The Back Road: What a tangled web we weave

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Andrew Malekoff

Do you remember conspiracy theories from your growing-up years? Two noteworthy ones I recall revolved around who shot JFK and the purported “death” of Paul McCartney.

The JFK debate continues unabated and can be followed today on podcasts featuring “unsolved mysteries.” The 1963 assassination has also been a staple for late-night AM talk radio as well.

The mystery about Paul’s reported demise started in October 1969 just after I began my freshman year at Rutgers. My classmates and I spent hours inspecting Beatles’ albums for clues, such as Paul depicted walking barefoot on the Abby Road album cover. I did spin Revolution 9 backwards on a turntable and heard the words, “turn me on dead man.” It was freaky. But, alas, Paul lives.

When I was in elementary school, I remember reading about the Abominable Snowman in the Weekly Reader, a current events magazine for kids. I had nightmares for weeks about the giant furry creature, also known as Yeti, peering through my bedroom window.

In April 2021, the Irish Times published some of the more prevalent conspiracy theories, present and past. They included: the 9/11 attacks were an inside job; vaccines make people ill; the coronavirus is caused by radiation from 5G towers; cannibalistic Satan-worshipping elite pedophiles control the US; and, perhaps the most legendary of all, the earth is flat.

It is hard keeping up with today’s conspiracy theories, but there is one that passed me by. I was totally unaware that John F. Kennedy Jr. is still alive and well.

I was under the impression that JFK Jr. died when the plane that he was flying crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near Martha’s Vineyard in 1999. However, according to the conspiracy-theory group QAnon, JFK Jr. has disguised himself as a guy named Vinnie who lives in Pittsburgh. Who knew?

I decided to look up Vincent Fusca on social media. Sorry, but I don’t see a resemblance to JFK Jr., not even when I turned my head sideways and squinted; although he could be hiding behind the beard and Rocky Balboa fedora he’s sporting in his profile photo. Just to be certain, though, I tweeted him a message asking if he was JFK Jr. No response thus far.

Historian Max Boot suggested three reasons why conspiracy theories are different today.

First, in social media there are no undisputed facts, “only competing narratives, and even the most deranged claims.” Second, the stakes are higher now and some beliefs like the “coronavirus isn’t real” pose a danger to public health when they become widespread. And, lastly, we have an unhinged conspiracy-monger past-president with vast influence, who has already threatened public safety with claims of a rigged presidential election. Boot advised, “we must find saner and safer ways to make sense of this terrible time” and not give in to irrationality.

Rather than indulge in conspiracy theories, I prefer to hold on to the heartbreaking image of three-year-old John Jr. raising his tiny hand to salute, as the casket carrying his father’s remains departed St. Matthew’s Cathedral on Nov. 25, 1963.

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