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Culture of Conspiracy

Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America

Michael Barkun
Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: 2
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Culture of Conspiracy
    Book Description:

    American society has changed dramatically since A Culture of Conspiracy was first published in 2001. In this revised and expanded edition, Michael Barkun delves deeper into America's conspiracy sub-culture, exploring the rise of 9/11 conspiracy theories, the "birther" controversy surrounding Barack Obama's American citizenship, and how the conspiracy landscape has changed with the rise of the Internet and other new media. What do UFO believers, Christian millennialists, and right-wing conspiracy theorists have in common? According to Michael Barkun in this fascinating yet disturbing book, quite a lot. It is well known that some Americans are obsessed with conspiracies. The Kennedy assassination, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the 2001 terrorist attacks have all generated elaborate stories of hidden plots. What is far less known is the extent to which conspiracist worldviews have recently become linked in strange and unpredictable ways with other "fringe" notions such as a belief in UFOs, Nostradamus, and the Illuminati. Unraveling the extraordinary genealogies and permutations of these increasingly widespread ideas, Barkun shows how this web of urban legends has spread among subcultures on the Internet and through mass media, how a new style of conspiracy thinking has recently arisen, and how this phenomenon relates to larger changes in American culture. This book, written by a leading expert on the subject, is the most comprehensive and authoritative examination of contemporary American conspiracism to date. Barkun discusses a range of material-involving inner-earth caves, government black helicopters, alien abductions, secret New World Order cabals, and much more-that few realize exists in our culture. Looking closely at the manifestations of these ideas in a wide range of literature and source material from religious and political literature, to New Age and UFO publications, to popular culture phenomena such as The X-Files, and to websites, radio programs, and more, Barkun finds that America is in the throes of an unrivaled period of millenarian activity. His book underscores the importance of understanding why this phenomenon is now spreading into more mainstream segments of American culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95652-0
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
    Michael Barkun
  4. Preface to the First Edition
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. 1 The Nature of Conspiracy Belief
    (pp. 1-14)

    On January 20, 2002, Richard McCaslin, thirty-seven, of Carson City, Nevada, was arrested sneaking into the Bohemian Grove in northern California. The Grove is the site of an exclusive annual men’s retreat attended by powerful business and political leaders. When McCaslin was discovered, he was carrying a combination shotgun-assault rifle, a.45-caliber pistol, a crossbow, a knife, a sword, and a bomb-launching device. He said he was acting alone.

    McCaslin told police he had entered the Bohemian Grove in order to expose the satanic human sacrifices he believed occurred there. He fully expected to meet resistance and to kill people in...

  6. 2 Millennialism, Conspiracy, and Stigmatized Knowledge
    (pp. 15-38)

    It has become a commonplace that America is in the throes of an unrivaled period of millenarian activity. In 1978, William McLoughlin spoke of a religious resurgence that constituted a new “great awakening.” He expected it to end by about 1990. Instead, it intensified, driven in part by the proximity of the year 2000. Even the heyday of the Millerites, Shakers, Mormons, and Oneida Perfectionists in the 1830s and 1840s cannot compare to it, and there is no sign that millenarian anticipation will diminish anytime soon. The uneventful passage from 1999 to 2000 has had little effect on many millenarians,...

  7. 3 New World Order Conspiracies I: The New World Order and the Illuminati
    (pp. 39-65)

    Although styles of millenarian thought have become increasingly diverse, the result has not been the cacophony one might expect. Despite the unprecedented millenarian pluralism in contemporary America, the varieties described in the preceding chapter—religious, secular, and improvisational—have been integrated by the wide acceptance of a unifying conspiracy theory commonly denoted by the phrase New World Order. This theory may be found in religious, secular, and improvisational versions. In this chapter I examine its disparate origins, for it appears to have developed separately out of religious and secular ideas that subsequently converged.

    New World Order theories claim that both...

  8. 4 New World Order Conspiracies II: A World of Black Helicopters
    (pp. 66-79)

    In sum, New World Order theory claimed to provide an overarching explanation for contemporary politics by fitting all events into a single scenario: a diabolically clever and unscrupulous secret organization was in the process of seizing control of the world. As the preceding chapter discussed, this scenario appealed to both religionists and secularists. The former saw in it the end-time events associated with the Antichrist, while the latter regarded it as confirmation of their fears of elite domination. To the extent that both groups found such ideas compelling, New World Order became a generic, “ecumenical” conspiracy theory, which—at least...

  9. 5 UFO Conspiracy Theories, 1975–1990
    (pp. 80-98)

    Immediately after the Oklahoma City bombing in the spring of 1995, mainstream Americans suddenly became aware of a radical political subculture in their midst. With the arrest of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols and the media coverage of their lives, attitudes, and associations, the public was abruptly introduced to the previously insular world of militias, antigovernment shortwave-radio broadcasts, and racist literature. A racist novel (written by Andrew Macdonald, also known as William Pierce), The Turner Diaries—unobtainable through conventional bookstores—became an object of intense interest once it became known that McVeigh had read and recommended it and that the...

  10. 6 UFOs Meet the New World Order: Jim Keith and David Icke
    (pp. 99-110)

    New World Order ideas about a coming global tyranny coalesced with UFO conspiracist theories in the 1990s. Their union was exemplified in the works of two conspiracists, Jim Keith and David Icke. Although they both absorbed the New World Order beliefs of the Christian-patriot subculture and increasingly linked the New World Order to UFOs, their approaches were not identical.

    Their differences begin with nationality (Keith was American, Icke is British), but go on to encompass their starting points and audiences. Keith was for all practical purposes a professional conspiracy theorist, writing for an audience of conspiracists. His initial interest lay...

  11. 7 Armageddon Below
    (pp. 111-125)

    As we have seen, much of UFO conspiracism mimics the New World Order ideas prevalent in Christian-patriot circles. Tales of UN troops, black helicopters, and implanted microchips appear in both. But conspiracy-minded ufologists have also developed their own, idiosyncratic variations. The most distinctive of these variants concerns so-called inner-earth motifs.

    The inner-earth materials place the alien presence underground—in tunnels, installations, and caverns. In some cases, the aliens come from outer space and merely choose a subsurface realm because they feel more secure there. In other instances, they are said to be native to this netherworld. Indeed, in some versions...

  12. 8 UFOs and the Search for Scapegoats I: Anti-Catholicism and Anti-Masonry
    (pp. 126-140)

    The more widely the New World Order conspiracy theory has diffused, the harder it is to generalize about its racist propensities. In at least some of the venues where it appears (e.g., in John Birch Society material), it is devoid of anti-Semitism and racism. In other cases (e.g., Pat Robertson’s book The New World Order), there is no overt anti-Semitism, but anti-Semitic motifs are clearly evident. Much New World Order material pays little attention to nonwhites, as its focus is on an all-powerful elite that allegedly manipulates nations. Because New World Order adherents can either ignore or adopt racist and...

  13. 9 UFOs and the Search for Scapegoats II: Anti-Semitism among the Aliens
    (pp. 141-158)

    Negative references to Catholics and Freemasons are numerous in the alien and conspiracy literatures, but the attitudes expressed about Jews range from sympathy to anti-Semitism; and that anti-Semitism is sometimes cloaked in euphemisms and is sometimes undisguised. This broad range of attitudes is possible because of the very open-endedness of New World Order ideas.

    Although belief in a New World Order conspiracy assumes the existence of a master plot responsible for many aspects of the world’s evil, conspiracists differ in the arrangement of the conspiratorial hierarchy. As described in chapter 1, such superconspiracies tend to be structured in the form...

  14. 10 September 11 Conspiracies: The First Phase
    (pp. 159-170)

    After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it was said that nothing would be the same again. This profound sense of dislocation was not shared, however, by conspiracists, who believed they already held the master key to events. They were aided by the ambiguity of the initial media reports, which facilitated the rise of a host of urban legends. These legends multiplied far more rapidly than they could be checked; and despite the fact that they eventually turned out to be false, they nevertheless developed lives of their own, independent of disconfirming evidence,...

  15. 11 September 11 Conspiracies: The Second Phase
    (pp. 171-182)

    Although professional conspiracy theorists quickly assimilated the September 11 attacks to their conceptions of the world, conspiracist ideas about 9/11 did not spread rapidly beyond them, at least in the United States, although they did gain some early traction in Europe, largely through Thierry Meyssan’s 2002 book, 11 Septembre 2001: L’effroyable imposture (translated as 9/11: The Big Lie).¹ However, in the United States, the official version of events—that nineteen al-Qaeda hijackers had caused the collapse of the World Trade Center and the destruction of part of the Pentagon—was not immediately challenged. In retrospect, this may have been due...

  16. 12 Conspiracy Theories about Barack Obama
    (pp. 183-192)

    In an era as rife with conspiracy theories as the present, it is hardly surprising that some should focus on the president. The first African-American president has unquestionably generated more such notions than his predecessors. Thus, while the Bush family and the Clintons were the subjects of considerable conspiracy speculation, none received the attention that has been accorded to claims about Barack Obama’s birth and its alleged concealment. The Obama conspiracy theories fall into two broad categories. The largest is the “birther” theory concerned with Barack Obama’s eligibility for the presidency. The other is a residual category claiming to identify...

  17. 13 Conspiracists and Violence
    (pp. 193-205)

    As earlier chapters imply, the vast majority of conspiracists have eschewed violence, preferring to limit their fears and hatreds to over-wrought rhetoric. In most of its manifestations, conspiracism exists as narratives and worldviews rather than as battle cries and actions. However, that has not always been the case; during the decade that began with the September 11 attacks, there were numerous instances of individuals, as well as at least a few groups, whose conspiracist worldviews led them to violent acts. It is not possible to cover every case of potential or actual conspiracy-fed violence that occurred between 2001 and 2012....

  18. 14 Apocalyptic Expectations about the Year 2012
    (pp. 206-218)

    The year 2012 proved to be a particularly fruitful generator of apocalyptic expectations. Some of these expectations were directly associated with conspiracy theories while others were not. However, even those that seemed to have little association with talk of plots and cabals had a way of morphing into conspiracism. The major source, of course, was the widespread rumor of the “Mayan prophecy.” In addition, even the 2012 London Olympics gave rise to a subterranean conspiracism of its own. Predictions in 2012, like conspiracy narratives in general, were frequently associated with stigmatized knowledge and improvisational millennialism, both discussed in chapter 2....

  19. 15 Conclusion
    (pp. 219-240)

    Millennialism and New World Order conspiracy theories have been closely intertwined. As discussed earlier, many of the religious New World Order writers were attracted to conspiracy theories precisely because they seemed to provide a way of predicting the emergence of the Antichrist. Improvisational millenarians, operating outside of any single religious or secular tradition, have had a wider palette available with which to paint a picture of end-time events.

    Insofar as UFO authors are concerned, some have seen the ships’ inhabitants as the catalysts for the millennial consummation. This has been particularly true of those who characterize extraterrestrials as spiritually elevated...

  20. Notes
    (pp. 241-276)
  21. Bibliography
    (pp. 277-300)
  22. Index
    (pp. 301-306)