Conspiracy Theory Comfort Food

The magic pen of Jonah Goldberg struck at the heart of one of my favorite topics last week (emphasis added):

 … paranoid populism and tribalism derive their power from the instinct for ascribing every misfortune to human will and planning. Again, “they” are out to get “us,” and the proof can be found in our anger or bad luck. So everything we do to stop “them” is self-justifying. One problem: The world isn’t nearly so bleak and zero-sum. Take it from someone who gets called an “elitist” ten times a day and who has met and talked to more bona fide elites — senators, scientists, billionaires, etc. — than I could possibly list: No one is “running” the show. In reality, there’s no Oz behind the curtain, no cabal successfully pulling the strings or pulling the wool over our eyes. American politics is a big, sprawling, buzzing confusion of competing interests, agendas, and arguments. You think everything is going according to Mitch McConnell’s plan? Donald Trump’s? Nancy Pelosi’s? The Koch brothers’? George Soros’s?

I have held conspiracy theorists in a special contempt for a long time.  Maybe it is the mere delusionalism.  Perhaps it is the oft-accompanying anti-Semitism, or smug cynicism, or anti-patriotism, or frequent exploitationism – but the whole conspiracy world is a hodge-podge of cuckoo birds who as I wrote years ago, primarily lack an understanding of how the adult world really works.

But this is the thing that Jonah is getting at above that I think has to be said.  At the depths of the financial crisis, when the world’s economic stability truly stood on the precipice, I heard on a daily basis the cries of people that “Goldman Sachs was doing all of this to take over,” or “the Fed was just trying to get more control of [this or that],” or something that “they” were doing and “they” were up to.  And because I had a pretty good seat to what was really going on – and knew that not a single person at Goldman Sachs, or the Fed, or Morgan Stanley, or the Treasury Department, had ANY IDEA what the hell was going on, or what to do about it, it occurred to me for the first time in my life that conspiracy theorists were not creating a little hellish nightmare in their minds; they were creating comfort and escape.  The truth – that “elites” and policymakers were literally going day by day throwing a finger over a new hole in  a dam and just winging it to get through this mess that they had not foreseen whatsoever, let alone diabolically planned – was way more frightening then their own concoction (that evil masters of the universe were pulling the strings to advance the cause of world domination, or at least holiday bonuses).  In other words, the conspiracy theorists were not making up a doomsday scenario, they were hiding behind the comfort of a fantasy that there are somewhere in the world, people “pulling strings,” as Jonah says.

I think these people need such illusions.  I think the randomness of the world and the reality of all her moving parts scare the you-know-what out of these adult-sized children, and conspiracism becomes a religion of its own – an opiate for the masses of people who struggle with the reality of misfortune, chaos, and challenge.

That discovery has actually given me greater empathy and sympathy for those plagued with the curse of looking for an Oz behind every curtain.  It is not meant to be condescending; it is a real life (and accurate) diagnosis of their faulty view of reality, and the cause thereof.

Jonah’s points were more about those ascribing sinisterism to every “elite,” and I think this is not completely identical to the conspiracism of which I write, but they are cousins.  If driving the conspiracy theorists is a coping mechanism for the randomness of life, what may be driving the same dynamic in this critique of the “elitist cabal” is a crisis of responsibility.  If Mitch McConnell or Charles Koch have already deviously schemed to hold you down, why should you work to get up?  And it is that crisis of responsibility that must be addressed before we will ever do a thing about George Soros or any of the rest …

[Book coming February 13]