Though not religious in any conventional way, Rick, my best friend, believes strongly in a personal, capital-D Devil. This Devil of Rick’s has a lot of say in world affairs. Through a loyal cadre of mortals who have made a bad trade on their souls, he runs Proctor and Gamble, Capitol Records, and even Nickelodeon. “Watch Dora carefully,” he’ll say. “I mean really watch it. Our kids are getting some seriously freaky messages. I don’t like it, bro. It’s got this stench hanging over it, and that stench is coming right out of the blast furnace in Satan’s rectum.” Neither one of us has children.
Actually, Rick never met a conspiracy, a cover-up, or a cabal he didn’t like. He once bribed me with good vodka and his original Maui salsa verde to sit through the taped testimony of a woman who claims the superiors at her convent beat her, raped her, starved her, and deprived her of the consolations of the King James Bible. This weekend, while we were unloading the fixings for his new office, Rick sing-songed, “I know what’s coming,” and explained how Obama would escape an rigged assassination attempt and use it as a pretext for imposing a police state. “Obama can’t help it,” Rick said. “He’s just a puppet.”
I haven’t talked to Rick since homemade bombs planted at the Boston marathon’s finish line killed three and wounded 130, but I can guess what he’ll have to say about it. It’ll be more or less what Alex Jones has said already. Shortly after the blasts, the talk-radio host who once threatened to turn Piers Morgan into a real American, tweeted, “Our hearts go out to those that are hurt or killed #Boston marathon – but this thing stinks to high heaven #falseflag,” and later “Explosions at the Boston Marathon. Don’t that the FBI has been behind virtually every domestic terror plot in the US, as NY Times reported.”
Granted, in that second tweet, Jones forgot to write “forget,” but you get the idea.
Whether you choose to see conspiracy theorizing as a product of social conditions — as the “refuge of the powerless” — or in terms of individual pathology, it’s clearly not the hobby horse of happy people. Projecting Machiavellian qualities onto some powerful Other is only fun when the alternative is believing events to be random or impersonal. Sir Bernard Ingham said that the media would do a better job if they looked for cock-ups instead of conspiracies. Much as that might seem to deflate human dignity, it’s still less grim than imagining life governed entirely by, for example, the market.
According to George Gerbner, unwary mass media consumers can gorge on vicarious suffering to the point where they start believing the world’s even more brutal than it is in fact. He dubs this phenomenon, fittingly, Mean World Syndrome. Studies suggest that those who watch terrorist attacks and natural disasters on television experience more stress-related symptoms than those who don’t. Conspiracy theorizing isn’t a natural, or even a common outgrowth to media-misery glut. But I’d venture to say that anyone who’s felt far-off apocalypses so intimately that the four horsemen might as well have been galloping through the next room, can relate to the theorists at least a little.
I first experienced disaster second-hand at the age of seven, when my mother — as overwhelming a force for me, in those days, as mass media were for George Gerbner’s subjects — told me about the Holocaust. She was rather blunt about it, in particular, on the subject of how i’d have ended up. Though, at a safe distance, that teachable moment does have its darkly comic aspect, which I’ve written about, at the time I found it very upsetting. Being stuck in an oven — and, I mistakenly assumed, eaten — seemed like something that could happen at school the next day.
Thank God for scholarship. Sensing she’d perhaps oversold man’s inhumanity to man, my mother went to the library and brought home an armload of books on the Second World War, their purpose being to remind me that the good guys sometimes do win. And it worked! Those books, written for kids in triumphant tones, created a reassuring narrative frame: Good can triumph over evil. There’s a video on YouTube of 16 Spitfires skimming in tight formation over some field in modern-day Britain. Even now, whenever I’m having one of my dark nights, I head straight for the lullaby of those Merlin engines.
Thanks to Mark Shea and Fred (“Mister”) Rogers, I know now that what I’m doing is called “looking for the helpers.” Maybe thanks to lessons learned the hard way, from 9/11 and Katrina, Sandy and Newtown, the media have been making the helpers very visible this time around. That’s great — even better if the possibility of being seen makes helping more attractive. But such a coping strategy doesn’t necessarily discourage conspiracy theorists. To Alex Jones’ way of thinking, he is a helper. He’s helping a supine humanity arm itself with the awful truth concerning who’s pulling the strings.
Anyway, there are more than a few slices of sentimental baloney stacked in the look-for-the-helpers strategy. After writing the line “We must love one another or die,” W.H. Auden realized the first action couldn’t preclude the second. Even if we do love one another, we still have to die. Spitfires didn’t eliminate evil from the world; all they did was deal a temporary check to one form of it. For all that help, people have gone right on dying ever since.
I wonder whether conspiracy theorists are people who have figured this out, but who aren’t quite sure what to do with it. Me, I make do with a somewhat attenuated form of Christianity. But I have a hunch this suffices to get me from one day to the next only because I’m shrewd enough to ration my exposure to life’s misfortunes. Unlike Rick, who spends his spare time collecting data on people who’ve contracted leukemia after living near power lines, I’ll spare a daily glance or two at Yahoo! News’ front page, shudder a little, and move on. Faith or no faith, I may lack the emotional courage of conspiracy nuts.
The next time I see Rick, I know, I’m going to get an earful about the Boston bombings — who stood to gain, and who’s taking the fall. Arguing with him will be out of the question. The fact that Rick has made several small fortunes in direct marketing testifies to his genius for overcoming objections. Instead, I’ll do what I always do. I’ll listen, interjecting an occasional “Huh,” to remind him I’m following along. When he runs out of steam — which he always does, sooner or later — his mood will have improved. He’ll pan-fry us up some free-range bison sliders, and I’ll tell myself I managed to perform another small act of love before dying.