Tuesday, October 1, 2013

I Heart Conspiracy Theories: The scientific and narrative allure to humanity's pastime

With Sherlock Kahn (Benedict Cumberbatch) playing Julian Assange in the upcoming Oscars send-up about WikiLeaks, and with Edward Snowden bathing with Vladimir Putin in the ashes of US national security, many of us have been forced to confront our feelings about conspiracy theories. When conspiracies rear their warty heads in reality, people’s lives are put at risk. It’s often not pretty. Or funny. Or cool.
But at their philosophical core, conspiracy theories remain pretty awesome.
I adore good conspiracy theories. Ah heck, why not tell it to the mountain: You complete me, Good Conspiracy Theory! I never had any intention of inventing conspiracy theories as a novelist, but somehow I found them pouring out of me, the way pimp-beats once drizzled into the microphone from Djay in Hustle & Flow. Church, yo: It’s hard being a conspiracy theory pimp (well, not for Glenn Beck, but we’ll get to him).
If we seem drawn to conspiracy theories, be it through our semi-coherent Facebook rants or through our intrigue-laden entertainment tastes, that’s because we are. But why? Well I’m here to tell you: It’s evolution, baby. And neurology. And, like, sociology, bro. Stay tuned. The truth is in here.
Good conspiracy theories make you warm on the inside and goose-pimply on the outside. You feel safe in a world of danger. It’s like hurling your senses into a thrill blender and noosing your ankles into a bungee cord. After your plunge into the void, the (presumably) Kiwi bungee attendant serves you a sweet, strong concoction, steaming hot, with whipped cream on top. You’re both calmer and more alive as you sip.
A good conspiracy theory begins with a strand – be it a shiny gold hair in the bushes or a bloody piano wire in a dead man’s stock portfolio. That strand leads to more strands, which lead to mummified carcasses, which lead to more strands, which all align and connect into a gorgeous web that, for all its complexity as a whole, contains an easy-to-hit center. The Bull’s eye of a good conspiracy theory could be a shady order of blue meanies (like David Stern and his conspiracy against Seattle basketball); a tech-heavy dose of social psychology (we’re all asleep in the Matrix! Decker’s a replicant!); an evil corporation (Erin Brokovich, save us!); or it could be a second shooter on a grassy knoll, or a steroid peddler in Florida. Whether it’s really true or not doesn’t matter for a thinking person – you’ve panned the river of intrigue long enough to forever enrich yourself with a few gold nuggets of wisdom and information. Hence, the illustrious careers of John Grisham, Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, etc. and etc. and et-freaking-cetera.
Bad conspiracy theories, on the other hand, just kind of suck. The bungee cord wasn’t properly tied, and the drink it came with was unblended and cold. Think: room temp Frappuccino after splattering on the pavement. The guy serving a bad conspiracy is not a trained Kiwi professional stud-muffin, but a schlumpy used underwear salesman from (insert lame suburb here; it’s hard for a kid from Burien to cast stones from Pori). A bad conspiracy theory’s taste will hopefully be washed out as effortlessly as it was belched from the interweb. Unfortunately, a bad conspiracy theory can leave permanent scars with its poorly conceived, implausible, distasteful awfulness. And that’s a shame.
Because the good ones zap that brain center (A4 region, I think?) that vivifies the world, making it brighter and jollier and truthier. Good ones let you peek with 3-D night-vision goggles into the shadows behind the haunted nuclear power plant. Good ones help you laugh at the inside jokes of dudes you’d worried were above your coolness rank.
Think about the Da Vinci Code, or Area 51, or who shot JFK, or Shakespeare didn’t write his plays, or oil wars, or all things Jesse Ventura, or New Coke’s planned failure, or anything involving Jose Canseco and steroids, or perhaps most importantly, where are Biggie and Tupac (as Obama once quipped to Donald Trump, himself an internet projectile vomiter of not-so-good conspiracy theories; hang tight, we’ll get to those).
A good conspiracy offers a novel resolution to niggling questions you’ve always had, or have wished you’d been outside-the-box enough to have always had. They weave together history, investigation, intuition – and boxcars of information, logic, and deduction-- into a gleaming Persian rug that, upon hopping onto, appears to take flight to Revelation Mountain, far above the Republic of Monkey-See-Monkey-Do. You feel educated, informed, enlightened, empowered by a good conspiracy theory. Even when you know it’s probably not true. Even when it concerns a fictional world with fictional characters.
That’s because we’re programmed to love conspiracies. Seriously. It ties into our primal fight-or-flight response. Our brains are highly evolved pattern-recognition machines. What’s that movement in the grass? Better run, because it could be a tiger, not wind. What are those heavy thuds behind me on the deserted tropical island? Better grab your knife, could be a polar bear, not coconuts falling. When we sense a vague threat, our brains are programmed to find the threat’s cause so we can escape it (or kill it! kill it with fire!). Sometimes we come up with the right culprit; other times it’s Keyser Söze.
Paranoid people, like Glenn Beck, basically have their pattern recognition program frozen beyond the power of the force quit command. My hunch is that Glenn Beck’s conspiracy theory switch was flipped by over-activity in a related portion of the brain involved in worry and dread. People with brain inflammation from head bashings or viral infection develop rampant dark fantasies and feelings of impending catastrophe, which they may ascribe to everyone being out to get them (although in Seattle basketball’s case, this was actually true; Stern was out to get us).
In the jungle, paranoia was a way of life, a survival tool. Today it’s a modern mental health condition; or, for us novelists, an occupational advantage. (If this stuff sounds familiar, by the way, you might have seen skeptics point to it as the scientific basis for seeing specters, fairies, gas station Elvis and burnt-toast Jesus).
Conspiracy theories are thus an extension and a sublimation of the caveman impulses from our brains’ pattern recognition hardware. But the jungle we’re living in has skyscrapers, not trees; bankers and politicians, not lions and tigers; so when we detect dark stirrings in this steel jungle of money and corruption, we still try to identify the danger to find safety. It’s just that a modern world requires a modern boogie man. That’s what makes New World Order conspiracies so much fun, despite their being intrinsically unlikely. Getting psychopathic Narcissists to play nice in the sandbox is a Herculean challenge for a single company, let alone a single evil government (read: Hitler’s Thousand-year Reich), much less in a global plot spanning all systems of government and finance. As Noam Chomsky said, (paraphrasing from memory) Big Things happen because powerful folks have similarly lofty, greedy ambitions, not because they’re pulling strings together in the same unified goal. Still… N.W.O. stuff is a lot of fun. But I digress.
Considering the conspiracy theory urge is primal, it’s not surprising there are so many bad ones: Stanley Kubrick filmed the lunar landing in a CIA studio (and  2001 is a layered apology for doing so). Fluorinated water is a Soviet conspiracy to sterilize the US population. Jews funded 9/11. Barack (Hussein!!!! AAAHHHH!!!!) Obama is a communist/Muslim/capitalist Manchurian candidate puppet whose rage will consume America. Vaccines made congress mentally retarded and psychotic; er, well, that last one might have actually congealed into hard news. Anyhow, moving on: What do bad conspiracy theories have in common?
 It starts with taste. Bad taste. A bad conspiracy theory is often born from an attempt at projecting hatred or a specific agenda for self-serving purposes. It’s not about truth, or informed concern, passionate intellectual curiosity. It’s about satisfying a dark emotional need, of feeding the greed monster.
Poor taste leads to an attic of cobwebs rather than a gleaming web of intrigue. The strands of logic don’t align; they collapse. The evidence doesn’t tie together; it’s clumsily welded. Like bonding two negative charges, intertwining the mutually exclusive strands of a bad conspiracy theory requires outside power--the power of logical disconnect, often fueled by ignorance and some degree of hate (and perhaps the soothing baritone of a white man in a dark suit sitting beside a young, attractive woman, a fantasy within a fantasy, predicting the world’s end on TV and attracting a younger lady’s attention).
The stuff of conspiracies surrounds us. It is us. We’re all made out of stardust. So is a good conspiracy theory. Just make sure it obeys its own logic and that healthy paranoia never devolves into basic hate and stupidity. When designing a conspiracy, make sure its center is fun to behold, hard to forget, and easy to punch. It should look like a spider’s web with a highly suggestive Rorschach image of Dr. Evil at the center. Every strand should be connected by moments of WHOA! Followed by a long, satisfied, Aaaahhh... at the center. If you fail to do this, it’s a bad conspiracy theory. And I’ll tell you right now: I ain’t giving y’all no bad conspiracy theory. This one’s awesome from the first deer mutilation, growl, and gold fiber in chapter one to the last page where find out that… you see what I just did there?
Upon investigating the claims and underpinning philosophy of a bad conspiracy theory, you’re left as disenchanted as the time you traded your obese baseball coach your sweetest baseball cards in exchange for a bogus trick to finding the Billy Ripken fuckface ‘89 Fleer baseball card error in those old transparent cellophane packs (not that this happened to me; not that I’m still bitter; not that Mick Largent my old coach is the worst human being on the planet and shouldn’t have been allowed near children; wait a minute, the Billy Ripken 89 Fleer fuckface error card ushered in the modern era of sports card collecting, a multi-billion dollar industry; and, my god, that same fanaticism indirectly fueled the fantasy sports craze, another multi-billion dollar industry; all of which is connected by and propped up by ESPN, the leader in sports entertainment, who… could it be??? ESPN printed the Billy Ripken fuckface baseball card! And then employed Mick Largent the worst little league baseball coaches in the country to send little boys along a merry chase for it! AAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!)
Erm… excuse me. Sometimes I get carried away.

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