In previous posts, I’ve mentioned a course I taught called Panic in America. When I first devised the class, I imagined it as a lighthearted exploration of the weirder moments in U.S. history. What better way to examine the past than through the wacky conspiracy theories and bizarre ideas that had shaped American culture?
It became quickly apparent, though, that my fun romp of a course was more of a tough slog. It proved impossible to consider any cultural panic without recognizing the deeper social woes that it obscured. Trauma from a gruesome war motivated a witch craze that left more than two dozen people dead. Bizarre theories about Catholic priests and nuns fanned the flames of nativism. Seemingly innocuous paranoia about comic books obscured deep anxieties about rapid cultural shifts and the terrifying reality of the atomic age.
In short, it was impossible to examine any period of U.S. history without realizing that phobias, paranoia, and conspiracy theories served to distract from political and social issues that desperately needed to be addressed.
My course came to mind today as I listened to an hour of AM talk radio (I tell myself I do this to get in touch with “the other America,” but really I think I just enjoy self-punishment). The topic of conversation, unsurprisingly, was the shooting rampage in Las Vegas. More specifically, the discussion was about various conspiracy theories explaining the horrific event.
There was no discussion of guns. The fact that the alleged shooter had enough weapons to outfit a small militia seemed inconsequential compared to theories about the money he wired to the Philippines (perhaps being funneled to ISIS via Abu Sayyaf?) or the fact that he had two rooms in the hotel (clearly evidence of multiple shooters!) And these theories were tame compared to Alex Jones’ assertion of a Muslim-Bolshevik-Democrat conspiracy and Pat Robertson’s proclamation of divine comeuppance against Americans who insufficiently support President Trump.
Why talk about real social problems when you can explain them away with conspiracy theories?
There is, I suspect, some part of this impulse that is pure human nature. It’s easier – and more comforting – to blame random, impossible-to-control causes rather than facing up to the tough task of fixing a deep-seated social woe.
It also seems to me, however, that there are particular aspects of American society that make this problem worse in the U.S than elsewhere. I don’t claim any originality in my thinking, nor is this a complete list. But three elements seem especially notable:
For-Profit Media: For the vast majority of U.S. history, news organizations have been commercial enterprises. As my foray into talk radio today illustrated, sensational topics sell. So does simplistic storytelling. It is much easier to speculate about conspiratorial forces at work than it is engage on a culture’s complex relationship with firearms and the seemingly insurmountable political obstacles to enacting gun control.
Hyper-Polarization: Despite efforts by historians like Richard Hofstadter (who, incidentally, famously wrote on the “paranoid style in American politics”) to claim broad consensus in politics for much of U.S. history, the country has, in fact, been sharply divided along partisan lines for the majority of its existence. As we know all too well, polarized partisanship impedes substantive policymaking. And in the absence of the ability to undertake meaningful reform, the temptation arises to look for alternate explanations for social ills.
The Individualist Ethos: Perhaps the most fundamental roadblock is a core aspect of American identity itself: we like to think of ourselves as a nation of rugged, independent, individuals. The suggestion that there might be social problems embedded in U.S. culture is at odds with our values. “Guns don’t kill people,” we are told, “people kill people.” Rather than looking at the all-too-clear pattern of gun-driven carnage and considering that we just might have issues that need addressing politically, we instead rush to examine the individuals involved. Conspiracy theories about individuals — however outlandish they might be — do not challenge our national image. Suggesting that we have somehow failed collectively, however, does force a reckoning with our vision of ourselves.
It is possible to transcend the limitations of our culture and enact meaningful change. But doing so requires that we acknowledge that it’s not just guns that are deeply embedded in American culture. It’s also the expectation that there’s always some explanation, no matter how far-fetched, that explains why bad things happen without forcing us to consider our deep, systemic problems.
Until we do acknowledge those problems to their full extent, a pattern of avoidance three-and-a-half centuries in the making is bound to continue.