Friday, November 4, 2011

Conspiracy Theories & Occult Knowledge

Another unsellable article.

X-Files As a Model for Truth
I treadmill every day, and to keep boredom from completely taking over, I watch various old TV series.   I just finished the original Star Trek series; I am now starting The X Files.  I really enjoy X-Files; it is brilliantly creative and clever—but the whole elaborate government conspiracy motif is just a bit much.  

The 9/11 Truther movement is perhaps the most pathetically sad expression of this government conspiracy model of knowledge.  I sometimes wonder if 9/11 Trutherism’s widespread support among a younger generation might be a symptom of growing up watching X-Files—where just about every episode involves a government conspiracy to suppress knowledge.  Elaborate, long lasting conspiracies require considerable intelligence to keep them secret; stupidity is so much more common than intelligence.  

The new film Anonymous is mass marketing what could be considered the nineteenth century’s 9/11 Truther movement: the claim that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare’s plays.  James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (2010) traces the history of this conspiracy, which at its core comes down to a refusal to believe that the greatest playwright in the history of English (and perhaps the world) come have come from humble origins, and therefore concludes that Shakespeare’s plays and poems must be the work of someone of high status, such as Sir Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford.  

A British friend had very humble origins.  He grew up in a Glasgow apartment that did not have indoor plumbing.  He sees this refusal to admit that a glover’s son could be capable of such greatness as an expression of upper class snobbery.  You don’t have to go very far to see this same snobbery today.  Whatever Sarah Palin’s merits and weaknesses as a politician, the continual derision of her as “Caribou Barbie” and her family as “snowbillies” really tells you what her core problem is: she isn’t from the right class of people, and therefore can’t be taken seriously.

I am inclined to think there is another explanation for the “Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare” theory, and many other conspiracy theories that come in and out of vogue (Illuminati; Trilateralists; Skull & Bones; 9/11 Truther; we never went to the Moon): the desire to have occult (in the sense of secret) knowledge that others are just not smart enough to believe or appreciate.  Perhaps because I teach college students, I tend to hear a lot of these bizarre theories; it is an age when self-esteem is often in short supply, and is there anything that more shores that up than to have knowledge that others lack?  Of course, most people outgrow that self-esteem shortage as they develop abilities that give one a sense of self-worth—but not everyone does.

Along with the youthful self-esteem problem there is another problem: the arrogance that comes from being a member of the elite.  As Shapiro’s Contested Will explains, quite a number of prominent intellectuals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century bought into Delia Bacon’s claims that her distant relative Sir Francis Bacon actually wrote Shakespeare: Nathaniel Hawthorne; Mark Twain; Sigmund Freud; Helen Keller.  Being a member of the elite does not eliminate the need to bolster one’s self-esteem by holding secret knowledge.  It may even increase the need to hold views that are out of the mainstream just to prove that you are not one of the unwashed masses.  I sometimes wonder how much of the fierce atheism of America’s intellectual classes represents a real disbelief, and how much is simply a way of distancing themselves from the masses who still fancy themselves Christians.

This need to draw a bright line of distinction between oneself and the masses often leads to tragic errors.  Randal Keynes’ Darwin, His Daughter & Human Evolution (2001) tells the illuminating story of how the death of Charles Darwin’s daughter Annie seems to have pushed him over the edge into publishing his Origin of Species.  Darwin knew full well that publishing it would be perceived as an attack on religion.  While Darwin was almost certainly already an atheist before Annie died, her death seems to have increased Darwin’s willingness to launch what some of his colleagues hoped would be the nails in Christianity’s coffin.  Annie was precious to Darwin; it is easy to read into this book by his great-great-grandson that Darwin desired to spread his grief.  Annie was dead, and Darwin had no hope; Darwin’s book would similarly kill God for others, and take away their hope.

Darwin had health problems throughout his life, and at some point became a devotee of “hydrotherapy,” an unconventional treatment that was all the rage among prominent freethinking intellectuals in the 1840s and 1850s.  It failed to cure Annie Darwin, and it is hard to read Keynes’ book and see that it did much for Darwin.  Nonetheless, Darwin’s faith in hydrotherapy continued.  Along with his fellow freethinking intellectuals, adherence to hydrotherapy, instead of the more conventional medical treatments, certainly made Darwin different from the hoi polloi.

I do my very best to persuade my students that they should not believe everything that an authority figure tells them, simply because they are an authority figure.  I also tell them that they need to keep in mind Occam’s razor: the simplest explanation, the one that does not require unnecessarily adding assumptions, is most likely the truth.  Sometimes that is not the case, but before you construct a complex, conspiracy theory explanation, look for something a bit simpler.   Conspiracy theories, whether in politics, science, or literature, are almost always wrong.
Clayton E. Cramer teaches history at College of Western Idaho, and works as a software engineer for the State of Idaho.

1 comment:

  1. "... the desire to have occult (in the sense of secret) knowledge that others are just not smart enough to believe or appreciate. "

    This is my belief too for the popularity of conspiracy theories. I no longer believe that the old pop psych theory of people needing to explain away randomness works as well as this one.

    The Conspiracy Theorist convinces himself that he knows something you don't, and therefore boosts his self-esteem.