I’m going to say some stuff about conspiracy theorists. But for my primary example I’m going to use a hypothetical conspiracy theory about a Disney movie, because the actual conspiracy theories do not need any more airtime.
My college senior honors thesis was about The Lion King and its reactionary politics. Among other things, I argued that in terms of its narrative structure, visual and musical language, and overall messaging, it mapped eerily close to key elements of Nazi propaganda films like Der ewige Jude, Germanin, Der alte un der junge König, and Jud Süß.
While my paper was generally well received, one professor (who admittedly only read the first few pages of a draft) rejected my premise on the logic that higher-ups at Disney at the time were overwhelmingly donating money to the Democratic Party. In revising the paper, I felt I had to reiterate my actual thesis several times to counter that professor’s perception that I assumed the creators of The Lion King did all of this on purpose. That would be the conspiracy theorist’s premise, wherein the movie’s script was hatched by a shadowy elite of Disneycorp fascists, concealed in a lavish bunker below Epcot framed by cryochambers bearing the frozen heads of Walt Disney, Adolph Hitler, and I don’t know maybe Ayn Rand.
My actual premise, instead, was this: The people at Disney were trying to make money. In The Lion King, their first attempt at an animated film with no (acknowledged) source material, they did so by cobbling together a story using the most generically effective filmic and narrative tropes available. Those tropes, already circulating out there in the world, tended to be fairly reactionary anyway, and were the same basic ones around which the Nazis established their worldview. And they clearly still resonate, evidenced in the fact that The Lion King became the most successful animated movie of all time. (Which it was when I wrote the paper. Not any more, though! Currently, the highest grossing animated movie of all time is the 2019 remake of The Lion King.)
In other words, The Lion King isn’t the problem, and neither are its creators. The movie was a litmus test, an accidental filmic and sociological experiment. Filmically, what happens if we make a movie entirely out of our favorite clichés? And sociologically, what if we veil that movie’s randomly produced ideology with the animal fable’s thin universalizing veneer, then see if people buy tickets? If we wind up with a crypto-Nazi propaganda movie that’s also wildly successful, that might mean that the Hitlerian worldview was not some weird inscrutable aberration (as we tend to comfort ourselves by imagining) but essentially aligned with that of current mainstream society. The movie’s record-breaking box office receipts should indicate that if we’re serious about “Never Again,” we probably need to do some self-work.
Let us, for a moment, compare my explanation with that hypothetical conspiracy theory in which an occult cabal of secretly fascist Disney execs make a covert Nazi propaganda movie on purpose. My explanation suggests a problem that is immense and overwhelming, with no obvious solution, and associated with a general society in which I am very much a part and thus complicit. In other words, it’s terrifying, depressing, and perhaps inescapable. The hypothetical conspiracy theory, meanwhile, concentrating the problem in that cabal of Disney execs, renders the problem finite, externalizable, and solvable (with daydreamed violence).
Conspiracy theorists like to imagine they’re seeing below the veil, willing to face down truths that others are unwilling to acknowledge. But what they’re actually doing, usually, is taking a complex and troubling social problem that is both extremely difficult or impossible to solve and in which they, as part of the social structure, are also in some way complicit; and then subscribing to a narrative that externalizes that problem and also makes it solvable. The implicit fantasy is cinematic. There’s a conspiracy, with clearly delineated good guys and bad guys, and the final act involves the protagonist James Bonding their way into the villains’ evil lair and gunning everyone down (a fantasy usually not, and yet nevertheless sometimes, acted upon).
“The Illuminati did the thing” or “the Clintons did the thing” or “Davos did the thing” is just much easier to wrap your mind around than “the social structure of which I am a part did the thing.”
In real life, the biggest threat to Sarah Connor is Kyle Reese
In the original Terminator, there’s a scene where the noble and strong-jawed Kyle Reese is being interrogated by a condescending, shabbily dressed, balding and also definitely Jewish police psychologist, attempting to explain that a murder robot from the future is trying to kill his date. Discussing the tape of the interrogation with his police colleagues as well as Sarah Connor (the woman in question), this Dr. Silberman makes a smug observation that many non-conspiracy theorists have made about conspiracy theorists, namely that their paranoid delusions operate according to a logic whose internal coherence renders any introduction of evidence irrelevant.
A nail-biting Sarah Connor is the silent focus of this scene, as she tries to decide who to believe and, in the process, determine according to the movie’s narrative rules whether she deserves to live or die. Here the movie divides its world into four categories: (1) the villain who needs destroying (the T-800), (2) the Enlightened, committed to that destruction (Reese), (3) the false expert who advantages the villain by shortsightedly shielding the world from the truth (Silberman), and (4) those duped by that false expertise (the rest of the cops). Notably, it’s the people in that final category who by allowing themselves to be lulled into complacency by the false expert come to deserve their imminent deaths at the hands of the villain. The Terminator is an impersonal force, a literal robot and figurative act of God, meting out destruction on the nonbelievers. The emotional impact of the Terminator’s subsequent massacre on the police station isn’t horror at all the death, it’s vindication at “see? They should have listened to Kyle Reese!” (For a similar scene that’s actually going for the horrified reaction, see the opening of Three Days of the Condor.)
In the real world, of course, if I told a psychologist that I have this gun because I time-traveled nakedly from some dystopian future to protect a local waitress from the homicidal attentions of a far beefier also-naked human-looking future cyborg who is definitely not a projection of my own desires and whom I was planning to shoot with it—and really, this is regardless of how chiseled my own features were—a diagnosis of dangerous paranoid delusion would be entirely in order and moreover anything else would probably be malpractice. It’s only in the movie’s universe where disbelieving my story changes your death from “omg terrible” to “too bad, but you really should have listened.”
That’s the cinematic reality that conspiracy theorists live in all the time. And here’s the thing about that reality—it’s actually highly comforting, and much less scary and confusing than the real world. In the real world, women are killed every day not by implacable badass assassins but by the men closest to them, who claim and believe themselves to be their protectors—a problem to which the solutions are more difficult, more uncomfortable, and more boring.
Stay tuned for a future blog post, “Sometimes Also There Really are Conspiracies.”