance their mutual interests. That's not a headline.

Take the "Masonic Conspiricy". Whatever may have been true of it in the past (kind of shadowy really), early-mid 20th Century America, it was, as much as anything "an old boys club". The members looked out for each other, and scratched one anothers back. A conspiricy? I suppose you could call it that. Sinister? Not really. Threatening to the free world? Not remotely.
spasmodicdb From: spasmodicdb Date: February 17th, 2005 02:50 am (UTC) (Link)
I really disliked The Da Vince Code not so much for the conspiracy theories (although those didn't exactly draw me to it) but because of the style it was written in, the horrendous (in my opinion) characters, and the overall plot.
maple_clef From: maple_clef Date: February 17th, 2005 10:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
You're right, the whole thing was extremely badly-written. He seemed to have gotten rather excited at all the theories, done lots of research (on the internet), and dumped everything in the book as exposition, neglecting to bother with any frills such as characterisation. As for the plot - he turned on the tv, watched a few soap operas and made a note of the plot structures. taking special care to record the embarrassing 'cliffhangers' to use at the end of each chapter... Miaow!
marycontraria From: marycontraria Date: February 17th, 2005 03:00 am (UTC) (Link)
I kind of liked the Da Vinci Code, even though it was implausible (to put it mildly), obvious (for the most part), and very poorly written (throughout). I think the reason I enjoyed it so much - besides the fact that for some reason it's the kind of book that can pull you in even while not being very good - was the fact that it was based on careful research. I kept coming across familiar details... bits of church history I'd heard about from other places, etc... which kind of made me wonder, "well, if this is true, is the next thing true? where does it stop being true?" and for me, it was just really interesting to sort out fact from fiction in my head.

However. I'm pretty sure that the (incredibly cheesy) conclusion of the book is not going to lead me to any great, historically signifigant discoveries. It was just an entertaining summer read. And if it doesn't interest you, it doesn't interest you.

Why the aversion to the phrase "grassy knoll"??
leeflower From: leeflower Date: February 17th, 2005 03:02 am (UTC) (Link)
I actually attribute another aspect of the human spyche to the popularity of conspiracy theories: the need to feel special.

If you know, heart and soul, with tons of evidence only you and a select few can interpret, who really killed Kennedy, or Elvis, or hell, even King Tut, it makes you special. You've been chosen as one of the few people smart enough, shrewd enough, loyal enough, and stable enough to handle the darkness that lies behind the curtain. Everyone else, all those normal, well-adjusted people in the world, the ones with more friends, better jobs, nicer lives... it's not that they've got more luck and more social graces, it's that they're *sheep.* You might be living in a trailer with nothing but usenet for company, but that's only because you know The Truth. That's only because, unlike all those other people, you're SPESHUL.

It's the smae instinct that draws people to Fluff!Wicca and Right-Wing Televangalist Christianity in droves.

Me, I keep my conspirizing to the humourous and the irrelevant. Sure, I crack jokes about what's really hidden in Fort Knox, but when it comes right down to it, I know the whole fun lies in suspending disbelief. And therein lies the crux of the conspiracy hobby: it's all fun and games until somebody loses their mind.

(I have it on good authority that the thing about Jeb Bush being a robot is true, though. My cousin on my mom's side's only aunt's only daughter told me she saw him fail a metal detector test once).
sprite6 From: sprite6 Date: February 17th, 2005 03:15 am (UTC) (Link)
Word to this. I have a friend who's a conspiracy theorist (though highly intelligent and skeptical in other ways; I still haven't wrapped my head around the contrast) and he's also a person who makes a point of listening to obscure bands no one else has heard of. I've decided it's because he likes to be in the know, listening to the cutting edge stuff rather than anything so common as to be popular. The sad thing is, it means his musical taste is very narrow.
leeflower From: leeflower Date: February 17th, 2005 04:02 am (UTC) (Link)
::nod:: that's exactly it.

It can manifest as the people who never do anything if other people are doing it, even if they were doing it first and still enjoy doing it ("I was into LotR, but then it got popular..."), as people who conspiracy theorize, or as people who always see the loch ness monster and bigfoot. The common tie is a special insight into the universe that only a select few have.
marycontraria From: marycontraria Date: February 17th, 2005 04:15 am (UTC) (Link)
Really really good point. It's taken me a long time to accept the fact that I can actually like things that are popular without buying into the whole everybody's-doing-it mentality. After all, it's just as stupid to not like something because it's popular as it is to like it just because it's popular. Or maybe stupider. And of course, I too am guilty of just liking to feel special - I like stupid British films way better than stupid American ones. I enjoy useless trivia. I obsess over stupid things, needing to know as much about them as I possibly can. I memorise random and pretentious Latin phrases. I spell "memorise", etc., with an s instead of a z. So is the next step buying into conspiracy theories??

Nah. Because it's important to recognise why you like certain things, and as long as I can admit that the reason I do weird things is because I like feeling as though I'm a step ahead of, a few inches above, or somehow set apart from the rest of the world, I'm probably doing okay.
leeflower From: leeflower Date: February 17th, 2005 05:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
exactly. There's a certain draw to knowing you've got a lot of information about a culture most people didn't know existed. It's when you start believing that the culture in question still exists as a secret underground illuminati controlling the free world that it's time to take a break to go answer the clue phone.
mafdet From: mafdet Date: February 17th, 2005 06:24 am (UTC) (Link)
I really think you've hit on something there. Waaay back in my misspent youth, I hung out with a very eclectic alternative crowd. Lots of people wanting to be oh-so-Speshul, and lots and lots and LOTS of conspiracy theories. One man was sure that the government was tapping his phone line, and if there was a little bit of static he'd freak. He was a musician-slash-waiter - I honestly don't know why the government would want to tap his phone line. ;) But I guess it made him feel all Speshul and warm inside to believe it. Or something.
hobbitguy1420 From: hobbitguy1420 Date: February 17th, 2005 07:12 am (UTC) (Link)
Matrix syndrome, right? We *KNOW* - we've been Chosen!
leeflower From: leeflower Date: February 17th, 2005 05:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
yeah. we crack jokes about project eschelon around here all the time, but when it really comes down to it, I've got nothing the government wants to read, and anyone fool enough to plan illegal activity over unencrypted emails deserves whatever's coming to them.

Sort of like the "Even if there are aliens, why would they come HERE?" joke: even if you have 'documented proof' the government is out to get people, you still have to make the leap about why they'd be out to get YOU, which most conspiracy theorists really can't do. And anyone the government really WOULD be out to get would probably have the sense to keep a low profile.
sonetka From: sonetka Date: February 17th, 2005 03:15 am (UTC) (Link)
I've wondered about this sort of thing before; largely due to the fact that by far the most memorable of my exes (not that I exactly have tons of them) had a father who was into this sort of thing. It wasn't of the "The Jews are going to kill us all" level, but lots of stuff about UFOs and Atlantis, and much paranoia about Y2K (remember that?). I never was quite sure whether he was 100% serious. The odd thing, my ex was (at the time) extremely dismissive of the whole thing - "Oh, there goes my dad again" - but in the years afterwards, especially post-9/11, he started showing signs of the more destructive strain; EXTREME paranoia about the government (he recommended whatreallyhappened.com as a source, which should tell you something) and getting increasingly nasty about religious organizations to the point of telling me that I was in a cult (my cult is the Roman Catholic church :)). Very, very angry at the world and persuaded that the establishment, so to speak, is in league against him. We've broken off contact since, so I don't know what either of them is up to now.

The thing is, I couldn't really call either of them miserable outcasts seeking some sort of validation for failure; his dad is a very respected professor at a high-ranking college, and the ex is in grad school with every need supplied by his parents should he have any (needs, I mean). Neither of them is or was among the downtrodden or the desperate. They're both very, very secure - much more so than most of the other people I know, come to think of it. So I've wondered if perhaps there isn't something in some human psyches that makes them actively seek danger and threat when life gets *too* stable and comfortable; perhaps a twisted version of the same instinct that makes people do extreme sports when otherwise their lives are very comfortable and safe. My ex has never had a bad experience with the government, was never a member of the Catholic or any other church, knows very little about any of them, had a very quiet and comfortable childhood, and yet he massaged his fear and paranoia constantly, it was like he was in love with it. What can I say - it was like he wanted to be jolted out of his nice but not totally exceptional existence, and this was the way to do it.

Sorry for the rambling, but your post touched a nerve and I was curious about what your analysis of these two men might be.

(Deleted comment)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 17th, 2005 05:13 am (UTC) (Link)
That's exactly what I mean. These folks totally blow it.
mafdet From: mafdet Date: February 17th, 2005 06:34 am (UTC) (Link)
I was reading about a small, horticultural tribe somewhere in South America, and how everyone knows everyone else's business there. Such as, a footprint or a "buttock print" will be a giveaway that a couple was trysting in the bushes. There is gossip about all kinds of things, which guy has "erectile dysfunction," you name it. My point is that I think you are right, it's much more human nature to open one's big yap than to keep a big secret for years and years and years. People looooove to gossip. Or else they can't resist blurting out a secret because it makes them appear in the know, or shocks their listeners, or whatever.

There is an author called Robert Anton Wilson - I have a couple of his books - who wrote a series called Secrets of the Illuminati. It was all meant as satire but a lot of people took it Very Seriously and believe to this day that some vague, nebulous conspiracy between ruling families is controlling the world.

And there's also some man named David Icke who believes we're being controlled by giant lizards from outer space. Or something like that.

I think there might be a bit of conspiracy theorist in many of us, and it's helped along by the fact that the actions of giant corporations do appear threatening. There's also the fear of the unknown.
atropos87 From: atropos87 Date: February 17th, 2005 02:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
And there's also some man named David Icke who believes we're being controlled by giant lizards from outer space.

*sheepishly raises hand*

On behalf of my nation I apologise for unleashing David Icke upon the world. He really is a very strange man. He started off as a seemingly perfectly normal sports presenter and then before we knew it he started wearing really odd-looking shell suits and appearing on chat shows talking about lizard shaped aliens. Oookay...
mafdet From: mafdet Date: February 17th, 2005 05:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
That's OK, you also unleashed JK Rowling on the world, so all is forgiven. ;) And the US has absolutely no cause to throw stones at any other country for exporting weirdos.
danel4d From: danel4d Date: February 17th, 2005 07:44 am (UTC) (Link)
I was going to say something about the Da Vinci sooner or later, since I've just read it - it is indeed oddly compelling for such a poorly written book, so I'm happy you didn't actually read the thing before commenting on the phenomenon. It's possible that its part of a sensible human instinct to believe that someone could be plotting against you, since its safer to assume they are. Of course, when our circle of knowledge broadens to include so much of the world, the instinct becomes less than useless.
Conspiracy theories often rely upon the conspirators being by turn all-powerful and abysmally stupid - able to rub out major figures who stumble unto the truth, but not minor ones, and leaving large pieces of 'evidence' in the process. Which seems oddly to relate to DVC, since that relies upon the characters switching by turns between ingenuity and imbecility.
volandum From: volandum Date: February 17th, 2005 11:52 am (UTC) (Link)

You speak with reason

I'm adding this to my memories.

You also misspelt one of your "conspiracy"s.
wychwood From: wychwood Date: February 17th, 2005 08:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
*WORD*

I am shamed to say that I read this book, on glowing reviews from friends who swore I'd love it. But it's badly-written, stupid tripe, full of Americanisms and... yeah.

You do a great analysis of the whole conspiracy thing, so thank you. I shall use it as ammunition in future... It's like fictional versions of Erich von Daniken. Only more people read it.
maple_clef From: maple_clef Date: February 18th, 2005 12:15 am (UTC) (Link)
You might like Foucault's Pendulum, by Umberto Eco. 'The Da Vinci Code' is pretty much a rip-off of this, except one crucial aspect: Eco's book is a cautionary tale about what happens when you go round believing all the conspiracy theorists. It really is a bit good.

According to a recent Channel 4 documentary on "the Truth behind the DVC" (or similar), Dan Brown based much of his research on a book called 'Holy Blood, Holy Grail'. This supposedly factual book was in turn based on a practical joke by some chap, who has now confessed he was taking the smeg all along!
akashasheiress From: akashasheiress Date: February 18th, 2005 06:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
''The conspiracies may be made up of Jews, Christians, Communists, Liberals, Conservatives, Big Business, whatever. Some might provide "evidence" of these conspiracies by listing members of the targeted group who have offended them in some way. But it's always Them-Against-Us... we're the True Believers and They want us stamped out before we can reveal The Truth.''

This is one of the reasons I'm not fond of the ''Blade''-movies.
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