Like conspiracies themselves, conspiracy theories are as old as gossip and politics. To understand the world one inhabits, it is impossible to credit the idea of contingency or chance as the root of all weirdness. Just as any psychotic tends to utter something true in the process of saying something crazy, there is usually a kernel of reality in even the most far-fetched conspiracy theory.
While it is easy to distinguish a belief that aluminum foil wrapped around one’s head filters out alien brain waves from rational but dissident ideas, some modern writers on conspiracy theory tend to conflate nonconformity with the most bizarre and cognitively defective extremes of it. So-called “consensus historians,” following the lead of Richard Hofstadter’s famous 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” have effectively pathologized any suspicion of active conspiracies, however defined, into a synonym for “nut job” in public discourse.
Our mass media, its ownership consolidated among a handful of billionaires whose interests are identical with those of corporate cronies (globalized “free trade” for the wealthy nations, peonage for the third world, Chomsky’s “manufacture of consent” via a constant torrent of propaganda for the status quo), reflexively dismiss the most obvious or credible explanations for ugly phenomena as the perfervid fantasy of “conspiracy cranks”—for instance, the idea that successive “preemptive” wars might be launched against demonized enemies in order to award reconstruction contracts to corporations formerly helmed by, say, the vice president of the United States and other exalted government employees, or that the strategic purpose of one such war might be the economic colonization of former Soviet republics rich in oil and mineral resources, and to guarantee a secure pipeline for the exploitation of said resources. Instead, the altruism and democracy-spreading goodness of the American power elite are portrayed as self-evident, taking all other motives off the media table.
The necessary proof of such a conspiracy, if we choose to call it that, often turns up 25 or 50 years after the fact, when the release of classified documents churns up no public outcry or indictments. Such was the recent case with the declassified revelation that the late Connecticut senator Prescott Bush, grandfather of the current president, along with his law partner W. Averill Harriman, a former governor of New York, managed a number of concerns on behalf of Nazi industrialist Fritz Thyssen. These included the Union Banking Corporation, seized under the Trading With the Enemy Act on October 20, 1942 (Office of Alien Property Custodian, Vesting Order No. 248), Seamless Steel Equipment Corporation (Vesting Order No. 259), and the Holland-American Trading Corporation (Vesting Order No. 261).
The Knights Templar
Contingency theorists would declare that the activities of one Bush 50-some years ago have nothing to do with those of subsequent Bushes. Yet the story confirms a pattern of corrupt profiteering through abuse of power that runs continuously through the Bush family dynasty. They would likewise find nothing “conspiratorial” about the duck-hunting trip Vice President Cheney took with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia during the week of January 4, 2004, “three weeks after the court agreed to take up the vice president’s appeal in lawsuits over his handling of the administration’s energy task force” (Los Angeles Times, January 17, 2004). “I do not think my impartiality could reasonably be questioned,” Scalia hilariously told reporters, perhaps believing they had already forgotten his sordid role in fixing the 2000 presidential election for George W. Bush. Perhaps the brazen lack of ethics and truthfulness displayed by everyone in or associated with the Bush administration shouldn’t be characterized as “conspiratorial,” since this implies a secrecy that Cheney et al. believe unnecessary, given the monumental apathy and programmed ignorance of at least half the American public. (Cheney may not want to release transcripts of who said what, but that isn’t a secret—it’s a crime in defiance of American jurisprudence. There are no secrets, only things we know about that we don’t know all the little details of.)
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.
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.”
Freemasonry, whose date of origin is somewhere in the 16th or 17th century, purports to be (according to its adherents) a benign organization, albeit with a mystical element, which served for much of the 19th century to disseminate rationalist learning among its members in the days before public education: geometry, architecture, astronomy, and similar subjects. Its members aren’t allowed to discuss politics or religion within the Lodge. As Brother Roscoe Pound, a Mason and current professor of jurisprudence at Harvard, puts it, “Every lodge ought to be a center of light from which men go forth filled with new ideas of social justice, cosmopolitan justice and internationality.” All the same, Masons have been periodically accused of satanism, manipulation of global finance, and secret influence among the world’s movers and shakers. Robert Anton Wilson, in Everything Is Under Control, reports that the P2 society in Italy, founded in the 1970s (purportedly as a subsect of the CIA’s Gladio operation), which allegedly engineered the Bologna railway bombing in 1980 and financed itself by fraud and drug running, “recruited exclusively among third-degree members of the Grand Orient Lodge of Egyptian Freemasonry.”
Mumia Abu-Jamal, the death row activist, reports in his column that the “CIA hid massive stockpiles of weapons and explosives throughout Italy. They amassed an army of 15,000 troops in something called Operation Gladio . . . to strike vital targets and overthrow the elected Italian government if they dared to vote against Washington’s will.”
Well, who knows?
First in a three-part series
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 18, 2004