I have made a decision this semester to retire my long-running “Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracies in American History and Culture” course, at least for a while. My heart has been less and less in it since 9/11 and even more so since the start of Iraq War. Conspiracy theories and some real conspiracies obviously were involved in both of those events and their aftermaths, but they also make me too sad and angry to adopt the bemused, frankly 1990s-based perspective that the course really requires.
The students in it also seem to have changed, or at least the times have changed around them. I spend 98% of the lecture time debunking conspiracy theories or analyzing them as historical texts, but increasingly I have come to feel that students are taking it for all the wrong reasons: sometimes because they want to believe in conspiracy theories themselves, but more often because they want American history and culture to be a kind of pop-culture lark they can use to while away some spring afternoons.
It’s the same sort of fundamental un-seriousness that is wrecking our current political process. Did I mention that my class is generally full of seniors and juniors from MU’s journalism school, which I am told is very highly regarded and certainly seems to find media jobs for most of its graduates?
Via a reader blog at Talking Points Memo, I just found one of the better summary descriptions of this un-serious attitude and its consequences for the presidential race. The piece comes from a local columnist in Terre Haute, Indiana. Terre Haute is not much of a place to look at or try to find a place to have dinner in, but it did help bring the world Eugene Debs and Larry Bird, so it has a certain tradition. The column is posted in full below, some after the jump.
TERRE HAUTE — A friend who teaches in public school here in Indiana was appalled not long ago when an e-mail from a colleague went out to everyone in the school’s cyber-address book.
The subject of the e-mail was Barack Obama and how he is “secretly” a radical Muslim bent on destroying the United States from within. A widely circulated pack of lies — e.g., he took the oath of office holding a Koran — the e-mail boasts that its contents are verifiable on the legitimate myth buster, snopes.com, which is the opposite of true.
At least my teacher friend’s colleague didn’t send out one of the popular e-mails that insist Obama shows all the signs of being the antichrist.
I wish I could say I was kidding, but I can’t. I live in the United States of America — a country in which most people are alleged to be literate — and I am about to participate in a historic presidential primary. But I am starting to wonder if some of my fellow citizens have a grasp on reality, let alone the issues.
A jihadist? The antichrist? Oh, for God’s sake.
Before anyone is tempted to play the region card, don’t. Indiana has no exclusive claim to people who are spending time this spring telling one another that Obama is a jihadist and/or the antichrist. Google offers about 2.25 million hits on the latter subject. (Mercifully, renunciations are part of the volume.)
The hearty existence of these and similar crusades points up a reality of contemporary American life: We are divided between the people who are inclined toward conspiracies, superstition, black-and-white explanations, pigeon holes and cheap sentimentality masquerading as “patriotism” — and the people who are not so inclined.
While many of those with an aversion to investigation and critical thought processes identify themselves as “conservatives,” there are liberal conspiracy theorists aplenty to demonstrate that twisted thinking is an equal opportunity affliction.
To see lefty conspiracies on display, one only need read the wild and crazy ideas about why a HuffingtonPost blogger shared her personal impressions of the Obama fundraiser in San Francisco, now known as “Bittergate.” The most popular: Hillary Clinton secretly paid her to do it.
Even among people who don’t buy Trilateral Commission plots, there is a decided intellectual shallowness in fashion this year. Across the land, from the blogosphere to the town hall meeting, too many axes are grinding and too many enemy camps are hunkered down. Among people of both major parties and many minor ones, 30-minute policy statements have been freeze-dried into four-word catch phrases, and complex humans have been reduced to cut-out characters who wear halos or horns.
Last month, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York columnist actually cited leftover waffles and french fries as evidence of Obama’s inability to connect strongly enough with voters to vanquish Clinton from the Democratic race.
In the same essay, the columnist referred to Clinton’s continued quest of the nomination as “the Attack of the 50 Foot Woman” and called her criticisms of Obama “emasculating.”
Half-eaten waffles, sci-fi movie characters and sexist stereotypes? Is everything, including a presidential race, just another variation on Simon Cowell or the “Left Behind” series?
Eight years ago, millions of voters chose as president a former boozer who “seems like he’d be fun to have a beer with.” Didn’t we learn anything about the dangers of superficiality from this reversal of style over substance?
What in the world has happened to our B.S. detectors? We can’t find enough obvious differences among presidential candidates that we must resort to misogynistic name calling and invisible ties to al Qaida or Satan?
Why can’t we just use what is before our very own eyes?