More Options

2002: The Year of the Conspiracy Crank

Kevin Christopher

Skeptical Briefs Volume 12.4, December 2002

Even the crackpot American industrialist Henry Ford, if he were alive today, would have to admit that there simply aren’t enough Illuminati, “International Jews,” or Men in Black to control all of the sinister alleged plots being hatched around the world. If you were paying attention to your television or newspaper over the past twelve months, you might have noticed that down-on-their-luck TV news anchors, state poet laureates, and effroyables auteurs, have joined hair-trigger survivalists and End Times evangelists on the conspiracy snake-oil circuit.

Here’s a quick summary of this year’s crazy cabal of crankery:

“Holy Meter of Zion!”

Amiri Baraka, the New Jersey poet laureate, thinks that the Israeli government had foreknowledge of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center towers. Faced with criticism from several quarters, Baraka circled his wagons rather than surrender to reason. On his Web site he has defended all sorts of bunk, such as the claim of 4,000 Israeli/Jewish absentees from the World Trade Center, citing, of all things, Michael Ruppert’s conspiracy video titled “The Truth and Lies of 9-11.”

In September, Baraka made himself the center of controversy after reading a poem titled “Somebody Blew Up America” at the September 19, 2002, Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Stanhope, New Jersey. In it, he asks who is responsible for a wide variety of current and historical atrocities, including the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. One verse in particular incited outrage among several prominent Jewish groups. The offending verses are as follows:

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed

Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers

To stay home that day

Why did Sharon stay away?

Baraka had been appointed to a two-year term as poet laureate in September 2001 with endorsements from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities and the state’s Council on the Arts. In reaction to the outrage over “Somebody Blew Up America,” New Jersey Governor James McGreevey requested that Baraka apologize and resign from his post; Baraka promptly refused. New Jersey state law makes no provision for removing a poet laureate from the post. However, McGreevey has sought the power to revoke Baraka’s poetic license from state legislators, according an October 7, 2002, New York Times story.

C'est la Conspiracie

Theirry Meyssan rose to worldwide recognition earlier in 2002 as the auteur of one of France’s best-selling books: L'Effroyable Imposture ("The Frightening Deception”). He claims that the destruction at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, was not caused by the impact of hijacked American Airlines Flight 77, but rather a truck bomb. He alleges that the U.S. government covered up this fact from the world as part of a larger scheme by the military-industrial complex to covertly orchestrate the September 11 massacres in order to justify the campaign in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Although sales were brisk, it remains uncertain just how many French readers actually bought into Meyssan’s claims. He jump-started the book’s popularity with an appearance on the French TV infotainment program Tout le Monde en Parle ("Everybody’s Talking About It”). However, the more respectable French media were unwavering in their criticism. According to the weekly journal Le Nouvel Observateur, “The theory suits everyone-there are no Islamic extremists and everyone is happy. It eliminates reality.” Liberation renamed the book A Frightening Confidence Trick and called it “a tissue of wild and irresponsible allegations, entirely without foundation.”

“Number One, Meet Vulcan Ambassador Gumbel on the Bridge!”

In November, the Sci Fi Channel aired two shameless pseudo-documentaries, “Abduction Diaries” and “The Roswell Crash: Startling New Evidence.” These programs were clearly aimed at whetting viewers’ appetites for The X-Files ripoff mini-series drama “Steven Spielberg Presents: Taken,” which aired on ten weeknights, from December 9 to December 13. The drama featured allegations of government UFO cover-ups and other unfounded claptrap, and appears to be aimed at the confused diaspora of displaced X-Files refugees.

Though overwhelmingly dedicated to the UFOlogists like Stanton Friedman, “The Roswell Crash” producers attempted to cover up a lack of credibility by recruiting former NBC Today Show anchor Bryant Gumbel to host and narrate the show. A further gimmick used to hoodwink viewers involved an “excavation” of the Roswell “crash site.” Assorted bags of junk gathered from the site are now in safekeeping at the Wells Fargo Bank in Roswell, “until,” Gumbel proclaims, “they can undergo extensive testing at a materials lab.” “Startling new evidence,” indeed, of the desperate lengths to which Sci Fi producers will go to squeeze the last drop of snake-oil out of the tired Roswell myth.

Recent polls show an increasing belief in alien visitation among otherwise informed Americans. A 2001 Gallup poll revealed that 33 percent of Americans believe that “aliens have visited the [E]arth at sometime in the past.” That’s up from 27 percent in 1990. A 1996 Gallup poll showed that 71 percent of Americans believed that the U.S. government knows more about UFOs than they have told the public. There is not a single shred of good evidence to support such beliefs.

Nevertheless, cash evidently trumps truth at the Sci Fi Channel.

“Al-'Sieg Heil’ Alaykhum,” or “Happy Rommel-dan”

In Egypt, as elsewhere in the Middle East, there’s a growing belief in an international Zionist conspiracy, which is responsible for everything from pro-Israeli American foreign policy to chronic halitosis. This conspiracy theory has culminated in a turgid thirty-part “documentary” series titled “Horsemen without a Horse,” which aired during Ramadan on state-run Channel 2 and the aptly chosen satellite network “Dream TV.” The series tells the story of a fictional early twentieth-century journalist Hafez Naguib, who goes undercover to “discover” the “truth” behind the venerable hoax conspiracy screed known as the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. Mohammed Sobhi, who co-authored the script and plays the role of Hafez Naguib, was quick to defend his magnum opus to Western journalists. Quoted in a November 2 Boston Globe story, Sobhi told Globe correspondent Ashraf Khalil. “I don’t care about the Zionist opposition. We don’t interfere in their work or media, and they also don’t have the right to interfere in our artistic work and media.”

A Shameless Pattern

The most disturbing fact of all of these cases is that the above-mentioned conspiracy claims were not disseminated on poorly printed leaflets at some Idaho White separatist compound. With one exception, these ideas were widely promoted thanks to the ill-formed decisionmakers at major TV networks and publishing houses putting greed over integrity. That said, I’ll leave readers with a quote from Chris Mooney, writing for on November 27, 2002:

Suppose that the truth really is “out there,” as The X-Files postulated, but not exactly where you might expect. In other words, rather than a vast government conspiracy to conceal proof that aliens have visited Earth, perhaps the real plot lies elsewhere. The entertainment industry, for instance, is constantly putting out films, TV shows, and pseudo-documentaries suggesting that Americans are being visited or even abducted in droves by gray-skinned, strangely kinky spacemen-and the government wants to keep it all quiet. . . . Could the real conspiracy be on the part of the mass media and designed to make people believe in UFOs because it helps ratings?

Now that’s a conspiracy theory skeptics can believe in!

Kevin Christopher

Kevin Christopher was, at the time of this writing, public relations director for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal