Notes on Conspiracism

Peter Knight’s, Conspiracy Culture – From the Kennedy Assassination to the X-Files

This asks the question as to how the prevalence of conspiracism relates to the Postmodernish sensibility. This is not so much as a review, but a few notes on conspiracism.

Richard Hofstadter’s ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ (in The Paranoid Style in American Politics – and Other Essays) written just as the modern version was really taking off (1963) takes the clinical notion of paranoia and uses it as a lens to examine the practice of conspiracist thinking. A rough summary of his thesis is that major sections of the American population had come to feel dispossessed of a nation forged in the two great struggles of a democratic-popular revolution and the war against the slave-owners. The ‘paranoid’ response to the feeling of dispossession has been that, rather than attempting a serious analysis, it constructs: ‘conspiracy as the motive force in historical events. History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power’. It’s a good read and points out things which, once pointed are obvious (but certainly didn’t occur to me), such as that ‘a fundamental feature of the paranoid style is the imitation of the enemy’, eg the Ku Klux Klan’s taking on aspects of Catholicism.

Hofstadter’s argument is taken as the stance against which Peter Knight’s Conspiracy Culture – From the Kennedy Assassination to the X-Files defines itself. The difference, he argues, between current and earlier versions of conspiracism is that earlier conspiracism was part of a general belief in the possibility of coherent and general explanations of the human world; however, the conspiracism of timepresent is part of – and amplifies – the postmodernist sensibility of a world where meanings and identities are indeterminate; where the notion of a ‘real’ thing which can be faked or represented becomes problematic as the real appears to be absorbed into its simulacrum.

A good illustration of Knight’s thesis is Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus ! Trilogy. It’s one heck of a funny read, like nowt else I know. Ah … you may think … but it’s fiction ! Well yes, that’s how it presents itself. But post publication (at least) one of the authors wrote something else to the effect that the book presented something as fiction, because it would have been unpublishisable if presented as fact. Wilson recently figured on a Facebook meme where he states that he doesn’t believe in anything and what a good thing that is.

A more traditional book is David Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories – The Role of the Conspiracy in Shaping Modern History. Amongst the gems in it is the information (new to me) that the case of the murder of Hilda Murrell had been solved. At the time (1984 – which was a significant year in the conspiracist construction of this event) it was widely believed that she had been murdered by state agents – she was a political activist, a dogged objector to a proposed nuclear power plant. Most importantly she had a nephew who was a commander in the Royal Navy and her death was thought to be linked to some intell she might have gained re the sinking by the submarine Conqueror of the Argentine cruiser The General Belgrano during the South Atlantic War of 1982 – at the time this was a controversial issue and was thought by some to very damaging to Thatcher. Heck ! I remember being soo convinced her death was a political murder, going to a play on it, giving folks copies of a pamphlet on it. Yet I never noticed that the murder was solved and a man convicted of it !! So for me, a good book tells me stuff I should have know (or thought of), but didn’t.

It’s particularly good on the ‘9/11 Truth Movement’, the chapter on which ends with a critical remark by Chomsky on the absurdities of the claims made by such people.

A book which does for serious what the conspiracist mentality does frivolously is Chomsky’s Year 501- The Conquest Continues (it was published 501years after the arrival of Columbus). Its final chapter ‘The Third World at Home’ is a powerful account of some of the terrorist tactics used by the American business-class to cripple its labour movement and ‘import’ ‘Third World’ practices. It’s a scary book, in that it shows that the really dangerous ‘conspiracy’ is actually the one that is most on the surface.

One of the things which continually amazes me is the number of folks I encounter who will confidently assert that such an event as The Boston Bombings was obviously the work of the American state, and anyone who thinks elsewise has been duped by the media – but … but … will take the anthrogenic theory of alleged Global Warming as Holy Gospel (though they now prefer the anodyne phrase ‘Climate Change’). There’s a stonking good chapter on the evasions and lies of the ‘Warmists’ in Christopher Booker and Richard North’s Scared to Death – From BSE to Global Warming, How Scares are Costing us the Earth. What I don’t think it does well is to explain how Warmism has now become almost the new State Religion. Booker’s follow-up The Real Global Warming Disaster may do so, I’ve not yet read it.

I’ve no doubt that part of the motive behind the dozy acceptance of Warmism is a distrust of modern technology (even, or esp by folks never off their smartfones) and a yearning for the supposedly pre-technological bliss of rural life. These pretensions are delightfully mocked in Steven Poole’s You Aren’t What You Eat – Fed Up With Gastroculture – a book I wish I’d written. It has LOL dissections of the nonsensical language of menus. But its most incisive sections are on the cult of the ‘organic’ and the connections of many of the founders of this movement with the British fascist movement in the 1930s.


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