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Vail Daily column: Jitters creates conspiracy theories

Jack Van Ens

We fret not knowing. Our minds don’t like being suspended between what’s mysterious and inexplicable. Dumbfounded, we get anxious. Some people concoct conspiracy theories to tie-up loose ends.

Forty years ago, during the Watergate scandal, a cynical tidal wave inundated the U.S. Mad magazine’s popularity rode this undertow of disgust. Subscriptions soared to 2.4 million per month as the magazine mocked, satirized and humiliated Watergate criminals.

Political correspondent Richard Reeves wrote about his son reading Mad magazine. It turned him into a “smart ass.” “The kid can spot sham piling up all around him,” wrote Reeves. Another parent confided about her daughter’s devotion to this cynical magazine, saying, “I think it made her secure in being skeptical. … It’s really a shortcut to a kind of sanity-preserving sophistication.”

When cynicism captures our minds, however, it leads to gullibility. We swallow conspiracy theories, which act like a sedative.

During the early 1940s, conservatives maligned President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for conniving to force the U.S. into World War II. They invented conspiracy theories, inferring that FDR goaded the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor.

Conspiracies also swirl around President Barack Obama. His foreign-sounding name suggests mischief, say conservative Republicans. They are suspicious of the president’s Kenyan father who attended college in the U.S. His university studies won him over to socialism, the story goes. Like father, like son, warn conservatives who conspire to impeach President Obama.

Moreover, conspiracy theorists question the president’s citizenship. They’re suspicious of his legal birth certificate on Aug. 4, 1961, in Honolulu, Hawaii. A 2010 Daily Kos poll reported 36 percent of Republicans swore Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. — goes to show his presidential election wasn’t constitutional.

Curiously, birthers aren’t concerned about Sen. Ted Cruz’s legitimacy as a presidential candidate. Like President Obama, Cruz’s father was born overseas. His mother is a natural-born citizen. Born in Cuba, Cruz’s father migrated to Canada, where his son was born.

Conspiracies metastasize like cancer. Once inflicted on the body politic, cells multiply. Repetition makes conspiracy theories grow. When in doubt about President Obama’s birthplace or FDR’s pre-war foreign policy toward Japan, fill in blank spaces, say political conservatives. Regard conspiracy theories as credible.

The Wall Street Journal essayist David Aaronovitch sums up why conspiracy theories gain credibility. “It is better to think that someone is in charge of everything than that the world is more often prey to accidents, madness and coincidence,” he writes. “That’s why movies are full of dastardly but brilliant plotters, and hardly anything happens by chance” (Wall Street Journal, “A Conspiracy-Theory Theory,” Dec. 19-20, 2009).

Conspiracy theorists spun a story about how FDR provoked the Japanese to attack. This fabrication has hung on for decades. The president slapped heavy economic embargoes on Japan, which reduced its imported oil and rubber. Then he lined up our fleet at dock in Pearl Harbor, making easy targets for Japanese squadrons.

Really? Does this cockeyed notion make sense?

Or, why not swallow another conspiracy the anti-Roosevelt Chicago Tribune spread that “explains” the U.S. military disaster at Pearl Harbor. This rabidly isolationist 1940s newspaper reported that British pilots, flying planes with Japan’s rising sun markings, staged the attack. FDR and Winston Churchill were in cahoots, causing infamy at Pearl Harbor.

This Anglo-American conspiracy is ludicrous of going to war to preserve the British Empire and grant the U.S. power over world affairs. But Tribune editors treated it as credible.

What do the facts about the Pearl Harbor attack reveal? “Never mind,” argues historian Robert Dallek, “that Roosevelt, a great Navy man, would never have exposed so much of the U.S. fleet to destruction had he known an attack was coming. Never mind that U.S. military and political leaders saw American forces in Pearl Harbor as a deterrent rather than a target, making it almost impossible for them to imagine a Japanese attack. Never mind that U.S. military and political leaders saw Japan as incapable of a strike against Pearl Harbor” (“Franklin Delano Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy: 1932-1945”).

Anxious people can’t stand not-knowing why events occur. Transfixed by doubt, they invent scenarios to fill in blanks caused by a perplexing historical script.

Being duped by conspiracy is as old as scripture. Jerusalem’s religious brass heard crazy reports from graveyard guards who couldn’t explain why Jesus’ body was missing from the tomb. Corpses tell no tales. So, religious officials filled in the blanks. The guards were instructed to lie, telling how “Jesus’ disciples came by night and stole him away while (the guards) were asleep” (Matthew 28:13).

Conspiracies take on a life of their own. Gullible people who crave answers twist faulty inferences into “facts.” Jumpy minds fall for what’s made-up.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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