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Age of Conspiracy
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
I commit social sins on an almost daily basis, but the one that I really have to change is that I make eye contact with strangers. I'm naturally interested in people and I love to see what's going on in their faces, but in modern, paranoid times this practice comes across as a challenge and violates some established protocol about appropriate public interaction. I'm not looking for trouble, I swear, but I'm irreducibly curious and sometimes I put myself in tricky situations I should learn to avoid.
Like this one: I'm buying a set of tires at a store, I'm waiting, I happen to notice the other customer in the waiting room, a guy my age, a little scruffy, reading a book. He catches me looking at him, but isn't mad, he smiles, we talk about the weather, everything's fine. Then I make the crucial mistake of asking what he's reading and he shows me a dog-eared, mail-order book about the Tri-Lateral Commission and suddenly the insane Conspiracy Game is on. For the next twenty minutes he filibusters me like the Unabomber about the whole shmear — JFK, 9/11, black helicopters, Roswell, New World Order, the Illuminati, Freemasons — the entire catalogue of nutball theories of dark, worldwide plots to enslave and persecute the True Believers. Not only are they all true, he whispers to me, but he has proof, which he's willing to share if I can be trusted. I'm virtually held prisoner by him, I can't get one word in, he's spitting on me, until mercifully my order gets completed and I escape to my freshly restored car and get the hell out of there.
I'm usually highly tolerant of the various whack jobs walking the streets these days, but conspiracy freaks really give me a case of the cold creeps. What I find most disturbing is that I believe that the ranks of the hard core conspiracists have been swelling to unprecedented levels in the Internet Age, moving beyond the usual rank-and-file twitchers and basement-dwellers and into the mainstream of America. It is one of the great paradoxes of our time — in an era where information is always available, superstition and paranoia have re-emerged as viable alternatives to what is generally regarded as the truth.
I caught a local, call-in radio program in Fort Wayne a while back, one that dealt with the subject of 9/11 conspiracies, and I was shocked to discover that the majority of callers believed that the government was somehow responsible for bringing down the towers. The host, whose dim-bulb Conservatism/populism usually makes me insane with impatience, was utterly flabbergasted, and I have to admit I felt empathy for his incredulity at the response. Yet with celebrity endorsements of this theory from reliable, non-partisan folks like Rosie O'Donnell and Charlie Sheen, 9/11 conspiracies continue to grow in popularity, and a cursory look at the Internet displays the righteous and almost hysterical fervency that the True Believers share.
I've tried arguing with proponents of this notion but never got very far — one thing I've learned is that it's virtually impossible to dislodge a conspiracist from his tightly held beliefs. At a very rudimentary level, I can understand the germ of their convictions--they hate President Bush passionately, and believe the war and the Patriot Act constitute real threats to American liberties (which I can accept) — but to make the leap to Bush and the government being willful mass murderers? I can't do that. And look, I'm not naïve — I know all Presidents have a certain amount of blood on their hands, I know there are secrets in the highest circles that would shock most Americans — but a covert act of terrorism on his own people? Time will judge President Bush accordingly, and what his enemies currently believe is pure, unadulterated deviltry will probably be shown (by light of historical perspective) as nothing more than simple-minded arrogance and rank incompetence.
It's always frightening when a faction of society refuses to accept irrefutable evidence. The deniers of the Holocaust, for instance, still maintain it never happened in the way it has been described, in spite of the overwhelming amount of data, records, the Holocaust Museum, etc. When superstition and urban myths start becoming accepted as truth, civilized societies need to get a little nervous. Lost in the whole Jeremiah Wright/Barack Obama nightmare is the fact that nearly a quarter of African Americans believe that the AIDS virus was invented by the government. Again, it's hard not to sympathize with the origins of this belief; our history shows a dismaying record of persecution of many ethnic and religious groups. But trusting conspiracy theories that oppose all rational thought can only lead to debilitating divisiveness and fear.
Last week, in downtown Fort Wayne, I talked to an acquaintance who broke down the various conspiracy theories surrounding Matt Kelty's legal troubles. I learned that the responsible party for the debacle was not Kelty himself, but rather a consortium of high ranking Allen County Republican leaders, a few Democrats, and the Fort Wayne media. In time, he promised me, the truth will come out.
I’ll keep you informed.