Fans of the classic sci-fi drama, the X-Files, will recall the poster hanging in Fox Mulder’s office. It showed a grainy gray disk hovering above a wooded horizon. The words “I want to believe” were written beneath the iconic UFO form.
As it turns out — and as the Boston bombing ably demonstrates — we do want to believe. Unfortunately, what we want to believe is often far less probable than little green men floating above a cornfield. Whenever there is a great rift in the fabric of society we clamor for a sense of order. We want to know how such a thing could happen.
If the thing is bad enough, many of us are willing to believe pretty outlandish stuff just so we can have that sense of order. A number of researchers have attempted to explain a willingness to accept absurdity in the face of tragedy.
One such effort was led by Australian psychologist Arthur Lewandowsky. Lewandowsky and his collaborators gave a survey to visitors of certain websites in order to gain insights about these individuals’ “conspiracist ideation.” In other words, they studied what contributed to a person’s amenability to conspiracy theories as a way to make sense of the big bad world.
Lewandosky’s team found the more the respondents believed in free market ideology, the less likely they were to believe in climate science and the more likely they were to embrace other conspiracy theories.
It seems that politics and politicians provide especially fertile ground for this kind of fuzzy thinking. In the November 1964 issue of Harper’s magazine Richard Hofstader published his seminal essay on the topic, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Hofstader’s compelling narrative focuses on the ideology of Sen. Barry Goldwater, but as the author points out, Goldwater was just the latest syllable in a long history of ax-grinding crazy talk.
Hofstader then reminds us about Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s 1951 speech in which he uttered the phrase, “a conspiracy on a scale so immense so as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man.”
He also entreats us with a recount of Freemasonry’s alleged cabalistic pall upon our democracy. This accusation has been repeated well beyond absurdity by folks like the late religious carnival huckster Jack Van Impe. Yes, Washington was a Freemason. Yes, he took the oath of office on the Bible from a masonic lodge.
Then there’s the Great Seal, the all-seeing eye and “novus ordo seclorum.” Of course that last bit gets into the Illuminati, the Bilderbergers and Amway… the first two anyway.
When this sort of “thinking” gets wrapped in potent iconography (i.e. the flag, the Constitution, mom, apple pie) it becomes almost inextricable from the dialog.
Butress this with American exceptionalism and nothing is out of bounds. No preposterous indictment is too extreme.
Otherwise, we wouldn’t have Obama, the Kenyan Muslim socialist, reverberating through the caverns of doomsday “preppers.” The Obama silliness provides a particularly good example of how sprinkling a conspiratorial theory with seemingly relevant details just seems to connect the dots — especially if you want them — need them to connect — because the idea of a popularly elected liberal black man is so affronting to you that any hokey (albeit monstrous) fairy tale makes you feel better.
The most loathsome manifestation of this poison mindset is those who have argued the Sandy Hook school shooting was somehow an effort by the Obama administration to begin the march toward disarming the American public. When the fruits of gun idolatry irrefutably come home to roost, the reality of it just seems to beckon the gun lobby shills out of their basements.
Of course, this is America and you’re free to believe whatever fantasy you like: Bigfoot; clean coal; the da Vinci Code or that my drunk uncle Carl, the erstwhile mason, controls the government.
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Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.