Conspiracy theories abound and I think they always have. The Web allows greater proliferation and spread of conspiracy theories in a way that they flow like water and fill up the empty spaces. But why does this happen?
Some time ago, a pundit or comedian, I can’t remember who it was, made the observation that conspiracy theories are attractive to the religious because conspiracies take the randomness of the universe out of the equation. For example, people who are horrified by the idea that their God would allow a classroom of first-graders to be shot to death find inordinate comfort in the idea that it is a conspiracy of their own government. After all, believing in the conspiracy, or just accepting it as a possible explanation, avoids having to confront some very hard, very possible realities.
- God allows random/evil stuff to happen, stuff that just makes no sense.
- If God does have a plan, clearly some of the details are really unpleasant.
- The universe doesn’t think you are special.
- You, or someone you care about, could be next.
I think it is the last one that really gets people. Dealing with mortality is hard enough as you age. Accepting randomness as part of life is hard. It is uncomfortable. We create narratives to protect us from the random. We tell each other, “everything happens for a reason,” or “it’s all part of God’s plan.” It’s comforting to believe there is a plan, even if we don’t know what it is, or even it’s purpose. Because it is God’s plan, we can tell ourselves that we don’t know the plan because we don’t need to know it. God loves us, and so the plan must be in our best interests. Well, at least for some of us. I notice a lot of people see their God as being rather exclusive. God tends to look a lot like them and has a lot of rules. Kind of like joining a country club in the 1950s or Augusta National today.
He pulls a prayer book out of his sleeping bag
Preacher lights up a butt and he takes a drag
Waiting for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last
In a cardboard box ‘neath the underpass
You got a one-way ticket to the promised land
You got a hole in your belly and a gun in your hand
Sleeping on a pillow of solid rock
Bathing in the city’s aqueduct
–Bruce Springsteen, “The Ghost of Tom Joad”
There’s also the idea from Matthew 20:16 that the last shall be first from the parable likening the Kingdom of Heaven to a vineyard. This verse is most often interpreted as saying that those who answer the call to obey receive the same benefits of heaven, regardless of when they heed the call. In other words, you get the same ticket to heaven if you wait as long as possible (particularly in terms of your comfort with risk) as you do if you heed the call as soon as you hear it. A more cynical understanding might be make sure you understand what you signed up for and the terms of the contract.
10 But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny.11 And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house,12 Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.13 But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?
For those that dismiss the idea of Jesus the Socialist, they should perhaps pay more attention to this passage. This text though is all about creating a structure to defend against the random. Promising us a place that is ours. Not only that is ours, but that is also elevated from our current position, or that we at least don’t lose anything from our current lot. If our positions in life, or the afterlife, are clearly ordained, we are then protected from the random.
We also create systems meant to protect us from the random. Insurance is a good example. Life, health, casualty, property, all are met to protect us from hurt of random events, since they can’t be completely prevented. Government and bureaucracies fulfill the same purpose. They are an attempt to create orderliness in a disordered world, to create areas of safety. They are also intended to punish those acting outside the intended order. Punishing the random, as ridiculous as it is since it actually has no ability to act a deterrent to the random, apparently feels good.
We’re all searching for a Promised Land, even if the maker of the promise is different. Even if it is ourselves. We look for a place to be ourselves, to feel safe and, quite often, superior. Clinging to conspiracies that eliminate the random, that protect us from having to confront our shortcomings, allows us to hold on to our vision of a Promised Land. It’s easy to like the idea that deep state conspiracy exists, especially when the contrary point of view is that our own choices lead to the negative outcomes for self and others. If there is a conspiracy, clearly I am not to blame, others are.
And I drove a Challenger down Route 9 through the dead ends and all the bad scenes
And when the promise was broken, I cashed in a few of my own dreams
I won big once and I hit the coast, oh but somehow I paid the big cost
Inside I felt like I was carrying the broken spirits of all the other ones who lost
When the promise is broken you go on living, but it steals something from down in your soul
Like when the truth is spoken and it don’t make no difference, something in your heart turns cold
Thunder Road, for the lost lovers and all the fixed games
Thunder Road, for the tires rushing by in the rain
Thunder Road, remember what me and Billy we’d always say
Thunder Road, we were gonna take it all then threw it all away
-Bruce Springsteen, “The Promise”
For many, it seems it is much easier to believe the conspiracy than to accept the responsibility for your own choices.