“Conspiracy Theories and Collective Trauma” By Carrick McDonald


An anecdote:

In the Middle Ages, an astronomer created a model of the solar system that, for its time, was considerably more accurate than anything that had come before it. It was being surveyed by the ruling authorities and they agreed to it being scientifically sound. While most everything was where it should be, they asked why the model was missing a space for God. The astronomer explained that the solar system was so efficient there wasn’t a need for one.

I understand why people like conspiracy theories. I really do. If you have a healthy imagination (and a sense of humor), conspiracy theories offer a phantasmagoric, alternate history of the world. The appeal of a good whopper of a conspiracy theory lies in its ability to offer a linear replacement of the uncertain winds of change and conflict in our constantly mutating cultures. The metaphor I keep returning to in times of strife and confusion is a large ship that all of us are on with no one actually steering the wheel.

A student of history knows that our present socio-political situation is made up of a long string of mistakes and decisions made without the benefit of hindsight by (predominantly) men who were products of their time. Conspiracy theories claim to offer us a glimpse at the men behind the curtain. Instead of a messy set of compromises, our history is made deliberately and designed with a larger narrative arc in mind. All the czars, kings, and presidents are actually lower level flunkies employed (and kept in line) by a shadowy show-runner. The appeal is in the neatness.

A lot of conspiracy theories fill the same void that religious stories do: they arise out of and attempt to explain collective (or personal) traumas. It is not easy to accept a senseless tragedy on the nose. By creating larger narratives, it helps us to feel like we are not powerless in inhabiting our human conditions. It’s a distressing thought to imagine that, at any second, you can be blown away for good by someone you don’t even know for reasons you will not live to comprehend. Every time there is a high profile mass shooting, you can practically open a window and hear all the keyboards clicking, trying to explain it away.

It is hard to accept that a mentally ill man in Connecticut would stockpile ammunition and kill children just because he decided to do it that day. It isn’t the sort of thing that’s supposed to happen. In the face of such callousness, it’s downright therapeutic to suggest that he was acting for political means. They say he was a patsy set up by the government to increase public sympathy for gun control, allowing for an easier takeover by a totalitarian shadow cabal. The children and families were all in on the ruse and were relocated. When there weren’t convincing enough performances of grief, the government brought in its recurring cast of crisis actors to better play the part. And so on and so on. It’s like whack-a-mole. You knock one claim down and another half-dozen spring up in its place.

Hardcore conspiracy theorists are hilariously frustrating. They position themselves as skeptical/analytical thinkers who see through the dog and pony show paraded in front of them every single day. They claim this while simultaneously believing some of the dumbest and farthest out there bullshit you could fling at a supposedly intelligent and normal human being. They apply Occam’s butter knife to their theories and where there are holes in the plot, they fill them with more manure. They move the goal posts every time someone comes close to catching them in their inconsistencies and accuse others of being gullible while wasting hours of their lives watching Illuminati documentaries made by other dinguses on YouTube.

I have some objections: the first is that conspiracy theorists use the internet as a megaphone to amplify their harassment of marginalized and victimized people. A recent upswing in white supremacist groups (a demographic that would die out entirely without conspiratorial innuendo) has accompanied a renewed hatred and distrust of Jews and Jewish communities. Jews always seem to be on the receiving end of conspiracies. Throughout history, they were considered to be manipulating society, much like the ubiquitously invisible Illuminati of today’s internet fantasies. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic Russian hoax published in 1903, supposedly outlined the Jewish plot to take over the world, paving the way for the ghettoization and eventual genocide perpetuated against the Jewish people. With this week’s news of desecrated Jewish graveyards and an epidemic of bomb threats against Jewish centers, we are reminded of the sometimes ugly cost of conspiracy.

Conspiracy theories are also attempts to absolve us of our guilt, however peripheral it may be. There was a documentary (“There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane”) that centered around a mysterious car accident where a woman named Diane Schuler killed eight people, including herself, by driving 1.7 miles in the wrong direction on a New York parkway. Her autopsy revealed that she was dangerously drunk as well as high on marijuana and her husband, grieving and desperate for answers, teamed up with HBO to make a documentary about what could have possibly happened.

Except, what do you know, his wife smoked pot and drank in secret. And she did it that day too. Case closed! The surviving family members of the crash victims sued Diane’s husband, mainly to get him to stop, but he rejected the toxicology reports in favor of his pet theory that she had a stroke and was impaired because of it. His grief is understandable but his insistence on making a high profile documentary about something as easily explainable as his wife being a selfish, dangerous pothead only prolonged the grief of the other victims.

A lot of conspiracy theorists double the misery of the people actually affected by a tragedy by mocking and harassing them, and telling them that their grief is false because the event they are grieving is false. It is an amazing act of selfish entitlement, but really, the conspiracy theories are about the people making them up and believing in them. They are made and perpetuated by and for people who are obsessed with not seeming foolish to the point of behaving like irrational children. A conspiracy theory can generally be tipped over with about thirty seconds of detective work on Google, but still, they persist.

Another beef I have with conspiracy theories is that there is almost always no need for them. Conspiracy theorists are arguing over make-believe while real evil walks through the front door. Consider the documented fact that Bush administration officials tried to find any pretense to invade Iraq that they could and that they had held this desire for many years. Then 9/11 happened. One of the first ties they attempted to make the dust from the towers had even stopped rolling through New York City, was back to Saddam Hussein. When that didn’t pan out, they just claimed that Saddam was working on weapons of mass destruction, and eventually, they got their war, admitting on the way out that there was no connection.

This explanation is satisfying to me because it is all officially documented and has been corroborated by many of the people involved in making the decisions. A conspiracy theorist would remain unsatisfied by this because they approach every subject backward: the government needed a pretense to invade Iraq so they created the 9/11 attacks, a publicly documented attack with no ties to Iraq whatsoever, and attempted to clumsily tie it into the war they wanted. It wasn’t enough to exploit our country’s vulnerability and thirst for some form of vengeance, to fill our new fearful void with a war. There had to be more of a narrative to the whole thing because your average theorist cannot accept that America destabilized an entire region based on misstatements and ineptitude.

And I understand the need. It’s hard to accept that we directly stirred the pot and destroyed entire countries to the point of desolation just because we could. It isn’t the sort of thing that’s supposed to happen and knowing of all the civilian blood on our hands, however peripherally, we would feel better knowing that there was a shadowy James Bond villain organization pulling the strings. But there isn’t. And by actively buying into conspiracy theories, we indulge the most selfish and childish parts of our brains, the kinds of cognitive misfires that send supposedly soft-spoken men into pizza parlors to fire shots into the ceiling. Why even invent fictional organizations when our own governments are evil and stupid enough on their own? When a conspiracy theorist looks at an event, they agree that most things are where they should be, but then they ask where the space is for the conspiracy. I say there isn’t a need for one.

Featured imaged credit:

This post was originally featured at, June 14, 2017.

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