The man on the train was angry, in that way that so many people seem angry about nearly everything. He was in his late 60s or early 70s—prime years for such omnivorous anger, based purely on anecdotal evidence—and he was already in mid-rant when I boarded, sharing his views about the horrors of our current government with a younger friend, or maybe a co-worker. Taking away our guns, instituting socialism through Obamacare—you know, the usual. He’d “done a lot of reading.”
And then it wasn’t just the usual. “He’s destroying the economy on purpose,” said Angry Man, referring to President Obama. “On purpose! So he can establish a one-world currency!”
Ah, I snarked to myself in my head, the typical craziness of living in the Fox News echo chamber. But then the targets of his ire turned surprisingly bipartisan. He tore into Sen. Orrin Hatch for various votes he deemed contrary to the Constitution. He detoured into 9/11 “truther” notions about how “I’m not saying George Bush was responsible for it, but he definitely knew about it.” He opined about how the only two decent presidents in his lifetime were John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan—both of whom “coincidentally” had people shoot at them. “They” killed Kennedy to preserve the role of the Federal Reserve that Kennedy was undercutting; as for Reagan, “It’s interesting that the first George Bush, his vice-president, was the one who talked about the ‘New World Order.’ Maybe he didn’t have anything to do with the assassination attempt on Reagan. Maybe.”
Angry Man’s younger-friend-or-maybe-co-worker, to his eternal credit, approached this conversation with the sensitivity of a trained counselor. Rather than either treating his friend/colleague like a certifiable lunatic or indulging him completely, the young man gently redirected Angry Man away from his journey through Crazytown. “There are a lot of problems,” he agreed, “but we’re not going to turn into a police state. This is a democracy.”
Angry Man chuckled ruefully. “I guess we’ll see about that,” he said. “I guess we’ll see.”
I’ve long been fascinated with the psychology behind conspiracy theories. There’s such a transparent absence of reason behind virtually all of them, yet for those who espouse them, it’s just as obvious that everyone else is ignoring the plentiful evidence right there under their noses; of course the Twin Towers were blown up from the inside, because that one weird engineer guy totally proved it had to be that way. They’re the ones who’ve uncovered the sinister details behind the Rothschilds or the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion or the Freemasons. Or, if not “uncovered” them, then at least spent a lot of time on the websites and message boards of those who have uncovered them.
There’s also, unfortunately, plenty of cause to understand why conspiracy theories proliferate. We’ve seen too many examples in recent generations of those in power abusing that power, and trying to hide or downplay those abuses. It’s absolutely nuts, isn’t it, to think that the United States government would secretly sell arms to Iran (illegally) so that they could maybe secure the release of hostages, and definitely funnel that money to the Nicaraguan Contra rebels (also illegally)? Or that it would gather massive amounts of electronic data on its own citizens, just, you know, in case? It’s kind of a scary world, and it gets even scarier when it feels like the best you can hope for from your leaders is that they don’t turn into James Bond villains.
There is, however, a danger involved in perpetuating conspiracy theories, beyond the possibility that people won’t want to invite you to holiday dinners. First and foremost, conspiracy theories are an attempt to make sense of the world in the most simplistic manner possible. That concept may seem counterintuitive, considering all the Rube Goldbergian pieces that conspiracists insist are all in the proper place to make these ideas possible. But what they’re insisting is that horrible things never just happen; somebody, somewhere, is behind it all, pulling the strings. It becomes more comforting to abandon the uncertainty inherent in one crazed person pulling the trigger on the American president, and latch onto the possibility that it was a carefully disguised plot. Orchestrated evil feels less threatening than chaos, because it allows us to maintain the illusion that everything can be controlled.
We see that idea strewn throughout American culture, paralyzing our ability to deal with frightening uncertainties. The ongoing embrace of creationism is a firm, resolute shake of the head to the notion that humanity could just happen; Somebody had to make it so. Courts are full of litigation demanding “accountability” for events that were horrible, random accidents made by fallible humans, because we have to believe that the horrible, random thing wasn’t actually random. The more that technology and medicine smooth out the bumps of modern life, the more we start to tell ourselves that any bump we do encounter isn’t just a bump. It’s someone placing a bump there. On purpose. And it’s easy to manufacture a reason why.
Eventually, the Angry Man’s young companion exited the train, and there was nobody to listen to the Angry Man express his feelings of powerlessness. In his head, though, a world of devious schemes continued to swirl. It was a world he no longer understood in a rational way. The madness of seeing us all as pieces moved around a chessboard had become reassuring.