Tracey Barnett: Conspiracy as the opium of the people

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We see what we want to see.

Princess Diana is pictured sporting an illegitimate Muslim "baby bump" in a leopard swimsuit and suddenly Prince Phil's past racial faux pas spell murder. Never mind that the caption underneath states that the photo was taken before Diana had ever romanced Dodi al-Fayed.

In dire confusion, I wonder if this explains why my swimsuit silhouette confirms I've been three months pregnant for a good 12 years now.

Or, if facts inconveniently trump images, I can wait until someone hears my American accent any time near September 11 and listen to them launch into a discourse on The Truth.

The theory goes that it was a US missile, not a commercial jet, that slammed into the Pentagon building that September 11 morning, creating a hole too narrow for a jet's wingspan. The World Trade Centre didn't fall from a terrorist plane; it toppled from a controlled demolition. And an American military fighter accounted for the downing of United flight 93.

I'm supposed to finally realise that the US Government was so intent on invading the Middle East, it was willing to bite itself on the Achilles.

Maybe you missed the one about officials intentionally flooding black neighbourhoods in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina? I won't even go back further to the old bust-ups over the grassy knoll, studio moon landings, or the fictitious Holocaust.

It's peak reality du jour; the savvy among us know that nothing is as it seems. If you are intelligent enough, sophisticated enough, or cynical enough, the truth can be uncoiled from the hidden snake of evil political machinations - once you figure out how to charm that sucker out of its basket.

Seeing the political world from an Oliver Stone perspective is easy. Growing up, the Zapruder home movie of the Kennedy assassination was as much a part of my childhood as Kermit the Frog. I'm supposed to get it. But I refuse.

These fractured fairy tales stink. If you are a "sheeple", as Conspiracists would label me, it would be easy enough to laugh off some of the wilder theories with researched fact - but there's a problem.

The pungency of these conspiracy theories is spreading like weapons of mass hate. This is no fringe occurrence, it is worldwide. Today, millions of Americans think that Saddam Hussein was directly involved in September 11 and that most of the 9/11 terrorists were Iraqis.

A Scripps-Howard poll recently found a whopping 36 per cent of Americans thought it "very likely" or "somewhat likely" that US Government officials either allowed the attacks or carried out the attacks themselves.

On the flip side, many in the Arab world believe a myth that 4000 Jews working in the World Trade Centre had been warned to stay home that day. A Pew Global Attitudes poll found that the number who do not believe that Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks is soaring; 59 per cent of Turks and Egyptians, 65 per cent of Indonesians, 53 per cent of Jordanians, 41 per cent of Pakistanis, and even 56 per cent of British Muslims, as reported in the Washington Post.

What are we looking for when we substitute the simplest answer for some mysterious, more exciting complexity? Is this the ultimate in political sophistication or just mass denial when real answers are loaded with complicated truths that we don't want to see?

It's natural to look for meaning and explanation to give us a sense of control over something that feels bigger than we are. But today we have learned to jettison the obvious truth for the conspiracy du jour - and what do you know - it just so happens to confirm our existing beliefs. Psychologists call that "confirmation bias."

We're fostering a world where the truth can be picked out of a hat. Arabs, Jews or Americans themselves felled the Twin Towers, depending on whether you sit in Tel Aviv, Tehran, or Texas.

We are creating a new politics of hidden agenda, and the biggest irony of all is that it's smothering the simplest truths.

Sociologist Frank Furedi of the University of Kent warns that this simplistic worldview of conspiracy thinking displaces critical engagement with public life and instead replaces it with a destructive search for hidden motives, for the story behind the story as a way of avoiding larger core issues.

Isn't that what this is really all about, our inability to see the ugliness of the world as it sometimes is?

Two children continue shouting about who started the fight because neither is ready to begin the process of figuring out how to play together again.

Sometimes a tragedy is just a tragedy. Maybe it's just as simple as that - at least that's how any lone "sheeple" would see it from this grassy knoll.

What we are blindly refusing to see is how to fix it.

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