BUILDING A FORTEAN LIBRARY
25. HELP! HELP! THE PARANOIDS ARE AFTER ME!
The Paranoid Style in American Politics THE HIEROPHANT’S APPRENTICE
Everyone loves a good conspiracy theory these days, whichever side of belief or disbelief they stand. In that respect conspiracy theories are a little like tales of unicorns and a lot like urban legends. All are fun, straddle the borderline between real and unreal, and can be argued over from many a point of view. (We ourselves have no doubt of the reality of unicorns, as is well known.) What’s perhaps slightly less obvious is that while various conspiracy theories have enjoyed popular – if usually, and relatively, brief – acclaim over the centuries, the emergence of a whole cottage industry devoted to seeking out and exposing conspiracies dates back only a little more than half a century, when assumptions and allegations arose that US President John F Kennedy’s assassination was the concerted work of various villainous parties, and not of ‘lone gunman’ Lee Harvey Oswald’s one-man firing squad. Then came the ‘Pentagon Papers’, leaked by Daniel Ellsberg to the New
York Times in 1971, a secret official history that indicated that the US engagement in Vietnam had been based on lies from beginning to end (and top to bottom of the military and political hierarchy). Shortly after that came Watergate and the fall of President Richard Nixon. Over the following decade and a half, the conspiracy industry got itself up and running, Watergate having provided the suspicious with a certainty that the Establishment never told the truth about anything. The Kennedy assassination aside, the more baroque and byzantine of conspiracists’ conclusions were circulated among the faithful in newsletters, self-published books, and small-circulation magazines. With the advent of the Internet, conspiracists were able to present their rare perceptions to anyone who cared to look for them. What’s to be made of it all?
Conspiracism is by no means exclusive to America, but the US has of late been singularly prolific in producing proposals that an alternate, really-real reality hides beneath the skin of the world that the powers-that-be wish to ensure we take for granted, and for real, even if not all of us may like some of it much. Richard Hofstadter, a professor of history at Columbia University, New York, was the first (or if not, the most influential) to observe, in the mid-Sixties, that conspiracist thinking was endemic to American political life and stretched back to the late 18th century at least. In itself this isn’t wholly surprising, given the distrust of overweening government, and by extension wariness of other powerful interests, that is built into the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Conspiracism seems to be the inevitable concomitant vice of these American virtues. Hofstadter first published The Paranoid
Style in American Politics in Harper’s Magazine in November 1964, and a more expansive treatment followed in a 1965 book of essays. At various periods, the usual suspects had been accused of plotting to subvert and subjugate America: the Illuminati of Bavaria (who had actually disbanded by 1787 but carried the can for the French Revolution), the Pope and his wicked Jesuit cohorts, the Austro-Hungarians who, Samuel Morse (of telegraph-code fame) feared in 1835 might soon install a scion of the House of Hapsburg as Emperor of the United States, ‘international bankers’ (always code for Jews, although Henry ‘Model T’ Ford was more direct) and, from the mid 20th century, communists, whose major promoter was the junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. Hofstadter observed that while rejected by the mainstream, the conspiracist right infiltrated and turned the Republican Party, which ultimately failed to impress American voters and resulted in Barry Goldwater’s massive defeat in the US Presidential election of 1964. This was paradoxically considered a victory by the extreme right (cf. the hard-left Momentum after the 2017 UK General Election).
Interestingly, Hofstadter doesn’t mention the growing doubts about the Kennedy assassination, or right-wing doubts about Kennedy himself, but he does have insights into the conspiracist mindset that remain true today. In the mid 20th century there was a shift of emphasis in alleged conspiracies that has never gone away: “…the modern right wing… feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals… the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.” Among those denounced were President Eisenhower (“a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy”) and John Foster Dulles – who to the world at large looked as much like a hardline leftist as the Red Queen with a hangover. As Hofastadter says, wryly, “the real mystery, for one who reads the
primary works of paranoid scholarship, is not how the United States has been brought to its present dangerous position but how it has managed to survive at all.”
Hofstadter saw too how “the higher paranoid scholarship is nothing if not coherent… It is nothing if not scholarly in technique… The entire right-wing movement of our time is a parade of experts, study groups, monographs, footnotes, and bibliographies.” So it remains today: although, as others have observed, conspiracists have a habit of citing each other (Holocaust deniers are especially adept at this), thus providing an impenetrable bubble of self-referring self-confirmation. Or as Hofstadter put it: “The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will.” The unstated corollary is whoever exposes a wicked plot and its wilful perpetrator(s) is, by implication, a hero defeating world-threatening dragons. This has a price, Hofstadter considers: “We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid [conspiracist] is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”
A key insight is this: “The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms – he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values.” This remains a fundamental characteristic of today’s conspiracists. Whether they see the world’s affairs as ‘actually’ orchestrated by ‘the Jews’, or Gramscian soldiers of a furtive Marxist ‘long march through the institutions’, or shape-shifting alien reptiles, or the Illuminati in charge of realising the New World Order – hardly an exhaustive list of culprits – the notion of an imminent apocalyptic end to civilisationas-we-know-it is always implicit and very often explicit. This was one theme picked up by Professor Michael Barkun in another groundbreaking analysis, A Culture of Conspiracy.
Apocalyptic thinking permeates current conspiracist thought. For example: indigenous European populations are being deliberately replaced by foreigners, particularly Muslims; by mid-century we shall all suffer under Sharia law. Rather mysteriously, given their generally less than cordial relations with their fellow Abrahamists over the centuries, the Jews often stand accused of this plot when it’s not the scheming of the New World Order. More to the point, Barkun observes that not all apocalyptic or millennialist movements have incorporated conspiracist elements, while conspiracism includes millennialism in its thinking not as a bushy-tailed anticipation of a florescence of the good and the true but because it is essentially Manichean. There are good guys and bad guys, and nothing in between – and the bad guys may win. This will happen in part because nothing officially stated can be believed – “nothing is what it seems” – and the unenlightened majority, who believe the official story, will be suckered into a diabolic system of governance. We ourselves note at this point that the distrust of the demos, so often adduced by conspiracists as an adjunct to the machinations of the powers-that-really-be, is mirrored in their own disdain for the benighted ignorant – that’s us – for all their professions of alerting the inert to the Truth.
Barkun brings some useful new terms to the table. One is stigmatised
knowledge, which comprises “claims to truth… regarded as verified despite the marginalization of those claims by the institutions that conventionally distinguish between knowledge and error.” Among the subsets of stigmatized knowledge perhaps the most important to conspiracists is suppressed knowledge, “claims that are allegedly known to be valid by authoritative institutions but are suppressed because the institutions fear the consequences of public knowledge or have some evil or selfish motive for suppressing or hiding the truth.” Take away the fear and the notion of evil and this sounds much like what fascinates forteans – but then Fort himself, on occasion, was not averse to conspiracist thinking, as we remarked (somewhere) in the Dictionary
of the Damned. Barkun notes that ‘suppressed knowledge’ “tends to absorb all the others”, and the “consequence is to attribute all forms of knowledge stigmatization to the machinations of a conspiracy.” One upshot of that, given the immensely wide range of such ‘knowledge’, is to make conspiracy theories, especially in their most florid form, unfalsifiable.
Barkun also gives us the useful expression improvisational millennial style, which essentially means picking up and adding to the jigsaw any piece of supposed information that will fit the narrative to hand. His prime example is the factitious excitement over the end (it wasn’t) of the ancient Mayan calendar in December 2012, in the service of whose justification all and every manner of alternatively-accurate ‘facts’ were brought to bear (see
FT285:33-47, 300:33-43). By this time, the millennialist cherry-picking had long since crossed over to conspiracy theorising, and from that omnivorous technique there developed the ‘super-conspiracy’. There were some surprisingly early exponents of this mode of thinking, although it is difficult to know how widespread, or how widely accepted, was their joining of their chosen dots. Between 1976 and 1979, peripatetic preacher John Todd (see
FT307:38-43) revealed the labyrinthine working soft he Illumination Satan’ s behalf: such heterogeneous entities as the Rothschilds (of course), the United Nations and the Communist Party were abed and hard at it with the FBI, the ultraright John Birch Society, and the Knights of Columbus, to mention a few. Todd may have missed the Young Jaycees and the Boy Scouts. As Barkun remarked, Todd’s scheme seemed to have more organisations within it than without. And in 1978, one Stan Deyo hauled UFOs and Alternative 3 into this orgy in a barrel of red herrings. In his scenario, the Illuminati would demoralise the world by engineering all manner of crises from the economy to the environment, and (having discovered anti-gravity propulsion), stage a massive, fake alien landing, then use their flying saucers to leave the Earth, which they now controlled. This set the stage for the crossover conspiracy theories of Bill Cooper, who managed to mix UFO-related shenanigans with survivalist militia politics. (As Barkun explains, the UFO connexion brought political conspiracy theories to a far wider audience than before.) Possibly the most convoluted theory entangling the usual suspects with aliens and UFOs was generated by John Grace, aliasValValerian, in his series of massive Matrix volumes published (at no less massive expense to the reader) from the late 1980s. Outdoing even Todd, Grace stirs the Gestapo, the Hellfire Club, the Theosophists and the revolutionary socialist Industrial Workers of the World into his cocktail of evil colluding opposites.
We can’t leave without a mention of David Icke. Barkun provides a public service by tracing the origins in science fiction of Icke’s trope of shape-shifting-alien-reptiles-in-charge, and deals incisively with Icke’s slithery, selfcontradictory relations with anti semitism. We’ve said before that conspiracy theories are networks of found significances. Hofstadter and Barkun explain how some things are more significant and tempting than others, and what they are. Others have come later to illuminate more brightly why some people so need to be tempted: see next episode.
Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays, Alfred Knopf 1965; reprinted, Vintage Books, 2008
Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic visions in contemporary America, University of California Press 2003; second edition, 2013
“GO, MY BOOK, AND HELP DESTROY THE WORLD AS IT IS.” Russell Banks