Conspiracy theories, Antonin Scalia, and myth

by John MacBeath Watkins

An overweight, 79-year-old man dies in his sleep. Nothing unusual about that, except that he was Antonin Scalia, a conservative Supreme Court justice who was instrumental in remaking federal law and overturning numerous precedents.

Soon, people begin claiming he was murdered. Some were the usual suspects, such as Alex Jones, a radio personality who traffics in conspiracy theories, who claimed Scalia might have been killed by the Illuminati (a secretive group founded in Bavaria in the 1770s and generally considered to have ceased to exist by 1790.) Jones also claimed that there was a plot to eliminate the Bill of Rights and constitution, that there is a "foreign offshore coup" in America, so his claim that the Illuminati are still in business and killing people is perhaps unsurprising.

A day later, Feb. 15, presidential candidate Donald Trump went on Michael Savage's radio show and hopped on the conspiracy bandwagon, taking seriously the question of whether Scalia was murdered and claiming that the jurist had been found with a pillow on his face, a claim that was based on an eyewitness who had said the pillow was on Scalia's head, but not on his face.

These sorts of conspiracy theories have been common since the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Figures ranging from Lyndon Johnson to Fidel Castro have been blamed for Kennedy's death, and yes, there are people who theorize that the Illuminati killed JFK.

Why do these conspiracy theories arise?

My theory is that when we are faced with momentous occurrences, the banal, realistic explanation fails to give us a sense of control. It is so lacking in any sort of plan or teleology, that such an important person should die at a critical time, after all. Surely there must be an explanation that fits a pattern of meaning, rather than this being a random death of a man who was merely mortal.

We are, after all, creatures who make meaning and see patterns in the universe. It is comforting to think that someone is in control, or even that there are competing forces of good and evil vying for control, rather than to think that old men do die, and seldom choose the time or place.

Justice Scalia lived a good life and a significant one. That will be a comfort for those who loved him, but it is not enough for those who see the world changing and want to hold someone responsible.

We understand our world by telling stories about it. We must decide what makes a satisfactory story. Disciplines from physics to history have developed standards for what is a convincing story, but not everyone buys into the expertise of these specialists.

What makes a satisfying story for some people is one with an element of magic to it, a story with a majesty that feels compatible with the importance of events.

We are not so far from the days of myth and omen, and we still have a yearning to know what really happened, as opposed to the bald narrative of a death certificate. For some groups of people, conspiracy theories are myths that weave the world into something they can understand and accept.

They are too far from faith to accept that it is the will of God, to far from academic disciplines to believe in the standards of truth a judge or a historian would accept. They think, oh, he died just then, what a coincidence, which is a statement I would sincerely accept, but they mean it to be ironic, because they want to be wised up, to know the things others do not.

Wake up sheeple! they cry, and present their lovely fantasy to a world that, for the most part, won't accept it.

But they know, they know. The world cannot be the ordinary place where a death has no meaning, and is completely unplanned. It is a significant death, so there must be a web of meaning around it other than the obvious.

And every proof that they are wrong is part of the cover-up, confirming their belief in the narrative they've chosen, because why would there be such a concerted effort to deny it if there were not secret, subterranean forces at work in a wold of ghostly shadow empires?

I picture our ancestors watching a volcano destroy a nearby island, and inventing causes with a majesty to match the explosion of a mountain. We aren't new at myth making, we know it and we love it.

And still, when a significant event occurs, we invent a myth to explain it.