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The truth is fascinating enough on its own

September 19, 2009|By TIM ROWLAND

Mountain peaks have always been around us, so it stands to reason that man has been climbing them since the dawn of time. But that's not the case.

The Roman emperor Hadrian famously ascended Mount Etna in 121 A.D. to watch the sun rise, but through the next 15 centuries, mountain climbing, particularly in Europe, was discouraged, if not prohibited. The Matterhorn wasn't scaled until 1865, more than 200 years after Darby Field had climbed Mount Washington in New Hampshire.

Responsibility for this lack of interest in mountaineering falls squarely on the shoulders of dragons.

They lived in the mountains, along with ghosts and demons, and basically lorded over the valleys, in full control of local events. Every so often, of course, a dragon would push his luck.

When conditions -- drought, flood, what have you -- got too bad in the Swiss town of Lucerne, a band of locals would start up nearby Mount Pilatus to talk sense to the monsters. But often as not, they came scrambling back down again when a wisp of fog would take the shape of Pontius Pilate, who was said to haunt a nearby lake.

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Six hundred years ago, the belief in dragons was absolute. Two hundred years ago, the belief in spirits was absolute. Diseases still were being fought with spells and charms 150 years ago.

We've lost all that now, as science increasingly has backed superstition into a corner. No doubt that's why conspiracy theories are so popular today. We need a sense of the unknown, and something had to take the place of the dragons.

Dan Brown's book of Masonic intrigue titled "The Lost Symbol" is primed to be an off-the-charts best seller and is the latest incarnation of this human paradox: We want desperately to know all the answers, but understand that it's more fun when we don't.

Were every conspiracy theory, from Roswell to the Trilateral Commission, to be suddenly proved or disproved, we would need some other great unknown to take their place. We want everything to be under our control. But we need elements that are not. It's what fuels the fires of curiosity, perhaps man's most essential attribute.

And while the enlightened temptation is to sniff at every conspiracy theory that comes along, this is to dismiss their hidden value.

Take your average conspiracy theorist. He reads a lot. He researches a lot. He knows a lot. And he is insanely curious. What's wrong with any of that? Like anything, conspiracies can become obsessions, but within reason they are just plain fun and, not infrequently, educational.

You may find it hard to swallow the idea of alien cover-ups and the theory that little green men came down from the skies and built the pyramids, but then you ask yourself, who did? So you study the history, culture and religion of a marvelous civilization.

I have a hunch most people knew there were no dragons before they "knew" there were no dragons. Similarly, most people know Bill Clinton didn't go around having his associates assassinated and George Bush and Dick Cheney did not facilitate Sept. 11 in order to achieve "United States global hegemony."

But it's the unknowns and what-ifs that make life interesting. In many ways, a question mark is more satisfying than a period.

The danger, however, comes in taking the theories too seriously, in taking question marks and pretending they are periods. By taking Brown's previous book, "The Da Vinci Code," too seriously (or perhaps fearing others would), the church launched its own conspiracy theory that the book was purposefully designed to stir anti-Catholic sentiment.

I feel fairly safe in saying it was purposefully designed to make money.

The Masons, by contrast, seem more than willing to play along. (Too willing, a conspiracy theorist might say). They know the interest in Masonry will skyrocket and they want word to get out. As one Mason said, "It's not a problem getting Masons to talk about Masonry; sometimes it's a problem getting them to stop."

Early dragon hunters were never able to bag a dragon. But climbing through the hills, they no doubt saw some beautiful sights they wouldn't have otherwise seen. Conspiracy theories are a good excuse to learn and read history. You might not find any space aliens, but you will find out that the truth is fascinating enough on its own.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video under opinion@herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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