My mother used to tell me (she was thinking of the principal of the elementary school where she worked) that people who pretty much everyone hates almost always delude themselves into believing that they’re well-loved. Some of it is a psychological defense–imagine the devastation they’d feel if they acknowledged the truth about themselves. And some of it simply comes with the territory: unshakable confidence in one’s own likableness can be a really unlikable personality trait, unless you’re as charismatic as Prince Hal, or are a Holy fool or otherwise mentally challenged. James Arthur Ray, for example, probably still believes that his greatest asset is his irresistible charm. Joe Lieberman, Arlen Spector, and Mark Sanford undoubtedly feel the same way.
I myself am not immune to self-doubt; bad reviews (I have received many of them) and ad hominem attacks trouble me deeply. I think of myself as fair-minded and judicious and basically benign; I don’t like it when people who I’ve never met accuse me of being prejudiced and mean-spirited, as they so often seem to do these days. One Amazon customer made me sound like a latter-day Torquemada: “The only relief is that the author holds no sway in an official capacity else others of differing opinions might find themselves burned at the stake for the heresy of their convictions – that is IF he could find any others as close minded as he is to lead on his witch hunt.”
Witch hunt! I’m not even superstitious.
Some people see my book’s lurid orange cover with its all-seeing eye, its nifty black helicopters and its promised revelations about the New World Order and the Skull and Bones Society, and naturally assume it’s going to tell them the same sorts of things that Jim Marrs’, Jim Keith’s, Milton William Cooper’s, and Alex Jones’ books do–that there are evil, occult forces arrayed against us; that most of us are prisoners in the Matrix, oblivious of who’s really calling the shots. Instead, I tell them that conspiracism in its extreme manifestations is a species of paranoia, and that the paranoid conspiracist exhibits “a naive religiosity,which is suprisingly akin to the all-encompassing, steadfast piety of very young children.”
How patronizing I must seem! It’s no wonder that so many of my readers feel wounded and betrayed, that they want to turn the tables on me. “Talk about hiding your head in the sand!” they say. “You think anyone who questions authority is a nut!”
I don’t, really. In fact I think everyone should question authority. Questions are good; they’re what makes a skeptic a skeptic. What makes me suspicious isn’t the act of questioning, it’s the kinds of answers that the questioner then vests his or her faith in. If they’re subtle and complicated and appropriately contingent and open-ended, I’ll listen to them respectfully. If they read like a pot-boiler (although real life does sometimes seem to copy bad art–look at the OJ Simpson murder trial, or the block-buster SFX that were unleashed on 9/11) or a religious parable, if everything comes down to the deliberate machinations of a malignant, explicitly organized few (the Illuminati, the Learned Elders of Zion, the Bilderbergers, the NWO), then red flags go up. Not that there aren’t real cabals and conspiracies in the world–Washington’s Neo-cons, as I have written elsewhere, especially members of the think tank known as the Project for the New American Century, were undoubtedly an influential clique during the last administration. They weren’t exactly a secret society, drinking wine out of skulls and dressing up like Knights Templars and the like, but they weren’t always above-board either. Big corporations–arms manufacturers, insurers, banks, pharmaceutical companies, purveyors of fossil fuels–wield lobbyists and campaign contributions to exercise an undue and frequently malign influence on lawmakers. Not because their CEOs are initiates of ancient mystery religions that feed off the suffering of regular folks, but because the biggest players in an economy that’s based largely on unregulated self-interest are going to protect and enhance their own interests in whatever ways they can; because the corrupt and the corruptible can always be relied upon to find each other.
The world is complicated; one of the reasons that you can’t reliably explain big events (as opposed to everyday crimes) by looking for the powerful interests who benefited from them and then speculating about how they might have brought them about (what Karl Popper called the “conspiracy theory of history”) is because conspiracies seldom play out as planned. Even powerful, secretive figures like Dick Cheney, an arch-conspiracist if there ever was one (and I say that in deadly earnest) have had their problems with blowback and unintended consequences. I really doubt, for example, that Cheney hoped that lying about Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction would destabilize Pakistan; or that outing Valerie Plame as a CIA agent would increase the poppy harvests in Afghanistan. Even the tiniest conspiracies–never mind ones with global reach–are invariably betrayed by whistle-blowers and turncoats.
Conspiracy theories are so intuitively convincing because they appeal to the pattern-seeking part of our brains; propagandists take full advantage of our susceptibility to them. The word “pareidolia,” I recently learned, refers to the phenomenon–that’s what’s happening when we see Jesus’s profile in a burnt burrito, or a devil’s face in the smoke rising above the burning twin towers. I wrote about a study in CULTS, CONSPIRACIES AND SECRET SOCIETIES that demonstrated that people are more likely to discern hidden patterns when they are feeling frustrated and confused–and to live in the 21st century is to be perpetually frustrated and confused. The problem is that stress also makes people see patterns where they don’t really exist. I don’t exempt myself from this. It’s easy for me to reject conspiracy theories about Jewish bankers or Shape-shifting Lizards, but, especially during the last election, I ascribed far too much power to Bush and Cheney and their minions. I think that other people did too, and that’s been a big problem for their successors. If the Bush administration had been solely and completely responsible for all of the bad things that happen in the world, then it should have followed that unseating them would have instantly made things OK. Since things are still so manifestly not OK, since Obama and his crew have managed to change so little–millions are still uninsured and unemployed, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is still in place, Gitmo is still open for business and the war is being ramped up in Afghanistan–it must be because they like it that way. It’s a childish, naive way to think–and it makes one vulnerable to demagoguery and defeatism.