It's time to come out of the closet on this one.
This may infuriate some friends (and even some business colleagues), but I have to say: I’m not a conspiracy buff.
Of course conspiracies exist, but I don't buy into the popular hits. I don’t believe that three bankers run the world, that terrorist acts are inside jobs, that US elections are fixed, that man-made global warming is a prefabricated hoax, or that aliens with reptilian bloodlines are taking over. (Ok, maybe this last one isn’t that far-fetched given the headlines lately.)
My rejection of the above, taken as a whole, likely puts me in the minority among U.S. adults these days. This argues for (among other things) a curriculum overhaul in American schools, addressing our illiteracy in civics, history, science, and more—but that’s another topic for another occasion.
How, you might ask, have I come to embrace such a heterodox worldview, given the ubiquity of urban legends? Well, I was schooled early. I was exposed to many conspiracy theories in my early music days, my favorite of which was the “Paul is dead” controversy surrounding the Beatles.
To explain… Once upon a time Paul McCartney was rumored to have died in a car crash, which was hushed up by the other Beatles for several years so they could continue to knock out hit records. (The band had stopped touring by then.) A body double for McCartney was allegedly used for photo shoots and occasional public appearances. (Not sure how his vocals and bass-playing continued to appear on records, but let’s not worry about details.)
The rumor was stoked and enhanced by University of Michigan student Fred LaBour who, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, enumerated the many clues to the proposition in a campus newspaper article. (LaBour went on to become the bassist of the popular Western swing band, Riders in the Sky.) His evidence included the photo of The Beatlles (on the Abbey Road album cover) walking across the road in a supposed “funeral procession”—along with various mumblings on their recordings (backwards and forwards) that purportedly mentioned the death of Paul.
Pretty goofy, right? Yes, we can all laugh about it now. But many folks at the time believed it. Some radio stations devoted entire programs to weighing the “facts” of it. Even the L.A. manager of my rock band at the time (who at least in business matters was anything but gullible) bought it hook, line, and sinker.
The Beatles, recognizing a publicity windfall and a boost in record sales, were deliberately slow to respond, which only advanced the story. (It’s useful to note that conspiracy theories can be very profitable to certain parties.) Eventually Life Magazine published an interview with Paul McCartney—or someone claiming to be Paul!—in which he explained that he was still alive, for the most part, but pursuing a quiet family life on the farm.
After that, the rumor quieted down considerably, but never disappeared. In ways that parallel the stickiness of other conspiracy theories, LaBour still gets contacted by true believers who have new evidence to show that the real McCartney died decades ago. Sound familiar?
Today one of the causes of our blind acceptance of fanciful stories is that we don’t pay attention to our news sources. Much of our news may come from websites that are outright fraudulent—or intended to be satirical. My favorite of these is YourNewsWire.com which is widely cited for the conspiracy theory du jour circulating on Facebook. Though some of their reporting is just standard tabloid fare, some is downright Alex-Jones-crazy. (My favorite was their piece on Queen Elizabeth as a shape-shifting lizard.)
But if these are the sites where we get our news it’s no wonder so many of us believe in NAFTA superhighways, FEMA death camps, and rampant US election fraud (even in the recent Democratic primaries). At least 90% of the web articles that people delight in sending me to support their favorite urban legend come from these websites.
The mainstream media—assuming the word means anything these days—is obviously not infallible nor bias proof. Viewers/listeners/readers should understand these biases and take them into account. But at least we know who the anchors, reporters, and pundits are, their history of reporting, how to contact them, etc. (And often I DO contact them.) They’re under the spotlight and are subject to withering public criticism when they get things factually wrong—and they often have to apologize. Not the case with reporters on the fringe (often writing under aliases) who have little to lose—and so much to gain—by being fabulists.
Of course there are other causes for our willingness to believe in conspiracy theories. One is our anxiety in the face of rapid and unwelcome change. (See my earlier posts about volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity—”VUCA”—here and here.) We look for explanations—especially unified theories—to make sense of events that threaten us. We look for underlying patterns in what may simply be random events. Psychologists say it gives us a sense of control, because we at least understand who the “the enemy” is (the Jewish banking cartel, the World Government, the Islamist-Communist caliphate, and worse!). And, despite what Pogo said, we don’t often conclude that “the enemy is us.”
Another contributor is our disillusionment with—and our distrust of—established authority. This predictably occurs after severe economic downturns, as history repeatedly shows. Combine that with acts of terror and natural disasters, as is the case in much of the world today, and the result is a nearly universal antagonism towards the powers-that-be, the “elites,” the folks running the system. Our leaders MUST be operating with evil intent, right?
Of course who constitutes “the establishment” proves difficult to define. And it’s always someone else. In the political arena, everyone gets cheap points by accusing opponents of being part of that establishment.
Having said that, I can't deny that the system is rigged in certain ways. But not in every way. And not in ways we can’t change. Especially if we educate ourselves. And learn to pay attention to where our information is coming from.
To be discussed in a future post. (Once I recover from this election season.)
In the meantime, we should all ponder the wise counsel of historian Henry Louis Gates.
Conspiracy theories are an irresistible labor-saving device in the face of complexity.
And Paul McCartney is alive and well.