I’ve been reading a really interesting book: Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in the United States, by historian Robert Allen Goldberg (Yale U. Press, 2001). I’m trying to figure out what these seemingly mad ideas are so powerful, and so popular. What the Hell is going on there?
Conspiracy theories have popped up many times in history, Goldberg tells us. You might think that it all began with the Jewish plot to take over the (nineteenth century) world, but what about the Antichrist, and the grand-daddy of them all, Satan and all his devils? And in the eighteenth century there was the Adam Weishaupt and the fabulous Bavarian Illuminati. But recent decades do seem to represent something new in history: conspiracy theories have been multiplying like mad. Among them are: JFK was killed by a conspiracy that did not include Oswald (or in which he was “just a patsy”), ditto for RFK/Sirhan and MLK/James Earl Ray. The Oklahoma City bombing was perpetrated by the government – with Timothy MacVeigh as the patsy! The Moon landing took place on a Hollywood sound stage. Marilyn Monroe was murdered, Elvis’s death was faked so he could avoid publicity, Princess Di’s death was faked so she could get away from the paparazzi. Vince Foster was murdered because he knew too much. Then there are Roswell and Area 51. In fact, JFK was killed because, like Foster, he knew too much, but in his case it was about – UFOs! The Elian who was sent back to Cuba was a ringer. And of course, every time a reduction in the supply of petroleum results in an increase in the price of gas at the pump, it isn’t because of some abstruse, hard to understand “law” of supply and demand, it’s because of a conspiracy of oil companies fixing the prices. And, since Golderberg's book was written, the dawn of what may turn out to be the Golden Age of conspiracist lunacy. The WTC towers and the pentagon were hit by cruise missiles, cleverly disguised as passenger planes (which were somehow spirited away and disappeared). Light and telephone poles next to the Pentagon that seem to have been sheared off by a large passenger plane were actually stage props. The cellphone messages from United 93 were fakes concocted by actors. And on it goes.
What do all these ideas have in common? Goldberg points out that they all weave together disparate facts into a consistent, unified structure. They also promise one power: to find the behind-the scenes cause of things feels very empowering.
Also, as Goldberg points out, conspiracists tend overwhelmingly to be male. Joe MacCarthy, Robert Welch, Mark Lane, Louis Farrakhan, Oliver Stone, Fetzer and Barrett. The leading Roswell nut-cases and Area 51 wack-jobs – all men. Conspiracism is a testosterone-rich environment. I would add that this can be partially explained by the fact that conspiracist thinking is a power-grabbing fantasy. This is something that men seem to be more interested in than women.
I would also add, though, that both these functions are filled by real theories. Boyle’s law and the law of supply and demand integrate diverse phenomena and promise to empower us through understanding. But I maintain that conspiracy “theories” are not real theories. What is the difference?
For one thing, real theories mean work. It takes work to understand them. They are abstract, difficult. They always use often use a highly specialized conceptual aparatus, and math symbols that only those who have spent long, boring hours of study can understand. And even after you understand them, they assign you more work. The law of supply and demand means that, if you don’t like gradually rising gas prices, you have to get off your butt and find more sources of fuel. (Damn! That could take years! Let’s just sit here and hate the oil companies some more!)
Of course, once you realize that everything is the fault of Big Oil or the Jews, there is nothing at all that you can do about it. But that is actually liberating: Nothing to do! You’re off the hook! The power rush was from the insight itself, realizing what the real cause was. You’ve penetrated the Veil of Maya. Actually gaining and using real power – that’s just more work!
There is one more huge difference between conspiracism and real theory. Conspiracies make good stories, as Goldberg reminds us. Think how many movies depict conspiracies, from Birth of a Nation through Meet John Doe and and The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May to dozens of current offerings. By contrast, a real theory is a cold minuet of bloodless abstractions. No story there.
In addition, I would point out that a conspiracy theory appeals to a common and pervasive human emotion: namely, hatred. Conspiracies have the two characteristics that separate the Hateful from all other things: they are powerful, and they are very, very bad. If your dominant emotion is a haunting, free floating hatred, and you need something to fasten it to and justify it, try a conspiracy theory! If might be just what you were looking for!
So conspiracy theories are the sort of theory that would naturally appeal to someone who is intellectually lazy, prefers instant gratification, thinks in terms of concrete images instead of abstractions and mathematical symbols, and needs to feel more powerful; someone who is troubled by nasty emotions that do not seem to be appropriate responses to the world that they actually see around them.
So my explanation has to be that conspiracism is so popular because there are a lot of people like that -- or there is a lot of that in people!