News & Opinion » Featured story

Paranoia strikes deep

Michael Barkun exposes our culture of conspiracy


Have you ever been at a party, taking part in a lively discussion about politics and world affairs when, suddenly, someone seems to have it all figured out? He or she proceeds to unravel a huge plot involving the Trilateral Commission, the Masons and the New World Order. And, by the way, it's no coincidence that the government has sealed off an area in New Mexico where aliens...

Conspiracy theories abound in popular culture, spreading from one "enlightened" person to another with the speed of an urban legend.

Michael Barkun, professor of political science at the Maxwell School, Syracuse University, has studied these ideas for years and, as he points out in his recent book, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (University of California Press), they are no longer confined to the edges of society.

I first saw Barkun on C-SPAN, where he and host Brian Lamb fielded call after call from people who just knew some outlandish notion was the absolute truth no matter how much evidence could be cited to the contrary. Barkun's book, which offers a meticulous, scholarly approach to the subject, shows how conspiracy theories can have serious implications in our media-driven age.

In the past, Barkun's research had dealt with a variety of subcultures. Among his books are Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement and Disaster and the Millennium. In a recent discussion, we began by asking Barkun what led to his interest in conspiracy theories. Following is an edited transcript of that interview.

Barkun: My longstanding interest has been in millenarian and apocalyptic movements, and I've done a number of things dealing with those. I did a book on the groups in Central New York in the 1840s. I was not oriented toward conspiracy theories per se but, in fact, a lot of apocalyptic groups tend to make dramatic distinctions between good and evil and tend not to talk about any gradations in between, so I have run across conspiracy theories of one sort or another in the course of working on millennialism. Then, in the 1990s, I did a book on certain aspects of the racist right, and obviously that milieu is packed with conspiracy ideas. It became clear there was more there.

City: It's a fascinating subject because these ideas seem to remain in subcultures until, once in a while, they clash with the real world. As you point out in the book,the summer before Timothy McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma City federal building he visited Area 51, a secret government site in Nevada rumored to house captured UFOs. He was also enamored of the racist novel, "The Turner Diaries."

Barkun: One of the things that I found interesting working on this book [A Culture of Conspiracy] is the phenomenon of mainstreaming, the emergence of these ideas from fairly insular subcultures into something like mainstream media. I suppose the example that comes to mind is The X-Files. Certainly a lot of ideas that originated in a sort of fringe subculture have gone into popular culture via TV and film, and, of course, in a different way, in the case of McVeigh, we find tied to an act of great violence.

City: I first became conscious of conspiracy theories soon after the [John F.] Kennedy assassination, but they seem to have really taken off in recent years. Why do you think people are so susceptible to falling for conspiracy theories?

Barkun: For a couple of reasons. I also became aware of them in the context of the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories. In that case you're talking about an event that was almost inevitably surrounded by ambiguity. If you look at virtually any event closely enough you find areas of doubt or uncertainty about what happened. Witnesses may give conflicting statements; records may be incomplete and so on.

So, I think the combination of the psychological trauma of the assassination and the fact that there wasn't, and I suppose in some ultimate sense probably can't be, a definitive account of what happened, the conspiracy theories began to attract support. And there's an important third factor: conspiracy theories often are psychologically reassuring because they provide an explanation for events or circumstances that may trouble people and therefore they reduce our sense that the world is a random or meaningless place. They make sense of things.

City: And the media and popular culture fan the flames. I recently saw the Broadway show "Assassins" and John Weidman, who wrote the book, stuck pretty close to the facts when it came to most of the assassins, but when it came to Lee Harvey Oswald, it seemed like there was a lot of revisionist history going on. I could tell this was poetic license, but I kept thinking that my son sitting next to me, who didn't live thought this event, might take it as truth just as some people left the movie "JFK" with the impression that Lyndon Johnson was somehow behind the JFK assassination.

Barkun: A lot of events become encrusted in myth, but I think in the case of conspiracy theories like the ones that were generated by the Kennedy assassination, in almost every instance, they have a life span. In other words, they flourish for a generation or so and then, when the generation that experienced the event begins to die out and other things happen in the meantime, those conspiracy theories are forgotten or at least they become footnotes. They don't have great longevity because they speak to a particular event or a particular set of circumstances.

City: So things kind of shake out on the side of somewhat true history?

Barkun: Historians are better placed to answer the question of whether an accepted or official version of events begins to take shape. After all, there were conspiracy theories about Pearl Harbor and now, except in really a fringe literature, these theories have not become part of, let's say, the accepted version of what happened.

City: Why does the term "New World Order" provoke such strong reactions in people?

Barkun: Actually, the phrase appears to have predated George H.W. Bush's use of it, which I think was in 1991. This is one of these strange kinds of historical coincidences in which I'm certain that his speechwriters had no conception of the baggage that the phrase carried. They were simply looking for something catchy that would describe a post-Cold War system of collective security.

Obviously a conspiracist would say, "Well, of course that's not true, he knew exactly what it connoted and used it intentionally," but my feeling is it was totally coincidental on his part.

It seems to go back to at least the 1970s in a kind of conspiracist sense, and in that earlier sense it is taken to represent, or be a shorthand phrase for, some coming global dictatorship. There's a certain amount of disagreement among conspiracy theories on who would be running it, but essentially that's the conspiracist meaning of it, which is not what the president had in mind when he used it.

City: So it's one of those unfortunate choices of words, like when the current President Bush said we would have a crusade.

Barkun: Exactly, and when the elder Bush used it conspiracy theorists pounced on it and said, "Aha, see here's someone who was a member of Skull and Bones and was director of Central Intelligence and he's using the term, which shows how emboldened the conspiracy has become." They took it as something validating the beliefs they already held.

City: When the millennium passed without incident, you'd think people would be a bit less gullible, but I suppose September 11 has given conspiracists a boost.

Barkun: But I think too, in retrospect, a lot of anxieties that were evident around late 1999 about the millennium were misplaced. For example, law enforcement agencies were very much concerned that there would be acts of violence, which obviously didn't occur and I think the reason they didn't occur is that not all millennialists are date driven.

In other words, the significance of the date, January 1, 2000, was a lot less than many people had assumed. There were millennial expectations and conspiracy theories long before that point in the calendar and there will be afterward. I think that this kind of thinking is more driven by perceptions of events than dates, and in that way 9/11 was a greater generator of conspiracy theories.

City: One new aspect of all of this that you discuss in your book is a fusion of some of the political and religious conspiracies with UFO sightings.

Barkun: One of the things that intrigued me when I started working on the book was the strange mixture of ideas that I was finding. I had, for example, assumed that certain kinds of conspiracy theories would only be held by people with particular political positions or ideologies.

I was therefore initially unprepared for cases in which conspiracy theories that might have originated in a particular political position got fused with things that seemed on surface unrelated, whether they were UFO sightings or legends about Atlantis or other motifs that didn't have any political content at all. It seems to me this kind of seemingly indiscriminate mixing of ideas and symbols combining often the political, the religious, the occult, crank science, and all sorts of other elements is relatively novel.

City: Hollywood seems to have an obsession with movies about wild conspiracy theories that turn out to be true. A short list would include "Rosemary's Baby," "Men In Black," and "Enemy of the State."

Barkun: And, of course, the movie called Conspiracy Theory. The question that's out there is: do films like this have the result of making conspiracy theories either more credible or more broadly based, or does their inclusion in things like entertainment films trivialize them such that people in an audience say this is just a story and it's not to be taken seriously; it's only a movie.

City: I thought "Men In Black" provided a particularly strong illustration of how conspiracy theories are reinforced because the movie had such strong inner logic --- the aliens are here but anyone who finds out has their memory erased --- that it could logically be true. The idea is that you could have witnessed an alien abduction, but you'd never know it.

Barkun: That really is the case of the closed character of many conspiracy theories. They become impossible to disprove.

City: "Conspiracy Theory" is a conspiracy theorist's dream because it basically says, we're not crazy.

Barkun: That's right, because for much of the film the audience is led to believe that [Mel Gibson's character] is delusional. He's certainly socially marginal and the kindest thing one could say about him is that he's highly eccentric. And with that shot where the camera pulls away and there are black helicopters, everything he says is now validated.

Beyond the point the film appears to be making --- that he was right all along --- there are two other things. One is in the scene in which he takes Julia Roberts into his apartment, this warren of rooms filled with file cabinets. He's constantly clipping articles, making charts, putting marks on maps, and so on. What you've got there is kind of a dramatization of broad-scale conspiracy theories, namely that everything is interconnected, nothing is as it seems, and that nothing happens by accident. His life in the apartment is one of constant attempts at correlation, at finding the hidden relationships among seemingly disparate events.

That suggests the second point that the filmmakers appear to be making, and that is portraying the conspiracy theorist as someone who possesses special knowledge, who knows things other people don't know, that, in principle, they could know, but they've been deceived or brainwashed so they don't see it. And it's this message --- that we have a deeper level of perception --- that in a way gives to the conspiricist a sense of being part of an elite.

City: The theme that you mentioned --- that everything happens for a reason --- is also the theme of another movie starring Mel Gibson, "Signs."

Barkun: Even in conspiracy theories in which the conspiracy is represented as irremediably evil, which of course occurs a lot of the time, that still is oddly reassuring for believers in the theories, because even though the bad things can then be attributed to bad people or bad organizations, there is a sense that they happen for a reason, that the world is not random or arbitrary.

City: To believe in some of these conspiracies theories, it seems you'd have to have a willful suspension of disbelief like we have when we go to the movies. But sometimes it seems more insidious. For instance, "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" (purportedly revealing how Jews conspire to subvert governments and institutions) has resurfaced and been exposed as a forgery several times in its history. But as you point out, it recently formed the basis of a 41-part television series that played throughout the Arab world.

Barkun: I think next year marks the centennial of its first publication. It's been extraordinarily long-lived despite the fact that within a year or two of the English language publication, it was exposed as a forgery.

City: So the people publishing it know it's a complete fraud but they're using it as propaganda?

Barkun: What you're saying is that it can be used opportunistically by people who know that there is no factual basis, and I'm sure that occurs. The unfortunate thing is that large numbers of people who have been associated with its dissemination do believe it, and they will often have elaborate kinds of rationalizations and explanations for the forgery story.

Again, this is one of these cases of conspiracy theories as closed systems. If you believe the conspiracy is almost all-powerful you can invest it with the power to mislead and therefore try to explain away evidence of its own existence. One of the now relatively common variations on the Protocols that you find in contemporary conspiracy literature is that this isn't really a document about Jews; it's a document about the Illuminati [a Masonic organization supposedly behind the French Revolution and other upheavals around the world] and that the mention of Jews in it was a kind of a subterfuge to hide its true origin. There are a lot of people who simply do not want to let go of it.

City: What about the political use of conspiracies? After September 11 I remember reading many interviews with people in the Middle East. On one hand they were praising Osama Bin Laden; at the same time they were saying Bush or the Israeli Mossad was behind the attack.

Barkun: This gets into a somewhat different area and that is the ability for people to hold sometimes contradictory views simultaneously without experiencing a lot of psychic discomfort.

City: There's a conspiracy theory I'm sure you've heard that white people introduced AIDS into Africa to kill off the black population. There was a recent news story that polio is spreading in Nigeria and people are refusing to have their children vaccinated because they suspect a sterilization plot. Both of these ideas seem far-fetched, but, to play devil's advocate, if someone had described to you in detail the Tuskegee experiments involving black men and syphilis while this was going on, would you have believed it?

Barkun: No, probably not. There has been a brilliant examination of conspiracy beliefs in the African-American community by an African-American folklorist, Patricia Turner, in a book called I Heard It Through the Grapevine. My recollection is she deals with that [AIDS] story among others. She analyses it as a form of urban legend. I talk about urban legends in the book and I think a lot of these ideas are really of that sort. The classic urban legend is the story that passes by word of mouth from one person to another. Now the internet is out there and the ideas can consequently spread more rapidly and far more rapidly than any contrary information can overtake them.

City: And with an aura of authenticity.

Barkun: Yes, because everything looks the same. There's no gatekeeper and one website looks pretty much like another.

City: Sometimes these fringe ideas actually enter the mainstream. I met a man recently who seemed perfectly rational until he started assuring me that George Bush was behind the September 11 attacks so that he could impose martial law, and the Patriot Act was the first step.

Barkun: There's nothing to suggest that conspiracy believers are not normal.

City: Michael Moore's latest film, "Fahrenheit 9/11," doesn't go that far, but it does reinforce some ideas about the motivation for the war in Afghanistan involving oil pipelines, etc. Apparently there are a lot of shaky facts and this is called a documentary.

Barkun: I found it a very strong film. On the other hand the first third or half of the film implied conspiracies of one sort or another for which I think the evidence is tenuous, particularly some of the suggestions that economic motives trumped all political considerations. This was much less in evidence in the sections about the Iraq War but certainly in some of the things about Afghanistan, for example.

The matter of the relationship with the Saud family, which I gather is very close to the treatment by Craig Unger in his book, House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World's Two Most Powerful Dynasties, which I have not read, is one of the situations where there are inferences based on circumstantial evidence and the inferences may well turn out to be true, we just don't have enough direct evidence one way or the other.

City: Do you see a trend here?

Barkun: One of the things that surprised and disturbed me in looking at the conspiracy literature in general was that a lot of the people who contribute to it seem to have erased the boundary between fact and fiction and, in fact, as I say in the book, they've often reversed it so that you get claims made that what is supposed to be fact is really fiction and what's presented as fiction is really thinly disguised fact.

I have the sense that there is increasing circulation of ideas and assertions with very questionable factual backing. And the reason for this is there are fewer and fewer gatekeepers. After all, there are more and more media, they are more and more dependent on each other or at least interlinked in complex ways. So what may start as a rumor or an urban legend very quickly ends up in other places, whether mass circulation newspapers or television news channels or Hollywood films.

When there were simply three major television networks and two or three major news magazines and not very much else, alternative conceptualizations of the world and accounts of the news were much harder to find. On the plus side you could say that the present situation is pluralistic in the sense that there are alternative interpretations available and there are stories that some media might not choose to cover that can be found now in other places. But the downside is it also allows the circulation of accounts that may not be credible.

City: After the election in the fall, no matter who wins, we will have a president who is a member of Yale's Skull and Bones society. Should we be concerned?

Barkun: [Laughs] Well, I'm not, but certainly it will reinforce the view that's prevalent in many conspiracist circles, namely that party difference is irrelevant. They'll say it shows that it doesn't make any difference if it's a Republican or a Democrat because it's going to be the same people --- them.

City: What is the danger in believing some of these conspiracy theories?

Barkun: I think they can be completely harmless. The question is: to what extent might they be turned into action? For the vast majority of conspiracists, that does not seem to be an issue. They don't appear to act on their beliefs. But if you, in fact, believe that the world is about to be taken over by an evil power, that may well lead you to want to do something about it. That can be a problem, and certainly people in paramilitary organizations are often believers in conspiracy theories. So I think there is some potential danger.