It's tough to be a conspiracy nut these days, because the conspiratorial worldview has gone positively mainstream. Nobody's sure anymore who's a nut and who's not. So it is no accident that the best new TV show of the 1990s is The X Files.
The "files" of the title are a grab bag of unexplained phenomena tucked away in the basement of the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building in Washington, D.C. On a weekly basis, the "X" agents, Scully and Mulder, investigate Satanists, unknown life forms, corporate criminals, bovine growth hormone, and, especially, the ongoing cover-up of America's alien abduction epidemic. It is thrilling stuff, all dedicated, right there in the opening titles, to the proposition that "The Truth Is Out There."
The popularity of The X Files is telling. Perhaps it tells us that people from outer space really are snatching up our citizens and using them in a massive DNA experiment of some sort...with U.S. government collusion. Who knows? But I suspect the show also tells us something very earthbound about the state of our culture.
Conspiracy theories always flourish at the alienated extremes of the politico-cultural spectrum. In one zone of influence, which we still, for lack of better terms, call the Far Right, apparently reasonable people, and lots of them, are sincerely convinced that Vince Foster was murdered. Even further out on a limb is Rev. Jerry Falwell, who has set a new low in moral cynicism by peddling the notorious Clinton video series, which claims our president is a murderer and a dope dealer. Future installments may expose President Bill as a Satanist from outer space, and Falwell will probably sell those, too.
Elsewhere in the universe, perhaps closer to the readers of this magazine, can be found people who are convinced that the AIDS virus was created by U.S. biological warfare experiments. Within that camp opinion divides between those who think the virus was released into the population by a covered-up accident, and others who are convinced that it is part of a deliberate program of genocide. The target of the genocide is claimed to be either gays or African Americans, or both, in various versions of the theory.
In fundamentalist and feminist circles alike, you can find people who believe there is a vast network of Satanic cults in America, and that it includes many powerful people. These Satanists are supposed to practice sexually abusive rituals upon innocent children, and they have become a mainstay in the psychotherapeutic world of recovered memories.
Meanwhile, in our nation's capital, some otherwise sane persons are convinced that the District of Columbia's financial fiasco is the result of something far more sinister than mere incompetence and bad planning. In the D.C. conspiracy theory, everything is part of "The Plan" by which anonymous white power brokers are plotting to somehow "take back" the black city.
EVERYBODY HAS a theory today, and who's to say? Twenty-five years ago people who said the CIA was flying opium out of Laos were called irresponsible fruitcakes. But the fruitcakes were right. Not long ago most mainstream commentators, even the liberal ones, would have said you were nuts to claim that the CIA was not only aiding and abetting, but actually funding, the Guatemalan military and its "final solution" of the Maya problem. But now we know.
Filmmaker Oliver Stone was the latest American to take media heat and vilification for claiming the CIA was involved in killing John Kennedy. But now University of Maryland historian John Newman has unearthed declassified government documents that suggest that CIA officers, at the highest levels, knew what Oswald was up to in Mexico in the weeks before the assassination and deliberately withheld information about him from the FBI. This is all in documents dated before November 22, 1963.
(By the way, when Sen. Arlen Specter announced as a presidential candidate, did anybody else notice that his service on the Warren Commission staff was conveniently missing from newspaper summaries of his career?)
My personal theory involves the meteoric rise of Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress. Deep in my heart I am convinced that, somewhere in the recent transfer of federal power, a major sellout on future communications regulation for the benefit of the biggest info-comm corporations took place. Those meetings with Rupert Murdoch were part of the picture, and so was the $4.5 million book deal. Why do you think Newt backed off of it so quickly? And there was another secret confab with several communications CEOs back in January. It turned up in an obscure one-sentence reference in the back pages of one of those Newt-gushing articles in The Washington Post.
Something smells. My guess is that our much-vaunted Information Highway is going to end up as a "for-profit only" corporate-national-security-network that will combine the worst aspects of Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451. And the fix is already in.
This is just a theory, you understand. The mere rantings of a madman, perhaps. But it does make you wonder, doesn't it? The truth is out there. Maybe way, way out there.
DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM is a free-lance writer living in Alexandria, Virginia. His column's recent return is a positive indication of his soon-to-be-completed book project. (Watch for future plugs.)