Why America Loves Conspiracy Theories

March 2, 2021

By P.J. O’Rourke

Brian Klaas, professor of global politics at University College London, wrote an excellent opinion piece about conspiracy theories in the January 25 Washington Post.

Of course – given the temper of the times in academia and indeed at the Post – the article was pointed at Right-wing preposterous conjectures and titled “Why is it so hard to deprogram Trumpian conspiracy theorists?”

Fair enough. QAnonsense, Boogalooniness, Proud Boy brain boil, and the like gave us the most blatant and most recent example of how silly thinking can lead to serious malignity. They deserve their headline billing.

Klaas does neglect to mention that virulent pustules of belief in imaginary schemes and cabals can erupt anywhere, Left or Right, on the body politic. Marxism, for instance, is nothing but a giant conspiracy theory blaming everything on the collusion of mysterious economic forces that only Marxists know about.

But otherwise, Klaas does a good job of explaining the cognitive biases and circular reasoning that get conspiracy theories started and keep them going.

Of course, the pizza delivery guy is going to deny he’s part of an international Satan-worshiping cannibalistic pedophile ring… because he’s part of an international Satan-worshiping cannibalistic pedophile ring.

(My example, not Klaas’. He’s too serious-minded for that.)

And Klaas brings up a good point: “[T]here’s a crucial dimension that isn’t getting enough attention. Conspiracy theories… are fun.”

They certainly are.

Everyone likes a fantasy. We all enjoy denying reality. And given what reality has been like lately, we’re enjoying ourselves more than ever.

Real conspiracies do exist “(Watergate),” but they are limited “(Watergate)” and few (name another big story Woodward and Bernstein broke), usually don’t last long “(Watergate)” or don’t work “(Watergate)” or have a minor long-term effect on history (Jimmy Carter).

But to work ourselves up into a fully conspiratorial frame of mind, we have to deny a reality so basic that it’s proverbial. “Two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead.” And now that the sodium pentothal of social media has been injected into the entire populace and has set everybody to blabbering about everything, the proverb should be, “Two people can keep a secret if both of them are dead and nobody’s hacked the e-mails, text messages, and Snapchat postings they left behind on their smartphones.”

To embrace a theory of a secret, huge, manifold conspiracy containing multitudes – the kind of conspiracy theory that’s currently in fashion – means we have to have a splendidly imaginative fantasy life. So now we’re really having fun!

To embrace a theory of a secret, huge, manifold conspiracy containing multitudes – the kind of conspiracy theory that’s currently in fashion – means we have to have a splendidly imaginative fantasy life. So now we’re really having fun!

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And the fun’s just started… Storytelling is even more fun than daydreaming. A conspiracy makes for a much better story than messy, incoherent, and always somewhat incomprehensible reality does. Conspiracy gives amorphous life a shape, like a good movie plot or a mystery novel. The Deep State did it!

To have bad things happen without a conspiracy to explain them is to have a joke without a punch line. I’ll use my favorite old joke as an example – a liberal joke, it so happens, dating back to the FDR era.

A boy is hitchhiking. A car pulls over, and the driver asks, “Are you a Democrat or a Republican?” The boy says, “I’m a Democrat.” The driver drives away leaving the boy standing there. Another car pulls over and the driver asks, “Are you a Democrat or a Republican?” The boy says, “I’m a Democrat.” The driver drives away. The same thing happens three more times. Then a beautiful girl in a convertible pulls over and asks, “Are you a Democrat or a Republican?” The boy says, “I’m a Republican.” The girl says, “Hop in.” And they drive off. While they’re driving, the wind pushes the girl’s skirt up her legs, first just a little, then a little more, then more yet, and the boys finds himself becoming aroused. He says, “Please pull over and let me out.” The girl says, “What’s the matter?”

(So far, not much of a story… The need for a punch line means some object or entity must get punched.)

The boy says, “I’ve only been a Republican for 15 minutes, and I already feel like screwing somebody.”

Conspiracy theories give us something or somebody to hate. Hating is lots of fun. I can show you proof from the most lofty realms of high culture.

Percy Bysshe Shelley is obviously having a wonderful time in his poem “England in 1819,” ranting at King George III and the royal family (prominent figures in many conspiracy theories down to the present day).

An old, mad, blind, despised and dying king –

Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow

Through public scorn – mud from a muddy spring;

Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,

But leechlike to their fainting country cling…

But then there’s Shelley full of praise and sweetness in “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”…

Spirit of Beauty, that dost consecrate

With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon

Of human thought or form – where art thou gone?…

And just keep going… And take your hues with you. What a versifying slog it must have been writing up Little Miss S.O.B.

Conspiracy theories excuse our failures. It wasn’t me. It was intersectional hegemonistic normative structural bias that flunked math.

Conspiracy theories explain our misfortunes. Even such minor misfortunes as the introduction of New Coke in 1985, which gave rise to a conspiracy theory that Coke introduced the deliberately inferior New Coke so that it could later reintroduce a fake Old Coke with its formula altered to use less expensive ingredients. This caused Coca-Cola then-President Donald Keough to tell Time magazine (doubtless with a sigh), “The truth is, we’re not that dumb, and we’re not that smart.”

But we the believers in conspiracy theories are that smart. And that’s what’s most fun about conspiracy theories… They make the world so dumb that even we can understand it.

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P.J. O’Rourke
Editor in Chief, American Consequences
With Editorial Staff
March 2, 2021


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