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Conspiracy Theories

20 May 2003 11:51

The Mother of All Conspiracy Theories, at least in the West, goes something like this: There is an ubiquitous secret society in our midst, alien to our religion, which aims to seize control of the world, or at least the only part of it which counts, i.e. ours. They are everywhere; they are ruthless and powerful (often, supernaturally powerful); they are sexually corrupt (often, incestuous); they preform the very worst of crimes, perhaps as rituals (often, infanticide, cannibalism and religious desecration). This is the burden of Norman Cohn's superb Europe's Inner Demons, and I think Cohn is absolutely correct. The oldest versions of this story he could find were in Livy (where the Romans applied it to the Bacchantes). It was later applied by the pagans to the Christians, by the Christians to the Jews and all manner of heretics, then by Christians to (non-existent) witches; and at that point Cohn leaves off. Since then of course Jews and heretics have continued to be fashionable, but it has also been applied to Catholics, philosophes, Freemasons, Communists, homosexuals, radicals, aristocrats, etc., etc. It is still powerful and still with us. Read alt.conspiracy or alt.illuminati or alt.usenet.kooks --- to say nothing of the tons of apocalyptic and conspiratorial tracts issuing from the presses each year --- and this will become obvious. Look up the tactics the Church of Scientology uses to smear its opponents; listen to a televangelist for a while. --- Nor is it confined to the soft, dark underbelly of thought (confined there? whatever isn't there is confined!). Michael Crichton, for instance, uses it in his xenophobic novel Rising Sun; it is the substance of the "satanic ritual abuse" myth promulgated by respected psychotherapists, on the basis of conditions they create in their patients; Republican attacks on "counter-cultural McGoverniks," the "cultural elite," the "media elite," etc. are a (for the moment, mild) version. It is now as it has always been the mainstay of demagogues, and for some reason it seems Americans are particularly vulnerable to it.

One is tempted to say that conspiracies are the characteristic lunacy of the Right, as millennia are of the Left; but no doubt there are plenty of counter-examples.

Questions: Why are we fascinated by this kind of conspiracy? What do conspiracies from other cultures look like?

The last word on this subject deserves to go to Randall "xkcd" Munroe (click for the full-size version):

See also: Cults, Enthusiasts; Historical Materialism; Millenarianism; Narrative Communities; Posession, Multiple Personality Disorder; the Right; UFOs; the Witch Craze


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