Friday, August 7, 2009

the thread of denial

This June saw the 40th anniversary of the most spectacular, if not especially practical, achievements of government intervention: the visit of mankind to the moon.

On the precipice of this anniversary, the New York Times chronicled how
polling consistently suggests that some 6 percent of Americans believe the landings were faked and could not have happened.
This isn't just suspicion of a Cold War hoax; in the logic of those who believe the moon landings never happened, the whole endeavor quickly becomes shrouded under the rubric of "conspiracy" -- a more sinister, far-reaching crime.

There is a very strong resistance in this country to received wisdom from those in authority, because Americans are trained (by those in authority) to think they are skeptical of a concentration of power -- when, of course, the very opposite is true.

The common narrative is that Americans are an independent, rebellious, trailblazing lot who use their own moral compass to chart their individual course. Born out of a cauldron of resistance to a monarch to found a republic that glorified the freedom of the individual, Americans are self-made, resist cast-based societies, and live in an orgy of equality.

Naturally, Americans don't believe something simply because Someone Told Them It Was So. (Especially if that Someone is with the government.) And, naturally, the following events of the past ten years are sources of extreme skepticism on the part of Government-leery, free-thinking, individual-worshipping Americans:
  1. the suspension of habeaus corpus,
  2. voluntary erosion of privacy rights,
  3. the endemic use of excessive force on the part of police departments nationwide (taser fever)
Not quite.

Instead, Americans seek out the threat of a too-powerful government in an X-files like attempt to fake a lunar landing. This isn't limited to events of the 20th century -- the explosive popularity of Dan Brown's best-selling "The DaVinci Code" shows how this country is fascinated with the idea of secreted knowledge -- knowledge that's powerful enough to kill for. It's a fascinating dichotomy for a nation, many of whose inhabitants believe the Earth was created 6,000 years ago. We love knowledge, but shy away from the evidence that forms its foundation. We like knowledge when it's a plot device, not when it's a tool.

Those who deny the lunar landing, who believe Jesus married Mary Magdalene, who examine the ballistics of JFK's assassination ad nauseum, who think the current President of the United States is some kind of one-man Kenyan sleeper cell, these people all share a common trait: a cowardice to confront the present.

The most popular American conspiracy theories have to do with past events -- historical facts that cannot be altered. You can dicker as much as you like about who shot JFK, whether the flag planted on the Moon waves in some incongruous air current, or whether Barack Obama's third cousin twice removed saw him born in a Kenyan hut. Those things wont affect the life you live now, because you can't change the past. The all-powerful shadow state has drawn the wool over everyone else's eyes, but not yours, and you're going to use this knowledge to ... do what, exactly?

The difference, of course, is that if you're worried about events in the here and now, things you can actually take action on -- like, say, the continual erosion of miranda rights -- you would have to actually do something. That's not really what conspiracy theorists are all about. The fantasy of an all-powerful state that re-writes history justifies a do-nothing present: you're powerless in the face of such power, so why resist?

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