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.