Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From.
How many bogeymen can you count in that paragraph?
Conspiracism consists of discerning motives in raw connective tissue, or in refusing to accept apparent syllogisms. Mark Fuhrman used the e-word, therefore he planted the glove. Lee Harvey Oswald was a nerd, therefore he could not have brought down King Arthur by himself. Pipes' book, which should have been titled Conspiracism, could very well have been titled Cherchez
Les Juifs, for the bulk of it is taken up by mankind's obsession with spotting Rothschilds and Cohens in every woodpile, from the Russian Revolution to--strange as it may sound--Hitler's rise to power, but then no leap of logic is too great for a committed conspiracist or anti-Semite. There is a web site for those who think that the Holocaust was a hoax. Go figure.
How did the Jews come in for such special treatment? The Hellenistic writer Origen (185-254 AD) set the tone when he said that the Jews had formed a--key word--"conspiracy against the Saviour of the human race" But it wasn't until a French crusade to the Holy Land in 1096-99 that anti-Semitism coalesced around specific fears that this relatively tiny band of Israelites was systematically out to get the gentiles, by means of devious banking practices and--key word--secret societies.
France would make another significant contribution to conspiracism 800 years later, in the person of Augustin De Barruel (1741-1820), whom Pipes calls, "history's most important conspiracy theorist" (Sorry, Oliver.) De Barruel was a French ex-Jesuit and abbot who wrote the four-volume Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, a best-selling masterwork of fear-mongering that blamed secret societies, Freemasons, and the Bavarian Illuminati for conspiring to overthrow Christianity and private property. It was to remain the influential paranoid handbook until the appearance of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Paris in the 1890s, about the time of the Dreyfus affair. The Protocols, arguably the most poisonous racial document of the modern era, purported to be a transcript of the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. It was a forgery, sponsored by the head of the Paris office of the Okhrana, the Tsar's secret police. Interestingly, his intent wasn't so much to convince the world that the Jews had a secret master plan for world domination, but to prove to Tsar Nicholas II that Russian liberals were their agents. Hitler's smoking gun was a tsarist police forgery.
The Germans, of course, were predisposed toward anti-Semitism, having what Pipes calls "a unique motive ... the volkisch nostalgia for Wagner's heroically pagan epoch of Siegfied, Tristan, and the Niebelung. That wondrous age ended when the Jews imposed the effete outlook called Christianity, a variant of their own religion, on Germans. As German speakers (Hitler included) developed a longing for the time before Christianity, the Jewish conspiracy came to include Jesus, the Church fathers, and the popes"
It takes dedication and hard work to turn the pope into an agent of Theodor Herzl. Conspiracism is a wilderness of mirrors, an ironist's Disneyland. Pipes notes that the only real world conspiracy was the one begun by Lenin and refined brilliantly by Stalin. And what was the reaction of the Left, prime purveyors of conspiracy theory? To ridicule the very idea of its existence. When the real thing rears its ugly head, conspiracists refuse to acknowledge it: "... the cognoscenti pooh-pooh allegations about these [Nazi and Soviet] global ambitions: Winston Churchill met with much disdain in the 1930s when he talked of the `jackboots,' as did Ronald Reagan in the 1980s with his one-time reference to the `evil empire'. Both totalitarian movements may have relied on semiclandestine structures and made-over plans for world hegemony, but they attracted less notice than empires put together in a fit of absent-mindedness (Great Britain), hardly existent (United States), or completely fantastical (Jews)"
The Left, Pipes notes, is better at incubating and promulgating conspiracy theories, for a number of reasons. One is its daring, or ballsiness. Shouldn't Lee Harvey Oswald--committed Marxist, U.S. defector to Russia, friend of Castro's Cuba--have been a poster boy for a left-wing conspiracy to kill Kennedy? And yet Jim Garrison, Edward Jay Epstein, Mark Lane, Oliver Stone, and others managed successfully to decoct a right-wing conspiracy! But then the Left is generally more sophisticated than the Right, giving it the upper hand in discerning the hidden hand. "A worldly, well-educated analyst does not fall prey to conspiracist demons with the same sincerity as does a janitor. Yahoos on the Right appear almost universally heartfelt in their fears of Jews and Freemasons; leftist sophisticates lack that same veracity. Rather, they seemingly spread conspiracy theories as a means to further their political agenda; in case after case, conspiracism serves their goals. On the grandest scale, if Hitler represents conspiracism gone mad, Stalin stands for something altogether craftier"
At the end of this penetrating--and somewhat depressing--book, Pipes declares that "Conspiracism is a story in six acts" Six degrees of separation, from the crusades to the modern era. Or you can work in reverse, starting with the 30 gunmen in Dallas, or the glove-planting, DNA-squirting cops in Brentwood and work your way back to the Knights Templar. What a great board game it would make: Conspiracy! The "Risk!" of the '90s. Whoops! That crack cocaine you sold to the CIA to distribute in U.S. ghettos turns out to belong to the Rothschilds! Drink one gallon of fluoridated water and resubscribe to The Nation.
It might be funny if it weren't for the dismal figure that Pipes cites as conspiracism's 20th century theoretical body count: 169 million. (See the chapter entitled "Conspiracism's Costs") The term is "democide," new to us: "mass murder outside the context of warfare ... 62 million in the Soviet Union, 35 million killed by Communist Chinese, 21 million by the Nazis, 10 million by the Chinese nationalists, and 6 million by the Japanese militarists"
And yet Pipes is in the end optimistic, regarding conspiracist paranoia as a spent force in the West and Europe. He quotes Charles Krauthammer, who notes that the incessant, media-driven drumbeat of hairball notions is so unremitting as to "raise an eyebrow, but never a fist. A politics so trivialized is conducive to neither great decision making nor decisive leadership. But it is also nicely immunized from the worst of political pathologies. In the end, Oliver Stone ... is just another entertainment, another day at the movies. The shallowness of our political culture has a saving grace"
As democracies mature, says Pipes, we have less and less need to fix blame on manipulative Hebrew bankers, calculating Jesuits, or pin-striped one-worlders sipping sherry at the Council on Foreign Relations. Our biggest worry now--and here we all agree--is the little green men in the UFOs with their fearsome rectal probes. Close that window!
Perhaps Pipes is right. But after soaking in his study of 1,000 years of paranoia, I'm feeling a little clammy and twitchy. As I write, the Rev. Al Sharpton is all over the front pages, having turned out enough votes to complicate a Democratic New York mayoral primary. Were it not for his way with words--"bloodsucking Jews" is one of his boilerplate phrases--and a reputation built on a rather nasty hoax--the Tawana Brawley affair--this humble man of the cloth might only be known to us as a fat, medallioned tax cheat. Recently, a leading California newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, reported that it was the CIA that initiated the crack epidemic in America's inner cities--and then somewhat blandly recanted. JFK's former press secretary called a press conference to declare that he had proof that the U.S. military shot down an American civilian airliner.
Now Princess Diana is dead and the New York Post says that she was thinking of becoming a Catholic. There's potting soil for a wowser conspiracy theory. Muammar Khadafi, the Howard Stern of the North African littoral, went on the airwaves to announce that the Princess of Wales had obviously been offed by the Windsors so that the future King William would not be encumbered by a wog stepfather. And now Time hints that Diana may have been pregnant. Conjure for a moment on the lurid reductios in that one.
Tabloid fodder? It depends on your definition of a tabloid. The day after Mother Teresa's funeral, The New York Times devoted five column inches to coverage of her funeral. The same front page devoted twice that amount to a story announcing that women in New York were talking about Diana to their psychiatrists. (Be honest: Which story did you read first?)
Eighty percent of Americans think that the government is hiding information from them about flying saucers. Two thirds of Americans think that aliens crash-landed at Roswell. Twenty-five percent of Americans think aliens are harvesting people's eggs. Followers of Louis Farrakhan believe that the white race resulted from an experiment by a mad doctor named Yakub. Christian fundamentalists think that supermarket bar codes are an instrument of Satan. More than 70 percent of Americans think President Kennedy was killed in a conspiracy. So, how optimistic are you feeling today about the demise of conspiracism in our mature democracy?
The question remains: Does it matter what people believe? The minds reels from that horrendous death tally that Pipes cites--169 million. Ironic to consider that Timothy McVeigh, conspiracist, devotee of The Turner Diaries, our generation's Protocols, has just been convicted of--key word--conspiracy to murder a microcosm of that number, 169 human beings. What was it they used to say in Vietnam? "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean the little bastards aren't out to get you" Next time someone shrugs off the fevered rantings of Pat Robertson, Ellen Chenoweth, Ice T, Louis Farrakhan, Leonard Jeffries, or the auteur of JFK as so much innocuous nonsense, tell them you've got a book for them.
Christopher Buckley's new book, God Is My Broker, written with John Tierney, will be published by Random House in April.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1997|
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