This is a revised update of a 2016 post.
A conspiracy buff I'm not.
I know they have their titillation value—and I’ve indulged in a few in my distant past—but I now think they're a waste of people’s time and have contributed to Americans' overwrought distrust of institutions these days, especially in government and business. Not good in a dangerously fragile period in our history.
I can’t deny that some fraction of conspiracies may be true, but I can't listen to the Golden Oldies anymore. I don’t ASSUME that national elections in the US have fraudulent outcomes, that the Deep State & Big Pharma orchestrate pandemics, that most acts of terror are inside jobs, that a small cabal of "international bankers" (of a particular ethnicity) run the world, that global warming is a hoax (a deliberate deception, with conspiratorial actors), or that alien lizards have taken over the minds and bodies of our key leaders. (Ok, I'll keep an open mind on the last one, but I await the evidence.)
Readers outside the States may not realize that my skepticism—taken as a whole—puts me in a distinct minority of U.S. adults these days. Sadly, this argues for (among other things) a curriculum overhaul in American schools, addressing our astounding illiteracy in civics, history, and much more. But that’s a topic for another post. Or another blog.
But how, you might ask, have I come to embrace such a heterodox worldview, given the ubiquity of news reports to the contrary? Well, as a youth I heard so much hyperbole and scaremongering about popular music, I developed a finely honed BS detector early on. I still remember when I heard that rock & roll was a “communicable disease” and later a Communist plot to enslave us. (Even as a teenager I knew this was wackalunacy. If anything I recognized rock & roll was a uniquely capitalist creation. See my earlier posts on that here and here.)
When The Beatles released "Back in the USSR" on the Sgt Pepper album, extolling the virtues of The Soviet Union, the ultra-conservative John Birch Society freaked out. The song was, of course, a spoof, but it was the final proof (at least to those with an irony deficiency) that The Beatles were Commies, out to bring down the Free World.
Years later I remember reading that Cardinal Ratzinger, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, proclaimed rock & roll as “an instrument of the devil” and even singled out The Eagles as villains! Wow. Didn't see that one coming.
But my personal favorite of the head-scratching conspiracies was the “Paul is dead” controversy surrounding The Beatles. This was a relatively harmless concoction—not warning us about Lucifer or the Kremlin—but illustrative of American gullibility.
To explain… Once upon a time Paul McCartney was rumored to have died in a car crash in 1966, 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 singing and bass-playing continued to appear on many more albums, but conspirators don’t like to get bogged down in the pesky details. (Of course McCartney critics—who preferred the harder-rock Beatles of the Liverpool days—chimed in that Paul had already been dead for several years. But they meant musically.)
The rumor was stoked and enhanced by University of Michigan student Fred LaBour who, with tongue embedded 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 Beatles 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. (After all, if you want to fool the greatest number of people, you would leak clues, right?)
Yup, goofy stuff. And we can have a hearty guffaw about it now. But many folks at the time completely swallowed it. Some radio DJs devoted serious time to weighing the “facts” of it and shocked listeners weighed in. Even the L.A. manager of my rock band at the time (who at least in business matters was anything but gullible) bought into it hook, line, and sinker!
Meanwhile, McCartney, recognizing a publicity windfall and a boost in record sales, was not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. He took his time in responding, which only advanced the story. (It’s useful to note that conspiracy theories can be quite profitable to certain parties, though it's unlikely McCartney was directly involved in this one.) Eventually Life Magazine published an interview with him—or someone claiming to be McCartney—in which he explained that as far as he knew he was still alive.
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. (There's always new evidence for truthers.)
Today one of the causes of our blind acceptance of fanciful stories is not paying attention to our news sources. Much of the news the public consumes comes from websites that are outright fraudulent—or intended to be satirical, which their readers aren’t quite alert enough to notice. (My favorite of these is newspunch.com—formerly yournewswire.com—which mixes standard tabloid fare with articles that even Alex Jones might consider batshit-crazy. I especially enjoyed their piece on Queen Elizabeth as a shape-shifting lizard.)
But if these are the sites where so many go for straight news, it’s no wonder we subscribe to theories about NAFTA superhighways, FEMA death camps, and rampant US election fraud. Nearly all of the web articles that people delight in sending me to support their unusual notions of reality originate from these websites.
The "mainstream media"—assuming the word means anything these days—is obviously not infallible nor prejudice-proof. Viewers/listeners/readers should understand the biases of various news sources and take them into account. But at least we know who those anchors, reporters, and pundits are, their history of reporting, how to contact them, etc. (And often I DO contact newspaper reporters and editorial writers, and they usually respond promptly.) They’re under the spotlight and are subject to withering public criticism when they have their basic facts wrong, and usually make public retractions. (Or, occasionally, have to look for another job.) Not the case with reporters on the fringe sites, often writing under aliases, who have little to lose—and so much to gain—by being fabulists.
Of course there are many causes for our willingness to believe in wildly speculative, paranoid theories. One is our anxiety in the face of rapid change. (See my earlier posts about volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, such as this one.) 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 will point out that this gives us some sense of relief, because we at least understand who “the enemy” is whether the International Bankers, the New World Order, or the Islamist-Communist caliphate. And, despite Pogo’s protestations, we seldom conclude that the enemy is us.
Another contributor is our disillusionment with, and distrust of, established authority. This predictably occurs after significant economic downturns—and pandemics!—as history shows. Combine that with an increasing number of terrorist acts and "natural" disasters. The result is a nearly universal antagonism towards the powers-that-be, the elites, whoever is "controlling" the system. Someone at the top MUST be operating with evil intent. (See my previous post on that.)
Of course no consensus exists on who the Evil Doers or the Deep State or the all-powerful Establishment are. But, needless to say, it's always a them. In the public arena, you get easy points by accusing opponents of being part of that nebulous “other” group.
In the meantime, we all should take a deep breath and 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, as of this writing, is quite alive and well. At least his body double is.