Conspiracy theories are not new. In the 1920s the KKK spread the doctrine that Catholics and the Pope were trying to take over the US government. This is one of the threads that weaves through my trilogy Medicine for the Blues. As proof that such conspiracy theories have real world consequences, this ideology led to the passage in Oregon of the 1922 Compulsory Education Act, which required all children between the ages of 8 and 16 to attend public schools, thus outlawing parochial education. This law was challenged and ended up with the US Supreme Court ruling in Pierce v. Society of Sisters that the statute was unconstitutional.
Chip Berlet, who has studied the subject for decades, states that conspiracy theories go back much further: “The idea that a conspiracy of Freemasons controls the economy through the manipulation of paper money is based on conspiracy theories originally spread in the 1700’s and 1800’s.” [Chip Berlet, see link below]
Sophie Bjork-James writes, “In 1798, British author John Robison published a text arguing a secret cabal of Freemasons had formed a group called ‘the Illuminati,’ which peddled a philosophy of ‘cosmo-politism’ bent on subverting all religions and resisting state authority.” [Sophie Bjork-James, see link below]
In the 1870s French journalist Léo Taxil published a bogus memoir recounting satanic rituals by Freemasons. [Robert Guffey, Part 2, below]
A publication titled Conspiracy Theories in American History [2 volumes]: An Encyclopedia, edited by Peter Knight (2003) lists more than 300 entries going back to the Puritans.
The currently popular QAnon conspiracy can be traced back to elements of Richard Sharpe Shaver’s 1940s horror stories published in the periodical Amazing Stories, according to Robert Guffey. [Guffey, Part 2] He writes: “A strange fascination with subterranean beings kidnapping humans, dragging them underground and sexually assaulting them recurs throughout the QAnon theories,” similar to Shaver’s stories.
This also is not new. Recall the Greek myth of Persephone being abducted (raped) by Hades and carried underground. Remember Hieronymus Bosch and Christian visions of an underground Hell where humans are tortured and sexually assaulted. This seems to be an archetypal motif.
Aspects of Conspiracy Theories
Wikipedia sums up present day conspiracy theories by citing the political scientist Michael Barkun, who holds:
“…that this term is used for a belief that explains an event as the result of a secret plot by exceptionally powerful and cunning conspirators to achieve a malevolent end.
According to Barkun, the appeal of conspiracism is threefold:
First, conspiracy theories claim to explain what institutional analysis cannot. They appear to make sense out of a world that is otherwise confusing.
Second, they do so in an appealingly simple way, by dividing the world sharply between the forces of light, and the forces of darkness. They trace all evil back to a single source, the conspirators and their agents.
Third, conspiracy theories are often presented as special, secret knowledge unknown or unappreciated by others. For conspiracy theorists, the masses are a brainwashed herd, while the conspiracy theorists in the know can congratulate themselves on penetrating the plotters’ deceptions.” [Wikipedia]
Chip Berlet adds to this description:
“A major element of many conspiracy theories, including those circulated by the militias, is that the country is composed of two types of persons: parasites and producers. The parasites are at the top and the bottom, with the producers being the hard-working average citizen in the middle. This is the theory of right-wing populism. The parasites at the top are seen as lazy and corrupt government officials in league with wealthy elites who control banking and manipulate paper currency. The parasites at the bottom are the lazy and shiftless who do not deserve the assistance they receive from society.” [Berlet]
“Conspiracy theories resist falsification and are reinforced by circular reasoning: both evidence against the conspiracy and an absence of evidence for it are re-interpreted as evidence of its truth, whereby the conspiracy becomes a matter of faith rather than something that can be proved or disproved.” [Wikipedia]
For example, QAnon argues that Trump is secretly fighting demons and the deep state, but because it is secret there is no way to prove it. Or, there is no compelling evidence that demons are not abducting children to drink their blood, therefore it must be happening.
A sense of powerlessness contributes to susceptibility to conspiracy theories.
“…Roger Cohen…has said that, ‘captive minds … resort to conspiracy theory because it is the ultimate refuge of the powerless. If you cannot change your own life, it must be that some greater force controls the world.” [Wikipedia]
Emily Writes, editor at The Spinoff, asserts that when “people feel like they have no control over their lives—like in the midst of a global pandemic—the comforting certainty of conspiracy theories seems increasingly attractive.” [Guffey, Part 1]
“Conspiracist theories are a form of scapegoating. Mass movements that allege sinister conspiracies generally emerge during periods of economic or social stress. The angers and fears of the disaffected population are transferred to the targeted group—the scapegoat—which is blamed for causing all that is wrong with the society. The targeting of the scapegoated group plays out in the political and social arena, often reflecting real power struggles, and having real consequences on both a societal and individual level.” [Chip Berlet]
Trump has long scapegoated immigrants. He made the immigrant caravans an issue before the 2018 midterm congressional elections. “One online conspiracy theory, pushed by sites like InfoWars, says the migrants in the caravan are getting rides paid for by wealthy bankers, and that they are organized by immigration advocacy groups. Last week, Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz asked on Twitter whether liberal philanthropist George Soros or ‘US-backed NGOs’ are behind it. Some message boards are more blunt, suggesting it’s not merely Soros but a vast Jewish cabal that’s driving the caravan.” [Emily Dreyfuss]
Another element of conspiratorial thinking is psychological projection.
Historian Richard Hofstadter stated that:
“This enemy seems on many counts a projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. A fundamental paradox of the paranoid style is the imitation of the enemy. The enemy, for example, may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. … The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through ‘front’ groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy. Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist ‘crusades’ openly express their admiration for the dedication, discipline, and strategic ingenuity the Communist cause calls forth.” [Wikipedia]
I hardly need to point out the frequent psychological projections by Trump and his allies. There are too many examples to choose from, but one will suffice: Trump calls nearly everything “fake news” when he is consistently shown to be the one spreading disinformation and outright lies. [Paul Siegel, Ph.D]
Religious beliefs often figure into conspiracy theories.
“…on May 29 of this year, QAnon posted a link to Mike Rothschild’s Daily Dot article entitled ‘Inside the First Church of QAnon, Where Jesus Helps Fight the Deep State,’ in which Rothschild analyzes the cult-like aspects of QAnon:….‘And increasingly, this includes religion, as QAnon believers infuse their complex mythos with elements of spiritual warfare and Biblical theology. But some Christian QAnon followers are taking this merger even further, using the text of Q drops as scripture to form what seems like a hybrid Q/Christian denomination.’” [Guffey, Part 2]
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Innocence and danger
An innocent example of a popular conspiracy theory is the rumor that Paul McCartney was dead and had been replaced by a look-alike stand-in, first spread in the 1969. Fans all over the world combed through Beatle lyrics for clues that seemed to prove the rumor true.
When the McCartney rumor was at its height, the Beatles’ long-suffering press officer Derek Taylor told his office mates at Apple Records: “We’ll start our own rumor that the public is dead from the neck up, and they’ve been using a stand-in facsimile of a brain for the past three and a half years.” [Rob Sheffield]
But conspiracy theory has a much more dark and dangerous side. I would point to all those who have been radicalized by Islamic propaganda on the internet to join up with ISIS. Chip Berlet references the “the criminal cases of John C. Salvi, 3d, convicted in the December 1994 murder of two reproductive health center workers and the wounding of five others; and the case of Francisco Martin Duran, convicted for spraying the White House with bullets” and “The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995.”
He goes on to warn: “Without a vigorous public protest by political and religious leaders against scapegoating and conspiracism as anti-democratic forms of demagoguery—violence is inevitable.” [Chip Berlet]
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Freedom of the press
“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.” —Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny, p 65
When supporters of conspiracies are challenged on the veracity of their claims, they often say, “Do your research,” and then send you to right-wing blogs and other questionable sources. With the world wide web it is all too easy to receive conspiracy theories, and all too easy to pass them on using the various social media platforms.
Trump constantly denigrates the legitimate press by charging them with reporting “fake news,” and labelling them “the enemy of the people.” Didn’t I suggest earlier that Trump tends to project?
The freedom of the press is guaranteed in our Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” —Article 1 of the Bill of Rights. Even the right-wing Charles Koch Institute, in an article on their website titled “The Importance of a Free Press” carries this passage:
“‘Republics and limited monarchies derive their strength and vigor from a popular examination into the action of the magistrates,’ Benjamin Franklin declared. By sharing knowledge and sparking debate, a free press invigorates and educates the nation’s citizens. Freedom will be ‘a short-lived possession’ unless the people are informed, Thomas Jefferson once said. To quote John Adams: ‘The liberty of the press is essential to the security of the state.’”
Timothy Snyder admits that “Journalists are not perfect…But the work of people who adhere to journalistic ethics is of a different quality than the work of those who do not.” p 77
Snyder quotes Vaclav Havel, “If the main pillar of the [tyrannical] system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living in truth.” Snyder then goes on to write, “Since in the age of the internet we are all publishers, each of us bears some private responsibility for the public’s sense of truth. If we are serious about seeking the facts, we can each make a small revolution in the way the internet works. If you are verifying information for yourself, you will not send on fake news to others. If you choose to follow reporters whom you have reason to trust, you can also transmit what they have learned to others. If you retweet only the work of humans who have followed journalistic protocols, you are less likely to debase your brain interacting with bots and trolls.” p 78-79
If you find yourself tempted to believe Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts,” and you want to separate yourself from Derek Taylor’s “dead-from-the-neck-up” public, I encourage you to check out Carl Sagan’s “Baloney Detection Kit.” His “Kit,” from Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark is too long to summarize here, but it is skillfully distilled by Maria Popova in her 2014 Brain Pickings article referenced below. Popova notes that Sagan is fully aware of our human vulnerabilities and the allure of comforting promises. Sagan reminds us that “falling for such fictions doesn’t make us stupid or bad people, but simply means that we need to equip ourselves with the right tools against them.”
We must all keep our guards up against falsehoods that surround us in the current political environment. Although fabricated conspiracies and superstitions have plagued humanity forever, we have reason and critical thinking to fortify us in determining what is true.
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“And yes, there is a conspiracy that you can find online: It is the one to keep you online, looking for conspiracies.” —Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny, p 75
—Jeff Stookey, October 2020
All websites accessed September 20, 2020
Images from Chip Berlet’s Home on the Internet:
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Chip Berlet, published 1995 [and frequently updated in various publications]: “The Increasing Popularity of Right Wing Conspiracy Theories” (a PDF)
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Sophie Bjork-James, The Conversation, September 2, 2020, “Nearly two centuries ago, a QAnon-like conspiracy theory propelled candidates to Congress”
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Robert Guffey, salon.com, August 23, 2020 [part 2 of a series], “The deep, twisted roots of QAnon: From 1940s sci-fi to 19th-century anti-Masonic agitprop”
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Robert Guffey, salon.com, August 16, 2020 [part 1 of a series], “What is QAnon? A not-so-brief introduction to the conspiracy theory that’s eating America”
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Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, “Conspiracy theory”
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Emily Dreyfuss, Wired, 23 October 2018, “Alert: Don’t Believe Everything You Read About the Migrant Caravan”.
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Paul Siegel Ph.D, Psychology Today, July 29, 2018, “The Projector in Chief”
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Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone , October 11, 2019, “‘Paul Is Dead’: The Bizarre Story of Music’s Most Notorious Conspiracy Theory”
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Maria Popova, this post originally appeared on Brain Pickings and was published January 3, 2014, “The Baloney Detection Kit”
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Charles Koch Institute website, “The Importance of a Free Press”
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Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny, Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, 2017
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And here is a bonus resource that warns about the dangers of disinformation on the web:
Adrian Chen, “The Agency,” The New York Times, June 2, 2015
Adrian Chen set about reporting on a “troll farm” in Russia – then became a victim of Russian misinformation himself. [re: Russia’s Internet Research Agency]
Listen to the article on The Daily podcast, “The Sunday Read: ‘The Agency,’” Sept. 20, 2020
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Another bonus resource about QAnon: