The Red Placebo: Confessions of a Former Conspiracy Dabbler
The Matrix may have inspired an entire generation of conspiracists. We sometimes forget the impact of a particular moment in our popular culture. The success of The Matrix was that no one saw it coming. Though the concept of virtual reality and computer simulations had long been weaved throughout science fiction, the Wachowski brothers' uniquely plausible presentation captured the mainstream imagination.
The allure of the red pill, of knowing a terrible truth and boasting an esoteric righteousness from the knowing, haunted many moviegoers long after the credits rolled. The film’s imagery and lexicon went on to permeate the various truther movements which gained popularity in the following decade.
Often portrayed as heroic, innocent, kooky, or haphazardly correct, conspiracists are actually dangerous. After all, what we accept to be accurate knowledge informs both our actions and our emotional responses. By refusing to accept plain facts and insisting upon indulging unsubstantiated fantasy, conspiracists in effect become willful psychotics, consciously rejecting reality.
Let us consider a few examples of how conspiracists stumble through our popular culture.
In Roland Emmerich’s disaster porn 2012, Woody Harrelson’s pirate radio conpiracist Charlie Frost proves himself prophetic. Operating out of a cluttered trailer in Yellowstone National Park, Frost accurately predicts the end of the world better than the combined scientific-industrial complex of the G20 nations. Presented as unkempt, disorganized, and somewhat repulsive, Frost nonetheless enjoys validation as his wacky theory tying solar activity to the Mayan calendar manifests in global tectonic catastrophe.
In John Carpenter’s 1988 cult classic They Live, professional wrestler turned actor “Rowdy” Roddy Piper plays a drifter who comes across a pair of sunglasses which enables him to discern subliminal messages on billboards, signs, television screens, and magazines. The spectacles even let him see the many hideous aliens in his midst who have disguised themselves as humans. The film shares the tone of the earlier television miniseries V, which portrayed a fascist invasion of reptilian aliens who at first appear to be friendly and human-like. In both stories, the notion of the rebellious few who see the truth while others comply like mindless sheep -- "sheeple" in truther lingo -- becomes well established.
That notion plays out in real life through the proselytization of David Icke, who on the conspiracist spectrum serves as mainline heroin compared to Alex Jones’ gateway trutherism. Icke claims that world affairs proceed under the malevolent control of a race of hybrids created by combining humans with alien reptilian DNA. Icke and his followers offer “proof” in the form of video stills of high-profile politicians and media personalities whose eyes briefly appear to be reptilian slits when the interlacing of two frames creates video artifacts. It would be laughable if not for the fact that people actually believe it.
Take Alice Walker for example. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Color Purple -- which was adapted to film by none other than Steven Spielberg and launched the careers of both Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey -- stands enthralled by the conspiratorial revelations of Icke. She writes in her blog:
Earlier I wrote that David Icke reminded me of Malcolm X. I was thinking especially of Malcolm’s fearlessness. A fearlessness that made him seem cold, actually, though we know he wasn’t really. All that love of us that kept driving him to improve our lot; often into quite the wrong direction, but I need not go into that. What I was remembering was how he called our oppressors “blue eyed devils.” Now who could that have been? Well, we see them here in David Icke’s book as the descendants of the reptilian race that landed on our sweet planet the moment they could get a glimpse of it through the mist that used to cover it (before there was a moon). No kidding. Deep breath! Yes, before there was a moon! (Oh, I love the moon; can I keep it? Please?). Anyway, there they came, these space beings (we’re space beings too, of course, not to forget that). But they looked…. different than us. And they were.
Like I said, psychotic. Walker’s fixation upon the moon springs from a belief propagated by Icke that the natural satellite is actually an artificial creation of the alien reptilians which bombards us with a signal to control our minds. Indeed, that’s no moon. It’s a space station!
Such notions are bolstered in popular culture by conspiracy narratives like those found throughout The X-Files franchise which popularized the phrase “the truth is out there,” which is to say it’s not right here in front of you. You can’t trust what you see. You can’t trust any of your senses. You certainly can’t trust any claim of authority.
Sometimes the conspiracist mindset lurks subtly in the background of our entertainment. Such was the case in the 1996 Michael Bey actioner The Rock, starring Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, and Ed Harris among an array of recognizable character actors portraying the seizure of Alcatraz as a base for launching an attack on San Francisco. Connery’s long-imprisoned British spy earned his sentence by stealing and hiding a microfilm record documenting many conspiratorial secrets, such as what really happened at Roswell in 1947 and who killed JFK.
Then we have films which play with our perception and encourage us to doubt the integrity of reality. Total Recall uses the specter of manufactured memories to keep its protagonist and the audience guessing as to who is who and what is what. Jurassic Park actor Sam Neill stars in two such films, In the Mouth of Madness and the supremely terrifying Event Horizon. Coming full circle, we can include The Matrix which rests its entire premise on the notion of a false reality. We should note that the simulated reality of The Matrix is presented as our own. Déjà vu, a phenomenon we have all experienced, is explained as a glitch in the computer simulation. The tendency of various animal meats to taste like chicken is attributed to a lack of imagination by the machines who created the Matrix. We are meant to doubt, not some fictional reality, but our own.
Perhaps the influence of such narratives contributed to my own exploration of the conspiracist community. After the election of 2004, finding myself disillusioned by how Republican-controlled government was falling short of the ideals I had heard on talk radio since coming of age during the Clinton years, I allowed myself to entertain any explanation as to why Bush and Congress were not governing like conservatives.
Enter Alex Jones, with his seemingly plausible claim that the Democrats and Republicans are two sides of the same coin, fronts for a globalist conspiracy to erect a New World Order. Look! We have video of Bush 41 telling Congress about it. Look! We sneaked into the Bohemian Grove and took creepy footage of a strange ceremony. Look! That hole in the Pentagon wasn’t shaped like an airplane… as if aluminum leaves a cartoon silhouette in reinforced concrete.
After many months veraciously taking in everything Prison Planet had to offer, watching Jones' entire catalog of documentary-style films, and following his organization’s “alternative news” and even having a couple of my personal blog entries cross-posted on his site, I eventually began to tire of the shtick. There were a number of things which contributed to my rejection of the conspiracist mindset.
First, as I began to get more involved in political activism and came to know people in positions of real power, their bumbling humanity undercut any sense that they might be part of a massive globalist conspiracy. That observation added credence to the idea that vast, complex conspiracies like those posited by 9/11 truthers, who more often than not don’t even agree with each other, would require far more covert cooperation among innumerable co-conspirators than is remotely feasible.
I also found it suspect that Jones and his ilk never presented practical solutions, even within the context of their unique worldview. If anything, they seemed to employ the very fear-mongering tactics they accused others of using. To listen to Jones on a regular basis is to live on the edge of a knife, in constant anticipation of tomorrow’s martial law, complete with door-to-door gun confiscation and cattle cars delivering patriots to concentration camps.
The cliché proves true: even a broken clock is right twice a day. There have been times when Jones has been right about particular aspects of a story. However, the context of wild conspiracy theories creates a “boy who cried wolf” effect which actually encourages people to dismiss observations of legitimate concern. For instance, the gun confiscation which occurred as part of the government response to Hurricane Katrina deserved scrutiny. Yet, reporting on it alongside tales of HAARP weather control and hidden FEMA camps only discouraged mainstream coverage.
Further undermining Jones’ credibility was his conduct when engaging with those who disagreed with him. Upon first encountering him, I dismissed his confrontational style as a personality quirk. Eventually, I realized it was actually essential to the conspiratorial mindset.
Chest-thumping rage channeled into an “info war” fought with rambling factoid carpet bombs created the illusion of a researched and righteous indignation. In truth, Jones was merely changing the subject so frequently as to keep his opponents off-balance. Another big tell was the speed at which he and his organization would jump to conclusions. When something like the Boston Marathon bombing occurs, Jones reliably takes to social media within the hour positing with incredible confidence a conspiratorial context, employing an obvious confirmation bias. Information which appears to confirm what he wants to believe is immediately credible. Information which does not confirm what he wants to believe, or conflicts, is just as immediately dismissed as part of the conspiracy.
Therein lies the reason why conspiracists are genuinely dangerous. Just as it would be ill-advised to drive while blindfolded or fly an airplane in whiteout conditions without instruments, proceeding through life in denial of the facts at hand leads inexorably to harm. Genuine threats to life, liberty, and property exist in the real world and deserve an informed response. Conflating those with imagined or unproven threats diverts attention from where it ought to be focused. More fundamentally, the goal of a properly whittled down government limited to its single rightful purpose of protecting individual rights, if achieved, would inherently defang any malevolent conspiracy. So why not focus on achieving that rather than converting people to believe “the truth” regarding a particular incident?
In my experience, the conspiratorial mindset presents the believer with an excuse for inactivity. Sure, the Alex Joneses of the world happily trot around the globe chasing Bilderbergers, shoving cameras in people’s faces, and ranting in bullhorns. But that’s not activism. It doesn’t accomplish anything. It doesn’t affect public policy or otherwise secure individual rights. On the contrary, it drives an addictive sense of perpetual revolution where believers stand ever ready to shoot back, yet won’t bother to participate in the political process and effect real change. It’s so much easier to sit holed up in your bomb shelter, cleaning your arsenal for the day the Man comes to take it, than to roll up your sleeves and commit to the humble and often tedious work of politics. One of those options has the virtue of seeding real change. The other proves self-indulgent.
Check out the previous installments in Walter Hudson's ongoing series on Video Games, Villains, and Values: