Customer Reviews: A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society)
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on August 30, 2007
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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on August 24, 2009
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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on December 4, 2006
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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on June 2, 2009
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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TOP 500 REVIEWERon September 8, 2011
Michael Barkun is Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University whose research speciality is the social history of fringe belief systems outside the mainstream. His previously published works include `Disaster and the Millennium' (1986) and `Religion and the Racist Right' (1997). In `A Culture of Conspiracy' he has written an excellent - if short and incomplete -academic study on the origins and history of grand conspiracy theories and their eventual dissemination into contemporary American society.

Daniel Pipes has documented the twin traditions of European conspiracist ideologies to be founded on 1) anti-Semitism originating in the time of the crusades, and 2) the systematic demonising of `secret societies' such as the freemasons. Whilst not completely neglecting anti-Semitism, Barkun focuses mainly on the second of these traditions. He documents their origins to be variously: self-published pamphlets by single obscure individuals in the pre-internet age; flamboyant exaggerations by the propagandist British writer Nesta Webster in the early 1800s about the significance of Adam Weishaupt's small `Bavarian Illuminati' group of provincial German intellectuals in the 1770s prior to their demise 12 years later; and blatant forgeries like `The Protocols of the Elders of Zion' which even today are offered for sale in bookstores all over the Middle East in luridly embellished Arabic translations as though they were genuine.

Barkun's essay covers the process whereby these fringe ideas, initially held by a tiny number of extremists on the fringes of society, gradually cross-pollinated, wove together and broke into the mainstream to become in the current century a more visible polyglot of sub-cultures populated by those who seek simplistic and overarching narratives to explain historical events.

A political leader's deceit about the presence of WMD in Iraq in 2003, or the infamous Iran-Contra affair are the depressing realities of political subterfuge in the modern world. CT `superconspiracies,' by contrast, postulate a universe dominated by scheming evil-doers who control and oversee everything that moves, the `hidden hand behind world events'. It has been said that the superficially odd belief-system (originally popularised by right-wing evangelical nutcase Pat Robertson) about a cabal of evil-doers conspiring to bring about a `New World Order' on Earth to serve themselves and enslave everyone else is in fact a direct descendant of the narrative of Satan plotting to rule the Earth, which did so well for centuries in creating a bogey-man for a supine population to fear and rail against, but which in these more enlightened and secular times needs updating.

Barkun defines his terms thus:

"The essence of CT beliefs lies in attempts to delineate and explain their broadest, CTs view history as controlled by massive, demonic forces." (p3). If you have been personally exposed to the incoherent ramblings of a conspiracy theorist, you will recognise Barkun's essential list of CT characteristics:

1. Nothing happens by accident: accident and coincidence have been removed, a fantasy world far more coherent than the real world

2. Nothing is what it seems: the great conspirators deceive in order to disguise their IDs and intentions (so they can therefore be made into whatever you choose to believe)

3. Everything is connected: because the CT world has no room for accident, pattern is believed to be everywhere ...hence the conspiracy theorist must engage in a constant process of linkage to map the hidden connections

The author further categorises CTs into three distinct types:

1. Event conspiracies, focusing on a single event like the 1963 JFK assassination

2. Systemic conspiracies, focusing on the imagined machinations of identifiable groups like the Jews, the Masons or the RC Church

3. The aforementioned `superconspiracies' in which event-conspiracies are nested inside greater systemic conspiracies, with an overarching group of super-conspirators at the apex, puppet-masters who supposedly control the course of history

Barkun quotes Richard Hofstadter's classic 1965 work `The Paranoid Style in American Politics' where the author points out that conspiracist literature mimics the habit of source citation found in mainstream academic scholarship in order to court legitimacy, but:

"...CTs are at heart non-falsifiable...they resist traditional canons of proof because they reduce highly complex phenomena to simple causes...belief ultimately becomes a matter of faith rather than proof."

The author names the eclectic, pick-and-mix character of many contemporary conspiracist beliefs `improvisational millennialism'. Predecessors to Robertson's `New World Order' conspiracy theory - pervasive government mind-control and control of the financial system as a prelude to the introduction of a fascist-socialist-atheist-devil-worshipping global super-state (make sure you include all your bogey-men) - through the 1960s and 1970s were confined to the fringe: fundamentalist evangelicals & the extreme political right like neo-Nazis, arm-yourself-and-lay-down-food-stocks `survivalists' and members of the John Birch Society. This started to change in the 1980s, when `superconspiracy' ideologies began to import a range of organizations like the Bilderburgers, the Trilateral Commission and the `sinister and controlling UN' which was `planning to invade America from Canada by the year 2000' and incarcerate potential dissenters in concentration camps managed by FEMA. Barkun then documents the complex process of how in the 1980s these ideas began to covertly infiltrate the `UFO community': around 70% of Americans believe UFOs are not made by human agencies, and 15% of the population have experienced a sighting, so this group is larger, more significant and socially respectable. Promoted by messiah-figures like David Icke and the notorious plagiarist, pathological liar and gun-obsessive Milton William Cooper, traditionally marginalised CTs were blended with (possibly legitimate) concerns about `government cover-ups' of the UFO issue. New-Ageism, environmentalism and advocacy for non-mainstream medicine then entered the `cultic milieu' to give birth to new improvised subcultures where belief in alternative worldviews were exposed to a wider audience. At heart, Barkun is a social scientist and an astute one.

Barkun also discourses on the phenomenon of `stigmatised knowledge:' junk-science ideas of a hollow-Earth containing a subterranean race of evil reptilians as expounded by science-fiction comic-book writers Shaver and Palmer in the 1940s, and the subsequent adoption of this fiction as real by some CT promoters; and how the proliferation of multiple post-9/11 CTs inevitably obey the predictable rules event-CTs always follow. The phenomenon of `fact-fiction reversal' is discussed, whereby if a CT believer sees something in a Hollywood movie which they feel vindicates their belief-ideology, they cite it as evidence: for example, David Icke (Barkun pays Icke a lot of attention in the book, and has clearly read all Icke's works) cites the TV series `V' as proof that the Earth is secretly controlled by scheming malignant reptilian space aliens disguised as humans, so placing said fictional reptilian aliens at the apex of a superconspiracy as a variant of the `New World Order puppet-masters-controlling-the-world' narrative.

As another reviewer points out, a useful addition to the book might have been a short essay on critical thinking skills, so transparently absent from CT ideologies. However, Barkun's book is not a polemic: it's an academic study, analysing the defining characteristics of a social phenomenon in the modern age.

Barkun packs a lot in. His writing style is highly literate, and readers unfamiliar with the academic style might find his essay hard going. My advice would be: read it slowly and take your time; the book runs to only 189 pages excluding notes, bibliography and index and the effort is well worth it.
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on July 2, 2015
The Potential Perils of Stigmatized Knowledge

In the summer of 1994, less than a year before blowing up the Oklahoma City federal office building, Timothy McVeigh visited Area 51, the secret Nevada installation where the U.S. government allegedly keeps crashed UFOs and captured aliens. McVeigh protested restrictions on public access to the base, but also had long been fascinated with flying saucers and extraterrestrials. On death row he watched the movie “Contact,” about a scientist who contacts aliens, six times in two days. McVeigh, as Syracuse University political scientist Michael Barkun points out, was also reportedly an ardent listener of the shortwave radio broadcasts of conspiracy theorist Milton William Cooper, who first emerged in UFO circles in the 1980's and later gained a large audience among anti-government activists.

Michael Barkun cites Timothy McVeigh's interest in UFO's, Area 51, “Contact,” and Milton William Cooper to open his book “A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America” (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2003; Comparative Studies in Religion and Society, 15). McVeigh's and Cooper's interests, Barkun believes, were not "merely the peculiarities" of eccentric individuals (p. ix). Barkun, Professor of Political Science at the Maxwell School, Syracuse University, has explored right-wing conspiracy theories and apocalyptic millennial obsessions in “Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement” (rev. ed., University of North Carolina Press, 1997) and “Disaster and the Millennium” (Yale University Press, 1974; Syracuse University Press, 1986). In “A Culture of Conspiracy,” he argues that McVeigh's and Cooper's "connection" between "antigovernment politics and UFOs" was "not unique" ( p. ix). Barkun describes a whole subculture combining a devotion to anti-government, anti-"New World Order" or anti-Semitic conspiracy theorizing with a fascination with UFO's and other "stigmatized knowledge." By "stigmatized knowledge," Barkun means "claims to truth that the claimants
regard as verified despite the marginalization of those claims by the institutions that conventionally distinguish between knowledge and error--universities, communities of scientific researchers, and the like" ( p. 26). It includes beliefs in UFO's, alien abductions, conspiracies, racial hierarchies, astrology, alchemy, alternative medicine, "End Time" prophecies, lost continents, underground civilizations, etc.

Throughout the 1980's and 1990's, Barkun documents in “A Culture of Conspiracy,” right-wing conspiracy theories about Jewish, Catholic, Masonic, Illuminati, "New World Order," and "International Bankers" world domination plots increasingly mingled with beliefs about visitors from outer space. Barkun does "not know whether McVeigh himself was affected by these speculations" (p. ix), but his interests were clearly shared by many others discussed by Barkun--by writers and publicists like Cooper, David Icke, "Branton," "Valdamar Valerian," Jim Keith, Texe Marrs, Kenn Thomas, and "Commander X." Similar hybrid UFO/Illuminati, alien/Jewish, and extraterrestrial/New World Order conspiracy theories proliferated after the September 2001 World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks, he observes.. They blended the prophecies of Nostradamus, UFOs, Illuminati and Masonic conspiracy theories, and the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and theories about the Illuminati (an 18th century revolutionary secret society allegedly still in existence and masterminding contemporary revolutionary movements) in strange and unpredictable ways--often mingled with alternative medicine, black helicopters, animal mutilations, "Men in Black," Atlantis, Lemuria, underground civilizations, secret government treaties with space aliens, Christian fundamentalist "End Time" scenarios, and "New Age" warnings of impending cataclysmic "earth changes."

Traditional religious and secular millennialisms, seeing history as culminating in a final spiritual, class, or racial conflict followed by the Second Coming of Christ, the Marxist Classless Society, or the final triumph of the Aryan master race over lesser breeds, were joined by what Barkun calls an eclectic "improvisational millennialism," freely mixing apocalyptic and millennial scenarios from a variety of assorted religious, secular, occult, pseudo-scientific, and "New Age" sources--from the Book of Revelation, but also from the prophecies of Nostradamus, Edgar Cayce, the Fátima Marian visionaries, and various New Age gurus and channelers. This conspiracy theorizing and "improvisational millennialism" are part of a general fascination with "stigmatized knowledge."Such "stigmatized knowledge"--about conspiracies, UFO's, racial differences, "earth changes," "End Times," Atlantis, or alternative medicine--MUST be true, they feel, because the government, universities, mainstream scientists, "Establishment" media, and "mainline" churches try to suppress or dismiss it!

Barkun sees an eclectic, improvisational, boundary-crossing character in much contemporary conspiracy theorizing and its devotion to "stigmatized knowledge." Popular culture, the Internet, and subcultures like the UFO movement, Barkun emphasizes, have encouraged a promiscuous and omnivorous exchange of ideas, themes, and interests that in the past might have been hermetically insulated from each other. We now have a lively interchange of ideas and themes between science-fiction and radical politics, UFO buffs and conspiracy theorists, spread back and forth by New Age and UFO publications, by popular culture phenomena like “The X-Files,” and by websites and radio programs. Science-fiction and UFO aficionados who might have never paid any attention to right-wing conspiracy theories in the past are now being increasingly exposed to such theories in UFO-related contexts--while political conspiracy believers are getting increasingly exposed to stories about UFO's and aliens being worked into their conspiracist scenarios. People who previously might never have been interested in anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, Illuminati, Masonic, or New World Order conspiracy theories are now encountering such beliefs through the UFO subculture--which has thus become a conduit for political conspiracy theorizing into the broader society.

These hybrid cross-fertilizations of conspiracy, UFO, and "New Age" themes "were not combinations" Barkun had “expected to find." He had "assumed that those with a right-wing, antigovernment agenda were altogether different from believers in UFOs." His "first inkling" that "such boundaries might be crossed" had come in the 1990's, as he read through extremist literature for his book “Religion and the Racist Right” (rev. ed.,1997).While much of this literature was "predictable," with its "diatribes against Jews and blacks," there were "unexpected intrusions of material that, though certainly not considered mainstream, was neither racist nor antigovernment." The literature discussed "processed foods (which the writers condemned), garlic (whose medicinal attributes they touted), and environmental pollution (which they wished to eliminate)." He found "material that would not have been out of place in leftist publications or those for New Age readers." Thus, when Barkun found "right-wing conspiracism emerging in UFO circles," this suggested that the "odd juxtapositions" he had found earlier" might be part of a larger pattern in which seemingly discrete beliefs cohabited." (pp. ix-x").

Despite his "many references to UFOs," Barkun emphasizes that "this is not a book about flying saucers." He does "not know whether they exist or, if they do, where they come from," and does "not address either of those questions." Rather, he examines the "fusion of right-wing conspiracy theories with UFO motifs." as a "study of how certain dissimilar ideas have migrated from one underground subculture to another." Many readers, Barkun concedes, "may regard both sets of ideas as bizarre and may question whether this is terrain worth exploring." He has "addressed such skepticism in earlier books on millennialism," and believes that "it makes little sense to exclude ideas from examination merely because they are not considered respectable." Failing to analyze them "will not keep some people from believing them," and "history is littered with academically disreputable ideas that have had devastating effects--for example, the scientific acceptance of racial
differences in the nineteenth century". Failure to examine those ideas "did not cause them to disappear." His "examination of certain odd beliefs" thus "does not signify" his "acceptance of them."(p. x).

The "convergence of conspiracy theories with UFO beliefs," Barkun feels, is "worth examining for two reasons." First, he notes, it has "brought conspiracism to a large new audience." UFO writers, he points out," have long been suspicious of the U.S. government, which they believe has suppressed crucial evidence of an alien presence on earth." Still, "in the early years they did not, by and large, embrace strong political positions." That, however, "began to change in the late 1980's and early 1990's, with the first appearance in UFO circles of references to right-wing conspiracism." During the next decade, such borrowing "accelerated," and thus "brought right-wing conspiracism to people who otherwise would not have been aware of it." (pp. x-xi).

Secondly, Barkun sees this "combination" as a "striking example of a new and growing form of millennialism” he calls improvisational millennialism." Unlike earlier forms of millennialism (Judaeo-Christian, Enlightenment progressivist, Marxist, anarchist, or Nazi/Fascist), which "elaborated themes from individual religious or secular traditions,"this new "improvisational millennialism" is "wildly eclectic." Its" undisciplined borrowings from unrelated sources" allow its devotees to "build novel systems of belief" cross-cutting traditional religious and secular categories (p. xi).

As to "the subculture of UFO speculation itself," Barkun sometimes refers to it as ufology, borrowing a term from UFO writers, though he employs it in a "narrower sense." The "ufology literature," he notes, "ranges widely, from conventional scientific investigation to fringe conspiracism." Because Barkun's "concern is with the latter," he reminds his readers that uses "ufology" to "apply only to the ideas of this minority within the larger community of UFO believers."(p. xi). Thus, he does not discuss the non-conspiracist UFO and abduction literature of writers like
Jacques Vallee (whose criticisms of some conspiracist UFO writers he does quote, however), Stanton Friedman, Budd Hopkins, Whitley Strieber, David M. Jacobs, and the late John Mack, Donald E. Keyhoe, J. Allen Hynek, and Coral & Jim Lorenzen. Such ufologists, often speculating about government UFO cover-ups but uninterested in Jewish, Catholic, Illuminati, Masonic, or New World Order world domination plots, lie outside Barkun's concern. Barkun, however, discusses a few prominent UFO movement figures of the 1950's, like "contactee" George Adamski (1891-1965) and prolific UFO and occult writer George Hunt Williamson (1926-1986), who held anti-Semitic and/or conspiracist views (pp. 150-151, 154-156). He stresses Williamson's--and possibly also Adamski's--close ties with occultist, anti-Semite, and native Fascist William Dudley Pelley (1890-1965), founder of the Depression-era "Silver Shirts" and convicted World War II seditionist (pp. 150, 153-156). Pelley and Adamski, he notes, had a common interest in Guy and Edna Ballard's 1930's "I Am" cult, which combined occult beliefs borrowed from Theosophy with native Fascist sympathies (pp. 114, 154). There were "multiple ties among channelers, occultists, UFO buffs, and followers of Pelley," suggesting that "the domain of stigmatized knowledge in the 1950's was one in which mystic and anti-Semitic teachings mingled freely" (p. 157).

Noting that "the domain of stigmatized knowledge" has "always" shown a "laissez-faire character," with the devotee "free to choose whichever ideas appeal and ignore the rest" (p. 157), Barkun emphasizes the dual character of "ufology" as a field where scientific investigation of puzzling aerial phenomena is mingled with occult and "New Age" speculations ultimately derived from 19th century Spiritualism and Theosophy. He stresses the importance of "channeling," and communications from purported "channeled" entities, in occult-oriented ufology. There is "considerable truth" in Duke University religious studies scholar and UFO movement historian Brenda Denzler's view that "the contactee movement was, in effect, a conduit through which established spiritualist and Theosophical ideas and practices moved into the UFO community" (p. 149, quoting Brenda Denzler’s “The Lure of the Edge: Scientific Passions, Religious Beliefs, and the Pursuit of UFOs” [Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001], p. 46) In "a manner not unlike its nineteenth-century predecessors," Barkun finds (p. 149), "the contactee movement claims to receive spiritual communications as a result of extraordinary, often paranormal, experiences."

Barkun also cites Dr. Denzler on the wide contemporary prevalence of UFO belief among millions of normal "mainstream" middle-class Americans. Such "mainstreaming" of UFO belief, he feels, widens the social base of people liable to being exposed to conspiracist ideas through ufology. Statistics of polls and surveys since 1947 of people who have seen UFO's, believe that extraterrestrials may have visited the Earth, claim they have been abducted, or believe in alien abduction have "remained astonishingly stable over a fifty-year period," and been "extraordinarily high, regardless of when the survey was taken or by which polling organization.". Even if "one compensates for problems of sampling or the wording of questions," still "tens of millions of Americans accept the reality of UFO's" (p. 81) In a survey of 765 members of the UFO community, he notes, Brenda Denzler "found her respondents to be anything but 'fringe.'" Rather, they were mainly white, male, middle-class college graduates, with incomes just slightly below the national median (“A Culture of Conspiracy,” citing Brenda Denzler “The Lure of the Edge,” pp. 164-167).

Barkun gives some general observations on conspiracy theories. The "common thread of conspiracism" is the "belief that powerful, hidden, evil forces control human destinies (p. 2) "Trust no one" was "one of the mantras repeated on The X-Files," and it "neatly encapsulates the conspiracist's limitless suspicions." Its "association with a popular end-of-the-millennium television program" shows "how
prevalent conspiracy thinking has become." Indeed, the period since President John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963 has "seen the rise of a veritable cottage industry of conspiracism, with ever more complex plots and devious forces behind it." While "much of this mushrooming" reflects the "traumatic effect of specific events," that "seems an insufficient explanation on its own" to Barkun. Conspiracist thinking has "grown too luxuriantly to be fully explained even by events as shocking as the Kennedy assassination or the rapid spread of AIDS," he feels. Rather, it suggests an "obsessive concern with the magnitude of hidden evil powers." It is "perhaps no surprise that such a concern should manifest as a millennium was coming to a close and the culture was rife with apocalyptic anxiety."(p. 2).

A "conspiracist worldview," for Barkun, "implies a universe governed by design rather than by randomness". This "emphasis on design" shows itself in "three principles found in virtually every conspiracy theory." First, "Nothing happens by accident." Conspiracy "implies a world based on intentionality, from which accident and coincidence have been removed," where "anything that happens occurs because it has been willed." Secondly, "Nothing is as it seems.," as "appearances are deceptive, because conspirators wish to deceive in order to disguise their
identities or their activities." Finally, "Everything is connected." Since "the conspiracists' world has no room for accident, pattern is believed to be everywhere, albeit hidden from plain view." The conspiracy theorist must "engage in a constant process of linkage and correlation in order to map the hidden connections." (pp. 3-4).

Barkun distinguishes three types of conspiracy theories, according to their scope .They range from "those directed at explaining some single, limited occurrence" like the Kennedy assassination to "those so broad that they constitute the world views of those who hold them." In "ascending order of breadth," they are what he calls event conspiracies, systemic conspiracies, and superconspiracies. In "event conspiracies," the "conspiracy is held to be responsible for a limited, discrete event or set of events," like the Kennedy assassination, the crash of TWA flight 800, the spread of AIDS in the Black community, or the burning of Black churches in the
1990's. In "systemic conspiracies," it is "believed to have broad goals" of "securing control over a country, a region, or even the entire world." While the "goals" are "sweeping," the "conspiratorial machinery" is "simple," a "single, evil organization" plotting to "infiltrate and subvert existing institutions." Here we find "conspiracy theories that focus on the alleged machinations of Jews, Masons, and the Catholic
Church," and "theories centered on communism or international capitalists." Finally, "superconspiracies" are "conspiratorial constructs" where "multiple conspiracies" are "linked together hierarchically," with "event" and "systemic" conspiracies "joined in complex ways, so that conspiracies come to be nested
within one another". The "summit of the conspiratorial hierarchy" is a "distant but all powerful evil force manipulating lesser conspiratorial actors."These master
conspirators are "groups both invisible and operating in secrecy," their very existence unsuspected by the general public--e.g., the Illuminati and/or space aliens. "Superconspiracies" have "enjoyed particular growth since the 1980's," with" authors such as David Icke, Valdamar Valerian, and Milton William Cooper," whom Barkun discusses extensively in his book (p. 6)

Conspiracy theories, Barkun observes, "purport to be empirically relevant;" "testable by the accumulation of evidence about the observable world." Their proponents "often engage in elaborate presentations of evidence in order to substantiate their claims." Thus, "conspiracist literature often mimics the apparatus of source citation and evidence presentation found in conventional scholarship" Even as "stigmatization is employed as a virtual guarantee of truth," the "literature of stigmatized knowledge enthusiastically mimics mainstream scholarship" by "appropriating the apparatus of elaborate citations and bibliographies." It shows "a fondness for reciprocal citation, in which authors obligingly cite one another," so that "the same sources are repeated over and over," producing "a kind of pseudoconfirmation" where "if a source is cited many times, it
must be true" (pp. 6-7, 28). .

Historian Richard Hofstadter, Barkun notes, observed this pattern almost forty years ago in his examination of what he called the paranoid political style. "The very fantastic character of [conspiracy theories'] conclusions leads to heroic strivings for 'evidence' to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed," according to Hofstadter. The result was a literature that, "if not wholly rational," was "at least intensely rationalistic." [Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays” (New York: Knopf, 1965), p. 36, 38-39, cited in Barkun, “A Culture of Conspiracy,” pp. 7, 29] Elsewhere, Hofstadter saw "a great difference between locating conspiracies in history and saying that history is, in effect, a conspiracy, between singling out those conspiratorial acts that do on invasion occur and weaving a vast fabric of social explanation of nothing but skeins of evil plots"[Richard Hofstadter, “The Age of Reform from Bryan to FDR” (New York: Random House, "Vintage Books," 1955), p. 71], after noting that "It would of course be misleading to imply that there are no such things as conspiracies in history," as "what makes conspiracy theories so widely acceptable is that they usually contain a grain of truth.”

Indeed, Barkun found, "conspiracy theorists insist on being judged by the very canons of proof that are used in the world they despise and distrust, the world of academia and the intelligentsia." For "all its claims to populism," conspiracy theory "yearns to be admitted to the precincts where it imagines the conspirators themselves dwell" [p. 29] Conspiracy theories. "resist traditional canons of proof because they reduce highly complex phenomena to simple causes." This, he notes, is "ordinarily a characteristic much admired in scientific theories, where it is referred to as "parsimony.'" Conspiracy theories, he finds--"particularly the systemic theories and the superconspiracy theories"--are "nothing if not parsimonious, for they attribute all of the world's evil to the activities of a single plot, or set of plots." (p. 7)

As background, Barkun traces the history of several originally saucer-less conspiracy myths popular among contemporary UFO conspiracists who have added an extraterrestrial component--including the Illuminati and the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” The Illuminati legend, he shows, is based on the Bavarian Order of Illuminists, a republican and anti-religious secret society founded in 1776 by Adam Weishaupt, an ex-Jesuit and professor of canon law at the University of Ingolstadt. Following Jesuit and Masonic organizational models, dedicated to replacing Christianity and monarchy by radical Enlightenment ideals, and infiltrating some Masonic lodges, the Illuminati attracted around 2,500 members, mostly in German-speaking areas, before being suppressed by the Bavarian authorities in 1787. While Weishaupt's Order of Illuminists itself lasted only some 11 or 12 years, it served as a model for many 19th century revolutionary groups. It also enjoyed an amazing afterlife among 19th and 20th century right-wing writers who claimed it had never really been dissolved, but had gone underground, secretly masterminding the French Revolution and many later subversive and revolutionary movements--by itself or in conjunction with the Jews (pp. 45-47).

The Illuminati, acting through front organizations like the Masons and Jacobins, were blamed for the French Revolution by counter-revolutionary monarchist propagandists like John Robison in “Proofs of a Conspiracy” (1798) and the Abbé Barruel in “Memoirs, Illustrating the History of Jacobinism” (1803). In the 20th century, the legend of Weishaupt's group inspired a far more complex and grandiose superconspiracy theory with Jews, Masons, and Communists as tools or accomplices of the Illuminati--or even the Illuminati themselves as a Jewish tool or front. These Illuminati/Jewish superconspiracy theories were developed in the 1920's by two Englishwomen, Nesta Webster (1876-1960) and Lady Queensborough (d. 1933). In mid-20th century America, the Illuminati were revived as the secret wire-
pullers of all the world's revolutionary and subversive groups by the John Birch Society, which also promoted Robison's and Barruel's books as authoritative scholarly studies of Illuminati machinations. Then, in the 1980's and 1990's, the Illuminati and "Elders of Zion" were intertwined with UFO's and aliens by superconspiracy theorists like Milton William Cooper, David Icke, and Valdamar Valerian (pp. 45-50, 130).

Barkun similarly traces (pp. 49-50, 55,130) the history of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” That traditional staple of anti-Semitic conspiracy literature was likewise linked up with UFO and alien themes in the 1980's and 1990's by writers like Milton William Cooper and David Icke. The popularity of the Jewish/Illuminati link on the American far right was reinforced by the circulation in the 1920's of Victor Marsden's English translation of the “Protocols,” whose contents were disseminated in the United States by Henry Ford in his newspaper, “The Dearborn Independent.” The “Protocols” were allegedly a transcript of 24 speeches to an assembly of Jewish "Elders" plotting to rule the world, describing the methods the
Jews and their Masonic allies would use to subvert governments and institutions. As scholars and journalists soon discovered, the Protocols were a forgery concocted by the Tsarist Russian secret police in the early 1900's, plagiarized from two mid-19th century sources: Maurice Joly's “A Dialogue in Hell: Conversations between Machiavelli and Montesquieu about Power and Right,” a satire against Napoleon III having nothing to do with the Jews, and an anti-Semitic novel, “Biarritz,” by "Sir John Retcliffe" (Hermann Goedsche).

“A Culture of Conspiracy” focuses on the linkage of UFO and conspiracist themes developed in one American subculture in the 1980's and 1990's, so Barkun pays little attention to saucer-less conspiracy theorists, except as historical precursors of Milton William Cooper, David Icke., and Valdamar Valerian. Thus, there is no mention of conspiracists like Senator Joe McCarthy or Lyndon LaRouche, or of right-wing populist Establishment-bashers like Rush Limbaugh. Likewise, while he often alludes to the Kennedy assassination literature in passing, Barkun never
really discusses conspiracist interpretations of Dallas and Dealey Plaza--including the allegation that 1947 Maury Island saucer hoaxer (or alleged hoaxer) Fred Crisman was one of the three "tramps,"actually assassins, arrested at the Grassy Knoll! We never hear of Lyndon LaRouche's superconspiracist view of history as a millennia-long conflict of republican "Platonist" apostles of scientific rationality, a logically and mathematically coherent cosmos, technological progress, and
universal technological progress to uplift the masses versus oligarchic irrationalist "Aristotelian" empiricists, mystics, occultists, and nature-worshippers favoring an agrarian feudal society of wealthy aristocrats ruling over half-starved peasants.

Barkun does not explore why some people in our society are attracted to UFO/conspiracist/millennialist world-views while others remain indifferent, skeptical, or hostile. He mentions a general millennium's-end mood of anxiety and obsessive concern with hidden evil powers (p. 2), and discusses the general role of popular culture and ufology in diffusing conspiracist themes through mainstream society. However, he does not address the susceptibility versus immunity of different individuals or groups, or how this might relate, for instance, to status inconsistency or resentment--matters well worth a detailed examination. Thus, he dies not mention the classic “The Authoritarian Personality” (1950) by T.W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik *et al.* on the psychology of racial, ethnic, and anti-Semitic prejudices, nor the analyses of the appeal of the American “Radical Right” in terms of status resentment by Richard Hofstadter, Daniel Bell, David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset, Peter Viereck, and others. He likewise does not quote non-conspiracist ufologist and paranormal researcher Jerome Clark’s often-cited 1999 cautionary observation on his “experience” that “if you scratch a conspiracy theorist, a bigot bleeds.” Also, he refers several times to Hofstadter's discussions of the "paranoid political style," but never quotes Hofstadter's observation that "there is a great difference between locating conspiracies in history and saying that history is, in effect, a conspiracy." A critique of superconspiracist theories of history, Hofstadter's remark allows for the occasional real occurrence of what Barkun calls "event conspiracies," and the possibility that these might perhaps include actual "event conspiracies" surrounding the Kennedy assassination or the Roswell UFO crash, though there is no indication Barkun himself supports such theories.
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on May 30, 2014
After hearing an old friend espouse several theories regarding the Denver Airport, Ashara and some other theories,
I thought I needed a sense of the playing field that was being referred to. Prof. Barkun's exposition is an excellent reference that takes the average reader through the history and ultimately the consequences of the past and current conspiracy theories. This is a pre December 2012 edition and as we all know the apocalyptic interpretation of the Mayan Calendar ending was of no significance at all. No surprise there. But there are many more 'theories' from lizard like aliens living underground to the New World Order exterminating the excess population. A good casual read. I was surprised to learn how many theories there are, and how many people who consider themselves intelligent New Age adherents
think any of them could have even a shadow of a grain of truth in them. Recommended for all us skeptics!
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on October 8, 2005
_A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America_ by Michael Barkun traces out the growing trend among various underground writers of incorporating conspiracy theories into a system of stigmatized knowledge. The book explains how various conspiracy beliefs have been shifted into a realm normally occupied by such stigmatized and underground beliefs as those of the New Age and UFO subcultures. In addition conspiracy beliefs in the rise of a New World Order, beliefs in UFO abductions, government experiments in mind control, forbidden knowledge, occult science, alternative medicine, revisionist history, and speculations about the nature of reality have been combined into what Barkun refers to as "superconspiracies" which provide a systematic epistemological understanding of reality.

First though I have some criticisms of the book. Barkun obviously supports the establishment view of history, politics, and science. As such he seems to believe that conspiracy theories are "unfalsifiable" which he defines to be the determiner of a scientific theory (an arguable point) and therefore can be easily dismissed. Barkun dismisses the claims and beliefs of various liberty loving individuals who seek to track the development of an all-encompassing global government without really backing up his dismissals except by appealing more to establishment beliefs. Further, Barkun seems to believe that "improvisational millennialism" can be dangerous, leading to violence. His claims on this point appear overly alarmist, particularly in the light of the very dangers posed today by modern governments. Finally, Barkun refers to conspiracy beliefs as "right wing" and part of the "antigovernment right". Such references to traditional political categories of right versus left seem feeble in the light of the encompassing nature of conspiracy theories. Indeed, conspiracy theories are as often left wing as right wing, and simplistic categorizations of them serve no further purpose than providing a conveninent label with which to stigmatize and dismiss. Nevertheless, despite these criticisms much in this book is interesting in that it provides a systematic approach to understanding the convergence of various subcultures as well as the rise of millennial beliefs among the conspiracist underground.

Two central things to most conspiracy beliefs are the presence of a hidden organization controlling events (usually the Illuminati, based on the very real quasi-masonic secret society of the Bavarian Illuminati founded by Adam Weishaupt in 1776) and the rise of a New World Order (often with reference to Bush I's speech identifying a "new world order"). Barkun outlines in successive chapters the origins of the Illuminati in conspiracy literature as well as the role of the New World Order. Barkun considers both religious millennial sources involving the coming of Antichrist (particularly with reference to Christian dispensationalism) as well esoteric "secular" sources focusing on elite conspirators. Barkun considers the role of various government agencies in conspiracy beliefs including particularly the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as well as attempts at mind control by the CIA. Barkun also discusses the notorious black helicopters and U.N. concentration camps which are bandied about by many New World Order conspiracy theorists.

Three prominent individuals played an important role in the creation of late 1990s conspiracy theories. These included the researcher Jim Keith, who notoriously emphasized both black helicopters, UFOs, and CIA mind control experiments. The tax protestor and favorite of the militias Milton William Cooper, a former military officer who expressed belief in UFO conspiracies at one point. And, the eccentric New Age conspiracist David Icke, who has made various outrageous claims involving New World Order conspiracies and a "reptilian agenda". Both Jim Keith and Milton William Cooper died mysteriously which has led to much speculation on their deaths by researchers (Cooper died in a shoot-out with local authorities).

Barkun also discusses the role of UFOs in conspiracy literature. Barkun believes that UFOs which are actively believed in by a sizable portion of the population serve to legitimize conspiracy beliefs. (Of course his argument here assumes that conspiracy beliefs are illegitimate to begin with!) Barkun also discusses various esoteric beliefs in the existence of an inner earth, both in pulp literature (including especially the Shaver mystery) as well as in non-fictional travel narratives such as those of Ferdinand Ossendowski. Barkun also discusses the role of anti-Catholicism, anti-masonry, and anti-Semitism in various conspiracy beliefs as well as the rise of these beliefs within certain UFO circles. Barkun seems overly enthusiastic to attribute these labels to individuals who may take alternative views on religion to those expressed in the mainstream. Finally, Barkun turns his attention to various conspiracy beliefs that arose out of the September 11, 2001 disaster.

This book provides a good compendium for understanding various conspiracy beliefs. However, it must be approached with caution because Barkun obviously represents an establishment viewpoint opposed to all alternative modes of thinking.
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on March 4, 2016
The author is walking on his head. He lost contact with reality. This culture of conspiracy in America (and beyond) is the direct reaction or consequence of REAL methods of secrecy and insane surveillance and paranoia developed during the Cold War (and beyond). Before Kennedy was shot in an inside job operation, he spoke publicly against secret groups and methods of secrecy and deception intentionally pushed by intelligence agencies. It was going too far according to him. He wanted to close the CIA. The Russian also shared this Cold War paranoia and methods of secrecy, but their conception of free speech was different. In America, free speech was taken more seriously. And it kept growing, specially in pop culture and in the written press. Later Internet pushed it much further... The more people can speak freely and directly - and anonymously if they wish - the more the truth comes out, organically, like waves of collective intelligence that cannot be stopped. The enemy can only CONTAIN the waves, ban certain topics from the mainstream media, ridicule "truthers" with emotion and none-rational arguments, drown the truth and the facts in as much noise as possible... What some people call "conspiracy theories" are attempts by brave independent individuals and groups at solving mysteries, often important crimes, when governments and judicial authorities have chosen the cover up. 9/11 was almost entirely solved by "We The People", backed by thousands of independent and benevolent experts in their fields. Even the UFO phenomenon needs to be researched and explained rationally! At least since 1947, the UFO topic is taken very seriously by the Army (the Navy in particular) but it is not public. Few people know that in the US, the UFO topic is classified higher than the H bomb... Why? These real methods of ultra secrecy generate all sort of theories. This is very normal. Fire generates smoke. Specially in an oligarchic police-state with a democratic facade. One cannot blame the people from thinking that what is hidden must come to light. Internet is not a hive of messianic chaos and delirious theories, it is mostly and above all - and despite the noise and the counter-information mixed in - a strong matrix of freedom and truth.
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on January 20, 2016
A very good look at the surface of conspiracy culture only. The book, whilst better written than expected (and I think resorting to ad hominem less than described in other reviews), falls short on the basic comprehension of the conspiracies, history and the more rigorous material written about those conspiracies. Essentially, the book quite conveniently analyses weaker authors and proceeds without self-reflection on the author's epistemological biases. Sure there are lot of kooks and nutters out there, but there are a lot of conspiracy theories on the same topics the book covers which conform to a more rigorous academic discipline than Barkun displays in his book.

I'd recommend it solely to get a view of how the academic establishment views 'conspiracy culture', rather than a rigorous analysis of that culture.
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