One August day in 2004, my husband Gerry and I boarded a train in Chicago for Salt Lake City. We dragged along our eleven-year-old son and his friend, who had suddenly morphed into a teenager. Our plan was to visit my old college roommate Donna, and then to explore the canyons by car.
Besides the grumpy, fast-food addicted kids, the thrills and pitfalls of Amtrak, and the splendors of Utah, what stood out about this journey was my introduction to conspiracy literature. Not the right-wing variety now plaguing our country, but the spooky, oddly spiritual stuff popularized in The Da Vinci Code. Donna’s husband Juan had filled their home with so many boxes of such findings that we had to stay in a motel.
The first time I’d met Juan, in 1974, Donna and I were graduating from Indiana University. I was shocked that her boyfriend was a rabid Republican. Now, all these years later, he still had no use for liberals, but only because he considered us naive. He spent three days indoctrinating Gerry and me about how both political parties (not just Republicans) were simply the puppets of the global elite.
We left Salt Lake with our world turned upside down. Our entertainment on the highway was deciphering the illuminati symbolism of corporate logos on semis. Back in Cincinnati, we poured through Juan’s recommended tomes. These authors’ version of history was rife with secret societies, dark money, and assassinations. Yet it all was disturbingly well documented. I was dismayed by the revelations about historical figures and politicians I’d admired.
I mostly kept this life-altering perspective to myself, though, not wanting people rolling their eyes at me. The idea that we were living out the nefarious agenda of the then-unnamed One Percent was deemed quite crazy. Surely even the super-rich just aren’t that united, the argument went.
The conspiracy theorists’ predictions for the next decade or two were so grim that I eventually turned to Gerry and declared that, true or not, I refused to live my life with such a depressing world-view. If there was some kind of master plan, I didn’t want to know about it. I would just carry on “as if.”
I certainly didn’t want to believe that even seemingly miraculous breakthroughs were cleverly manipulated by the shadowy elite. I chose to work on Obama’s campaign, and rejoiced with all my friends when he took the helm. For a good eight years, I tried hard to believe an equitable world was on its way, peacefully evolving with quiet inevitability.
But I never really could rid myself of the specter of the ever-tightening global noose. It haunted me with each day’s news. Wealth was being steadily concentrated in the hands of the few before our very eyes. The middle class was disappearing. Minimum wage had long ceased to be a living wage. When enlightened municipalities tried to create more just wage structures, gerrymandered state legislators overrode them.
I have not dared to revisit the conspiracy books, but I’m pretty sure even some of their most mind-numbing predictions have come true. Even the word “creepy,” once used to describe my horror at the Skull and Bones initiation rites, now applies to daily reality in Washington and Moscow. And it no longer feels extreme to imagine the manipulators at the top of the “pyramid” saying, “We let you have your black president: what a perfect ploy for feeding the flames of white supremacy!”
As wildfires rage and flood waters swirl, most everyone I know struggles with a sense of doom every bit as oppressive as that which I tried to ward off all those years. It’s become pretty clear now how interlocking systems have been playing us all for a long time. And our heroes? I am reeling to learn of the deliberately racist policies of Roosevelt’s Federal Housing Administration. I had no idea.
It is really hard waking up every morning feeling thoroughly creeped out. I don’t know what to make of heroes or villains in the past or the future. But surely everything is coming to a head.
Juan’s conspiracy mentors actually offered a surprising vision of hope, once you embraced their gloom. In progressive circles we haven’t traditionally put much stock in great cosmic battles between good and evil. But these theorists’ insistence on the need for a radically new heaven and a new earth seemed oddly familiar. After all, my Masters thesis at Fordham University, received lukewarmly by my complacent professors, was entitled “Hope and the Coming of the Kingdom of God.”
We are told the global elite secretly wield sophisticated spiritual tools. You would hardly guess this, witnessing the depravity of those who are supposedly just their underlings. But conspiracy theorists are convinced that to undermine their power, we have to become more spiritually alive. We need to raise the “vibrational level” of humanity.
A few years after our trip to Salt Lake City I discovered The Wisdom Way of Knowing by Cynthia Bourgeault. This Episcopal priest explores how Western Christianity lost it way by the fourth century, cutting itself off from the ancient Wisdom tradition that lies at the “headwaters of all the great sacred paths.” St. Augustine was convinced that human beings were too lost in sin to dare to hope for spiritual wholeness. And surely no one could encounter God without Holy Mother Church. Christianity became at best anemic, at worst as evil a force as conspiracy theorists claim it to be. Spiritual practices like meditation, so central in the East, are still foreign to most Westerners, who have just sort of blandly plodded along at low levels of consciousness, leaving a dubious trail of compromised institutions.
I couldn’t help but notice Bourgeault’s offhand comments that in Medieval Europe time-honored spiritual tools for “raising our level of being” were co-opted and distorted by secret societies like the Freemasons and Rosicrucians. Hmm…It seemed the conspiracy theorists were onto something!
Maybe they are. If ever there was a time to find out, this would be it.