Conspiracy theorists seek order in a terrifying world


THIS OBAMA birther nonsense is, in one sense at least, a little like the career of Lady Gaga. Let me explain, writes DONALD CLARKE

At some point in 2008, her ladyship, a self-important singer from New York city, stepped off a rhinestone-encrusted airship and began bellowing tinny electropop into the world’s collective earhole. Most sensible people, sure in the knowledge that nobody was going to tolerate this class of nonsense for long, retired to their storm shelter and waited for Cyclone Gaga to blow itself out. Yet she’s still here. Look, there she is scowling like a dyspeptic turtle on that magazine cover.

Similarly, when, during last year’s US presidential campaign, various right-wing maniacs began suggesting that Barack Obama was not born in the United States – and therefore ineligible for the top job – the balanced observer reckoned that the story would rapidly go the way of Mitt Romney’s candidacy.

A typical contribution appeared on one of this writer’s very favourite websites. Conservapedia, the brainchild of one Andrew Schlafly, aims to offer a “trustworthy” alternative to Wikipedia, that organ of the extreme left. Among the self-contradictory digs at the then candidate’s religious affiliation – he appears to have been simultaneously an atheist, a Muslim and a tool of militant Black Christians – Schlafly, son of veteran conservative blowhard Phyllis Schlafly, offended all known laws of scansion by offering a pastiche of a popular Bruce Springsteen song. “Born nowhere near the USA/ Don’t even know how many states there are,” the lyrics began, before drifting towards an inevitable chorus: “Born outside the USA/ Became president any-way!”

This was all good for a laugh. The propeller-headed wing of the Republican Party could enjoy muttering gibberish to one another for a few weeks and then we would all forget about it. After all, the conspiracy theorists’ suggestion that Obama had been born in Kenya rather than Hawaii had been comfortably disproved by the production of a certification of live birth. A glance at the records also revealed birth notices in Hawaiian newspapers.

This yarn had about as much validity as that old playground myth concerning the actor and the gerbil.

Well, as Denis Staunton explained in these pages recently, the story has, if anything, gained ever-greater traction over the last six months. Under the guise of “clearing up any doubt”, prominent politicians and talk-show hosts have demanded that the Hawaiian authorities release the full birth certificate. Understandably peeved at the implications of impropriety and aware that the certificate is not a public document, the good folks in the 50th state have ever so politely told the torch-bearing mob where to shove their impudent request.

Liberals will, understandably enough, accuse the far right of stooping to screwy fairy stories in their efforts to smear a properly elected president. The accusation is well founded, but it would be wise to remember the mass of equally deranged conspiracy theories that were flung at the Bush presidency. Though an amusing film featuring brilliant use of montage, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911invited the viewer to jump to some perfectly wacky conclusions concerning the Bush family’s connections with various supposedly satanic conglomerates.

The pronouncements of the so-called 9/11 Truth Movement, who suggest that Bush and cronies brought down the World Trade Center, are every bit as absurd as those of the Birthers.

Last Sunday, this writer conducted a public interview with Duncan Jones, director of the fine science fiction film Moon, in a packed Dublin cinema. Following the screening, a lady raised her hand and explained that a friend of hers had told her the moon landings had been faked. “If they haven’t,” she continued, “then why haven’t we been back to the moon?” Fielding the question with more grace than it deserved, Jones declined to outline the obvious counter-query: “If they were faked, then why haven’t they faked another one since?”

So, groundless conspiracy theories appeal to the right (Birthers), the left (Truthers) and the unaffiliated (that moon-landing rubbish). Now that dubious “research” can be disseminated through the internet, the theories have become ever more numerous and ever more deranged. Such fabulous constructions have, however, been around since a notorious serpent began blogging about Eve’s efforts to press Adam into the consumption of certain prohibited fruit.

I can remember, in the 1980s, encountering too many men hawking around volumes composed of bound photocopies with titles such as Fluoridation of Water and the Underground Advance of Jewry (Volume IV).

What’s wrongwith these people? Why do such transparent lies and unhinged fantasies gain traction?

Though the theories often involve the imposition of complex patterns on relatively simple situations – look, JFK was shot by one nutter in a warehouse. Okay? – the driving impulse is, paradoxically, very often a desire to find order in a disordered or distressing universe.

How can it be possible for an African-American socialist with a suspiciously foreign name to become president? It’s not possible. Indeed, it didn’t happen.

It just seems absurd that 3,000 people died because a handful of zealots wandered on to three planes with Stanley knives. Don’t worry. There is a greater, sinister design at work.

Yes, design. The impulse behind conspiracy theories is the same as that behind belief in astrology, numerology, Feng Shui and, well, God. All these things allow us to imagine that some structure (either malign or benevolent) orders our terrifyingly unaccommodating cosmos. I’ve got news for you. There’s no pattern. Nobody is behind the curtain. People are cruel and stupid. We’re all going to die. Indeed, the universe itself will eventually give in to entropy and dissipate into formless soup. And that will be that.

Now, enjoy the rest of the weekend.

Breda O’Brien is on leave