“Now it’s conspiracy – they’ve made that something that should not even be entertained for a minute, that powerful people might get together and have a plan. Doesn’t happen, you’re a kook, you’re a conspiracy buff!” – George Carlin
By Craig McKee
Every time someone makes fun of the idea of “conspiracy theories” they are exhibiting a conditioned response – like salivating when they hear a bell or believing a TV news program.
When someone asks me if I’m into conspiracy theories, I like to steal from Michael Moore and say, “Only the ones that are true.”
When I’m feeling a bit more energetic, I explain to this person that I’m interested in facts and evidence, and that the label “conspiracy theory” has been deliberately turned into a joke to marginalize anyone who questions how our world is being run and how we’re being lied to about it.
In his 2008 essay “See No Evil” in Online Journal, David Cogswell writes, “Conspiracy theories are not about conspiracies, they are about forbidden thought. The label “conspiracy theory” is a stop sign on the avenues of rational thought and inquiry. It says, ‘Stop here. Entrance forbidden.’”
So how is the term “conspiracy theory” ridiculed and dismissed? One way, of course, is through the news media (by definition, a conspiracy theory is advanced when someone thinks the media aren’t telling the whole story – or any of it). When the media use the term, it’s to describe something “those people think.” The question is always, “Why do they think this?” not: “Are they right?”
But nothing has done more to popularize conspiracies while at the same time marginalizing and ridiculing those who believe they exist than movies and television. Why the contradiction? Because making a movie about a fictional conspiracy does not help us to understand how real conspiracies work or help us to recognize them in real life. Instead, conspiracies are reduced to mere entertainment – in other words, fantasy.
Let’s start with the 1997 thriller Conspiracy Theory with Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts. It’s about a wacko conspiracy-obsessed taxi driver named Jerry Fletcher who embodies the worst stereotypes of someone who thinks everything is a secret plot. The twist is that he’s actually a victim of the CIA’s MKUltra mind control program and his instability is the result of what was done to him.
But before we find that out, we are treated to a lampooning of all kinds of “conspiracies.” In the opening of the movie, Jerry rattles off his checklist to any passengers in his cab who will listen – not that they have a choice.
He talks about George Bush and his New World Order speech, and theorizes that it was intended to get “conspiratologists” all excited and therefore destroying their own credibility (the same logic that some in the 9/11 Truth movement use). He tells us that George Sr. is a 33rd degree Mason in addition to being the former CIA director.
Jerry talks about how fluoride being put in the water is intended to take away people’s ability to think freely and creatively and make them slaves to the state. He thinks the Vietnam War was started because Howard Hughes lost a bet to Aristotle Onassis. And he thinks that right-wing militias aren’t concerned about the day UN troops come to take over America, they ARE the UN troops, and “when the time comes they’ll just take over, and we’ll all be toast.”
You get the idea. But here’s the line that really lays it out: When Roberts asks Jerry if he can prove any of his theories, he says, “No, a good conspiracy is an unprovable one. If you can prove it, they must have screwed up somewhere along the line.”
The thing is that in Jerry’s ravings there are elements of both absurdity and truth. But the truth gets lost because it is shown as being just part of Jerry’s paranoia. Oh, did I mention that he makes fun of people who write on the Internet and publish newsletters and “manifestos.” His newsletter, called Conspiracy Theory, has five subscribers – get it?
So the film reinforces every negative stereotype and then adds the twist that Jerry is the victim of a real conspiracy. But even that is undermined by the fact that the bad CIA guy is a “rogue” who the good government agents have been tracking. We’ve seen this dishonest formula in movies like Enemy of the State, The Bourne Ultimatum, Shooter and countless others. It’s always a couple of bad apples that spoil a perfectly benign intelligence apparatus.
Six years before Conspiracy Theory we had Ricochet with Denzel Washington about a cop named Nick Styles who is framed by a psycho killer that he put in prison. At one point, as his life is being pulled apart, Styles sits watching a TV show where allegations against him are being discussed. A paranoid talk show guest goes on a rant about who’s really pulling the strings in our world. Again, truth is drowned by lunacy.
“We believe Nicholas Styles is the victim of a conspiracy, and we know who they are – this insidious group that tears down every African American politician who dares defy their power. We’re talking about the Rockefellers, and the Trilateral Commission who along with the Zionists have been putting AIDS viruses in vending machines all across America!”
The respectable host looks at the camera as if he is sharing a joke with the audience and says, “We’ll be right back.” Styles, who really is the victim of a secret plot, still chuckles about the raving paranoid guy. The message: all references to conspiracies deserve ridicule. Because of the vending machine remark, we get to laugh at the idea of the Rockefellers being part of a conspiracy – when most informed people don’t find that to be a stretch at all. Truth and craziness come as a package.
The third example I’ll give is Woody Harrelson’s over-the-top Charlie Frost character in 2012. This guy makes the other two look cautious. He broadcasts a radio show from his trailer, keeps his maps on his “conspiracy shelf,” and predicts the end of the world while looking bug-eyed. And, as with the other two films, he turns out to be right. But he’s painted as such a ludicrous figure that being right doesn’t bring any credibility to the things he has to say. Oh yeah, he has a blog, too. Those crazy Internet people.
In response to a question from a caller to his show, Charlie says the impending end of the world is something “that could only originate in Hollywood.” It couldn’t be more clear: any secret that gets revealed by a conspiracy theorist could only be true in a movie.
These films show us that conspiracy theories can be true, but this is done in the form of a “twist” on reality. In other words, if we see it in a movie or on a TV show then we can tell someone who thinks these conspiracies are real that, “You’ve been watching too many movies.”
Another message is that even if a conspiracy theorist gets something right, they’re going to get a whole lot more wrong – because they ARE paranoid after all. So really, the idea is to laugh at what they say – even if the odd thing turns out to be true. Hey, even a stopped clock is right twice a day!
It is important to point out that most movies that feature conspiracies don’t have a crazy person like the three I’ve listed. In most cases, the conspiracies are deadly serious. But when we go to see a Hollywood thriller, we’re conditioned to expect a departure from what is generally true in the real world.
This brings us to The X-Files, which offers a more subtle form of misdirection. The show basically tells us that just about every conspiracy idea you’ve ever heard about is TRUE! They don’t make fun; they play it straight. But does seeing this lead more people to believe that all of these dark government conspiracies are actually happening? I would argue quite the opposite. The show just gives us one more way to laugh at those who believe that “X-Files-type” conspiracies are real. People can share a joke when they refer to the series’ catch-phrase, “The truth is out there.”
In some ways, Jesse Ventura’s show Conspiracy Theory is an anomaly but in other ways not. On one hand it brings very real conspiracies to our attention (Ventura is a rare voice who questions the 9/11 official story on mainstream news shows). But the presentation buys into all the clichés. It has an over-the-top “We’re not leaving without some damned answers” kind of vibe to it using dramatic and ominous editing, lighting, and writing – almost to the point of self-parody.
It’s really upsetting when people who should know better buy into the ridicule of conspiracy theories and theorists. For example, I have a real problem trusting any member of the 9/11 Truth movement who does this. David Chandler and Jonathan Cole, in their 2011 “Joint Statement on the Pentagon,” write that “the mystery that surrounds the Pentagon makes it an attractive target of speculation and the subject of truly wild conspiracy theories.”
In the wake of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, it seems that the term not only became more common (with so many questioning the official story), but also this seems to be about the same time that the term took on so many negative characteristics.
Some credit is due to the CIA reaction to criticism of the Warren Commission Report in the form of a 1967 memo (CIA Document #1035-960). The memo advised “media assets” how to deal with doubts about the assassination raised by conspiracy theorists and how those doubters could be discredited.
Here’s one interesting line from the document: “Our ploy should point out, as applicable, that the critics are (I) wedded to theories adopted before the evidence was in, (II) politically interested, (III) financially interested, (IV) hasty and inaccurate in their research, or (V) infatuated with their own theories.”
The ironic thing is that in trying to manage public opinion about conspiracies, the CIA was sending out instructions to supposedly honest journalists who were actually on the Agency’s payroll, misleading the public by writing what the CIA wanted them to write.
Call me paranoid, but isn’t that a conspiracy?