Many years ago, soon after moving into a new home, a neighbor waved me over. He’d read my newspaper column in that day’s paper and said it made him think of something he wanted to share. But there was no connection whatsoever between what I wrote and what he told me.
He claimed NASA never landed on the moon. “It was all filmed in the desert in Texas,” he said. He claimed that governments of the world were controlled by a triumvirate of Jewish businessmen who adjust world events for profit. You think you’re voting for this person or that, but elections are fixed. The fake moon landing was simple misdirection, devised to distract the world from what was really going on.
As this hallucinogenic riff built up steam, I began to suspect he was nibbling at the edges of Holocaust denial. That’s when I lied that I heard the phone ringing and headed back in the house.
Some years later this neighbor concocted a conspiracy theory about me built on an ironic grain of truth.
“Who do you think you’re fooling?” he sneered. “I know you’re up to something. I’ve seen you sneaking around.”
I actually had been sneaking around.
After that first loony tunes conversation I’d avoided him at all costs. If he walked down the sidewalk while I was doing yard work, I’d walk casually into the garage, as if looking for a tool, then watch from the window until he passed by. I’d do anything to avoid the crazy talk. He apparently caught that vibe and thought it looked sinister rather than what it really was: pathetic.
In December of 2001, just 3 months after 9/11 I arrived at a banquet hall in Indianapolis for 2 days of classes to renew my real estate license. As the room filled with nearly 100 people, I noticed everyone avoided seats near a Middle Eastern-looking man. I felt bad about how Muslim-Americans were being treated in the aftermath of the attacks and decided to conduct a random act of kindness. I right next to him. He looked up with wide, gentle eyes that seemed to say, “thank you.”
During the morning break we chatted about his childhood home in Afghanistan, the cold shoulder he’d gotten from his neighbors since 9/11, and news he was hearing from family back in the Middle East. As we gathered our things to break for lunch he leaned close and whispered to me, “You know, on the morning of September 11th, the Jews who worked in the Twin Towers didn’t go to work.”
“You gotta be f’in kidding me,” I thought to myself.
I’d heard this little lump of horseshit already. The conspiracy theory that Israel was behind 9/11 – did it so that we’d go ape-shit on the Arab world, doing Israel’s dirty work for them.
I nodded a thoughtful, “Hmmmmm,” in response. Returning after lunch I sat far, far away from the Afghani man.
On one hand I’m embarrassed for conspiracy theorists. But I know that believing the conspiracy satisfies something in the believer. As they say of those cheated by a con man, “You can’t be conned by a con man if you don’t really want what he’s selling.”
I have to admit I have my own proclivities. If I could choose what was true, I’d believe a lot of things I can’t prove. I’d love to believe in ghosts. But I’ve been living in old houses my entire life and still haven’t seen anything remotely passing as proof.
I’d love to believe in UFOs. When I was a kid I laid on the grass in the backyard endless summer nights staring up at the sky with my brother and sisters, looking for proof – “Please, please, please let me see something flying in the sky that’s unexplainable,” I’d plead silently to the great beyond. Never saw a thing.
So if a UFO landed in the street and a ghost appeared nearby, a part of me would be ready to believe. But another part of me would quickly suspect a car crash resulting in smoke from an engine fire.
Wanting to believe something isn’t enough to make it true.
My conspiracy theorist neighbor eventually moved away. Who knows, maybe I scared him off. The new neighbor is a lovable smart ass. He found a pair of the previous owner’s underwear tucked in the old plaster walls around a window for insulation. He knew it was the guy’s underwear because it had his name sewn along the back label (I promise, I’m not making this up). Also knowing of the animosity between myself and the old neighbor (as it is now legendary in our neighborhood), last year the new neighbor gift-wrapped the underwear and left it on my front porch at Christmas as a joke. It was labeled, “To Kurt, from Santa.”
I will gladly take dirty underwear over conspiracy theories whenever given the choice.