You’d have your mate who, after a few beers, would tell you that the moon landings were faked or that the Illuminati controlled everything or that the US government was holding alien autopsies in Area 51. And you’d be able to dismiss this because it was all rubbish.
Look, you’d say, we have moon rock samples and pictures and we left laser reflectors on the surface and... basically you still don’t believe me but that’s because you’re mad and no proof on earth (or the moon) would satisfy you.
It’s true that there was always the big one which
wasn’t quite so easily dismissed. This was the Kennedy assassination - but here you could be fairly sure that the whole thing was a terrible, impenetrable murky morass. You knew that some things never would be known (or would be released, partially redacted by the CIA, 200 years in the future). And you knew that whatever the truth was it was probably a bit dull compared to your mate’s flights of fantasy involving the KGB, the Mafia and the military-industrial complex. Besides, it all made for a lot of very entertaining films and books.
This nice, cozy state of affairs lasted until the early 2000s. But then something changed. These days conspiracy theories don’t look so crazy and conspiracy theorists don’t look like crackpots. In fact, today’s conspiracy theory is tomorrow’s news headlines. It’s tempting, I suppose, to say we live in a golden age of conspiracy theories, although it’s only really golden for the architects of the conspiracies. From the Iraq war to Fifa to the banking crisis, the truth is not only out there, but it’s more outlandish than anything we could have made up.
Of course, our real-life conspiracies aren’t much like The X-Files – they’re disappointingly short on aliens and the supernatural. Rather, they’re more like John Le Carre books. Shady dealings by powerful people who want nothing more than to line their profits at the expense of others. The abuse of power. Crazy ideologues who try and create their own facts for fun and profit. Corporations supplanting governments via regulatory capture.
So, what are some of our biggest conspiracies?
The result is a disaster that was predicted only by Middle Eastern experts, post-conflict planners and several million members of the public. Thousands of allied troops and hundreds of thousands of blameless Iraqis are killed, although plenty of companies and individuals benefit from the US dollars that were shipped out, literally, by the ton. More recently, Iraq, now in a far worse state than it ever was under any dictator, has become an incubator for more terrorists, which is a special kind of geopolitical irony lost entirely on the war’s supporters.
And yet, we can’t really bring ourselves to hold anyone accountable. Apportioning responsibility would be difficult, painful and inconvenient, so we shrug as the men behind all this enjoy their well-upholstered retirements despite being directly and personally responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths and trillions of wasted dollars. And the slow drip, drip of revelations continues, largely ignored by the public, despite the horrendous costs which (in the UK) could have been spent on things like the NHS or properly equipping our armed forces.
But actually, there is some hope. While the number of rich and powerful people who think they can get away with anything has undoubtedly grown, technology has made leaking much easier. Wikileaks may not be perfect, but it’s a lot better than no leaks at all. The other thing that gives me succour is the public’s view of the bankers. We still hate them, which is absolutely as it should be. And slowly this contempt is starting to hurt the masters of the universe. It’s notable that, recently, banking has started tumbling down the down the list of desirable careers. So, I suppose the solution is simple: we need more regulation, we need more transparency and we need more public shame and disgust. We might even get the last two; I’m less hopeful about the first.
In the X-Files, Fox Mulder’s famous catchphrase was, “I want to believe” but that’s because the conspiracy theories he dealt with were rather good fun. Ours, by contrast, tend to involve an endless procession of wealthy old men abusing their power. So I don’t want to believe any more. I want my kids to grow up in a world where conspiracy theories are something you laugh at.