Admit it. At some point, some conspiracy theory has enticed you. Maybe it's not the claim the government was behind 9/11 or that AIDS was created in a government lab or that organized crime was responsible for the assassination of JFK. But at some time one or more such ideas may have gained some credence in your mind.
Don't be surprised or embarrassed. As Gordon B. Arnold lays out in his cogent Conspiracy Theory in Film, Television, and Politics, conspiracy theory is part and parcel of American culture.
Conspiracy theories are nothing new. Even the long discredited Protocols of the Elders of Zion still finds believers after more than a century. But Arnold sees conspiracy theory as a metaphor. Granted, there are the true believers. Yet for the ordinary person, Arnold says, "the term seldom refers to a literal or criminal conspiracy, but rather to a generalized worldview in which ordinary folks are constantly the targets of manipulation and deception."
Conspiracy Theory in Film, Television, and Politics posits three stages in the role and meaning of conspiracy theory.
In post-World War II America, the focus was external, such as the U.S.S.R. and its minions conspiring to ensure domination of the U.S. and the world. The threat was represented by alien invasions or portrayed in films about home-grown Communist spies or The Manchurian Candidate. Government and business were not only "overwhelmingly trusted," they were seen as protection against outside conspirators.
According to Arnold, the movie Seven Days in May was a sign things were changing. Arnold points out that while the main story is a plot to overthrow the government, not only was it an internal plot but, when squelched, the government kept its existence secret. Released just months after the Kennedy assassination — "the linchpin in the modern ascent of conspiracy theory in American consciousness" — the film indicated Americans might think their trusted institutions may not be entirely forthcoming. Events of the ensuing months and decade, such as the Warren Report, the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, bolstered such thoughts. Arnold sees cynicism replacing the fear and paranoia of the Cold War as the fuel for conspiracy theory. Government and other institutions could be the potential enemy or, at a minimum, conspire to cover up their wrongdoing.