Gone are the days when people used to say in withering-jest, “It’s all a conspiracy.” Shocked looks, eye-rolls, and sarcastic groans used to follow outlandish claims of the equally ‘outlandish’ conspiracy theorist. These days it seems everything is viewed as a conspiracy. Even highly respected governments haven’t escaped unscathed.
Shortly after the US presidential inauguration, then Press Secretary Shaun Spicer addressed dumbfounded White House journalists by announcing with authoritarian-like bravado that Trump had, “the largest audience to witness an inauguration, ‘Period!’ Both in person and around the globe!”
In a comical attempt to support a claim disproved by photos and public transport numbers for Washington DC (aka ‘common-sense’ and ‘reality’), U.S Counsellor Kellyanne Conway inadvertently coined the non-infamous “Alternate-Facts’ phrase that’s shaped our equally “Alternate-Reality” ever since.
Just in case any hope for a ‘normal’ world remained, the President took his staff’s remarks a bewildering step further. Anything not fitting his version of the ‘correct’ worldview became “Fake News.” Anyone who disagreed became “the enemy of the people.”
From that point a startling realisation became clear; the Age of the ‘Conspiracy theory’ had crashed onto the scene like a runaway bull at a rodeo. The circus had arrived and truth was now a high-wire act. Even facts weren’t safe in this runaway clown-car of ‘anything is true’ if you shout it loud enough.
Not long after “Fake News” became the championing cry of the US President and many of his fervent supporters, he made a quote now synonymous with our new conspiracy ‘normal.’ In a convention speech in Kansas City in 2018 Trump defended a then-recent and highly controversial international trade decision by announcing:
“What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
Then Arizona Senator Jeff Flake characterised it as an “Orwellian moment.” It wasn’t difficult to see why. A famous line from George Orwell’s 1984 novel of a dystopian reality suddenly took on an alarming prescience:
“The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
In the years since “Fake News,” “Alternate Facts,” and imagined “Enemies” made their disorientatingly dystopic debut, our world has taken on its own Orwellian character. The established societal norms of yesterday suddenly aren’t so ‘normal.’ ‘Reality’ ain’t what it used to be!
Facts, science, and common sense have somehow become the uncomfortable bedfellows of what was once considered laughable. The once crazy-clarion cry of the lonely conspiracy theorist, “Believe Nothing, Question Everything!” has become the troll-like banner of the masses. Like the Orwellian refrain, even what’s seen with the eyes and heard with the ears can’t be trusted!
An unbelievable pandemic
Alarmingly, even a global pandemic hasn’t been enough to turn the tide of our new ‘Age of Unbelief’—now it seems even experience isn’t a sufficient litmus test for truth. Not even a new coronavirus illness has been enough.
Around the world many believe Covid-19 is just a controlling-tool of ‘powerful people.’ A June survey by The Pew Research Centre found that of the 71% of Americans who heard that conspiracy theory, a quarter of adults believed there was at least some truth to it.
Alarmingly, this isn’t an isolated problem. Now many believe that news networks can’t be trusted and medical experts only have ‘agendas.’ Some treat online echo-chambers as the only ‘reliable’ source of information. Popular social-media ‘Influencers’ are trusted more than governors, politicians, police, journalists and academics.
Even when hard facts come out, they’re mistrusted. Wild theories ensue. Reactions to the recent Beirut blast provide prime example.
In the days following the horrific explosion, the entire Lebanese government accepted responsibility and quit their jobs. Woeful incompetence proved to be the cause of the tragedy and appropriate response was taken.
Just when common sense seemed to finally get a sorely needed ‘win,’ conspiracy theorists once again cried foul. Unfounded claims of nation-state interference by Israel, and suggestions it could have been a nuclear bomb were shared by many news sites and prominent people (BBC.com, August 5th). Even the US president initially decried the blast as being a “terrible attack.”
It’s telling that in a time where fiction is assaulting reality, fictional works themselves must be consulted for answers to our conspiracy pandemic. Widely considered one of the greatest literary works ever written, the novel Don Quixote tells the story of a self-appointed knight-errant.
Quixote views the world through a series of imagined heroic adventures; a result of losing his mind through reading too many chivalric romances. Instead of accepting the world as it is, he believes his life is a knightly quest destined to right the wrongs of a world he perceives is beset by danger and intrigue.
Quixote’s quest leads him to a variety of normal people and situations which he chooses to see as mythically dangerous and in need of his heroism. In one instance, Don fights windmills mistaking them for giants. When he’s knocked off his horse, he convinces himself that a magician transformed the windmills into giants to defeat him.
Titling at windmills
Although Quixote’s antics may seem laughable, our conspiracy age is beginning to reflect the same alarmingly comical madness. We may mirror Quixote’s nobly intentioned ‘save-the-day’ zeal, nevertheless many today also ‘tilt at windmills;’ believing every natural wind of the world must hide some hidden danger, evil agenda, and imagined ‘foe.’ The urgent question therefore arises, are we any less to blame than he for breathing life into the very imaginary ‘giants’ that now beset our world?
At the end of his adventures, Quixote retires from his self-imagined ‘noble quests.’ Later he contracts a deathly sickness which ends in waking from a dream and subsequently regaining his sanity.
Like Quixote’s remedy, our world must also wake from its conspiracy-like dream to bring us back to our senses. The ‘how’ is obvious: ‘Fake news’ must not conquer the real, alternate-facts must never win out over actual facts, and common sense must never be labelled, ‘The Enemy of the People.’
In our crusade against the alternate reality of conspiracy theorists, we all have a responsibility not to ‘tilt at windmills;’ giving life to giants that only exist in our own minds. If we don’t, our ‘alternative-facts’ reality will only hurt ourselves, and end in a global madness of deception that we may never wake from. Like Quixote, we must have the courage to lay down our fanciful knight-errantry for the peace that comes with seeing the world with level-headedness, humility, and love.
If we do, truth might just have a chance. It might even win out more than it gets beaten down by the nobly intentioned albeit tragically misguided ‘conspiracy Quixotes.’
As the author of Don Quixote once wrote, “The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.”
Tim is a high school teacher in Queensland and just finished a season being a youth pastor in America. He has a passion for the gospel and for seeing lives changed by the power, person and love of Jesus Christ.
Tim Price’s previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/tim-price.html