My latest trip to New York saw me straddling the social divide of employed rich, white liberals and unemployed rich, white liberals. The latter lot I met in Zuccotti Park, protesting against Capitalism, Obama, inequality, and the spiraling cost of Gant summer wear. I’ve been skeptical about the Occupy movement (hereafter referred to as OWS) because I went to university with many of the people in it. These were generally folks from good families and expensive schools. Something about Oxbridge put their backs up, because they walked away from it out-and-out revolutionaries – critics of the very social order that had given them a brilliant education. For about a year – during the Iraq War – we were kith and kin. I never entirely fitted in, but they were nice enough to share their nut roasts wrapped in tinfoil on long marches around Trafalgar Square. They slept with anything that moved; took a bucket-load of narcotics. They were citizens of the world, jetting from crisis to crisis to be seen standing with a sign declaring the end of the world. Their faces were evergreen and innocent: the soft, wide-eyed stare of someone who has never had to worry about paying for food or rent.When their names came up in association with the St. Paul’s protests in London, I thought, “Haven’t any of these kids got a job yet?” They’ve been occupying things for about ten years. All that made a difference this time is that the media finally paid attention. I refused to attend the London occupation because I was worried about bumping in to people I know. They won’t like the fact that I now write for the Daily Telegraph and that I’m a hardcore “burn the witches” Catholic convert. I also seem to remember that some of them didn’t smell so good.However, I was perfectly happy to drop by Zuccotti Park while I was passing through New York on a trip to see my publisher. It was a sad sight. As I wrote in the Telegraph, the media and journalists outnumbered protestors, and at least half the protestors were mentally ill folks looking for soup and shelter. A large proportion of the coherent demonstrators were foreign: always a bad sign. It suggests that they are part of that international jet set of anarchists that I knew at Cambridge. The Tea Party might have been crazy reactionaries, but at least they were American crazy reactionaries.After a few hours standing in the rain taking photos of tattooed women climbing trees, I dashed back to my hotel to change for the evening. I was staying in a part of town I’m sure most of OWS has never visited. My hotel was next to an exposed subway track; the walls shook every time the 7 train passed by. I’d guess the hotel was used almost exclusively by ladies of the night: almost exclusively, because at breakfast I spotted a family of cornfed Alabamians tucking into their free oatmeal. All the other tables were populated by women in low cut tops who had stayed just the one night.I threw on a suit and took the metro over to Park Avenue, for a cocktail party to celebrate my publisher’s 25 years in business. I promised myself that I’d stay thirty minutes and only drink OJ, but ended up polishing off two bottles of red and staying through to the bitter, bitter end. It was there that I had the good fortune to meet my boyhood hero, Steve Guttenberg. He’d written a book and was in town doing a show on Broadway. Growing up in the early 1990s, living on a diet of Blockbuster videos (how miraculous that technology seemed back then!), much of my understanding of the world outside West Kent came from watching Police Academy. Admittedly, they dropped off in quality after the first one (and about fifteen minutes into the first one, at that) but Steve seemed the acme of cool to me. Like the chivalric knight or the cheap detective, the wise guy lady killer remains a standard in heterosexual chic. The conversation was stilted because I was overcome with nerves, but the best bit went like this:SG: What’s that on your lapel?TS: It’s a badge for the British Red Cross.SG: It’s shaped like a flower. Is it anything to do with Veteran’s Day?TS: No it’s not, although I think you’re thinking of the poppies that we wear to commemorate the British dead in World War I. Although, actually the Poppy Appeal was started by an American nurse.SG: Really?TS: Yes, it was inspired by the poppies that grew where the soldiers fell on the battlefield.SG: You know, we are really the first generation in history that has never experienced suffering like that. We’re the first generation who have never been called to kill or die for something.TS: Yeah – instead we send other people to do it for us. And, of course, we fetishize anyone who acts like a killer.SG: I’d love to see some of those hip hop guys spend ten minutes in the army, dodging real bullets. It’s one thing to rap about blood and guts but it’s a different ball game to actually see them.TS: They sing about killing, but all they really do is eat pizza and smoke all day.SG: Although, there’s nothing wrong with pizza and pot.TS: No. Nothing wrong with that.PAUSESG: You got any pot?TS: No.SG: Well, I hope you won't think I'm rude if I go and talk to someone else.TS: Okay, bye.Wow, I thought, Steve Guttenberg is kind of deep.And now, as I write, I’m taking a train out of New York north to Boston. From a distance, New York is brown and beautiful. Even the railroad tracks seem to glitter in the morning sun. It takes just twenty minutes to hit open countryside and an hour to see the Atlantic. How loud and cruel it is, crashing mercilessly against the fishing boats. Above me are gulls and to the left, miles of reeds and silver pools of water. No wonder the Puritans thought New England was a gift from God. In the midday sun it is as pure and golden as it was when the Mayflower first landed. God bless America.
Conspiracy theorist David Icke believes that the world is run by lizards. To be specific, it is run by a crossbreed of reptiles and men who live in the middle of the Earth, drink blood, and come from Alpha Draconis. Devilish shape-shifters, their first family are the Windsors and they govern us through royal bloodlines. The lizard people control things via the banking system. We monkey men are their slaves, freedom is an illusion. I have a fantasy wherein I meet Mr. Icke at a party, I go up to him and say, “David, I am a reptoid and I can confirm that everything you believe is true.” Then I run away, leaving behind a happily validated madman.
Some dismiss Icke as a media-hungry simpleton who got high while watching V: The Miniseries in the 1980s and mistook it for a newsreel. Others suspect that the lizards are a racist analogy for the Jews. Certainly Icke’s theory corresponds with classic tropes of the Neo-Nazi conspiracy genre: the world is controlled by an inter-related species through the money supply. But this is probably unfair. Icke has denounced anti-Semitism many times and there’s no hint of hate speech in his writings. Indeed, it is wrong to dismiss the Icke phenomenon out of hand. His books sell well and he’s had a big cultural impact. [The 2008 Minnesota race was so close that it went down to recounting individual spoiled ballots. On one of them, some wag had crossed out all the candidates’ names and written in their place “The Lizard People”.]
Conspiracy theories like Icke’s are usually a rational attempt to make sense out of a series of bizarre and frightening events. It is a fact that Western democratic governments have conspired against their citizens. The list of atrocities in America is shocking. The federal government’s assault on Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992 and the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas in 1993 ended in the deaths of dozens of innocent citizens. In neither case was the government’s intention malign, but it was guilty of gross incompetence and bending the Constitution. Watergate, Gulf War Syndrome, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Chappaquiddick, the Kennedy assassination, all have raised questions about the honesty of federal agencies. What the conspiracy theorists do is to draw links between these individual violations of human rights to create a unifying theory. The principle is rational but the process and outcome are not. They bury genuine crimes beneath illegitimate or untested data, creating links between unconnected events, building pattern upon pattern of duplicities that kaleidoscope into a big mess of crazy. But it is wrong to dismiss as irrational or insane Icke’s desire to bring order to the universe, to make sense of the violent, corrupt, dumb things that governments do to their own people. Nor is retrospective conspiracy thinking limited to mad white people. The popular myth within the African-American community that AIDS was created by the government to control the black population developed in the 1970s in tandem with revelations that public health officials had denied treatment to black syphilis sufferers to examine the disease’s long term effects.
Moreover, Icke offers an unusual way of expressing a fear of impersonal forces that is common to all of us. If Icke is writing metaphorically about a world run by lizard men, then he is a genius (the corollary to that is that if he’s writing literally, then he’s a nut). The world is slipping beyond the control of the individual as technological, social, and economic change make larger structures of organization necessary and inescapable. The linkage of economies has rendered nation states a sham; the threat of terror demands a multilateral approach; human rights legislation defending the rights of grand minorities chips away at individual freedom of speech. While the internet has increased our access to information, it has also made the world seem smaller. Government agencies grow like bacteria swelling in a Petri dish. Before the Second World War, the British didn’t even have to own passports. Now the government gathers our DNA, eye scans, and tax records. The logic of the slow loss of control is horrible and overwhelming. The desire to find someone responsible for it is understandable.
But what is more terrifying than David Icke’s fantasies of evil reptilian kitten-eaters from another planet is that all of this is not planned. It is random. The War on Terror was started not by the President of the most powerful nation in the world but by a handful of amateur criminals. It is far more frightening to admit that all of the crazy stuff that happens is spontaneous rather than organized and rational. With a few notable exceptions, modern Western societies are not evil and well organized. They are mad and inept. If that was not true, then wouldn’t David Icke have been assassinated by now?