About a year ago, we had a little get-together. Sitting in the back yard, we talked amiably about all sorts of things. At one point, however, one of our guests, a nice and otherwise sensible person, announced that she doesn't believe man has traveled to the moon. It was faked, she insisted.
I assumed she was kidding, making light of a well-traveled conspiracy theory that the moon landing was filmed on a Hollywood soundstage. But she was absolutely serious.
The history of half-baked ideas is long and tortured. But for the most part, bizarre beliefs have remained on the fringe, where they belong.
In recent years, however, a few of these screwball theories have been gaining more adherents than feels comfortable. I try not to adopt H.L. Mencken's general assessment of the American people as "boobus americanus," but sometimes you have to wonder.
In some cases, fringe fads are fairly harmless, such as the notion that Elvis Presley didn't really die of a drug overdose in 1977 but lived on, anonymously, outside the spotlight. Elvis sightings were reported for years after his death.
Other such ideas are more troubling. A Pew Research Center survey released this week reported that 20 percent of Americans believe President Obama is a Muslim. This is false, yet, without a shred of evidence to support the claim, one in five Americans believes it.
The writer Alexander Zaitchick recently penned an article listing the "Top 10 Right-Wing Conspiracy Theories." He notes that some of them have bled into mainstream discourse through political commentators such as Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs.
From chemtrails in the sky to FEMA concentration camps, door-to-door gun confiscations to the "North American Union," fear of an impending "new world order" takes hold in these paranoid minds. Meanwhile, the far left and far right share a twisted theory that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were a nefarious plot by the U.S. government.
Why do people come to believe these things? Declining trust in the mainstream media, combined with wider dissemination of extreme voices, is no doubt part of it -- but it can't be the underlying reason.
The human inclination during times of great turmoil is to simplify a complex world into "a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil," the political scientist Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1964. Hofstadter said conspiracy theorists envision the "enemy" as "a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman -- sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history. ... He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced."
It's not difficult to imagine someone with this warped world view drawing all kinds of wild conclusions from events such as 9/11 and the global economic meltdown.
Another common practice during troubled times is to identify someone to blame. In the past, Jews and African-Americans were targets. Amid the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, many Americans have targeted Hispanic illegal immigrants as the cause of all our problems. If we could just deport them, the theory goes, all would be well again.
Of course, it's not so simple. Theorists would be wiser to direct their wrath at the geniuses of Wall Street than blue-collar illegal immigrants as the primary perpetrators of the economic crisis.
Which brings us to the current tempest to bring out the basest instincts in some people: the planned mosque near "Ground Zero" in New York City. Few question the right to build the center. Most of us seem to agree that religious freedom is a primary tenet of American life and law. But there is nonetheless a strong sentiment across the land that building a mosque next to this "hallowed ground" would be an affront to the 9/11 victims.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it suggests all Muslims are radical extremists who would attack America by hijacking a commercial jetliner and flying it into a skyscraper. This is not true. The overwhelming majority of Muslims in America are peace-loving people who condemn the actions of terrorists as sincerely as members of other religious faiths do. Suggesting that all Muslims are terrorists is as outlandish as suggesting that all Mormons are polygamists or that all Southern Baptists kill abortion doctors.
And yet, rank bigotry persists. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said funding sources for the proposed mosque should be investigated to find out whether unsavory elements are involved in the project. "We are at war with al-Qaida," King said, apropos of nothing.
There are more than enough horrible, scary things in the real world without having to invent new ones. Elvis died, we landed on the moon and not all Muslims are terrorists. Let's move on.
Geoff Schumacher (email@example.com) is the Review-Journal's director of community publications. His column appears Friday.