The Other Columbus: Conspiracies ain’t what they used to be

When tech surveils our every move, billionaires go unchecked and governments openly oppress, secret cabals are hardly the issue.

Scott Woods
The Eye of Providence, which conspiracy theorists associate with the Illuminati, on the back of a $1 bill.

Back when I was a burgeoning activist, the people I ran with would dig up all manner of theories, then draw conclusions that seemed just reasonable enough that I felt it necessary to make a change in my life. Some of them were pretty wild — looking at you, genetically engineered albino mutants — but some of them were shovel-ready, like the Illuminati symbolism on dollar bills. I couldn’t tell you how many nights we spent connecting dots, and this was before we had random YouTubers to support any claim we came up with. These days, it’s a whole different PSYOP. 

If you consider the outcomes of traditional conspiracy theories, you’d likely come to the conclusion that no one really needs a conspiracy anymore. The government isn’t exactly hiding all of the horrible things they do. They just run a screen on the press with waffling statements and wait for the news cycle to swallow the story. Who needs a shadow government when your regular strength government is so baldly horrific, and any defense required consists of gaslighting the media? Ne’er-do-wells can generate the same results without the rigmarole of actually having to put “cover-up costs” in their budgets. 

The proliferation of social media has created a floodgate of constant information that no one has time to process. Reading comprehension is worse, and attention spans have shrunk because of the deluge of headlines. The critical lobotomization of the public through an overabundance of technology and media content has made the need to enact a conspiracy in the traditional sense a largely wasteful exercise. Good lord: Even stating that reality sounds like a theory. It’s a scheme that probably would have had legs 15 years ago if we weren’t all busy rushing to create MySpace pages, pulling our hair out over which five friends to feature to make us look worth following. Which I guess is a long way of saying, it worked without actually having to be a conspiracy.

But seriously, think about it (which is how every conspiracy theorist starts a spiel): What do we need the Illuminati for when we have Amazon? 614 billionaires exploded their net worth last year by $931 billion while tens of millions of Americans lost their jobs. If your main concern is that a secret cabal controls the world, how is the goal of such an organization any different than getting people to act the way we do on Prime Day?

More:The List: Six reasons QAnon is a load of crap

As a Black person in America, I have a special relationship with conspiracies. Compared to most cagey conspiracists I know, I’m way less radical when it comes to social machinations. I’ll admit that it isn’t hard to understand why some of us might quickly latch onto a conspiracy: America has implemented so many actual and unquestionable evils against us that while the conspiracies often pale to the truth, you want to make sense of it all. You want to believe that there is a villain or reasons, and not that the whole bathtub is simply filled with evil water.

But it is that same history that shields me from going too far down any rabbit holes that suggest that the plans are any more nefarious than what I can observe. Do you really need to sell the idea of the CIA pumping drugs into particular communities in an effort to destroy them when those communities already have unchecked police, mass incarceration, rampant gentrification, failed schools, food deserts, rampant unemployment, voter suppression and redlining?  

I’m not saying there isn’t still room for a good, old-fashioned conspiracy. A number of the greatest hits from my 20s turned out to be legit: COINTELPRO infiltrating Black organizations, George Washington’s teeth, and general surveillance were all things we researched back then that were eventually revealed to be true (though, admittedly, they were some of the easier ones). 

If I could do away with a single conspiracy “goal,” it would be any theory that suggests tracking as the aim of the plot. Every time I see someone broadcasting on Facebook Live warning people about being tracked, I laugh out loud. The life of a social media influencer looks pretty cool until you realize that they have basically made a career out of being surveilled. 

For many years I did not have a cellphone. I only acquired one in the last couple of years for business purposes. But even before getting my phone I still felt that I could be tracked through my use of computers, credit card, social media and my TV viewing habits. I don't say any of this to suggest everyone should get comfortable with surveillance by the state. I tell you this so that you do not waste time in a war you have already lost, or worse, agreed to lose. There are plenty of battles to fight without making up targets.