It’s a Conspiracy

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Thanks to interactive digital technology, it is now possible to appraise social attitudes and moods without having to conduct formal surveys or interviews. In fact, because of the combined effects of online anonymity and keyboard courage, the information we can gather simply by reading the comments appended to Internet news stories is likely to be more honest—if far more uncivil—than anything we could find through direct conversation. And since what happens in popular culture reflects to a significant degree the social ambience in which it appears, it’s useful to keep abreast of the online commentary wars when preparing to perform a cultural semiotic analysis. What has particularly caught my eye recently (I mean beyond the ubiquitous signs that the racial situation in this country is, to say the very least, fraught) is the inevitable response to every news story reporting on a Republican primary in which Ron Paul has failed to win another ballot. Even when Paul comes in at 5 to 7 percent of the vote, a number of people are bound to insist that he had obviously won the vote in a landslide and that once again the ballot had been tampered with by a ubiquitous double team of the Republican “oligarchy” and the “liberal media.” In short, the claim is consistently made that there is a conspiracy against Ron Paul. It is not my purpose here to discuss the candidacy of Ron Paul or his supporters. Rather, it is the prominent place that conspiracy theories hold in contemporary American culture. It isn’t that conspiracy theories are anything new—after all, the witch hunts of the McCarthyite 1950s were based on a conviction that there was a Communist conspiracy to take over the country—but that there is something different about today’s conspiracy theorists. And it is the difference within a semiotic system that indicates something significant. The difference lies in the lack of any clear ideology at work. When Bob Dylan could skewer the John Birch Society in his “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues,” conspiracy theory was a conspicuous possession of the far right. Whether it was Communists in the pantry or forged documents purporting an international cabal of “the Elders of Zion,” conspiracy theorists tended to be right-wing extremists. But while right-wing extremists continue to inhabit the house of the rising conspiracy (they still haven’t given up on “the New World Order” and its “black helicopters”), it is the ideologically incoherent conspiracy buffs who are the more apparent in popular culture—from the people who continue to scour the Mona Lisa for “clues,” to the “moon landing hoax” warriors who appear to spend their lives poring over every possible artifact of the Apollo era looking for “proof” that the United States never landed anyone on the moon. I used to assume that the moon landing hoax rumor began in some sort of Soviet era disinformation campaign, but I was wrong. Like the Roswell conspiracy confraternity, the lunar hoax crowd does not appear to hold any particular left-wing or anti-American ideology. Just as significantly, while traditional conspiracy theories constitute a kind of fun-house mirror-image distortion of religious convictions that nothing happens in human history without some sort of guiding hand behind it, the lunar hoax theorists are out to prove that something didn’t happen, not that what did happen had a malign intent behind it. Searching for an abductive (that is, most likely) solution to the significance of the new conspiracy theory regime, I find a common ground in a shared distrust of, and opposition to, all forms of official authority and power. With its origins in the disillusionments of the Vietnam War era, this is a ground that can be shared by the Left, the Right, and the ideologically uncommitted alike. Add to this the fact that in the Information Age it is enormously easier for people to gain access to information that indeed can, at least at times, reveal the ways in which official power really can lie to us and cover its tracks (the fact that Colin Powell eventually went public with what he really knew about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction sure hasn’t done official authority any good recently, not to mention Wikileaks) and you have a recipe for mistrust and paranoia: fertile ground for the conspiracy theorist.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.