The Awful Truth: 12 Reasons Why There Is No Giant Conspiracy
Oh, except one. And why you don't need to worry about it.
In 1986, This Present Darkness by Frank E. Peretti became a Christian publishing sensation. The novel told the story of a spiritual battle between angels and demons raging over a small college town called Ashton. The book sold 2.5 million copies worldwide. That’s a lot of books. It was on best-seller lists for three years, making its way over to England where a teenager bought a copy at his school’s Christian Union.
The novel promised an alternative super-spiritual reality that was far more exciting than the one on offer at a perfectly nice Christian independent school near Bath. At least it probably did. That teenager, called James Cary, wasn’t much of a reader. He didn’t read it.
The effect of this novel and the sequel, Piercing The Darkness, was clear. It popularised the idea of territorial demons. If you read it as a Christian, you could believe that you were a foot soldier in some cosmic drama of Good vs Evil. You could be in your very own Christian Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, fighting with St Michael against the forces of darkness. Just outside Bath.
After Peretti came the The Left Behind novels and then the Dan Brown conspiracy novels. All of them seek to reveal an alternative reality going on beneath the surface. And we can play our part in either pointing people to the cover up, signing up to be a foot soldier in a war of information. Do that, or be one of the sheeple.
Secrets and Maps
Conspiracy theories are very attractive. I love movies about them, like National Treasure. Freemasons put a secret treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. Sure! Why not? You can find enough dots to connect and create a compelling story that is just about plausible. (This is partly why I’m writing a treasure hunt novel set in Cambridge. I hope to finish it by Easter… Subscribe for more info in due course.)
But these exciting tales that are too good to be true are exactly that: too good to be true. Translation = not true. We want to believe them often because they form part of a narrative that we already believe. Stories about fake moon landings, rigged elections, aliens in captivity, the Deep State and secret cabals confirm our worst suspicions about groups we don’t like, how power works, or theories of capitalism, communism, environmentalism or religion.
A friend who ministers on a council estate said he was initially surprised at the prevalence of conspiracy theories he came across there. Soon he realised these counter-narratives can make the poor and the excluded feel powerful because they refuse to buy the story they are being fed by the elite. That was probably at least a factor in the Brexit vote.
The Awful Truth Is Far More Boring
I don’t believe in conspiracy theories. I don’t need to. And nor do you. I’d like to explain why. The awful truth is far more banal and boring than we would like to admit. To misquote that Declaration of Independence, I’d like to present some of these truths, I think we all hold to be self-evident.
Truth #1: People are incompetent
Economists, social theorists and architects love to make grand plans and schemes predicated on humans acting rationally according to our best interests, or the common good. But we don’t know what we want. And when we do, we get it wrong. And so do the grand planners. The common theme in all these plans, designed by people for other people, is people.
People make mistakes. We panic. We vote for the wrong people because we can’t remember the name of the one we like. We put passwords on sticky notes next to computer screens. We put giant labels on plugs which say ‘DO NOT SWITCH OFF UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES’. And then someone does. Spies leave laptops on trains. Coups have been organised by men on an all-night bender.
We are flawed, fallible people. All of us. The cock up has far more explanatory power than the conspiracy.
Who are these powerful people? Someone’s brother, neighbour, god-daughter or former optician ends up becoming a cabinet minister. Yeah. Them. That clown who can’t get their kids to school on time and forgets to pick up their dry cleaning. Do you really think they’re capable of pulling off some huge scam? Me neither.
Truth #2 Machiavellians are surrounded by idiots
Yes, there are Machiavellian types. Evil conniving psychopaths. But these are very rare. Plenty of them aren’t as smart as they think are. But those who are even smarter are surrounded by flawed people, who run out of shirts so have to do their laundry late at night while waiting on the phone to speak to an operator to get a new credit card because the machine swallowed their last one because they lost the bit of paper on which they had written their PIN.
Truth #3 Nobody thinks they are the bad guy
Evil conniving psychopaths don’t think they’re villains. They normally think they are only getting what they are due, or fighting for justice or the honour of the Fatherland. This goes for bitter keyboard jockeys in basements and dictators in bunkers, who describe themselves as truth-tellers and liberators respectively. And they believe it. And to some people, they are.
Truth #4 People are terrible at keeping secrets
I don’t know how good journalists are at getting information, but several major scandals came to light by someone handing over information on a memory stick. Plenty of people have vested interests in blowing the whistle. It could be revenge, financial gain or even one’s own conscience. And sometimes, they just send stuff to print on the wrong printer in the wrong building or click ‘reply all’ and the truth is out there. Almost everyone has a recording device in their pocket, both audio and video. This stuff is easy. And I just don’t see how any grand conspiracy can resist anyone’s urge to take a goofy photo in front of the machine that can discover the nuclear launch codes.
Truth #5 The biggest scandal is normally the cover up
Some people have done some truly awful things, but normally they’ve only done quite bad things which they have exacerbated by elaborate attempts to cover them up. And then that cover up needs covering up until there are just too many people to be paid off, the money runs out, or the laptop is left on the train and the password is written in a Sharpie on the mousepad.
Truth #6 Pull back the curtain and it’s just some old dude pulling levers. If that.
The Wizard of Oz hoodwinked his people for a while with smoke and mirrors, but eventually the truth came out thanks to a tenacious and curious little dog. I suspect the reality is that when you get through the corridors of power, and get access to the levers of government, you discover there are only two levers. One of those levers has snapped off through overuse. And the other is permanently gaffer-taped to the wall with a note saying ‘Whatever you do, do NOT touch this lever’. And a civil servant then quietly explains why.
Truth #7 Imposter Syndrome is very common.
It’s not often that someone acquires a great deal of power and says, “Finally! My plan can be enacted! Mwa ha ha ha.” Normally they say to themselves, “How did I get here? There’s been an awful mistake. Where can I get sandwiches? And what happens if pull that lever?’ I suspect almost everyone reading this paragraph has experienced Imposter Syndrome at some point, from walking into a classroom to teach thirty kids, being given the keys to a large vehicle or, the most common version, being handed a tiny new life and being told, “You can take your baby home now. Good luck.”
Truth #8 Events, dear boy! Events!
These words may not have been said by Harold MacMillan, but it is obviously true that governments are easily blown off course by events. No matter what your plans are or on what platform you are elected, something will happen over which you have no control and to which you must respond. Whatever dastardly right-wing policies the Left thought Johnson and Cummings were about to inflict on the United Kingdom, a global pandemic blew all their best laid plans out of the water. David Cameron was doing fine until he held a referendum on leaving the EU to put the issue to bed. So much for him. Whatever George W Bush thought he was elected to achieve came crashing down with the Twin Towers on 9/11. The problem with conspiracies is that there just isn’t the time or opportunity for governments to get them done.
Truth #9 Fiction is, er, made up?
24 wasn’t a documentary. It was neat, compelling and exciting, but fictional. The truth is much less cinematic. That’s why comedy is much more compelling and truthful than drama. Political power more closely resembles The Thick of It and Veep than The West Wing. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a hot mess. Nearly a very big white hot mess. Remember that movie about it? Me neither. The truth is strange, lumpy and chaotic. Conspiracy theories neatly explain far too much. Because they’re made up. Even the previous US President, a wealthy reality TV star, needed to be reminded by a Hollywood actor - yes, a Hollywood actor - about what’s real. Trump said how much he loved Airforce One. “I love Harrison Ford. He stood up for America" to which Harrison Ford said, stunned, “It’s a movie.”
Truth #10 Plenty of collusion goes on in plain sight.
The majority of the world’s oil reserves, about 81.5%, are controlled by an international cartel called OPEC. It’s not a secret. But it’s boring. We can read about OPEC. But only in the financial pages. Booooring.
When Trump was kicked off Twitter, the rival service Parler was shut down by giant tech companies co-operating to close off their app stores and deny them use of their data storage.
Billionaires and politicians gather in the World Economic Forum in Davos. They issue statements like, “By 2030, you will own nothing and you will be happy.” In fact, they took that down because they realised how chillingly Orwellian it sounded. (But the internet never forgets. You can see it here.). Maybe they also realised a statement about being happy about owning nothing sounded bad coming from a group that represents billionaires – who own everything. This is not a conspiracy. They’re telling us they’re doing it. But we don’t care. Why?
Truth #11 We find it easy to ignore whatever is directly in front of us.
We ignore facts if they don’t fit our preferred narrative. As Sir Humphrey Appleby says, in Yes, Prime Minister:
Of course not! They don't want them. Facts complicate things.
And so we manage to avoid large and obvious facts. Fact 1: we know that divorce devastates the lives of kids and yet we’ve been making it easier and easier to get divorced. Fact 2: we have a chronic obesity problem, mostly because of sugar. (There’s never been any peer-reviewed evidence that it was fat, by the way.) This problem with Type-2 Diabetes will completely overwhelm everything and nothing’s really happening. Fact 3: most western governments will have to pay hundreds of billions in promised but unfunded pension liabilities. (And if a private company ran their operations in the same way, the board of directors would go to jail for fraud).
These facts are all so huge, we can no longer see them. We can’t handle the truth. We ignore it. We are willfully blind to it. People like to think they’re rational, but they’re not. They like to think they change their mind with evidence. Nope. Don’t believe me? Ironically, I probably won’t be able to persuade you of this fact, which would prove my point, but you’d ignore that too. Read The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, as I say to someone on social media at least once a week.
Truth #12 There are dark forces in the world
This is a secret conspiracy that is true. It is also the one that Christians do not need to worry about. The fact is there are dark forces at large in the world. The Bible, which is not fictional, tells us about Satan. And there are plenty of evil spirits and demons that Western Christians, especially conservative evangelical types, do not talk about.
Somehow we manage to preach from passages in the gospels in which Jesus encounters demons, or is tempted by Satan, without really talking about the Evil One or those demonic spirits. Maybe it’s because it sounds superstitious or ‘uneducated’, one of the gravest sins of our modern age. We want to stay ‘relevant’ for the sake of the gospel by ignoring what we read.
I don’t believe the spiritual realms are how they are presented in This Present Darkness which is a work of fiction like Airforce One and 24. But these dark spiritual forces are real. And maybe they are able to co-ordinate things to create truly awful events which bring about regimes that kill tens of millions. But we don’t really have any way of knowing.
What is going on behind the curtain? Well, that’s been torn in two. So we don’t need to panic, which is a very popular tactic these days. When we read about the encounters Jesus had with demons in the gospels, they are comically one-sided. The spirits shriek and beg for mercy. Who knew? The man who can control the wind and waves with his words can also command the evil forces to flee – as it says in Colossians 2:15
He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
That fact isn’t a secret. It’s hiding in plain sight. It’s in the best-selling book in human history. So that’s probably why no-one reads it. And if they do, they don’t believe it. Why not? Because it doesn’t fit the narrative. Maybe it’s time to take another honest look at that narrative.
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If you want to know surprising facts about conspiracy theories from an academic who actually studies them and has data - not that you’ll be convinced by any of it - Jonah Goldberg talks to Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist and professor at the University of Miami over on the Remnant Podcast.
If you’d like to know more about how comedy is based on truth, do get a copy of The Sacred Art of Joking. Get it a signed copy from me personally, and why not grab a CD of A Monk’s Tale, which explains the 95 Theses but with jokes? That would help support this weekly newsletter.