The hopeless appeal of conspiracy theories

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It was an overheard conversation on a bus; four boys, about 20, sprawling noisily at the back, explaining the world to each other. Or, at any rate, explaining the real deal behind Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

"It's entertainment, yeah? It ain't real, know what I mean?" "What you mean, it ain't real?" "They ain't handing out no million quid, right?" "Yeah, but they ask them questions, right, and then they give them the cheque, man." "Yeah, you right, they give them the cheque, you see the cheque in they hand, know what I'm saying?"

"You think they gonna give a million quid, just 'cos you answer them questions? It's a quiz show, yeah, it's entertainment?" "What you saying, man?" "Listen up, it's all actors, right, you know what I mean? They pay them actors to come on and tell them the answers, right, and then they pretend they don't know and they have to phone a friend, you know what I mean, and then, right, they give them a cheque, but like a fake cheque, on the telly, like, and then they give it back when they cameras off. You know what I'm saying?"

"Man, that's wrong." "You tell me, right - you ever know anyone who get on Millionaire? You ever heard of anyone who know anyone who get on Millionaire? You don't hear of no one, right? I tell you why - they all actors. There ain't no million quid." "Yeah, but, right, there was that one time, the man, he cheat, yeah, and they gave him the million quid, then, right, they take it back 'cos he cheat." "Yeah, right, you think them not acting, too? I tell you, there ain't no million quid." Awed silence. "Man, that's wrong."

This riveting conversation probably continued all the way to Oxford Circus, but my stop intervened, and I had to get off: I expect the salient points had probably been made by then, however.

The conspiracy theory struck me as particularly thrilling. It actually seemed quite plausible to these boys that a television company would find it worthwhile to hire huge numbers of actors to impersonate the contestants and audience on a quiz show, none of whom would ever subsequently reveal the fact; that it could carry out the massive fraud outlined with impunity; that it could actually sue a cheating contestant in the high courts, and that the whole secret would remain undisclosed.

Perhaps, if I'd remained on the bus, they would have gone on to explain that the legal system was in on the secret, and agreed to carry out a fake trial, perhaps with the connivance of the entire media. All this seemed more likely than the simple truth, that even with substantial prizes, a television company can make enormous profits out of a quiz show involving premium-rate phone lines. As John Osborne says: "One day, the cunning and the unteachable will run the show and give no quarter." And the prime occupation of the cunning and the unteachable now is thinking up conspiracy theories. Who killed Diana or JFK; who invented Aids and who is keeping the cure from Africa? Each subject attracts a huge roster of theories. The only thing they all have in common is that the real state of affairs is quite obvious. Diana died in a speeding car driven by a drunk; JFK was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone; Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? hands out prizes according to the success of the contestants.

But conspiracy theories attract not just the cunning and the unteachable, but the essentially dispossessed. I've written before about the fact that The Matrix, that Cartesian fantasy about a "reality" controlled by malevolent machines, proved extraordinarily popular with urban black audiences. To them, the idea that their lives were hopeless because of unseeable, malignant forces seemed quite plausible.

I've noticed that, even in England, black people are more ready to hold beliefs about powerful forces, plotting against the underdog. Of course, the boys on my bus could have been white; they happened to be black, and to all of them, the theory seemed surprising but not impossible. Similarly, I've been very surprised to hear very rational black people say that they believe that hospitals, particularly psychiatric hospitals, in Britain deliberately carry out malign experiments on racial minorities. This is a surprisingly common belief; and when you try to pour cold water on it, it is worth remembering that the Afro-Caribbean population in Britain is up to five times more likely to suffer from schizophrenia than the white population. Only in Britain: the rates in the Caribbean are the same as for white British people.

Sometimes conspiracy theories are true, as in the extraordinary tale of the Ukraine elections; sometimes they are funny, and I was amused by the Millionaire one. But often they are dangerous and damaging; who knows what "explanations" are being passed around Iraq relating to the Western-sponsored elections?

Invariably, a firm belief in such things indicates a psychological helplessness; a feeling that you yourself can make no difference. You can't win a quiz show; you may be confined through artificially-induced schizophrenia; all elections resemble Ukraine's. We should pay attention to conspiracy theories; even though they rarely come true, their prevalence says something worrying about how people see their lives, their chances.