Morpheus: I imagine that right now you’re feeling a bit like Alice. Tumbling down the rabbit hole?
Neo: You could say that.
Morpheus: I can see it in your eyes. You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he’s expecting to wake up. Ironically, this is not far from the truth. Do you believe in fate, Neo?
Morpheus: Why not?
Neo: ‘Cause I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.
Morpheus: I know exactly what you mean. Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know, you can’t explain. But you feel it. You felt it your entire life. That there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there. Like a splinter in your mind — driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Neo: The Matrix?
Morpheus: Do you want to know what it is?
(Neo nods his head.)
Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere, it is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, or when go to church or when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison for your mind. (long pause, sighs) Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back.
(In his left hand, Morpheus shows a blue pill.)
Morpheus: You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. (a red pill is shown in his other hand) You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. (Long pause; Neo begins to reach for the red pill) Remember — all I am offering is the truth, nothing more.
- The Matrix
I do not think many of us would need an explanation where the famous dialogue is coming from: the 1999 movie “The Matrix” is iconic in the SF canon. The basic premise that nothing is what it seems: we are all puppets of an oppressive system which keeps us in blissful ignorance. There will be the occasional doubt, the flash of sudden clarity, gone before it can be clearly registered in the mind. You remain a slave unless and until you are ready to swallow the red pill (which itself has become a metaphor)
I was reminded of this movie the moment I picked up the book Debunked! by Richard Roeper, popular columnist from The Chicago Sun-Times. In this book, Roeper goes on to enumerate and systematically demolish various “conspiracy theories” – defined as “an explanatory proposition that accuses two or more persons, a group, or an organization of having caused or covered up, through secret planning and deliberate action, an illegal or harmful event or situation” (Wikipedia). We have many, some truly momentous and global (“9/11 was an inside job”) and some of a more mundane nature (“American idol is fixed”).
The basic premise of a conspiracy theory can be explained in one sentence – “nothing is what it seems”. They usually highlight some arguably improbable aspect of a famous incident and try to establish that the incident did not happen in the way the official report of it goes. So why was it modified? Because some conspiracy is to be covered up. By whom? By “THEM” – the all-powerful establishment, corporate group, fifth column… and those who debunk the theory that such a conspiracy happened? Why, obviously they have been bought off – or frightened into submission.
The beauty of this scheme is that a conspiracy theory can never be disproved even if they cannot be proved; because all adherents will simply dismiss any evidence against it as manufactured. And since unusually powerful underground agencies are at work, nothing is beyond their power. Our only recourse is to swallow the red pill.
One of the most famous and enduring theories of recent times is that the 9/11 attacks were planned and executed by the US Government itself, to provide them with a valid excuse to wage war with the Islamic world. Even though it takes a staggering leap of faith to believe that the government of a country would murder so many of its own citizens and destroy millions of dollars’ worth of property to build up a pretext for war, conspiracy theorists do so based on one flimsy piece of “evidence” – steel does not melt, so the twin towers could not have collapsed in on itself due to fire from external impact. It was the work of strategically planted bombs within the facility. This they will repeat, even after we comprehensively prove that steel does not have to melt, only deform for the building to fall down. But as Roeper says, no amount of common sense arguments will satisfy the conspiracy theorist – he will still hold on to the most tenuous of circumstantial “evidence” to substantiate his pet theory.
I did not find Roeper’s book earth-shaking – it’s funny and good to while away a few hours on a long haul flight or a boring wait at a doctor’s or dentist’s, that’s all – but it got me interested in conspiracy theories in general. Because with advent of the internet, they have been spreading like wildfire. India is no exception. One of the persistent ones is the one about Rajiv Gandhi being born a Muslim (Feroze Gandhi, his father, is Feroze Khan according to this legend) and a converted Christian. The story goes on make all kinds of accusations about Sonia’s family and ultimately hints that her whole idea of marrying Rajiv Gandhi was a takeover of India. (This is surprisingly paralleled by the urban legend of Barack Obama being a Muslim, and the Islamic takeover of America.)
Another legend doing the rounds is the one about the Taj Mahal being a Hindu temple called Tejo Mahalaya. According to this, there are locked chambers inside the building where the original Hindu idols are stashed. But God alone knows why the government wants to keep it hidden.
Why do we believe in conspiracy theories? Wikipedia discusses exhaustively on the subject. According to my reading, the main reason is a sense of insecurity. As W. B. Yeats said:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
In an increasingly complex and frightening world, where there is no stability any more, we have a need to believe it’s not all just random. There are enemies, within and without. Hindus suspect Muslims, Muslims suspect Hindus, Americans suspect Arabs, conservatives suspect liberals… so when something goes wrong, it’s a plot: by the dreaded “THEM”. The faceless, nameless horde which swoops down on us in the darkness of night; the dark figures pulling the strings which manipulate the puppets who are running the government. It’s a classic case of shadow projection.
Conspiracy theories can be dangerous. For example, the Reichstag fire was used by Hitler to “prove” that communists were plotting against Germany and was key to the establishing of Nazi rule. Similarly, politicians have used isolated incidents worldwide as proof of conspiracy to cement their rule and as an excuse for ethnic cleansing.
A heady dose of common sense is the only way to fight against such nonsense. We have to swallow the red pill – but not in the sense Morpheus meant. The red pill here would help us to shine the cold, hard light of logic on the nebulous strands of vapid fancy which constitute such theories, and see them evaporate.
But then, they are always good for good science fiction story!