Friday, June 20, 2014

Why the conspiracy theories?

This past November marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I've read a few books about the assassination, and watched a few movies about it, and have been a small-time JFK assassination student. I was surprised, actually, that there wasn't more of a fuss to mark the 50th anniversary. After all, there is still so much we don't know. But it seemed that the anniversary came and went with minimal fanfare, all things considered.
I don't know what to think about the assassination of JFK. I personally believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was the primary shooter -- and possibly the only shooter. On the other hand, it's quite possible that it was a conspiracy at least in the basic sense of the definition; that some person other than Oswald had some level of involvement or knowledge. Was the mob involved? Rogue intelligence agents? Cuba? Who knows. There are certainly many weird elements to the story, from the botched autopsy to the untimely deaths of certain persons of interest -- including the irrefutably weird (if not downright suspicious) murder of Oswald by Jack Ruby. Will we ever know the truth?

One thing I don't understand is why a half a century after the assassination, the government still hasn't released all the information about it. What could they possibly be hiding, 50 years -- a half century! -- later? 

And that's the problem. The government keeps secrets, and it makes some citizens very suspicious. I think the secrecy is at the heart of many of the conspiracy theories in this country. 

After the JFK anniversary came and went, I found myself looking into (in a small-time way) some of the other conspiracy theories that are out there. Conspiracy theories about 9/11, about alien incidents (Roswell and Area 51 and more), and all kinds of conspiracy theories about various presidents. Some of the writings and videos made are mesmerizing in their intensity.  Some of them are nothing short of bizarre. But I didn't poke into these things to judge their accuracy. I was really more interested in the general phenomenon. After all, it seems like there are more conspiracy theories than ever, and there's a conspiracy theory now for every major news story. Every single one! 

I know that the secrecy of the government makes some folks suspicious, and I understand that. There is something unnerving about the fact that our government knows so much about us and yet keeps so much from us. The NSA and other agencies have done some things (like spying on citizens) that tend to make us wary (I wrote some about this at this earlier post.)

But what makes various conspiracy theories so appealing? 

I read this article, which suggests that, in part, "Conspiracy theories appear to be a way of reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness." They are, as I suspected, also a result of the cynicism about the government and "the system". I do believe that if the government were more transparent, and if people felt more empowered, conspiracy theories would cease to be so prevalent.

I read another article, which says, "Conspiracy chatter was once dismissed as mental illness. But the prevalence of such belief, documented in surveys, has forced scholars to take it more seriously. Conspiracy theory psychology is becoming an empirical field with a broader mission: to understand why so many people embrace this way of interpreting history. As you’d expect, distrust turns out to be an important factor." 

This NPR story points out that believing in conspiracies isn't as "fringe-y" as you might think. As the story puts it, "It turns out the consistent predictor of such beliefs is something that you might almost call an All-American attitude -- a belief in individualism, distrust of authority. And together those things translate into a desire to avoid being controlled by large secret forces." In other words, research suggests that certain American attitudes actually give us a propensity to be conspiracy theorists. 

I don't really have a conclusion for this post. I'm not sure what my small-time study of conspiracy theories really shows, other than many Americans distrust their government, and authority, and secrecy. Which perhaps is a cautionary tale... for all of us.