Sometimes, you read something and it rings so completely true that you can’t comprehend a better way to say it. That’s what I thought when I read a snippet on conspiracies attributed to Alan Moore, an English comic book writer whose work includes series like “Watchmen” and “V for Vendetta.”
Here it is: “The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory is that conspiracy theorists actually believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is chaotic. The truth is, that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy or the grey aliens or the 12-foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control. The truth is more frightening: nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.”
I’ve touched on this before: I started working in the media in 1984, and ever since then, I’ve regularly heard from people who were victims of large, organized conspiracies.
Sometimes, they phone the various newsrooms I’ve worked at.
Sometimes, they simply show up at the front desk.
They are utterly convinced and often, as a result, are utterly convincing.
Until you start trying to actually connect the dots they’re offering.
And that’s where the wheels start falling off.
Well, perhaps for the same reason that a whole host of government programs and plans regularly fall off the rails: because they have to be implemented by that most imperfect of things. Humans.
We make mistakes, we gossip, we talk to family members about our work and they talk to other family members, and news spreads.
Hermetically sealed, secret-order brain trusts are not the everyday currency of the human experience, although they might be common in Alan Moore’s graphica world.
That doesn’t stop us from believing that there might be some great secret scheme at work, though.
There was, for years, a prominent Newfoundlander who would chew your ear off with the argument that the referendum that saw Newfoundland join Canada was rigged, and central to his argument was the “fact” that — get this — the complete lack of evidence of such rigging was conclusive proof of the extent of the conspiracy. There’s a brain-twister. (Try it in court: “We have no evidence whatsoever that Mr. Smith robbed the store, your Honour, but that’s proof of what kind of a master criminal he actually is.”)
The basic logic flaw at its core doesn’t stop people from building elaborate constructs, just the same.
Now, people will point to almost anything as proof that massive conspiracies exist: take the ill-fated Sprung greenhouse or the collapse of the northern cod stocks or the constituency allowance scandal.
Sprung wasn’t a conspiracy — it was a stupid mistake followed by the kind of face-saving, arse-
covering foolishness that powerful people resort to when their big ideas turn out to be costly flops.
The collapse of northern cod?
Complex and chaotic for sure, but at the centre, a crisis of misguided intentions.
Given a range of possible total allowable catches by scientists, successive federal fisheries ministers chose the best-case scenario for fish stocks every time, trying to have the least-possible effect on voters — and, in the process, essentially doubling down on every bet until they lost the whole shooting match, as they were guaranteed to eventually do.
Add to that the volume of illegal, unregistered catches by both local and foreign fleets, and the grand conspiracy looks more like the straightforward math problem 10 minus 10 equals zero.
The constituency allowance scandal?
Well, it was more about greed than it was ever about running an effective conspiracy: greedy people helped themselves to a wide-open cookie jar and had to have known that they would eventually get caught.
If it actually had been a master plan of some kind, those involved could have done a much better job of hiding some of the clumsiest legislative thefts ever attempted in this province.
If the constituency scandal proves anything, it proves the democratic system can elect some real dopes.
Almost every major scandal I’ve ever worked on, from Mount Cashel on down, has been exactly the same: unwilling to back down from or admit to a mistake, powerful people have compounded that mistake by digging their heels in and building a house of cards on a broken foundation.
The only thing that kept them from knowing that they’d be caught was their own flawed belief in their power to control the chaos that surrounds us.
Moore is right: fearing a massive, well-ordered conspiracy is just a more comfortable belief system than the painful idea that something might just be in the right place at the wrong time.
It’s hard to accept chaos as a driving force; we all like to believe that our lives are more important than a coin-toss in an uncaring cosmos.
You might go so far as to ask if our own need for personal importance drives our creation of, and belief in, the unseen workings of systems like organized religion — but that might be a topic for another day.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. Email email@example.com.