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  • Joshua Ziefle

A Conspiracy of Nothing

By academic training, I am an historian. To that end I have some skill in studying, analyzing, and reflecting on the past. I enjoy the work and find its explorations to be life-giving. Many have felt the same, whether as professionals or amateurs. It is a story worth exploring.


Tons of ink has been spilled on all aspects of historical study--often to significant effect. But then there are...other areas. Topics and scenarios with copious amounts of writing attached to them, but which in their accumulation have tended to obscure rather than illumine. I jokingly refer to two of these episodes--the purported Roswell, New Mexico alien episode of 1947 and the JFK assassination--as things that seem near impossible to generally research or in which to determine "the real story." Too many books and websites, too many ideas, too many conjectures, and too much fanciful, assumed, and incorrect data clog the literature. At times the rabbit hole goes so far down it can be a full-time job to try and separate certain facts from probable fictions. Responsible history is out there, but it can be tricky for the non-expert to pin down.


Roswell aliens, various ideas about JFK's assassination, the claims of 9/11 "truthers," and more fall into the timeworn category of conspiracy theories. Claims that purport to understand a hidden history behind that which was officially recorded and which provide an often fanciful alternate reality. While not often widely accepted, these ideas tend to have a passionate following amongst those who believe in them. Facts which would seem to disprove these ideas are either rejected out of hand or reinterpreted to suit the conspiracy narrative. In this way, such stories represent a closed circle.


Conspiracy theories are not the sole property of any one political party or persuasion. In the American context there are both conservative and liberal conspiracy theorists. Suspicion of the government or its leaders can change depending on who is in power. Some of the same folks that had strong suspicions of the assumed schemes of George W. Bush's tenure would likely dismiss claims against the government that took place under Barack Obama, and vice versa. Conspiracies tend to be shaded in a negative light, and at least in the real-time and rough-and-tumble world of politics we are much more likely to believe them about our perceived enemies than those we see as friends.


Let me be clear: I am not a conspiracy theorist. True, there have been documented cases of real plots, hidden maneuverings uncovered only later, and attempted conspiracies in the historical record, but that does not mean that all the things we commonly label conspiracy theories are necessarily--or even likely--true. If there is a such a thing as an anti-conspiracy theorist, that's probably where I plant my flag. The hermeneutic of suspicion need not apply with me. I just do not buy it.


I know human beings, and I just do not think we are capable enough to orchestrate successful, large-scale, hidden conspiracies to the extent people believe in them. To imagine that we can requires a belief in the competence of government and private organizations somewhat exceeding what we have commonly seen and observed. Not to mention the fact that it ignores how curious people are to learn the truth and how quickly schemes, once exposed, can become common knowledge. It is difficult for even attempted secretive wide-ranging maneuverings to remain hidden for long. If a true conspiracy is actually uncovered, it is likely that the facts will come to speak for themselves and allow us to incorporate such stories into the historical record rather than them remaining on the fringes of discussion.


Having said all of this, a word of caution and understanding. It is easy--very easy--for us to encounter others who believe conspiracies and reject them as embarrassingly ignorant, unworthy, or otherwise deplorable. Seeing a friend or family member fall in for this kind of thing can contribute to our own sense of superiority. We can turn their (admittedly incorrect) belief into an excuse to see them as a lesser kind of person. You know of what I speak. We have all felt it. "There are paranoid 'losers' out there who believe that kind of stuff," we think. "Thank God there are more of them than us."


Yet before we get too high on our horse, let us take care to make sure that there are not conspiracies that have tempted our own hearts. Alternative facts that we have not been tempted to--or wanted to--believe from time to time. Think of what you have posted or liked or wanted to post/like on social media. Think of the kinds of stories we hope to hear about our heroes and villains. Looking in that mirror might help us follow a more measured course.


And, even if we are really are immune to most instances of this, I would still submit that it does not give us the right to simply dehumanize others. Rather, perhaps, it should provide us an opportunity for understanding. For, in our scientific and rapidly secularizing world, there is less and less magic than ever before. So much of what we have is explained in numbers and spreadsheets and facts and figures that the world can feel increasingly cold and disenchanted. Boring, even.


In the imagined vacuum that we live, our minds are looking for larger stories to make things more interesting. We crave connections beyond what we see. We want to experience something new and different. While I think such yearnings are misplaced when they find their home in conspiracies and actually ought to point us in a different direction, I understand why they are there. And knowing that might be the first step towards figuring out how to address such problems in a world that seems primed to rapidly spin off into endless conspiracies and alternate worlds of "facts."


Oh, and in case you were wondering: odds are it was just Lee Harvey Oswald that day in 1963. The 9/11 attacks took place just like we saw on television.


And despite how much I might want it to be so, aliens probably did not show up in 1940s New Mexico.

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