Conspiracies in America

I have been rereading the late Edward Said‘s incisive book Culture and Imperialism, and I was intrigued by the following observation:

“It takes very little for a non-American to accept as a starting point that most, if not all, political assassinations are conspiracies, because that is the way the world is. But a chorus of American sages takes acres of print to deny that conspiracies exist in America, since ‘we’ represent a new, and better, and more innocent world.”

Said wrote this in the early nineties, before The X-Files made the phrase “conspiracy theory” so commonplace. Nonetheless, I do think Said’s point remains valid (in fact his entire project seems more relevant today than ever before).

The United States government and the mass media readily and insistently deny that conspiracies occur in America. Meanwhile in the rest of the world it is taken for granted that a conspiracy exists behind every political assassination. Assassinations (and their failed attempts) in America–JFK, MLK, George Wallace, Reagan–are, in the final analysis, attributed to the now archetypal “lone gunman.” This killer is characterized as an unstable, deranged, marginal figure. He is an isolated incident, and the larger community has no role in or responsibility for his actions. According to the nation’s official narrative, then, a sort of rabid madness drives assassinations in America.

What does this say about America, that this is how many would prefer we see ourselves?

It’s not a pretty picture, this vision of a stark raving madman, lurking on the fringes. Which explains the proliferation of conspiracy-laced counter-narratives, in which a cabal of reasonable middle-aged white men in smoky rooms pull the strings of history.

In either case, you or I can abdicate responsibility. It’s either a bloodthirsty lunatic or an inaccessible shadowy group who’s at fault. Both fables release American citizens at-large from any culpability, and both, therefore, are retrograde ideologies which severely limit our political imaginations.