I’ve written before about how 2011 has been a tumultuous year, the sort of year that seems to have been wracked with birth pangs as a new way of looking at the world emerges. 2011 isn’t the first time this has happened – look at 1914, 1939, 1968, 1989. And then there’s 1963, or more precisely November 22 1963.
For my generation it’s hard to appreciate the impact of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He and his family were already described in mythic terms – Camelot – and so the circumstances around his murder almost immediately got dragged into the darker shadows of American folklore. He wasn’t struck down by a lone assassin, oh no; his death was ordered by the CIA, or the Mafia, or Cuba, and involved everyone from Soviet sympathisers to Woody Harrelson’s dad. And this reversal of the fairytale gives the dragon, whatever its true form, almost infinite power, or at least power enough to strike down the noble young knight and keep it quiet for the best part of fifty years. Jack the Ripper, the Man On The Grassy Knoll, we’ll never know their true story and so they recede into the shadows and serve as fuel for a thousand conspiracies.
In many ways we’re living in a world that centres on Dealey Plaza. It’s easy to get people to believe in conspiracies – Obama wasn’t born in the US, vaccinations cause autism, mankind never went to the moon, all beliefs held by a significant number of people, some of them quite influential. And while those stories are rubbish, at other times it seems as though conspiracies unravel before our very eyes, confirming that we shouldn’t be daft enough to trust the powerful – look at the way the UK’s phone hacking scandal has implicated the media, the police and politicians. Sometimes conspiracy theories are true.
True or false though, that’s not the point. We’re living in a world that seems out of control and conspiracy theories allow us, should we so wish, to impose a narrative on events, to make them make sense. Of course the world economy’s in a mess, it’s because Obama is a secret muslim agent and the Queen is a lizard person.
(It’s also interesting how conspiracy theories often seem to have roots in racism – look at a few conspiracy sites and it’s not long before you encounter Holocaust denial, anti-semitism and xenophobia. Conspiracy theories are often code for something darker.)
There’s also a element of the conspiracy theory around the Occupy movement – “We are the 99%” gives almost mythic power to the 1% – before this phrase, the financiers who screwed up the world economy could be taken as individuals; call them the 1% and they may as well be the Illuminati.
And so, although I said it’s difficult for those of us born after 1963 to understand a world changed by Lee Harvey Oswald (or whoever), in many ways we’re living in its paranoia and cynicism every day – how many people were half expecting Obama to be shot within days of taking office? But paranoia and cynicism aren’t great guiding lights. Conspiracy theories may impose a narrative, but not one that tells us the dragon can be defeated. Conspiracy theories cast us as sheep, slaves or martyrs when really we’re crying out for heroes.
And so, next time you’re gathered around a campfire, and the tales turn to those extolling the power and immortality of monsters, stoke the flames, stand up tall and tell a better story.