Today I was privy to a conversation between two men who appeared to be homeless (and if they weren’t, they dressed the part) in which each was dourly reassuring the other that the U.S. government was sitting on more oil reserves stateside than the rest of the world held combined, and better yet, that Uncle Sam’s grim scientists an actually manufacture sweet crude whenever they need to. The central idea here was that there is so much oil beneath our feet that if the government so desired, gas prices could drop to about a quarter a gallon and excess numbers of people could enjoy a much-improved standard of living — an egalitarian notion that the power brokers at the top of the heap could simply could not abide by. Bemused, I chalked this up from my position one Pearl Street bench over to, on balance, ignorance rather than paranoia. But then somber End Times talk took over (at which point one of these gentlemen may have been humoring the other) and I knew I had myself some conspiracy speculators. (Most conspiracy nuts don’t rise to the level of generating theories, so I use that term sparingly.)
A long time ago in a city far away, I volunteered for a spell at a facility servicing mostly homeless people with a well-honed taste for crack cocaine. At least half of them seemed to believe that President Clinton was withholding from the public a cure (not a vaccine) for AIDS because unleashing it would mean introducing more blacks into the American workforce, something that the power brokers at the top of the heap simply could not abide by. At the time I chalked this idea up to drugs and understandable bitterness, but given the number of similar proposals I’ve heard since that time from perfectly sober street people, I’ve abandoned that stance.
I have to wonder, then: Is the high prevalence of conspiracy-based notions among street people one of the causes of homelessness, or is it more one of its consequences?
I don’t think that there’s a simple, single answer. I would lean toward the idea that conspiracy thinking is a major feature of mild schizophrenia and that this is clearly something apt to land someone on the streets. But in some instances, I think, people who find their circumstances wanting are inclined to blame someone else, so the idea of murky agency serves a psychological need. It is facile for virtually any group of people easily sorted into a category (“veteran,” “obese,” “Asian”) to come up with internally plausible reasons for why the power brokers at the top of the heap wants to keep them down more than they want to squash the freedoms of others.