I have a congenital allergy. I am allergic to conspiracy theories.
Oh, to be sure, they are great fun as premises for yarns, tales, and stories. I’m working on a novel right now that is a wildly crazy tale which, in real life, would be dismissed as a conspiracy theory in a heartbeat. Give me an elaborate piece of fiction involving body swapping, immortals, aliens, Nazis tunnelling under your house, and occult forces and I am happy as a clam. Everybody loves a good yarn.
But in real life: I want some good hard evidence, not a loopy tangle of “what ifs” and “suppose this!” and ridiculous connections between remote points of data.
Not that conspiracies never happen. As the result of an eighth grade history project, I know more than any normal person should ever know about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Way more. Like “what is wrong with that guy” more. I will not bore you with the precise type of gun John Wilkes Booth used (a single shot Derringer), nor trouble you with the precise line of dialogue spoken in Our American Cousin for which Booth waited so that the roar of the audience would drown out the shot (“You sockdologizing old man trap!”). Nor will I bother to overwhelm you with the name of the doctor (Leale) who pronounced Lincoln’s wound mortal.
Rather, I will simply point out that the murder was, in fact, a conspiracy—and that the conspiracy was exposed almost instantly and we know every detail of it. The conspirators, Booth, Lewis Paine, George Atzerodt, David Herold, and the unfortunate Mary Surratt (who was likely innocent) were all captured lickety split and all were hanged within three months. (John Surratt escaped). Same with Caesar. Everybody knew who did it. Same with the greatest conspiracy in the history of the world: the Holocaust. We know whodunnit. The Nazis kept thorough records. Real conspiracies get uncovered because bad people have a habit of ratting each other out.
Oh yeah? says an interlocutor, what about the conspiracy to kill JFK?
Yeah. About that. There was no conspiracy. What happened was that an angry loser with some Marine Corps marksman training snuck a rifle into work, perched himself into an easy position for creating a kill zone, and shot the president of the United States. I’ve seen the place. It’s an easy shot. I could have done it no problem. And all the ballistics tests ever done show that this is exactly what happened. Then he ran away, went home, got a gun, and when a cop stopped him, he shot him to death in front of a bunch of witnesses and ran into a theatre, where they arrested him. A couple of days later, in a supreme American and Texan moment of vigilante gun nuttery, an angry citizen patriot decided to gun him down in a scene from a hundred American westerns. There is no evidence for anything beyond that. And one of the best proofs of that, paradoxically, is that there are hundreds of conflicting and contradicting theories which eliminate each other and leave us with the humdrum conclusion that Oswald and Ruby both acted alone.
But, but …
Note, gentle reader, the eagerness to find more dots to connect than really exist. Thereby hangs a tale. It is the same thing that drives so many to seek a Larger Cause than “Osama bin Laden and nineteen guys with box cutters pulled off 9/11” and to try to smoke out a government conspiracy involving not merely the Bush Administration, but Mossad, the owners of the Twin Towers, and sundry other Shadowy Forces involving Illuminati, or the Trilateral Commission or the International Jewish Conspiracy or even … GASP! the Vatican!
For, of course, the Vatican is a favorite locus of evil for conspiracy theorists. Some twenty years ago, a Catholic journal found sinister import in the fact that some member of the Hapsburg family was getting married. A friend of mine had an acquaintance familiar with the family and also familiar with the Catholic journal’s nail-biting speculations involving a dynastic plot forged by Pope John Paul II to conquer Europe for Reactionary Catholicism. He sent the bride and groom a telegram on their wedding night reading “Phase One is complete. Proceed to Phase Two.”
Why do so many hunger for conspiracies? There are various reasons. One is the force-enhancing power of technology that allows a single person (in the case of Lee Harvey Oswald) or a relatively small number of persons (in the case of 9/11) to inflict pain and suffering on millions of people. Something in us rebels at the thought of so small a cause creating so gigantic an effect. We want—we need—the cause to feel proportional to the effect.
In addition, conspiracy theories have the comforting power to give helpless and weak people the feeling that they have control of events because they have mastered the Hidden History of Our Time. It’s the same thing that drove gnosticism in the second century. If you have created an elaborate mythos in which you have figured out how the Powers of Evil are pulling levers and pushing buttons to manipulate us all, then you can feel like you have power to foresee and perhaps forestall events. Conspiracy theories become both a form of prophecy so that you can tell yourself you know what is coming, and a way to account for failure when things fall apart. And the more they fail, the more the True Believer can find explanations for why the failure proves the theory. So when all the ballistics tests show that Oswald acted alone that is only proof that ballistics analysts have already had their brains replaced by the reptilians in charge of the Vatican. Everything proves the theory—and the theorist remains in control in a chaotic and terrifying world.
These days the paranoid conspiracy theories in many circles involve evil Communist Pope Francis and his plot to destroy the True Church. For a year or so, four cardinals have had before the pope some dubia (that is, questions) regarding an obscure footnote in a document (Amoris Laetitia) that almost nobody except a) the shepherds for whom it was written and b) a small nucleus of conservative Catholics who are intensely suspicious of Francis have read. Dubia are a normal affair in the life of the Church. They happen all the time.
So Francis responded to questions about Amoris Laetitia initially, but eventually stopped responding because he seems to have become convinced that no matter what he said, the document would go being picked to pieces and he had other stuff to do. So, for a good long while his response to the dubia has been … no response. Just silence.
This has driven lots of lay critics of the pope nuts. And many of them, partly out of that driving need to gain control of events in a world they can’t (or perhaps won’t) understand, have listened to the silence for too long, straining their ears and imagining they hear things. What is the pope really saying by his silence? What does it all mean? The urge to look for patterns asserts itself and, in union with the suspicion and hostility so many conservatives feel for him, sinister theories emerge—especially as time passes and the dubia cardinals start to die.
First, Cardinal Meisner died in July, then Cardinal Caffara a few days ago. Simpletons might note that Meisner was 83 and Caffara was 79 and that old men often die. But the Wise are already seeing through that childish naiveté to the much more obvious explanation that Pope Francis is having them murdered.
So in comboxes and blogs around the far right of the Catholisphere, dark murmurs about the need for the surviving dubia cardinals to hire food tasters and bodyguards are being bruited. Pope Francis, it is being suggested, is having his enemies killed.
I will overlook the small and perhaps unobserved flaw of this theory—that it is visible-from-space barking nuts—and simply note that this is what I mean by conspiracy theories to which I am allergic. The ones for which there is not a shred of evidence in the entire universe, which demand that we believe heinous things of good people without a shred of proof, and which frequently implicate hundreds and even thousands of people in schemes so elaborate that they would dizzy Rube Goldberg.
Yes, it’s possible, in theory, that multiple landings on the Moon were all faked in a hoax involving thousands and thousands of people not only in NASA but all over the globe:
But it’s much more likely that such theories are explicable as the fruit of the minds of far fewer people with a strange need to feel that they know the Hidden History of Our Time.
Yes, it’s possible, in theory, that the CIA, in cahoots with Castro and LBJ, conspired with the Dallas police and the Soviets to kill JFK, rub out Oswald, and keep the whole thing completely secret forever.
But it’s even more likely that Oswald and Ruby both acted alone and that the reason no conspirator ever cracked and spilled the beans is that there are no conspirators.
And it’s possible that a kind and saintly pope is, in fact, a cold-blooded killer, bent on hiding the TRVTH about an obscure footnote in a document anybody can read online, a veritable Napoleon of Crime organizing a huge conspiracy to kill the dubia cardinals like victims in an Agatha Christie novel in his fiendish scheme to destroy the Church he has inexplicably served so faithfully for decades.
But it’s much more likely that two old men died because they were old, and that, given time, the other two old men will die as well from the boring and unremarkable cause known as “being old men”. Indeed, my money is on Pope Francis dying from old age one of these days as well—and being canonized a saint while the conspiracy theorists squint and tilt their heads in bafflement at how their theories can explain it all.