They Live

You’re a drifter — down on your luck, roaming from town to town with a bedroll and a tool chest strapped to your back. Everywhere around you, other people seem to be getting the breaks — although, admittedly, many more seem to be just as up against it as you are. You find a job as a scab laborer on a construction site, and a squatter’s village that at least offers a hot meal and a place to sleep. Despite all this, you don’t let it get you down. You still believe firmly in the lessons you learned as a kid: that the world is fundamentally a fair place, that people will treat you well if you treat them well, and that working hard and playing by the rules will one day get you to a place of comfort and security; maybe not the mansion on the hill, but not the squatter’s camp either. America still works, you tell yourself, and that gives you the strength to pick yourself up and keep trying.

Then one day you put on a pair of sunglasses and see things you never saw before, and your world goes to shit.

John Carpenter’s They Live looked unflinchingly at the underside of Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America. While Gordon Gekko was rhapsodizing about the goodness of greed, migrant worker George Nada trawled through a stunted shadow economy that grew like a fungus on America’s underbelly. They Live presents an America that seems decent enough to justify George’s faith: the squatters’ camp where he finds shelter runs on compassion and good old American hard work, a true expression of the generosity we hold as one of our core values. The problem, as it turns out, is the ultimate viper in the garden: the elite feeding on America’s underclass are actually aliens in human form, hopscotching rapaciously across the galaxy like a cross between Gordon Gekko and Galactus. Even more heartbreaking is when George discovers why he was able to maintain his faith in the American dream while it fell apart around him. The aliens have submerged the culture in subliminal messages, with every surface blaring a mute clarion of stasis and conformity. Thanks to a pair of sunglasses invented by the revolutionaries fighting the aliens, George walks through L.A. and finally sees, in literal black and white, the new guiding principles of America. SLEEP 8 HOURS A DAY. MARRY AND REPRODUCE. WATCH T.V. STAY ASLEEP. CONFORM. OBEY.

What makes They Live resonate so much for me, a decade after I first saw it and well after it was first released, is what it reveals about paranoia and the comforts of conspiracy. While the film bears the trappings of a sci-fi-based horror movie, its central conceit — that American society is being undermined by alien invaders — is actually more comforting than frightening, because it supports the premise that people are too fundamentally decent to create the kind of society depicted in They Live. Suddenly, we didn’t do it — it was done to us. This preserves our ideas of our own goodness while offering a tantalizing promise of redemption. An alien menace is a menace that can be fought and destroyed; what came from outside can be sent back outside. Sure, defeating a technologically advanced alien race is not going to be a walk in the park. But if there’s one thing we know how to do as humans, it’s kill those who are different from us. Whether the solution proved to be sunglasses, computer viruses or red anti-alien virus powder, we’d find a way. If, however, the problem turns out to be us — if we, not alien invaders, made the world around us, with all its greed and its waste and its callousness — then we’re probably screwed.

Being the object of a conspiracy, with untold numbers of nefarious actors working tirelessly to keep us in the dark and helpless, confirms our importance — it reassures us that we are dangerous and worth going to great efforts to deceive and subjugate. Furthermore, a world beset by conspiracy is a world that is at least governed by some kind of order and meaning, even if that order is largely bent against us and we are helpless to do anything about it. The world of They Live is a perversely tempting one, because then at least things would make sense — there would be a reason why everything was so fucked up and wrong.

As I get older, I find that in addition to constantly beginning statements by saying, “as I get older,” I increasingly subscribe to what I call the Belzer Dichotomy of Human Cognition. That is an affected way of saying that I agree with comedian Richard Belzer when he said:

You are either a conspiracy nut or a coincidence nut.

Conspiracies of course are Belzer’s schtick, and he’s carved out a secure niche for himself as the thinking paranoid’s comic of choice. To a conspiracy buff, “coincidence” is a slightly dirty word, a mark of intellectual pansyhood, a confession that one lacks the imagination or the courage to see life as it really is. But I think Belzer was actually on to something quite universal and profound when he said that. We could rephrase the line like this:

You either believe that everything, no matter how trivial, happens for a reason, or you believe that even seemingly important things can happen for no reason at all.

This is about as basic a distinction between human consciousnesses as you can make, and it doesn’t take a great deal of observation to perceive that conspiracy nuts vastly outnumber coincidence nuts. We are biologically hardwired to notice patterns and to ascribe significance to them. In a nutshell, it is why religion exists. Religions vary greatly over times and places, but the one thing they virtually all have in common is the reassurance that the world around you was created, and is advancing, with some kind of purpose. That sense of purpose is why people profess to believe things that are, by any waking, rational standard, absurd. What follows is not an original observation by any means, but even so: if you could have somehow reached adulthood without any religious indoctrination or awareness, and then been approached by a Christian or a Hindu or a Muslim aiming to make a convert out of you, would you take his or her claims at all seriously? Would it seem reasonable to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin and rose from the dead, or that illiterate Mohammed was given the power to read by an angel, whatever that is?

I think the honest answer has to be no, but I understand now that the question is beside the point. I think a great many people who consider themselves religious either don’t actually believe the tenets of their doctrine or else are so indifferent to them that it makes no difference. It is the consolation and comfort that are important; the precepts and dogma are just tools, arbitrary elements to give the conscious, waking part of the brain something to do, like playing solitaire on a computer.

There was a story recently published on Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish (I couldn’t find it again to link it) about a devout Christian who lost his child in an accident. He was overwhelmed with grief, as anyone would be. Where he perhaps took it a step further was when he asserted that the accident was God’s punishment for his sins — that the “accident” was, in effect, his fault. His family and friends tried to insist that he was wrong, that God did not work that way and that sometimes bad things just happened to those who apparently did not deserve them. He would not be persuaded, and eventually explained that he preferred to believe God had murdered his child to expiate his own sins (I’m paraphrasing slightly), because to contemplate the alternative — that his child had died, and his world been destroyed, for no reason at all — was actually more horrifying.

The point of all this is to illustrate that people will go to tremendous intellectual lengths to see the world as being guided by some kind of purpose, and that if they have to choose between an evil purpose and no purpose, they will mostly choose the former. You can see this all too clearly today. There has always been a paranoid strain in American politics, and I’m not going to claim that it’s worse today than it has ever been in the past. But the advent of the Internet and the coarsening of network news (which exists almost entirely to frighten people into watching) has expanded the scope of our fears to a degree that seems without precedent. We believe that the president is a foreign-born socialist mole aimed at instituting either a secular Communist paradise or sharia law, we can’t quite decide which; we believe that the Bush administration knew of the September 11 attacks and allowed them to occur. We believe scientists are making up global warming and hiding the evidence that vaccines cause autism. We believe in a “gay agenda” to convert straight people into homosexuals, as if the gay community were organized like the Mormon church. We believe that the media is hiding the truth about both Obama’s birth certificate and high-fructose corn syrup. Whatever we believe, there’s always a “them” to blame it on. If only we could take care of them, fix them or teach them or avoid them or just plain get rid of them, things would go back to the way they’re supposed to be. How appropriate that Carpenter named his film with that anonymous, ominous pronoun. They do live, and They are everywhere.

Me, I admit it: I’m a coincidence nut. Sometimes — most of the time — shit just happens. I’m not saying that there aren’t instances where evil or self-serving people collude in secret for their own ends. And I’m certainly not saying the government and the media are to be trusted. I’m just saying that the global, sweeping, everyone-else-is-in-on-it kind of conspiracy is a figment of our collective imagination — an understandable but irrational belief stemming from our need to occupy a purposeful universe. There simply aren’t enough people in the world smart enough, wicked enough or determined enough to fake global warming or hide Barack Obama’s true identity or whatever. Someone always screws up, and someone always talks. It’s human nature. There are very few conspiracy theories that can’t be explained by a mix of incompetence, happenstance and ordinary self-interest.

We are small beings on a big world in an incomprehensibly vast universe. Even the best and brightest of us are terribly limited in our perceptions. Our brains take cognitive shortcuts that make us feel smarter than we are, and because we spend our entire lives stuck in our own heads, immersed in our subjectivity alone, we naturally interpret everything around us in terms of how it affects us personally. It takes a certain leap of imagination to jump out of this view, and it takes something perhaps more difficult: a willingness to see yourself as one tiny, tiny part of an immense whole, a whole that is largely indifferent to what you do or even to whether you’re there at all. There is no plan. There are just atoms in their peculiar orbits, joining and separating, colliding or drifting for a time into emptiness.

I get why people find this scary. True freedom always is. It scares me sometimes. I have no one to blame if I am unhappy or end up frittering my life away. And if I live in a world in which people seem to be greedy, short-sighted or just out for themselves, I have only to think of the too-frequent times when I have been one or more of those things, and to reflect on the multitudes of people in the world who have those qualities to an even greater degree than I do. It doesn’t take special sunglasses to see why a world made by people as flawed as us would turn out to be so flawed.