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Aspire to Conspire

paranoid Mel
Photo by Andrew Cooper

Road Worrier: Mel Gibson plays a cabbie with plenty on his mind in 'Conspiracy Theory.'

Author Jonathan Vankin has a theory

By David Templeton


Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he takes famed conspiracy collector Jonathan Vankin to see the new paranoia thriller Conspiracy Theory.

QUITE UNLIKE Jerry Fletcher--the raving, motor-mouthed, cab-driving paranoiac whose wild-eyed babbling is the heart and soul of the entertainingly loony new film Conspiracy Theory--Jonathan Vankin presents himself to be a non-ranting kind of guy. During our long-distance conversation, this esteemed author/journalist/conspiracy collector has consistently answered my questions and stated his positions in a manner that is even-toned, confident, undeniably credible, and suspiciously calm.

I wonder what he's trying to hide.

Pardon my paranoia. But after spending two hours watching Jerry (played convincingly by a madly manic Mel Gibson) rant and rave about nefarious government operatives out to suppress the truth, I'm a bit oversensitized to the possibilities of nefarious deception and lurking evil. I've also been rereading my dog-eared copy of Vankin's provocative primer of paranoia, The Sixty Greatest Conspiracies of All Time (Citadel Press, 1996; co-authored with John Whalen, it's an expanded update to their best-selling The 50 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time).

Remarkably, Vankin's book--as well as his path-paving 1990 tome, Conspiracies, Cover-ups and Crimes--seems to work as something of a glossary for the movie, fleshing out most of the theories that poor jumpy Jerry inflicts on anyone within earshot.

"Jerry's rantings really were the highlight of the movie, weren't they?" Vankin observes, with a barely detected modicum of amusement. "In that character, the filmmakers were able to throw a lot of different conspiracy stuff against the wall--Jerry's theory about the Grateful Dead being British intelligence agents, the one about The Catcher in the Rye being some sort of hypnotic trigger mechanism for Mark David Chapman and other assassins--they threw it all up there just to see how much of it stuck. And a lot of it did stick, because conspiracy theories are entertaining by their very nature."

Vankin is a former editor of San Jose's Metro newspaper, an occupation that made him a public sounding board for an array of wacky theorists who, he says, "saw their problems as a conspiracy involving everyone from the government to their ex-husband." As he prepared to write his first book, he became convinced that the number of conspiracy theorists was growing, even predicting in the book that the last decade of the 20th century would see even more.

"I felt that the '90s are going to be the 'conspiracy decade,' that a belief in conspiracies was going to be the predominant way of the thinking in the national Zeitgeist."

It appears that Vankin's prediction was accurate, as exemplified by the popularity of The X-Files (on which a character was once seen reading The 50 Greatest Conspiracies) and the zillion-plus websites devoted to the subject (including Vankin and Whalen's own tongue-in-cheek www.conspire.com).

"Conspiracy theories," he says, almost affectionately, "are a way of looking at the world, a form of political analysis that is highly unconventional. It's easy to reduce it to this thing of, 'Well, people just see themselves as victims!' and 'Everyone's just looking for someone to blame for things that go wrong in their lives.' Maybe there's an element of truth to that, but I really don't think that is the essence of conspiracy theorizing.

"And," he points out, "when you're willing to go out on a limb and make those kinds of crazy connections, every now and then you're going to hit on something that turns out to be real. That's what happens with the serious conspiracy theorists, with some degree of frequency.

"Look at MK Ultra [the CIA program that dosed unwitting subjects with LSD as a mind control experiment] or the human radiation experiments. Twenty years ago, even 10 years ago, talk-show hosts would have hung up on you if you'd called and said the government was dosing American citizens with radiation to see what happened. At one time one would been considered a crazy conspiracy theory. But now it's a matter of public record."

"So, people like Jerry," I ask, "are not just paranoid psychos?"

"Well, a percentage of them are, sure," he gives, that amused sound re-entering his voice. "But it takes a certain intelligence, usually a very high intelligence, to even come up with this stuff. It takes a lot of time and effort and brains to make those kind of connections. You know the saying--and this movie was kind of a tribute to the idea--'Just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean someone isn't out to get you.'

"Well, I get a lot of e-mails, with a lot of theories, things I've never heard of, every single day. Some of it is funny, but . . . ," he pauses.

"But as I mentioned earlier, history has proven that conspiracy theories, on occasion, have exposed real conspiracies. There are conspiracies in this world. There are bad things being done. What I've found is that the conspiracies are really not hard to see, if you're just willing to look."

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From the August 14-20, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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