[Americans sure can believe some cray cray things. That’s right, I said cray cray. In this week’s series, I’ll AmericanStudy five such conspiracy theories, past and present. Please share your own conspiracy theories—ones you believe, or just ones you find interesting and worth studying—for a suspicious weekend post!]
On a conspiracy theory that foreshadowed much of our contemporary moment.
I can remember distinctly the early 1990s moment when a sticker of a black helicopter suddenly appeared on the back of a stop sign in my Charlottesville neighborhood (one that I passed on my daily early morning jogs with my Mom, helping emblazon the visual in my memory). I wasn’t quite politically savvy enough yet to wrap my head around all that was going on, but I did connect the image of the black helicopter to broader paranoia about both a growing and threatening federal government and the “takeover” of the U.S. by international bodies like the United Nations, as well as to the role that such narratives played in Oliver North’s 1994 Senate campaign. And it was another product of the 1994 midterms, newly elected Idaho Representative Helen Chenoweth, who brought the black helicopters to truly national prominence, in a New York Times interview in which she admitted that she hadn’t seen any of the vehicles herself but still credited the fears of them expressed by her rancher constituents.
You would think that two decades without a UN takeover or the launching of a New World Order would have rendered this particular conspiracy theory—one based not on alternative narratives of the past, as have been my others this week, but on dire predictions about the future—less compelling. But if anything, I would argue the opposite: that the black helicopter theory itself predicted a great deal about where we are in 2014. Take, for example, two of the far too widely shared extremist theories about President Barack Obama: that he is a secret Muslim, intent on bringing Sharia law or the like to the US; or that he is the puppet of global internationalists like that boogeyman George Soros, intent on submitting the US to the will of (once again) the New World Order. Many commentators have attributed the striking breadth of belief in such nonsensical theories to racism, and certainly that has played a role as it has in all extremist perspectives on Obama; but the truth is that lots of Americans were primed to believe these theories for decades by the black helicopter narratives and their ilk.
The contemporary preponderance of such conspiracy theories reflects and amplifies an even bigger problem, however. Conspiracy theories have always been about a lack of faith in experts and evidence, indeed a willingness to see those experts and evidence as intentionally and deviously false and falsified, designed to trick us and demanding our skepticism and distrust as a result. According to an April 2013 Public Policy Polling (PPP) nationwide survey on conspiracy theories, 37% of American voters—and 58% of Republican voters, and 61% of those who voted for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election—believe global warming to be a hoax. Such a belief brings together many different threads of the black helicopters narrative and of conspiracy theories more broadly: that rejection of experts and evidence, in favor of theories which see them as part of the problem; a profound distrust of both the government and international organizations; and a willingness to reject the most straightforward and simple explanations for events and realities in favor of the most outlandish and contrived narratives of conspiracy and collusion. The black helicopters might never have come, that is, but in some key and unfortunate ways they seem here to stay.
Last conspiracy theory tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other conspiracy theories you’d highlight?
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