Seeing the invisible is exhausting.
— Aude Amiel (Aude Amiot), Woe is Me (Hélas pour moi) (1993)
When Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura premiered last December, it drew 1.6 million viewers, truTV’s biggest audience ever for a new series. This comes as little surprise, as the show (all episodes now available online) seems perfectly attuned to a political environment that’s spawned the 9/11 Truthers, the Birthers, and the Tea Partiers. Catering to the worldviews of at least some of these groups, Conspiracy Theory presents a world divided into elites and Joe Sixpacks, where the hidden masters of the universe plot against you and me.
Ventura, of course, is the macho populist standing up for the little guy. In the opening credits, he introduces himself over dramatic music: “I’ve been governor. A Navy SEAL. A fighter. I’ve heard things that will blow your mind. And now I think it’s time you get the whole story.” With each episode, he and his “elite investigators” promise to uncover the truth behind the official story. But for all his macho swagger, Ventura’s investigative style primarily involves listening attentively to dubious “experts,” barking orders to his team, and, sometimes, scowling in his leather jacket, his arms defiantly crossed. In the pilot episode, he visits H.A.A.R.P, a Navy-run radio array in Alaska. Refused entrance, he growls, “An operation run by the U.S. Navy doesn’t shut out a former S.E.A.L unless they’ve got something to hide.” This author was unable to confirm that S.E.A.L membership gives you lifetime access to all Navy facilities.
As its title insinuates, Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura belongs to the Michael Moore or Geraldo Rivera school of investigation. Ventura is always the center of attention, portrayed as a relentless pursuer of truth. But the truth matters less than his dogged chase. He confronts authorities and interrogates suspects, handheld cameras trailing him all the while. The cameras’ own doggedness allows for some surprising moments, as when a 9/11 widow tells Ventura, “Keep working. We need you.” (Oddly for a show largely based on the suspicion about the government, virtually everyone notes Ventura’s government bona fides.) Then he’s in motion again, this time to reveal the conspiracy — though it’s not quite clear which conspiracy — behind the 9/11 hijackings.
His conclusion? “I’m more convinced than ever,” he says, squinting into the camera, “that the real story of 9/11 is lying in some government vault somewhere.” Besides echoing the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark, this idea epitomizes what author Ron Rosenbaum calls the “lost safe deposit box syndrome.” He first encountered it while writing Explaining Hitler: The Search for The Origins of His Evil: repeatedly his sources would mention documents locked away and lost, papers that if recovered would reveal everything. Rosenbaum speculates that this notion offers psychological comfort for a serious epistemological challenge: unde malum, the problem of evil. Declaring Hitler’s evil inexplicable gives him a dread majesty, makes him superhuman. Believing in the mythical safe deposit box returns Hitler to the realm of the rational, the human. It reaffirms a coherent world of cause-and-effect, promising that, even if currently unknown, the truth behind Hitler’s evil is ultimately knowable.
This mode of thinking dovetails neatly with what Richard Hofstadter first described as “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter’s 1966 essay traces the periodic return of a certain kind of politics, a politics of anger claiming to resist vast conspiracies threatening the nation, the culture, and the American way of life. In this view, the often baffling movements of history have a rational (and sinister) explanation, the powerful machinations of an occult group or groups. Hofstadter starts with McCarthyite anti-communism and works backward, quoting warnings about the Catholics, the Jesuits, the Masons, and the Illuminati.
A contemporary reader can work forward, arriving at today’s practitioners of the paranoid style, the milieu of Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura. The election of America’s first Black president spawned the Birthers, who continue to deny Barack Obama’s U.S. citizenship and thus his legitimacy as president. Some suspect him of being a sleeper agent of one malignant power or another, and demand he produce his “real” birth certificate. Members of the Tea Party movement, partly a reaction to an unprecedented government bailout of the financial sector, claim socialism is creeping into American homes. Politicians on the right have recognized the Tea Party’s power and have moved to co-opt it (or at least pursue it), a trend Hofstadter noticed in 1964 among the Goldwaterites.
Ventura makes use of this general outrage, displaying his own righteousness and moral indignation. Throughout the series, he seethes his way through interviews, even as the experts he questions often seem less than persuasive. In the pilot episode, “HAARP,” interviewees claim that the Navy radio array in Alaska is actually a secret weapon capable of altering weather patterns and possibly controlling minds. Ventura introduces Dr. Brooks Agnew, labeled a “physicist” on screen. However, Dr. Agnew is also the leader of the North Pole Inner Earth Expedition, which hopes to enter what they believe is the hollow earth from the North Pole. (The group’s webpage features this intriguing disclaimer: “The North Pole Inner Earth Expedition (NPIEE) is for entertainment purposes only. We reserve the right to direct investments and donations to any legitimate purpose pursuant to the exploration of the mysteries of the universe and of the Earth.”)
This sort of belief, however purposed, suggests the range of concerns and reactions that might fall under the term “conspiracy theory.” In a 2003 essay, psychologist Floyd Rudmin writes that conspiracy theory is “naïve deconstructive history,” which is not the same as “stupidly innocent.” In this view, “conspiracy theory” has become a “growth industry” as well a pejorative term, a means to dismiss “crackpot” ideas and determine who could speak. But, Rudmin goes on, conspiracy theories could function like scientific theories, offering more comprehensive explanations than their generally accepted alternatives. (He cites the passage of NAFTA as one possible example, where theories cropped up to explain a dramatic event. Rather than products of paranoia, as Hostadter might argue, Rudmin saw conspiracy theories as products of healthy skepticism about the dominant, official narrative.
Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura practices both skepticism and paranoia, the former more persuasively. In the first episode, Ventura doubts U.S. military claims HAARP is designed purely for scientific research. It seems paranoid, though, to suggest (on little to no evidence) that HAARP is a weapon that can cause earthquakes around the globe. Similarly, Ventura’s claim that the government hasn’t revealed all of its information about the September 11 attacks seems a skeptical one; that 9/11 was an inside job, a paranoid one.
These distinctions between skepticism and paranoia may seem personal, but in later episodes, the conspiracies grow even more diffuse, raising questions about where the distinctions can be drawn. In one episode, Ventura asks, “Global warming: is it just a way for the rich to get richer?” Without too much thought, one might answer that yes, certain people have gotten or will get rich from raising concerns about global warming. Ventura sensibly concludes, “Al Gore, you’ve been a real inspiration. But a lot of people preaching the global warming gospel aren’t out to save the world. They’re out to run it.” This seems the broadest possible definition of conspiracy: some people taking advantage of an opportunity.
Still, that fits with the populist message of Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura. In the episode titled “Secret Societies,” we learn about the Bilderbergs, the 120 people who control the world, everything from oil prices to Obama’s election to the invasion of Iraq. (One expert for this segment is David Icke, who in other venues has argued that the earth is run by human-reptile hybrids.) Despite the evidence that the elite Bilderbergs plan to kill off most of the earth’s population, one conspiracist claims, “We in the aggregate have the power.”
The first season of Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura finishes on a note that seems patently paranoid, examining “Apocalypse 2012.” Ventura interviews a scientist who claims that sunspot activity in 2012 will fry much of the earth. The U.S. government has prepared shelters for the elite, so the story goes, while leaving you and I to fend for ourselves. Near the end of this episode, Ventura and 2012 aficionado Jay Weidner spend several minutes analyzing an airport mural. “There’s a strange motif of Mayan symbolism,” Weidner says, “mixed in with this end of the world motif, which actually explains the purpose of Denver International Airport.” Namely, a place for the elites to escape the end of the world. As Hofstadter writes, the paranoid stylist is “member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public.” Or as Weidner puts it, “They only want people to survive who have certain kinds of perceptive skills.”