2 January 2010



Richard Roeper. Debunked! Conspiracy Theories, Urban Legends and Evil Plots of the 21st Century. Chicago Review Press, 2008.

Kathryn S Olmsted. Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy; World War One to 9/11. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Mark Fenster. Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. 2nd edition. University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Conspiracy theories continue to multiply, from the novels of Dan Brown, and beliefs that the X-Factor is rigged, down to the belief that the attack on the twin towers was the work of George Bush in alliance with the Israelis and the Illuminati.
The existence of such theories, both darkly sublime and hilariously ridiculous, posses a major challenged to the gatekeepers of democratic consensus.

One answer, that taken by Roeper is the simple one, attack the lot of them, assume they must be false and defuse their power by laughing at them. So Roeper runs through a range of modern conspiracy theories and other quasi magical beliefs such as belief in showbiz psychics or the appearance of the face of the Jesus or Mary in cookies. 

The conspiracies run from the grandiose (the conspiracy to destroy our way of life by the terrible others) to the petty (our team lost, the ref was bent, its all a fix). One advantage of this is that the sheer implausibility of the megaconspiracies involving hundreds or thousands of actors, can be used to nullify notions of minor conspiracies involving a very limited number of actors.

If the conspiracies theories were the beliefs of just a tiny section of the radically estranged, then perhaps Roeper's response would be adequate, but polls show that large numbers of people actually believe these accounts, even those the largest of the megaconspiracies. It might be better to understand them.

Historian Kathryn Olmsted tries do this by constructing a meta-narrative. In her study of the role of conspiracy theories in American politics since time of the First World War and the subsequent red scare down to 9/11, she reminds us that conspiracy theories are not the sole preserve of radicalised outsiders, but that the establishment has its own conspiracy theories, whether it was seeing opposition to the First World War as the work of red agitators, through to the McCarthyite period, to the paranoia about dissent in the administrations of Richard Nixon and George Bush. The belief that they are under siege from the forces of evil and chaos, drives establishments to acts of repression and conspiracy of their own.

Equally, "democratic" politicians may feel real tensions between what they genuinely to be in the best interest of their countries, and what they have to say to get re-elected (as in the case of Wilson and Roosevelt and US entry into the two wars), which also leads to secrecy and conspiratorial behaviour. These actions by the establishment further fuel radical oppositionist sense of paranoia and belief in conspiracies against them. Olmsted's remedy, in so far has she has one, is greater transparency, but one wonders whether any kind of transparency could remedy the sense of alienation behind the truly global megaconsipracy theories.

Mark Fenster approaches these from the perspective of cultural studies, which among other things, does not produce the simple meta-narrative of Kathryn Olmsted. Rather this is a richly layered book, which proceeds downwards into various conspiracy worlds, including those of the X-files, the militias of the 1990s, and the world of radical religious right. He argues that the demonisation of conspiracy theory by the likes of Richard Hofstadter, who constructed the phrase "paranoid style" acts as a way of delegitimizing any radical opposition to the hegemony of the prevailing political consensus. Not all populism is bad he argues.

Fenster explores the world the radical eschatological religious right, with its sense of the final battle to come, and the absolute, literally demonic evil of the enemy. This sense of being "at the battle of Armageddon and in the army of the Lord" goes back to the Battle Hymn of the Republic and much further, as part of American political rhetoric. In many of the conspiracy theories, secular political opponents become identified with these forces of cosmic evil, they are no longer fellow citizens whose ideas we may disagree with, or are just foolish or misguided in their beliefs and opinions, instead they are monstrous enemies, capable of any perfidy, any crime imaginable (or indeed unimaginable), apes of Satan, witches whose crimes will bring destruction on the people, and who must be opposed by any means imaginable.

Fenster suggests that these theories operate as narratives by which people can structure and make sense of the formless chaos of events, and centre themselves in these contests of absolute value, they become consuming lifestyle options, as witness for example the huge investment in time and money amateur investigators will engage in order to uncover "the truth" about the assassination of President Kennedy or the flying saucers in the Pentagon Pantry. -- Peter Rogerson

1 comment:

cda said...

I just invented a new conspiracy theory (actually it may not be original). All those new airport increased security checks? Purely to discourage us from air travel, the reason being that we must reduce it to avoid the imminent global warming disaster that will soon engulf us.