One lacuna in the already enormous literature of American decline is the disappearance of what I think of as the Old Weird Internet. Never mind dial-up, no matter how fast your connection was circa 2003, the overwhelming majority of what was available to you on the internet (apart from pornography, of course) was not mediated through Facebook or Twitter, which did not exist. In those halcyon days, assistant professors of geology still hosted personal .edu pages devoted to subjects other than their personal areas of study.
It was from such a website that I learned nearly two decades ago that Paul McCartney had died in 1967. So far from being an absurd hoax about the distinguished former Beatle, McCartney’s death was a simple matter of fact, which had been quietly but plainly announced by the band itself.
As far as I recall the story goes more or less like this: After rumors of McCartney’s death appeared in a fan magazine in 1967, a look and sound-alike competition was held. The man ultimately chosen to play the role (which apparently extended to the writing of “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be,” and other number one hits) announced himself on the title track of Sgt. Pepper as “the one and only Billy Shears.” Later that year, John Lennon wore the walrus costume on the cover of Magical Mystery Tour, but this was a decoy: As Lennon informed listeners of the White Album in 1968, “the Walrus,” which my kindly GeoCities host described as an ancient Inuit symbol of death, “was Paul.” Bingo. On the same record, if you played “Revolution 9” backward, you would distinctly hear Lennon saying “Turn me on, dead man,” something I confirmed for myself and fellow high-school freshmen on numerous occasions. When Pseudo-Paul appeared on the cover of Abbey Road in 1969 crossing the road without his shoes, an obvious reference to the traffic accident that had taken his life two years earlier, all the necessary evidence had become available for the rumor to live on for several more decades.
As far as I am aware, “Paul is dead” died with the Old Weird Internet. Conspiracy theories did not. These days “conspiracy theory” is a catch-all phrase that might refer to anything, from plausible hypotheses about open questions (e.g., the distinct possibility that COVID-19 emerged from a lab in Wuhan), obvious conflicts of interest (the financial relationship between Hunter Biden and the governments of Ukraine and China), and established facts that journalists consider inconvenient (federal government surveillance of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016).
Meanwhile the term is never applied to any number of stories that cannot strictly speaking be described as anything else. We spent the better part of three years being solemnly assured that Donald Trump was a Russian agent, on the basis of no evidence whatever. What began as a hysterical overreaction to a joke Trump made on television about an actual conspiracy (the physical destruction of a private server housing Hillary Clinton’s email messages) evolved into a consensus forever in search of a justification, which was sought in Nigerian prince-style email exchanges involving Trump’s unbelievably stupid children, anodyne exchanges of pleasantries with foreign officials, and even official diplomacy; in its final form it looked like this piece by Jonathan Chait, which still reminds me of the scenes of Russell Crowe’s garage in A Beautiful Mind.
We are living, in other words, in a country in which subjects which are either open to debate or in need of further reporting are dismissed out of hand as conspiracy theories—or else as “thoroughly debunked,” to use only one phrase that seems to have established itself as a Homeric epithet affixed in our papers of record to what we now know are facts about Hunter Biden’s sleazy influence peddling operation, among other conduct, some of which cannot be described on a family website. At the same time, stories that turn out to be either wholly false (the narrative about Trump ordering a gas attack on protestors in order to have his picture taken in front of an Episcopal church in Washington) or in need of what schoolmarmish professional fact checkers would describe as further context and amplification (immigrant children surrounded by metal barriers used by previous and succeeding administrations amid curiously less outrage) are written as if they were unremarkable truths.
As I write this, Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats are doing their best to convince the American people that a few hundred morons and misfits farting in her office chair was synonymous with the attacks of September 11, 2001. This is not a conspiracy theory according to the old-fashioned “Paul is dead” understanding of the phrase or in the looser modern sense. But it is a perfectly straightforward logical development of trends that began long ago, when, operating under the absurd premise that we all need to be reminded that the composer of “Yesterday” did not in fact die in 1967, mainstream journalists decided that they should decide what was true and false.
At least the old GeoCities professors let us make up our own minds.