In Danse Macabre, King brings up the idea that paranoia is the last refuge of sanity in a world that defies comprehension.
In such a world it is perfectly credible that a mental defective should sit on the upper floor of a little-used building, wearing a Hanes t-shirt, eating take-out chicken, and waiting to use his mail-order rifle to blow out the brains of an American president; perfectly possible that another mental defective should be able to stand around in a hotel kitchen a few years later waiting to do exactly the same thing to that defunct president’s younger brother; perfectly understandable that nice American boys from Iowa and California and Delaware should have spent their tours in Vietnam collecting ears, many of them extremely tiny; that the world should begin to move once more toward the brink of an apocalyptic war because of the preachings of an eighty-year-old Moslem holy man who is probably foggy on what he had for breakfast by the time sunset rolls around. All of these things are mentally acceptable if we accept the idea that God has abdicated for a long vacation, or has perchance really expired. They are mentally acceptable, but our emotions, our spirits, and most of all our passion for order—these powerful elements of our human makeup—all rebel. If we suggest…that it just happened and nobody was really responsible—things just got a little out of control here, ha-ha, so sorry—then the mind begins to totter.
It sounds a lot like something I began to think about a few years ago.
A friend of mine in college watched Zeitgeist. At first he bugged us to watch it. Then you couldn’t mention planes or New York in conversation without getting into an argument about the 9/11 Commission Report. At some point he gave up on any conventional source of information, and his Facebook became an endless parade of trutherism, infowars, and ominous geocities explorations of the Fed, the IMF, and, I imagine, the Illuminati and Agenda 21.
This guy’s smart, and in general he’s not crazy, not unhinged, not brewing meth and madness in a trailer. He’s going to law school, if I remember right, and not a bad one. We his friends have been talking off and on for years about how he’d gone from what we’d call normal to working the Trilateral Commission into otherwise sane conversations.
This all happened as we were leaving our sophomore and moving into our junior year. It was about the same time that the bleakness of the national situation was beginning to touch us in earnest, when dozens of what should have been shoo-in internship applications weren’t coming back rejected but instead just vanished into the apathetic void, when we all began to confront the imposing and hope-crushing monolith of USA Jobs, when we saw our senior friends graduate and move home and fail to take the jobs that their exquisitely expensive stay at the School of Foreign Service was supposed to have guaranteed them. We were living the liberal disillusionment of our messianic President growing a drone program, failing to close Guantánamo, failing to address the Arab Spring, failing to act at the outset of the Syrian Civil War, failing to stand up to the security establishment and becoming complicit in the expansion of an extensive domestic surveillance apparatus.
We were reaching that point in education and personal development at which you begin to learn that for whatever reason, our country has often not been a force for good, and that the anti-communist, anti-instability, ‘had to be done’ narrative that surrounds our overseas adventures is pure hokum.
We had to do something with all those elements together. The optimistic paradigm with which we grew had to shift. Whether you plug your ears or rouse your anger or surrender to cold cynicism and empty irony, you have to reconcile the mass of it in your mind. You have to find a worldview that accommodates how shitty everything has become (or maybe has always been). It might be that the creeping tentacles of international capital are shackling the masses or that the constricting forces of government are strangling the markets or that the way that we’ve abandoned God and the temple has brought us to the burning edge of perdition. Whichever approaches the truth, each of those outlooks acknowledges that our world is the product not of schemers but the mass action of billions.
Paranoia, in King’s formation, and conspiracy theorism in mine, is the rejection of those worldviews, the inability to reconcile the world as it is with a logical mind, the refusal to believe that the collective, not particularly well directed action of the human race could create all the multifarious evils of the world. Paranoia and conspiracy are so attractive because they offer us a solution. If a cabal of shadowy figures have made the world the way it is, all we have to is expose them and then everything will be alright.
The truth is more depressing. The Third World comes off the worse with international lending institutions not because secretive lizard men control the IMF and the World Bank but because of what’s obvious—physical colonialism transitioned into a world financial system set up to benefit, by and large, the nations that drew it up. The Supreme Court unleashed corporate cash not because of Rockefellerian machinations but because we have conservative justices that hail from a national conservative anti-government upswing that dates back to the 1980s. That intelligence agencies had information before 9/11 and failed to act is not evidence of conspiracy but of the inefficiency and incompetence that are the hallmarks of human endeavor.
What we have to face, if we are not to fall into the easy way out, the logical illogic of paranoia, is that our world is not a fluke. Its violence, its inequality and iniquity, its exploitation and racism and hatred are not a historical accident or the result of a plot—it, in all its shit, is the direct result of the system we’ve created. What it means is that we are all of us culpable and that any but the smallest change will not be a matter of drawing back the curtain or unmasking the monster of the week but of slow grinding against a global machine driven by the inertia of 40,000 years of human history. When we forget that and indulge the fantasy of conspiracy, we remove ourselves from the body of people who can actually do something to make the world slightly less horrible.
What begins to worry me is that half of his status updates have gotten no less sensational but much more believable. Alongside revelations about Hitler in Brazil and strange new defenses of Second Amendment whackery, litanies of murder-by-police, poorly hushed up drone massacres, and the neverending revelations about the security state that grows inexorably around us scroll without end down his Facebook wall, and even if the dubious quality of the URLs has not improved, the sources they quote have. I do not know what the right course of action is when your world begins to resemble the fever dreams of your paranoiac friend, but I cannot imagine that it is an easy one.