Why conspiracy theories sell

Submitted by Anon on 4 June, 2006 - 10:54

Thomas Carolan looks at the politics behind the Da vinci code

“What crudeness, insolence, nastiness! A shop for miracles, a business office trafficking in grace.... But best of all is the papal blessing broadcast to Lourdes by — radio. The paltry miracles of the Gospels side by side with the radiotelephone! And what could be more absurd and disgusting than the union of proud technology with the sorcery of the Roman chief druid? Indeed, the thinking of mankind is bogged down in its own excrement.”

Leon Trotsky, 1935

The Catholic Church, not too surprisingly, does not like The Da Vinci Code. It wanted the film to carry a statement that it was fiction. The makers refused. They knew that much of the film’s impact depends on people being intrigued by its parallel history of Christianity — the idea that Christ has living descendants and that “they”, the Church and the authorities through the ages, have been hiding the truth from “us”.

Polls shows that vast numbers of people think that this story is or may be the truth. No wonder the Catholic Church is unhappy about it!

The Da Vinci Code, already a big box-office hit, is an awful, wretched film. Its success, like that of Dan Brown’s novel, tells us something important about the society in which we live.

It reminded me of one of the most socially significant films — for what it says about its audience — I’ve seen in the last decade: an American comedy called Dave. Dave (Kevin Kline) is a small-time, small-town politician, a good-hearted man who likes people and likes helping those who need help, the poor, the sick, the destitute, those who lack the know-how to deal with the power structures of society.

That’s why he is “in politics”. That’s what he thinks politics should be about.

Dave happens to look exactly like the President of the USA — a cynical, corrupt, run-of-the-mill plutocratic politician. When a stroke turns the President into a vegetable, Dave is enlisted by conniving, power-mad Chief of Staff to impersonate the President.

The rest you can fill in, even if you didn’t see Dave. With the help of the President’s estranged wife, Dave “takes out” the Chief of Staff and uses his temporary power to Do Good for the people, before making way for another good-hearted man, the Vice-President (Ben Kingsley).

Dave was an amiable, likeable, good-hearted film, with no pretensions, no critical or satirical bite, and only a slight touch of anger in it. The plot was very old, the story of a good man who looks like the King temporarily assuming the crown and Doing Good. It was the plot of Anthony Hope’s Prisoner Of Zenda, which had been filmed two or three times at least, of Mark Twain’s The Prince And The Pauper, and of many other such tales.

What was significant in Dave was that a plot about a good man substituting for an indifferent or bad King, in a pre-democratic system where power is personal, and resides not in the people but in a hereditary, unelected person, could be adapted for an American audience to the political life of their own democratic Republic .

The President is elected every four years; but in reality, the Presidency is almost as remote from the people as an old monarchy from the King’s hereditary subjects. Aspirants and candidates must be millionaires or backed by the very rich (usually both). “Ordinary” Americans feel excluded and powerless. They are excluded and virtually powerless. Many, sometimes most, do not even bother to vote.

The Da Vinci Code, too, is significant for what it tells us about its audience in the USA and across the world.

It is a chase movie like, recently, The Fugitive, or Hitchcock’s 1935 The Thirty Nine Steps, but badly-done. What Hitchcock called “the McGuffin” — the object of the chase, the microfilm, the “scientific formula”, the state secret, whatever – is the Da Vinci Code’s “selling point

It is a religious “secret”: proof that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene had a family, and that their descendants are known.

A secret society has existed through the centuries, the Priory of Sion, working to protect Christ’s descendants, and for that reason persecuted by the Catholic Church. Its members have included Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, and every great historical figure Dan Brown has ever heard of.

Real historical events are explained as the working-out of this conflict between the Priory of Sion and the Catholic Church — for example, the destruction of the priestly order of knights, the Templars, in the 14th century; and the Crusade (the Catholic equivalent of a Muslim fatwa and jihad) which exterminated the heretic Cathars, or Albigensians, in southern France in the 13th century.

Today the quasi-secret Catholic cult Opus Dei (the one to which Cabinet minister Ruth Kelly belongs) fights the “Priory of Sion” on behalf of the Catholic Church, in a perpetual subterranean war.

And thereby hangs this preposterous tale. Tom Hanks, an American “symbologist”, and Audrey Tautou, a putative descendant of Christ, are pursued across France and England by Opus Dei in the form of a French policeman and a crazy self-flagellating albino monk, who comes on like Arnold Schwartenegger in The Exterminator.

The film is confused, opaque, incoherent, tedious and plain dull. Everything is helter-skelter. There is no tension or suspense, nor, I found, audience involvement with the chief characters or what happens to them.

The truth, of course, is that Brown’s concoction is as true — that is, as false — if not as venerable, as the concoctions of the four Church-endorsed Gospels (there are others; Dan Brown draws on them), written long after the events they purport to describe by men who never saw Jesus, still less the wonder-working magician whose imaginary miracles they recount.

What is socially significant about The Da Vinci Code book and film is that people so readily believe its tale to be true. Why do people, so many people, millions and millions of people it seems, go for such a conspiracy theory?

Plain ignorance, for a start. Millions have only the dimmest notion of official Christian theology and its myths. One imaginary history is as good to them as another. And Brown’s alternative history of Christianity seems new and is exciting — a conspiracy, a mystery story.

The mysteries of pulp fiction meld here with the old “mysteries of religion”.

People go for conspiracy theories for the same reason that primitive man long ago elaborated religious myths about all-controlling gods. In their profound ignorance of nature, primitive people could only “understand” how things worked by postulating and then believing that nature was worked by human-like forces, pursuing human-like purposes. It was the original version of “intelligent design”. Thus they hit on the idea that, in scale with nature, this “man” was man writ very large. Super-man. God.

Humanity made god by projecting an image of ourselves up into the heavens and ‘behind the scenes’ into Nature. Humanity made god, not the other way round — sky gods like Zeus (Jupiter), sea gods like Poseidon (Neptune), and so on. Religion is comforting fairy stories for grown-ups.

Nowadays, though people can understand, and, to a sometimes terrifying extent control, nature, most people still cannot make sense of their own society, of what happens in it, and why, and of their own place in it and some of them opt for theories that unless they assume “intelligent design” and intent and purpose is being exercised in it by secret controllers, “them”. It is one dimension of human alienation from our own society, which people know in their guts that they don’t control.

The “hidden hand”, the metaphor of the 18th century economist Adam Smith for the operations of the market, is now enshrined and worshipped with the rankest superstition in the dominant doctrines of neo-liberalism and the global free trade market which it lauds and idealises. Conspiracy theories, though not new, are the alternative religion to the official one, the cult of the market, of Smith’s benign “hidden hand”. People know that if there is a hidden hand, it is not benign – it is “them” and not “us”.

The readiness to accept such an alternative history of Christianity as that embodied in Dan Brown’s concoction comes from the potentially lethal mix of alienation from authority, including intellectual “authority” (rooted in unease and dissatisfaction) and bottomless ignorant credulity. It is the obscurantist raw material of social quackery — for example, of the clerical fascism that looms so large in Islam and in some of their Christian equivalents in the USA.

The gullible receptivity to conspiracy theories is not confined to “consumers” of religious mythology. It is also to be found on the left, and on the Trotskisant left too.

There, accounts of Israel and Zionism carrying the most fantastic implications are now widely accepted — for example, the belief that “Zionists” were complicit in the killing by the Nazis of six million Jews because somehow that helped them realise their goal of a Jewish state in Israel.

This stuff originated in Stalin’s USSR, where “conspiracies” and “plots” — like those “uncovered” in the Moscow Trials of 1936-8 — and their “exposure” dominated the official history of the state. It was a Stalinist creation in the tradition of the account concocted by the Tsarist police of a “Jewish world conspiracy”, the Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion.

Long ago, when Protestants challenged the Church hierarchy and insisted on their right to think about the issues for themselves, some of them used Christianity to express their dissatisfaction with the society they lived in.

Their version of Christianity became the ideological form taken by their self-assertion against the rulers of their own society.

The “Anabaptist” communists who seized the town of Münster in Germany in 1534-5 were the “prehistoric” ancestors of modern socialism - people who fought for a primitive socialism, formulated in terms of a variety of Christian dogma. Elements — no more — of the same sort of thing can be seen among some Muslims now.

The prospect of “heresies” like that of The Da Vinci Code having revolutionary significance now? Nil! This “alternative history” of Christianity goes straight into the great morass of passively vegetating and decaying conspiracy theories which effectively act as minor safety-valves for a social system where capital rules behind many different ideological screens.

The spread of conspiracy theories is one result of the eclipse of Marxism and socialism, which explains how and why the capitalist system works without recourse to myths and conspiracy theory.

In the quotation at the beginning of this article Trotsky laments the state of a human society that could combine the “tawdry” miracle shop at Lourdes with the human-made wonders of the radio. In The Da Vinci Code we have a wonderfully proficient use of amazing communications technology to spread gibberish around the world.

What Trotsky wrote in 1935 is still true, and maybe now “more” true — humankind is still bogged down in its own excrement.