Musings on Robert Anton Wilson and the prevalence of conspiracy theories

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We live in strange times, but that’s not unique — things have always been strange. Read a history book. Nuttiness is the human condition.

I first came to really appreciate the nuttiness of humanity as a high schooler when I came across the work of the late author Robert Anton Wilson.

Wilson, also known as Pope Bob to the Church of the SubGenius, was one of those old-school counterculture journalists who liked to dabble in mysticism and psychology. Oh and psychedelics, can’t forget the psychedelics.

One of his guiding ideas was that “belief is the death of intelligence.” And he meant that in the broadest possible sense. He was dogmatically anti-dogmatic and encouraged people to explore as many alternative explanations for what’s going on as possible, for edification and entertainment.

He often wrote and spoke about his concept that everyone lives in their own “reality tunnel” informed and shaped by their own biology, experiences, inputs and so on, and that one can’t begin to understand others without grasping the power of reality tunnels.

“When we meet somebody whose separate tunnel-reality is obviously far different from ours, we are a bit frightened and always disoriented,” he wrote. “We tend to think they are mad, or that they are crooks trying to con us in some way, or that they are hoaxers playing a joke. Yet it is neurologically obvious that no two brains have the same genetically programmed hard wiring, the same imprints, the same conditioning, the same learning experiences. We are all living in separate realities. That is why communication fails so often, and misunderstandings and resentments are so common.”

It was in exploring the limitless strangeness of the universe and the limitless strangeness of the human mind that Wilson did his best writing.

In books like “Cosmic Trigger,” he explored his own life from various interpretations and distinctive identities he took on at various points — among them “The Skeptic,” “The Hedonic Materialist,” “The Shaman” and “The Libertarian.”

One major subset of Wilson’s work was his exploration of conspiracy theories, from his mind-bending “Illuminatus!” trilogy of novels in which conspiracies collide to his cataloging conspiracies in “Everything is Under Control.”

“You simply cannot invent any conspiracy theory so ridiculous and obviously satirical that some people somewhere don’t already believe it,” he wrote in the latter book.

Americans — and I suppose all humans for that matter — are very much still living in the world Robert Anton Wilson found unlimited fodder to write about.

Conspiracies are everywhere, in the minds of Americans and beyond.

One survey last year found that 15% of Americans believe “the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex-trafficking operation.”

Let’s pause for a moment and reflect on this. Potentially tens of millions of Americans are going through their lives believing that Satanic, child-trafficking pedophiles control the major institutions holding civilization together.

Imagine holding that as your worldview. Who could possibly care about Democrat vs. Republican, Biden vs. Orangebadevilman, conservatism vs. libertarianism vs. liberalism vs. progressivism vs. populism vs. elitism when Satanic, child-trafficking pedophiles are the masters of our world?

But that conspiracy theory must be crazy, right?

What about JFK assassination conspiracy theories? Those are more mainstream, with majorities of Americans long believing there was a conspiracy to murder the president. Oliver Stone was just on the Joe Rogan Podcast — which gets more viewers/listeners than the top shows on  CNN, Fox News and MSNBC combined, according to figures from Nielsen and Spotify — promoting his new documentary about the assassination.

Stone, and millions of others, believe JFK was murdered  due to a conspiracy involving the CIA and the military industrial complex (and/or the mob, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, anti-Castro Cubans, etc., and it’s a long etc.).

It makes for a remarkable story if you think through the ramifications.

What about more partisan conspiracy theories?  A 2020 report jointly produced by the left-wing Center for American Progress and the right-wing American Enterprise Institute found that a third of Democrats believed the 2016 elections featured widespread voter fraud, a third of Republicans believed Barack Obama wasn’t in fact an American citizen and most Democrats believed conspiracy theories involving Vladimir Putin having incriminating information about Donald Trump.

These days, inevitably, there are scores of Democrats who believed the Russians “hacked the election” and committed election fraud in 2016 in favor of Putin-compromised Trump now condemning the majority of Republicans for believing the 2020 elections featured vast voter fraud in favor of Biden.

Conversely, there are Republicans who actually believe Donald Trump is the rightful president and that Barack Obama was actually a Kenyan Communist agent, while at the same time laughing at Democrats for believing the conspiracy theory that the Russians rigged the 2016 election in favor of Russian asset Donald Trump.

My favorite part is that they all think they’re right and that the others must be fooled by fake news or Fake News.

It’s amazing.

It gets even better when you layer in conspiracies about Sept. 11, GMOs, vaccines, the Illuminati, aliens, Reptilians, grey aliens vs. Reptilians and at least 23 others.

Then you throw in the baseline things that divide us, like political views, religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sex, income, wealth, immigration status, metaphysics.

It’s also no wonder people get so testy when disagreements arise.

Reality tunnels can be intense, and intensely silly.

Which is why Robert Anton Wilson encouraged agnosticism about everything. Everything. It makes tolerating the infinite diversity of views much easier and more amusing.

Granted, maybe we can’t all be like Pope Bob. Maybe can’t all go all-in on this radical type of relativism. But we can and maybe even should have more humility and less certainty about our beliefs.

As Pope Bob once said, “Keep the lasagna flying.”

Sal Rodriguez can be reached at 


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