Once the province of the far right, conspiracy theories have gained a wider cultural currency in the last quarter of the twentieth century, and have become widely disseminated in our popular culture through diverse sources. Spanning every topic from UFOs to ancient secret societies to scientific and medical research, conspiracy theories are frequently disparaged as the hobby of "kooks" and "nuts" by the mainstream. In fact, many theories are well substantiated, but the belief in a "smoke-filled room" is a patently uncomfortable thought for most. Although the populace has generally shown a preference for dismissing conspiracy theories en masse, nevertheless it is now a common belief that a disconnect exists between the official line and reality. Crisis and scandal have left their mark on the American psyche, and popular culture—especially film and television—have readily capitalized on public suspicions, becoming an armature of the culture of paranoia.
What exactly is a conspiracy theory? Under its broadest definition, a conspiracy theory is a belief in the planned execution of an event—or events—in order to achieve a desired end. "At the center [of a conspiracy] there is always a tiny group in complete control, with one man as the undisputed leader," writes G. Edward Griffin, author of The Creature from Jekyll Island, a work on the Federal Reserve Board which, in passing, touches on many conspiracy theories of this century. "Next is a circle of secondary leadership that, for the most part, is unaware of an inner core. They are led to believe that they are the inner-most ring. In time, as these conspiracies are built from the center out, they form additional rings of organization. Those in the outer echelons usually are idealists with an honest desire to improve the world. They never suspect an inner control for other purposes." This serves as an able definition of conspiracy, but for a conspiracy to be properly considered as conspiracy theory, there must be a level of supposition in the author's analysis beyond the established facts. Case in point: the ne plus ultra of conspiracy theories, the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Regardless of who was responsible for his murder, what is germane is the vast labyrinthian web of suspects that writers and researchers have uncovered. It is these shadowy allegations that comprise a conspiracy theory. The validity of different arguments aside, in the case of JFK, it is the speculative nature of these allegations which has left the greatest impression on popular culture.
Conspiracy theories tend, in the words of James Ridgeway, author of Blood in the Face, "to provide what seems to be a simple, surefire interpretation of events by which often chaotic and perplexing change can be explained." While it would be comforting to be so blandly dismissive, in the end, a conspiracy theory can only be as sophisticated as its proponent. Naturally, in the hands of a racist ideologue, a theory such as a belief in the omnipotence of Jewish bankers is a justification for hatred. Furthermore, as conspiracy theorists are wont to chase their quarry across the aeons in a quest for first causes, their assertions are often lost in the muddle, further exacerbated by the fact that more often than not, conspiracy theorists are far from able wordsmiths. Yet, as the saying goes, where there's smoke there's fire, and it would be injudicious to lump all conspiracy theories together as equally without merit.
A brief exegesis of one of the most pervasive conspiracy theories might well illustrate how conspiracy theories circulate and, like the game of telephone—in which a sentence is passed from one listener to the other until it becomes totally garbled—are embellished and elaborated upon. At the close of the eighteenth century, the pervasive unrest was adjudged to be the work of Freemasons and the Illuminati, two semi-secret orders whose eighteenth-century Enlightenment theories of individual liberty made them most unpopular to the aristocracy. These groups were widely persecuted and then driven into hiding. But waiting in the wings, was that most convenient of scapegoats, the Jews.
The Jews had long been viewed with distrust by their Christian neighbors. Already viewed as deicides, in the Middle Ages it was also commonly believed that Jews used the blood of Christian children in their Sabbath rituals. Communities of Jews were often wiped out as a result. Association, as it had so often been for the Jews, was sufficient to establish guilt. Early in the nineteenth century, a theory developed propounding an international Jewish conspiracy, a cabal of Jewish financiers intent on ensnaring the world under the dominion of a world government. The Jews were soon facing accusations of being the eminence grise behind the Illuminati, the Freemasons, and with complete disdain for the facts, the French Revolution.
Stories of an international Jewish cabal percolated until, in 1881, Biarritz, a novel by an official in the Prussian postal service, gave dramatic form to them. In a chapter entitled "In the Jewish Cemetery in Prague," a centennial congregation of Jewish leaders was depicted as they gathered to review their nefarious efforts to enslave the Gentile masses. The chapter was widely circulated in pamphlet form and later expanded into a book, The Protocols of Zion, used as inflammatory propaganda and distributed by supporters of the Czar. Distributed widely throughout Europe and America, Hitler would later cite The Protocols as a cardinal influence in his mature political beliefs.
The Jewish conspiracy made its way to America in the 1920s, where the idea was taken up by a rural, white, nativist populace already convinced the pope was an anti-Christ, Jews had horns, and all non-Anglo foreigners were agents of Communism. The industrialist Henry Ford fanned the flames by demonizing Jews in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, in which he published sections of The Protocols. Whether directly associated with Jews or not, the theory that American sovereignty was being slowly undermined became an enduring feature of the nativist right wing. It would be used to explain everything from the two world wars to the Bolshevik Revolution to the establishment of the IRS. Unfortunately, alongside the most rabid anti-Semitic screed there sits many an assertion, both accurate and well documented, and it is this indiscriminate combination of fact and fantasy that makes the allegations so disturbing.
For mainstream America, one could properly say that the age of the conspiracy theory began in the 1950s. More than any obscurantist's diatribe, movies gave life and breath to the conviction that civilization was governed from behind the scenes. Movies were a release valve in which the fears of that era—fears of Communist invasion, nuclear annihilation, UFOs—found release, sublimated into science fiction or crime dramas. The 1950s gave us films with a newfound predilection for ambiguity and hidden agendas—film noir. Films like Kiss Me Deadly, The Shack out on 101, North by Northwest, and The Manchurian Candidate explicate a worldview that is patently conspiratorial. They are a far cry from anything produced in the previous decades. The angst and nuances of film noir carried over to the science fiction genre. No longer content with fantasy, the frivolousness of early science fiction was replaced by a dread-laden weltanschauung, a world of purposeful or malevolent visitors from another planet: visitors with an agenda. The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, and Them are standouts of the era, but for each film that became a classic, a legion of knockoffs stood arrayed behind.
By the time of Kennedy's assassination, Americans were looking at world events with a more jaundiced eye. The movement from Kennedy to Watergate, from suspicion to outright guilt, was accompanied by a corollary shift in media perception. The United States government was directly portrayed as the enemy—no longer intuited as it had been in the oblique, coded films of the 1950s. Robert Redford and Warren Beatty made films—All the President's Men, Three Days of the Condor, and The Parallax View —that capitalized on the suspicion of government that Watergate fostered in the public.
It wasn't until the release of Oliver Stone's JFK that conspiracy theories made a reentry into the mainstream. Shortly thereafter, the phenomenally popular TV series The X-Files, a compendium of all things conspiratorial—properly sanitized for middle-class sensibilities—made its auspicious debut in 1992. For a generation to whom the likelihood of UFOs outweighed their belief in the continuance of social security into their dotage; for whom the McCarthy Era was history, Watergate but a distant, childhood memory, and JFK's murder the watershed in their parents' history, conspiracy theories received a fresh airing, albeit heavy on the exotic and entirely free of racism, xenophobia, and government malfeasance. The show's success triggered a national obsession for all things conspiratorial, and a slew of books, films, and real-life TV programming made the rounds. There was even a film titled Conspiracy Theory starring the popular actor Mel Gibson as a paranoid cabby whose suspicions turn out to be utterly justified.
By their very nature conspiracy theories are difficult to prove, and this fact in and of itself largely explains their popularity. They inhabit a netherworld where truth and fiction mingle together in an endless dance of fact and supposition. They tantalize, for within this symbiosis explanations are set forth. After all, it is easier to acknowledge a villain than to accept a meaningless absurdity. Therefore, as the world grows increasingly complex, it is likely that conspiracy theories will continue, like the game of telephone mentioned earlier, to mutate and multiply—serving a variety of agendas. Their presence in the cultural zeitgeist, however, is no longer assailable: paranoia is the mainstream.
—Michael J. Baers
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Bramley, William. Gods of Eden. New York, Avon Books, 1989.
Epperson, A. Ralph. The Unseen Hand: An Introduction to the Conspiratorial View of History. Tucson, Publius Press, 1985.
Griffin, G. Edward. The Creature from Jekyll Island. Appleton, American Opinion, 1994.
Moench, Doug. The Big Book of Conspiracies. New York, Paradox Press, 1995.
Mullins, Eustace. The World Order: A Study in the Hegemony of Parasitism. Staunton, Ezra Pound Institute of Civilization, 1985.
Quigley, Carrol. Tragedy and Hope. New York, MacMillan, 1966.
Ravenscraft, Trevor. The Spear of Destiny. New York, G. P. Putnam'sSons, 1973.
Ridgeway, James. Blood in the Face. New York, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1990.
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