26 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on March 25, 1998
Mr. Pipes follows the history of conspiracism and determines that it has two separate and distinct main threads: anti Semitism; and secret societies. There is occasional overlap and crossover between the two, but in general they have remained apart. While his research appears sparse at points, that may be due to the huge scope of his view, and to the very real difficulty in researching the essentially unresearchable (for example, how far can one study a "secret society" before losing oneself in the contradictions of myth, fact, and most revealing, myths accepted as facts?). At times the thread pursued by the author seems tenuous, but he does make a telling case in support of his thesis of these two dominant strains of conspiracism. Most chilling of all is his discussions of nations where conspiracism has become official state policy, specifically Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union. I would have liked more indepth study of postwar American conspiracy theories, such as UFOs, the UN, and connections, if any, with various New Age beliefs, but that's my own particular interest. Mr. Pipes is mainly concerned with a broader historical picture.
While Mr. Pipes follows these twin paths of conspiracism, he demolishes the most widely accepted belief of the conspiracy theorists, that there are continuous sects and societies behind everything, and that all we see is simply the outward manifestation of their centuries long struggle for dominance. Make no mistake - the postulation of a continuous thread of conspiracism is not the same as accepting the existence of the conspiracies spanning generations and continents. While this book can not claim to be the definitive word on the subject (unless and until the Illuminati, the Elders of Zion, the Trilateral Commission, and the Rosicrucians open their archives), it does provide an interesting overview of conspiracism and demonstrates that the weirder paranoids among us have a long, if not distinguished lineage.
His encouraging conclusion that conspiracism has been increasingly marginalized (at least in the West) since the Second World War is offset somewhat by real world examples of collision between these conspiracists and the rest of society, e.g. Waco, Ruby Ridge, and Oklahoma City. Perhaps the greatest danger of modern day conspiracism is the extent to which preventive or corrective measures may backfire - how many of us are uncomfortable with the government's handling of the three cited cases, and of those, how many will be moved to align themselves with extremist groups?
21 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on December 1, 1997
I found this book to be an excellent survey of the various different strands of conspiracy theories. Pipes goes through the long historical pedigree (if such a word is appropriate) of conspiracy theories, and he sets out a pretty good model for how to tell the difference between a nutty conspiracy theorist and a person with a healthy critical skepticism of the motives and actions of the government and other groups. While he is sometimes a bit too dismissive of those who agree with some conspiracy theories, his book is a useful antidote to the pseudo-intellectual quackery that many conspiracy theorists arm themselves with, and he shows the very real danger that these theories, when unchecked, can cause (e.g.: antisemitic theories and Nazism, antigovernment theories and the Oklahoma City Bombing). He also does a pretty decent job of putting the theories and theorists into a larger cultural and political context. However, for a good primer of conspiracies, real and imagined (I think, largely imagined), I'd also recommend reading "The 60 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time" by Jonathan Vankin and Ed Whalen (I think that is their names). Both of these books will keep you riveted, and introduce you to some fascinating and little-known facts.
24 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on June 24, 1999
Pipes observes, "Every hate group has a conspiracy at the heart of its thinking." He goes on to explain how the "Right and Left engage in similar forms of conspiracism because they share much with each other-a temperament of hatred, a tendency toward violence, a suspiciousness that encourages conspiracism-and little with the political center." The best book I've read on the subject. Highly recommended.
23 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on July 10, 1999
Pipes book is a fair-minded but clear-headed review of the sources and motives of conspiratist thinking and its long-standing appeal. While many have rightly discerned the negative impact of communism, how many millions of deaths this century can be attributed to two conspiratists--Stalin and Hitler--who actually came to power and position to "do something" about the conspiracies they believed in? With piercing clarity, Pipes describes the motives and paranoia that led to massive genocide and that was sourced directly from paranoid epistemology. If you are interested in Conspiracy Theories or know someone that is, buy this book.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Daniel Pipes is a senior lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania whose principal area of academic expertise is the politics of the Middle East. In this much-quoted (and misunderstood by those who have never read it) book, Pipes examines the origin and history of the `paranoid style' from the time of the Crusades 1,000 years ago through to 1997 when the book was published. A distinction is drawn between conspiracies, which are real, and conspiracy theories, which exist only in the imagination. Richard Grenier is quoted in the first chapter to help define the territory: "conspiracy theory is the sophistication of the ignorant".
Converging themes characterise Pipes' essay. The first is that virtually all conspiracy theories derive from two parallel European traditions: anti-Semitism, and a manufactured suspicion of `secret societies' like the Freemasons, Templars and Adam Weishaupt's `Bavarian Illuminati' - a group of provincial intellectuals in southern Germany in existence for only 12 years in the late 1700s, kept alive to this day in the fevered minds of conspiracy theorists as if they were still alive. The dual strands of Jew-hating and paranoia about `secret societies' have pursued separate development tracks, but occasionally intertwine. Together they characterize the `paranoid style' which has been exported from Europe in the past two centuries along with industrial technological know-how and political ideas like democracy.
The book is an informed academic treatise full of enlightening historical detail, such as the precise history and development of freemasonry from the guilds of the middle ages and how, where and when fabrications about the motives of members originate - for instance the so-called '33 degrees of Scottish Freemasonry' turns out to be a fantasy dreamed up in France during the revolution to scapegoat `masonic conspirators' for the revolution turning bad. In reality no such '33 degrees' exist, or ever have.
The author lists some useful tools to differentiate between a genuine political conspiracy and an illusory conspiracy theory. These include a knowledge of history and "an intuitive understanding of the way things don't happen", and recognising the distinct characteristics of CTs: their invariable reliance on forgeries (the Protocols of the Elders of Zion for example); internal inconsistencies; use of `overabundant learned factoids & pedantic references'; dismissing all contradictory evidence; a "cavalier attitude towards facts" and oblivion to the passage of time. Most importantly the conspiratard's "dreary view of mankind" insists that power is the goal, wealth and the gratification of (invariably `perverted' or `monstrous') sexual appetites being the primary motivators - which obviously says more about the underlying psychological preoccupations of conspiratards themselves than those of any fantasised `conspirators'.
"'Appearances deceive' is a passport to bad judgment. Conspiracism turns some of history's most powerless and abused people (Jews, freemasons) into the most powerful; the most benign governments in human experience (the British and American) into the most terrible. Fear of the harmless and benign makes conspiracists blind to totalitarians, so they see despotism in a New York think tank but not in Stalinist Russia" (p48).
The author spends 3 chapters on tracing the historical development of the paranoid style, first from origins to 1815 then `fluorescence' up to 1945 during which period conspiracy theorists seized power in Germany and Russia to spread mayhem and destruction across the world. Finally `migration to the periphery' since 1945, where in Europe conspiracist ideologies are now discredited & condemned to the lunatic fringe, though the toxic life forms have found new fertile swamps to colonise in the Middle East and in the New World.
Pipes examines how conspiracism has been deployed by `right-wing nuts and leftist sophisticates' in the USA in past decades. Often the same delusions about `secret power' are held by both ends of the political spectrum, but whereas the right's presentation tends to be crude, hate-filled and risible, the left's presentation of fundamentally similar ideas tends to be more sophisticated.
The book's second main theme is the damage caused by belief in conspiracy theories, not merely by - to quote Kathryn Olmsted - "injecting toxins into the public discourse" but being directly responsible for mass murder and persecution on a scale unprecedented in human history. Hitler and Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were all supreme champions of conspiracy theories, and their murderous persecutions directly attributable to their delusional paranoid beliefs. In the final chapter this theme is explored in detail:
"By reducing complex developments to a plot, conspiracism obstructs an understanding of historical forces, shifts blame for all ills...prevents an accurate assessment of causes and thereby prolongs problems. It causes people to fear and hate what does not harm them, while not fearing or hating what does harm them. It directs them to waste their attention on the irrelevant and ignore the significant" (p174)
A neglected area of study is raised which the author confesses deserves a book on its own: conspiracy theories are the origin of most actual conspiracies and not the other way round. Hitler used the fraudulent `Protocols' which concocted an imaginary Jewish plot for global dominance with masters and slaves, the creation of a global hegemon free of borders, the abolition of many nation states - to plan for precisely that, only ruled by his Nazi Party and the `Aryan Master Race'. Hitler admitted he owed the `Protocols' a great debt of gratitude for clarifying his vision of Third Reich global hegemony. The fraudulent conspiracy theory, in other words, was responsible for the initiation of a real one: the Nazi project in detail, plus the extermination of millions through industrial methods. Violence, extremism, wars and mass murder throughout the 20th century are all, ultimately, laid at the door of conspiracy theorists - especially in the USSR where Stalin's paranoid belief in conspiracy theories informed state policy to such a degree that he ended up having murdered 62 million people variously accused of `conspiring' against him, or of being `agents of imperialism'.
The author demonstrates that although the paranoid style has declined to the fringes in western societies (a decline observably slower in the USA than in Europe, which is more politically sophisticated), it continues to flourish in the territories of the former USSR, in Japan and especially the Middle East where again, conspiracy theories about the scheming of `imperialism' and `zionism' being primarily responsible for the failure of Arab societies to flourish and prosper are used by cynical despotic rulers to deceive supine populations and divert their gaze from their own governments' corruption and ineptitude. Pipes was writing in 1997, prior to the `Arab Spring' movement so it's too early to say if a more healthy realism will finally kill off conspiracism as a guiding ideological framework for population control in the Middle East region. (The case of Robert Mugabe is a prime example which supports Pipes' thesis: his disastrously incompetent, despotic and kleptocratic regime has crippled Zimbabwe and reduced it over 30 years from being the leading economy in Africa to starvation and ruin. Like virtually all autocrats, he concocts a conspiracy theory to keep himself in power: that the self-made catastrophe in Zimbabwe is all the result of the `plotting of western imperialists' scheming against him.)
Pipes' uncompromising stance on the lethal dangers of ideologically-driven conspiracist beliefs sets him apart from other writers in this field. For different perspectives I would recommend the work of Professor Michael Barkun on `improvisational millennialism'; of Kathryn Olmsted, whose 2009 book `Real Enemies' focuses on the US Government's intentionally manipulative use of conspiracy theories in the 20th century; the insightful but dry academic writings of Mark Fenster, and the liberal-leaning but lucid (and often witty) writings of UK academic Peter Knight. For a more light-hearted populist perspective as a balance to all this heavyweight academia, try David Aaronovitch's `Voodoo Histories.'
7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on July 10, 1998
Mr. Pipes has written a well documented account and history of conspiracies across the ages. I do feel that he doesn't fully appreicate the degree that "conspiracy" thinking has infliltrated America today. Overall, a wonderful effort by Mr. Pipes to examine and explain the often "unclear" and baffling world of "conspiracy theories." This isn't the definitive work on "conspiracies"; it's worldviews and history, that I've been waiting for, but it is a step in the right direction.
10 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on April 13, 2006
This is an excellent book that explains what the whole business of conspiracy theories is all about and particularly its origins. If you have a particular interest in any specific conspiracy,don't expect to find an answer in this book that will put that theory to rest; right or wrong.
The author traces the more popular theories such as those about Templars,Freemasons,Illuminati,Antisemitism,and others back to the times of the Crusades. It is doubtful that there were no such conspiracy theories prior to that time because the real roots seem to lie in the basic human faults of Pride, Covetness,Envy,Lust,Anger and even Gluttony and Sloth.These evils most certainly arose wherever groups of people realized there were differences between "Them" and "Us" and most importantly when the ideas or actions of one group affected the other;in ways that were imaginary or real.
I think that one of the best patrs of the book is where he shows the differences between the approach and the types of people that deal in the world of conspiracy. While Left-Wing types get labelled as intellectuals; Right-Wing types get labelled as crackpots. He maintains that the media is responsible for this ;and it's hard to dispute that since most people rely on the media for their information. Maybe even the idea that the media is slanted is another conspiracy. Depending on one's preconceived ideas will determine whether the slant is to the left or right.
There is a world of differences between conspiracy theories like those involving Illuminati and Antisemitism and an event like the killing of JFK or RFK. Furthermore,the author tries to show why in the case of JFK the interest has been so great and reasons given so littl accepted;while wiyh RFK it is totally different. RFK had no problem believing who was behind the killing of his brother,and since it involved more than a single person,namely Oswald,that fits the bill for a Conspiracy as opposed to a Conspiracy Theory.
The problem with conspiracy theories in that there is simply no way that they can be proven right or wrong; because it means proving a negative; an impossibility.
Nonetheless,an interesting coverage of the subject and helps put some rhyme and reason into it all. Well worth the time to read.
33 of 50 people found the following review helpful
Daniel Pipes is an anti-conspiracy theorist and he makes some good arguments against such allegedly paranoid thinking. Sure you don't trust the mainstream media, but why should you trust your local, possibly wacko, conspiracy theorist? You've read all the paranoid theories, why not read a critique against such theories? It will be a challenge and also just plain good for you.
Pipes says that we should avoid paranoid thinking because it demonizes others that are not to blame and the evidence used against them is faulty. Amusingly, he describes antisemitic theorists who have not even met a Jew.
Pipes most valuable contribution is his history of conspiracy theories, mainly involving Jews and Freemasons at first, and then British and Americans in later times. During the Crusades, antisemitism became more systematic in its hatred and developed conspiracy theories against Jews, in this time of intolerant religious fervor. During the French Revolution, people we're looking for an easy way to explain such a messy and bloody event and began blaming the revolution on the Jews and Freemasons. In more modern times, the world powers of Britain and America were blamed for the world's troubles especially during the Lenin and Stalin regimes which concocted anti-imperialist conspiracy theories. Hitler focused more on antisemitic theories. During this age of totalarianism, paranoid thinking became status quo and murder of "subversives" became commonplace. Pipes also gives an insightful analysis of the characteristics of conspiracy theories.
This is a challenging book for true believers in conspiracy theories and a book that debunkers will enjoy. Perhaps Pipes could have debunked one conspiracy theory directly and this may be a weakness. Also, he does not deal with quotes from society's elites such a Henry Kissinger who says that we will have global government. So maybe Pipes has oversimplified as much as the conspiracy theorists have oversimplified. Yet still, you've heard that many things are too good to be true, maybe many conpiracy theories are too bad to be true.
18 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on June 7, 2002
The reviews here are ample enough reason to read this intriguing book. I became interested in conspiracy theory on the evening of September 11th when someone said to me something about how we'll never learn the real truth because you can't believe the government. I was a little more than perplexed by this back-to-the-paranoid-70's statement, and I decided to look for books on the topic.
It's an amazing book. Conspiracy theory is.... well, everywhere. Few great names have been untouched by its allures. We all know that it was behind the Holocaust, but how many of us know to what extent conspiracy theory defined the Soviet regime's genocidal practices as well? Furthermore, conspiracy theory controls politics in many areas of the world to this day.
Reviews on this page point further to the problem of conspiracy theory in our midst. "Wake up people! This author belongs to the Council of Foreign Relations, that is a documented fact." AND "We all realize the existence of people with inordinantly fearful views of the world. These people are called paranoid. When these people obsess on certain topics, the result can be conspiracy theories. Alternatively, sometimes these people actually discover important things that the rest of us have overlooked."
If you want to understand where reviewers like this are coming from, read Pipes' book. Because, if you take nothing else from it, you will discover that conspiracy theories are not harmless. Most real conspiracies began with a conspiracy theory, and the 20th century is bathed in blood as a result.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 21, 2014
Having worked in Covert Operations for the unofficial US Gov. i saw many of my old partners in the book, a truly great read