On Thursday afternoon, I found myself caught in a conversation with a homeless man about conspiracy theories.
As we sat together at a table in the shelter, my new friend Valentine claimed that all of the information he told me was true and verifiable-he got it from professional journalists who report on a local AM radio station between one and four in the morning during the week. I should’ve known what kind of chat I’d be having after finding that out, but I simply couldn’t walk away. Lies or not, Valentine had me hooked long before he mentioned aliens.
Here’s what I learned:
The arc mentioned in the Bible was not rectangular. It was round, despite what I was taught in years of Sunday school lessons and regardless of how the ship is depicted in the new Russell Crowe movie Noah. Apparently, some museum in London has proof.
George H. W. Bush went to war in the Middle East not for oil or for Kuwait’s protection, but to retrieve a magical piece of quartz from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. He hid the stone underneath his armpit. It had healing powers and was called, for some reason or another, the Blue Apple, which is why blue is such a common color.
The Virgin Mary was not Jesus’ real mother-Mary Magdalene was.
The most important thing I discovered, though, was that the weirder a discussion’s subject, the more fascinated I am by it.
I don’t believe in conspiracy theories, for the record, but I think I, like most people, find it difficult to resist hearing about them. We’re captivated by what we don’t know and by what we don’t understand.
Since John F. Kennedy’s assassination in the ’60s, conspiracy theories have become an odd aspect of our culture. They generally have a negative connotation, and society as a whole often looks down on those who consider them to be true, yet there’s little denying that even if we don’t believe them, we think they’re intriguing.
Just look at the media-it knows what we deem interesting, and it takes advantage of that by creating TV shows and films that feed into our desire for mystery, suspense, and conspiracy.
Why else would the National Treasure movies be so popular? It definitely isn’t because of Nicholas Cage, that’s for sure.
The success of hits like those movies, or like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, or Oliver Stone’s 1991 JFK, or even the special features on the History Channel, suggest that we’re a culture that might claim to want straight information, but at the same time, we’re irresistibly absorbed by all kinds of potential inaccuracies and lies-because sometimes the truth is, well, boring.
It’s so much more entertaining to complicate reality, read between the lines, and surmise the darkest possible explanation of a scenario.
No wonder, then, that today, there are conspiracies about everything, from President Barack Obama’s American citizenship, to the existence of extraterrestrial life, to Paul McCartney being dead.
Just last week, actually, a conspiracy theory two decades in the making resurfaced and garnered vast public attention-Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Because of the 20-year anniversary of the rock legend’s death, investigators decided to look back into the case. They found 35 never-before-viewed pictures from the scene, which some conspiracists hoped would confirm the idea that Cobain didn’t kill himself, but was, instead, murdered. While the pictures revealed no such thing, the example, again, alludes to our culture’s beguilement by life’s grey areas-we may think we do, but we really don’t like when things are so black and white.
We may not all be extremists, part of conspiracy groups such as the Illuminati, the Freemasons, or Skull and Bones, but most of us have heard of them and of what they believe. Most of us have fallen victim to the lure of their theories.
So, although I didn’t learn much in the way of what I thought was the cold, hard truth from my discussion with Valentine the other day, I did realize how easy it is to be swept away by a well-told or bizarre story. I realized how important it is to always be skeptical of what you see and hear-to always be questioning things-and to be a little bit of a conspiracist yourself.