Even a broken clock is right twice a day; that’s what they say about people who are supposed to be crackpots. It’s the idea that there is a moment in time when even the most outlandish contention, the most eccentric point of view, the most unlikely person, somehow lines up with the shifting reality to produce, however fleetingly, what many perceive to be the truth.
I used to close my ears as soon as I heard conspiracy theories being spouted. I don’t have brain space for them and arguing with their proponents only brings headaches, so ignoring seemed the best tactic.
But my thinking about listening to what they actually consist of changed around the 2016 election. Some of these theories have been seeping beyond the tabloidy territory traditionally amenable to them and leaking into the mainstream: as an extreme, they’ve been making it to the ear of the president. Alex Jones, red-faced radio screamer (who crossed paths with Bill Cooper early in his career) has marveled that he can say something on air and not long after hear it parroted by Trump. Among Jones’s claims is that Sandy Hook was a “false flag operation”. So it seems useful to at least try to understand where this kind of thinking and insulting madness is coming from and why it develops.
And it just seems more dangerous to ignore these ideas, when they’re filtering into and influencing government, both from those in power, or at least who have the ear of power, on one end and voters on another. Consider the attention the Pizzagate conspiracy got despite its utter ridiculousness.
William “Bill” Cooper was a notorious conspiracy theorist who “chose not to adhere to the mandated linear passage of existence,” just like he chose not to pay his taxes, and whose ideas have remarkable sticking power. Even if you don’t know Cooper specifically, you know something of his work – at the very least, you’ve heard the word “sheeple” – that’s his phrasing. Cooper was a former Vietnam veteran who ran a radio show called The Hour of the Time and in 1991 wrote a book, Behold a Pale Horse.
Pale Horse gained traction with a wide audience: fans ranged from domestic terrorists/white supremacists like Timothy McVeigh to countless hip hop artists, including Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Wu-Tang Clan. It’s widely circulated in prisons; for years it was one of the most-read books there.
I woke up convinced that Cooper, a semi-obscure conspiracy theorist with a Cassandra-like knack for connecting the distressing dots of modern life, might hold a key to the ambient unease descending upon this great nation, land that I love.
How had Cooper’s ideas and theories appealed to such a broad spectrum? Why is his mind-bending book still a top seller among the street sellers in Harlem, and kept behind the registers in Barnes and Noble thanks to frequent theft? What is it about what he preached?
Journalist Mark Jacobson traces the route of Cooper’s career and the underground success of both his book and his messages in what becomes a timely look at some issues we’re currently facing: including distrust in government and the media and embracing fiction over facts. Jacobson argues that it all has its roots in Cooper’s era, and with him, the granddaddy of conspiracy theories.
Jacobson call his subject “a conspiracy salesman without peer, a natural,” and he surely was. Some of his assertions include that HIV/AIDS was created by the government, that JFK was assassinated by his driver because of aliens, and many more related to UFO phenomena, often involving Illuminati plots.
He’s also an incredibly difficult subject for a book. Cooper’s magnum opus Behold a Pale Horse sounds like a wild mess, mixing together everything from the proven hoax The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to stories of his experiences in the military and how what he saw there influenced his distrust of the American government, and a whole slew of other topics, but it doesn’t necessarily tell the truth about his life. Through interviews with his friends, ex-wives and children, Jacobson pieces together something of what the man himself was like – paranoid, angry, a violent and abusive alcoholic. I got L. Ron Hubbard vibes. I can’t say it’s surprising, but it’s sad to learn about.
And yet, like the quote about the broken clock illustrates, he wasn’t always wrong in his theories. He was a crackpot to be sure, and a dangerous one at that – the book covers his death in a tragic shootout on his property with law enforcement, not to mention the lingering dangerous thinking his ideas have wrought. Perhaps his most famous prediction was that 9/11 would be used as an excuse for war in the Middle East, which it was. The other side of that prediction was one of his most maddening – laying the groundwork for the 9/11 truther movement:
He laid out the rudiments of what came to be called 9/11 Truth, the first great conspiracy meme of the broadband age, a theory of the crime that generated a fury of obsession not seen since the Kennedy assassination.
Around this time he also predicted he wouldn’t be allowed to live much longer, and that proved true too – less than two months later he was dead. The broken clock again.
There are a lot of interesting threads here, and Jacobson ties them neatly to historical context and precedence. One interesting path was his referencing tendencies that Russians have to think they’re being lied to, and it could practically define conspiracy theory:
Writing of these tendencies in his famous telegram, Kennan wrote about the occult nature of the enemy: “… possibilities for distorting or poisoning sources and currents of information are infinite. The very disrespect of Russians for objective truth – indeed, their disbelief in its existence – leads them to view all stated facts as instruments for furtherance of one ulterior purpose or another.
At times this gets confusing because of the many sprawling directions of Cooper’s life story and the influences or effects that help explain certain incidents or actions. Anything about conspiracy theories by nature is complex and often nonsensical, and despite Jacobson’s thorough reportage and well-structured writing, I found myself lost from time to time. And I still was left wondering something about this enigma of a person, where his ideas had actually come from – it’s fun, I admit, to gawk at the wild tales he spun for his radio audience, but I wanted more about how it all transpired in his own life. Jacobson explores what he can, including Cooper’s military service, but so much of it is obfuscated and I was still left wondering.
A P.T. Barnum of dread, Cooper lived by the darkening edge of his conspiracy stories and his capacity to find an audience willing to hear and believe them.
Enlightening biography of a strange, lonely and angry man who tapped into a powerful undercurrent of distrust and dissatisfaction, and whose ideas laid a foundation for some of the issues still plaguing national sentiment. 3.5/5
Pale Horse Rider:
William Cooper, the Rise of Conspiracy, and the Fall of Trust in America
by Mark Jacobson
published September 4, 2018 by Blue Rider