Last night I caught the end of a documentary about the life of Lee Harvey Oswald the assassin who killed JFK. The whole phenomenon of how contemporary culture has processed the assasination of JFK gives us some facinating and revealing insights into how belief functions in a secular culture.
Approximately 70% of Americans believe that JFK’s asssianation was not the work of Lee Harvey Oswald working alone, but rather the results of a massive and complex conspiracy. Despite this widespread belief in a conspiracy virtually no evidence proving a massive conspiracy has come to light. Many experts have come to the conclusion that this belief in a web of conspiracy comes from the public’s inability to believe that Lee Harvey Oswald, a disturbed loner and social outcast could have got a few shots off to kill the world’s most powerful man.
You have to ask why is this not possible, Oswald was a former marine, and his workplace afforded a snipers position from which to get at least a couple of shots at the president who was riding in an open car. At the end of the day, it is all about mythology. Popular culture has attached the name ‘Camelot’ to the JKF presidency, overlaying the president with a kind of celebrity mystique that borders on the semi-religious.Here was this leader with Hollywood good looks, who took on the mafia, who challenged his country to reach the moon, who managed to attract a wife as stylish and glamorous as Jackie Onassis, and also at the same time allegedly conduct an illicit affair with the world’s most sexualized woman Marilyn Monroe. He was a pop culture demi -god.
It is not that we can’t believe that Lee Harvey Oswald could have got a few lucky shots off to end his life in a random moment of violence. It is that we don’t want to believe it.We rather would believe that a man of JFK’s cultural importance could only be brought down by a massive conspiracy that was not random but part of a giant drama between the forces of good and evil.
The same phenomenon occurred with the death of Princess Diana. Diana’s life also was mythologised. Her life (or at least the life that was presented to us via the media) was something lifted from from the pages of a fairytale or medieval romance. So when she died within eight hours conspiracy theories were posted on the internet. The public simply could not believe that someone who carried so much mythical symbolism could die in such a random and seemingly accidental way. The massive pouring out of public affection after her death simply goes to prove the cultural power and symbolism that she carried. If anyone else had been killed being driven by a drunk driver who was driving at over a hundred kilometers an hour in a downtown underground tunnel, we would not bat an eyelid.
These kind of conspiracy theories arise in a culture which at least at a public level is told that life is a chaotic and random process which is not guided at all by any large story that would give meaning. As the Christian story and the resultant meaning that it gave public life fades from the popular imagination, the conspiracy theory becomes another way of seeing a giant story at work, an alternate explanation for the battle between good and evil. The contemporary meta narrative that we are given that everything in life is simply a collection of random happening simply doesn’t work on the ground. These desires to see conspiracies and overaching webs of meaning behind random events, tell us that underneath the surface of the secular West there still dwells an implicit yet powerful desire to hear a story which links and unites the whole of life.