Tag Archives: Paranoid Style in American Politics

Conspiracies: Five things they don’t want you to know

By Jesse Walker via The Boston Globe

Conspiracies 901_250pxIt might seem like we’re living at a uniquely rich moment for conspiracy theories. Over the last few years, we’ve seen it claimed that Osama bin Laden didn’t really die, that Barack Obama is covering up the true circumstances of his birth, that Kanye West and Kim Kardashian have encoded Illuminati symbolism in their baby’s name, that the National Security Agency has been secretly intercepting Americans’ phone calls and e-mails—oh, wait. That last one’s true.

It’s easy to write off conspiracy theories as the delusions of the political fringe, a minor nuisance fueled by the rise of the Internet. Easy—and inaccurate. Conspiracy stories have been a major part of American life since Colonial days. They are not just found in the political extremes, and they are not invariably wrong. And even when they are wrong, as is so often true, they still have lessons to teach us. To understand why conspiracies matter, it helps to clear away some myths that have attached themselves to the subject.

Myth #1: People today are uniquely prone to believing conspiracy theories

youtube graduate_250pxA 2011 article in the British newspaper The Independent flatly declared that “there are more conspiracy theories and more conspiracy theory believers than ever before.” This, the reporter continued, was largely “because the internet has made it easy to propagate rumour and supposition on a global scale.” As an example, he cited a story that the Ku Klux Klan secretly owned KFC and was lacing “the food with a drug that makes only black men impotent.”

But there has never been an age when conspiracy theories were not popular. From Puritan fears that Satan was commanding a conspiracy of Indians to Thomas Jefferson’s concern that the British had “a deliberate and systematical plan of reducing us to slavery,” from the assassination rumors that followed the death of President Zachary Taylor to the tales of subversion told during the Cold War, every significant event in American history has inspired conspiracy theories. And a lot of insignificant events have, too.

Some of those stories showed up in major media outlets, but others we know about only because social scientists took the time to collect them. Thanks to the sociologist Howard Odum, for example, who studied the stories circulating among Southerners in the 1940s, we know that there were people who believed, in one white person’s words, that “Hitler has told the Negroes he will give them the South for their help.” paranoid illuminati_250pxThe chief difference the Internet has made—other than allowing such stories, like any stories, to spread more quickly—is to make them more visible. Rumors that once were limited to a single subculture can spill out into the open. The volume and intensity of conspiracy fears haven’t necessarily increased; they’re just easier for outsiders to hear.

It’s telling that The Independent’s example of an Internet-fueled rumor actually predates the Internet age. The folklorist Patricia Turner first encountered the KFC story in the 1980s, though in the version she heard the villainous restaurant was supposed to be Church’s Chicken. She eventually determined that the rumor had been around since at least the ’70s. You can’t blame the Web for that.

Myth #2: Conspiracy theories always involve villains

It isn’t always scary to imagine a grand design. Sometimes it’s a comfort. People say “Everything happens for a reason” or “It’s all God’s plan” to soothe you, not to frighten you. And it’s just a small step from there to a worldview where the grand design is executed not by God but by a benevolent conspiracy.

Conspiracy folklore is filled with this sort of story, starring everyone from Rosicrucians to extraterrestrials to a hidden order of adepts based beneath Mount Shasta. The California writer Manly P. Hall, for example, believed the United States was being guided to a special destiny by an Order of the Quest, which had intervened in everything from Columbus’s voyage to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Myth #3: Conspiracy theories are just a feature of the fringe

paranoia 737_201pxIn the most widely read—or at least widely namechecked—study of political paranoia, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” the historian Richard Hofstadter called conspiracism “the preferred style only of minority movements.” Yet the mainstream regularly embraces conspiracy theories, some of which look deeply bizarre in retrospect.

Consider the great Satansim scare. In the 1980s, older tales about Satanic conspiracies collided with three secular fears: a wave of stories about missing children, a heightened concern with child abuse, and worries about religious cults. The result was a period when mainstream reporters and officials embraced the idea that a network of Satanists was kidnapping, molesting, and murdering American children.

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Essay: Conspiracy Theories

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Political Paranoia Is Everywhere, but Even False Notions Tell Us About the Anxieties of People Who Believe

By JESSE WALKER via The Wall Street Journal – WSJ.com

This November will mark the 50th anniversary of two events that are of special interest to conspiracy buffs. One is the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a killing that has spawned dozens of theories about the hidden forces that allegedly carried out the crime. The other is a lecture the historian Richard Hofstadter delivered at Oxford, which Harper’s later published under the title “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Half a century of scholarship has either built on or pushed back against Hofstadter’s conclusions, some of which don’t hold up very well. But it remains the most widely cited essay on American political paranoia.

Some conspiracies are real, of course, but even a conspiracy theory that is entirely false has truths to tell us about the anxieties and experiences of the people who believe it. More, it tells us something about the ways people perceive the world.

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Some people saw the face of satan in the World Trade Center smoke.

On 9/11, a Brooklyn, N.Y., photographer named Mark Phillips climbed to his roof and snapped photos of the burning World Trade Center, which were then distributed by the Associated Press. Later he learned that people were seeing an unexpected image in one of the photographs. When he examined the picture he saw it, too. “The image I saw was distinct,” he later wrote. “Eyes, nose, mouth, horns.” There, in the contours of the smoke, he found the face of Satan.

Search online and you’ll see still more 9/11 pictures in which people have perceived the shapes of demons. There is no shortage of theories about what the faces mean, from the Christian conspiracist who said they were a glimpse of the devil boasting to the Muslim writer who declared they were a warning from God “that the use of terrorism is never permitted in Islam.”

Then there is the explanation I prefer. The faces are the result of apophenia, the process of projecting patterns onto data. More specifically, they are pareidolia, in which those patterns are perceived as meaningful shapes or sounds. It is pareidolia that allows us to . . .

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Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories

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By MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER via NYTimes.com

conspiracies02In the days following the bombings at the Boston Marathon, speculation online regarding the identity and motive of the unknown perpetrator or perpetrators was rampant. And once the Tsarnaev brothers were identified and the manhunt came to a close, the speculation didn’t cease. It took a new form. A sampling: Maybe the brothers Tsarnaev were just patsies, fall guys set up to take the heat for a mysterious Saudi with high-level connections; or maybe they were innocent, but instead of the Saudis, the actual bomber had acted on behalf of a rogue branch of our own government; or what if the Tsarnaevs were behind the attacks, but were secretly working for a larger organization?

Crazy as these theories are, those propagating them are not — they’re quite normal, in fact. But recent scientific research tells us this much: if you think one of the theories above is plausible, you probably feel the same way about the others, even though they contradict one another. And it’s very likely that this isn’t the only news story that makes you feel as if shadowy forces are behind major world events.

“The best predictor of belief in a conspiracy theory is belief in other conspiracy theories,” says Viren Swami, a psychology professor who studies conspiracy belief at the University of Westminster in England. Psychologists say that’s because a conspiracy theory isn’t so much a response to a single event as it is an expression of an overarching worldview.

As Richard Hofstadter wrote in his seminal 1965 book, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” conspiracy theories, especially those involving meddlesome foreigners, are a favorite pastime in this nation. paranoid illuminati_250pxAmericans have always had the sneaking suspicion that somebody was out to get us — be it Freemasons, Catholics or communists. But in recent years, it seems as if every tragedy comes with a round of yarn-spinning, as the Web fills with stories about “false flag” attacks and “crisis actors” — not mere theorizing but arguments for the existence of a completely alternate version of reality.

Since Hofstadter’s book was published, our access to information has vastly improved, which you would think would have helped minimize such wild speculation. But according to recent scientific research on the matter, it most likely only serves to make theories more convincing to the public. What’s even more surprising is that this sort of theorizing isn’t limited to those on the margins. Perfectly sane minds possess an incredible capacity for developing narratives, and even some of the wildest conspiracy theories can be grounded in rational thinking, which makes them that much more pernicious. Consider this: 63 percent of registered American voters believe in at least one political conspiracy theory, according to a recent poll conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University.

While psychologists can’t know exactly what goes on inside our heads, they have, through surveys and laboratory studies, come up with a set of traits that correlate well with conspiracy belief.

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