Marc Lamont Hill: Americans' political paranoia: Wide, deep, nuts ... and human

Posted: May 11, 2011

IMMEDIATELY after quelling the birth-certificate controversy, President Obama created another scandal last week in the wake of the government-sanctioned assassination of Osama bin Laden.

After successfully ordering and executing the hit, Obama insisted that bin Laden be buried at sea to honor the Islamic tradition of quick burial. With no physical body to offer as proof, conspiracy theorists quickly determined that bin Laden wasn't really dead, or that he'd been dead for a long time and the Obama administration was simply stealing credit. Although seductive, this conspiracy theory is almost certainly untrue. After all, if bin Laden were still alive, he would love nothing more than to taunt the American government with one of his infamous "you can't catch me" video clips.

Also, in the era of WikiLeaks and 24-hour cable news, it would be nearly impossible, not to mention politically suicidal, for the Obama administration to fake the murder of bin Laden. Still, countless bloggers, activists and pundits are buying into the idea that it was all staged.

So why do people believe this stuff?

The answer is simple: Conspiracy theories let us off the hook. They allow us to make sense of the world in ways that reflect our own experiences, needs, desires and fears. They let us accept the most counterintuitive claims imaginable despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

This is why so many people were willing to believe that Obama was not an American citizen despite the string of document releases, sworn affidavits, private investigators and firsthand accounts that have been released regarding his Hawaiian birth.

Even after the president released the long-form birth certificate, a small but persistent group of conspiracy theorists now says that the birth certificate is fake. One crafty (and by "crafty" I mean psychotic) group of conspiracy theorists has argued that the birth certificate was created with a typewriter that wasn't manufactured until years after the president's birth. Wow. Just . . . wow.

For such people, it is easier to accept that two countries, multiple hospitals, several families and countless state officials all hatched a 47-year plot to make a Kenyan baby president than to simply accept that America has matured to the point that it could elect a black citizen to the highest office in the land. For these folk, the conspiracy theory is just a pretext for racism.

Although conspiracy theories are typically wacky, they are often rooted in fundamental social truths. For example, the black community was filled with genocidal conspiracy theories during the 1980s and '90s, such as the belief that Kentucky Fried Chicken and Snapple were secretly owned by the Ku Klux Klan, which was inserting secret ingredients to make black people sterile.

Although there was no truth to these rumors, they didn't come out of nowhere. At the same time that these stories were circulating, conservative members of Congress were trying to force welfare mothers to take Norplant, a long-term contraceptive, as a condition of receiving public assistance. So, although the KKK sterilization theory may have been far-fetched, its plausibility was enhanced by the very real assault on the reproductive freedoms of black bodies.

Conspiracy theories also soothe our deepest insecurities. This is why so many hip-hop artists are willing to buy into the ridiculous rumor that Jay-Z is a member of the Illuminati, a secret society bent on world domination. Propagators of this theory argue that Jay-Z's remarkable success as an artist and businessman are linked to his membership in a dastardly underworld of mustache-twirling, Gargamelesque powermongers. Of course, there isn't a shred of truth to this rumor. But that isn't the point.

It never is.

By accepting conspiracy theories as true, we can make sense of other people's success without having to accept our own shortcomings. Imagine how much of the rest of the NBA would feel if they found out that Michael Jordan was taking performance-enhancing drugs, or that LeBron James' body was actually made of robot parts. At the end of the day, it feels better to think that someone is cheating than to think that they're simply better than you.

Conspiracy theories also speak to our deepest dreams and desires. This is why the passing of celebrities like Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, JFK, Marilyn Monroe and Tupac are quickly followed by rumors that they faked their deaths and are living in hiding. Through these stories, we are able to sidestep the pain of loss and embrace a sense of hope that we'll be able to see the ones we love one more time.

Conspiracy theories are not just the product of paranoid people or unscrupulous demagogues. They are a complex phenomenon that reveals the different layers of human nature. They serve as windows into the human experience.

Oh, yeah, and sometimes they're actually true.

Daily News editor-at-large Marc Lamont Hill is an associate professor of education at Columbia University and host of "Our World With Black Enterprise," which airs at 6 a.m. Sundays on TV-One. Contact him at MLH@marclamonthill.com.

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