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This week TikTok user Abbie Richards presented a graph categorizing conspiracy theories. She ranked them from harmless to socially toxic. I’d raise some issues with what she classed as a conspiracy (the Loch Ness Monster is mythical, but I’m not aware of any “conspiracy” around it).
But her ranking of theories is a useful concept, starting with things that turned out to be true (or true-ish), like MKUltra. Given that various governments have done shady things, it’s not surprising that even rational people sometimes raise an eyebrow at official narratives.
The current resurgence though seems to be operating on a different cycle from earlier conspiracy waves. There was a 40 year arc of conspiracy theories in popular culture, from the Manchurian Candidate, the Roswell incident, various theories around the Kennedy assassination, through the Moon landing, the standoffs at Ruby Ridge and Waco, and the crash of TWA 800. Trust in the government (and other authority organizations) collapsed since the 1960s, and this proved a fertile breeding ground for the theories of paranoid cranks. The idea that shadowy groups are running the show at least allows the belief that someone is in control. The randomness and chaos of life causes people to look for some explanation, in religion or other kinds of faith. The Cold War seemed to foster such ideas, which paradoxically betrayed a confidence in the power of the West.
This conspiracy theory wave seemed to reach its high point in popular culture in the 1990s, with shows like the X-Files, which depicted employees of the government fighting against its nefarious forces as well as those of the paranormal or extraterrestrial. Its popularity generated Millennium, created by Chris Carter who also created the X-Files, and the X-Files’ own spin-off, the Lone Gunmen. We also watched The Pretender, about a man abducted as a child and trained as an agent by a shadowy corporation.
Elaine Showalter, in Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (New York, 1997), claimed that “in the 1990s, the cinema of hysteria has evolved from theories of theatricality to theories of conspiracy. Individual trauma has given way to social disorder.”
Another example of this was Nowhere Man. Starring Bruce Greenwood, it focused on a photojournalist who was being “erased” by the government for having photographed something in South America. This apparent war crime, committed by American soldiers, was enough to send squads of men to try to kill this character, kill his wife, and keep him on the run.
These shows ran in parallel to that other element of conspiracy theories of the 90s, the fear of the Internet. Films such as The Net, starring Sandra Bullock, and Enemy of the State, starring Will Smith, focused on fears of Big Brother’s abilities to not only access all elements of our lives, but to actually erase our identities. Now that more of us use the Internet every day, it has lost its scare function (even by the time of Terminator 3, the threat posed by Skynet was seeming rather outdated), and our (rational) concerns about digital identity theft revolve around credit card fraud, not government attempts to eliminate citizens. Our apprehension is around Silicon Valley, or foreign hackers, rather than the state. We worry that Facebook is stealing our data: but not that they want us dead.
The 90s also saw the publication of William Cooper’s cult classic of conspiracy theorists, Behold a Pale Horse. This is a grab-bag of paranoia, including such advice as “Patriots and Tax Protesters: You must never be found at home on any holiday. Your life depends on how well you can obey that rule.” Cooper’s book contains what purport to be classified documents about government plans to take over the country, declare martial law, as well as Cooper’s experience witnessing a UFO while serving in the Navy in Vietnam. “We are being manipulated by a joint human/alien power structure which will result in a one-world government and the partial enslavement of the human race.” Cooper was killed in a shootout with police in Arizona in November 2001, but his book still sells strongly. Disturbingly, it ranks number 1 on Amazon for “Radical Political Thought”.
But after the paranoia of the 1990s, September 11 seemed to bring a hush in that area of popular culture. From fears about an all-powerful government, we wanted such a powerful government, to protect us from all external threats. From the paranoid fear of the government watching us and our computer activity, we came to relish watching the geeks on the crime shows digging through other files online, able to apprehend the bad guys through the information they discover.
This wave of pro-govt shows brought us NCIS, which debuted in September 2003 and is still one of the highest rated shows on network tv. Employees of various acronymous government agencies became the new heroes.
The vision of police departments, the FBI, the military (staffed by photogenic geniuses equipped with state-of-the-art technology), able to anticipate and thwart the most vicious killers, offer continual reassurance of the strengths of our protectors. (Recent campaigns to defund the police, which initially seemed likely to change our TV landscape by cancelling police shows, already seem to be receding)
But old-style conspiracy theories fell from view. Some of this change was of course generational: those who remember where they were in November 1963 are fewer every year. And debates about the Warren Commission and the single gun theory seem quaintly out of date now. The “9/11 truth” campaigners obviously belonged to this tradition, but their activities had been relegated back to the fringes of popular discourse. Few rational people were interested in hearing that the government we have to trust to save us, is under the control of another government (or indeed representatives from another planet), and staffed by the evil and corrupt.
Are we returning to this level of paranoia? Conspiracy theories never really went away, but are now returning to the mainstream. The Covid pandemic has brought out all kinds of cranks, from theories about the disease’s origin, the possible toxicity of drugs and vaccines, to whether it exists at all. QAnon seems to have sprung from the darker corners of internet lunacy with its theory of a global satanic pedophile ring.
Social media allows more sharing of random nutty theories – no longer do “skeptics” have to write to a P.O. Box from the classifieds section of Guns and Ammo to receive a mimeographed newsletter of what the “shadow government” is up to.
But technology can also make us skeptics. The Wikileaks revelations revealed inopportune comments and occasional streaks of humor in the official cables, but hardly a grand conspiracy on a shadow government scale. In fact, the various setbacks of the War on Terror served to prove time and again that the government is made up of regular people, not omniscient plotters with a master plan. The various social media fuckups of politicians rather undermine the idea that they’re capable of masterminding anything. Whether you find this reassuring or terrifying depends on where you fall on the conspiracy belief spectrum. After all, if you truly believe that the CIA or the NSA invented AIDS, created the crack epidemic, killed JFK and faked the moon landing, they should be able to find Carlos Ghosn.