Culture of conspiracy

Robert Alan Goldberg. Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America. Yale University Press, 2001.

Robert Goldberg argues that belief in conspiracy theories cannot be relegated to the realm of individual pathology, but has deep cultural and social roots, indeed it is "part of the national birthright" Like religion, conspiracism offers solace, giving "hope, unity and purpose in a world that seems beyond the reach of the powerless". But this is a cancerous religion, perhaps one about to metastasize which could overwhelm the body politic.

After a brief introduction to the history of conspiracism in the US, Goldberg examines a number of specific cases. First there is the Master Conspiracy, the great menace, most recently the Red Menace, subverting the realm of the elect and pure. Goldberg notes how eventually Communism ceased to be a satisfying enemy, becoming instead a mere facade for some deeper older enemy, such as the mythical "illuminati", even before the fall of the Soviet block. This "deep enemy" the master conspiracy can be seen to be behind everything, however mutually contradictory.

The "master conspiracy" is however just a secularization of the Manichean struggle against the Antichrist, the subject of the second chapter, which explores the conspiratorial world view of the Christian right. Here much more fundamentally the "terrible others" are the literally agents of the devil.

From these general conspiracies Goldberg goes on to discuss some specific cases: the assassination of President Kennedy, the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of the Nation of Islam, and the Roswell incident. In each of these cases he makes some important points, and backs up his study with extensive notes. Here is clearly someone who has immersed himself in the often arcane literature of the genres.

One of the features of many of these theories is there escalation; Kennedy assassination buffs come up with more and more overarching conspiracies, in which every piece of historical evidence is questioned. Thus David Lifton argues that the president's body was secretly altered to fit with the government case and Howard Livingstone's claims that the famous Zarapuder movie has been doctored. Roswell and flying saucer conspiracy stories also escalated.

One of the central themes of the book is how conspiracy theories have entered into the mainstream of American culture through films such as JFK and TV shows such as the X files and Millennium, and in the process many of these separate threads have become united. UFOs and Kennedy assassination meet the trilateral commission and the illuminati. Aliens rub shoulders with the anti Christ. While the conspiracists never quite reach the totality of the satirist's 'its all the black, Jewish, Communist, American bankers in the Vatican' they come very close.

This book was obviously written before September 11, and there is now clearly a new demonic enemy: "international terrorism". Under this all sorts of disparate groups and causes and enemies, many of them mutually hostile, are being linked together as new 'terrible other. But this 'other' is not quite as alien as we would like to believe. The Islamic militants responsible for September 11 shared much of the conspiratorial world view explored in these pages, indeed their ideology perhaps owes as much to western conspiracy theories as to anything home grown, feeding from the same literature and cultural roots. (The idea of using aircraft as weapons of mass destruction came not from the Koran but from the American neo-Nazi "Bible" the Turner Diaries).

This reminds us that conspiracy theories are a global phenomena and problem and lie very deep in the human psyche, heirs to all the witch hunts of the world and now capable of blowing the world apart.

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