Nothing warms the heart these days like a totally batshit crazy conspiracy theorist, connecting the dots between mass pop culture and the evil, secret cabals which supposedly rule the world.
Conspiracy theorists are the new Millennium's online Van Helsings, self-appointed guardians of the Web's forums, social networks, image-sharing sites and Youtube. The Internet gives them endless varieties of weirdness from which to choose. Lately, they have focused on material pumped out by the American entertainment industry, which is awash in pre-Islamic pagan occult symbols. In fact, one might say that America is the world's biggest exporter of early Near Eastern and Arabian neo-mythologies. But none of these folkloric symbols has any value without the purely American invention of the celebrity inquisition.
Cultists - and the conspiracy theorists who oppose them - flourish in times of social, political and economic stress. This was a theme in War and Peace (1869), whose protagonist joins the Freemasons and becomes fascinated with occult numerology when his country is invaded by Napoleon's armies.
Conspiracy theorists insist that the scenes depicted in Eyes Wide Shut - based on Arthur Schnitzler's 1926 novella Dream Story - really do occur in the highest wealthy and political circles. Breathlessly, they interview crank witnesses, friends-of-friends-of-friends who have supposedly attended these gatherings (usually as hired help in garages, security details or kitchens) to tease out the fabric of this massive urban legend of world conspiracy. That is how Eyes Wide Shut starts: an old college friend tells a doctor that he played piano at an Illuminati party while blindfolded.
Conspiracy theories about the Illuminati, Bilderbergers and New World Order embrace everything from the anti-Semitic revival of the 1903 Russian hoax book about ritual murder, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, to remnants of colonial puritan superstition, to pagan revival. The folklore includes strange stories about Presidents Obama and Clinton, the Federal Reserve, 'Babylonian' white oppression of African American people, and Roman Catholic faith as a veiled continuation of ancient Babylonian ritual (another 19th century myth, still doing well). Add: 9/11; False Flags; Predictive Programming. Then there is the MK Ultra Monarch thing, the abusive torture system developed by the CIA and supposedly adapted by entertainment moghuls to manage their artistic charges with mind control.
You can see a summary of the Illuminati family of conspiracy theories on Wiki here. Millennial conspiracy forums prove that Americans have some of the most vivid imaginations on the planet, belying their reputation of being culturally disconnected from the equally superstitious, paranoid and delusional world abroad.
As far as American entertainment goes, this could be all about the industry peddling outlandish symbols to make a buck. In the 1970s and 1980s, citizens' groups criticized singer Ozzy Osbourne, former co-founder of the band Black Sabbath, for being a Satanist. He denied this claim and insists he is a member of the Church of England. The early Millennial reality TV show, The Osbournes, showed Ozzy acting as a slightly shaky, yet funny and easy-going family man. The dark trappings were props, costumes, circus decorations as part of his day job of being an entertainer. One episode showed family friend Marilyn Manson kicking back in a similarly prosaic frame of mind. The show offered a glimpse of these world-famous jesters as private people. Then again, reality television is scripted. The Osbournes revealed that fact with a nudge-wink in the final episode. That confusion, too, is Millennial. You never really know what you are watching. Is it real - or is it fake?
The marketing around Justin Bieber contains not-so-subliminal messages to 'believe' in the ideas he represents. When Bieber makes the transition from 'Boy Next Door' to 'Bad Boy,' his fans (Beliebers!) are drawn into a complex game of entertainment as cognitive dissonance, moral equivalence, and finally, tolerance of new, darker attitudes.
The Roman Polanski film, The Ninth Gate (1999), is full of hints about this cultish world. The film includes a scene where a character is murdered and the body placed in the tarot 'Hanged Man' position. This was how Charlie Manson's gang left Polanski's murdered wife, Sharon Tate, in 1969 - or so the conspiracy theorists say. Although the film was based on a novel, one gets the impression that this film contains something of what Polanski (who is no stranger to controversy) has seen abroad in the real world, in terms of what people believe, and how they respond to the occult.
In The Ninth Gate, Satanists have sorted themselves into a pecking order. At the top, they are the Real Deal, hard core scary dark priests and acolytes. Beneath that, there is a crowd of wealthy hangers-on, pagan dabblers, orgy attendees and the like, who participate in rituals, but are not, according to one character, really serious (even if they think they are). That character is the film's Satanic historian, the Baroness Frida Kessler, played by Barbara Jefford, who tells Johnny Depp's character that the so-called Brotherhood that worships the Prince of Darkness has, “degenerated into a social club for the bored millionaires and celebrities who use its meetings as an excuse to indulge their jaded sexual appetites. ... They are under the illusion that they owe their money and success to membership in that order.”
Justin Bieber and Chantel Jeffries flashing what conspiracy theorists argue are Illuminati hand signals in a Florida nightclub before Bieber's arrest on 23 January 2014. Images Source: TMZ.
'Illusion' is the key word. Are celebrities who peddle ritualistic and occult symbolism 'illusionists'? Or do they believe in the illusions they create? It is worth asking because of the intention behind entertainment products and media-oriented happenings. If politicians, entertainers, and marketers actually believe in the symbols they are using, then mass politics and culture take on a sinister and unsavory aspect of proselytization. The mass media event as ritual poses a question about the unwitting participation of the audience or online viewers, most of whom are ignorant about the meaning of the things they are watching.
Is it real - or is it fake? It is a puzzle now presented each year to the audience of the American pop music Grammy Awards. The ceremony has become renowned for bizarre displays of Satanic and dark pagan symbolism. Real or fake? It is hard to believe these displays are fake when dead bodies turn up. In 2012, Whitney Houston drowned in a bathtub the day before the Grammys. And while the police investigated the scene, a pre-Grammy party began in the same hotel downstairs, presided over by her loving friends and famous mentor. It was outlandish, discordant, disturbing. The next day, the Grammy Awards proceeded, and the entertainment featured some breathtakingly nasty ritual sacrifice simulations. It was so 'out there' that news outlets joked along the lines of: nation recovers from Grammy Awards.
This year, the Grammys took place on 26 January 2014, and three days before, Justin Bieber was plunged into a media shit storm, which had already been brewing for a week or so (or, a year or so, if you follow his antics). The nightmare unfolded around Bieber even as some details in the case against him fell apart. Charged in Florida with speeding, drag-racing, driving under the influence, and resisting arrest, he might be cleared of all charges against him, except for driving under the influence of marijuana. Some commentators suggest Bieber's problems are a cynical ploy to update his image.
Is it real - or is it fake? It is probably most accurate to say some artists believe the hocus pocus, some do not, but the real phenomenon at hand is the way the cult of celebrity works in America.
This incident comes right at the point when American media shifted favourably toward legalizing marijuana (see here). The drug has already been legalized in Colorado, with the first marijuana stores opening there on 1 January 2014. In a surreal way, Bieber's misfortunes in Florida allow Americans to debate how much they tolerate the widespread use of marijuana in public.
Scandals serve other purposes. Americans placidly tolerate far worse from stars other than Bieber, and many don't mind the use of marijuana when they themselves are consuming it. But Americans have an odd double standard. This is not the double standard the French enjoy; the latter have placed a rigid division between the private and public life of every individual, whether that individual occupies high or low status in society. People who have suffered from that tradition in France, such as Justine Lévy, or former First Lady Valerie Trierweiler, are borrowing a page from the American book. The Americans instead distinguish between private and public people. Public people are considered in America to have relinquished their privacy completely. Their private lives are available for full public consumption, scrutiny, and total judgement by private citizens. In return for this personal sacrifice, public people receive money and fame. But they must also serve as living cultural archetypes.
The witch hunt over Bieber cloaks a more fundamental pattern of how Americans reach consensus over communal values. Each celebrity is a symbolic object lesson, who at any given moment in his or her career represents a particular basket of ideas, choices, styles and beliefs. When celebrities are tested, the values they represent are tested, too.
Thus, Bieber confronts an inversion of the American love he once enjoyed. For his year or two of bad behaviour, he faces celebrity inquisition. It is all very Salem, a crisis moment of upheaval where the community cannot distinguish right from wrong anymore, and intensely scrutinizes and debates those values. This all came to a head because Bieber's image is changing. His survival as a star depends upon a rite of passage for America's public people - a period of ordeal, confession, a pulpit recant. Only then will forgiveness follow for the role model child star, reborn as a flawed, repentant adult. If these steps are not carefully and soberly followed, the star (or politician, or media figure) in question is rejected by the community, falls into greater disgrace, dwindles into impoverished private obscurity, or ends up dead.
So the ordeal continues: there is an outraged mob appealing directly to the President for the deportation of the Canadian star from the United States. There are many calls in online forums to kill Bieber (!); some articles wish him death by car crash; he is also the victim of wildly-circulated death hoaxes. Then police arrested Bieber in Toronto on 29 January, for an incident again surrounded by hazy details.
The oldest trick in the book: distraction, GEICO ad (December 2013). Video Source: Youtube.
Conspiracy theorists, who always search for secret, top-down, controlling 'forces' rather than general social patterns, would argue that celebrity inquisition represents an effort by entertainment leaders to force unsavoury ideas upon the public, to change the mainstream. In other words, the processes of trial, confession, forgiveness (e.g. on marital infidelity: President Clinton's impeachment) - or - trial, rejection, sacrifice (e.g. paedophilia and general weirdness that went too far: Michael Jackson) do not rest on a return to a more old-fashioned and virtuous status quo. Rather, they rest on the establishment of a brand new status quo which has absorbed some extremes.
Other conspiracy theorists claim that celebrity stories like this pacify a population by distracting attention from serious stories in the news, such as: the US withdrawal from Afghanistan; Syria; Lebanon; the Ukraine, including threats to blow up nuclear plants there; Argentina; and above all, the Central African Republic, where scenes of "absolute horror" are unfolding:
Peter Bouckaert, director of emergencies for Human Rights Watch, told the BBC's Focus on Africa programme he saw French peacekeepers do nothing while [Muslims'] corpses were mutilated at the airport at the capital Bangui on Wednesday [29 January 2014]. The French defence ministry has not commented. ...
There is no more safe part of the city for Muslims. We see them being killed everywhere in Bangui, and Christians as well.
We were at the morgue two days ago, and it really was a scene out of Dante's Inferno. They showed us the death records in case after case of people who had been lynched in the street, shot, burned.This is real. Why are the media hyping one 19-year-old celebrity who is having drug problems? If this is about values, what about the values which demand that we pay attention to a nascent genocide?
Video Source: Youtube.
The Grammys are an even bigger occult distraction. Web conspiracy theorists such as Illuminati Watcher covered the ceremony (source for the 2014 Grammy images below); the entertainment at the ceremony was all fire, pyramids, eyes, horned demigods and witchy rituals (watch a clip here). I didn't watch the awards ceremony, but you can see a critical summary in the video above.
This is the American culture which gobbled up Justin Bieber - a nice kid from Stratford, Ontario, the artistic home of Canada's Shakespeare festival - and spat him out. Bieber's rumoured dream at this moment is to take a break from being an international pop star and open a high-end tattoo parlour. In the past three years, he has covered himself with some 20 tattoos of owls, single all-seeing eyes, messiahs, crowns, and the Roman numerals 1, 9, 7 and 5 (depicted here). Your mileage may vary on whether that matters, but the symbols are ubiquitous in American entertainment circles.
Bieber's new tattoo in July 2013. Image Source: HuffPo.
The battle between Horus (god of vengeance, sky and protection) and Set (god of storms, the desert and chaos); in the epic battle, Horus loses an eye.
All this made me wonder about the climate in Hollywood, seat of America's commercial bid to dominate global popular culture, and what exactly is going on. This blog doesn't come to this question with a spiritual or religious agenda (my perspective is explained here). Perhaps pop culture artists, designers, marketers, and film makers have plundered old mythologies out of artistic laziness.
Then again, perhaps Polanski, speaking through his Baroness character, is right: there are people who believe they owe their success to dark arts. The symbols employed resemble those used by older social clubs such as the masons. These ideas derive from a jumbled, end-of-Enlightenment revival of pre-Islamic paganism, especially ancient Egyptian mythology. The question as to which pre-Islamic pagan beliefs have been revived in America will be the topic of a future post.
Alone in the museums, propped on velvet pillows, archaic artifacts are static, historic and decorative. But America's grand entertainment package brings them to life, at the Grammys, at the Superbowl, or in frightening Millennial celebrity meltdowns (like this one). These incidents lend these images and concepts animation and power. Those dramatic moments are part of a huge surreal conversation in America about the meaning of the Millennium, and how iconography of the past is popularly adapted to suit collectively-perceived needs of the future. And while this quasi-moral cloud of magical entertainment persists, reality quietly fades from view.