By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.
Maybe I should have seen it coming. Every now and again I would have a student mention the Illuminati. Once in awhile, a young man might argue that ‘9-11 was an inside job.’ Heck, one time a student even whispered to me in confidence that the Ebola virus was a creation of the American government. When I asked that student what the purpose of such an invention would be, he told me very calmly that the government was trying to wipe out half of humanity.
How could I not scoff at such irrationality? Most people didn’t believe this stuff….right? RIGHT? Such ideas would always be the territory of a small minority of Americans….right? RIGHT?
Well, maybe not. Conspiracy theorists are boldly emerging out of their dark caverns. No longer found just on obscure chat-rooms, they now get the seat marked ‘expert’ on cable news’ shows. During the last decade or so, conspiracies have become disturbingly mainstream.
How did this happen? Why did it happen now? These are difficult questions to answer, and I will get to them eventually. But first, I think some differences need to be identified. We need to categorize the types of theories sweeping our culture today.
Arguably, there are three main conspiracy theory categories. Each share certain characteristics. None are to be encouraged, but only one has proven to be historically dangerous. Unfortunately, the dangerous type has gained the most influence in recent years. Here is a quick description, from most innocent, to most troubling:
- ‘Top Secrets’ Theories: These are the most commonly held conspiracy theories. They center upon the notion that governments have secret, revolutionary information that they will not share with average citizens. Of course, this is based upon a larger truth. All modern nation-states have ‘top secrets’ for acceptable eyes only. But, the ‘Top Secret’ conspiracy theorist takes this truth to unlikely, or fantastic proportions. Hence, to him/her, the US government is not just hiding a new military aircraft at the local Air Force base; they are also hiding alien life-forms and/or space ships! Or, the government weather satellites don’t truly STUDY the weather; instead, the satellites CONTROL the weather! It’s is okay to laugh. The conspiracy theorist might laugh with you.
- ‘Secret Power’ Theories: These conspiracy theories are not as common, but they are gaining a larger and larger foothold amongst American citizens. These theories are usually based upon arcane notions of power and influence. Conspiracy theorists who hold these beliefs will argue that there is a secret group within a national government (or multi-national organizations) that has undue, authoritarian power. This conspiracy may be connected to notions that there are world-wide government entities that control policy and have nefarious plans for either a utopian, or a dystopian future. The two most common groups associated with such conspiracy theories are the illuminati and/or freemasons. Both of these secret organizations have been connected to conspiracies for centuries. For the conspiracy theorist, this historical tradition further proves the supposed conspiracy. Though darker than the ‘Top Secret’ conspiracy, there is still a heavy element of absurdity in the ‘Secret Power’ conspiracy. Beyonce, the CIA and the Pope inexplicably work together to rule the world. Hmmm.
- ‘Apocalyptic Power’ Theories: These are the most dangerous conspiracy theories. The conspiracy theorists who hold these beliefs argue that a group of people, either large or small, is attempting to destroy the cultural, social and/or political world of the conspiracy theorist. The conspiracy theorist argues that he/she is not only ignorant of secrets, or out of the loop of secret power, he/she is actually a threatened victim of the conspirators. Usually, these conspiracies focus upon governments, but they also can tie into the ‘Secret Power’ conspiracies in the belief of a small cadre having control over levers of power. These conspiracies are the most dangerous because of their absolutist, zero-sum focus. For the believers in these conspiracies, there is no middle ground. You either fight, or you die. You gain your freedom, or become a slave. Every event that is read into the conspiracy is another sign of the endgame; the theorist’s world is believed to be crumbling down, and hence, it is only natural that violence may be necessary. Those who do not hold to these conspiracies then are more than ignorant sheep to be looked down upon. The person not accepting the conspiracy becomes part of the conspiracy. This type of conspiracy theory promotes a Manichean notion of reality. The conspiracy theorist is not laughing. It is deadly serious to him/her.
In the next blog post, I will illustrate how some of these Apocalyptic conspiracies have caused historical tragedies, large and small. Then, I will investigate how and why these types of conspiracies are gaining such a foothold in our modern culture. To those who don’t believe, conspiracies can be funny, absurd or deluded. However, we should not underestimate the power of true believers. History proves as much.
To be continued…..