To further the conversation of the social causes and effects of conspiracy theories, it is important to consider how we as a species tend to create, adopt, and identify with various ideologies, worldviews, and modes of seeing the greater society at large. Social sciences often use the term social construction to describe this process. For the purpose of this discussion I want to use the simpler and more general term: narrative.
The narrative is a concept that nearly everyone can understand. A narrative is a story. When people talk about narratives, they think of drama, comedy, a novel, etc.
What I mean by narrative is essentially the same, except in social science is a story that is believed to be true. Narratives are the accounts of events that endeavor to maintain temporal and causal coherence and ascribe a meaning to the event. Just like the moral of a story, such as a fable, humans are ‘meaning-making’ animals, hard-wired to see meaning. According to Professor Emeritus Walter Fisher, meaning making is all humans (whom he suggests be called Homo Narrans, or ‘narrating man’) do.
Creating the Pale Horse.
A case study that can provide an example of narrative in terms of conspiracy theories is that of Milton William ‘Bill’ Cooper. Bill Cooper, born in may 1943, and served in the US Navy. Little more is known for certain about his formative years. He surfaced in UFOlogy circles in 1988 when he claimed to have seen top secret government documents involving extraterrestrials and a global cover-up. Before the publish of his 1991 book Behold, a Pale Horse, Cooper had already had his claims of Top Secret Naval Intelligence summarily debunked by the very UFOlogists he sought to convince; many finding that he had plagiarized their own works, or known hoaxes. Nevertheless, Bill Cooper persisted and expanded his claims. He eventually met his own self-fulfilling prophecy; shot in killed in a gunfight after shooting and injuring one sheriff and almost running over another while attempting to flee the service of a warrant in November, 2001.
Unfortunately for Bill Cooper, he created a narrative that he (mostly likely) believed whole-heartedly and led to his death. Fortunately, for anyone who wants to know the story of Bill Cooper, he has been recorded telling a narrative version of his life on several occasions. He tells how, at an early age, he heard stories of ‘Foo Fighters’ and play-acted UFO sighting scenarios out as a child (see video above). As we consider the life and death of Bill Cooper, let us consider the ways in which he came to create his narratives.
The Social Destruction of Reality?
According to Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, authors of The Social Construction of Reality, argue that there are both objective and subjective aspects to reality. The various aspects of reality, specifically an institutionalized society, play out through processes called externalization, objectivation, and internalization.
Such daunting terminology!
Simply put; we humans experience society as if it were an objective truth because it is experienced ‘in progress’ with various customs and roles already normalized, we then build our perceptions around this ‘objective truth’, and thus internalizes and finds meaning through this ‘objective truth’.
At least, that’s how the vast majority of people experience society. At least, that’s how they used to.
In considering reification, or the process of making an abstract concept to be concrete in the mind, this ‘social construction of reality’ is echoed. So it is with reification, the dominant narrative, too, was lost in American culture through an era of great social discord. Many Americans believed that conspiracies existed that caused, among other things, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. With the development of such a belief, that ‘institutionalized’ society lost its overwhelming agreement on any presumed ‘objective truths’.
As various counterculture movements of the 1960s and 1970s came to summarily reject the institutionalized society through internalizing their anti-war stance, or their greater class, race, gender, and/or sexuality consciousnesses, they began a dialectic process of reinterpreting the society at large.
Based on his own autobiographical accounts, Bill Cooper had begun this process as a young boy. Whether his statements are factual, fabrications, or delusions; Bill Cooper had likely spent his entire life believing in extraterrestrial life, in the U.S. Military and Government’s knowledge of their existence, and (at least by 1988) that the Government colluded with extraterrestrials for nefarious purposes. His detailed description of D.U.M.B.s (Deep Underground Military Bases) and the ‘secret Government agenda’ were taken to be ‘objective truth’ by some who were interested in UFOs, many in the growing American Militia Movement, and many others who rejected institutionalized society in need of an alternative narrative.
And why wouldn’t they? Bill Cooper both wrote and spoke of his beliefs with the utmost assurance of his evidence and his perception. Bill Cooper narrated his own audiobook version of Behold, a Pale Horse with the self assured tone which he wrote the book, and with the same pretense he assumed when plagiarizing Ufologists and hucksters in the 1980s.
For a more accessible understanding of the concept, maybe we should admit that there is little difference between social narratives and the stories we grew up reading or having told to us as children.
Stories have a beginning, a middle, an end. They have protagonist(s) and antagonist(s). There is a moral to the story. Some stories, fables and parables, give prescriptions on how to live; a call to action.
If, for instance, as Bill Cooper claims, aliens will disclose themselves after a false nuclear terror attack permits the US Government to suspend the Constitution, forcing survivors into a lifetime of slavery; all aspects of a storyline have been achieved. The protagonists (Humanity, but specifically Americans), the antagonists (aliens and the Government), the stakes (Freedom or Slavery) and the moral (to ‘wake up’ from the deception before it’s too late) occurs only after, in Behold, a Pale Horse, the secret history of US Government involvement with extraterrestrials and significant back story work has been done.
According to Cooper, the beginning had been written, but we humans are capable of changing how the story ends. This is the unspoken narrative embedded in any conspiracy theory; a call to action to expose the conspiracy and restore Justice. With Cooper’s UFO conspiracy, as with any conspiracy theory, the narrative is a morality play en media res.
Your Story, a Vow.
Just like the narrative of society, we each have a tacit, modifiable, and suggestible narrative of the self. The various roles we play in our daily lives, the labels we are given, the affiliations we maintain; all become part of our conception of our self.
The narrative of the self is necessarily linked to our narrative of society.
If, for instance, you believe that 9/11 was either planned, or known and allowed to proceed, by members of the US Government; it would mean that you either feel compelled to state this due to a belief in your own honor or honesty, or you maintain your thoughts secretly for fear of negative evaluation by others.
The opinion of others can profoundly effect your view of yourself, as well as what you make known to the world. The opinion of a close friend, a spouse or relationship partner, or a family member (those ‘significant others’) can weigh more heavily and be a more profound influence than the opinions of members of the general public.
An ‘I am … ‘ or ‘I believe … ‘ statement ascribes a self identity to the person who makes the statement, whether it be out loud or in secret. Once such a statement is made out loud, others may hold a person to it, questioning when such a statement seems to be contradicted by a person’s actions. Even when held in secret, contradictions can lead to identity crises.
Bill Cooper went through several such self identity crises. Rejected by more well-established Ufologists, such as UFO Magazine‘s Don Ecker, Cooper gravitated more towards anti-government extremists. Cooper became a noted ‘Arizona Militia‘ figure according to his L.A. Times obit. His shortwave radio broadcast, Hour of the Time, was a daily diatribe; a favorite of Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh and other extremists. Yet, towards the end of Behold, a Pale Horse, Cooper prescribed of all people to seek a paradigm shift that could lead to a healing of the planet; this did not seem like the words of a man who would later inspire Right-Wing extremists.
After years of avoiding a warrant for tax evasion, Milton William Cooper shot and critically injured Deputy Robert Martinez and was then killed as deputies were attempting to arrest him on an unrelated criminal menacing charge. U.S. Marshals claim Cooper vowed never to be taken alive.
The day before the shootout, Bill Cooper devoted his last radio broadcast to a wistful account his combat time in Vietnam along the Cua Viet River. Thoughts of a black widow spider outbreak, a typhoon, an invitation of the USMC Veterans Assoc.; all letters and emails solicited by Bill for an upcoming website and book, interspersed with old war stories.
This is one of the aspects of a narrative that vaguely ask the audience to imagine an aspect of the story that was not apparent throughout the rest of the story. The post script can be denouement or peripeteia. Less than two months after 9/11/2001, his friend Alex Jones initiating his own long-term radio broadcast, Bill Cooper was planning a book to reminisce and honor the valor of those who he fought with.
In the end, Bill Cooper’s story has no clear resolution.