I Read 350 Pages of Conspiracy Theories in 3 Days. Here’s What I Learned
Ever since the assassination of JFK, Texas has been prime real estate for plots, ponderings, and general hokum, so I was not surprised to find what I hoped would be my new favorite book wasting away in a Houston antique store. The Conspiracy Reader is an anthology of articles from Paranoia Magazine, a long-running zine that began in the early ’90s and worked as one of the most prominent means of conspiracy theory dissemination in America, before 9/11 and Loose Change’s wide availability on the internet would mainstream such ideas.
One of the things that made Paranoia unique was its totally egalitarian editorial approach: if editors Al Hidell and the pseudonymous Joan D’Arc thought you could explain your idea with a decent level of consistency, they’d publish it no matter how baffling or far-fetched it came across. This open door policy obviously lead to some pretty insane nonsense, but it also resulted in genuinely excellent journalistic pieces about subjects like the Philadelphia MOVE bombing. If you wanted to cover something the mainstream media wasn’t touching, and if you could write reasonably well, Paranoia would let you have the floor, and this made the magazine a fascinating petri dish for observing how the minds of those with fringe beliefs work.
I ended up racing through the entire Conspiracy Reader in a matter of days. In the process, I think I gained some insights into how conspiracy theorists think.
- Their Observations Are Sound…
One interesting thing about conspiracy theories is that in many cases, it’s easy to see why the theorist has trouble accepting the official story. In “Chappaquiddick: Water Under the Bridge?,” for instance, R.B. Cutler has several interesting questions about how Ted Kennedy’s infamously lethal car ride could have possibly played out as described in media reports. Among his notes are that the car was damaged to an extreme degree considering how slowly it was moving, and that it seems highly improbable that a drunk, out-of-shape Kennedy could have swam out of the vehicle and across the lake to safety as he described. There’s no problem with questioning what you read; news reports frequently make mistakes, and healthy skepticism can frequently lead to new facts being uncovered.
2. …But Their Conclusions Are Not
Another thing Cutler points out is that the victim of the crash, Kennedy’s secretary Mary Jo Kopechne, was not much of a drinker, but did have an uncharacteristically high blood alcohol content level at the time of the crash. What could explain this? Cutler posits that the FBI injected her corpse with vodka to confuse the medical examiner. No, I am not kidding, and neither is he:
[District Attorney Dinis] went to [Kopechne’s] family and said he wanted to exhume the body to see if they could find anything. Well, if you consider the level of alcohol in the blood and the fact that the girl was not a drinker, it’s obvious that you’ve got to get alcohol into her somehow. How was that done? The only way I can think of is some type of needle and syringe.
Cutler also believes that Kennedy was switched out with a body double at some point during the crash, and that the entire scandal was orchestrated by the feds in an indescribably convoluted scheme to ruin the reputation of the Kennedy dynasty without having a third assassinations on their hands (it should go without saying that Cutler obviously believes in the “inside job” theory regarding the deaths of Jackie and Bobby).
What happened here is that in an effort to fill gaps that the theorist had no reasonable level of insight into, he created answers that ended up making far less sense than the inconsistencies he was trying to solve in the first place. Don’t judge him too harshly; you probably do the same thing on Facebook all the time. This dovetails into the third observation I picked up on over the course of my reading:
3. Nonsense Begets Nonsense
When your basic premise is illogical, it takes very little effort to transform two wrongs into a right if you’re trying to patch up holes in your theory. Nowhere is this better put to the test than in John White’s bombastically titled “UFOs: Chariots of the Damned?,” wherein he discusses the process behind how his belief in UFOs lead to his belief in the New World Order:
I reasoned that if there were one conspiracy, there would be others, and the net result would be to negate or at least neutralize each other […] The vagaries of world affairs would be too unpredictable; too many things could go wrong; people wouldn’t stay loyal to such a cause all their lives; evidence of it simply couldn’t be covered up forever.
So far, so good: many scholars have pointed out that most conspiracies are inconsistent with one another and that the logistics of setting up a one world government in secret would make such a task basically impossible. White is on the same page as basically every other reasonable person as of right now. But then the UFOs enter the picture, and so do White’s brain worms:
Then the abducting aliens came into view, and the situation took on a wholly different complexion. If the aliens have secretly planted their agents throughout civilization for decades and if they are pursuing contact with the top echelons of power around the world for the purposes of infiltration and subversion, then over the years they have been playing out a hand which was strategized nowhere but in hell.
White’s thesis in this piece is that space aliens have been sent to Earth by the literal, actual Devil to hasten humankind towards Armageddon, so I’m not going to tell you that this essay had been anything approaching a normal or sensible read up until this point. What’s interesting to me is how he managed to easily negate one of his only reasonable points of view with one of his completely insane ones. If you believe in even one crazy thing, it can make other extreme opinions seem logical if placed within the structure of your fantasy. I believe this is why one tends to find so many hardcore conspiracy theorists that seem to subscribe to every conspiracy they hear, even when they obviously contradict each other.
4. “Conspiracy” Doesn’t Always Mean “Ridiculous”…
As noted at the beginning, Paranoia had a totally open door policy, which lead to them publishing a few pieces that were surprisingly sober and rigorous. The chapter of the compilation titled “Government Crimes and Cover-Ups” is by far the most well-researched segment of the book, covering the aforementioned MOVE bombing, the botched trial of Leonard Peltier, and the CIA’s involvement in drug trafficking over the decades. While there are still some major leaps of the imagination in this portion of the anthology (look no further than “FEMA: Fascist Entity Manipulating America”), it isn’t incorrect in pointing out that America has wronged its citizens many times, and that it’s our most vulnerable communities that tend to bear the brunt of its criminality.
Ironically, if there’s one part of US political life that is genuinely rife with coverups and silence campaigns, it’s law enforcement. As of this writing, we still don’t know why South Carolinian police unloaded two dozen rounds into Ariane McCree, without turning on their bodycams, while he was in handcuffs. There are absolutely occasions where powerful actors will throw their weight around to disguise the harm they’ve done to the public, and it’s as naïve to believe this never happens as it is to think lizard men from Nibiru have brainwashed your grandma with fluoride.
5. …Which Makes All of This Much More Confusing
If you’ve spent much time on Twitter, you’ve probably experienced the cognitive dissonance that can come with wading into the swamp of the collective unconscious. I frequently find myself retweeting Spongebob memes before sharing a news article about newly discovered war crimes, or posting a picture of my cat sleeping after holding forth at length about how I’m not sure my life will end up being worth anything. A condensed version of this feeling can be experienced while thumbing through The Conspiracy Reader: indeed, if a record of the legal injustices committed against Leonard Peltier deserves the same classification as a later essay about how Star-Trek was a government psyop which was broadcast to indoctrinate Americans into becoming Catholic (again, I must stress: not kidding), conspiracy theories paradoxically become at once impossible to dismiss and impossible to take seriously.
The “easy” solution to this is to simply assess each theory on its individual merits, but this is where the messiness of human perspective comes into play, because as loathe as I am to admit it…
6. This Bullshit is Incredibly Enjoyable
If it wasn’t apparent from the title of this essay, I had a lot of fun gobbling up The Conspiracy Reader. It was my go-to time killer for the majority of my vacation, a great way to make Lyft waits more enjoyable and to signal strangers that they should not talk to me. “Conspiracy theories” are really more like “conspiracy stories” for the most part: each is a tale with a yet-to-be-resolved climax, one which even you can possibly influence with your own wit and cunning. This is what makes them as dangerous as they are compelling; if you really think children are being held prisoner at the bottom of a pizza dungeon, and you have the arsenal to set them free, why wouldn’t you strap up? Many of us want to be the heroes of our own movies, and conspiracy theories, as batshit as a lot of them are, let that dream come true for many people.
Breaking the Chains of Narrative
It’s perfectly ironic that one of the best modern examples of what can make good stories so unreliable as barometers of truth was, in itself, an extremely bingeable Netflix program. The Staircase was a decades-in-the-making documentary about the trial of Michael Peterson, an author who was accused of brutally murdering his wife and leaving her at the bottom of his household stairs. At first, the case seems more or less open-and-shut: Peterson’s alibi is not terribly compelling, the grisly crime scene photos paint a picture of a fate far worse than a fall, and to top it off Peterson had an ex wife that died under extremely similar circumstances. Common sense would lead any juror (or viewer) to throw the book at him immediately.
Then more details emerge, and the picture gets cloudier. Peterson had absolutely no history of violence with anyone, least of all his wife, and the bludgeoning that purportedly took place on the staircase would have been impossible to conduct as described given the confined space and flimsiness of the supposed murder weapon. As to the eerie circumstances regarding the death of his first wife, well…it’s actually fairly common to die by falling down the stairs. The more you learn about the details of the case, the more you start to doubt those initial impressions that at first seemed so clear and obvious.
“Common sense” is, paradoxically, one of the driving forces behind the dissemination of conspiracy theories. How many times have you heard the “grassy knoll” theory justified by saying the angle of JFK’s assassination didn’t look right, or that the WTC collapse looked like a controlled demolition, when in reality the person speaking was likely not an expert on either sharpshooting ballistics or building demolitions? First impressions aren’t always accurate, and when the thing being assessed involves death, destruction and the wider framework of society, the inclination to jump the gun can have catastrophic consequences.
The Staircase is a great documentary, but it isn’t always a terribly exciting one. There are lots of droning courtroom scenes propelled by impenetrable legal jargon, and for much of the show you’re just watching the characters exist in their daily life, getting a feel for who they are as people. The dullness of truth-seeking is what makes so many people so much more invested in fiction. I lost five bucks, a few hours and a handful of braincells to The Conspiracy Reader, but for many people, the mindset that creates these stories can take their entire lives away from them.
So the next time you see a tweet or a headline that looks like it was ripped straight out of a movie pitch, take a step back and see if you might be rushing to fill in some narrative blanks that you may have no business reaching conclusions about. Conspiracy theories rely on a reversal of an old adage and posit that these tales are too good to be false; it’s up to you to decide if you’d rather live in a compelling fiction or a less captivating — but infinitely more fulfilling — reality.