A reader writes concerning the particular species of conspiracy theory called Birtherism:
I read an article once which argued that the popularity of conspiracy theories had to do with a cognitive bias to the effect that big things must have big causes. JFK can’t have been shot by one guy, because the killing of a President is a huge big deal and so it must have been a huge big operation. 9/11 can’t have been 19 guys with simple weapons, it has to have been a controlled demolition, because it was a huge deal and such a small group can’t do something that big. There must be hidden things going on we don’t know.
A man who looks like Obama becoming president – when his parents’ marriage wasn’t even legal in parts of the USA at the time he was born – is a big deal. The simple explanation, that the GOP had mismanaged the country for a decade and Obama ran a good campaign, is too simple. There must be some hidden truth we don’t know.
Yeah. I think there’s something to this. We find it hard to believe that technology is *that* much of a force multiplier, allowing smaller and smaller groups of people to do bigger and bigger damage.
Also, we tend to want to simplify the narrative. We like the broad mythic stroke more than the granular and ambiguous historical canvas.
So, for instance, encouraged by Professional Catholic demagogues spinning simplistic culture war narratives, we easily believe that when somebody criticizes a Folk Hero, it is due to a shadowy conspiracy or a cabal, rather than facing the fact that sometimes (in fact, usually) the criticism is due, not to the critic being a secret member of the Enemy Cabal, but to the fact that the critic has a legitimate point and is often, in 99 cases out of a hundred, pretty much in agreement with us.
Ironically, this means that in our search for the Simple Narrative (pure eeeeevil hiding behind the smiling face of seeming friends) we wind up with absolutely byzantine complexity as conspiracy theories fractal to account for the fact that the pure eeeeevil person you are sure is part of The Conspiracy often behaves in ways that don’t really make a lot of sense if your nutty theory is true. So, for instance a reader who writes to tell me that I am secretly a liberal pro-choice Obama supporter and obviously heterodox would, if he were capable of actual thought, have to formulate a theory of Rube Goldberg complexity in order to account for the fact that I am a conservative Catholic who says that all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims is revealed by God, opposes abortion, euthanasia, and gay “marriage”, hates Communism, regards Obama as a tyrant, voted for Reagan and Bush twice, supports just war, supports capitalism (within just limits), stands for monogamy, rejects artificial contraception, and thinks Benedict XVI is the bees knees. Likewise, the simple-minded conspiracy theorist who suddenly discerns the smoke of Satan at work at EWTN, the National Catholic Register, and the chanceries of Bishops Mulvey and Zurek has to account for why these orthodox people suddenly wish to join the ranks of the average National Catholic Reporter reader in their naked animosity to Pope Benedict and the Church.
How does such a reader achieve such a feat? Often it appears that this is done by simple acts of association. So I am a “liberal” because I oppose torture and pre-emptive war and think it obscene that the strong prey on the weak in this country with increasing impunity, while middle class incomes flatline and vast amounts of wealth accumulate in fewer and fewer hands. That makes me a socialist, doncha know. Moreover, I do not think a chaste homosexual who maintains a relationship with another chaste homosexual is obviously a contemptible enemy of the faith. And I do not believe conservative Folk Heros who defy their bishops are to be applauded, nor that criticism of such Folk Heros when they do defy their bishop is evidence of a Conspiracy.
Because we like this Broad Mythic Stroke approach, we also couldn’t be bothered to look at the facts before we attacked Iraq. Them Muslim bastards had attacked us and we were going to attack them back, even if they had nothing to do with 9/11. Dick “Five Deferrments” Cheney declared and we believed without question: “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.” It fit the mythic narrative we wanted to believe of a righteous retaliation for the evil done to us. And when people attempted to point out that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, when the facts vindicated those who had pointed out that there was no actual evidence of WMDs, we simply changed the narrative from a Righteous Crusade of Vengeance to a Righteous Crusade for Freedom (to be more oppressively Sharia-bound). We needed a myth of victory, a fantasy of triumph in which the grievous blow dealt us received a grievous defeat followed by a transformation of our Enemy into Us, the ultimate triumph. We told ourselves “Mission Accomplished” and have lived in denial since then that our broad mythic narrative bears little resemblance to the facts.
That, I think, is part of the reason, by the way, that the GOP ties itself in knots over the fact that Obama and not they achieved the satisfactory mythic goal of killing Osama bin Laden. It was, after all, his attack that scarred our nation and the obvious resolution (emotionally speaking) was to hold his severed head before the nation and shout “Osama Delenda Est!” Bush failed. In fact, he never even tried. Obama succeeded. And like any smart pol he knows that’s a selling point with a wounded nation that longed to see the murderous son of a bitch dead. People don’t know or care from nothing about the complexities of Al Quaeda’s decentralized organization, just as they don’t know or care about the complexities of the cave tunnel system on Iwo Jima. What they need, mythically speaking, is a picture of four guys raising a flag that says, “We beat the enemy”.
The death of Osama bin Laden gave that satisfaction. The crazy war of choice against a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 did not. So the GOP was left pathetically trying to claim “Hey! Our willingness to torture is what *really* got bin Laden.” This, in addition to being a bald-faced lie (GOP torture policies actually hampered our intel gathering ability) demonstrates clearly that the GOP knows the killing of bin Laden was exactly one of those things that a nation can grasp as mythically satisfying and is trying to horn in on the action.
Mythic thinking is not all bad. We require to be kept in touch with the great themes of human existence. But mythic thinking can be very dangerous too. It is an American myth that our crusade for the American Way shall surely conquer the world with truth and justice. It is a fact on the ground that Obama’s war on Catholic conscience is being conducted precisely on the grounds that this Myth shall conquer the Backward Forces of Evil represented by the Catholic tradition. Totalitarian states are as adept as free ones at tapping into mythic imagery to bypass rational thought and gin up the masses by teaching them to salivate at images and associations, rather than reason and clearly thought-through ideas.