“Michael Jackson isn’t dead,” announced Ahmed yesterday, in the middle of a discussion of the scale of “somewhat-quite-very-extremely.” “Yes he is,” I countered.
“No, teacha,” he argued. “I saw a report. They had a lot of proofs.”
With my class of teens, I don’t mind going off subject. They take English in school and my class is meant to improve their overall level of the language. I figure that even a tangent like this can do that, especially as they are quickly bored with worksheets and fill-in-the-blank exercises. I don’t even bother with involved grammatical lessons, which result only in them yawning, punching each other, and playing with their pens until they spin across the room, with bonus points for hitting another student.
“You can’t believe everything you see on television,” I tell him. “Do you believe everything you see on television?”
“Yes, teacha,” he responds.
I turn to the others. “Do you believe Michael Jackson is alive?” I ask them. They nod.
I write the words conspiracy theory on the board. I ask them if they know who Elvis Presley was. Some nod, some shake their heads. I explain that he died when I was a child, that everyone was very sad, and that some people were so sad they claimed he didn’t really die. “But know what? He did!” I tell them. They nod. They have no problem accepting that Elvis is dead.
We talk some more. Ahmed has a hard time putting his thoughts into English. He gives me the “proofs.” The ambulance did not take the autoroute or use its lights and siren. His sister wrote him a letter. I point out that these are hardly convincing, and yet he remains convinced.
“Why would he do that?” I argue. Ahmed tells me Michael Jackson is in hiding and is going to come out with an international movie, the like of which has never been seen before.
“His doctor is about to go to jail for manslaughter. (another word written on the board) Michael Jackson would have to be a total jerk to do something like this.” I write jerk on the board, add the word cruel which they recognize.
“Yes, teacha,” they all nod. “He is jerk. He is cruel jerk.” “But he is live,” Ahmed adds.
This is not my first time dealing with the peculiar brand of obstinacy created by Arab conspiracy theories. I am reminded of my time at the University of Nouakchott, in Mauritania. My first day as a teacher there, I hadn’t realized I would need to bring my own chalk and eraser to use on the cracked and pitted blackboard. I mentioned this to friends, who sent boxes of Crayola chalk from America as gifts for everyone in the English department.
I glanced at the familiar yellow box with the green chevron and didn’t think twice before tucking it in my bag. But when I pull it out later, my students gasp. “No!” “Don’t use it!” “We’ll all die!”
I am completely mystified. I mean, breathing in billowing clouds of dust isn’t good for the lungs, but it shouldn’t affect them this strongly. My friends who come to my house for conversation group fill me in. They gingerly take the box in their hands, show me in tiny writing on the side where it says “Made in Israel.”
“They’ve put anthrax in it and sent it here to kill us,” explain these educated university women. “They wouldn’t have sent it to you—they like you because you’re American. But they don’t know you’re here.”
I was supposed to get shudders at that point, and they all looked disappointed, and a little put out, when I burst into a hearty peal of laughter.
I’ve heard lots of other theories that make just about as much sense, and I am powerless to dispel them. Laughing, explaining, pointing out logical things—none of these things have any effect. It’s so much more fun to be freaked. And although I have called these Arab theories, I realize that no human is exempt. There are a lot of conspiracy theories in America these days, on both sides. Whereas in the past it tended to be fringe people who believed that the investigation of JFK’s assassination was a huge cover-up, or that the UN was sending in black helicopters to take away our freedom, now I watch from a distance in dismay as my own country becomes more and more polarized and people believe more and more improbable things.
But my students yesterday are still young. “Use your heads!” I urge them. “Think about things! Don’t just believe everything you are told—consider who is telling you these things! Look for other points of view.” I write the word agenda on the board.
But they leave convinced that Michael Jackson is a cruel jerk who is not really dead, and I leave in desperate need of a cup of coffee.