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5.0 out of 5 stars FEMA is the secret government, agent Mulder, August 24, 2009
This review is from: A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society) (Paperback)
Michael Barkun is a professor of political science who studies fringe groups, usually on the far right. His most well known book is perhaps "Religion and the racist right", in which Barkun details the origins and strange beliefs of the Christian Identity movement. "A culture of conspiracy" is a broader book, which tries to make sense of the conspiracist and millenarian subcultures in general. The book succeeds quite well in its task, especially taking into consideration that the subject is vast and very unwieldy!

"A culture of conspiracy" is both a scholarly analysis of contemporary conspiracy beliefs, and an overview of the most important conspiracy writers. David Icke is prominently featured. Barkun then attempts to back track the conspiracy theories to their original sources, a task easier said than done.

One of Barkun's main points is that contemporary conspiracism and millennialism are highly eclectic, a phenomenon he calls "improvisational millennialism". Until the 1980's, millennialism was usually connected to very specific movements or ideologies, such as evangelical Christianity, Marxism or nationalism. Also, New World Order conspiracy beliefs were for a long time associated with a special kind of apocalyptic Christians (such as Pat Robertson) or with fringe groups on the far right (the John Birch Society, Nazis, etc). During the 1980's and the 1990's, all this changed. Today, millenarians and conspiracy believers freely use ideas from many different sources: Christianity, New Age, UFO beliefs, anti-Semitism, or the far right in general. Some even believe in a "fake" millennium, a phoney apocalypse staged by the conspirators! Nor are conspiracists necessarily connected to a sharply delineated organization. Rather, a whole subculture has developed, to a large extent fuelled by the Internet, where ideas can float around freely and make themselves felt without any organized movement at all.

The most important development, according to Barkun, has been the introduction of New World Order beliefs (typical of the far right) into the UFO subculture, which tends to be apolitical and less stigmatized. By connecting their conspiracy theories with a belief in UFOs, far right-wing authors have gained a broader audience than previously possible. By a curious process, this blend of conspiracy theory and UFO beliefs then re-entered the conspiracist milieu, in the form of superconspiracies with space aliens at the apex. It should be noted that the UFO subculture is well established in the United States, and that millions of Americans take UFOs seriously. Also, many believe that the government known more about the UFOs than they are letting on. Indeed, it's remarkable that it took the conspiracists so long to discover this fertile ground!

New Age ideas have also been combined with conspiracy beliefs. And New Age is a broad subculture with a certain degree of social respectability. By blending into the UFO and New Age milieus, millenarians and conspiracists can mainstream their ideas and take them to new audiences. The Australian magazine Nexus (which has an international circulation) takes exactly this approach. The magazine freely blends New World Order ideas with UFOs, "alternative" science, spirituality, and so on. Barkun also mentions the remarkable fact, that conspiracy beliefs have become part of mainstream culture. One example out of many is the popular movie "The X Files", where the obscure far right-wing idea that FEMA is an important part of the world conspiracy is introduced to a potential audience of millions. (Other examples not mentioned by the author are the TV series "Dark Skies" and "First Wave". Of course, "The X Files" were originally a TV series as well.)

Further, the author discusses the general character of conspiracy beliefs. In contrast to regular religious believers, conspiracists don't demand that their views be taken simply on faith. Rather, their approach is seemingly empirical: by presenting a load of purported facts, they actually attempt to prove that the conspiracy exists. Often, conspiracist tracts mimic the apparatus of scholarly works (footnotes, references) and look well researched. Indeed, conspiracists have a love-hate relationship with the academic world. On the one hand, universities are seen as part of the conspiracy, since they deny or don't care about conspiracy theories. On the other hand, conspiracists mimic the outer strappings of academic works, as if they wanted to become part of the academic milieu themselves. (Incidentally, this love-hate relationship to academe seems to be typical of "alternative" groups in general. It's also common that religious groups attempt to sound scientific, while actually rejecting the methods of modern science.)

As Barkun is at pains to point out, however, the empirical foundation of the conspiracy beliefs is actually very shaky and elusive. Often, the various authors simply quote each other! This cross referencing is also extremely common on the Internet, where the sheer number of times a certain rumour appears is taken as validation. At a certain point, a leap of faith is necessary to believe the conspiracy theories. I noticed this phenomenon when reading David Icke's earlier books, which present both real conspiracies, possible conspiracies, and completely absurd claims. Perhaps the existence of the two former makes it easier to take that leap of faith and also believe the latter?

That conspiracy theories aren't really based in empirical facts is also shown by a curious phenomenon Barkun dubs fact-fiction reversal. Novels, movies and even hoaxes might be interpreted as true, and hence as "empirical proof" that the conspiracy theory is real. This kind of thinking is indeed very widespread, and I suppose it's a necessary corollary to the idea that the world is in the thrall of a gigantic conspiracy. If "facts" are merely illusions, why can't fiction actually be fact? Barkun mentions several examples of science fiction stories that have been interpreted as true by conspiracy believers, including Bulwer-Lytton's novel "Vril: The Power of the Coming Race" and the Shaver Mystery (which may have been inspired by the ravings of a lunatic who actually believed in aliens). Another example, which I think Barkun misses, is David Icke's reference to the series "V" as proof that the world is indeed under attack by reptilians posing as humans. Even hoaxes can be accepted as genuine. I don't think Barkun mentions "Report from Iron Mountain" - actually a parody of conspiracy beliefs but accepted as true by many conspiracy believers - but he does mention an April Fool's hoax shown on British television, "Alternative 3". It seems conspiracists have a pretty strange view of what counts as an empirical fact!

"A culture of conspiracy" might be too tedious and detailed for the general reader. It's easy to get lost in this unwieldy, eclectic world. Barkun painstakingly tracks down the origins of even the strangest notions, and these often turn out to be obscure self-published pamphlets. Some of them can't even be dated with certainty. However, for those seriously interested in New Religious Movements or fringe politics, this book is a must.

Five stars.
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