Events such as the Gulf of Tonkin incident have convinced some Americans… (Bob Schutz / Associated…)
Osama bin Laden is alive and well. President Obama is a closet Kenyan. Arnold Schwarzenegger hid his out-of-wedlock child with the help of scheming reporters.
Most people dismiss such talk as obviously untrue, if not downright nutty.
But to the conspiracy-minded, those assertions are not just plausible but absolutely true, making them just the latest threads in a long American tradition of suspicion and skepticism that is woven deep within our political and cultural DNA.
Salem witches. Masons. Catholics. Bolsheviks. Jews. Muslims: All have been cast in shadow and blamed for a host of ills that befell their contemporaries.
Times and targets change, said Robert Goldberg, a University of Utah historian and expert on the conspiratorial mindset, but the scenario is essentially the same, if abetted by new technologies: "Secret groups, which are all-powerful and methodical, are seeking to bend history to their will and control events, like puppeteers, whether it's economic events, assassination or foreign affairs."
The last few weeks offer a case study. Within hours of Bin Laden's death, the Internet was flooded with claims that the story was, in fact, an elaborate hoax aimed at boosting Obama's reelection hopes and lulling Americans into a false sense of security.
"I want my PROOF," read one Twitter posting among countless others. "I'm a damn AMERICAN! and WE deserve the TRUTH."
That same day, in a Pasadena courtroom, the impresario of the "birther" movement appeared before a panel of federal judges to argue that Obama was born abroad — not in Hawaii, as records have clearly and repeatedly shown — and should therefore be removed from office.
Weeks later, when the story of former Gov. Schwarzenegger's affair and child came to light, some immediately posited that The Times sat on the story for eight years, without explaining why, if that was true, the paper would suddenly publish the embarrassing revelations.
Americans are by nature suspicious, Goldberg said, and have been since the country was created. The founders were godly people who believed the country embodied all that was good and virtuous. The obverse of good is evil, and from the start there has been a belief — expressed anew by President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — that some would destroy America simply for its goodness.
At the same time, Americans possess a long-standing wariness of power and its potential as a corrupting influence, especially in the hands of large institutions. That instinct bred our government system of checks and balances and, more recently, led members of the "tea party" to embrace the nation's founders (repackaged as a band of small-government crusaders) as the guiding lights of their movement.
A dispiriting series of events has also served to convince many Americans that things their leaders say and do aren't always to be trusted. In the late 1950s, an overwhelming majority of those surveyed said they had faith in the government to do what was right all or most of the time.
Then came the Gulf of Tonkin incident — used as false pretense for plunging the U.S. deeper into the Vietnam War — Watergate, Iran-Contra, the Lewinsky affair and myriad other scandals, big and small. Today, fewer than a quarter of those sampled profess solid faith in government.
There is, of course, a big difference between taking politicians and their promises with a proverbial grain of salt and, say, subscribing to the notion that Obama was born in Africa and faked his birth certificate with the help, nearly 50 years ago, of his prescient parents.
For most of our history, those sorts of far-fetched notions have been promulgated only so far as a whispering campaign could carry. The Internet has changed all that.
"Fringe ideas were there," said Michael Barkun, an emeritus political science professor at Syracuse University and the author of two books on conspiracy theory. "But they were essentially insulated from the mainstream by major newspapers, television networks and the newsweeklies, which served as gatekeepers and kept a lot of that stuff out."
Today, Barkun said, "anybody can be a producer of ideas with the possibility of getting those ideas very widely diffused very quickly."
And oftentimes seeing, or hearing, is believing.
The fragmentation of the media has created niches that make it possible for a person to skip from blog to cable TV to talk radio and back without ever encountering a thought to challenge their own. That closed feedback loop abets the instinct to seize on information that reinforces one's opinions — however outlandish — and ignore facts that don't.