[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
CLARENCE PAGE: This is the “X-Files,” television’s biggest mystery in several mysterious ways. It features two good-looking FBI agents, Fox Mulder and Dana Sculley, chasing an endless series of whatever–UFO’s, ghosts, a talking tattoo, strange disappearances, a Big Foot or two, and whatever strange, unnatural, and unexplained phenomena they can find.
This program’s ominous, paranoid motto, “The truth is out there,” starts each program–and that’s usually where each program ends, with the truth still out there, right along with the looming suspicion that the government, our government, knows more than it is letting on. Despite the lack of resolution or because of it, the “X-Files” is Fox TV’s biggest hit, a cult hit now in its fourth season. It’s been attracting more viewers than the “Simpsons”, “Melrose Place,” or “Beverly Hills 90210.” The question is: Why? Maybe something about this program’s paranoid premise resonates with our paranoid times.
In the 50′s we had paranoia over fluoride in our drinking water. Then came UFO’s and the assassination of President Kennedy, his brother, Bobby, and of Martin Luther King, Jr.. The age of personal mini cams to record the things we see and the Internet to tell millions of people what we think has given us an explosion of information and of conspiracy theories grounded in the notion that government officials know more than they’re telling us.
One explanation: We love mysteries, including a real-life whodunit–even when the answers look pretty obvious. Consider, for example, Clinton aide Vincent Foster. He apparently killed himself, by himself. Even special prosecutor Kenneth Starr agrees. Yet, a lively industry of Clinton’s skeptics charges a conspiracy, and they have an audience.
Conspiracy theories are a measure of our trust and authority. O.J. Simpson’s defense team relied on theories of police conspiracies and incompetence to make up for their lack of evidence that he didn’t do it. African-Americans, according to polls, don’t trust the police as much as white Americans do, and they trust O.J. more.
Polls also show African-Americans are more likely to believe a grand conspiracy caused the explosion of AIDS, crack cocaine, and assault weapons in big city streets. There’s another big reason why so many people find conspiracy theories to be so attractive. Sometimes their theory turns out to be true. Government scientists did once use dozens of black men as guinea pigs in a syphilis experiment.
FBI agents under J. Edgar Hoover did harass Dr. King and disrupt law-biding civil rights demonstrators. And some CIA operatives as high-ranking as Panamanian President Noriega did traffic in cocaine in the past. Some high-ranking officials even knew about it, according to Senate investigators, and they did little or nothing to stop it. But that’s not quite an active conspiracy.
If there was one, that truth is still out there, way out there. Conspiracy theories answer our hatred of chaos, as well as feed our suspicion of simplicity. We hate the idea that a single assassin could kill the Kennedys or Martin Luther King and cause such disruption and distress for so many. We cling to the belief that life is rational, that things have a plan behind them, that there is someone or something in particular to blame for things that go wrong.
Life is often chaotic. Sometimes even the inept, bungling assassin finds his target. Those are facts, simple, harsh, and unsettling. How much more comforting it is to discount such facts in pursuit of some grand conspiracy, some larger, mysterious, elusive truth. It’s out there–somewhere. (“X-Files Theme Song)
I’m Clarence Page.