November 4, 2018

Outguessing the Conspiracists


Conspiracies are as old as human language, but in the present century something has changed. There were hints of it in the air in the minutes after the twin towers pancaked neatly downward into themselves seventeen years ago, but it remained lurking around the shadowy edges of the Internet. Since the 2016 presidential campaign, however, conspiracy theories—even the downright zoot-crazy kind—have not only thoroughly infiltrated mainstream American discourse, they’ve become reflexive. The minute a story breaks, a conspiracy surrounding that story is hot on its heels. It’s like we can’t help ourselves. Scan through the headlines of even the blandest news outlet on any given day, and you’re going to encounter something about a nutty theory claiming to explain what really lay behind, y’know, a real story. I guess that’s what you get when you have a president who can’t seem to open his mouth without spouting conspiratorial gibberish.

            This conspiratorial reflex is something I’ve come to really admire, because it takes some doing. It requires a finely honed dose of what I’ve always liked to call creative paranoia, that is, the ability to piece together any number of wildly disparate elements into a cohesive and sinister story about the nefarious forces behind what we see reported on CNN or in the pages of the Washington Post. It’s something I used to play around with when I was writing the novels, seeing if I could come up with a way of drawing plausibly nutty connections between, say, whale migration, space stations, New York real estate, earthquakes, a radioactive corpse, Alaska, plumbing fixtures and Godzilla. Yup, I thought I was one clever Joe, that’s for sure, though I had to admit my inspiration came directly from Mr. Pynchon and Robert Anton Wilson. Paranoid thinking always seemed to come naturally to me for some reason, redoubled by a youthful obsession with JFK, The Montauk Project and the standard laundry list of American conspiracy theories, which I like to think of as our modern folk tales. I didn’t necessarily believe all of them, but I appreciated the fact they pointed up that we shouldn’t accept at face value what we were told by history books, official reports, or the media.

            Exactly why conspiracies have taken such hold in the American consciousness, and why more and more people are believing them, has been repeatedly and thoroughly documented in pretty much every mainstream outlet you can think of, so there’s no point in getting into all that here, let alone pondering what it all might “mean.”

            In recent months I’ve had to tip my hat to a true master of the form, Alex Jones. Jones had been on my radar since the days after the WTC came down (he being among the first to proclaim the “inside job” theory). I even modeled a character in one of the novels after him. Yes, he’s completely mad and seems to be using a little too much speed, and yes, he latched onto the Trump group out of simple career expediency, but he’s a creative paranoid par excellence.

            As I began piecing together this new class I am supposedly going to begin teaching in January, and as the frenzy of new conspiracies swirl faster and faster across the web and in the mainstream media, I started, quite unconsciously at first, playing a little game.

            Whenever a news story broke, I wanted to see if I could beat Jones and the other professional and armchair conspiracists to the punch, to guess what stories they were going to be spreading in the coming days on Infowars and The Drudge Report. Turns out it wasn’t that hard. The trick was this: Whenever a big story breaks, there’s such a mad rush to be the first to get the facts out there that mistakes are going to be made. This is why, I’ve found, it’s always best to wait a day or two before I take a story seriously. It takes that long for things to settle down and coalesce (or for what Jones would call the elite or the Deep State to come up with the acceptable cover story we’re all expected to swallow). Creating a conspiracy involves grabbing things out of those early erroneous accounts, looking for things that hadn’t been reported yet, pulling out this or that which didn’t seem to add up, and running with it. Get the conspiracy out there before all the facts are in, and you’re all set. Even after the accepted story takes shape, the conspiracy has a life of its own, with True Believers adding their own details along the way via Twitter or Facebook posts.

            When the first (supposed!) pipe bomb showed up at liberal billionaire George Soros’s Westchester estate on October twenty-second, I figured there would be more mail bombs directed at the usual suspects: Hillary Clinton, Obama, and the like. As soon as those started showing up, the conspiracists would be all over it like ants on a birthday cake, claiming it was a false flag maneuver (a Jones trademark), that the Dems were sending the (supposed!) bombs to themselves to demonize the Right, win sympathy for the Left, and draw attention away from the (Soros-bankrolled) Honduran caravan. What’s more, the corrupt news media would push the narrative that the pipe bomb attacks on the Dems were inspired by Trump.

            Well, within twenty-four hours my guess was proven right, and the conspiracy spread so wildly that the New York Times, CNN and the Washington Post were all forced to run long pieces debunking the “false flag” idea. Not that any of the people who were disseminating it would believe a thing they saw in the Times, CNN or the Post.

            On Friday of that week, even before the last of the mail bombs had been discovered, when law-enforcement officials picked up Cesar Sayoc Jr. in Florida, and it was discovered he was driving a white van covered with pro-trump and anti-liberal media bumper stickers, it was all too easy. The poor sap was clearly nothing but a patsy, obviously modeled to keep the “Trump inspires violence” story alive. I mean, that van was all too perfect, wasn’t it?

            Two hours later, Infowars ran with that exact story.

            Christ, this was all easier than I thought.

            A day after that, when reports started coming out that someone was shooting up a synagogue in Pittsburgh, I had to wait a second. Yes, there would most definitely be a conspiracy there, but I couldn’t guess how it would shape up until I heard a description of the suspect. If it turned out he was Muslim, then the right-wing conspiracists would accept it at face value, arguing it was more evidence of liberal weakness and justification for arming everyone in the face of this terrorist invasion. Left Wing conspiracists would claim it was all backed by Trump as a means of pulling the debate back to his side, drawing attention away from the pipe bombs, and making for a big GOP push in the final week and a half before the midterms.

            If, however, it turned out he was a rabid Anti-Semite and White Nationalist, the Right Wing kooks, so long as even they knew it would be foolish after Sandy Hook to claim it was all a hoax, would insist it was all part of the liberal agenda to smear the president however they could before the election.

            Well, turns out he was the latter, but with a twist, which threw me. Even before there was any evidence to support this, the minute it was reported he was a white guy screaming “All Jews must die,” Infowars reported that while, yes, he was an Anti-Semite, he didn’t like Trump. The story was posted on Drudge in and amongst links to breaking accounts from real news outlets, and was soon enough picked up and reported by everyone else.

            Still, where could Jones go with that? Claim he was another patsy paid off by Soros to push gun control? That was too easy.

            It seemed, for a minute there at least, Jones was as stymied as I was. But then when it came out the gunman, Bowers, was active on an alternative social media which catered to neo-Nazis, he had something akin to a hook, if not a full-blown conspiracy. Liberals, he claimed, were going to use it as an excuse to shut down alternative media sites, particularly Infowars, which they would claim was spreading violence and hate. (A number of his theories, I’ve noted, all boil down to how everyone’s out to get him, so I guess it makes sense.)

            Okay then, I can’t exactly claim I won that one. Let’s call it a draw, as the Infowars response was pretty tepid itself.

            In the few days before anything else major happens, I’m sketching out possible conspiratorial responses to the midterm results, however they turn out, which should be pretty funny.


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