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Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From Paperback – May 1, 1999
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The New World Order, CIA drug rings, UFOs in New Mexico, the JFK assassination, the Elders of Zion--all are the products of politically disaffected and culturally suspicious minds, writes Daniel Pipes, author of The Hidden Hand: Middle East Fears of Conspiracy. Here he examines the nature of conspiracy theories and asks, "What makes otherwise intelligent people believe in phony phenomena?" and "Why is antisemitism so often its central feature?" Pipes usefully lays out a few hypotheses about conspiracy theories, and distinguishes them from actual conspiracies (which are real, of course). Although the book could benefit from some organizational improvement, it contains many astute observations. Readers interested in its subject will find it worth examining. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Kirkus Reviews
A moderately successful effort to address an inherently amorphous topic. Pipes (The Rushdie Affair, 1990, etc.) enters a shadowy world by distinguishing between (real) conspiracies and (imaginary) conspiracy theories. Applying this distinction requires subjective judgment, but on the whole he maintains a reasonable perspective. ``Conspiracism,'' the most virulent belief in a conspiracy, dates back to the First Crusade and reached its apex in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. While the British and American governments have been prime suspects in recent centuries, historically there has been amazingly little variation in the focus of conspiracists: Based on an apparently unwritten rule that the seriousness of the threat is inversely related to plausibility, Jews and various secret societies are the favorite culprits. The former have deviously hidden their intentions by posing as the persecuted, and groups as innocuous as the Freemasons and as imaginary as the Rosicrucians have dominated the world in ways that can be grasped only by the truly paranoid mind. The delusions of Hitler and Stalin moved conspiracism beyond comedy and into tragedy, but Pipes argues that these horrors have lessened its appeal and that conspiracy theories have been on the wane since the end of WW II. Oddly, while Pipes (a contributor to Commentary, the Weekly Standard, and other magazines) maintains that conspiracism is ``ambidextrous'' rather than a left- or right-wing affair, he nevertheless includes a chapter devoted to demonstrating that conspiracism of the left is now more dangerous than that of the right. This political sojourn provides insight into his more questionable judgments (e.g., downplaying the conspiracist element of American anticommunism and the popular appeal of the contemporary radical right) but adds little to a somewhat repetitive work. To be fair, however, Pipes does provide a solid sketch of a difficult and intriguing topic without indulging in sensationalism. Of course, debunking conspiracy theories might just be a way to deflect suspicion . . . -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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.'
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.