Image via Flickr user Ralph Buckley
According to a poll released last week by Public Policy Polling, 4 percent of Americans—quotes are essential here—“believe shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining power.” That was the silliest bit of a survey of 1,200-odd adults on conspiracy theories that ranged from “Wait, didn’t that at least mostly happen?” (whether George W. Bush "intentionally misled the public about the possibility of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to promote the Iraq war") to half-baked ideas conceived by dorm-room stoners 40 years ago (“Do you believe Paul McCartney actually died in a car crash in 1966 and was secretly replaced by a lookalike so the Beatles could continue, or not?”).
These results were passed around the media to much amusement over the apparently stupid, partisan naïveté of Americans. But it’s really not as bad as the Atlantic Wire headline declaring that “12 million Americans Believe Lizard People Run Our Country” indicates. For one thing, as Reason’s Jesse Walker pointed out, it would be awfully tempting to troll any pollsters inquiring about your feelings towards Roswell, the Reptilians, and whether Obama is the Antichrist (13 percent, for the record, said he was).
For another, not all the theories PPP asked people about are as nutty as the idea that the moon landing was faked (7 percent of respondents believe it was) or a belief in Bigfoot or Sasquatch (14 percent are on board). If you squint, you can see the logical roots of some of them: while the US government probably didn’t consciously allow 9/11 to happen (11 percent say it did), and Osama bin Laden seems to really be dead and gone (despite the 6 percent of folks who say he’s still out there), the former conspiracy theory is aided by the staggering lapses in security and intelligence preceding the attacks, while the latter can be chalked up to the Obama administration’s refusal to release photos of bin Laden’s bullet-ridden body.
Polls like this do a disservice to reasonable paranoia by being overly broad and inviting mocking headlines like the Atlantic Wire’s. This way everyone can be aghast at an America awash in crazies, a fashionable fodder for either panic or chuckling every six months or so. It’s good to have a skeptical, rational mind about things in general, and not to start any yellow-letter-on-black-background website about “the Connections THEY don’t want You to Make.” But it’s better to be generally suspicious of powerful institutions that claim to speak for you and act upon you than to be overly gullible—even when that suspicion is sometimes (sadly) accompanied by a belief in the New World Order (28 percent of respondents were worried about this nascent world government) or the mind-controlling power of television (15 percent are kept up at night by this rather retro theory).
Serious thought and study have gone into questions of there being something shady about the JFK assassination (the most popular theory on the poll, at 51 percent) and CIA involvement in the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s (14 percent believe in this, and it’s… not baseless). But these more legitimate beliefs are too easily dismissed when they get put next to questions about whether Paul is dead.
This isn’t to defend lazy, easily refutable theories—even if radio show host/Tinfoil Hat King Alex Jones is an occasional comic genius. But it’s not paranoia if they're actually out to get you: we know that the Vietnam War started with a deliberate lie, that the Obama administration has targeted and killed Americans, that the CIA experimented with mind control on unwitting subjects, and that the NSA is tapping untold number of phones. Then there was that time—your grandparents will likely remember this—when 120,000 Americans and legal aliens were put into prison camps for three years as their homes and livelihoods were stolen.
Thankfully, the state is not an all-powerful entity that sees and destroys every voice of dissent. The government is made up of many different people and factions, most of which don’t work in well-oiled collusion. Many have good intentions even as they fight for, and win, a frightening amount of power. But good intentions get twisted or fall by the wayside when they interact with something as big and impersonal as the government. The state—no matter how virtuous the individuals working for it are—is, by its very nature, uniquely dangerous; it has a legal monopoly on lethal force. Just observe how it tries to learn all our secrets while cruelly punishing those who leak its own. There are signs that the state’s power is relaxing in some areas—the appalling sins of the drug war have hopefully peaked and will soon decline. But there are plenty of new people who get caught in its brutal machinery every day.
Americans claim to distrust elected officials, particularly those in the legislative branch. Yet we apparently trust them enough to elect them over and over, and we go on thinking that one party or another can solve the country’s problems. That’s because the biggest conspiracy (which most people believe) is that the state is able to possess perfect knowledge and inhuman incorruptibility, and therefore can and should control all of our lives. The cost of knee-jerk paranoia is unhinged belief in space dinosaurs or secret societies that fake moon landings—but the cost of trusting the state is out-of-control intelligence agencies, prisons full to bursting, the abandonment of the right to privacy and a fair trial, and endless war.
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