“Everything is some kind of plot, man.” – Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
Agent Scully: “What makes you think that is a conspiracy? That the government is involved?” Kurt Crawford: “What makes you think it isn’t? – Memento Mori / The X-Files
“The paranoid person is in possession of all the facts.” – William Burroughs
Conspiracy theories are a particular and salient feature of post World War II America. From McCarthyism to postmodern novels, The X-Files, and gansta rap to feminist polemic, there is widespread suspicion that sinister forces are conspiring to take control of our national destiny, our minds, and even our bodies. Conspiracy explanations can no longer be dismissed as the disorganized ramblings of far right crackpots, the left wing intelligentsia, and the techno cognoscenti.
Particularly as evidenced by the popularity of a show like The X-Files, mainstream America became more than willing to embrace the idea that there is a cabal of men planning our futures, that we cannot trust institutions, that the enemy is closer than we were taught to believe. We have lived through grassy knolls, Cointelpro, the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and CIA-led coups in Chile, Iran, Namibia.
Recent events bear witness to this brave new world. While the major spin on 9/11 identified virulent Islamic terrorist bent on destroying us, there were still news threads that linked the Bin Laden family with the Bush family and the Bush family to international oil interests. We had Dick Cheney heading the shadow government from deep in the bowels of the earth, and FEMA hawking duct tape and plastic sheeting as protection from invisible enemies. Can anyone say “WMDs”?
Conspiracy Culture author, Peter Knight, a lecturer in American Studies in Manchester, attempts to provide his own analysis using such diverse sources as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, Oliver’s Stone’s JFK, The X-Files, and a host of internet sites. He explores how conspiracy theories developed from the 1960′s through the 1990′s. The focal points of these theories range from the Kennedy assassination, alien abduction, body horror, AIDS, crack cocaine, the New World Order; as well as what he terms “the usual conspiracies…of patriarchy and white supremacy.”
I found this level of research, its detail, and its scope impressive. Beyond this, we part company. When it comes to his analysis as to why ideas of conspiracy have proliferated, Knight is completely ahistorical. He posits the growth in the wider acceptance of conspiracy as policy to intellectual inferiority and sloppiness, poverty, and a spiritual paucity.
I was astounded at this polemic disguised as dispassionate deductive reasoning. I personally remember when, in the late 70′s in Chicago, Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was murdered in his bed by Chicago police – police who were aided and abetted in that execution by moles paid by the FBI through the Cointelpro program of “neutralization.”
Semiautomatic assassination appeared to be a fairly neutralizing force in the African American community and the community of social change as a whole. That level of challenge to the government, to capital, to imperialism and its domestic and international control has yet to be re-created, although perhaps we see the seeds of its rebirth in the resistance to the Iraq war.
Rather than Knight’s position that a conspiracy theory’s popularity is solely due to a lack of sophistication, education, and contemplation, I believe the proponents are literate, distrusting the narrative of authority, and suspicious of the authorized narrative as to the health of the body politic. In a nutshell, what message may be taking root in a deep and irrevocable way is: Trust no one.
See Scully, I told you this was coming.