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Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture 2nd Edition

4.3 out of 5 stars 6 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0816654949
ISBN-10: 0816654948
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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.
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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: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #872,324 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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Format: Paperback
Mark Fenster's academic essay on conspiracy theories and the part they play in American culture differs from other academic works on the subject (for example those of Peter Knight or Michael Barkun) in that he rejects outright Richard Hofstadter's characterization of the `paranoid style' as a pathology preventing healthy engagement with the political process, of "trivial and groundless claims" made by marginal groups on the edge of society threatening the inclusive pluralist consensus at the heart of the social contract. Fenster makes a case that belief in a wide range of contradictory and ultimately misguided alternate narratives about `secret power structures/cabals' ruling society is not only a characteristic of the postmodern political landscape but a central aspect of the longstanding populist strain in American culture which even underlies the principle behind the separation of powers written into the US constitution. CTs should be seen, Fenster argues, as a sub-set of populism: "In its apocalyptic narrative vision...conspiracy theory assumes the coming end of a moment cursed by secret power and a (never-to-arrive) new beginning where secrecy vanishes and power is transparent" (p288).

Fenster lays out his thesis in an organized way, treating each chapter as an essay on a different aspect of the phenomenon, summarising the argument he is going to make in advance prior to launching into the detail. The writing style is academic to the point of being dry; more likely to appeal to those familiar with university academia and less so to readers more comfortable with a racy, populist style. It's no page-turner.
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