My debut non-fiction book, CRYPTOSCATOLOGY: CONSPIRACY THEORY AS ART FORM, is due out soon from TrineDay (http://trineday.com/), and is already available for pre-order from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Cryptoscatology-Conspiracy-Theory-Art-Form/dp/1936296403/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1330458976&sr=1-1.
Here’s an excerpt from the publisher’s imminent press release:
Examining nearly every conspiracy theory in the public’s consciousness today, this investigation seeks to link seemingly unrelated theories through a cultural studies perspective. While looking at conspiracy theories that range from the moon landing and JFK’s assassination to the Oklahoma City bombing and Freemasonry, this reconstruction reveals newly discovered connections between wide swaths of events. Linking Dracula to George W. Bush, UFOs to strawberry ice cream, and Jesus Christ to robots from outer space, this is truly an all-original discussion of popular conspiracy theories.
People who enjoyed such conspiratorial books as Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats will learn about the little-known ties between the Unabomber and the CIA, intelligence propaganda and the origins of science fiction, mind control and the American public school system, genetically-engineered cows and genocide in the Middle East, microwave weaponry and the reanimation of the dead; the influence of secret societies on revolutions, wars, and political assassinations; the always bizarre world of UFOs; and much, much more.
A slightly expanded version of the following piece will appear as the introduction to the book:
CONSPIRACY THEORY AS ART FORM
“The police state has now become a work of art.”
--Marshall McLuhan, Take Today: The Executive as Dropout, 1972
“While you here do snoring lie
His time doth take.
If of life you keep a care,
Shake off slumber and beware.
—William Shakespeare, The Tempest, 1610
CONSPIRACY THEORY AS ART FORM
I. Alis, Alas, She Broke the Glass!
On July 20, 1999, I delivered a lecture about conspiracies in the back of a late, lamented bookstore called The Midnight Special that used to be located on the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California. One of the few independent bookstores left in Southern California, it specialized in hard-to-find, alternative sources of information. In the back of the store political researchers as scholarly as Mike Davis, author of the bestseller Ecology of Fear, or as infamous as Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, would hold court. One memorable evening the latter individual nearly got into a fist fight with a Lyndon LaRouche supporter in the first row and the cops had to be called out to break up the scene. It was a lively crowd that attended these lectures, by no means a tepid coffee klatch book club for blue-haired octogenarians eager to dissect the latest Oprah selection.
The lecture I delivered was based on an article you’ll find in this very book: “Science Fiction as Manipulation: SF’s Intersection with the Intelligence Community.” The lecture went on well over two hours and received a positive response from the audience. One gentleman, an elderly political activist who had once worked for Jet Propulsion Laboratories and had been partly responsible for restoring Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers to their prior glory, shot up out of his seat and insisted I was lying when I said that the letters JPL actually stood for Jack Parsons Laboratories. (If you want to know why that offended him, just skip ahead and read Chapter Five.) Instead of arguing with him, as Mr. Hitchens had done with his heckler, I tried to calm him down with humor. And unlike with Mr. Hitchens’ performance, the cops didn’t have to be called out to break up a fistfight.
Apparently one particular member of the audience was impressed with this approach. The next day I received a phone call from a stranger who told me he’d seen my lecture the previous night. I thought the voice sounded familiar and was trying to place it when the man said, “I’m Paul Krassner. I don’t know if you’ve heard of me or not, but I publish this newsletter called The Realist.”
Krassner could have no way of knowing that I was very familiar with him and his work. The Realist had been for decades one of the greatest satirical magazines published in post-war America. I was a fan of his writing and considered his autobiography, Confessions of a Raving Unconfined Nut, to be one of the funniest books written in the past fifty years. He had been a stand-up comedian since the early ‘60s and had been close friends with the greatest stand-up comedian of all time, Lenny Bruce, a relationship he writes about extensively in his autobiography.
This is what Krassner told me: He was surprised to hear a lecture delivered by a “conspiracy theorist” who also had a sense of humor and could make an audience laugh in between the inevitable scattershot recitation of historical factoids. Every other conspiracy theorist he’d ever met had been as humorless as… well, as humorless as a guy who’s into conspiracy theories. This isn’t a surprise. If you need a good laugh, a political junkie is the last person to rely upon. Just switch on CNN and see what I mean. You’ll see a bunch of heart attacks with neckties waiting to implode.
I was proud of the way I had woven humor into what I felt was a well-researched presentation, so I was pleased that someone as wise and funny as Krassner had thought so much of it that he’d actually go to the trouble of digging up my phone number and asking me to write an article for his newsletter. Unfortunately, The Realist finally died in the Spring of 2001 and the article I wrote for Krassner later appeared in a different magazine. It appears in this book as Chapter One, as I felt it would set the proper tone for the rest of the volume.
During that phone conversation with Krassner, he said something that has always stuck with me. He said (and I’m paraphrasing here): “For some reason a lot of the greatest stand-up comedians have also been obsessed with conspiracies.” He threw out a lot of names, only some of which I can recall right now: Richard Belzer, Mort Sahl, Freddie Prinze (Senior, not Junior), Dick Gregory, Krassner himself. Even Lenny Bruce. Hell, Bruce was the victim of a vast political conspiracy. How could he help not being obsessed with conspiracies near the end of his life? Conspiracies were breathing down his neck, hounding him into an early grave.
The conversation was brief, and yet the question has always lingered in my mind: Why would so many comedians be obsessed with conspiracy theories? What’s the connection? If any trait is consistent from conspiracy theorist to conspiracy theorist, it’s the indestructible drive to make connections between disparate subjects, sometimes where there are none. In this case, however, I think a reasonable connection can be made.
Both comedians and conspiracy theorists must see the world through an alternate set of eyes, a warped Alice-like looking glass, in order to get their jobs done. The best comedians are modern day shamans, those who hold up a mirror to the mundane world, peer deeply into it, see the things the rest of us are not capable of seeing or are too afraid to see, and come back from their journeys with visions to share. Usually what they tell us is more than obvious. That’s why we laugh. We should’ve seen it ourselves. It was right there in front of us all the time, wasn’t it? That’s why we nod while laughing, suddenly realizing that we’d thought the same thing a million times before but were too embarrassed (or repressed) to actually mention this transgressive thought out loud. Comedians break taboos in a socially acceptable forum. The most dangerous comedians could never get away with performing their routines in a room full of strangers who had not paid to hear them. In fact, without the presence of a microphone and a stage, the very same lines that rake in millions for some comedians would—in the right (or wrong) circumstances—win them several blows to the face and the groin.
Similarly, when we listen to a conspiracy theorist unweave a tale well-told we are nodding in recognition as well, but this time not because our funny bone has been tickled but because our darkest fears are now being confirmed. Conspiracy theories emerge from the twisted, upside down, nightmare version of the world our greatest comedians inhabit, a world in which our recognition turns to fear and not laughter. In our worst paranoid moments we suspected that this awful possibility, whatever it is, might be true… but now we’ve had all these fears confirmed by the inevitable scattershot recitation of historical factoids that back them up with unassailable authority and simply make them so.
Both are alternative visions of the world. Both are told to us by shamans returning from the places the rest of us dare not go. And both know how to tell a good story.
There are a lot of stories in this volume. I consider myself to be primarily a storyteller. That doesn’t mean these articles are fictional. Nor are they jokes disguised as truth. Oliver Stone once described his film JFK as “an alternative myth.” Historians might consider that to be waffling; I, on the other hand, find it to be the most accurate description possible, particularly in a world full of “specialists” who insist they alone know for certain where truth ends and fiction begins. The late literary scholar Joseph Campbell considered myths to be more accurate than truth. In a world where the Blue Meanies in charge can be relied upon to lie to your face every single day without even blinking, people better start praying for a lot more myths and a lot fewer lies.
Fear and laughter, by themselves, never motivated anybody to take positive action in the world, but both can be motivating factors toward a sudden behavioral change in almost anyone. Every paradigm shift comes with a little fear and a fair amount of nervous laughter. H.P. Lovecraft, the famous horror writer, once wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (12). Robert Anton Wilson, a writer who was no stranger to conspiracy theories, once wrote these words about an ephemeral realm known in occult initiations as “Chapel Perilous”:
In traditional occult metaphor… Chapel Perilous [is] a weird place to be. Like the mysterious entity called “I,” Chapel Perilous cannot be located in space-time; it is weightless, odorless, tasteless and undetectable by ordinary instruments. Even more like the Ego, it is possible to deny that Chapel Perilous is really there. And yet, once you are inside it, there doesn’t seem to be any way to ever get out again, until you suddenly discover that it has been brought into existence by thought and does not exist outside thought. Everything you fear is waiting for you in Chapel Perilous, but if you are armed with the wand of intuition, the cup of sympathy, the sword of reason and pentacle of valor, you will come through it all safely.
That’s what the legends say, and the language of myth is poetically precise. For instance, if you go into that realm without the sword of reason, you will lose your mind, but if you take only the sword of reason without the cup of sympathy you will lose your heart. Even more remarkably, if you approach without the wand of intuition, you can stand at the door for decades never realizing you have arrived. You might even think you are just waiting for a bus, or wandering from room to room looking for something lost, or watching a TV show in which “you” are not involved. Chapel Perilous is tricky that way. (10-11)
Fear and laughter are tricky as well. They’re two sides of the same coin, of course, but it turns out the coin I’m referring to has more than two sides, perhaps an infinite amount. You can see them if you squint your eyes, tilt your head to one side, and look just so. To pass through Chapel Perilous safely the initiate has to see beyond the two surfaces of the coin to another world where both fear and laughter dissolve and meld together and transform into illumination and, ultimately,—if he’s kept his head—active participation in our everyday world.
The shaman comes back from this other world with a pocketful of myths. The specialist, the historian, the pundit, the journalist, the expert: They appear in your home everyday inside a little box spewing harmful, sugar-coated lies.
I give you a pocketful of myths. They’re researched and footnoted and delivered with a tone of authority on the part of the narrator. The author researched this book for fourteen years. Trust me, lies don’t take that long to construct. Lies are easy. These myths tell the truth, or the truth as I see it. When Alice fell through the mirror, she left the world of experts and knowable facts behind and plunged into a topsy-turvy world fraught with bizarre paradoxes. I offer you the chance to do the same.
“Though Wonderlawn's lost us for ever. Alis, alas, she broke the glass!”
--James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, 1939
II. Tightening Up the Goo
On April 8, 2010, Reuters released the results of a poll in which 23,000 adults in twenty-two different countries were asked about their belief in extraterrestrials. Most of those polled were under the age of thirty-five, and ranged across all income classes. The results were as follows: 20% of those polled said that they believe extraterrestrials are currently walking among us disguised as human beings. It’s interesting to note that most of those who believed in this extraterrestrial infiltration theory lived in major urban centers; those who lived in small towns, where everyone tends to know each other, were far less likely to believe the theory.
What can we conclude from these findings? Does this poll say something profound about the alienation of the typical urban dweller in the twenty-first century? Has decades of cowering in fear behind locked doors while suckling the glass teat of television led to these rampant, paranoid delusions? Yes, of course, it could mean that.
It could also mean that there are aliens walking among us.
Paranoia is the great undiscovered art form of the twenty-first century. Plenty of scholars have written dissertations about the growing theme of paranoia in literature, art, film, etc. Some of the most important writers of the past century claimed paranoia as their special métier. In fact, paranoia runs rampant through the literary touchstones of my own personal pantheon: the multiple anarchist conspirators uncovered by Gabriel Syme, secret agent and poet, the protagonist of G.K. Chesterton’s surreal detective novel The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (1908); the Gnostic mythologies hidden within even more esoteric mythologies in James Branch Cabell’s beautifully complicated and highly controversial satires, The Cream of the Jest (1917) and Jurgen (1919); Charles Fort’s groundbreaking non-fiction reportage of overlooked paranormal data in The Book of the Damned (1919); the endlessly labyrinthine novel-length narratives of Franz Kafka in the 1920s; the racialist, degenerate nightmares of H.P. Lovecraft in the 1930s; the jocular metaphysics of Flann O’Brien in his posthumously published 1940s divine comedy The Third Policeman; the hardboiled cries from hell that emerged from Jim Thompson’s typewriter in the early 1950s; the experimental routines of early William S. Burroughs from the late 1950s; the 1960s science fiction psychedelia of Philip K. Dick; the absurd paeans to insanity in the form of Thomas Pynchon’s 1970s epyllion The Crying of Lot 49 and his Great American Novel Gravity’s Rainbow; the revisionist histories found in Steve Erickson’s Tours of the Black Clock and Arc d’X published in the late 1980s and early 1990s; the alternate universes woven into our own world within the unjustly obscure pages of Jack Womack’s New York novels such as Random Acts of Senseless Violence (1995) and Going, Going, Gone (2000). I could go on and on, of course, but there’s no need. I trust you can come up with even better examples of your own.
However, I’m not referring to the mere theme of paranoia found within fictional narratives. I’m saying that the state of paranoia itself is a new art form, and people—either consciously or unconsciously—are well aware of this and use paranoia as a plaything, a palliative to help guide them through the intricacies of this post-post-modern world. The dilemma that human beings must face in the twenty-first century is not that they’re alienated or ignorant, but that they’re not alienated or ignorant enough. Technology has granted us ersatz telepathy. We’re all involved in everyone’s personal business twenty-four hours a day. A girlfriend breaks up with her boyfriend in high school and the whole world knows about it fifteen seconds later via Facebook. In cyberspace we can shed our identities and become other beings. We’re shape shifters, a godlike power previously attributed only to deities in ancient mythologies and extraterrestrials in 1950s science fiction movies. Therefore, the results of the aforementioned poll were indeed correct. More and more, aliens are walking among us. We see them every day in our bathroom mirrors and our reflective iPod screens. Technology has made aliens of us all.
Of course, there’s nothing new in this observation. After all, Marshall McLuhan was saying the same thing several decades ago. Nor is there anything new in observing the simple fact that paranoia is simply a state of heightened awareness. As Charles Manson once said (one of his many groovy aphorisms from the 1970s), “Paranoia is just a kind of awareness, and awareness is just a form of love.” Indeed, we’re more aware of what’s going on in the world now than ever before. News stories that used to take weeks to travel from one country to another now take seconds. If that’s not a heightened form of awareness, what is?
What is new about these observations, I’m quietly proud to say, is the context. Like the shape of celluloid aliens, the context is always shifting. And when the context shifts, the meaning of what lies within shifts as well. New mysteries arise to replace the ones that have long since been solved.
Mysteries. Primitive cultures used myths to explain the mysteries of their own society. Nowadays most of us no longer believe that a bearded gentleman on top of Mt. Olympus is responsible for fashioning lightning bolts with gargantuan blacksmith tools. But some of us do hold beliefs that are equally strange. For example, were you aware that the only way an African-American could become President of the United States is if he were placed in that position by a centuries-old Masonic cult? After all, African-Americans don’t just become President. There must be something wrong with this bizarre new reality, mustn’t there? Perhaps Obama’s really a Muslim terrorist in disguise. Perhaps he’s a mind-controlled Manchurian Candidate of a secret pagan order. Perhaps there’s something erroneous about his birth certificate. Perhaps….
Just the other day about thirty of these “Obama birthers” (as some in the media have chosen to call them), most of them seemingly enjoying an upper middle-class existence, appeared in the drug-infested park across the street from my apartment building in Long Beach, California to hold a rally against the Obama administration. Oddly enough, I’d never seen any of these people in this park before. I could only conclude that they would never bother to visit this part of town except to hold protests against Obama and the people who voted for him. They all held up signs decorated with slogans like, “BARAK OBAMA IS LEADING US INTO SOCIALISM!!!” and “NEXT TIME ELECT AN ADULT AS PRES!” and “BEWARE THE CONSENTRATION CAMPS!!!!” (Only about three counter-protesters were present at the rally; they held up signs of their own that read, “NEXT TIME SPELL CHECK YOUR SIGNS!”) I had the urge to cross the street, step up onto the stage, and point out that their heated protest against creeping “socialism” was being held in a park paid for by tax dollars. But somehow I resisted the urge.
These protestors—most of them no doubt sincere and well-meaning in their outrage against authoritarianism—spent eight years completely unconcerned about the creation of Homeland Security and the rollback of the Freedom of Information Act in the wake of 9/11 and the wholesale torture of innocent people in American-sponsored rendition camps in foreign countries, but interpret a new health care bill as the advent of the Seventh Reich. Why worry about the “consentration camps” that haven’t been built yet when there are already real concentration camps being operated at the expense of U.S. tax dollars in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay? Have these Obama birthers bothered to see Alex Gibney’s disturbing 2007 documentary Taxi to the Dark Side in which their worst paranoid fantasies have already been documented on celluloid? Probably not.
Myths are malleable, you see. Sometimes they tell us only what we want to know. The Norse gods never died. They shaved their heads, picked up a couple of misspelled signs, and are now demonstrating in downtown Los Angeles against the Obama administration’s alleged support of illegal immigrants.
Myths tell us a lot about ourselves: our fears, our dreams. They convey everything an extraterrestrial anthropologist would need to know about human ethics and our true sense of self and our place in the universe, perhaps even more than the various organized religions still clinging to our collective unconscious in the twenty-first century. Myths reveal our essential selves in ways that might make us very uncomfortable. How much do the numerous volumes written by Holocaust deniers, for example, tell us about the human race? Sadly, they tell us a great deal—far more than we would like to know. Just because the majority of Americans find these theories abhorrent doesn’t mean we should ignore them or conclude they’re not meaningful. The truth is, they’re very meaningful. All conspiracy theories are meaningful… just like all myths are meaningful.
Every myth structure is composed of darkness and light. Every Olympian mountaintop has its counterpart in Hades. Every heroic whistleblower who uncovers secret documents like The Pentagon Papers has a doppelganger, a Jungian dark double, attempting to foist off The Protocols of the Elders of Zion on a gullible public. The field of conspiracy theory is littered with the carcasses of sincere truth seekers who failed in their search. In the early 1990s the rightwing militia movement was at the height of its popularity, spurred by the election of Democrat Bill Clinton to the Presidency. For years these militia members, led by homegrown heroes like attorney Linda Thompson and shortwave radio host William Cooper, congregated in “covert” meeting halls in order to exchange dark tales about the swarm of U.N. black helicopters that would soon arrive to round up the last remaining patriots in this country. In the wake of this mini-Ragnarok, the Clintons were supposedly going to build concentration camps in the Midwest and Alaska to confine all these patriots, leaving the U.S. wide open for socialist rule. So spoke the prophecies.
When these same militia groups were tied to the destruction of the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995 their media presence waned slowly. A couple of years ago the militia movement had devolved into a forgotten joke. In March of 2010, however, a Christian militia in Michigan was indicted for plotting to assassinate police officers and Muslims with homemade bombs as a preemptive strike against the imminent takeover of the “Anti-Christ.” On April 17, 2010, a neo-Nazi rally was held outside City Hall in downtown Los Angeles to protest Obama and the evil gnomes who influence his policies from their subterranean lair in Zurich. Yes, the black helicopters are emerging once again from the mists of myth… and once again, appropriately enough, they’re spurred by the election of a Democrat to the presidency.
This game goes way back. During the Carter administration an eccentric attorney named Dr. Peter Beter (yes, that was his real name) claimed that President Carter had been assassinated by Soviet agents and replaced with “organic robotoids” intent on taking over the United States for Bolshevik rule. Lyndon Johnson was implicated in the murder of John F. Kennedy within days of the assassination. Kennedy was accused of being a secret agent for the Pope. Harry Truman, duped by the Scottish Rite Freemasons, allowed the atom bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima in order to fulfill a centuries-old alchemical plot hatched by the Freemasons long before the Great Pyramids were first constructed. Franklin Roosevelt allowed the Japanese to bomb Pearl Harbor in order to drag the United States into World War II (that one goes without saying). We could keep going farther and farther back in time, but I think you get the picture. A similar—and even more ominous litany—could be compiled with regard to Republican Presidents.
But this time around, the fear and confusion are far worse than with any previous administration. How are lightning bolts formed? Are violent storms a curse from the Gods? How did Barack Obama really end up in the White House? Is he the genetically engineered spawn of the Illuminati?
Of course he is.
Joseph Campbell, in his classic study of mythology, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, never wrote about what happens when the Hero’s quest for truth is derailed and decays into mere paranoia… into an obsessive need to explain away those shifts in society that do not accord with the Hero’s limited reality tunnel.
But it’s crucial to note that only a lazy thinker would dismiss all this paranoia as mere insanity. As Joseph Heller once wrote, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” Similarly, we would be remiss if we condemned all such conspiracy theories as pure jabberwocky. After all, conspiracy theories will be with us for a long time, so we might as well become a little more intimate with them.
If, in the twenty-first century, paranoia has become an art form, then it’s no wonder that conspiracy theory has become an art form in its own right as well. It’s a brand new literary genre still only in its infancy (at least in relation to other, more well-established genres). Consider the parallels with other nascent art forms of the latter half of the twentieth century. Within the past few decades, for example, we have watched the music video evolve from a simple marriage of music and stage-bound visuals to that of a complicated new art form. Many of our most important film directors today began their careers directing music videos, an art form dismissed as trivial trash only two decades ago. Similarly, within the next ten years we will begin to see the field of conspiracy theories morph and evolve in surprising ways. Expect to see a slew of college courses analyzing conspiracy theories, not only from a literary perspective (as we’ve seen in recent years with other formerly debased genres such as detective fiction, science fiction and the graphic novel medium), but from the perspective of cultural studies as well.
I myself have been using such writings in my own courses at CSU Long Beach, where I’ve been teaching since 2002. When I allow my students to choose their own topics for their final argumentative essays in my composition courses, they often choose those with a conspiratorial bent. It’s a popular subject among students, particularly for teenagers and people in their early twenties. I know of some colleagues who have also used conspiracy theories to teach rhetoric, composition, and even logic. From observing this trend, combined with the ubiquity of conspiracy theories in popular media (including films, television, comic books, pop music, video games, and even trading cards), I concluded the time was right for an exploration of its contents.
Though this book is by no means an encyclopedia, its breadth of subject matter is intended to be as close to encyclopedic as possible. Under analysis in this volume is almost every major conspiracy theory, from the most famous to the utterly obscure. Subjects covered include (but are by no means limited to) conspiracies involving Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Freemasonry, Mormonism and Scientology, 9/11, Columbine, the Oklahoma City Bombing, the JFK and RFK assassinations, alien implants, the Illuminati, Bohemian Grove, the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide, Jonestown, the L.A. Riots, O.J. Simpson, the origin of AIDS, the 1969 moon landing, all eight years of the George W. Bush administration, World War I, World War II, Vietnam, both Iraq Wars, and even some future bloody conflicts thrown in for good measure.
This isn’t even mentioning such perennial favorites as: mind control in advertising, education, popular literature and the field of covert intelligence; the ostensible influence of secret societies on revolutions, wars and other historical events; little known political assassinations; the esoteric connections between conspiracies and the paranormal; applying conspiracy theory to the Hegelian Dialectic; the always bizarre world of UFOS, and (as they say on those late night commercials) much, much more.
Paranoia surrounds us. Instead of staving it off, let’s embrace it for awhile. By growing comfortable with it, we might actually be able to become one with it. We might be able to use it creatively for our own eventual illumination, little grasshopper. As we delve deeply into the world of conspiracies, to be sure, we delve deeper into the collective unconscious of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Or as a wise scholar once wrote in a slightly different context….
“Let’s tighten up the slack sentimentality of this goo with something gutsy and grim.
“As Zeus said to Narcissus:
--Marshall McLuhan, “Media Ad-vice,”1972
Lovecraft, Howard Phillips. Supernatural Horror in Literature. New York: Dover, 1973.
McLuhan, Marshall. Introduction. “Media Ad-vice” Subliminal Seduction. By Wilson Bryan Key. New York: Signet, 1974. vii-xviii.
Wilson, Robert Anton. Introduction. The Illuminoids: Secret Societies and Political Paranoia. By Neal Wilgus. Albuquerque: Sun Publishing, 1978. 8-12.