I want to expand a bit on my remark yesterday about why people find comfort in such things as elaborate 911 conspiracy theories. I’ve have touched on this before in previous posts, but I believe it’s an important point and deserves deeper discussion. Understanding this tendency not only helps understand a lot of history, it can lead to a better understanding of our own beliefs. And in my case it helps me understand where people are coming from and sympathize, even if I disagree. It has even led me to suspect or modify some of my own beliefs.
However, let me explain more what I mean by comfortable illusions. Basically what started me thinking about this was when I realized that when nations lose wars, it is not all unusual for some myth to arise that “explains” why they lost the war. For example it was and is widely believed that Harold lost the Battle of Hastings in 1066 because he glanced upwards and was struck in the eye by an arrow. It was widely believed in Germany after World War One that they lost the war because of a Jewish fifth column inside Germany. And of course many Americans believe that we lost the Vietnam War because we lost our will and chose to lose. I’m sure any number of other examples could be gleaned from history with little trouble.
This phenomena is not limited to wars of course, any sort of disaster will engender myths that explain it. Conspiracy theories after 911 and the Kennedy assassination leap to mind. I mean Dear God, if they had had the Internet after Kennedy’s death there would have been millions of sites promoting various conspiracy theories within days, we can all be thankful the Internet wasn’t around then. In all likelihood a disgruntled nut with an old rifle killed the president with what can only be described as a lucky shot. These things happen.
Why do people put such stock in these myths? It seems fairly obvious to me. Such theories make dealing with the truth far more palatable. The English didn’t want to believe that all of England was conquered in a day because a handful of effete French Knights had outfoxed their King in battle and hacked him to pieces. The Germans didn’t want to believe that their leaders had gotten them into a hopeless two front war and then botched the conduct of the war as well. And many Americans still resist the idea that that Kennedy and Johnson lied them into a pointless and unwinnable war.
A more subtle version of this is people’s belief in Atlantis. The myth of Atlantis is that there was this advanced civilization in prehistory that was destroyed by some terrible cataclysm, but that the refuges from Atlantis dispersed around the globe, passing on much of their knowledge to other people and accounting for pyramids all over the globe etc. What terrible truth does this illusion mask? Oddly enough at the time the Atlantis myth arose in the late nineteenth century, scientists were showing that civilization had not started with the Greeks and Romans, and that brown people all over the world had independently created great civilizations that parallelled the accomplishments of the Europeans. Some of them even while the Romans and Greeks were still herding sheep and living in hide huts.
Sacre Bleu! White people aren’t inherently superior to brown or yellow people? A lost master race of white people was much more comforting than facing the fact that there was nothing particularly special about white people in any anthropological or historical sense. This is why there are still millions of people who fervently believe in Atlantis, though of course they would not want to admit it or even look at the possibility for the most part. And as previously discussed, by using retrofitting to search for support for your beliefs, one will find such “evidence.” For of course there is zero evidence that Atlantis even existed, aside from a few passages in Plato. Believing in the literal existence of Atlantis is literally like believing in the Emerald City of Oz.
It comes right down to it I suspect this tendency colours much of human belief, it easily helps explain why religion is so popular for one thing. I’m sure sociologists and psychologists have studied this at length, but I think the man in the street needs to be more aware of this. In some cases belief’s like this are relatively harmless, the arrow in the eye example above for instance. In others, like German’s belief that the Jews lost World War One for them, can obviously be parlayed into terrible things by those who would take advantage of this innate human tendency.
And as I stated for 911, it’s a lot more comforting to believe that it was all some vast internal conspiracy than the truth. The truth is that a guy on a cave on the other side of the planet plotted and pulled off a terrible crime right under the noses of the people who have been given trillions of dollars in protection money to defend us. And it’s too late to get our money back. In fact many of America’s myths have to do with protecting the idea that America and its government is special and unique and superior to other nations. In reality, because we call ourselves a superpower…doesn’t mean we have super powers.
(The above image is believed to be public domain under US copyright law. It was an early illustration for the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, artist unknown, circa 1900.)