Admit it. At some point, some conspiracy theory has enticed you. Maybe it’s not the claim the government was behind 9/11 or that AIDS was created in a government lab or that organized crime was responsible for the assassination of JFK. But at some time one or more such ideas may have gained some credence in your mind.
Don’t be surprised or embarrassed. As Gordon B. Arnold lays out in his cogent Conspiracy Theory in Film, Television, and Politics, conspiracy theory is part and parcel of American culture.
Conspiracy theories are nothing new. Even the long discredited Protocols of the Elders of Zion still finds believers after more than a century. But Arnold sees conspiracy theory as a metaphor. Granted, there are the true believers. Yet for the ordinary person, Arnold says, “the term seldom refers to a literal or criminal conspiracy, but rather to a generalized worldview in which ordinary folks are constantly the targets of manipulation and deception.”
Conspiracy Theory in Film, Television, and Politics posits three stages in the role and meaning of conspiracy theory.
In post-World War II America, the focus was external, such as the U.S.S.R. and its minions conspiring to ensure domination of the U.S. and the world. The threat was represented by alien invasions or portrayed in films about home-grown Communist spies or The Manchurian Candidate. Government and business were not only “overwhelmingly trusted,” they were seen as protection against outside conspirators.
According to Arnold, the movie Seven Days in May was a sign things were changing. Arnold points out that while the main story is a plot to overthrow the government, not only was it an internal plot but, when squelched, the government kept its existence secret. Released just months after the Kennedy assassination — “the linchpin in the modern ascent of conspiracy theory in American consciousness” — the film indicated Americans might think their trusted institutions may not be entirely forthcoming. Events of the ensuing months and decade, such as the Warren Report, the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, bolstered such thoughts. Arnold sees cynicism replacing the fear and paranoia of the Cold War as the fuel for conspiracy theory. Government and other institutions could be the potential enemy or, at a minimum, conspire to cover up their wrongdoing.
For Arnold, material like Oliver Stone’s JFK and the popular television series The X-Files reflect the final transition, which began in the 1990s. Cynicism did not disappear; it was supplemented by disaffection. Surprisingly, Arnold points to The Truman Show as one of the prime reflections of this transition, saying that, in some ways, it is “the epitome of conspiracy theory.”
That is certainly open to debate, just as it’s possible to argue whether Arnold should have examined other films (Enemy of the State) or television shows (The Lone Gunmen). Ultimately, though, his analysis supports his thesis. Picking nits about the most significant or relevant films or shows ignores that it is almost impossible for any work on the topic to be all-inclusive. While Conspiracy Theory in Film, Television and Politics doesn’t examine the impact of dozens, if not hundreds, of books, by examining screen portrayals it relies on likely more ubiquitous material.
Arnold, a professor of liberal arts at Montserrat College of Art, generally succeeds in ensuring his book doesn’t take too academic a tone. His writing is clear and both it and his analysis are easy to follow. He does, though, tend to utilize an aspect of academic writing. At various points, he summarizes the premise to be discussed, explores and explains why the premise is valid and then summarizes the premise and its supporting exploration and explanation. While such repetition might be advisable in some settings, it can be bothersome for the average reader.
While Arnold looks at a few post-9/11 screen efforts, Conspiracy Theory in Film, Television and Politics is far from the last word on its topic. It simply is too early to assess or predict the impact of those events on the role and acceptance of conspiracy theory in popular culture. Regardless, this is a credible analysis of how and why conspiracy theory transforms and is transformed by American politics, both literally and metaphorically.
Once the province of the marginalized, the paranoid, or the political extremist, the words “conspiracy theory” are now uttered by ordinary citizens, usually without eliciting much notice.
Gordon B. Arnold, Conspiracy Theory in Film, Television, and Politics