No Such Thing as Paranoia

On the culture of conspiracism

Hofstadter's essay, written in the aftermath of the McCarthy witch hunts and the Kennedy assassination, with an eye on the then marginal but scary realm of right-wing plot-weavers, has been eerily assimilated by a certain idling pedantry, which rummages through the historical debris of arcane conspiracist subjects (the Knights Templar, Jesuit intrigues, Freemasonry, the Illuminati, alien abductions, the Rothschilds, the Bilderberg meetings, the Knights of Malta), often recounting the same narratives at numbing length, with little fresh insight. Only a few contemporary writers drastically depart from Hofstadter's historical itinerary, or his parochial vision of America as a "pluralist democracy" whose institutional framework is essentially benign and immutably fair, rational, and systemically mistrusted only by paranoid schizophrenics. "One need only think of the response to President Kennedy's assassination in Europe to be reminded that Americans have no monopoly on the gift for paranoid improvisation," Hofstadter declared, 15 years before the U.S. House of Representatives' Select Committee on Assassinations concluded that Kennedy's murder was indeed the result of a conspiracy.

Hofstadter's prescience is amply evidenced in Michael Barkun's A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (2003). Barkun has ingested Hofstadter's imperious tome whole, and his book does little more than regurgitate its polemical eurekas. Barkun informs us that the "essence of conspiracy beliefs lies in attempts to delineate and explain evil." Ergo Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and most other organized religions qualify as conspiracy beliefs, though Barkun neglects to say so. Barkun identifies three principles "found in virtually every conspiracy theory," to wit: Nothing happens by accident. Nothing is as it seems. Everything is connected. Clearly Freud, Plato, Leibniz, and Einstein all suffered from at least one symptom of conspiracism; fortuitously, without mentioning any of them, someone has finally exposed these thinkers as mentally ill.

Writers like Barkun are fond of inventing buzz concepts like "improvisational millennialism," "the cultic milieu," "agency panic," and "stigmatized knowledge claims." The latter, according to Barkun, are "claims to truth that the claimants regard as verified despite the marginalization of those claims by the institutions that conventionally distinguish between knowledge and error—universities, communities of scientific researchers, and the like." Few besides the amply tenured and remuneratively institutionalized would be likely to endorse Barkun's tweedy self-flattery as descriptive of American academia—as Jane Jacobs points out in her new book Dark Age Ahead, our colleges and universities have largely degenerated into mere credentialing factories—and what political scientists consider a science tends to be more a recruitment pool for think tanks, few of which trouble to separate knowledge from error, but simply bend data to suit the particular tank's ideological orientation.

Skull & Bones Society
Skull & Bones Society


  • Part Two: Opus Heyday The success of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code excites interest in a secretive Catholic lay groupóand further notes on the culture of conspiracism
  • Part Three: Disorganized Conspiracy When you've got money and power, who needs meetings in secret boardrooms?
  • Lost in America
    From Nicholas Berg to Abu Ghraib, the search for something to trust
    by Kareem Fahim

    The Freemasons

    The same impossibly murky entities are combed over in most books on conspiracism, though some of the literature and related nonfiction have begun to deviate considerably from consensus historicism and the Hofstadter school. The traditional conspiracist books look backward through the jumbled mythologies of nebulously interwoven secret societies, usually beginning with the Bavarian Illuminati (currently a hit topic with the rerelease of Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown's 2000 novel Angels & Demons), though some point back to the Knights Templar, an order of monks and knights founded by Hugh de Payens in 1118. The Templars originally occupied the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem and later went in for money lending; in October 1307, on Friday the 13th (a charged date ever since), the Inquisition arrested the leader and 123 other Knights Templar, who were promptly tortured into confessing blasphemy, black magic, devil worship, and homosexual sodomy. It's believed by some that rather than disbanding, the Knights reorganized themselves sub rosa and continued to influence events and the activities of other cults.

    The Illuminati are another historically shape-shifting bunch. Historians generally date their foundation as May 1, 1776, in Ingolstadt, Bavaria, by a former Jesuit and future Freemason, Adam Weishaupt. Supposedly the Illuminati infiltrated Masonic lodges and came to dominate the movement for pro-democratic secularism. The Illuminati were shut down in 1785 by the Bavarian government, but the group allegedly reconstituted itself, like the Templars, under other names, and is still active today. It's unclear what the Illuminati are active in: satanism, control of international banking, anarchism, or Communism, depending on which conspiracist you read.

    Early fears of an Illuminati conspiracy were widely disseminated via Abbé Barruél's four-volume Mémoires Pour Servir à l'Histoire du Jacobinisme of 1797, in which the author, a Jesuit expelled from France with the rest of his order, claimed the French Revolution had emanated from a conspiracy of Masons, Illuminati, and "anti-Christians." A contemporaneous screed by a Scottish scientist, John Robison, Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe, Carried on in the Secret Meetings of Free Masons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies, advanced the same idea. The book became wildly popular in America, where, it is often pointed out, several Founding Fathers belonged to the Masonic order.

    Hofstadter cites Federalist fears of "a Jacob-inical plot touched off by Illuminism" in the early years of Jeffersonian democracy. An anti-Masonic movement swept the country in the late 1820s and early 1830s, slightly overlapping a wave of anti-Jesuit hysteria. "It is an ascertained fact," one Protestant minister wrote in 1836, "that Jesuits are prowling about all parts of the United States in every possible disguise, expressly to ascertain the advantageous situations and modes to disseminate Popery."

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