I loved the X-Files. Once a week, every week, during my first year at university my friends and I scrambled to our dorm common room to watch the latest adventures of Mulder and Scully. Every week the same haunting theme tune; every week the promise: “The Truth Is Out There.”
That was 11 years ago (the series outran my teenage crush on Duchovny and my interest in the vast-global-military-industrial-complex conspiracy theorising) and the world has changed. The cool assurance “the truth is out there” has been supplanted in the title of the new X-Files film by a plea: “I Want To Believe.”
Funny how things change. It’s not just the difference between old and new Mulder & Scully, or the difference between television and film, or merely the difference between ’98 and ’08. The truth is out there versus I want to believe is the difference between logic and faith, reason and supposition, science and religion. It’s the difference between believing we have any agency in a world gone mad and throwing our hands up and saying, please, give me something to hold on to.
Believing there is a truth “out there” was a lot easier 10, 15 years ago. Easier before the planes flew into the Towers, before the US went on a blood-and-oil fuelled rampage in Iraq killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, before ludicrous propositions like putting everyone’s DNA into a giant database got serious airtime, before we had to decant our shampoo into 100ml bottles and have our flip-flops X-rayed to get on a plane, before the world’s oil prices spiked while Shell and British Gas boast record profits, before the government and media leaned in close and began to whisper, “be afraid. Be afraid to fly, afraid to drive, afraid to walk, afraid to eat, drink, smoke or fuck, be afraid of Muslims, immigrants, hoodies, your neighbours, strangers, paedophiles, be afraid of knives, guns, crime, poverty, welfare, unemployment, be afraid of what you know and what you don’t….” Any wonder people have given up looking for truth and are instead pathetically eager to believe?
Sitting on my ex-boyfriend’s balcony last weekend, drinking wine, watching jumbo jets criss-cross the east London skyline, the talk turned to conspiracy theories. To the people who believe in David Icke’s lizard men, or that Bush did everything short of setting the charges in the World Trade Centers himself, or in Area 51. They’re morons, someone suggested, gullible, too daft to know better.
I think there’s more to it. I want to believe implies a choice.
There is no need to go digging for evidence of organised nastiness. Turn on the news or skim the headlines. The government lied to drag us into a vicious, interminable war; children go hungry; the health service is under attack; public transport is a joke; violence is (apparently) rife. The rich get richer and the poor get fucked. To borrow a phrase from Jarvis Cocker, cunts are most definitely still running the world.
So why obsess over fictions? Why crave credulity? Because it’s easier. Because people are constantly confronted with evidence of their own helplessness and are, understandably, scared out of their wits.
This is not a new phenomenon. In 1967 Joan Didion wrote a profile of an idealistic 26-year-old American Communist, titled Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.). “’What we do may seem a waste of time to some people…. You might wonder what the Party offers,’” she quotes him. “’It offers nothing. It offers beatings. Jail. On the high levels, assassination.’”
There is a heartbeat pause then she writes: “But of course that was offering a great deal. The world Michael Laski had constructed for himself was one of labyrinthine intricacy and immaculate clarity, a world made meaningful not only by high purpose but by external and internal threats, intrigues and apparatus, an immutably ordered world in which things mattered.”
A world in which things matter. That’s the paradox lying between the truth is out there and I want to believe. Otherwise sane people rush into the comforting embrace of any old idiocy, if it promises to help make sense of the randomness of a planet spinning too fast. Concomitantly, their despair at the apparent meaninglessness of it all makes them cop out of tackling stuff that actually matters. Despair is why they don’t vote, pick up litter, love their children, protest against oppression or demand justice. It wouldn’t do any good anyway, they murmur, the forces against us are too strong. No point in looking for hard truth. Let us believe.
Unfortunately, our culture is geared towards encouraging intellectual and moral cowardice. An ovine population, distracted by hovering blobs of light and badly pixellated CCTV images, won’t ever gather itself in protest against the very real absurdities of its power structures; won’t ever challenge received wisdom. There needn’t be any conspiracy to keep us ignorant and afraid – we already are. It’s time to stop hiding, to gather ourselves and take a line of advice from the first X-Files film – fight the future.