Baby, if you’ve ever wondered…

One of the greatest worries a PhD student has when researching their project is finding someone who has already done it. Dissertations are meant to be major and original works; if someone else has covered the subject then the game is up and you get to go home, sans your qualification, and work for a political party (or some other fate worse than death1).

Philosophically the topic of the Conspiracy Theory has only been rouched upon by five articles (six, technically, bit one of them is a slight modification of an earlier piece). The world took Karl Popper at his word in the ‘Open Society’ and condemned the Conspiracy Theory as unwarranted. Few have challenged the status quo and there’s quite a lot of disagreement between the authors (four of them) as to whether we should give the kind of people who posit Conspirtacy Theories time to talk.

In re Philosophy, then, I am quite safe. Outside Philosophy, however… Well, Conspiracy Theories are big. My reading list grew by eight books yesterday, and that was the result of reading one chapter of a German PhD dissertation on the Society of Cincinnati.

The Society of Cincinnati was formed after the American War of Independence; it’s members were officiers on the Revolutionary side and they basically wanted to form a group to ensure that the fledgling government’s promises of reimbursement would be carried through. Over time conspiracy theories surrounded the group, claiming that the Society wanted to impose an aristocracy on the United States of America or elevate one of their own to the status of Dictator (indeed, there is some evidence that Washington, their honorary president, was being mooted by some members for that role).

Still, that’s a side issue. Markus Hünemörder’s dissertation is an historical investigation of the Society of Cincinnati, looking at the themes and mores of the conspiracy theories as they develop. He spends a chapter looking at the sociological and psychological theories as to why Conspiracy Theories are put forward and identifies, through Hoftstadter (Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics (New York: Knopf, 1965)) and latter commentators three issues around the ‘Why?’ of conspiracy theory proliferation in the USA:

‘The first and possibly most momentous of these controversies was the question of pathology. Hoftstadter asserted that, for the most part, conspiracy theories were dangerous and deluded, a distorted style of expression stemming from distorted political judgment, and thus a threat to democracy and liberalism. Subsequent proponents of the paranoid style theory, such as Pipes [Daniel Pipes, Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From (New York: Free Press, 1997)], Post, and Robins [Robert S. Robins and Jerrold M. Post, Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).], described conspiracy theories as a veritable cancer of the body politic that almost inevitably led to the most horrific forms of persecution and murder imaginable. On the other hand, Wood [Gordon Wood, “Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style: Causality and Deceit in the Eighteenth Century,”William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series 39] asserted that at least in the age of Enlightenment, believers in conspiracy theory were neither crazy nor their ideas necessarily harmful, as they drew on widely accepted philosophical convictions. Fenster [Mark Fenster, Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999)], Melley, and Knight [Peter Knight, Conspiracy Culture – American Paranoia from the Kennedy Assassination to the X-Files (London: Routledge, 2000)] also rejected the concept of pathology. The former two asserted that conspiracy theories carried a utopian impulse, while Knight felt they were an understandable responses to the hermeneutic crisis of the late twentieth century. Given historical examples of violence and persecution, neither author celebrated conspiracy theories as an inherently positive phenomenon, but they were unwilling to condemn the phenomenon as automatically pathological and destructive.‘The second controversy concerned the issue of marginality. Hofstadter and other paranoid style theorists claimed that, at least in the United States, conspiracy theories were the province of the political fringe, an expression of radicalism bordering on the mental instability. Bailyn’s [Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967)] discovery of a widespread belief in conspiracy among the American revolutionaries dented that assumption, and Wood pointed out that practically the entire intellectual community of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world routinely looked for secret plots and machinations. Fenster, Knight and Melley called upon the near-ubiquitousness of conspiracy theories in late twentieth century culture to disprove the claim that attitudes of radical suspicion were necessarily marginal in America.‘A third controversy surrounded the question of universality versus cultural specificity. Hofstadter claimed that while the United States was particularly resistant to conspiracy theories, the phenomenon was nethertheless universal in scope and transhistorical in extent. Wood agreed in this regard, finding conspiracy theories throughout the Western world. Indeed, no theorist ever claimed that conspiracy theories were unique to American culture; examples such as the Nazis’ anti-Semitic accusations or the conspiracy-minded reactions to the French Revolution precluded any such reaction. Yet a number of authors insisted that to assert the universal existence of conspiracy theories was to miss the point. Groh [Dieter Groh, “Die Verschwörungstheoretische Versuchung Oder Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?,” Anthropologische Dimensionen Der Geschichte, ed. Dieter Groh (Frankfurt a.M.:Suhrkamp, 1992)] stressed cultural specificity as the key to understanding the phenomenon, and both Davis [David Brion Davis, “Some Themes of Counter-Subversion: An Analysis of Anti-Masonic, Anti-Catholic, and Anti-Mormon Literature,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 47 (September 1960)] and Ostendorf pointed out how specifically American ideologies and fears determined the shape of conspiracy theories in the United States.’ (Hünemörder, p. 49-51)Hünemörder, whilst channelling Davis, provides more details on the American fascination with the Conspiracy Theory earlier in the chapter:‘Davis noted that many elements of American counter-subversive rhetoric were not new. Earlier European conspiracy theories had produced outcries against groups like the Jacobins, Rosicrucians, and Jesuits who allegedly schemed against king and country. Yet the antebellum conspiracy theories were uniquely American in the way they portrayed the enemy as the very antithesis of Jacksonian democracy. Whereas participation in normal American denominations and social groups was voluntary, Mormons, Catholics, and Masons allegedly used seduction and force. While normal political parties demanded only a limited allegiance from their members under the aegis of the Constitution, the “conspiracies” demanded absolute loyalty to the exclusion of all others. Finally, while normal American associations met openly and made public their beliefs, statutes, and rules, the subversive groups were shrouded in secrecy. The anti-subversives feared that their enemies threatened the very fibre of American democracy and free enterprise.‘Why did these rabid accusations against relatively minor groups and movements take place? For Davis, the real ethnic, religious, and social conflicts between the anti-subversives and their opponents could not explain the heated attacks. Instead, he iden-tified the anti-subversive conspiracy theories as a reaction to the rapid social and eco-nomic change of the Jacksonian era, and attributed them to a rift within the ideology of laissez-faire individualism. The market revolution of the time promised material prosperity, while egalitarian politics celebrated the independent, self-sufficient individual. Yet, so Davis, many people yearned “for reassurance and security, for unity in some cause transcending individual self-interest.” The religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening provided that reassurance, and so did the anti-subversive movements. The anti-subersive conspiracy theories allowed their believers a neat trick: without rejecting Jacksonian democracy and laissez-faire individualism, they could unite against an enemy that in their imaginations, at least, stood against the equality and liberty they celebrated and feared at the same time. Imagining an enemy conspiracy allowed antebellum anti-subversives to rally to a common cause. Thus, an anti-subversive activist could “style himself as a restorer of the past, as a defender of a stable order against disturbing changes, and at the same time proclaim his faith in future progress.”‘This unity and reassurance came at a cost. Obviously, the persecuted groups suffered from the marginalization and outright violence directed against them; anti-subversive conspiracy theories poisoned the political climate for immigrants and religious minorites. But conspiracy theory also perverted the ideals of the anti-subversive movements themselves. They assumed many of the characteristics ascribed to their enemies: they formed secret societies that demanded dire oaths and absolute loyalty. They insisted that dissent be stifled lest it subvert America. They published books and pamphlets that described in lurid detail the immorality they so abhorred. While anti-subversives attacked Masons, Catholics, and Mormons for immoraly subordinating the means to the ends, they did so themselves under the justification of fighting what they felt was a threat to America.‘Davis’ most significant contribution to the study of conspiracy theories was his emphasis on cultural specificity. The rhetoric of the anti-subversive movements might have mirrored earlier European templates, yet they only made sense in an American context. Jacksonian America produced its unique brand of conspiracy theory based on the specific tenets and problems of democratic ideology. Furthermore, no matter how distateful anti-subversive rhetoric and nativist violence was, Davis demonstrated that conspiracy theories need not arise out of petty fear and hatred. The anti-subversive movements acted out of a belief in Jacksonian democracy, while at the same time fearing its implications. Seeking relief from that ideological contradiction, they embraced the comforting simplicity of conspiracy theory.’ (p. 28-30)

Whether or not this is true, it is grist for the mill. Many are the political commentators who claim that American History is the History of the Conspiracy Theory, and many of these commentators do think there is something special about the American version of Conspiracy Theories. I’m inclined to believe that, but for rather vague reasons at this point. Something to come back to, methinks.Well, back to the reading; tonight it is Roman Conspiracy Narratives, which is especially grand as the End of the Republic and the Rise of the Empire is my favourite point in human history.

Ah, human history…

Postscript: Virtual prizes to the person who can tell me the relation of the title of this post to the content therein.


  1. I used to know people who worked for the Act Party here in New Zealand. Apparently it made ‘The Office’ (the superior BBC version) look like it was the pinnacle of work environments

2 thoughts on “Baby, if you’ve ever wondered…

  1. Baby, if you’ve ever wondered
    Wondered what ever became of me
    I’m living on the air in Cincinnati
    Cincinnati WKRP

    I’m at WKRP in Cincinnaaaaatiiiii…

    And that’s from memory. From memory, mother fucker!

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