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Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture Paperback

ISBN-13: 978-0816654949 ISBN-10: 0816654948 Edition: 2nd

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Univ Of Minnesota Press; 2nd edition (July 29, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0816654948
  • ISBN-13: 978-0816654949
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.4 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #715,687 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

"Just because overarching conspiracy theories are wrong does not mean they are not on to something," opines Fenster in this commendably level-headed analysis of the grip that conspiracy theories maintain on contemporary America. He does not bother sifting for truth in the The X-Files, the Clinton Chronicles or JFK, but he does pay close attention to those who believe and promulgate conspiracy theoriesAwhat he calls the "conspiracy community." Even if every conspiracy theory is patently false (Fenster does not marshal evidence either way), he argues that mainstream culture's affinity for conspiracy theory is an important phenomenon itself. The "conspiracy" tag can be used to delegitimize others' opinions, as when the allegations that the CIA helped bring crack into East L.A. were written off as part of the African-American community's supposed susceptibility to conspiracy. And conspiracy theory is too often simply the cover story for racists and anti-Semites. But Fenster also notes that conspiracy theory serves a useful purpose as a balm to the politically alienated segments of society, and he optimistically interprets the popular pursuit of uncovering the hidden mechanics of power as evidence of a latent populism waiting to harnessed. By neither dismissing conspiracy theorists as paranoid kooks nor being seduced by their yarns, Fenster constructs a strong case that even while we do not believe, we should nonetheless listen.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Book Description

JFK, Karl Marx, the Pope, Aristotle Onassis, Howard Hughes, Fox Mulder, Bill Clinton, both George Bushes—all have been linked to vastly complicated global (or even galactic) intrigues. Two years after Mark Fenster first published Conspiracy Theories, the attacks of 9/11 stirred the imaginations of a new generation of believers. Before the black box from United 93 had even been found, there were theories put forth from the implausible to the offensive and outrageous.

In this new edition of the landmark work, and the first in-depth look at the conspiracy communities that formed to debunk the 9/11 Commission Report, Fenster shows that conspiracy theories play an important role in U.S. democracy. Examining how and why they circulate through mass culture, he contends, helps us better understand society as a whole. Ranging from The Da Vinci Code to the intellectual history of Richard Hofstadter, he argues that dismissing conspiracy theories as pathological or marginal flattens contemporary politics and culture because they are—contrary to popular portrayal—an intense articulation of populism and, at their essence, are strident calls for a better, more transparent government. Fenster has demonstrated once again that the people who claim someone’s after us are, at least, worth hearing.

More About the Author

Mark Fenster received his Ph.D. in communication from the University of Illinois and his law degree from Yale University. He is professor at the University of Florida Law School.

Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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See all 13 customer reviews
From the very beginning, we find that author's attention to detail almost incredible.
Michael J Woznicki
This book offers an interesting academic discussion of the role of conspiracy theory within modern American culture.
New Age of Barbarism
Fenster's book is an interesting look at the "sociology," so to speak, of modern conspiracy theory.
Steven H. Propp

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

35 of 37 people found the following review helpful By daibhidh on May 18, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I recall a quote from Robert Anton Wilson who said, "Anyone in the United States who isn't paranoid must be crazy." I always thought that was an amusing quote, and it should've shown up in this book, probably! Fenster explores the prevalence of conspiracy theory in American culture in this very academic book. While his writing style is good, I warn you that this book seems aimed at academics, and not your garden-variety conspiracy buffs.
He begins with exploring Richard Hofstadter's work on the paranoid style of American politics, and leaps into studying the militia movement, later focusing on JFK, the X-Files, and other forms of "conspiracy as entertainment" and also examines millennial Christian groups and apocalyptic predictions, etc. Fenster is rigorous in his exploration of conspiracy theories-as he explains in the beginning, he is not detailing the theories so much as examining what they represent, both culturally and individually. In this, he does an excellent job, particularly regarding the militias.
He seeks to get past the old notion of conspiracy theory as pathology to seeing it as a legitimate, if extreme and disempowering expression of popular dissatisfaction with the status quo. This is an important observation: that conspiracy theory, by embracing the idea of all-powerful individual villainy (a secret group behind it all), instead of structural problems (capitalism, American democracy) people can actually affect and change, conspiracy theory saps the strength from people by making them paranoid bystanders to their own lives. But he's clear to point out how the structure of the American political system creates this line of thought, albeit unintentionally-the majority of Americans are marginalized in this society.
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16 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Michael J Woznicki HALL OF FAME on November 28, 1999
Format: Hardcover
....What makes this book special? Whatmakes this book a must read?
The answers are simple, this book has details. This book has facts. This book has information that is hard to find anywhere else. Above all this book isn't conjecture. Fenster's ability to bring to life the conspiracy and what it means to society is nothing short of remarkable.
From the very beginning, we find that author's attention to detail almost incredible. Fenster has taken what society has reduced to nothing more than tabloid trash and revealed secrets that will make you scared and judging from the writing you should be.
Fenster covers Militia groups, JFK, the Millennium, Bill Clinton and other and does it very well. I am certainly glad to have had the chance to read this remarkable book. I would hope the author is in the process of a second edition. Once again - excellent job!
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Roger D. Launius VINE VOICE on February 17, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
More than fifty years ago the great consensus historian Richard Hofstadter argued in "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" that the particular strain of populism that fosters conspiracy in American culture operates at a fringe of society and represents a threat to the dominant consensus of the nation. We may take exception to Hofstadter's analysis, something Fenster does to devastating effect, but few would disagree that conspiracy theories are much more common than Hofstadter was willing to acknowledge. Indeed, even those who do not accept them as the norm would probably agree with the old adage, "Just because you're not paranoid it doesn't mean they aren't out to get you."

Mark Fenster argues in "Conspiracy Theories" that these ideas swirl around us and everyone to a greater or lesser degree buys into them. We could not work effectively in society without sometimes wild explanations. What percentage of the population, for example does not believe there was a conspiracy to assassinate JFK in 1963? Is your theory the same as mine? What evidence supports these assertions?

For Fenster conspiracy theories are something of a mind game we play to help explain what we view as irrational. It is also a way to ease the boredom of our mundane modern existence. Furthermore, it helps to explain an overarching cynicism about contemporary culture and especially politics, which seems both out of reach and impossible to parse. Moreover, it plays to modern society's hidden desires for scapegoating, bigotry, and fascism.

Fenster's short study--only nine chapters with an introduction and an afterword--steps through several key issues. A first section explores the use of conspiracy to shape political thought and action.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Cebes on June 16, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Mark Fenster's book attempts to provide a political and theoretical analysis of conspiracy theories and their role in American politics and culture. Fenster takes a surprisingly contrarian view, presenting a (heavily qualified) defense of conspiracy theories as a populist form of rebellion against the oppressive power structures of our society. He criticizes the traditional and dominant dismissal of conspiracy theorists as delusional, irrational, or bizarre; and tries to deconstruct the polarity between ordinary, rational political discourse and crazy, irrational fringe elements.

In the end however, even Fenster ends up admitting that there is some truth to the traditional view. For one thing, he admits that conspiracy theory is not an effective or useful form of resistance; indeed, it is often counterproductive, resulting in a retreat into a fantasy rather than real political engagement. For another, it often results in its own form of oppression, notably of minorities like the Jews who are often seen as the secret force behind the scenes (Nazism began as a form of conspiracy theory). And even Fenster admits that much if not most of conspiracy theory is truly nutty and delusional. He tries to defend this by comparing conspiracy theorists to postmodernists, the latter of which adopt a playful ironic detachment to their approach, or TV shows like X-Files which also take a somewhat humorous approach to the topic. But it seems unlikely that most conspiracy theorists have this humorous or playful side; usually they are all too serious, as were the Nazis, or the Truthers or Birthers.

Readers should be aware that this is a highly theoretical academic study, and is not written for a general audience.
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