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Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture

4.0 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0816632435
ISBN-10: 081663243X
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"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.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 282 pages
  • Publisher: Univ of Minnesota Pr (April 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 081663243X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0816632435
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5.5 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,735,339 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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 the 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 buy 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. It also 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, racism, 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: 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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Format: Hardcover
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, summarizing 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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