The Conspiracy Museum
Photo-illustration by Kensuke Koike
REMARKS AS PREPARED BY WILLIAM K. SING, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, SMITHSONIAN MUSEUM OF AMERICAN CONSPIRACY
FOR DELIVERY ON TUESDAY APRIL 16, 2041
Welcome, everyone. What an [INSERT WEATHER COMMENT] day to open a museum.
Behind me [GESTURE BEHIND SELF] is the Smithsonian Museum of American Conspiracy. Yes, it’s really there! I know it’s hard to see. The building is clad in the same light-bending mesh the Space Force uses for its stealth ships. There was a surplus. Lucky us.
This is an art museum. That’s important. Not a history museum, and not, as the Post has suggested, the Smithsonian’s second zoo. [PAUSE FOR IRONIC LAUGHTER] No, this new institution celebrates an art form. It’s a natural extension of the Smithsonian’s long-standing commitment to American folkways.
This might be the deepest, widest folkway of them all.
I’ll quote my colleague Helena Hwang, who calls conspiracy theories “the third great American art form, alongside jazz and superhero comics.” Maybe when Disney’s lobbyists finally allow those copyrights to expire, we can build a Smithsonian Museum of Superheroes next door. [PAUSE FOR RUEFUL LAUGHTER] Not likely.
This is a new kind of museum. Its collection extends into the exabytes, and it circulates continuously through our displays. The museum’s centerpiece, which you’ll see immediately upon entering, is the meme mosaic: a 21st-century quilt, two stories tall, constantly shifting. It is truly awful, in the original sense.
Inside, you will find a literal hall of mirrors. No visitor’s experience will be the same. You’ll learn about the tropes and techniques of an important art form, and you’ll encounter a kind of counter-history: a network of narratives that have established themselves in the tide-pool crevices between real events.
“Real events.” There. I did it, didn’t I?
Conspiracy theories are often compared unfavorably with the theories, nominally nonconspiratorial, of fields like physics and history. Now, as a historian, I do believe that the activities of these fields, and their output, are different. As a historian, I believe in rigor and, yes, even truth.
As a historian, I also follow in the footsteps of Thomas Kuhn, the 20th-century historian of science who observed that new paradigms arrive not, as scientists would like us to believe—and would like to believe themselves—through vigorous argumentation, in which [PRONOUNCE EXCLAMATION MARKS] minds! are! changed!, but in an altogether more human way: Old scientists retire. Young scientists enter the field. Slowly, surely, the lab turns over. This is the real structure of scientific revolutions.
The evolution of conspiracy theories isn’t so different. If anything, it’s faster!
Here’s a paradox:
1. No conspiracy-theory believer has ever been “talked out of” believing their chosen theory.
2. All conspiracy-theory believers, at some point, stop believing their chosen theory.
By what process, then, do the beliefs of conspiracy-theory believers change?
[PLAYFUL SPUTTERING] What, if not rational discourse, makes a conspiracy-theory believer drop the fluoride thing, the UFO thing, the “President Johnson is a robot” thing? What, if not argumentation? What, if not information?
Oh, the answer is better than you can imagine.
I’ll confess that my own intuitions around democracy have, for most of my life, associated political change with big, passionate feelings. Enthusiasm, fear, outrage: leviathans swimming powerfully through the body politic. I still believe that those feelings drive change, though the 21st century has not, so far, offered me much evidence. But here’s what else I believe. Here’s what I’ve learned: Boredom, too, is out there among the leviathans.
We should be thankful.
The old nuclear-power stations functioned by moderating the chain reaction of fissile material with neutron-absorbing “control rods” that could be raised and lowered. Raise them, and the naked uranium speaks more urgently to itself; lower them, and the chatter fades.
Boredom is the control rod of conspiracy, and maybe of democracy, too. Without boredom, I honestly think one of the stories in the museum behind me [GESTURE BEHIND SELF] might by now have destroyed this country.
[PAUSE TO LET SINK IN]
The Smithsonian Museum of American Conspiracy offers something uniquely urgent and relevant to the times we live in. A decade ago, I expected a war. With who? Anyone. Everyone! And I mean a real war—not one of our president’s graceful dances, with all the missiles exploding somewhere over the ocean. Great-power conflict has returned, but with … a calmness. Why? How?
I believe that this museum possesses the unlikely answer.
President Johnson’s post-Pyongyang global order runs, essentially, on conspiracy theory.
That’s not what the president calls it, of course. You know this administration’s foreign policy as Global Kayfabe. You might, additionally, know that the term is taken from professional wrestling.
Kayfabe: the presentation of staged events as real, with the understanding that the audience is in on it. Kayfabe: the eager suspension, on all sides, of disbelief.
Of course, it makes sense that our president, who started his career in a wrestling ring, whose persona was formed there, has now adapted kayfabe to the biggest ring of them all.
Cards on the table: I am an avid lifelong fan of wrestling, including its international and independent variants. Professional wrestling led me to wrestling fan fiction, which led me to the history of collaborative storytelling, which led me to UCLA, which led me here.
So believe me when I tell you: Kayfabe is profoundly creative and communal. No fan of professional wrestling believes the fight they are watching is “real,” but out of enthusiasm and, just as important, etiquette, we act as if we do.
And the results are electric.
The secretary of state will tell you his boss deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for this innovation in international relations, in which conflicts are staged loudly but bloodlessly, and populist animus is satisfied safely by the geopolitical equivalent of elbow drops.
I don’t know if that’s true.
I do, however, believe that kayfabe is a conspiracy theory, and conspiracy theory, kayfabe. They both rely on the same eager suspension of disbelief; they both are fundamentally about creativity and community, not cold-eyed fact-finding; and they both are inscrutable, even contemptible, to observers outside the magic circle of their games.
Also, they’re both stunningly simple. Even as conspiracy theories play at spider-web vastness, their dramatis personae are as compact as a tag-team match.
Kennedy, Hoover, Fidel Castro.
Tupac, Biggie, Suge Knight.
Musk, Markle, Ocasio-Cortez.
Now, maybe, hearing me compare conspiracy theorizing to the healthy play of kayfabe, you feel a growing sense of unease. You should. Because, as we all know, conspiracy theories have other characters, too.
Lately, it’s the wealthy and wizened Mind of Soros, the autonomous digital imprint of the activist billionaire. Can AI be Jewish? According to the conspiracy theorists, it can.
These are the stories that become cover for pogrom and genocide. They are serious, and the museum behind me takes them seriously. There are rooms inside that are painful to navigate; they feel like being inside the folds of a diseased mind. I don’t recommend them to everyone.
But rather than abandon a great collaborative art form to this poison, I propose that we use this museum as a workshop to engineer its rescue.
An underappreciated characteristic of kayfabe—and, if you ask me, the primary reason the president’s Global Kayfabe has been so successful—is that its relations are never fixed.
One of the great thrills of professional wrestling is something called the “heel turn.” In wrestling terms, a “face” is a hero, while a “heel” is a villain. (There’s more to it than that, of course. Darth Vader from Star Wars is the ultimate heel, but he’s also the charismatic center of the universe. Anyone in the crowd born after 2020, you can substitute—my daughter tells me this is the right reference—Void Tha Goddess. You love to hate her. [PAUSE, LIKE AN OLD PERSON] Right?)
When a face becomes a heel—or, the opposite: when a heel is redeemed as a face—it’s like an atom’s radioactive decomposition in the heart of an old reactor. Energy is released. The world is transformed.
Even better, the process can repeat! There was an old wrestler known as the Undertaker—this is a figure etched deeply into my heart—who turned from heel to face, face to heel again, and back, and back again, 10 times. Maybe 11; it depends how you count. Endless transformations.
The best conspiracy theories are like that, too.
There are, I must inform you, a lot of aliens in the building behind me. [GESTURE BEHIND SELF] The Hall of Ancient Astronauts is my favorite part of the museum. To me, this is pure kayfabe: playful and inviting, flexible, an infinite game. The story of pyramid-building extraterrestrials can absorb anything and anyone you throw at it.
Mayan temples. Spy satellites.
Jesus of Nazareth. Beyoncé of Houston.
In this kind of storytelling, there’s a beautiful syncretism. It offers a model of American conspiracy theorizing that is not about unalterable qualities, but rather processes in motion. Endless transformations.
You also see this quality in the conspiracy theory about President Johnson and his brawny robot doubles. I like that one a lot. I’ve recently seen it combined with another theory about an octopus civilization hidden near Antarctica: The robot is bait, intended to lure them into revealing themselves. Maybe that story will be in the museum one day.
[TURN TO LOOK AT MUSEUM]
It’s beautiful, isn’t it? You can almost make out its contours.
[TURN BACK TO AUDIENCE]
All right. I’ll abandon my kayfabe. There is no Smithsonian Museum of American Conspiracy behind me. No light-bending mesh. No two-story meme mosaic. It’s just the empty lot where FBI headquarters used to stand. We knocked that building down, but our opponents stopped us before we could lay a new foundation.
Those opponents said this museum’s contents would be too vile. That the most poisonous of these conspiracy theories had caused too much real suffering in the world. They said building an institution to collect and preserve them was tantamount to a celebration of ignorance. Many of these opponents were, yes, scientists. Maybe they were right.
But for my part, I believe we have forsaken a great opportunity, to recognize the collective creativity of a great American art form, and to consider how it might change.
Thank you all for coming out on this [INSERT WEATHER COMMENT] morning. If you’d like a tour, you can follow me this way.
[TURN AND WALK TOWARD EMPTY LOT]