Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From, by Daniel Pipes, New York: The Free Press, 258 pages, $25.00
When the news broke that Diana Spencer had been killed in a car accident, one of the first reactions--before any of the facts of the crash were known, and in advance of the public convulsion of pop misery--was the enunciation of a conspiracy theory. A man in Australia almost immediately established "The First Diana Conspiracy Site." Note his assumption--quite correct, as it quickly turned out--that he was in a breathless race with other like-minded hosts for Internet conspiracy precedence.
This site instantly declared the accident to be "too pat and too convenient," and asked a series of purportedly urgent questions. Among them: whether the American tourist-witnesses on the scene were actually intelligence agents; whether CNN's focus on the pursuing paparazzi wasn't an intentional misdirection of our attention; and why the French emergency services hadn't operated on Diana in the middle of the road instead of wasting time getting her to a hospital. The site's prime suspect was the British government, so concerned about Diana's anti-land-mine campaign that it had no choice but to kill her.
But this was merely a conspiratorial hors d'oeuvre. In succeeding days, I heard through one means or another that Diana was really murdered because she was running around with a Muslim, and the prospect of the future King William having a Muslim half-brother was simply unthinkable to British intelligence agencies. Indeed, I was soon to hear that Diana was already pregnant at the time of her death. I also heard that the fatal Mercedes had been stolen shortly before the fatal crash and stripped; hence, the accident was self-evidently a case of sabotage. I learned about mysterious other cars speeding from the scene, about the driver's "controversial" physical condition, and about the bodyguard's "suspicious" memory. I "learned" much more that I've forgotten, which may be just as well because I also learned that Diana was really still alive and well. In any event, I have every anticipation of learning more such things about the Diana case at intervals for the rest of my life: Conspiracy theories frequently address death, but they themselves are immortal.
Some of the sources for this material--newspapers, talk shows, Web sites, acquaintances, etc.--believed that what they were passing along was true. For others, however, these reports seemed worth reporting because the content was so titillating, rather like outrageously tasteless jokes, or obscene gossip, or just as something to gawk at intellectually: ideas as a freak show.
So when Daniel Pipes writes in his stimulating new study of such ideas through history, Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From, that these ideas "constitute a quite literal form of pornography," his contention has to be taken seriously. "The two genres became popular about the same time, in the 1740s," writes Pipes. "Both are backstairs literatures that often have to be semiclandestinely distributed, then read with the shades drawn. Elders seek to protect youth from their depredations. Librarians hold their noses....Recreational conspiracism titillates sophisticates much as does recreational sex. Artists explore conspiracist fantasies in a spirit akin to sexual ones."
Much of what Pipes is saying here about "conspiracism"--the belief in non-existent grand conspiracies as the motive force in history--is unquestionably true, and indeed one could add to it. There is often a profane thrill to conspiracy talk: People may dismiss these theories as the ravings of lunatics, but frequently not until they've listened wide-eyed to a lengthy narrative. Sometimes this material can be appalling, especially when a history of evil criminality is attributed to members of a religious group such as the Catholics or (of course) the Jews. In these cases, one can come away from the material with a sense of degradation, precisely as in the case of the most debased kind of pornography.
And yet, Pipes's view of conspiracy thinking as essentially profane obscures its historical scope and, I believe, its actual heritage. When Pipes describes this material as largely debased, he is certainly right. But is it pornography?
Pornography exerts no power (except, perhaps, on the clinically
addicted), whereas conspiracy ideas have been a shaping factor in
history. Indeed, the story of that power is the heart of Pipes's
own book. Pornography is remarkably short-
lived; there are only a handful of pornographic "classics" that have retained any readership over the years. Conspiracy ideas, once in circulation, seem never to go away. That is because, while pornography "explains" nothing, but only titillates, conspiracy stories titillate, but "explain" everything. They put the world in a kind of order, however absurd it may be. What they most "explain" is why bad things have really happened, why evil appears power-ful if not triumphant, and why the good
have suffered. That is not the province of pornography: It is the work of theology (which is one reason that conspiracies are so often alleged in the sudden deaths of people who have been transformed by popular hagiography, including John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and now Diana). Conspiracy is history as demonology; a secular occultism, the lunatic sublime.
Make no mistake, though: Pipes's is a valuable and much-needed book. Scholars usually shy away from these kinds of subjects despite their tremendous and continuing influence. Even when scholars do write such studies, they are apt to be embarrassed by their own interest and even to apologize for it in their books' introductions. The result is that, after 200 years of raging conspiracism and its frequently ghastly results, there are only a few serious, systematic studies of the phenomenon by English-speaking authors who know what they're talking about. Richard Hofstadter, Norman Cohn, James Billington, David Brion Davis, and Seymour Martin Lipset and David Raab take up most of this short shelf, supplemented by the investigative work of neutral journalists; now there's Pipes as well.
In fact, this is Pipes's second book on the subject. A Middle East scholar--he is the editor of the Middle East Quarterly and the author of many books on the region's politics--Pipes last year released The Hidden Hand: Middle East Fears of Conspiracy, a long-overdue, full-length study of paranoia in a region where conspiracy thinking often overwhelms all other forms of thought. (For his troubles, Pipes is described on one hostile Internet site not as being mistaken in his views about the region's politics but as "a leading crusader in the [Z]ionist army who masquerades as an 'expert' on terrorism," a typical example of the region's discourse.)
Pipes's new conspiracy book is an outgrowth of the first one,
and in places the two books overlap in text as well as concept. He
writes in his introduction that in researching various extremist
ideas circulating in the Middle East, he tracked their origins to
Europe and America, but that such material didn't fit his first
book. It "settled into quiet obscurity on the hard drive" until The
Free Press encouraged him to publish the material as a free-
standing interpretative essay.
To my surprise, I appear twice in the new book, both times on the basis of a 1992 essay I wrote as a staffer at The Washington Post. In the first instance, Pipes quotes--neutrally--two paragraphs of mine that he regards as successfully characterizing the conspiratorial cast of mind. The second reference is polemical. Pipes cites me--fairly--as one among several "pessimists" in my view of the current state of conspiracism. (I had written that there seemed to be hardly any continuing story in the paper that was not dogged by a doppelgänger conspiracy explanation, and expressed concern about the apparently growing appeal of such a worldview.) Pipes describes himself as an optimist on the matter, arguing that the significance of such theorizing is largely in decline.
Pipes's thesis is that conspiracism can be traced to the period of the Crusades, when the two major villains of such thinking began to emerge as figures of evil and mystery. The first of those villains was the Jews, who began to be widely perceived not only as deicides but as activist enemies of temporal Christendom. The second was the Knights Templar, Crusaders supposedly turned heretic, who were destroyed as an order for their wealth in the early 14th century, but who are believed by some to have existed in secret for centuries until they eventually transmuted into the Freemasons, alleged sworn enemies of Church, crown, and God. (It is very common, in the enormous literature of conspiracy, to see the Masons characterized as a front organization manipulated by their "real" masters, the Jews.)
The actual work of modern conspiracism, writes Pipes, began in reaction to the French Revolution. Secret societies, including some Masonic lodges, actually had been active throughout Europe in their opposition to the old order. But two authors more or less simultaneously "discovered" that the overthrow of the French monarchy and the course of the revolution was entirely according to a secret agenda. John Robison, a Scot, and Augustin de Barruel, a French cleric, both wrote such accounts. In Barruel's dizzying case, the heritage of those societies was traced to the dimmest antiquity, planting firmly the idea of parallel histories: one history to which we, the gullible masses, are allowed access, but which is largely a sham; and another, secret history which reveals us as the pawns of unseen powers.