The Truth Is Out There

Taking conspiracies and conspiracists seriously


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 powerful 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 doppelg√§nger 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.

According to Pipes's interpretation, such ideas were to be a significant factor in shaping the next century and a half, after which they began to recede. Pipes recounts the major events of the period from 1815 until 1945 in a chapter he appealingly calls "Florescence," addressing such familiar developments as the composition of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the fear and distrust of the Jesuits, and of "Perfidious Albion" (the sobriquet Britain earned through real and imagined backstage machinations), and the rise of Adolph Hitler on a foundation of conspiracist paranoia.

But he also does something relatively unfamiliar in the course of this discussion: He identifies Leninism as a conspiracist conceit. "The Leninist corpus contains a conspiracy theory at its heart," he writes. Financiers and manufacturers group together not only to control the working class but to control the government, too. That control extends to foreign policy, because of this powerful group's need for cheap raw materials, cheap labor, and monopolistic control of markets. This case was laid out in a 1902 study by English economist John Atkinson Hobson, notes Pipes, and was a major influence on Lenin.

Of course, it may be argued that Hobson's thesis is at least sometimes borne out by history, that the British themselves regarded their empire as a byproduct of their mercantilism, and that Pipes may seem to be whitewashing such things as America's ugly record in Central America. But Pipes is not necessarily denying–or even addressing–any of this. His point is that Leninism regarded the needs of monopoly capitalism as the sole motive force behind Western actions, a piece of political paranoia that was to meld seamlessly with Stalinist insanity.

"The Left thus reinterprets some of the oldest activities of governments as conspiracies," argues Pipes. "Beginning with collusion among manufacturers, the Left ended up by postulating that all the governments of Europe engaged in conspiracies….Since about 1900, conspirators are thought already to be in power."

By the 1930s, Europe's politics were dominated by conspiracist obsessions, and Pipes introduces the quite useful term of "operational conspiracism" to describe those states, such as Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and now Revolutionary Iran, that are or have been governed by conspiracist beliefs. In 1939, the conspiracisms of the "anti-imperialist" left and anti-Semitic right challenged each other for world control, but since 1945, writes Pipes, the power of the idea has ebbed. Though still exerting influence in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and among the disaffected of all societies, Pipes writes that no great state is any longer endangered by the irrationalities such beliefs can let loose. Democracy and affluence stifle their growth, he argues, maintaining that the whole subject is receding into a historical, rather than a political, matter.

Pipes winds down with a review of the remnants of the tradition, including a chapter in which he argues that contemporary left-wing conspiracism (JFK assassinologists, "October Surprise" believers, Afrocentrism, etc.) has been getting off easy in perceptual terms, because, among other reasons, "The liberal orientation of most scholars and journalists means that they treat comparable phenomena in different ways." His final chapter addresses what Pipes tallies as "Conspiracism's Costs," including a poisoned public discourse and the encouragement of national self-hatred. He also argues, interestingly, that conspiracy fantasists, when in power, end up encouraging the multiplication of real conspiracies.

This is an impressive performance, going beyond historical narrative and attempting to get an interpretative handle on a subject very much in need of discussion and understanding. Pipes has certainly advanced that understanding, particularly in his reconsideration of the left's own conspiratorial reflex, something few of his predecessors have had much interest in doing.

But by characterizing conspiracism in totally mundane terms, as Pipes does throughout his book, he may be understating its essential appeal. I earlier took issue with his comparison of the phenomenon to pornography; there are some related issues worth raising.

Pipes describes his book as "the opposite of a study in intellectual history. I deal not with the cultural elite but its rearguard, not with the finest mental creations, but its dregs….So debased is the discourse ahead that even the Russian secret police and Hitler play important intellectual roles." As an intellectual history, it is indeed a debased discourse. But considered as a history of a kind of occultist thought, it is much more normal. Occultism, throughout its long history, has been concerned with the seeking out of powers otherwise beyond human awareness, and with exploiting or combating those powers. Conspiracism does not equal occultism, of course, but I would argue that the two are closely related. Indeed, they appear to be intimately intertwined, and they intersect at numerous points, from an obsession with the Templars to the ultimate foundation of Nazism itself.

What the two have most in common is a dualist outlook and an understanding of how power is exerted in the world, which is to say that they share a belief in the vast potential power of evil. Full-blown contemporary conspiracists are beyond left and right (Pipes addresses this "fusion paranoia"), positing a Power able to exert its will in virtually any manner. This includes not only such common criminality as murder and financial manipulation, but even such extraordinary abilities as command of the weather and effective daily mind control. What matters to such believers is not the obvious implausibility of establishing and controlling the necessary organization to achieve such limitless power. What matters is that bad things keep happening, that all such events may be said to benefit somebody, and that therefore somebody of great power must be capable of performing evil acts at will. That somebody must be studied and identified to be revealed and opposed. Otherwise, the world and its injustices would threaten to make no sense.

Who is that somebody? At various times it has been the Illuminati, the Masons, the Elders of Zion, the Bilderbergers, the Insiders, the Trilateralists, the Jesuits, the Council on Foreign Relations, the U.N., FEMA, the CIA, the World Bank, Wall Street, the cultists of the All-Seeing Eye. These are secular identifications, founded on an Enlightenment-derived awareness of the world and darkly mirroring that epoch's belief in the clockwork nature of the forces governing existence. But these identifications have ancient antecedents. They have much the same teleological role in the mentalities of modern conspiracists as the Demiurge (the imperfect creator of this world) had for the Gnostics of antiquity, and that the Anti-Christ still has for believing Christians.

Pipes's interpretation of conspiracism is not mistaken, but it may be incomplete. He takes pains to argue that conspiracism's history is a self-contained one, without antecedents. And it is true that this particular set of conspiratorial forms has a specific 18th-century origin, from which it proceeds to the present day. The question is whether the frame of mind from which conspiracism itself proceeds has a heritage. And the answer to that question has a direct impact on another matter: whether conspiracism has a future.

Pipes says the phenomenon is receding. In fact, one could argue that conspiracism is a larger factor in the American national discourse today than it has been at any time since the end of World War II, or perhaps ever. No national event of significance–from plane crashes to political suicides to violent federal acts to murder trials to the spread of infectious disease–occurs without broadly disseminated conspiracy theories attaching themselves to it. But Pipes knows that; his case is that it is receding as a political factor, thriving only among slumming sophisticates and the disaffected poor and powerless.

Is even this so? The fear of conspiracy is arguably a domestic political factor now. In Washington, D.C., for example, the infamous Marion Barry is back in office thanks in part to the belief in two conspiracies held by many of his constituents: a national conspiracy theory that white prosecutors unfairly targeted black officeholders like Barry (who spent time in jail for drug use), and a local conviction that whites have been conspiring to "take back" control of the city from its black majority. This concentration on conspiratorial factors (regularly validated by local newspaper columnists), rather than on the real failings of the city's leadership, has contributed heavily to the appalling condition in which Washington finds itself. (Recently, the growing number of Spanish-speaking Washingtonians has raised a new specter: a Latino Conspiracy to take over the schools.)

Conspiracism is a marked feature in our national politics as well, with national politicians regularly courting conspiracy-minded constituencies. President Bill Clinton's shameless exploitation of such issues as the burning of black churches and Gulf War Syndrome, after both of these were determined to be chimeras, is evidence of how democracy can accommodate conspiracy: Believers in plots can simply become another voting bloc to capture.

On an international level, Pipes acknowledges that conspiracism retains its force in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. There has been significant suffering in both regions due to conflicts in which conspiracy thinking plays a large role, and there is nothing encouraging in that. Pipes's suggestion that rising affluence will eventually stifle the conspiracy reflex in such places is not unreasonable in itself–a richer populace will have fewer miseries to blame on others. But affluence is hardly a safeguard against irrationality. It is in fact members of the guilt-ridden middle class who have often conceived the century's most destructive forces. Indeed, the same historical event that has excited hopes of rising living standards throughout the world–the end of the Cold War –has also intensified ethnic identifications, and that is just the kind of emotional hothouse in which conspiracism flourishes.

Of course, it will be a better world if Pipes is right. But if conspiracism is indeed an Enlightenment offshoot of the occult understanding of unfairness and injustice–that if evil occurs, an evil power has willed it–then it isn't going anywhere, because it has always been there. Indeed, secularized occultism pervades the modern world in ways we rarely think about, from psychoanalysis (which, as occult historian Peter Washington notes, presents the analyst as a kind of "sensitive" with a sixth sense) to the still-thriving Marxist communications theory (which posits the mass media as powerful mesmerists with their audience in thrall).

As for conspiracy proper, it is and probably will remain the hidden link between mystery and solution, between cause and effect. It offers a world with neither accidents nor unintended consequences, but rather of plans executed by the powerful few at the expense of the victimized multitude. Identify with that multitude, and the central mystery of fate is unraveled. Otherwise, you have to take your chances. No wonder conspiracy's spell is so beguiling.