Conspiracy Theories: A One-Layer Cake

About eighteen months after I started publishing articles about human rights issues and revealed that I have contacts inside some other news stories, something new arrived in my neighborhood: local police patrols.

Oooh, spooky. I live in a suburban cul-de-sac in the country, four miles from the nearest anyplace, and I have lived here for two-plus years. When there were teenagers in this neighborhood—and all teenagers are worth keeping an eye on, of course—we rarely saw a police cruiser here. I go ahead and publicly reveal on my teeny-tiny web site that I “know some people” and BOOM! we get a patrol car a few days later. It is a regular enough visitor that I wave at it.

Ah, well. Call me naive and I will never consider it an insult: that police patrol has nothing to do with me. I may desire the thrill of thinking that I live in the exciting fantasy life in which I am under police surveillance or protection, but I am not. I know people who are in fact under surveillance and are being harassed by various government authorities (in European countries and other regions), and this is how I know that I am not. I know journalists whose bank accounts have suddenly vanished, as if they never did business with the bank. (If something even remotely like that happens to me, all two or three of you who read this web site will be the first to know.)

All of the above sounds too much for me like a humblebrag.

I also have met people who think they are under perpetual surveillance with no evidence to justify it, and that is no way to live. They are lost in a world of self. I may have real problems, and the world certainly has real problems, but my problems and the world’s problems rarely intersect.

By nurture, by human experience, and possibly by nature, I am a skeptic. These are three more layers than some thinking allows for. I wrote the following a few years ago:

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A Conspiracy Theory of Conspiracy Theories: A Rant

It is a conversational moment that I have come to dread over the years, the moment I learn too much about what is going on inside the head of a new acquaintance whom I so much want to respect.

The other night my girlfriend and I were chatting convivially with a new friend of ours about many topics, and the two of them were finding with greater and greater rapidity and excitement that they shared opinions and even a mindset; they were having an “I knew I knew why I liked you” moment, and our new friend even said those very words out loud.

I sensed what was coming. Our friend’s shoulders relaxed, she drew us in closer and spoke loudly because of her new confidence in us, “I knew I knew why I liked you. You think like me! You probably know all about the chemtrails and what they are doing to our water and food.” My girlfriend continued smiling but betrayed no such knowledge. “You know, how they’re killing us for money. It’s outrageous what they’re doing to us all.”

I was surprised but not shocked. It was not the first time I had heard someone I thought was a rational-minded person with unimpaired critical thinking skills give voice to approximately three conspiracy theories in ten words or less.

A Soapbox Moment™: There are real outrages in our world and society, of course. Before those of you who feel legitimate outrage about “Big Pharma” and its real effect on modern medicine … or those of you with gripes about corporate agriculture and its real effect on our ecology, economy, and general health … or those of you who feel that our various layers of government present heavy-handed restrictions on fair-minded business people or restrictions that are infuriatingly not heavy enough at all because pollution exists … before you decide to take up arms and keyboard and aim angry words attempting to correct my insouciant attitude about the legitimate threats these pose to our greater welfare, please re-read the clauses opening this extra-long sentence. And please read on. There are legitimate dangers in this ever-complicated world and I am outraged by them. I vote my conscience. I write letters and this blog, and I sign petitions. I have marched and I will again. (Well, maybe it’ll be in a wheelchair.) We do not need belief in ever-complicated conspiracies posed by a mysterious and infernal “them” to get in the way of believing that maybe just possibly we can affect what “they” are doing to our lives. “They” are bad enough without our fantasies.

(I am glad I found that soapbox nearby; now, can someone help me down from it?)

When one lives in the Northeast, as I do, during every winter storm one hears this sentence at least too many times to count: “Heh. So much for global warming.” I have heard people who have explained to me fairly complex physical realities (okay, indoor plumbing) utter this inane sentence as if they do not understand the difference between our Hudson Valley weather on a given Tuesday in January and a global climatological condition. Come summer, these people inevitably give voice to the opposite idea, without minding the contradiction, when they note, “Summers seem warmer than when I was a kid.”

We all want to feel in possession of some special insight or know that our facts are more fact-y than other peoples’ facts, to feel that we know more than the people “in the know”—our elected officials, our scientists, our religious leaders. Because there is so much dogma in our daily lives, we think that everything we read or hear is dogmatic. From Will Rogers to Lewis Black through every heroic iconoclast of the last several generations, we have taught ourselves that we “know better,” that we must “question authority,” but without questioning one authority: our own. We may in fact know better, but that only comes through a skeptical weighing of all evidence, including our own state of mind and knowledge.

I admit that as a skeptic, I question questioning authority. I question my own, which makes writing this post a tad ironic. What do I know?

I am by nature a non-confrontationalist, so when I learn that someone I have been getting to know possesses a conspiratorial mindset—is a person who treats beliefs as facts—I shut down and do not involve myself in a debate over the merits of the thinking. If you already think that water fluoridation is a part of a government plot to make people submissive subjects, instead of what it is, I am not going to get into a detailed discussion about the number of gallons of distilled water you think a person needs to start consuming.

Instead, I will make slightly agreeable-sounding sounds that can be easily mistaken for words and statements by my interlocutor but in fact are not. (Like the scene from Dr. Strangelove, above.) I will find the soonest conversational exit, which is what my girlfriend and I did with our new friend the other evening. Before we learned too much about her worldview, because I still wanted to have some intellectual respect for the friend and for myself.

Maybe I should engage people more forcefully and in the name of logic and skepticism … no. No. Because, oftentimes, the other person has come to these insights and beliefs by employing the tools of critical thinking, which is the shame of it. They think that they are questioning authority by reflexively denying the possibility that the facts as presented by authorities are the facts. This is a way of thinking that is as blind as automatically assuming that anything we are told is true.

It is as if there is an item on the critical thinking checklist that is ticked off every time we declare ourselves a “skeptic,” but only, only, of the official line. By believing that there is something more complicated going on than we are being told. We cheer ourselves believing we are thinking for ourselves.

I love thinking that does not involve thought. It gets me to really not work out those mind-muscles at all but still use my gym membership to get in the comfortable sauna. For me, some forms of gambling scratch the same itch in my head and feel the same as conspiratorial skepticism: the game of roulette, for example. There are books and pamphlets outlining patterns one should be aware of and gambling practices one should adhere to at the roulette table. But you know what the most detailed, complicated thought I have ever had at the roulette wheel is? “I like 4. I think I’ll bet on it.”

It is not critical thinking to posit that simply because the “government denies it” certain fabulous tales must be true. In logic, there is a principle called “Occam’s razor,” which simply states that among several hypotheses, the one requiring the reader to make the fewest assumptions is the one to pursue. Are those lights in the sky vehicles from light-years away? or something earth-based? The earth-based explanation might in fact be less complicated and thus less exciting, but it also might be more truly frightening.

Are the patterns of condensation left in an airplane’s wake a part of a nefarious plot to poison the populace into a submissive agreeability from the sky? Without evidence, this asks us to assume quite a few things.

Is our government poisoning us into a state of dependence on it? I do not know, and I do not see evidence to support it, but isn’t the idea that corporate agriculture, in the name of the profit motive, producing food with ever less nutrition per volume in fact scarier? And that is really happening. Yet confronting reality asks us to take action and do something for ourselves, because we can still. Somehow, underneath it all, I am an optimist. I believe in confronting reality.

My conspiracy theory of conspiracy theories is that the powers that be prefer us speculating wildly about hidden plots and nefarious powers “behind the scenes” and thinking that this form of knowing is enough. They love it when we think we are doing something but really aren’t. In the 1990s, one of my co-workers at a bookshop used to angrily relocate the paperback sci-fi books inspired by The X-Files television series from fiction to non-fiction. My conspiracy theory of conspiracy theories is that this is exactly the sort of faux-fight corporate America wants us to wage.

* * * *
This first appeared in January 2014, before the police came …

The WordPress Daily Prompt for July 5 asks us to reflect on the word, “Layers.”

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  1. Anton Wills-Eve · July 5, 2016

    What a wonderful world the CIA and FBI have made up around your brilliant layer of deceit, Mark. Maybe you really have cracked it. After all the only perfect secret agent is the one who is not even acknowledged or paid by the people for whom they work. The old adage was never so true as it is in the world of espionage. “The only true keeper of secrets is the boasting gossip, because everyone assumes they are are making it all up. But are they?” Maybe you are a genius at it ; are you? 🙂 Ciao Anton

    Liked by 1 person

  2. kstanlyksays · July 5, 2016

    the timing of this piece is funny because yesterday i clicked on olive ole’s picture and got something to to the effect of this website no longer exists… my first thoughts were oh god, she just had posted this long angry rant about brexit & trump & they scared her into shutting it down. my second thought was oh my god i commented in support of her anger. and then i laughed at myself. phew. haven’t crossed over yet.

    as one of the 2-3 who reads your stuff (though not as often as i’d like, your posts are long for someone who is short on time) i’m looking forward to chipping in to your crowdfunding when they shut down your bank account, so DO keep us posted on that.

    nail on the head about the glut of theories masking the one theory that is truth.

    but i believe it’s more like “sometimes” or even “seldom” instead of “oftentimes” in “… oftentimes, the other person has come to these insights and beliefs by employing the tools of critical thinking…”. most of those that i’ve encountered have maybe read an article or seen a documentary, or even just heard it from some politician or stranger or personal friend of the same mindset, never vetted the source, never looked into it further than that, accepted it as gospel. no thinking involved, critical or otherwise.

    anyhow, as always, you make me laugh, when i have the time.

    Liked by 1 person

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