I have no way of determining whether I get more mail from believers in conspiracy theories than other columnists, but I get quite a bit. Those who write often scold me for ignoring the intrigues of the Freemasons in the Vatican, the influence of Jews in the media and government, and the plans for a new world order being concocted by groups such as the Bilderbergers. I will also hear from an occasional sedevacantist who is convinced that all the popes since Pius XII have been illegitimate.
In the political vernacular of our time, these correspondents would be classified as right-wingers, probably right-wing extremists. But it would be a mistake to think of conspiracy theories as a monopoly of the Right. In recent years, leftists have leaped to their soapboxes to warn us of the control of our foreign policy by “big oil,” such as the directors of Halliburton. Bloggers made the case that killing of the terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was carried out to get George Bush out of his slump in the opinion polls. Others charged that former Enron CEO Ken Lay’s death was not caused by a heart attack, but was brought about by those who did not want him to spill the beans about Republican involvement in his dishonest business dealings, or even that Lay is still alive, protected by his corporate buddies and undergoing plastic surgery. I’m serious: that story is out there.
And as we all now know, thanks to The Da Vinci Code, Church officials hostile to women have covered up for centuries Jesus’ marriage and the role of Mary Magdalene in the early Church. A few years back, you may remember, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright speculated in public about the possibility that the capture of Osama Bin Laden was being delayed so that he could be caught at the crucial time in George W. Bush’s re-election campaign. You don’t have to be on the Right to be a kook.
Am I certain that none of these conspiracy theories is of merit? No. As they say, you can’t prove a negative. Human beings can be devious. There is no reason why rich people with influence would not want to get together to try to shape public policy in ways requiring some secrecy. But I will say that it strikes me as strange that no documentation of any of these secretive plots has ever surfaced. They remain in the same category as UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster and the various theories about the assassination of JFK, with true believers basing their cases upon speculation and circumstantial evidence. The television program The X-Files had a good run playing upon these fears.
This is what makes it difficult to challenge any of these conspiracy theories. The more evidence that you bring up to challenge their plausibility, the more those who are convinced in their validity will give you that sideways look that implies you are gullible and have been taken in by the scenario devised by “them” — by the Masons, the Jews, the oil interests, the mob, the bankers who control the Federal Reserve system, the Illuminati, the enemies of women in the Church. Facts do not matter, logic is irrelevant, when you are convinced that we are being deceived by people with power who know how to shape public opinion.
Hollywood is to blame for some of this, but in this case not necessarily because of a political agenda. Hollywood films need a plot, a villain. So the screenwriters come up with one. The list is endless: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Manchurian Candidate, Marathon Man, lately the television show 24 Hours. The theme is always the same: an average guy or gal stumbles upon the secret power-brokers who run the country for their own advantage, at the expense of the decent folks who pay their taxes and try to do the right thing. These films teach us that it is wise to be cynical; that things are never what they seem. You can hear this state of mind in many callers on the talk shows, people whose major concern seems to be making clear that they are not like the sheep, the average Joes who believe what they hear from the politicians and the media gurus.
The problem is that sometimes things are what they seem. It is just as possible to be overly cynical as it is to be naïve. But haven’t I already admitted that I cannot prove any of these conspiracy theories false? I have. But I submit the more telling point is that the believers in the conspiracy theories cannot prove them to be true. Which leads me to think that those who believe in these theories do so because they want to believe them. I can come to no other conclusion than that the conspiracy theories enable them to see the world in a way that satisfies a need of some sort. What need? I’ll leave that to the psychologists.
But I will say this: those who hold to these conspiracy theories have an obligation to ask themselves why it makes sense for them to picture a world where the particular villains in question Jews, Freemasons, Halliburton executives, Karl Rove, Bilderbergers, whoever — have so much power to shape our lives. Why does a scenario with this villain make sense for them? It is a question that should be asked, and asking it honestly may open some doors to beneficial self-understanding for conspiracy theorists.
There is another angle to consider: focusing on the machinations of these conspirators can be a distraction that leads one to ignore the impact of the ideas that challenge us in the modern world. Plans for world federalism do not depend upon the existence of the Illuminati or the Bilderbergers for their vitality; they can be found in every faculty room in the country. The theologians who call for a secular humanist interpretation of Christ’s teachings do not depend upon a cadre of Masons in the Vatican for their inspiration. They can go to their local libraries to get that. These ideas will not be defeated through a search for clues to the existence of a secret group that is promulgating them. They must be defeated intellectually in the marketplace of ideas.
One last thing: there is the danger that focusing on these conspiracy theories — in the absence of some new evidence for their existence — can make our side in the culture wars look unserious, even kooky. Anti-communists, defenders of traditional values and those who defend the nation-state system are put on the defensive. Why give that advantage to the opposition?
(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)