We’re all conspiracy theorists now

Brits are closer to those Rocky Mountain nutters than we like to admit.

Hugo Rifkind

Topics Politics

A few wild, unconnected, sweeping assertions. Ready? Here goes….

The moon landings were faked. Elvis lives. Aliens frequently abduct lardy farmers from the US Midwest. Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed were killed by MI5. And behind it all, the world is secretly run by Japanese businessmen, Jews, or giant blood-drinking lizards from outer space.

Oh, and one more. There have been no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq for quite some time, and the British and American governments never really thought there were.

Only a few wild, bearded nutters in the Rocky Mountains (and possibly Tam Dalyell) believe all of the above. Despite having heard a suspiciously authentic voice crooning ‘You ain’t g’nothing but a hound dawg’ from the kitchens of my local kebab shop last night, I myself believe only one. Can you guess which?

According to a YouGov opinion poll published yesterday, I’m not alone. Sixty-three per cent of us in Britain believe that the government deliberately misled us about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That’s almost two-thirds. Two thirds of the British population believe that the British government took them into a war, a real war in which lives were lost, for reasons that weren’t true. This is big stuff. This is the plot of an Oliver Stone movie. This is Tom Clancy gone wrong. It’s huge.

Although it has to be nonsense, doesn’t it? Surely this is conspiracy theory guff, like the aliens and the farmers, like the gunman on the grassy knoll. Governments aren’t really shadowy organisations that keep things from us, are they? Not in the real world, surely.

But then, somewhere between the assertion that lizards rule the world and the assertion that Blair lied, are a series of other assertions, little ones that we don’t know whether to believe or not. Such as the assertion that the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch was sheer propaganda, stage-managed by the USA.

Or that the bunker-busting bomb widely reported to have nearly killed Saddam in the early stages of the Iraq war didn’t actually land on a bunker at all. Or that the soldiers that Tony Blair claimed had been executed by evil Iraqis actually died in combat, or that a key intelligence document published back in March was cut and pasted from a 12-year-old PhD thesis, or that the entire war was fought to advance the prospects of a small cabal of US oil interests, all with close ties to the White House.

Are these things true? Frankly, it’s almost irrelevant. Some probably are, and some probably aren’t. But plenty of people, who don’t live in the Rocky Mountains, and don’t have beards (and, for that matter, aren’t Tam Dalyell), believe all of them. The perceived truth of any one lends credence to all the others, and slowly chips away at who we believe and when. Somehow it has become taken for granted that our government, and those of our allies, will lie to us if they possibly can. Whether or not they actually do isn’t really the point. We’re all conspiracy theorists now. Why?

Perhaps we can blame our increasing allegiance to America. As any student of Hollywood will tell you, US government organisations are scary things. They’ve led Mulder and Scully on a merry dance for years and they don’t give Felix Leiter anything like the autonomy we allow James Bond.

Fact, fiction, who cares? US authorities were happy to blur the distinction with ‘Saving Private Jessica’. In the land of Roswell and Waco and Freedom fries, is there really a difference anymore?

And the USA is, of course, the home of the conspiracy theory. Regardless of the Top Gunnish displays of patriotism that have set the agenda for the past couple of years, much popular US culture (Stone’s JFK, Fox’s X-Files, Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men) portrays authority as something rather terrifying. Long ago we absorbed US values; recently we’ve begun to adopt their battles and worldview. Is it any surprise we’ve begun to absorb their domestic paranoia too?

Or perhaps the blame lies closer to home, with New Labour. Back in 1997 there was a general consensus that Tories were devious scaly creatures with forked tongues who shot Irishmen and sank Belgranos with wild and merry abandon. In comparison to this, New Labour’s spin was initially almost refreshing – whether they meant it or not, at least they knew what they were meant to be saying. But over time, spin’s little lies have become more sinister, perhaps because they now make us suspect that there are bigger lies we are missing.

We are closer to the nutters in the Rockies than we like to admit. For right or wrong, we now take it for granted that far more happens in our name than we can ever know. Think about it – even George Galloway sounds less mad than he used to. And perversely, the more suspicious we are of our rulers, the more they can get away with. The public becomes like the boy who cried wolf, making such a fuss about the improbable that real issues are drowned out in the babble.

Of course, as it turned out, the boy who cried wolf was eventually right to. Who says we are paranoid? Maybe we assume we are being lied to because, most of the time, we actually are being lied to. Maybe we aren’t being crazy at all. Now isn’t that a comforting thought?

Hugo Rifkind is a freelance journalist. He writes regularly for The Times (London) and the Glasgow Herald.

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Topics Politics


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