Why conspiracy theories offer hope

Armin Rosen
Armin Rosen
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There is only one recent work of art that captures the reality that conspiracism is both the final remaining mode of meaningful civic participation in America and a powerful spiritual balm for us. In the 2018 neo-noir film Under the Silver Lake, a young LA slacker spends the few days before his looming eviction uncovering a dense network of secret codes scattered across the city. He loses the apartment of course, but the movie ends with him sleeping with his mysterious and beautiful neighbor. The quest is both meaningless and meaningful: It fixes nothing, yet briefly fills the world with purpose.

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Whether you’re the president of the New York Times or a random guy at the bar, conspiracism has become the natural state of the American mind—a powerful and popular interpretive tool in coping with a baffling, disappointing national reality. Both sides of the partisan spectrum are animated by conspiracy theories, whose truth furnishes terrifying proof of the nefariousness of their enemies. The Republicans are secret agents of Vladimir Putin, and must therefore be stopped at all costs. The Democrats fake the results of presidential elections, and must be stopped at all costs. Politics today means announcing whose conspiracy theory you side with, and whose you denounce.

Belief in conspiracies isn’t strictly a political phenomenon, though. Many of the country’s elites earnestly believe that there is a national cabal of incipient fascists who are very close to overturning America’s democratic system. Those further down the scale of wealth and power share a vaguely parallel theory, in which the global rich are affecting a “great reset” at the end of which we’ll be imprisoned by Bill Gates, forcibly be vaccinated, and made to subsist on a diet of bugs.

This country is so gripped with conspiracy right now that it’s common for perfectly normal and otherwise reasonable people to view small daily annoyances as evidence of something much more sinister. Weed is everywhere in New York City now—you smell it on the subway and in front of middle schools and on elevators in office buildings. Maybe big alcohol and big tobacco are secretly pushing weed as a hedge against government regulation and the growing unpopularity of their core businesses. Or maybe the anti-cigarette, pro-weed people—meaning the globalists or the elites or whatever—realized it would be easier to control everyone if they were dumb and high.

One common explanation for conspiracism is that it takes hold in societies that really have been at the receiving end of elaborate plots, which gives plausibility to false claims of a malign hidden order. Here’s one I recently overheard at an airport bar in that national citadel of logic and reason, New York City: A close associate of Jeffrey Epstein was found dead hanging from a tree with a gunshot wound, but no gun was found nearby, explained a close-cut man in his early 40s wearing a quiet beige shirt.

Of course, reality is much scarier. Jeffrey Epstein really was a sex trafficker who was friendly with presidents and CEOs, and the surveillance cameras at the jail where he was being held really did go blank on the night that he died. So what else is possible? What else are they up to? There really was an unprecedented wave of lockdowns and school closures in response to a virus with a fatality rate of well under 1% that posed little danger to the young. Who did that to us, and why?

The American love of conspiracy springs from a palpable sense of powerlessness among all types of Americans, across the political spectrum. Something is clearly not right—civic and social safeguards are gone, democracy has become arbitrary and unresponsive, and friends and family say and believe insane things. Moreover, we understand, even if only subconsciously, that these conditions aren’t going to change any time soon, because the problems we face were never reducible to “Trump” or “Biden” or any other avatar of individual evil.

Within this discouraging psychic environment belief in conspiracy can be doubly empowering. It reflects a faith that change really is possible, so long as one group of secret overlords can be exposed and replaced with another, more humane group of overlords. It also offers a hermeneutical pat on the back: The conspiracy theorist, working together with his or her friends on the internet, has achieved an elusive truth, deliberately concealed from most of the rest of the human race. Belief in conspiracies vindicates the superior abilities of the believer—the world can change, and you can be the one who changes it! Maybe you're already changing it, by seeing something that’s being hidden from everyone else.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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