The fucks are at it again!

Diane, it struck me again earlier this morning, there are two things that continue to trouble me. And I’m speaking now not only as an agent of the Bureau but also as a human being. What really went on between Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedys and who really pulled the trigger on JFK?   

When Agent Dale Cooper uttered these words shortly upon arrival in Twin Peaks towards the end of the 20th Century he still lived in a world without access to the Internet or social media [1], a world in which one could still more or less ignore these phenomena. Twenty-five years later, The X-Files and Agent Fox Mulder (Cooper’s equivalent), appear to have influenced the debate surrounding Cooper’s questions via the motto “Trust No One”. Nowadays, it’s rare to encounter someone who does not subscribe to at least one or two such theories. While some claim that we live in a true “conspiratocracy”, evidence tends to prove that the overall interest in such theories has gradually gone down since the beginning of the past century, with its Golden Age of the 1950s.

But who was really speaking, in 1989? Was it truly Dale Cooper? Or was it Mark Frost and David Lynch who used him as a spokesperson to express their own concerns?

It is important to remember that Twin Peaks began as a replacement for another project imagined by the creative duo, an adaptation of Goddess, the Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe (Anthony Summers, 2013), a controversial biography that blames the Kennedy Brothers for her death – another conspiracy theory. (note: I am not assessing the validity of the various theories discussed here, only pointing out that we are not talking about hard facts, but rather speculations, some of which may be validated at some point in the future, while the vast majority of them will remain what they are, i.e. theories).

As for JFK’s assassination, it appears that Cooper (and through him Lynch and Frost) also shows profound doubts concerning the “official version”, underscored by his appreciation for The Warren Commission Report, which happens to be his favorite book according to The Secret History of Twin Peaks (where the books appear on a shelf with his name by it at the Bookhouse). This is arguably where the roots of the modern conspiracy world view can be found: “The assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963 and the findings of the Warren Commission, investigating the case and published in September 1964, launched the beginning of what has been described as ‘the mother of all conspiracy theories’” (Who are the Illuminati?, p.173). It appears that 60 to 80% of Americans now believe this theory.

Twin Peaks: The Return and The Secret History of Twin Peaks take us one step further inside the vortex of conspiracy theories, a world in which one finds plans within plans, plots hidden by other plots. Since he escaped from the Black Lodge, Mr. C has had time to build a vast evil network to secretly execute his plans, while Joudy and the Fireman have also designed plans of their own to achieve opposing aims; UFOs are omnipresent in Mark Frost’s book, from Roswell to Twin Peaks and beyond, and the Government is hiding their existence; Free Masons (real) and Bavarian Illuminati (imaginary) are fighting behind the veil of reality, secretly shaping the way the world goes, away from public scrutiny… A few years ago, David Lynch also made clear that he has serious doubts about what happened on 9/11, probably the most widespread conspiracy theory of the early 21st Century. One American in three believes this; they are known as Truthers [2].

Where does this systematic distrust of the government come from in the USA? Frost’s book argues that secret agendas are consubstantial with the history of the country since its inception to the present day, to the extent that it becomes impossible to separate the truth from the many lies, reality from maya. In the real world, this distrust actually goes beyond the government, as the “official” press is also often included part and parcel alongside conspiracies. Basically, it’s those in power (or believed to be in power) who are targeted by these theories.

Here, it’s useful to provide a few definitions. In American Conspiracy Theories, the authors state “We define conspiracy as a secret arrangement between two or more actors to usurp political or economic power, violate established rights, hoard vital secrets, or unlawfully alter government institutions…because of the difficulties inherent in executing plans and keeping quiet, they tend to fail…conspiracies speak to actual events that have occurred or are occurring” (p.31). They continue: “For conspiracy theory, we use a standard definition: an explanation of historical, ongoing, or future events that cites as a main causal factor a small group of powerful persons, the conspirators, acting in secret for their own benefit against the common good” (p.32). The following dichotomy is thus established: “While ‘conspiracy’ refers to events that have occurred or are occurring, ‘conspiracy theory’ refers to accusatory perceptions that may or may not be true”  (p.33).

Every conspiracy theory could be true, and no one can deny the existence of actual conspiracies at certain levels of the Government, throughout the years, as proven by the Watergate scandal, for example. The Vietnam War left a strong and lasting impression on the American psyche, one that gave people the feeling that they were being used to promote agendas that were not about well-being, but about other interests that eclipsed them. But this was nothing compared to the Communist Red Scare from the 1950s, supported by Hoover’s FBI, that also played a role in this process and led to a degree of delegitimization of public figures. Conspiracies are real, they happen.

This is partly explained by the fact that deception is connected to a certain extent to the exercise of power. But while a healthy amount of governmental secrecy may be acceptable in some contexts, conspiracies go one step further down the path to outright lies and dishonest manipulation. The line between the two is not always easy to draw, but not every sort of political strategizing can be described as conspiratorial, by far. The difference between the two is arguably the intrinsic illegality of the means used by the second.

A President like Donald Trump has definitely left the realm of political strategy on several occurrences, distorting facts, outright lying to manipulate public opinion and polarize the nation. He and Fox News have contributed to the spread of some conspiracy theories, but it’s good to know that “rabblerousing elites (this means you, Donald Trump) can catalyse conspiracy theories in the minds of highly predisposed partisans, but that is unlikely to spread further” (idem, p.128). Though I don’t support Republicans, I’m not basing this judgement on ideology or on a conspiracy theory. I did not support previous Republican candidates, but I never believed the many conspiracy theories concerning them, whereas Trump has been caught several times lying and it is therefore not much of a stretch to believe that he would be ready to move towards even greater manipulation if given the opportunity. He also regularly plays with conspiracy theories to reach and stay in power, such as instrumentalizing unfounded rumours about Barack Obama’s birth certificate. This certainly does not help to restore the credibility of the Government or the press, and has weakened American democracy down to its roots, as did Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. Having a conspiracy theorist, or at the very least someone who instrumentalizes conspiracy theories, in the White House does a clear disservice to the cause of reason.

Nonetheless, this does not prove that every conspiracy theory targeting him is true. For instance, the Trump-Russia conspiracy is still, for the time being, just a theory. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be true, it’s important to acknowledge that one cannot yet declare with absolute certainty that a conspiracy exists surrounding Trump and Putin. However, Mark Frost, who is a fan of the 1962 movie The Manchurian Candidate by John Frankenheimer, about an international communist conspiracy (as demonstrated in the following image of Audrey Horne, in the only Twin Peaks episode he directed, next to an image from The Manchurian Candidate) appears to believe that Trump is indeed a pawn in the hands of the Russian President.

Trump might be the exception that confirms the rule on many levels. Conspiracy theories are usually held by those who are NOT in power. The anxieties linked to possible secret manipulations that might affect their position in society lead to such opinions. Ideology also plays a role in their development – people belonging to opposing parties regularly argue about secret plots woven by their opponents to gain control of money and power, away from public light. The fact that one of the most privileged men in America manages to convince many conspiracy theorists, who are usually not part of the elite, that he represents the solution to their often-paranoid fears, leaves one dumbfounded.

It’s important to agree that conspiracies exist and that some conspiracy theories help to eventually unveil the truth. But the vast majority of them lose credibility as soon they portray vast networks of co-conspirators, acting over decades or even centuries to achieve their aims, including everyone from the wealthiest to the press, the Satanists, the military, the Reptilians, the Illuminati, the Jews, and so on and so forth – often without convincing elements of proof, or with only limited and superficially convincing elements of proof. Healthy skepticism is one thing, we should not swallow everything we are told without asking for proof. But when every single major event in history becomes an opportunity to question the “official” truth, a warning bell should go off (it does not need to be as big as the Fireman’s). Most conspiracy theories are evenly balanced between both sides of the political spectrum, for different reasons, but sometimes attacking the same targets, such as the Federal Government. Birthers (right wingers who claim that Obama wasn’t born in the USA) and Truthers (left wingers who believe that 9/11 was engineered by the Bush administration) are not that different in the end.

In 2006, 45 percent of Democrats believed that 9/11 was a conspiracy by the federal government, while in 2010, 41 percent of Republicans believed that Barack Obama was born in another country. Of course, beyond these examples, there have always been conspiracy theories on the right concerning big government liberal socialist plots, and on the left concerning plutocratic corporation conspiracies. Let’s also remember the conspiracy theory at the very root of the existence of the USA: the authors of American Conspiracy Theories mention the Declaration of Independence, the justification of independence being “a shaky conspiracy theory” (“With hindsight, we know that the British government had no designs to enslave the American people”, p.2).

How do such conspiracy theories function and why do people believe in them? This is often a way to make sense of the world with theories that validate long term beliefs (ideologies). They tend to be elaborated by self-proclaimed experts who often pose as martyrs in front of “official scientists”. They are often distilled in books with A LOT OF CAPITAL LETTERS (such as Behold a Pale Horse), that read like Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.

Being able to put a face on the upheavals of the world is somehow reassuring, especially if it fits one’s ideological beliefs and upbringing – left wingers rarely see conspiracies on the left, and the same is true for right wingers on their side of the political stage. It should be said that these theories are not necessarily simpler than the official versions, but they make sense within the preexisting intellectual frameworks of those who share them. As stated above, it’s usually those who are not in power who develop them, often as a way to explain the situation they’re in and/or to find a scapegoat. The circular reasoning behind most conspiracy theories – if you claim there’s no conspiracy, it’s proof that you are part of the conspiracy yourself – is often validated by quotes such as: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist” (Charles Baudelaire), or by claims that those who do not agree with them need to “wake up” (isn’t this what MIKE keeps telling Cooper all along in season 3?) or that they are “naive”. There is no questioning the fact that such a worldview – i.e., if something I don’t like happens somewhere, it’s proof that someone orchestrated it – is itself rather simplistic.

There are various ways to test the validity of such theories in order to assess how likely they are to explain the truth. Occam’s razor is one (why introduce aliens into the mix when we can explain things with humans?). Falsifiability is another method, the fact that scientific theories are supposed to be invalidated by facts that run contrary to what they predict. But the very falsifiability of conspiracy theories is often limited because they rely on so many claims which cannot be put to the test. What could disprove the claims concerning JFK’s assassination or 9/11, for instance? It is hard to prove that a machination does not exist, but that does not mean that it exists nonetheless. In a way, it’s the same task faced by atheists who are supposed to prove the inexistence of God (or gods) – what would constitute the ultimate proof of their nonexistence? Some theories are simply outside the realm of science because it’s impossible to prove them wrong (which of course does not mean that they are right, or course!). Similarly, it’s very difficult to disprove the existence of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, but that’s because they’re not part of the realm of science. Also, “dogmatic conspiracy theorists find post hoc ways to avoid refutation” (idem, p.40) : when they can’t bring hard elements of proof validating their theory, they slightly amend it. Consider, for instance, what happened to Obama’s birth certificate when it was released. First, it was supposedly “non-exist-ent”, and then it suddenly became a forgery. There is also the “pick and choose”’ method: “When a study supports a link between vaccines and ill effects, it is lauded as exemplary science. But when a study fails to find a link between vaccines and illness, it is jeered as bad science, bad faith, and further evidence of the plot. When it comes to science and authority, conspiracy theorists look little different than the rest of us; they cheer the evidence that fits with their previously held views and boo evidence that does not” (idem, p.49).

The idea that vast conspiracies exist somehow also goes hand in hand with a belief in the existence of evil, of pure evil as a force that rules the world. They’re out there to get you. This is definitely something relevant for Twin Peaks, in which demons and angels /asuras and devas roam the Earth. The truth though is that people are less monolithic than this, less predictable, and that even the ones who come closest to what one could qualify as “pure evil” sometimes act out of what was, from their perspective, a benevolent point of view (how many world rulers have caused the deaths of their citizens thinking they were improving their lives?).

In the end, few conspiracy theories would lead to a guilty condemnation in court, as their evidence is often sketchy, circumstantial at best. In democracies, people unfortunately tend to act as if they know as much as experts (if not more). But the truth is that not everyone is a member of the FBI, for instance, and their skills are not shared equally by all of us – Cooper would probably agree with this at least. Therefore, to claim that we’ve done a better job than highly trained experts to untangle complex conspiracies involving realms to which we don’t even have access to sounds a little preposterous. Of course, conspiracy theorist are always going to point out a fact that was not reported or explained by the experts, in the “official version”. But “all theories have anomalies because all theories simplify complexity. Errant data do not prove much on their own. Most of life is unexplained. The fact that we cannot explain all data with crisp theories suggests nothing” (idem., p.50).

The general working of conspiracy theories is reminiscent of the various authors writing “alternative science” [3], those behind the books about ancient astronauts, near death experiences, extra sensorial perception, etc. Which brings us back to Twin Peaks, as both David Lynch and Mark Frost are openly keen on reading such materials. I have found many links (see my Twitter and Facebook accounts for more on the subject) between season 3 and the last two books written by Frost on the one hand, and on the other hand with works such as Behold a Pale Horse (a potpourri of conspiracy theories), the works of William Henry, They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers (Gray Barker), and so on.

Because they’d rather “play tennis without a net”, to quote Daniel Dennett – he uses this metaphor to discuss those who refuse the theory of evolution and the way modern science functions, and who therefore play a version of tennis in which anything goes, not ruled by facts and rationality [4] – alternative scientists always come back to the example of Heinrich Schliemann, the German independent researcher who discovered the remains of Troy in Turkey – as if this sole counter-example was proof enough that “official science” is systematically biased and blind to the truth. It’s probable that this position on the margins of “official science” (necessarily biased and corporative) also confers a certain element of coolness to the “researchers” involved in “alternative media”: they’re rebels.

Now, is it problematic to use such theories inside a fictional narrative? Of course not – a lot of this material is actually very entertaining, as long as one keeps their feet on the ground and does not let the sky vortex swallow them. The fact that the universe of Twin Peaks is so layered with meanings of all sorts is fascinating, as it’s possible to propose multiple interpretations of nearly everything. Meaning is everywhere, as exemplified by Lil’s oversignifying dance in Fire Walk with Me. The cryptic message she transmits to the FBI agents is reminiscent of the secret signs and handshakes of the Illuminati, supposedly displayed by the rich and powerful on the front pages of magazines. Meaning abounds, right under reality as we know it, and nothing is the result of pure chance. Viewers need to “wake up” and decipher the hidden messages laid out in plain sight, displayed in front of them: “Tragically, hundreds of millions of people have, in a manner of speaking, become “Manchurian Candidates.” They eat, breathe, move, and sleep as if in a trance.” (Codex Magica: Secret Signs, Mysterious Symbols, and Hidden Codes of the Illuminati).

The question is: do Frost and Lynch stop at the fictional level or do they truly think that these questions are valid in our three-dimensional reality? We know for a fact that at the very least, David Lynch believes in conspiracy theories surrounding Marilyn Monroe’s death, JFK’s assassination, and the 9/11 attacks. For his part, Mark Frost believes in conspiracies surrounding Marilyn, JFK, and UFOs. These are the conspiracies they have gone on record about, which places both of them in a group above the national average. Once again, my point here is not to say whether they’re right or wrong about these theories, but to evaluate how prone they are to follow such a conspirational view of the world. And the answer is that they both tend to be on the more conspirational side of society. They would probably agree to some extent with at least one of the following statements: “Much of our lives are being controlled by plots hatched in secret places”; “Even though we live in a democracy, a few people will always run things anyway.”; “The people who really ‘run’ the country are not known to the voters.” (American Conspiracy Theories, p.80). Lynch and Frost’s tendency to see conspiracies might partially be linked to the fact that they were young men in the 1970s-1980s: “Levels of trust in the government sank from a high in 1960 to historic lows during the 1970s, rebounding only slightly for a few years in the early 1980s” (idem., p.85). The fact that they were children in the 1950s, during the Red Scare, might also have eased this tendency to see darkness behind the colored curtains of the world – a most Lynchian theme.

How does this impact Twin Peaks? First, one could argue that The Return is fundamentalist in the way it depicts  reality : “Central to this belief is an apocalyptic worldview that sees the world as undergoing a struggle between good and evil, and that society is in danger of being undermined by an evil conspiracy” (Who are the Illuminati?, p.177). The idea of a return (to the true faith) and of the reign of the Antichrist (the Babalon Working, the Kali Yuga) closely echo the process of the new 18 parts. What we experience in season 3 is basically the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it and this is the sort of script often depicted by fundamentalist conspiracy theories. As mentioned above, Twin Peaks is very much about the fight between good and evil, light and darkness. This translates into an overarching story leading the world to its doom (and Carrie’s shriek).

Furthermore, the very event at the root of Twin Peaks, Laura’s murder, was the result of a conspiracy of sorts. Her death was decided by the entities above the convenience store, while the Twin Peaks community appears like a mysterious web or interests in which some people, or possibly everyone, could have had something to gain from her death. Afterall, we’ve been reminded that “In a town like Twin Peaks, no one is innocent”. From this, it’s easy to jump to the idea that secret plots are taking place to rule the town, steering it away from public good – which is indeed the case (the Horne brothers, the Packards, etc.).

Mark Frost’s The Secret History of Twin Peaks goes one step beyond in its depiction of conspiracies and counter-conspiracies, not limited this time to the confines of the town of Twin Peaks, extending in all space-time directions (if not the multiverse). Everything is part of a giant plot and people are just pawns on a chessboard. The way the script evolves is also directly connected to numerology, astrology, alchemy, and works of literature. There are mysterious forces in the shadows, directing the lives of the characters in the series against their will. While this is extremely fun to watch and untangle, this is also very much typical of a conspiratorial worldview.

But of course, the archetypal figure of this conspiratorial vision of events in The Return is Doctor Amp, whose rants mix warnings of all sorts concerning the evil aims at work in society. The usual suspects are named: politicians, corporations, big business, etc., all manipulated like puppets by those Mark Frost describes as the Illuminati, Mr. C and his like. To be clear, I am not trying to say here that corporations and politicians are always innocent, to the contrary, they regularly prove otherwise. But the idea that it’s somehow all interconnected and the result of a conscious will to propagate evil on the planet goes one step further than I’m personally willing to. All powerful evil plotting figures like Mr. Todd and Mr. C are works of fiction, things are much messier in reality.

What sort of image of the USA does this conspiracy worldview give? Is the United-States depicted in The Return and the one in which Lynch and Frost live “one and the same”?

There is no denying that one can find echoes of the current problems faced by the country in the new season of Twin Peaks: the after wave of the 2008 economic crisis (the empty Rancho Rosa Estate), the ravages of drugs and violence (Red’s trafficking and other gun happy citizens), the feeling that things were better in the past (Make America Great Again)… However, several conspiracy theories are taken as literal truth within the confines of this fictional world while their validity seems, to say the least, very questionable in our world. Let’s take this aspect of Twin Peaks with a grain of salt and enjoy it for what it is: a wonderful piece of entertainment, the best television series ever (as far as I’m concerned), but not necessarily, beyond the metaphorical realm, a valid source of information about our world. In any case, evidence tends to demonstrate that such elements found in popular culture don’t in fact have much of an impact on the public: “if conspiracies sell, they tend not to sell particularly well. JFK and X-Files were memorable, but hardly as profitable as anti-conspiracy material like The Wizard of Oz or Law & Order. In fact, when we examine how conspiracy theory entertainment is treated in the broader information environment, we fin that it is often mocked” (American Conspiracy Theories, p.123).

And finally, please don’t misconstrue this blog post. I really enjoy reading “alternative science” materials, watching Twin Peaks and all sorts of fantasy or science-fiction. But I do not take them as scientific exposés about the world we live in, rather I viewi them  as entertainment and/or allegories. I truly respect David Lynch and Mark Frost as artists, I think they’re creative geniuses. This doesn’t mean that I/we have to go as far as adapting their spiritual practices or belief in the existence of otherworldly beings. Similarly, they have the right to doubt what happened to Marilyn, JFK, UFOs and on 9/11, but once again it is also my right to differ and to (respectfully) enjoy these plots as sheer entertainment.

“There seems to be a curious American tendency to search, at all times, for a single external center of evil to which all our troubles can be attributed, rather than to recognize that there might be multiple sources of resistance to our purposes and undertakings, and that these sources might be relatively independent of each other”.

—George F. Kennan

[1] Though the link between the Internet and the spread of conspiracy theories appears to be sketchy at best: “although the Internet may make it possible for self-selected groups to find and encourage each other’s worldviews, they appear to be self-contained enough not to influence the broader population appreciably. Of course, the Internet does not seem to have decreased conspiracy theorizing either. The data show that technology is unrelated to the level of conspiracy theorizing” (see American Conspiracy Theories, p.122).

[2] Noam Chomsky discusses the cost/benefit ratio about this theory: “Did (the Bush administration) plan it in any way or know anything about it? This seems to be extremely unlikely. They would have been insane to try anything like that. If they had, it is almost certain that it would have leaked. It’s a very porous system, secrets are hard to keep. So, something would have leaked out, very likely. And if it had, they’d all be before firing squads. It’d be the end of the Republican Party forever” (American Conspiracy Theory).

[3] “Conspiracy theorists often choose to selectively ignore the knowledge generated by experts and rely on more elastic evidence from unconventional sources and amateurs” (American Conspiracy Theory, p.48). These people often (and conveniently) present themselves as “independent researchers” and rarely teach in higher education.

[4] “If pushed hard, all standards break. Yet standards are a necessity and overlapping standards may correct for each other’s deficiencies” (idem., p.37).

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