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Pale Horse Rider Book Review
Have you heard of William Cooper? I used to think I knew all the big players in conspiracy-theory culture. After all, I was there the summer after the JFK assassination when Warren Commission “critic” Mark Lane gave a primitive PowerPoint presentation “proving” that someone had Photoshopped a picture of Lee Harvey Oswald holding his rifle so that the shadow pointed in … the wrong direction. Which proved … I don’t know, but it became an iconic data point in JFK conspiracy-theory lore.
And it was in this very magazine (September ’77) that I was able to bring national attention to the overwrought gothic rituals of the Yale secret society called Skull and Bones. And to its network of powerful graduates, who all too many gullible souls had come to believe were the secret rulers of the world—along with the Illuminati and the Bilderbergers, of course. I later assembled a team of Yale videographers to clandestinely tape the dramatic climax of the Bonesmen’s weird “throat slitting” initiation. I’ve followed truthers (9/11 was a “false flag” op) and birthers (Obama was Kenyan-born). I’ve choked down my disgust at “Pizzagate,” the conspiracy promoted by Alex Jones and Mike Cernovich, who posited (on the basis of zero evidence) that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of the basement of a D.C. pizza parlor (which had no basement).
But Milton William Cooper—you might think of him as Alex Jones before Alex Jones—no. Cooper had not been on my radar, and I’m grateful to Mark Jacobson for Pale Horse Rider, his in-depth portrait of an influential conspiracy-theory crank and the beliefs he insidiously spread to the vulnerable-minded.
Two things need to be said here. Yes, there have been conspiracies in history. Ask Julius Caesar. Ask Abraham Lincoln. Allegations of conspiracy shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand without investigating.
The second thing worth noting is that there are scores of brilliant investigators (often called “reporters”) who are superb at uncovering such genuine conspiracies. They deserve respect, not disdain, from the fantasists who love to look down their noses from an imagined position of insider knowledge. This is even more important right now, when the nation is in the midst of a frenzied debate about what is fact and what is fake.
In Jacobson’s telling, Cooper made his bones with a spectacular claim. He had found a secret document in a cabinet somewhere that detailed a turning point in the entire history of the planet: a 1954 summit conference between then-president Dwight D. Eisenhower and “the Aliens,” as Cooper nonspecifically called them, in which a treaty was signed between the commander in chief and the outer-space powers that would allow them to rule the earth under the cover of Ike.
And then there was Cooper’s claim that he had solved the Kennedy assassination after viewing a secret tape that showed that the Secret Service man driving the death limo in Dallas turned around and killed JFK by firing a super-special gas-powered gun in plain view of the people assembled on Dealey Plaza. (But you knew that.)
Cooper was also a black-helicopter man who provided some of the ideology for the right-wing militia movement that produced the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. People die because of lies like his. (Cooper himself died in a gunfight with local law enforcement in 2001.)
Maybe it’s unstoppable, but I’d argue that the only way to fight falsehood is with truth. And Jacobson, a felicitous writer with a talent for deadpan accounts of the ridiculous, does us a service by bringing us as close as possible to a figure like Cooper, author of a 1991 book called Behold a Pale Horse, which manages to fuse UFOs, Skull and Bones, militia madness, and biblical apocalypticism (the title is taken from the Book of Revelation), thereby attracting a large and durable following of the credulous and the impressionable. Sadly, according to Jacobson, that following has included a number of well-known rappers, such as the late Tupac Shakur and members of the Wu-Tang Clan.
Conspiracy theories represent a large and growing segment of the voting population. But what makes them tick?
One comes away from Jacobson’s book thinking he was absolutely right to take these people seriously, even if one finds their ideas impossible to take seriously. They represent a large and growing segment of the voting population, after all. But what makes them tick? Over years of dealing with their smug know-it-all smiles, their condescension toward the pitiful uninitiated—or “sheeple,” as Cooper would say—I’ve developed a Theory of Conspiracy Theory, which involves two paradoxes.
First, there is the Arrogance/Ignorance dialectic. The more ignorant conspiracy-theory proponents are of history—and one thing you can be sure of is that they have a deeply impoverished knowledge of history, of the wild, unpredictable, chance-driven course of events, the frequent irretrievability of certainty from the mists of the past one gets from reading, say, five versions of the Battle of Hastings—the more they are likely to vaunt their mastery of the secret springs, the alleged puppet masters behind it all that make a simplified plot for simple minds.
The other paradox might be called Insecurity/Narcissism. Many of these theorists are deeply frightened by the world, by their utter lack of comprehension of historical forces, and in response they put on an air of superiority as a kind of shield from allowing others to see the panic inside. If their idiocies didn’t disrupt the politics of the nation or the notion that there is any such thing as reality, or that it’s worth searching for rather than just making up, we might be tempted to feel sorry for them.
This article appears in the September ’17 issue of Esquire.