2014 may mark 50 years since the publication of historian Richard J. Hofstadter’s essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” but our human propensity to get sucked in by such fanciful thinking remains as sure as ever. Getting rid of conspiracy-laden paranoia? That’s one of the things I’d like to see.
Don’t get me wrong. I love a good conspiracy movie–a thriller with twists and turns and Machiavellian plots. I was a big fan of the 1990s television show The X-Files, and continue to enjoy things such as science fiction and the like.
Unfortunately, our human love for such “exciting” and complex stories rarely ends with the pages of the latest novel or on the screen at the movie theater. Many times it gets carried over into our thinking about the real world. Every President is up to something…or so we think. George W. Bush planned 9/11 as an inside job. Bill Clinton had someone murdered. Barack Obama is, well, fill in the blank. Sometimes the conspiracies are imagined by conservatives about their liberal adversaries. Sometimes it is the other way around. Rarely if ever is there any truth to these things…yet the more fancifully compelling (and therefore dramatically enjoyable) the more attractive they can become.
A focus on imagined conspiracies may be fun (because hey, why else would we do it?), but the more extravagant they are, the less likely they are to be true. Instead of actually telling us anything real about our world, they can just confirm our preconceived ideas or prejudices. Sometimes they may even dupe us into constructing new ones. They confuse fantasy with reality, and really don’t help things.
As an historian, I have to deal with this when I think about looking into something like the JFK assassination. More books are published in this area of conspiracy lore than almost any other. It gets even more complicated if you want to find out anything about the so-called Illuminati or Freemasonry. Is anyone able to speak clearly and without paranoia on these topics? What about the UFO scares of the 1950s? It gets crazier. Dig a little around the Internet–or your Facebook feed–and you’ll find strange ideas, wacky notions (lizard people?), and accusations against our leaders and others–regardless of political party.
Christian believers are not immune from this. I only need to cite the varied and intense interpretations and applications of the Book of Revelation as evidence here. For some, paranoid interpretations of the book act like some kind of addictive drug. They read it and become obsessed not with simply understanding its larger message (God wins!) but rather try to figure out every detail or apply it to whatever historical reality (or political bias) might then be present. Turning the Word of God into cheesy science fiction and political thriller without realizing it, they let their obsession with it become consuming. What an embarrassing waste of time. Just take a look at the “Third Eagle of the Apocalypse” here.
Whether we admit it or not, people like the idea of a conspiracy because it is more exciting than reality. The problem is that soon we can often start confusing it with reality. Life is a lot more boring than this, and crazy conspiracies like the ones we imagine are so “out there” and hard to pull off without faltering or being discovered they have almost no chance of being real. They work about as well as actual physics in a Star Wars movie.
Paranoid thinking in this key–secular, religious, or otherwise–is simply not useful. It is distracting and destructive. It creates walls and substantiates nonsense that affects the way we see the world. For this reason, leaving such paranoia and conspiracy-laden thinking to the realm of fiction is one of the things I’d like to see.