The Conspiracy of the Conspiracies: Why do Americans Love to Mistrust Everything?
by The Milton Measure on Friday, June 10th, 2011
Shortly following the death of Osama Bin Laden, I was browsing CNN.com, as I often do before classes.
The front page contained the usual mix of important world affairs and pointless celebrity blather (I was somewhat disturbed to see “Justin Beiber’s new look” was trending above “Libyan Crisis”), and I was about to click away when I saw, in bright blue letters, “Death of the Birthers and Birth of the Deathers”. The article was a short piece, detailing the apparent rise of a new group of conspiracy theorists who believed that Osama bin Laden hadn’t been killed on May 2nd, and that the U.S. government was actually perpetrating a massive conspiracy to hide the truth that he had either died several years ago, or that he remained at large.
This was only a few days after President Obama released his long form birth certificate, presumably to put aside any lingering doubts that he had been born in the U.S. Our country lasted a grand total of one week without feeling the need to accuse the government of perpetrating a massive cover up. That is, if you don’t count the government faking the moon landings, the truth behind JFK’s assassination, the secret communist conspiracy behind water fluoridation, 9/11 or, if you believe English author and activist David Icke, alien lizards who control the government and are trying to use humans as food (sadly, I am not making this guy up. Google him).
It would be easier to dismiss such outlandish speculation as the ravings of a few lunatics, were it not for the seemingly wide array of public figures who throw their support behind these beliefs. Donald Trump’s claims about Obama’s birthplace, combined with his high profile efforts to seek the GOP nomination for the presidency, seemed to add a certain amount of legitimacy to what was otherwise a nonsensical argument.
Of course, it didn’t seem to matter that Mr. Trump hadn’t the slightest shred of evidence to back him up. After all, the “Birthers” argue, the lack of evidence only furthers their argument that there is a cover up by the government. Such outlandish claims are not endorsed only by those on the right, and some of the worst conspiracy theories originate from the far other end of the political spectrum.
Since 9/11, many have claimed that the Bush administration demolished the Twin Towers and fired cruise missiles at the Pentagon, in order to garner support for an invasion of Iraq.
Needless to say, there are many, many problems with the evidence or lack thereof which conspiracy theorists’ use to garnish their claims.
However, the most troublesome aspect of these theories is not their claims, but the fact that far too many people subscribe to them. A recent poll found that nearly a quarter of Republican voters belief that President Obama was not born in the United States. There are several key reasons for the continued popularity of fringe conspiracy theories.
Part of the problem is people like Mr. Trump, whose career depends on how much media attention he can get, have no limitations on what they can say. While Mr. Trump is entitled to him opinions, the media seems to have forgotten that they are entitled to ignore him.
“The Donald” is not the only offender. In 2006, Director Spike Lee, on Bill Maher’s program Real Time, declared that the federal government had deliberately blown up the levee’s surrounding New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. To support this viewpoint, he cited the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment, a 1947 test by the U.S. government on a small rural black town in Tuskegee Alabama, in which scientists deliberately withheld medical treatment on victims of the disease to measure its effects.
Mr. Lee argued that because of incidents such as Tuskegee, the government couldn’t be trusted not to withhold information from the people. This sort of argument relies on logical fallacies, as well as people’s inherent mistrust of government to work, however.
Another root of the problem is the fact that most people seem to hold the government in such low regard. The constant stream of scandals, gaffes, and partisan bickering seems to lend itself well to an atmosphere in which our country’s leaders, of both sides, are often seen as incompetent at best, and downright malicious at worst.
As a result, we, the citizens, are more willing to believe stories of secretive or villainous behavior amongst our political elite. The media has only made things worse, by continually attempting to drum up ratings by focusing on fringe theories, instead of focusing on more mundane, but more important issues. This all perpetuates a cycle in which media attention feeds legitimacy, and legitimacy feeds media attention.
However, this problem strikes deeper than this. It is not just because of the media that we are inclined to pay heed to conspiracy theories. There is almost something comforting about believing that the government, or business, or some imagined organization, is actually all powerful. It is easier than confronting the chaos and violence which we constantly see in the world.
There is something inherently depressing about acknowledging that nature can simply wipe away entire cities, or that religious fanatics from far away countries can bring the fruits of our prosperity down around us, while our government tries and fails to bring meaningful aid. Many people find comfort in the belief that somebody knows what they are doing.
Because the motivations behind conspiracy theories are so fundamental to the human condition, we really can’t do anything to stop them. Some people really won’t be satisfied, no matter how overwhelming the evidence is. The once group which really can do something about these conspiracy theories is the media.
By focusing so much on these fringe movements, the media gives them an undeserved platform on which to preach their ideas.
The media should do a better job of filtering through their stories, and only report on a conspiracy if it has some evidence behind it, and is not merely the speculation of public figures. Hearsay and accusations do not make a valid case for any position. Hopefully the media will remember its civic duty, and put real stories ahead of unfounded and downright silly conspiracies.
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