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The one thing we know for sure is that the inevitable movie version of the San Diego suicide cult won't be called Heaven's Gate--that title is taken. As for everything else in the world, most of us haven't a clue. We're agnostics, know-nothings. Certitude was once the American religion, but after Watergate and other scams, we realized that what we thought was certitude was only blind faith. At least, we think we realized that. Or maybe...

In two ways, Americans are suffering a crisis of faith. Some people have lost their faith, so they dip into sleaze news, snickering as they scan the more imaginative tabloids. Others have replaced belief in God or government by faith in more eccentric notions; they look to the stars, to Star Trek. According to polls, 40% think aliens have visited our planet; 70% believe in a J.F.K. assassination conspiracy. Hey, didn't a U.S. missile shoot down TWA Flight 800? In January, you know, Elvis turned 62. Just recently, he cashed his first Social Security check.

O.K., here's our scoop: the real conspiracy is the mind-clouding cocktail of pop culture and hard news. The former has infiltrated and seized control of the latter. Trash is fact, and facts are trash.

The cult members made news by dying, but they also used the pop culture that shaped them. They testified to their love of The X-Files and Star Wars; counted in their number a brother of Star Trek's Lieutenant Uhura (herself a flack for a psychic hotline); spoke of their imminent voyage in gentle, repetitive sentences, like Mister Rogers explaining electricity to his TV toddlers.

Could the Heaven's Gaters distinguish pop fable from cold truth? Can we? Once we could. Not many of us took My Favorite Martian or Mork & Mindy as sacred texts. Frankenstein may have been a parable of science gone haywire and Dracula a metaphor for the wages of sex, but we knew they were just stories. Invasion of the Body Snatchers didn't spur an epidemic of podophobia.

The old separation of real and fake had something to do with real estate. For fantasy and romance we went from our house to the movie house, a cathedral of dreams whose dark grandeur signaled even to kids that what they were about to see was a fiction. Now that most of us watch movies on the same 21-in. machine that gives most of us our news, that NO TRESPASSING sign has disappeared. While The X-Files cunningly grounds its fables in docudrama style, items on the news shows get more dramatic and sentimental. Everything is just a story, with a moral, a giggle or a lingering sting.

The X-Files is the cultural touchstone of this millennial decade, as David Letterman was of the '80s. Letterman's withering facetiousness said that no institution was to be respected anymore--everything was up for laughs. The X-Files says there are things to believe in: the things the government suppresses and the traditional media don't dare reveal. The show is 60 Minutes for the reality-impaired; Mulder and Scully are the new Mike Wallace and Lesley Stahl.

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