Why do Americans love conspiracy theories? Blame the government!
It often seems like we're living in the golden age of wild-eyed conspiracy theories. Sandy Hook was a hoax. George W. Bush was behind 9/11. Barack Obama's birth certificate is a forgery. And on and on. All bafflingly bonkers, all false — and all troublingly persistent.
Then again, in America, it's always a golden age for wild-eyed conspiracy theories. As Jesse Walker convincingly showed in The United States of Paranoia, freaking out over imagineered shadowy plots is one of our most durably American habits.
But before we pile on the tinfoil hat brigade, let's acknowledge an unintentional downside of mainstream America's tendency to scoffingly brush the crazies aside: Doing so often means the pendulum swings very swiftly from "lizard people run the world" to "just trust the government, you rubes."
Consider Sy Hersh's latest conspiratorial report. In a lengthy narrative at the London Review of Books, Hersh claims to lay bare the truth about how Osama bin Laden was found and killed. It's a doozy, implicating the Pakistanis and Saudis in a web of deceit and secrets broken only by a so-called "walk-in" informant. And that's just the beginning.
The instant the story broke, respectable journalism gave Hersh the tongue-lashing to which he is now so accustomed — and in no small part because of his relatively thin and cloaked sourcing. But it's time to acknowledge that Hersh's slow dance with fabulism isn't the issue that should vex us most. Far more relevant to our lives is the problem with our own government. Even though some of the most respectable among us really don't trust it, we feel forced by circumstance to pretend like we do. It's hard not to see Hersh's critics — right or not — as definitively siding against him and with the U.S. government.
The government is so big and powerful, and its missions are so complex and scary, that, in a way, we're best off not knowing the truth. Few people would say these things out loud. But more of us think that way more than we'd like to admit. We're on a need-to-know basis, and we don't need to know. Those of us who don't feel this way flee in the other direction: Their imaginations run wild, thanks to the void of information created by the government's famously over-the-top approach to classifying everything and releasing blank or fully redacted reams of disclosures.
It's easy to brush aside the fever dreams that emerge from that frustrated corner of our crazy national psyche. But it's criminal to ignore the grand federal failures hiding in plain sight. The conspiracies we spin are harrowing, but the reality is harrowing, too! Across two administrations, two political parties, and a decade and a half, Washington's actions since 9/11 have been a horror house of incompetence, ineptitude, reactivity, and bad judgment. And not only does our government have a national security interest in covering up the bad things it does well. It has a powerful institutional interest in drawing our attention away from just how badly it has tried to do good things.
So instead of grappling with our failure to empower the Syrian rebels, our debate over Benghazi veers from the ridiculous to the banal. Instead of interrogating the grand strategies that led to bin Laden's stay in Abbottabad, or to the massive "Jade Helm" special forces exercise stretching across seven Southwestern states, we choose between cynical complacency on the one hand and conspiratorial despair on the other.
Pulled between these two unhealthy extremes, no wonder we're such a mess. But that's what happens when the government allows us to feel like we're stuck in a world where we don't have the luxury of openness and trust.
For many, that's a recipe for ever-wilder conspiracy theories. As for the rest of us: We're being conditioned to grow ever more passive, and ever more certain that politics means perpetuating the same kind of vast indifference to our insignificant selves that we increasingly attribute to the whole universe.