Fantastical theories keep real world at bay
Argentina Letter: Given that the locals are among the world's most avid consumers of conspiracy theories, it should not be surprising that Argentina's literary sleeper hit of the past year is a book on the subject titled Delirios Argentinos (Argentine Deliriums).
Authored by Irish-Argentine writer and journalist Sergio Kiernan, it is an analysis of the country's main conspiracy theories from cranks on both the left and right. Many of the people who feature in the book are the easily identifiable conspiracy theory nuts familiar to all who have heard how the moon landings were shot on a Hollywood sound stage and that Elvis still pumps gas somewhere in Arizona.
If such a book can have one, Kiernan's mad hero is Homero Rómulo Cristalli Frasnelli. Son of Italian immigrants, he was a successful footballer, then shoemaker and union organiser.
A committed Trotskyist operating under the nom de guerre of J Posadas, he was a polymath who devoted much of his considerable intellectual energy to the theory of extraterrestrials and socialism. He published numerous papers and books with titles such as Why extraterrestrials do not make contact publicly, arguing that ET and chums would strike fear into capitalists, as only societies organised along socialist principles would be capable of inter-stellar travel and that those who did arrive did not hang around earth for long because capitalist societies bored them.
Possibly true, but then again Posadas also believed that along with cockroaches, socialism would survive a nuclear war and, therefore, urged the Soviets and China into a pre-emptive attack, believing that the inevitable flowering of a new socialist world order would be worth the apocalyptic carnage.
Kiernan says Argentina's appetite for conspiracy theories is linked to the relative decline of the country in the world pecking order. One of the richest countries at the start of the 20th century, it began its near continuous descent following one last party in the late 1940s and early 1950s as the gold accumulated during the second World War from sales of beef and grain to the Allies was spent as if it would last forever.
But it did not and, rather than look for hard answers close to home to explain this painful reality, many have found comfort in conspiracy theories, most of which have sought to show how the outside world has it in for Argentina - whether international capital, international Jewry, the US, the USSR or the UK.
Says Kiernan, this retreat into fantasy is made all the more attractive because believing in it conveys a certain power on the believer, however powerless or hapless they actually are - they know something we do not.
The undisputed "masterpiece" of Argentinian theories is El Plan Andinia, a homegrown version of The Protocol of the Elders of Zion. Andinia is the planned name for a new state to be carved out of Patagonia by international Jewry, which has secretly sent Jewish pioneers to start the colonisation of the region.
For Kiernan, Plan Andinia holds all the key elements of an Argentine conspiracy theory - exaggerated, narcissistic, gullible and lacking in rigour. In its various versions, this theory recounts how Jews have been planning the dismemberment of the patria for decades, having selected Patagonia because Argentina is the most strategically located country in the world. Mad maybe, but in the 1970s military officers tortured a prominent Jewish detainee in their search for details about Plan Andinia. This violent intersecting of fantasy and reality is for Kiernan the reason why Argentinian conspiracy theorists need keeping an eye on. Most people do not take them literally but their craziness finds it easier to infect the national discourse than it should.
For the author, the endemic political violence of the 1970s was the result of the struggle between various competing deliriums that convulsed the country's biggest political movement, Peronism, as well as Marxist guerrillas and fascists in the military. "The most direct consequence of the delirious and paranoid mentality is to raise the level of violence."
While that 1970s fever has broken, some of the symptoms remain. When President Néstor Kirchner turns foreign private companies that invested in the country into the latest agents of imperialism, he is drawing on a rich past that needs little further explanation for voters.
Today Jews might not want to turn Patagonia into a homeland, but deputies in congress denounce foreigners they say are buying it up to grab hold of its ample fresh water supplies.
"Nobody is coming for the water," writes Kiernan. "But none of that matters, because the delirium is impervious to experience, the passage of time and proof."