This summer while riding the MARTA in Atlanta, I overheard a conversation between a nurse and her friend. She was complaining to him about a laundry list of social ills, culminating in Obama’s sudden support for gay marriage and he told her completely deadpan that it was because of the Illuminati. She nodded her acceptance of his explanation and their conversation went on without a beat as they shared their concern over the growing number of government officials under Illuminati control. Two weeks ago, when I heard this conversation, my main concern was holding in my laughter long enough to exit the train. A lot has changed in the past two weeks. It was before I watched the man that 69 million people entrusted with their civil liberties in 2008 proclaim that “100% privacy” is no longer an option. Suddenly, the idea of an undemocratic elite quietly steering our public affairs isn’t quite so absurd.
It’s no accident that democracies tend to be less superstitious than other forms of government. Democracy is expressly designed to take the mystery out of public affairs. “Sunshine laws” are designed to dispel the shadows of back room deals, and for every election we devise new ways to calculate public support for each candidate, policy and law. Theoretically, there should be no surprises. Yet as the current scandal over potentially massive surveillance of U.S. citizens unfolds, the one constant is our lack of information. When asked about the program, some members of Congress have referred vaguely to confidential terrorist attacks that the program has helped to foil. Others have denied having knowledge of the program at all. The overall picture is a state of pervasive political uncertainty.
There are many reactions to this uncertainty. Some liberals have chosen to resolve the cognitive dissonance between what they thought they voted for and what they got by rationalizing Obama’s choices. (Although Gallup found that 76 percent of Democrats disapproved of warrantless surveillance in 2006, only 40 percent disapprove today.) Others have turned to humor, with excellent dark offerings like the “Obama Is Checking Your Email” blog. And now, growing numbers have turned to conspiracy theories to explain how the system really works. According to a recent PPP poll of conspiracy theories, 28 percent of voters now believe in the New World Order: the “secretive power elite with a globalist agenda conspiring to eventually rule the world.”
A few days ago, I called a friend and told him about the conversation I overheard on the train. He laughed and then I lost the signal and the line went dead. I remember saying “Hello?” a few times and hearing only static on the other end. Yet, somewhere in the static was the conversation’s third participant, a man or machine 800 miles away, recording the length, location and potentially the content of my call. Perhaps, hearing the word “conspiracy,” the man or machine flagged the conversation for further scrutiny. Under such circumstances, it is becomes increasingly difficult to speak freely and impossible to protect one’s right to privacy.
One potential cause for optimism is the continuing efforts of organizations like the ACLU who are attempting to succeed in court where we have failed at the ballot box. Another is to resist our temptation to give politicians on our side a free pass when they neglect our core values. Finally, we can stand to learn a little from the conspiracy theorists and their constant skepticism toward the official story. As improbable as their alternative theories seem, every so often, they’re right.