Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Truth is in Here

The 1990s was the decade of the conspiracy theory. People (and "respectable" people such as former JFK press secretary Pierre Salinger) thought that the government was behind the TWA crash of 1996. People thought that Princess Diana was murdered by the British government. People thought that the government was behind the Oklahoma City bombing. People thought the government murdered the Heaven's Gate cult. People thought that the government developed and spread AIDS. People thought Bill Clinton was a mass murderer. People marked the 50th anniversary of the supposed Roswell UFO crash and cover-up. Mel Gibson starred in a movie called Conspiracy Theory. Art Bell ruled late night talk radio. And a TV show called The X-Files became the most watched show on the Fox network.

A common thread among many 1990s conspiracy theories is that the idea that the government, or perhaps a malevolent shadow government, is controlling and manipulating national events. That was certainly the case in the X-Files TV series, with the Cigarette-Smoking Man and "The Syndicate" appearing to chart the destiny of the world.

The 2008 feature film The X-Files: I Want to Believe does not re-visit these antagonists. Mulder and Scully's primary opponent is a Russian mad scientist, who while terrifying in his immediate goals, has a decidedly limited reach in how far he can inflict his evil. And perhaps this is echoed in a limited reach for the film at the box office.

So is the conspiracy theory of the 1990s a phenomenon of the past? If a scientific poll of 2006 is any indication, it is not. According to the Scripps-Howard poll, roughly one-third of all Americans said it was "very" or "somewhat" likely that the government had some involvement in the attacks of September 11. In the two years since then, the so-called "9/11 Truth Movement" has only gotten bigger.

Psychological explanations abound as to why people are so ready to believe conspiracy theories. According to a Time magazine commentary about the 2006 poll:

A world in which tiny causes can have huge consequences feels scary and unreliable. Therefore a grand disaster like Sept. 11 needs a grand conspiracy behind divisive as they are, conspiracy theories are part of the process by which Americans deal with traumatic public events like Sept. 11. Conspiracy theories form around them like scar tissue. In a curious way, they're an American form of national mourning. They'll be with us as long as we fear lone gunmen, and feel the pain of losses like the one we suffered on Sept. 11, and as long as the past, even the immediate past, is ultimately unknowable. That is to say, forever.
They may be around forever, but I do perceive a shift in the way they have been regarded by skeptics. In other words, while the Mulder prototype of the 90s might still be in place, I don't think Scully exists anymore. Conspiracy theorists of the 90s were regarded with vague amusement by the mainstream, as demonstrated best perhaps by the Gibson movie, but also to some extent by the wry smile that Scully would get when "Spooky" Mulder would go on one of his rants. They weren't believed by the mainstream, but they were allowed to have their say and peddle their wares. And the proliferation of theories in both the real and fictional worlds indicated that though the mainstream wasn't ready to be converted to a paranoiac worldview, they were willing to allow that perhaps some things weren't what they would seem to be.

What the Scripps-Howard poll doesn't report on is the attitude of the two-thirds who don't believe in government involvement in 9/11 towards the one-third who do. Anecdotally, I would argue that there is a higher level of hostility, impatience, and outright anger toward those who believe such things (and an anger that transcends partisanship). There is also anecdotal evidence that the one-third of believers aren't just "uneducated" people. My roommate at an English teacher's gathering earlier this summer recounted to me how a dinner conversation was soured by another teacher's insistence in a 9/11 Conspiracy. He reported to me that he angrily stormed off. Also, when the public heard about a Wisconsin professor teaching 9/11 conspiracy theories in the classroom a couple of years ago, it let to an outpouring of not just criticism, but passionate criticism.

Alternatively, rather than respond angrily, I think it is more likely that critics today will ignore conspiracy theories altogether. It seems odd that as media has reached a greater proliferation than in the past decade, the overall reach of alternative or "fringe" ideas in the public consciousness has seemed to decrease. The idea that one-third of people believe in 9/11 conspiracies seems to be a news story in and of itself, and worthy of more than just a short examination in Time Magazine. Even the fact that Willie Nelson, who memorably led a sing-along of "America the Beautiful" to close a 9/11 benefit concert, is now among the conspiracy theorists seems to me to be a story worthy of more attention.

These responses seem both understandable and problematic to me. Just as Time argues that conspiracy theories are an emotional response to tragedy, the tragedy itself also shapes how people respond to the theories. It is hard to be patient with those who are perceived as being disrespectful to the true gravity of the event. But I think part of the reason that the number of believers in the poll is so high is because there has been no widespread examination of their claims. Indeed, many in the "truth movement" were given ammunition when the 9/11 Commission failed to investigate many of their questions. I believe that if there were more light shed on the situation, the number of those who believe the government was "very" or "somewhat" involved in the attack would rapidly decline. Or at least I want to believe.


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