Well Being

Read It Like a Man: Conspiracy Theory Books

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Patrick Sauer is funny. This is his second “Read It Like a Man” weekly column for Blisstree. Read the first installment here.

Chapter 2: Conspiracy Theories

The Overton Window is a political theory that goes something like this: Previously unaccepted theories become more mainstream when ideas from the fringe are thrown out, thus making the previously stated ideas seem less radical and extreme. (It's also the title of Glenn Beck's upcoming novel, natch.) The Overton Window explains why conspiracy theories are no longer the provenance of loons and how they root themselves in mainstream thought. In a word, the Internet. Remember a year ago when everyone believed in global warming? HOAX!

So, conspiracy theories are everywhere, but they're losing the magic. It used to be a badge of honor to come up with, get supporters of, and virulently defend a preposterous thesis that flew in the face of sane reason. There used to be admirable kooks like Heribert Illig, who concocted the “phantom time hypothesis” proving that the Dark Ages are a myth, the years 614–911 (9/11??) never happened, and Charlemagne is a fictional character. Now that's what I call crazy! Today, we're stuck with the “Birthers” and their easily-debunked Obama Ain't ‘Merican thing. It's boring, unoriginal, and passe. Besides, head cheerleader Orly Taitz is no Illig. She seems to be the living result of what happened when Tinkerbell and Myron Byron De La Beckwith breeded. If you believe, clap your hands, and we'll make the scary black man disappear.

Like Hunter S. said, there's no such thing as paranoia. It's all true.

The 80 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time
by Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen

The Cock-Up Theory: Trust no one. Absolutely. But at least get your conspiracy theory underpinnings from the dubious duo of Vankin and Whalen. They’re the historians of an alternative shadowy universe in which the government covers up the colonization of Mars and created AIDS to wipe out gay men, that either Yoko Ono or Richard Nixon (or both?) assassinated John Lennon, and that the all-seeing NSA superspy eye-in-the-sky Echelon is watching you right now.

The Consensus: Vankin and Whalen have turned conspiracy theories into a cottage industry; the first version of their book I read had a measly 50 and no mention of how Dick Cheney and Enron conspired with the sun to bleed California dry. (The truth really is out there. Look up.) The 80 Greatest Conspiracies is the perfect primer because the authors, while skeptical and logical, aren’t out to debunk everything in a scholarly manner and take the fun out of the Communist candy cabal’s plot to get Mothers feeding their children mind-altering fluoride. The authors do their research, but leave enough open-ended conclusions that the books shrewdly have appeal for deniers, believers, and those of us who just enjoy pondering the idea that Princess Diana was rubbed out because she refused to marry Bill Clinton, titular head of an international group of Satanists.

Why Women Need to Read: Guys love conspiracy theories because they liven up our staid. boring workaday existences. In the same way that women can’t get enough of family gossip, men can’t get enough of the idea that the New World Order is upon us, possibly utilizing a Mexican Zombie army to take over the world. It's good stuff and allows us to daydream of leading a rebel band of outsiders against the Mexizombs. Occam and his razor can get bent. I’ll take black helicopters and Tupac Shakur faking his own death any day of the week.

Them: Adventures With Extremists
by Jon Ronson

The Cock-Up Theory: Ronson is a low-key British journalist who hosted the documentary series Secret Rulers of the World, and Them is its literary sidekick. Ronson is such an unassuming wise-ass that many of the world’s premier paranoids trust him and let him into their inner circle. Nut jobs as varied as radical Islamist Omar Bakri Muhammad, Ku Klux Klan leader Thomas Robb and Northern Irish anti-Catholic politician Ian Paisley all give Ronson the access to hang themselves with their own unhinged ropes.

The Consensus: In an unorthodox combo of amusement and terror, Ronson deftly proves two things about the world’s wingnuts. They’re both off-their-rockers-like-nobody-you’ll-ever-meet, and more or less like everyone you know. For example, Omar Bakri Muhammad is believed to have strong ties to al-Qaeda, but he also loves The Lion King and fart jokes. On the one hand, British writer David Icke believes the world’s elites are descended from 12-foot shape-shifting blood-drinking lizards. On the other hand, no wonder the fat-cat bankers get whatever they want – Congress is scared of their killer reptilian overlords. Yes, it all makes sense! Greenspan is a Gecko.

Why Women Need to Read: What women really need to do is listen – to any Jon Ronson podcast with the lunatic fringe you can find. He’s living out the fantasy, hiding out in the woods with guys hell-bent on proving that the exclusive, uber-wealthy Bilderberg Group is plotting a godless-one-world-government. Imagine, if you will, that the tin-foil hat crowd turns out to be onto something real and Ronson is our only witness. He’ll be murdered of course, and there will be inevitable cover-up, and some freedom fighter/underemployed blogger would have to take up the mantle of truth. Man, that's gonna be awesome.
FYI: You should also read Them because Ronson spends an amazing afternoon with Randy Weaver’s daughter Rachel. They shoot guns as she candidly discusses the siege at Ruby Ridge (with a Jew, no less!) that left her mother dead, her brother shot, and her father in jail. She comes off as a tragic hero and made me empathize with the white-separatist government-haters. Nifty trick, that.

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The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

The Cock-Up Theory: In 2004, Roth dropped the “old man’s wang doesn’t work right anymore” mode he’s been in and delivered The Plot Against America, a thrilling addition to the cannon of great conspiratorial novels. It’s an alternative American history type of book in which Charles Lindbergh (a notorious anti-Semite who praised Hitler) beats FDR in the 1940 presidential election through a message of isolationism, blaming the Jews for getting the U.S. into World War II and getting our troops killed in combat. Lindbergh signs “understandings” with Germany and Japan and sets out to remake America into a blond-haired blue-eyed Teutonic homeland.

The Consensus: The book is narrated by a seven-year-old Roth, which isn't some postmodern meta-conceit, but a surprisingly plausible reimaging of what life could have been like if Lindbergh had been elected. Would Newark have had its own North Jersey Kristallnacht? (And what would the inevitable Bruce Springsteen song about the events have sounded like? Big Man sax solo or no?) The paranoia in the book that’s destroying America is not a fiendish Jewish plot, but the simple turning of neighbor-against-neighbor, friend-against-friend, and family-member-against-family-member during wartime. Fortunately, there are solutions for young Jews, like the “Just Folks” program that sends Philip’s older brother Sandy to work on a Kentucky farm. Presumably, he’ll learn the lessons of “Real America,” like how to make White Lightning strong enough to bed your sister. Roth is wielding an angry pen because in an age where every loon with a laptop gets their message out there, whether you go crazy right or crazy left, the conspiracies end up in the same place. The Jews. It’s always the Jews.

Why Women Need to Read: When done right, What If? novels offer the blueprint for what happens when the conspiracy theorists are right. (Especially when they involve Nazis, Fatherland is another great choice). Too often, they’re done in broad, stupidly drawn strokes (paging Robert Langdon’s mullet), but The Plot Against America isn’t. Change the Roth name to Suzuki, uproot them to California, and stick them in an internment camp and you don’t have paranoid fantasy. You have 20th century history. Fortunately, we’ve evolved as a people. No matter what Michele Bachmann says, there will be no more rounding up of the citizenry. The next great alternative history won’t be written by an American Jew (too assimilated) and it won’t take place on U.S. soil. We've changed. When an author we’ll call Abed Abdullah writes his What If?, it’ll take place 90 miles south, in Guantanamo Bay.

Patrick Sauer is a writer, blogger, and performer. Originally from Billings, Montana, he now lives in Brooklyn. For more, check out: patrickjsauer.com.