18 July 2011


Martha F Lee. Conspiracy Rising: Conspiracy Thinking in American Public Life. Praeger, 2011.

Paul Schrag and Xavier Haze. The Suppressed History of America: The Murder of Meriwether Lewis and the Mysteries Discoveries of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Bear and Company, 2011

Martha Lee, who teaches political science and religion and conflict at the University of Windsor and Assumption University, in Ontario, traces the history of conspiracy theories and their rise in the United States in this short but scholarly book. She situates the start of these theories in the turbulent times of the French Revolution when traditional élites found their world falling away beneath them and began searching for reasons. One set of targets were secret societies, real or imaginary.
What Lee calls the Big Three of the these were, or became, The Knights Templar, the Freemasons and the Illuminati, and she gives good background on all three. The Illuminati, in particular, became a major symbol of radical social change, and, even though they were suppressed by the reactionary government of Bavaria without much trouble, fearful stories about them were imported into the newly formed United States. Fears about the Illuminati were stirred up by the Federalists to blacken the character of Thomas Jefferson and his party the Democrat-Republicans.

Lee sees a major mutation in conspiracy theories, the leap from ideas about what one might call limited conspiracies with specific aims, to superconspiracies which are envisaged as controlling everything, in the writings of Nesta Webster nee Bevan (1876-1960), who added a considerable dollop of anti-Semitism to the mix. Webster was a writer who had written histories of the French Revolution and had become a staunch supported of the Monarchist cause. She reacted against the social changes of the 1920s by attributing them to the machinations of this grand conspiracy. Lee reproduces some of Webster's flow charts and one can see how they foreshadow some of the wilder visions of the Gemstone file and the Anton Wilson's Illuminatus trilogy. They clearly have reached the central conspiratorial vision in which nothing happens by chance and everything is linked together.

Though Webster was indeed influential in the development of conspiracy theories, she was not, as Lee suggests, the originator of the grand conspiracy theory, that accolade may well go the to the notorious Anti-Semitic forgery the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which were introduced into the United States by the car manufacturer Henry Ford, in his newspaper the Dearborn Independent. Of course one might argue that such beliefs are much older than this, the Early Modern fear of the great witchcraft conspiracy has many features in common with modern conspiracy theorising. What Webster perhaps did was provide a language for those who wanted to promote conspiracy theories without appearing to be overtly and dramatically antisemitic.

Under conditions of social tension, conspiracy theorising using this new, cleaned up language, was promulgated by the likes of Robert Welch and his John Birch Society. In a rather cruder form they were also taken up by rabid segregationists in the South, and it was they who introduced the idea of foreign (in their rhetoric Congolese) soldiers under the control of the United Nations imposing a new social order in the US.

What distinguishes many of the contemporary conspiracy theories from their predecessors is that they portrait the home government, rather than foreign enemies, as the conspiring power. Lee connects this to the fall of communism, which provided a readily available symbol of the alien other, and the post Watergate cynicism.

Lee sees the rise of conspiracy theories leading to the twin, though superficially diametrically opposed, dangers of apathy and extremism, one fed by the sense that there is no point in taking part in politics because 'they' control everything, the second by the belief that one's political opponents are not just wrong or misguided, but are the incarnate forces of cosmic evil who must be opposed by all means, including violence.

Lee argues that those who propose conspiracy theories are rarely the semiliterate marginal figures that are often portrayed in the media, but those who sense their wealth, power or status is under threat.

Some of the paradoxes of conspiracy theories and theorists are not gone into, for example it is very strange to see quasi-libertarian opponents of big government and the 'Ivy League élite' quoting English High Tories such as Nesta Webster, or supporters of Catholic monarchy in mainland Europe. Though these earlier writers, and modern US ones, both attack the 'Illuminati', the Illuminati of their imagination has undergone a significant shift, from being a shadowy conspiracy aimed at overthrowing the ruling elites, to a shadowy conspiracy by the ruling elites.

The death of the pioneer American explorer Meriwether Lewis, not out in the field, but later, when governor of the Louisiana Territory appears to be a genuine historical mystery and possibly the origin of a corpus of sick jokes: shot in the back of the head and stabbed umpteen times, suicide is suspected! Whatever the political intrigues that he may have been involved in at the time, they do not seem to have any connection with the "suppressed history of America".

Despite the title, this book does not say anything about the "mysterious discoveries" of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Rather it appears to be two separate small books: the first a short account of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the fate of Meriwether Lewis; the second a general mélange of alleged archaeological anomalies and 'alternative history' of varying degrees of plausibility. Certainly for someone on this side of the Atlantic the passions that can be evoked by debates about pre-Columbian Old and New World contacts seem excessive, so I assume his a lot to do with the ethnic pride of various groups who want their old world ancestors to be first. As the North Asians got there first, at least in terms of substantial settlement, it all seems pretty pointless.

There are also accounts of more anomalous artefacts including giant bones, but most of these reports relate to alleged discoveries that are very old and very lost, and to the writings of the likes of Graham Hancock. Of course the usual claims about suppression are made.

The authors' own approach is reasonably calm, but the same cannot be said about the ranting introduction by an individual who has written books such Atlantis, Alien Visitation and Genetic Manipulation and The Irish Origin of Civilisation, who refers to the 'Irish Arya' and quotes the long discredited works of Le Plongeon. As they say, with friends like these... -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson

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