The checkout line at the supermarket is a surprising mix of dark secrets and brain candy. Every time I need milk and eggs, I feel like Odysseus caught between Scylla and Charybdis: to the right of me, the dreaded chocolate bars, a whirlpool of cocoa and sugar that sucks me down, and to the left of me the six-headed monster of the tabloid newspapers.
Scandal sheets such as the Globe, Star, Sun, Weekly World News and, at center stage, the now politically undone National Inquirer, promise us all the celebrity cellulite you never wished to see, the mealtime secrets of the stars dying of bulimia and box office blues, and paranoid plots stretching from earth into space.
Sure, at sea level they are always good for an undying cover-up by Robert Wagner of Natalie Wood’s death and, looking up, all things extraterrestrial that rock our boat, but last week conspiracy theorizing went mainstream.
Collusion, no collusion, illusion or confusion, call it what you will and name your conclusion, but you didn’t need the tabloids to devour the Mueller report. Everyone wanted a piece of that pie.
Yet the tabloid-in-chief National Inquirer still found a way to create its own scandal-within-a-scandal, getting sold off to the highest bidder after it attempted a revenge play starring the world’s richest man in a byzantine menage-a-trois with his mistress, her bad brother, and an ostensible political hit job over Jeff Bezos’ ownership of The Washington Post.
We do love our conspiracies. Such theories are no doubt as old as the first stories traded around the fire while roasting a bison haunch, as pungent as smoky air. The very word ‘conspiracy’ derives from the Latin “con,”which means “with” just as it does in modern Romance languages, and “spirare,” which means “breathe,” hence, when we breathe together, we conspire. As breath is a fundamental of life and our lives together, conspiracy theorizing comes naturally.
As a former investigative journalist, I hardly get off scot-free. In a very real sense, the work of an investigative reporter, writer or producer is often to demonstrate the truth of a suspected conspiracy theory, just as it is for Mueller and the FBI.
The Roman Senate conspired to murder Julius Caesar, and a couple of millennia later Richard Nixon conspired to break in to the Watergate. From Rome to the Potomac, conspiracy is catnip.
The problem is that not only Sasquatch and Area 51 make it into the conspiracy honor rolls, but historical fact such as Lee Harvey Oswald assassinating John F. Kennedy has become the building block for our modern love affair with conspiracy theorizing, thanks to the 1964 Warren Commission omissions. It was Russia then, and it is Russia now --Mueller takes a mulligan.
In the same year as the Warren Commission’s singularly unsatisfying single-gunman theory, Richard Hofstadter penned in Harper’s Magazine “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” In it, he foresaw, in the emergence of Barry Goldwater as he took control of the Republican Party -- yes, Virginia, history rhymes -- such prescient paranoiac attributes as “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” and “heroic strivings for ‘evidence’.” It is a fairly straight line to Alex Jones of Infowars -- he of Sandy Hook gun-control fantasy -- and Roger Stone and other Muellennials.
We need only drop back to the fabulous Fifties to recall the ravings of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and his call-to-arms in 1951 over “a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” The ramifications of such rantings played out in a dangerous and deadly fashion, and many Americans were caught in Kafkaesque assaults on freedom by the press, FBI, Congress and the courts.
Fast forward to now and ask yourself whether social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter are merely digital echoes of supermarket tabloids or something more threatening. A recent YouTube screed in documentary clothing, “Conspiracy Theories with Shane Dawson,” whose real name is Shane Lee Yaw, has received a mind-boggling 30 million views -- not yet the Super Bowl of nonsense, but certainly in Academy Awards zone. In Hollywood-sequel style, this virtual Shane rode back into town to reveal his theory that Chuck E. Cheese recycles customers’ uneaten pies into new pizzas.
You can’t make this stuff up, folks. Glad I wasn’t chowing down a slice while watching.
Dawson is in a different category from the hate speech of Alex Jones, banned finally from social-media websites. But there is no bright line between old-time tabloid fodder and cloud-cuckoo conspiracy theories that denizens of the digital-media gutter propagate. Witness the recent resurgence of anti-Semitism from Paris to Pittsburgh, fueled by vile and vintage conspiracy calumny.
Some lies are laughable, but some can kill. The devil is in the details.
Dalton Delan is an accomplished American writer, editor, television producer and documentary filmmaker. His column is copyrighted by Berkshire Writers Group.