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A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society) Hardcover – November 7, 2003

3.4 out of 5 stars 22 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Many people assume that the X-Files conspiracy theory-malevolent space aliens in cahoots with shadowy government agencies-is the brainchild of caffeinated scriptwriters with an overnight deadline. But according to this fascinating cultural study, such scenarios have a long and disturbing intellectual pedigree. Political scientist Barkun (Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement) traces them to a venerable tradition of "New World Order" conspiracy theories combining fundamentalist dread of the Antichrist with secular right-wing suspicions that the powers that be are controlled by Masons, Jesuits, Jews and, above all, the Illuminati. Starting in the 1980s, extraterrestrials began to appear at the summits of these conspiracy-theory hierarchies, a process accelerated by the Internet's anarchic dissemination and recombination of myths and rumors. The resulting "improvisational millennialism" has yielded any number of baroque "superconspiracies" (one theory yokes together UFOs, the Gestapo, the Mafia and the Wobblies), but Barkun contends there are serious repercussions. As New World Order themes have infiltrated the previously apolitical UFO subculture, he argues, they have become more respectable and widespread: racialist and anti-Semitic ideologies have resurfaced in the coded guise of alien cabals, and a vast popular audience has been introduced by Hollywood to the notion that the government is a totalitarian clique in black helicopters-a view once confined to right-wing extremists. Scholarly but fluently written and free of excessive jargon, Barkun's exploration of the conspiratorial worldview combines sociological depth with a deadpan appreciation of pop culture and raises serious questions about the replacement of democracy by conspiracy as the dominant paradigm of political action in the public mind.
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"Millennial dreams, apocalyptic nightmares populated by agents of the Antichrist, space aliens, and acolytes of the New World Order--with a calm approach and scrupulous academic bearings, Barkun navigates through the reefs of conspiracist allegation from the cosmic to the comic, from Biblical prophecy to Internet alerts."

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Product Details

  • Series: Comparative Studies in Religion and Society (Book 15)
  • Hardcover: 255 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; First Edition edition (November 7, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520238052
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520238053
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.3 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,031,687 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Wayne A. VINE VOICE on August 30, 2007
Format: Paperback
Call this a review of reviews:

One star is not so much a review rating as a vote; people on Amazon who give one star to books are generally saying "I don't like what this book is telling me!!!" When I see a pile of one star (and very brief text) reviews I know the jig is up, the author has struck a nerve.

The essential argument of the one-star reviewers is that Barkun, by questioning conspiratorial thinking is, of course, part of the conspiracy. I believe one "reviewer" calls him a shill of the power elite or something like that. These reviews should be incorporated into the next edition of this OK book as they give Prof. Barkun's arguments added weight.

By the way, the CIA paid me big bucks to write this favorable review of a key work of New World Order propaganda.
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Format: 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.
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Format: Paperback
I had expected this book to be a general review of developments in contemporary American conspiracy theory, a sort of summary of the ever-evolving worlds of the true American religion. While Barkun offers a relatively competent effort in that respect, his true interest in this book is to link the emergent threads of conspiracy theory to pre-existing political sources, particularly right-wing sources that fall within his pet interest, millenial right-wing religious groups in the United States. While there are plainly some quite interesting connections between the two social phenomena, Barkun goes much too far too force his thesis; he ironically begins to tred a path down his own conspiracy theory, attempting to convict myriad persons of holding hard-core anti-Semitic/racist views, even while admitting that the external evidence is absent, ambiguous, or tangential. We are treated to speculations, "connections," historical contamination, and the same type of silly theorizing that his own subjects so routinely engage in. The whole enterprise is then overlaid with a rather sickly and pallid academic liberal bent ... forced is the word.

Overall, a mediocre effort by a mediocre scholar, but still worth reading for those intrigued by the field, particularly insofar as Barkun truly does have an extensive grasp of the relevant background materials.

PS -- I hope that the reviews of this book posted by conspiracy theorists entertain others as much as they entertain me. Anyone interested in conspiracy theory has to possess a considerable sense of humor.
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Format: Hardcover
Michael Barkun of the Syracuse University Maxwell School of Journalism Barkun was selected the 2003 Distinguished Scholar by the Communal Studies Association in acknowledgement of his career of outstanding contributions to the field.

So you can see right away that he's a lunatic. And the University of California Press -- well, need I say more?

This is an excellent work by a distinguished scholar who has researched and published extensively on Millenarian and apocalyptic groups, political extremism, religious-based violence and conspiracy theories.

I think it is the fact that "conspiracy theories" are usually lumped in there with terms like "extremism" and "apocalyptic" that cause so much rage among the theorists, but while the groups are not the same, they are social responses to similar stimuli. And more popular.

Where once the land of black helicopters, government cabals, alien abductions and at least 30 conspiracy theories per assassination was populated by the wild-eyed or darkly suspicious few, now the phenomenon has woven its way into large and mainstream segments of American society. In fact, it sits in the cubicle next to me and married my cousin.

Barkun helps us to understand why this is happening, and trust me, folks, we do need to know why this is happening.

His work is lucid, well-documented and up to date. Furthermore, his goal is not to smash anyone's dreams of uncovering the REAL causes of 9/11. His work aims at helping us to understand why more and more of us think it's necessary -- or even possible -- for us to do so.
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