High school has a lot of firsts, such as sexual initiation, complexion disasters, and the discovery of social ineptitude. But I think for most of us it is the time when the outside world first becomes more important than home and family. Our peers, bless their merciless little hearts, become the only important standard of measurement. They also become our primary source of a vast amount of information and misinformation.
It is in this last category that I recall one day having someone pass me a copied document. It was called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Recollection is shaky, but I doubt if it was a full copy of one of the many editions of that famous screed. First, because I doubt whether anyone would have bothered to duplicate such a long piece. Second, because I doubt I would have bothered to read it. Hence I assume it was a heavily summarized version.
Supposedly an instruction manual for a new member of the Elders, it described how the Jews will rule the world by corrupting the existing institutions and by taking over the media and institutions of finance.
It explained the growth of alcoholism, pornography, and other vices as the fruits of the Zionist conspiracy. Dangerous ideas such as Darwinism, Marxism, Anarchism, and the like were all designed to destroy the existing Christian order to make room for the Zionist conquest. World government, world wars, and universal suffrage…all due to the conspiracy. Communism, economic depressions, addictive drugs…all due to the Elders.
What I didn’t know at the time was how perfectly the Protocols epitomized that wonderful creation, the Conspiracy Theory.
Now, if you want to create a good conspiracy theory, you have to start with one or more problems that people are already worried about like America’s trade deficit or the price of oil. Second, you have to invent some secret cabal, invest them with enormous power and dark goals, and blame them for the problem. Third, you have to point out that some part or parts of the cabal’s goals have already been achieved. [This is the Aha! Factor, and it is very important. To sell the conspiracy, you have to give your subject a feeling of recognition. Aha! So that’s how it happened. I knew it wasn’t an accident.] Finally, you should have stories of the horrible fates that befell those who tried to reveal The Truth.
What you are depending on to sell your conspiracy theory are the eternal human beliefs that, a) everything happens for a reason (accident and stupidity being inadequate explanations), b) loss is universal on our side – therefore someone out there is gaining, and finally, c) large groups of people can keep secrets.
Looking at America, it seems as if there was always some group or other fervently holding onto a conspiracy theory. Interestingly, although the evidence (e.g. drunkenness, debt, corruption, high interest rates, economic panics, etc.) often persisted, the villains were fungible.
First it was the Catholics. Then the Masons. Then the Catholics and the Masons. Then the Pope and the Jesuits. Then the Masons and the Jesuits. Finally, in the early 20th century, the Catholics and the Jews. (Or the Jesuits and the Jews, or occasionally the Pope, the Jesuits, the Jews, and the Masons.).
For many, particularly in the Middle East, the Jews became a permanent part of every conspiracy. But most others moved on to the U.N., the Russians, the Trilateral Commission, the CIA, the Order of Skull and Bones, etc. Conspiracies have always had a life span. Old ones became obsolescent and most people converted to newer ones.
Or that is how it used to be. But take a look at the following list of other conspiracy theories and count how many of them you are unfamiliar with:
Pearl Harbor/Roosevelt’s foreknowledge
TWA Flight 800/missile attack
AIDs/CIA/plan to destroy blacks/homosexuals
Moon Landing/never happened
September 11/Jewish foreknowledge
New World Order/UN
So how is it we are all so current on nutsy notions that used to be the private property of the crackpots? How come they are still alive and well? What changed in the conspiracy world?
First, there is television. In a time of 24-hour news cycles, truly marginal ideas and people get air time and even full blown documentaries (just think of how many the JFK assassination has spawned).
To this, add the Internet. The Web has become not only the place where anyone can post his own loony fancies, it has also become the most powerful tool ever invented for the crazies of this world to network. Nowadays our weirdos have achieved something close to paranoiac heaven: they are no longer alone.
And there is a crucial difference between the two: Television is ephemeral. Not so the Internet. Once something is posted on the Net, it is there. Archived maybe, but there. Forever.
About the potential of television, Edward R. Murrow once said, “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire, but it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends.”
Both that potential and that warning are still more true of the Web. Because the Web has a fantastic new power:
It can grant immortality.