Every old car has its rattles, but this one was different. It sounded like it was coming from inside the engine. My gauges were all fine, it wasn’t running hot, but it was like when you cough and suddenly realize you have the flu. Malaise. I pulled over at a vacant lot that used to be a gas station.
There was a country church behind it and a big rig graveyard in front of it. There was not a single sign of life. It was like a lot of forgotten country roads. Like everyone packed up and left before I was born.
This has something to do with Antonin Scalia, the dead Supreme Court justice, but I need a minute.
I popped the hood and the problem was obvious. I hadn’t put the oil cap back on when I left. I could have driven out to an AutoZone to replace it, that’s not a lethal problem, but I had an idea drilled into me by older family members that engine maintenance was a test you had to get 100% on, or your car would lash out and destroy you. It’d didn’t even occur to me to google the severity of the problem. It was already as spiritually severe as possible. So I called the only person available within a hundred miles who would drive down without billing me, we’ll call him Mark, Mark’s about 60, and I asked him to bring me an oil cap. I gave him my location.
“Damn, boy, you are in the most desolate part of that whole county. Nobody goes out there. I don’t even go out there.”
He sighed and said he’d be there in an hour or so. I waited. There was no world here, no society. It was just this concrete and the rust of those big rigs and that church. That was all. Nothing seemed very important on this concrete, except maybe entropy. Eventually a ’94 Camry came barreling in. A guy with a bunch of neck tattoos and bugged out eyes was driving. He slowed to a crawl when he was within killing distance.
“Hey, you good? You good? You got the hood up. You want me to call my cousins? They know where to get Ford shit.”
“No, I got somebody on the way with my Ford shit. Thanks though.”
Then he was gone.
Finally the car I was looking for showed up, and I was stunned by the magnitude of the arrival. I realized I had just been here for an hour, that a person I knew entirely from different places was here with me, and that neither of us would ever be here again. The only reason to come here again would be to do wicked things. I could stand here for twenty years and if I saw this man’s car again, it would only be because he had a body to bury, or stolen money to jackhammer out of the rubble. This specific scenario happening right now was the only virtuous reason for me to ever be standing here waiting for someone else. Mark got out. Grim look on his face.
“I believe Antonin Scalia was murdered.”
And that’s how I heard the news – bundled up in a conspiracy theory. Scalia, you know, he had a pillow over his head, it was an election year, he was the only levee against communist control of the Supreme Court, Obama was a lame duck, “go watch The Pelican Brief if you want to know what’s going on here.” Say it low with huge forearms and a lot of eye contact and it almost works.
As far as Mark or I knew, Scalia had died about five minutes ago, and here we already had a conspiracy theory. News of the death had trickled well into the middle of nowhere in five minutes. In a vacant lot where nothing mattered at all, one person had immediately told one other person of a scenario where government spooks murdered this judge to tip the ideological balance of the Supreme Court.
It’s been awhile now. The conspiracy theory has grown so popular that a man who is very likely to become our next president even entertained it briefly on a radio show. The exact same theory. Which indicates that this is a universal impulse. A judge died with a pillow over his head, the judge was important, therefore the judge was suffocated with the pillow.
It’s impossible to be shocked by conspiracy theories or the way they spread. They’re a very respectable racket now. They’re not the dominion of men smoking in front of dirty gray desktops with cobwebs behind the towers, knocking around alt.libertarian.guesswhokilledvincefosteritwasbill at 3 a.m. and creating million-word monuments to madness. You can just google whatever theory you have and there’s a website for it now. It’s mainstream. The weird documentaries you used to get through quiet trading networks of uncles you’re not very close to, those all have millions of hits on YouTube now. It’s all perfectly normal.
The thing about those who create and disseminate conspiracy theories is that they make everything seem so important. Through the power of their voice and the totality of their conviction, they let you escape into a world where you matter a whole hell of a lot. You, after all, are smarter than the others. You can put the dots together and be the wheat to America’s chaff. You can be standing in a vacant lot in the most desolate part of that county no one goes to, and you can be the wheat. You aren’t insignificant after all.
So the conspiracy theory has a very specific, universal utility. You don’t have to despair over your ultimate isolation, or entertain nothingness. The conspiracy takes away your soul malaise and gives you a purpose all of a sudden. It’s the creation of order where there isn’t necessarily order and it’s the creation of a story where there isn’t necessarily a story. Handy thing in idle times.
But the problem with conspiracies is that order isn’t natural to us. Humans by and large don’t have any mechanisms in place for wide, systemic, competent webs of deceit and intrigue; people with billions of dollars in secret hidden evil rooms still need about three cups of coffee in the morning just to say a sentence right and their energy really crashes in the late afternoon. But the idea that there are special evil people doing special evil things is a very alluring fiction.
You can make any conspiracy sound as tight and robust and orderly as you want, but it’s the sheer fact that it’s tight and robust and orderly that generally makes it bullshit. The only way to create a conspiracy theory is to take a stack of unrelated data points and divorce those data points of all context.
So Scalia had a pillow over his face. Yeah, that’s unusual. I’ve never seen anybody fall asleep like that. Interesting data point. So it’s an election year and offing a Supreme Court justice is a good way to tilt the country’s ideological scale without voter consent. Okay, just keep going. Throw in a few more data points and use good tough words in a respectable font, and you can probably make this thing sound so impressive it almost sounds true. All the good JFK assassination theories sound true for a second just because of sheer fact overload and well-curated video evidence.
But when you look at something like that damn pillow, when you single out little facts for their otherness, you’ll always miss the big picture. Antonin Scalia was an old, old man in Texas with some weight on him. Lots of old, old men in Texas drop dead with some weight on them. It’s a perfectly normal way to die. If you had told me five years ago that Antonin Scalia would die in his sleep at the Cibolo Creek Ranch at age 79, I would have said you probably nailed the location but you were being pretty generous on life expectancy.
Sure, Scalia could have been murdered. It is not impossible that spooks used magic guns on his heart and put a pillow over him. But the odds are a million to one. The odds of any conspiracy theory actually happening, even the well-patronized ones with eyewitness testimony and documentaries that double as low-budget indie-horror movies, with all your data points threaded into a perfectly structured script – it’d be like winning the lottery. Because you’re just putting random dots on a board and drawing lines from dot to dot, cherry picking with impunity, and hoping it pays out. Hey. Wait. Hold on. They didn’t order an autopsy? Alright, that is weird. Let’s say 27,000 to 1, to be nice. Put a hundred dollars down on that in Vegas and you might never have to work again.