By Jessica Lockhart
At Patrick Whyte’s Queen Street West store, Conspiracy Culture, conspiracy theories meet their unlikely match — capitalism. The hackneyed gloomy atmosphere and incense that typically plague alternative stores are conspicuously absent. Instead, sunlight pours in onto a pair of couches near the window and funk music plays in the background. Customers browse the shelves filled with books that range in topic from the paranormal to the political, while others lean against the front counter, casually checking out the conspiracy DVDs available for rental.
But like teenage girls set loose in H&M with a month’s allowance to blow, they’re not here to browse — they’re here to buy. Whyte is in the business of selling secrets, but even the most mundane aspects of running a store are a necessary evil. “I’ll need your credit card to extract your information so I can upload it to the master brain,” he tells one customer.
Putting all the stereotypes aside — Da Vinci Code enthusiasts and tin foil hats leap to mind — Conspiracy Culture’s customers aren’t what you’d expect. Students, professors, retirees and doctors all come here to get their fix on everything from the religious to the scientific. Although each customer is unique in their area of interest, Whyte says that they all have one thing in common: their frustration with mainstream sources of information. “The majority of our clientele are people who are interested in alternative information or histories or acquiring alternative views on politics,” he says.
Whyte opened the store in August 2006 to provide an offline space where people could satisfy what he calls a natural human curiosity. The conspiracy theory community is hardly new though, with its existence predating the first “alleged” moon landing — but it’s grown exponentially in recent years. The Internet has allowed conspiracy theory message boards, YouTube videos and websites to grow in a way that the theorists of JFK’s era could never have imagined.
The events of Sept. 11 in particular have spawned the public’s curiosity in the conspiracy culture. Coined the “9/11 Truth Movement,” a poll of 1,000 people conducted by Ohio University found that 36 per cent of Americans suspected that federal officials were either involved in the Sept. 11 attacks or had prior knowledge about the incident. “Loose Change,” a 2005 documentary exploring these claims, was viewed more than 10 million times on the Internet, aired on television networks around the world and released on DVD.
Theorists are coming out from the margins of society and into the digital sphere to share their thoughts and speculations. Not every conspiracy theorist believes in aliens, but the growth of the community beyond the online world is proving that they’re certainly not alone.
But what exactly defines a conspiracy theory or a conspiracy theorist? Conspiracies aren’t just restricted to Men in Black or the New World Order — as Whyte points out, theories can address day-to-day problems. “It’s not all limited to an alien coming down and impregnating a sheep and all of a sudden some crazy hybrid of human exists and they’re drinking the blood of goats,” he says. Instead, conspiracies can be as straightforward as the big business of pharmaceutical companies. “It could be something as simple as going to the doctor because of an ear infection and then being prescribed antidepressants that could potentially ruin your life.”
The term “conspiracy theorist” itself is considered by many to be a marginalizing phrase that serves to discredit alternative opinions. “I think people have to remove the theory part of it, because there’s so much ‘conspiracy fact’ that it’s overwhelming,” says Whyte. “Almost every major event that could have led to war has a major conspiracy associated to it,” he adds, citing Germany during Hitler’s reign, Pearl Harbor and the Cuban Missile Crisis as classic historical examples where political forces conspired to keep information from the public. Most relatable are the conspiracies surrounding Sept. 11. Initially following the attacks, authorities denied prior knowledge or warnings of the events. But history and evidence have since proven otherwise.
For Toronto blogger Jeff Wells, the collapse of the twin towers was a wake-up call. Wells, a satirist for Frank magazine, was contacted by a lawyer friend following the attacks. The friend was representing a man named Delmart Vreeland who had been arrested in Toronto for alleged credit card fraud. While in jail, Vreeland not only claimed that he worked for the U.S. Naval Intelligence, he also warned authorities about the forthcoming attacks. In August 2001, with his lawyer and prison officials present, he wrote his prediction in a letter, which was then sealed. It wasn’t opened again until Sept. 14 — and on the list of possible targets, he had included the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre. “Hearing the story from my friend opened up my eyes a bit,” says Wells, who always had an interest in politics. “So that started it.”
“It” was Rigorous Intuition, Wells’ website that soon spawned a message board with over 1,500 members and a non-fiction novel pegged for release in March 2008. The site covers both the paranormal and the parapolitical and provides a forum where members can critically approach subjects.
In the same way that Conspiracy Culture doesn’t fit into preconceived notions of what a conspiracy theory store should look like, Wells’ website is free from the schizophrenic designs and psychedelic colours that typically accompany conspiracy theory websites. And likewise, the content may not be what you expect. On the message board, members discuss everything from “why bottled water is worse than Satan” to Suri Cruise’s eerie resemblance to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
“Conspiracies are not a theory,” says Wells. “It’s a hypothesis and like any hypothesis it needs to be tested.” With conspiracy theories dangerously aligned with mental illness, websites and message boards provide an outlet for people to talk about subjects that they’re not necessarily comfortable discussing in their everyday lives. After all, ancient Mayan prophecies and sasquatches don’t make for the best water cooler conversations.
Wells wasn’t the only one who became interested in conspiracy culture following Sept. 11. For many of Whyte’s customers, Sept. 11 was a jumping ground into everything conspiratorial. “After researching 9/11 for not even too long, you’ll discover all sorts of other things that take place in politics and governmental bodies: back-door dealings and things that are going on behind the curtain,” says Whyte. “It opens up a Pandora’s box.”
“It’s sort of this generation’s JFK,” agrees Richard Syrett, host of Newstalk 1010’s conspiracy theory radio show. “It woke people up to realize that there’s something going on behind the scenes.” Syrett, a long-time broadcaster, recognized that conspiracy culture was rising in popularity, and re-formatted his show’s content to fill this growing niche. It was a success: today, the Richard Syrett Show is tied for the number one radio show in its market for its time slot.
“It’s validation for people to listen and hear other like-minded people talking about something that they subscribe to as well,” he says. “People aren’t satisfied with the information they’re getting from the mainstream media anymore.” Like Wells and Whyte, no topic is taboo for Syrett, although he notes that some of it is purely for entertainment value — like interviewing vampire slayers.
But like the diverse content that the program offers, Syrett’s listeners are diverse in their beliefs. “Some of the listeners are vehemently opposed to some of the programs that I do. They think it’s subversive, dangerous and irresponsible,” says Syrett, noting that a program he recently produced on the danger of childhood vaccines is a prime example. “I welcome opposing viewpoints. I don’t have the market cornered on truth.”
Syrett raises an important point: just because a conspiracy theorist belongs to the community, doesn’t mean they subscribe to every single theory. Conspiracy Culture is filled with books that Whyte says contradict one another, and Wells points out that the popularity of some theories may even serve to discredit others.
“This is more controversial within the conspiracy theory community because it’s almost sacrosanct — but I don’t believe that demolition charges were used to bring down the towers,” says Wells, in reference to the popular no-plane theory. “I think that’s been encouraged for the 9/11 community for them to go after these sort of things because the people who should be giving answers don’t have to do that, because the right questions aren’t being asked.”
For all parties involved, asking questions and having a natural curiosity is paramount to getting to the deeper truth. “Ask the obvious questions because they often don’t get asked,” says Syrett. For Whyte, universities are a breeding ground for the conformity that prevents people from asking questions.
“Everybody’s been down that assembly line of education with all these same ideas put into their heads as they go through,” he says, adding that corporations may have an impact on curriculum. In Ryerson’s case, there’s no questioning that the campus is quickly turning into Mr. Rogers’ neighbourhood. “Everywhere you go it’s the same ideas and the same message being pumped over and over again. It’s like you feel like you’re being beaten abruptly about the head with this regurgitated message that the mainstream pushes,” he says.
But conspiracy theorists don’t necessarily hold all the keys to greater insight. “We have to admit that there’s a big fog,” says Wells. “When I hear a lot of prominent conspiracy theorists talk, they talk as if they have all the answers. And I certainly don’t, and I never want to be heard that way.”
After being in business for well over a year, Whyte has also begun to approach each theory with an open mind. “I’ve humbled myself and I’ve learned that to dismiss or discount any idea immediately is something that’s tough to do in this day or age. If you can’t dismiss it or you can’t confirm it — well then, you still have to debate it.” For conspiracy theorists, the truth is still out there.