Plots all over the landscape

Conspiracy - Hystories - Selling Fear - Political Paranoia - Aliens in America
December 25, 1998

Watch out - conspiracy theories are everywhere. It has been a busy time for those inclined to paranoia, from the death of Diana to Hillary Clinton's accusation that there is "vast right-wing conspiracy" against the president. The new Will Smith movie, Enemy of the State, suggests that "sometimes being paranoid is the only sensible thing", a piece of popular wisdom challenged by the handful of scholarly books on conspiracy that have begun to appear in the run-up to the millennium.

Perhaps the most wide-ranging of these is Daniel Pipes's Conspiracy. Pipes is a Middle East expert who has previously published a study of the influence of conspiracy theories in that region. His latest book provides a much broader overview, tracing suspicions principally about Jewish and secret society conspiracies from the time of the Crusades to the present. Robert Robins and Jerrold Post's Political Paranoia, written in the judicious style of policy recommendation (both authors have served as government advisers), tracks the influence of paranoia in a long series of case studies drawn from politics and public events. Both books offer potted biographies and thumb-nail historical sketches (ranging from Jim Jones to Pol Pot), revealing in each episode that paranoia is to blame for the worst excesses of history. To a large extent each is accurate in its catalogue of historical horrors, but the discovery that conspiracism is behind every major occurrence since the Crusades produces in effect a conspiracy theory of conspiracy theories.

Though impressive in their clarity and range (Pipes thanks no fewer than ten research assistants), these two books are also strangely narrow in their focus. Pipes's study is concerned exclusively with what he terms world conspiracy theories (the fear of a takeover by a malign force with global aspirations, an idea emerging with the French Revolution). Robins and Post share the assumption that only certain conspiracy theories really count, but they come to a slightly different historical conclusion (for them the paranoid style became a truly dangerous force only in the 20th century). In both cases the authors concentrate solely on explicitly political events, regimes and movements, since, unless there is a body count that can be measured in thousands if not millions, it is not worth talking about (both books engage in a bizarre discussion of whether Hitler's or Stalin's paranoid regime led to the most casualties). The success of The X-Files is of little concern; indeed, Pipes reads the popularity of such entertainment as a sign that in the West we have moved safely from a fully political to a merely cultural concern with conspiracy.

By contrast, Elaine Showalter's Hystories taps into popular current events and trends that are for the most part not obviously political, but that are nevertheless fiercely contested within the public arena. After a long introductory survey of the history of hysteria and its analysis, Showalter presents a series of case studies of current "epidemics" of hysteria in which patients turn to conspiratorial explanations for what she insists are psychological disturbances. Though the shared diagnosis of hysteria allows Showalter to make interesting comparisons between, say, the use and abuse of hypnotism in the recovered memory movement and alien abduction patients, it will also leave many readers uneasy to find a case like Gulf war syndrome, in which the jury is still out, linked to the long-disproven claims of the recovered memory movement. Showalter's claim that conspiracy-minded fears are a hysterical manifestation of the believer's unconscious desires or shameful fantasies is at times unconvincing, even with her insistence that mental suffering is as serious and real as physical disease. Far from being a projection on to the outside world of repressed inner conflicts, much contemporary conspiracy culture might instead be understood as an attempt to make sense, albeit in a distorted fashion, of some of the deeper conflicts that reside not in the psyche but in society. We might be better off looking for inner demons in the Pentagon than in people's minds.

The notion of outbreaks of hysteria at least gives a name to people's tendency to blame scapegoats for their troubles, but, like Pipes and Robins and Post, you could also call it paranoia and still be none-the-closer to explaining why and how these outbursts of conspiratorial thinking emerge at a particular historical moment. All three books offer some answers to these questions in passing, but often they amount to no more than the impatient dismissal of paranoia as a merely "modish" source of "titillation" for those who should know better. Showalter also gestures towards millennial fever as another explanation, and several other books have taken this line of argument recently. But in the final analysis, all portray popular paranoia as a virus that is persistent in our society and that is liable to become epidemic at any moment. Their ultimate concern is less to understand the exact cause or significance of the "plague of paranoia" than to help prevent an outbreak.

Though wearing the colours of different disciplines, all agree that the real dispute is not so much between academic disciplines as between scholarship and pseudo-scholarship. They make clear that paranoid thinking is so dangerously attractive because it has all the trappings of proper academic work, but with none of the rigour or integrity. Pipes maintains a steadfast distinction between proper scholarship and conspiracy theory by distinguishing all the latter items in his bibliography with small capitals, sometimes with quirky results. What is significant about these three books, however, is not that they identify paranoia as pseudo-scholarship, but that they feel they have to correct its inaccuracies. The tendency to state the facts of the case and to rewrite in beginner's guide fashion the history of the past few centuries reaches ludicrous proportions in Gregory S. Camp's Selling Fear, a book written by a historian for a religious publisher with the hope of rescuing elements of the Christian right from their adherence to paranoid prophecy.

Though somewhat limited, Camp's target readership is clear; but we might well ask ourselves who the other books are intended for. Despite their desired appeal to a general audience (Showalter in particular succeeds in adopting a breezy, populist tone), there is no mistaking that these books are not being read by the militias. In which case, does the reader really need to be told that the Jews are not in fact plotting to take over the world, or that the US government is not in collusion with little grey aliens? If they are all so silly, why do so many people - often literally - buy into these stories? And will anyone not already convinced of the falseness of such views be convinced by a one chapter summary or a typographical reminder? The hostile reaction to Showalter's book - including vague assassination threats - suggests otherwise. Leaving aside their tendency to preach to the converted, these books also tend to replicate the very paranoia they seek to condemn: what we should really be afraid of, they suggest, is the spread of popular paranoia.

All the authors share a sense that their duty is to correct, instruct and condemn the dangerous delusions of paranoid politicians and their mass followers, since, as Showalter writes in the preface to the paperback edition of Hystories: "we have a long way to go before credulity, superstition and hysterical epidemics are on the wane." These studies are in tune with the many recent books of sceptical debunking, from Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World to Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things, which, though rather dull, at least have some hope of being read by those not already convinced.

In stark contrast, Jodi Dean's Aliens in America brackets off the question of whether there really are aliens or government cover-ups. Dean is a political scientist, but unlike Pipes and Robins and Post she believes that her duty is less to document and condemn the evil effect that paranoid beliefs have had on institutional politics, than to understand why so many Americans have turned to such outlandish beliefs at this point in history. For Dean these stories offer people a way of thinking about and registering an unfocused protest against the collusion of the military-industrial-scientific complex: trust no one, least of all the authorities.

Dean has attracted much criticism for seeming to welcome the acceleration of scepticism into paranoia as a sign of healthy populist dissent. What is really at stake in these competing theories of conspiracy theory is whether it is always the responsibility of public intellectuals - and academics in particular - to push back the tide of increasing gullibility by presenting What Is Really Going On in simplified form, wherever and whenever possible. Dean's hostile reviewers lament that academia has been invaded by the alien force of cultural studies, which replaces professors with political drones all too willing to take conspiracy theories seriously. And perhaps they are right, for even Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has acknowledged recently that a form of paranoid demystification, fuelled by a near-ubiquitous hermeneutic of suspicion common to most varieties of critical theory, has become commonplace in academic work since the late 1960s.

Even if the widespread anti-authoritarian attitude of suspicion has gone too far, does the "cultstuds" approach to conspiracy theory still amount to a dereliction of duty, a betrayal of the academic equivalent of the Hippocratic oath? It might well be conceded that Dean exaggerates the transgressive potential of conspiracy culture and announces the death of common rationality in too apocalyptic a fashion. Yet the project of cultural studies nevertheless seems to offer a way out of the impasse encountered by the other books under consideration, since by now we must surely have little reason to believe that people will be cured of their attraction to conspiracy thinking by the inoculating force of common sense or by the surgical operation of Occam's razor. Of course, you can either read so much between the lines that you become paranoid, or you can have such an open mind that your brains fall out, but perhaps those are risks worth taking, since the alternative - the wholesale dismissal of most popular culture as either irrelevant or irredeemable - offers little hope of any real understanding or change.

Peter Knight is a British Academy postdoctoral fellow, University of Nottingham, and Alasdair Spark is head of American studies, King Alfred's College, Winchester.

Their conspiracy culture webpage is at http:///

Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where it Comes From

Author - Daniel Pipes
ISBN - 0 684 83131 7
Publisher - Free Press
Price - £16.99
Pages - 258

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments