"This is starting to feel like a vast left-wing conspiracy."--Kellyanne Conway, CBS This Morning, 2018.
"The great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president."--Hillary Clinton, Today Show, 1998.
This past week has been drama-filled and draining. Can I get just a few moments of peace and quiet, please?
I could talk about why women don't always report sexual assaults (fear--of the perpetrator, of being blamed, of becoming a victim all over again--figures in here). I could discuss the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh, and the merits of delaying confirmation to allow the FBI to reopen his background check (it would clear things up once and for all). But I don't really want to.
I'm far more interested in that quote from Kellyanne Conway at the top of this column, which reminds me an awful lot of Hillary Clinton's statement 20 years ago, shortly after the Monica Lewinsky story broke.
Yes, conspiracies do exist (Watergate, Iran-Contra, etc.), but successful ones are generally well-contained as the more moving parts and people there are, the more likely things will go awry. More often we hear about schemes that never seem to produce actual evidence, such as Pizzagate (there's still no basement at Comet Ping Pong, folks, among other things claimed in that theory), or those that survive on tradition, sheer will and the unwillingness to admit coincidence and confirmation bias. Pity people with the last name Rothschild, or who believe the moon landing was real or that the earth is round, for they will be eternally hounded by those who are sure they're out to destroy the world. And the Bilderberg Group gets conspiracy theories from both sides (ooh, such dastardliness ... promoting free-market capitalism and greater cooperation between nations ... scary), so apparently it's equal-opportunity evil.
When I speak of conspiracy theories, I don't mean actual conspiracies like the Dreyfus Affair or the multiple plots to assassinate Elizabeth I, but rather the idea that we are being manipulated by others, with no credible evidence. I mean what Michael Barkun, political science emeritus professor from Syracuse University wrote about in The New York Times in 2011: "This perspective sees events as controlled by some hidden hand. For conspiracists, nothing is as it seems, nothing happens by accident, and everything is connected, with no room for accident or coincidence. They believe themselves to possess hidden knowledge of how the world 'really' operates, while everyone else has been duped."
Sociologist Ted Goertzel of Rutgers, in a study published in 1994, found a strong link between believing in conspiracy theories and a sense of helplessness, which could include insecurity about employment, lack of interpersonal trust, and alienation. Absurd theories that are easily disproved still find believers ready to blame their troubles on wide-ranging conspiracies perpetrated by evil secret societies or governments intent on keeping them down (that's just like "the man," isn't it?). It's more comforting to blame the Illuminati (or Soros, or Koch, or ...) than face the idea that one's own actions might have something to do with failures.
Imagine that ... perhaps the troubles of the Clintons and the president have more to do with their own actions than that of others ...
Ultimately, belief in conspiracy theories comes down to fear--that we have no control over our lives, or that enemies are all around us, for example. In disseminating such theories, we sell fear so that others will be just as frightened as we are. Misery does love company.
I, on the other hand, prefer to be alone.
We've had paranoiacs/conspiracy theorists in the White House before (Richard Nixon most notably), but never like now. Trump biographer Gwenda Blair told The New York Times: "Conspiracies, by definition, are things that others do to you. You're being duped; you're being fooled; the world is laughing at us. It goes to this idea that you can't believe anything that you read or see. [Donald Trump] has sold us a whole way of accepting a narrative that has so many layers of unaccountable, unsubstantiated content that you can't possibly peel it all back."
Barkun wrote of the Obama birther theories and the danger they posed to the legitimacy of the office of president: "T]his kind of conspiracism implies that conventional political action and the electoral process are meaningless. The consequence is political alienation."
Maybe that's the intention ... ooh ... sounds like a conspiracy!
That's not the consequence that bothers me most at this moment, though. With so many ridiculous theories becoming mainstream and some even provoking violence, what's left for those of us with senses of humor to laugh at?
What I wouldn't give for a good ol' wholesome flat-earth or lizard-people rant right now ...
Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial on 09/26/2018
Print Headline: Fear itself