Monday, April 28, 2008

A Culture of Conspiracy

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I was reading A Culture of Conspiracy, by Michael Barkun, and now that I have finished it, I thought it merited a more in-depth review. It is rather appropriate since Pat mentioned the Holocaust denying fruitcake earlier today, and one of the themes of the book is the intersection of conspiracy theories among their proponents.

While Barkun, in a somewhat oversimplified view, focuses on what he calls right-wing conspiracies, he still manages to mention many of the same fruitcakes that we cover here. Alex Jones is mentioned prominently, on the first page no less, although in his defense it is way down on the first page. David Icke is actually a focus of the book. I had always pictured him as a completely fringe character, but apparently he is actually a major figure among the New World Order/UFO/Reptilian cult types. A select group of course.

On this note I was actually rather surprised to find out how widespread UFO cults were, and how intertwined with other conspiracies, even anti-Semitic ones. Barkun points out that in a poll 46% of Americans believed in UFOs, and even at one point 30% of college graduates. An amazing 2% responded that they believed they had been abducted by aliens. This kind of puts in perspective the 4.6% who believe in MIHOP.

While the book at times seemed rather too academic (read, stiff) it was helpful in that the author defined his terms rather meticulously, even the term, "conspiracy theory". Since the truthers are constantly misunderstanding the term, hence the laughable use of "official conspiracy theory", I thought it would be helpful to quote his definition:

For our purposes, a conspiracy theory is the belief that an organization made up of individuals or groups was or is acting covertly to achieve some malevolent end. As I indicate later in this chapter, such a definition has implications both for the role of secrecy and for the activities a conspiracy is believed to undertake.

A conspiracist worldview implies a universe governed by design rather than by randomness. The emphasis on design manifests itself in three principles found in virtually every conspiracy theory:

Nothing ever happens by accident. Conspiracy implies a world based on intentionality, from which accident and coincidence have been removed. Anything that happens occurs because it has been willed. At its most extreme, the result is a "fantasy[world].... far more coherent than the real world."

Nothing is as it seems. Appearances are deceptive, because conspirators wish to deceive in order to disguise the identities or their activities. Thus the appearance of innocence is deemed to be no guarantee that an individual or group is benign.

Everything is connected. Because the conspiracists' world has no room for accident, pattern is believed to be everywhere, albeit hidden from plain view. Hence the conspiracy theorist must engage in a constant process of linkage and correlation in order to map the hidden connections.