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New book traces the explosion of conspiracy theories
New book traces the explosion of conspiracy theoriesJanuary 22, 2004Cynthia J. Moritzcjmoritz@syr.edu
In the summer of 2001, Michael Barkun felt he could heave a satisfied sigh. A professor of political science in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, he had just finished the manuscript for a book on conspiracy theories in American culture. His sense of satisfaction lasted a few weeks, only to be replaced by terror and sadness. On Sept 11, terrorist-guided airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and conspiracy theory entered a new era. Barkun went back to his word processor to revise the manuscript and add a chapter on Sept. 11.
The result is “A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America,” (University of California Press in November 2003). “Michael Barkun, one of our most respected political scientists, has produced a meticulously researched and highly perceptive account of those who find credible an incredible assortment of nefarious conspiracies emanating not only from the Jews, Masons, Catholics and politicians in our midst, but also from ‘out there,’ ” says Eileen Barker, professor of sociology at the London School of Economics.
The book is an outgrowth of the research Barkun has been doing for years on white supremacists and other extremist groups. “I became aware that conspiracy literature was filtering into the rest of society,” Barkun says. “Bits and pieces are now turning up in popular culture, like ‘The X-Files’ on TV and the movie ‘Conspiracy Theory.’ ”
Of course, conspiracy theories are nothing new. They can be traced back at least as far as the early 1800s, Barkun says. But in the last 40 years, there has been an explosion of conspiracy theory in America, beginning with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
“One of the things I see is that conspiracy theories have become much broader,” Barkun says. “We now have more theories of super-conspiracies-evil plots to control the world, which explain virtually everything.” Indeed, one of the hallmarks of conspiracy theories is that once one accepts the basic premise of the theory, it can explain anything. “They are not falsifiable,” Barkun says. “Any evidence you can marshal against them is, according to the conspiracy theorists, just part of the plot.”
Barkun gives two reasons that conspiracy theory has become so commonplace. The first is that it is comforting, in a way. “It’s reassuring to think that things don’t happen by accident,” he says. “It’s a way of imposing order on a complex world.”
The second reason is technology. “The Internet has been enormously important in spreading these ideas,” Barkun says. “Ideas that once would have remained on the fringe are now migrating to the mainstream.”
Book superstores such as Barnes & Noble have played a part in spreading conspiracy theories too, he says, because they stock everything, not just books containing more mainstream ideas. In another example of how mainstream and fringe have come together, the current bestseller “The DaVinci Code” is based on what, in an earlier time, would have been a fringe idea.
Certain events tend to evoke conspiracy theories, Barkun says. Those are happenings that are “deeply unsettling in a symbolic way,” such as Kennedy’s assassination of the Sept. 11 terrorist acts. “These are events that threaten one’s whole conception of the social order. There is a rush to extract meaning from them.”