Opus Heyday


Conspiracy theories emanating from both the left and the right, along with the many that issue from the Planet Debby, almost invariably rely on scapegoating as a core methodology. The interdigitating shadow organizations that fill so much of conspiracy history invariably involve the Jews or the Jesuits or both. What right-wing conspiracy theory could be complete without The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and what secularist or Protestant conspiracy theory without the Jesuits thrown in? (The extreme left has its own menu of the automatically culpable, which I won’t elaborate on here.)

The Jews are routinely blamed for everything (their menacing worldwide financial reach epitomized by the Rothschilds) and held to be responsible for heartless capitalism and godless Communism simultaneously. Neil Baldwin, in Henry Ford and the Jews, writing of this hero of American business mythology, describes a 1922 article from Ford’s column in the Dearborn Independent: “Within four paragraphs, the word ‘control’ recurs five times, most often in connection with the Jew’s annoying propensity for business. . . . He is the perpetual alien, ‘a corporation with agents everywhere’—a reference that brings to mind the structure of the Ford Motor Company itself.” Let’s not forget ZOG, the secret Zionist world government, a favorite fantasy of American survivalists and neo-Nazis everywhere. While anti-Semitism (as distinct from anti-Zionism) is a mental illness most virulently spread today by Semites, namely Arab Islamists, there has always been a sinister air about the Jesuit Order. Judaism discourages proselytizing; the Jesuits were founded on Ignatius Loyola’s determination to spread Roman Catholicism all through the world. It is doubtful, though, that Jesuits masterminded the French Revolution, as their enemies claim.

Madame Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy, stated in a letter to A.P. Sinnett that the “greatest statesman in Europe, the Prince Bismarck, is the only one to know accurately all their secret plottings. . . . He knows it has ever been the aim of the Jesuit Priestcraft to stir up disaffection and rebellion in all countries to the advancement of its own interests.” The Sarah Bernhardt of Occultism went on to accuse British statesman W.E. Gladstone of having been “privately received into the R.C. Church by the Pope himself.” She continued: “W.E.G. precipitates his own temporary retirement from office, in order to get . . . an overwhelming majority from the votes of the newly emancipated laborers at a General Election. . . . He still thinks he can, perhaps, contrive to carry a dashing scheme for handing Ireland over so much further into the hands of the unscrupulous agitators, so that the next agitation will complete the severance and dismember the British Empire—which has long been the darling scheme of the Jesuits.” Perhaps relatedly, in Lord George Bentinck: A Political Biography (1851), Benjamin Disraeli warned the House of Commons about secret societies in France, Italy, and Germany.

There also exists an anti-Jesuit organization that itself qualifies as a conspiratorial cult, the Catholic lay group Opus Dei, recently flushed from its lair of secrecy by Dan Brown’s bestseller, The Da Vinci Code. Founded in Franco’s Spain in 1928 by Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer y Albás, Opus spread worldwide; its current membership is estimated at 80,000. It was soon recognized by the Catholic Church as its first “secular” religious institution: In the early 1980s, Opus Dei was declared by Pope John Paul II to be a “personal prelature”—that is, a church entity headed by a “prelate” under no control by local bishops and dioceses. Since its founding, Opus has had only three successive leaders: Escrivá, Alvaro del Portillo, and, currently, Bishop Xavier Echevarria, a native of Madrid. Each has promoted a cult of personality.

To the horror of many Catholics, particularly the Jesuits, Escrivá was beatified in May 1992 and canonized as a “saint” in October 2002. This follower of Franco was believed to have cured a doctor of radiodermatitis caused by prolonged exposure to X-ray machinery, a “miracle” which could very well have been the result of natural healing—Pierre Curie suffered the same sort of ailment after handling radium, and it cleared up in a few weeks.

Opus members go in for self-flagellation and other rituals of self-inflicted pain. The organization has its own list of banned books and a hierarchy of membership levels, and is virulently opposed to abortion and gay rights. It endorses most of the other lunatic phobias of the ultra-right Christian Coalition. Opus Dei would not merit all that much attention, were it not for the fact that Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent/ Russian spy, was revealed to be a member, and that there have been plausible allegations that Louis Freeh, the former FBI director, along with Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, belong to Opus Dei too.

One could go on, into alien abductions and the legendary UFO crash site at Area 51, or Groom Lake, 90 miles north of Las Vegas (Michael Barkun, in A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, finds it suggestive that Timothy McVeigh visited the former a year before blowing up the Oklahoma City federal building); anticipation of the Rapture by various religious psychotics; expectation of the Antichrist’s arrival, recently announced by Jerry Falwell on national TV (he noted that the AC would be a Jew); belief in humanoid reptiles inhabiting vast underground tunnels; and so forth. But the current analyses of eccentric belief systems inevitably have had to take into account that the 20th century, and now the 21st, have seen myriad authentic conspiracies unravel or partly unravel, sometimes leaving piles of dead bodies in their wake. The Kennedy assassination, Iran-Contra, Watergate, the CIA-sponsored overthrow and/or assassination of Arbenz, Allende, Mussadegh, Sukarno, Lumumba, and dozens of other democratically elected or potentially electable progressive leaders, the Enron scam, B.C.C.I., the sinister workings of the Carlyle Group—there is too much of the real stuff around for a thinking person to dismiss certain apprehensions as “paranoid.” Especially since 9-11, the consensus model of thinking about America as a Norman Rockwell painting with a few unsightly threads dangling from the canvas has reached a nadir of popularity and credibility.

In an introductory essay, Peter Knight, editor of the 2002 collection Conspiracy Nation: The Politics of Paranoia in Postwar America, attributes modern conspiracism to “the pervading sense of uncontrollable forces taking over our lives, our minds, and even our bodies.” He writes that “conspiracy thinking has become not so much the sign of a crackpot delusion as part of an everyday struggle to make sense of a rapidly changing world.” In effect, individuals are losing their sense of agency in a period of political chaos and technological overload, compulsive consumerism and fear of the future, experiencing a loss of self and a sense of interchangeability with other digitized and horrifically surveilled humans, unable to get the big picture into focus and hence fixating on an idea of the world itself as a vast, impenetrable conspiracy. The worst thing about the above catalog of alienation effects is that it seems irreversible and inescapable.

Knight’s book is well worth reading, as its contributors differentiate critical inquiry and skepticism from “paranoia.” They problematize the friction between conspiracism and contingency theory, and the way these opposites interpenetrate; they deal with American pop culture far more knowingly than Barkun; their references encompass Lacan, Jameson, Althusser, and Zizek, among others. Especially worthwhile are Skip Willman’s “Spinning Paranoia: The Ideologies of Conspiracy and Contingency in Postmodern Culture,” Ingrid Walker Fields’s “White Hope: Conspiracy, Nationalism, and Revolution in The Turner Diaries and Hunter,” and Eithne Quinn’s ” ‘All Eyez on Me’: The Paranoid Style of Tupac Shakur.” The tendency to pathologize vigorous opposition to the status quo crops up here and there more as a reflex than a position.

Similarly, Timothy Melley’s 1999 Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America illustrates “agency panic” as woven into post-war American fiction and nonfiction—Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow, and works by Burroughs, Ishmael Reed, Don DeLillo, and many others. He acknowledges the establishment bias of traditional conspiracy critique, yet often brings to mind Mary McCarthy’s remark that criticizing Burroughs’s style is like criticizing the sartorial manifestations of someone banging on your door to tell you your house is on fire.

“Because the convictions I have been describing usually arise without much tangible evidence,” Melley sensibly writes, “they often seem to be the product of paranoia. Yet they are difficult to dismiss as paranoid in the clinical sense. . . . As Leo Bersani points out, the self-described ‘paranoids’ of Thomas Pynchon’s fiction are ‘probably justified, and therefore —at least in the traditional sense of the word—really not paranoid at all.’ ” While dutifully noting the wide influence of Richard E. Hofstadter’s seminal 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” which rather broadly identified conspiratorial thinking as a misreading of chance and contingent events, Melley is loath to automatically apply Hofstadter’s axioms to the more complex realities of postmodern culture. Still, he invokes them ambiguously, enough so that Empire of Conspiracy becomes an exercise in ambivalence about consensus politics and a meandering soliloquy about what is and isn’t pathological.

Mark Fenster’s 1999 Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture is easily the best recent addition to the literature of what radio and TV host Long John Nebel used to call the Way Out World. (Nebel’s wife, Candy Jones, revealed under hypnosis that she had been brainwashed by the CIA and operated for it as an assassin without her wet work leaving any conscious residue in her memory.) For starters, Fenster tears much of Hofstadter’s Cold War assumptions about the vitality of the American mainstream to shreds, noting that Hofstadter “applied a theory of individual pathology to a social phenomenon—an interesting, perhaps productive exercise for an analogy, but problematic if . . . one is attempting to produce a concept that can be used across history to explain, for example, populist political dissent in the 1990s.” In Fenster’s view, conspiracism is a direct effusion of the failures of the political system, which are at least as much “conspiratorial” as “contingent” or unintended.

There is, of course, another way of considering this: Contingency and lack of intention may often constitute an unplanned, collective conspiracy dictated by historical events and their inevitable repercussions. The essential guide to this notion can be found in Eric Hobsbawm’s 1994 Amnesty International lecture, “Barbarism: A User’s Guide.” Hobsbawm doesn’t call the historical process conspiratorial, but many of the opportunities it activates certainly are.