Along the Tracks

Monday, October 13, 2003


You've just gotta love conspiracy theories. They have all the best characteristics of a best-selling novel - only people don’t just read them, they actually live their lives believing them, like they are characters in a grand tale, courageously carrying the torch of truth amid dark powers and unseen enemies.

For the majority which has developed the ability to discern fiction from fact, the conspiracy crowd is like a 24/7 dinner theater which we can observe to mitigate momentary boredom, then turn back to our mashed potatoes.

Since 9/11, the left has controlled the market in the life-action fiction department. You know the background narrative, found on forwarded e-mail #17 days after the towers fell: 9/11 was a Bush administration-CIA-Defense Department plot; the Israelis knew and warned all the Jews who worked in the Twin Towers; the Saudis knew and had planes warming up to fly out the bin Laden family hours before the “hijackings” began; the Pentagon strike was to force budgeteers to agree to a huge funding increase which could then be diverted to “black” programs like Total Information Awareness and missile defense; all the “hijacked” jets were tailed by F-16s, and when radio jamming failed and the passengers on Flight 93 (headed for the Capitol Building to kill all Congressmen and consolidate Bush administration control) learned about the other planes and revolted, they were shot down.

There are some “wild-type variants” of this basic story out there, of course: Bush was clueless about the plan, but during his day-long disappearance, he was broken down by Dick Cheney’s operatives and has become the automaton most people always thought he was anyway; the Israeli Mossad actually performed the operation; the plan was already in place before the 2000 election, and is the reason Bush “stole” the presidency; the aircraft never actually crashed - it was all a holographic ruse, and the buildings were detonated internally.

In each case, though, the underlying assumption follows from Al Gore’s campaign accusation (completely legitimate as a criticism, mind you) that Bush was too closely tied to oil interests: The “9/11 plot” was instigated by the oil execs to get a pipeline built from the Central Asian republics to the Indian Ocean, where (presumably) Texas oil companies would control its distribution.

That’s the grand tale, anyway. Lefty wingnuts are actors on the stage to whatever degree they “believe” this fiction, and help carry on the narrative in new and entertaining directions which take hold of the conspiratorial consciousness. It’s actually a pretty good story when you suspend disbelief, and having thousands of minds working on it guarantees regular influxes of creativity and craftwork.

I’m not going into all the reasons this broad liberal conspiracy theory has more in common with the Brothers Grimm than American History 101.

What I’m really wondering: What conspiracy theories are now dominating the lives of the good ol’ right-wing militia types the media had so much fun with in the early and mid-’90s?

Remember, back then it was all about the Trilateral Commission, the United Nations’ secret army, black helicopters and mind-control through fluoridation. George Bush (Sr.) and Bill Clinton were on the rotating presidency (the UN secretary-general was the third member, if memory serves) of an international organization - the Trilateral Commission - which was bent on global domination and the establishment of a “new world order” (a designated “NWO” by conspiracy theorists), an actual quote of GHWB which the conspiratorial crowd believed was a slip of the tongue. Inside the defense department, all activities, transactions and statements were monitored by a supercomputer to identify troublemakers. A secret arm of the ATF performed the role of “shock troops” for the Trilateral Commission in the United States, intimidating dissidents and using lethal force against those thought most dangerous to the Trilateralists’ agenda. Ruby Ridge and the assault on the Branch Davidians in Waco were merely public manifestations of something the conspiracy theorists believed was occurring regularly. The agenda itself was one of global domination with the commission’s membership in government and industry combining to control the world economy and direct societal evolution to the advantage of the powerful elite - all under the guise of democracy and free markets.

The “militia movement” as most people know it (i.e., government-hating right-wingers) was largely a response to this Trilateral agenda. Again, members were actively engaged in the storyline to the degree they believed the underlying conspiracy. Many good ol’ boys in these parts (northwest Ohio) simply enjoyed being involved in gun clubs and were swayed by the romantic notions of survivalism and independent organizations defending traditional American political values. These rank-and-file militia members had no more cravings for confrontation and violence than the Sons of the American Legion or Daughters of the American Revolution. Their organizations merely centered around their favorite activities: gun sports.

But there were others (a minority of militia members, but not insignificant) who made greater commitments to acting out the fictional tale. Some wrote letters to the editor (I know, I got tons of them). Some started putting out anonymous threats (I got a few of those). Some began committing minor acts of “civil disobedience,” like making their own license plates, refusing to renew driving licenses, refusing to use Social Security numbers or private account numbers, denying private property access to government authorities and refusing to pay taxes.

A few felt it necessary to collect arsenals for a potential coming battle. A very few believed they must fight now: Thus, Ruby Ridge; thus, Waco; thus, Oklahoma City. The bombing of the Murrah Federal Building was the turning point, where people who had tangential connections to the true wackos through the militia movement realized how far out into the Fruitcake Wilderness some people were taking them. They began to disassociate themselves with their weirder colleagues. They stopped organizing “militias” (at least in the extremist sense) and returned to forming gun and sportsmen’s clubs for social reasons and community service. There are a few of the diehard, wacked-out conspiracy theorists around still (a few militias maintain links to these craftsmen), and every once in a while you hear about somebody wiggin’ out up in Michigan, but for the most part, the militia movement has mellowed.

But not disappeared. The right-wing true believers are still around, but their conspiracy narrative has unraveled a bit, with the War on Terror pulling patriots in different directions. In most cases, the UN remains Public Enemy No. 1. Thus, we have the 10th Annual Anti-UN Rally coming Oct. 24; fears of a UN led invasion into the U.S.; and warnings about UN efforts to impose gun control on America. Are government actions at home and abroad fighting terror good or bad? Free militia members are apparently at liberty to develop their own opinions. A quick glance through shows the more conspiratorial members are mostly no longer viewed as perceptive, but as a few rounds short in their magazine. When it comes down to it, the right’s conspiracy story seems to have run its course, and the wide-ranging secret agenda of evil bonded by trick handshakes and code words is now little more than some general, if heartfelt, complaints about taxes, immigration, public education and gun control, with members bonding through bravado. Pretty harmless stuff.

What is most fascinating is that the original nuggets around which a right-wing tall tale was built have been happily accepted by the loopy left: clandestine government agencies looking for ways to abridge privacy; a “behind-the-curtain” shadow government accumulating power; secret forces intimidating descent and cracking down on those deemed politically dangerous; use of government agencies for internal security purposes beyond their original missions; and the unnoticed suspension of fundamental rights.

The left is lucky - all the hard work of developing coherent arguments in these areas has been completed. In fact, all those specific argument links are to right-wing web sites. Yet those threads weave in beautifully with active imaginations on the left who care less about the ancestry of those arguments than how seamlessly they fit the conspiracy theory.

The differences between the left’s overall theory and the right’s are mostly in detail - but detail is fiction’s lubricant. The left’s conspiracy theory suffers from a lack of underlying consistency which the right’s composers have nicely cleaned up with their supergovernment: Party affiliations no longer matter (remember, Clinton and Bush I traded Trilateral seats after the ‘92 election), keeping the theory alive regardless of election results; and a logical chain of command (I’ve seen copies of the Trilateral Commission powerflow chart) allows the chief conspirators to control widely-separated events and move their secret agenda forward; an undemocratic international bureaucracy has a central role (the United Nations), increasing the plausibility of “world” domination. Not insignificantly, the right-wing theory brings in examples of lethal force used against people “in the know” who crossed the Trilateralists (remember, we’re not talking “truth” here, we’re talking “good story”).

Part of the “conspiracy quality” difference can be explained by timing. The right got to work on their theory as the Soviet Bloc fell apart, a former CIA director (GHWB) became president, a “war for oil” (Gulf War I) was prosecuted and expanded gun control laws pushed traditional rural gun owners into groups defending their right to keep and bear arms. The election of Bill Clinton forced a fundamental rethinking, which was “miraculously” accommodated by placing the Trilateral Commission outside the realm of U.S. politics. The Ruby Ridge fiasco was not so much another piece in the puzzle as an “I told you so” confirmation.

The left had a conspiracy theory floating around to “explain” the Ken Starr investigation and impeachment, which was revived during the Election 2000 controversy (“Newt Gingrich/George W. Bush is attempting a coup!”), but it had too many flaws of logic to launch a full-blown story. The stunning events of 9/11 allowed for the “big picture” to be filled in with interesting plot twists and relished antagonists, all orbiting the “GOP coup” theory.

Still, that was just two years ago, and this “novel” is still finding itself. Don’t write off the ultimate success (from the standpoint of literary criticism) of the left’s conspiracy narrative just yet. Some questions dogging the storyline are getting new focus in the minds of the conspiracy “writers,” and they have the beginnings of answers just as ingenious as those of the right-wingers a decade ago.

An argument can be made that we must do our best to fight the falsehoods being promulgated by these left-wing conspiracy theorists - and I sympathize, to an extent. Yet the tragedies of the right-wing version, culminating in the horrible murders of Oklahoma City, demonstrate that logic holds no sway with these people. No, better to point out where their fictions are weak in literary terms, compare them favorably to the right-wing’s storyline, and at every opportunity remind them that they are engaged in a form of participatory entertainment, and will be judged not as serious political commentators, but as storytellers.

Maybe, just maybe, they will realize this truth before their “truth” drives them to write - and act out - violent scenes.

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